Shakyamuni Buddha, the historical founder of Buddhism, was born
in India 3,000 years ago. There are various opinions concerning
the exact dates of his birth and death, but according to Buddhist
tradition, he is said to have been born April 8, 1029 BC and died
on February 15, 949 BC, although other Buddhist scholars place
his birth five hundred years later. No definite conclusion has
Shakyamuni Buddha was the son of Shuddhodana,
the king of the Shakyas, a small tribe whose kingdom was located
in the foothills of the Himalayas south of what is now central
Nepal fifteen miles from Kapilavastu. Shakya of Shakyamuni is
taken from the name of this tribe and muni means sage or saint.
His family name was Gautama (Best Cow) and his given name was
Siddhartha (Goal Achieved) though some scholars say this is a
title bestowed on him by later Buddhists in honor of the enlightenment
Shakyamuni was said to have been born in the
Lumbini Gardens, located in what is now the village of Paderia
in southern Nepal. This was a fertile and peaceful land where
the inhabitants led an agricultural life. Rice harvesting took
place in this area and is alluded to by his father's name, Shuddhodana,
which means "pure milk-rice."
Seven days after his birth, his mother, Maya,
died and he was raised by his mother's younger sister Mahaprajapati.
His mother's death may have been a great influence upon the delicate
youth who later became very perplexed by the question of mortality.
His father took good care of his introspective, quiet-mannered
son, and gave him special training in literature and the martial
As a boy, Shakyamuni was deliberately shielded
from the many realities of life, having been brought up amid the
pleasures of the royal palace. It was natural for his family to
expect that he would take over as the leader of his tribe and
succeed his father. All was not peaceful in Kapilavastu though,
in spite of the agricultural nature of Shakyamuni's homeland.
Kapilavastu suffered from turbulent political conditions. It was
not a completely independent country but bound to give tribute
to the neighboring power, Kosala. Seeing the precarious state
of his small and powerless tribe, Shakyamuni, as the prince of
his declining clan, was expected to fulfill the clan's great need
for leadership. Although his family had such expectations for
him, Shakyamuni was extremely introspective and quiet as a youth,
possessing a sharp sense of justice, seeking the answers to life's
perplexing questions. It is said that he ventured out of the palace
compounds on a number of occasions as a youth and each time was
confronted with the sufferings of life. On one such occasion he
came upon a very old man. On another venture he met a sick man,
frail and burning with fever. On yet another journey, he was impressed
when he met a wandering monk (bhiksu) who had renounced the world
to lead an austere life in search of spiritual enlightenment.
And again on another occasion he saw a person dead in the street.
These events are recounted in the Buddhist scriptures as the four
meetings. He was said to have been deeply moved by these confrontations
with human suffering.
Knowing his son's tendency toward deep introspection
and his desire to seek a spiritual path, his father sought to
tie him down to life within the confines of the palace and their
land. Marriage seemed a way to dissuade the young prince from
pursuing the life of an ascetic, so at the age of sixteen, the
young prince married the beautiful Yashodhara who bore him a son,
Following the birth of his son, Shakyamuni
could no longer repress the resolve he felt to abandon the secular
world and go out in search of a solution to the four inescapable
sufferings of birth, old age, sickness, and death.
According to Buddhist tradition in China and
Japan, Siddhartha renounced secular life and his princely status
at the age of nineteen and began living a religious life. Having
left the palace of the Shakyas at Kapilavastu he traveled to Rajagriha,
the capital of the kingdom of Magadha, where he studied with various
ascetics. Among those he encountered were six leading figures
who had begun to challenge the established value system of Brahmanism.
After following their disciplines, he still could not find the
answers to his questions. He then left Rajagriha and proceeded
to the bank of the Nairanjana River near the village of Uruvilva,
where he began to practice various austerities in the company
of other ascetics- He subjected himself to disciplines of extreme
severity, surpassing the efforts of his companions, trying to
reach emancipation through self-mortification, but after six years
he rejected these practices as well. To restore his strength from
having fasted for such a long time he accepted milk curds offered
to him by Sujata, a girl of the village. Then, near the town of
Gaya, he sat under a pipal tree and entered meditation. There
he attained enlightenment at the age of thirty The pipal tree
was later called the bodhi tree because Shakyamuni gained bodhi
or enlightenment under this tree, and the site itself came to
be called Buddhagaya.
After his awakening, Shakyamuni remained for
a while beneath the Bodhi tree rejoicing in his emancipation.
Shakyamuni contemplated how he should communicate his realization
to others. It is said he questioned whether or not he should attempt
to teach others what he had achieved. He finally resolved to strive
to do so, so that the way to liberation from the sufferings of
birth and death would be open to all people.
First he made his way to the Deer Park in
Varanasi, where he preached the Law to five ascetics who had once
been his companions. After that, his propagation efforts advanced
rapidly. In Varanasi he converted Yashas, the son of a rich man
and about sixty others. Then he returned to Buddhagaya where he
converted three brothers. At the same time, the brothers' one-thousand
followers also became the Buddha's disciples.
Along with his disciples he traveled to Rajagriha
in Magadha and converted King Bimbisara as well as Shariputra
and Maudgalyayana who were followers of Sanjaya, one of the six
non-Buddhist teachers. Together with Shariputra and Maudgalyayana,
all of Sanjaya's followers, numbering 250, forsook him and entered
the Buddhist Order. Mahakashyapa became another of the Buddha's
disciples in Rajagriha shortly thereafter.
The Buddha made several trips to his home
which resulted in the conversion of many people including his
half-brother Nanda, his son Rahula, his cousins Ananda, Aniruddha
and Devadatta, and a barber named Upali. Shakyamuni's father,
Shuddhodana, and his former wife, Yashodhara, also embraced the
In the fifty years (some scholars indicate
forty-five) from the time of his awakening until his death, Shakyamuni
continued to travel through many parts of India disseminating
his teachings. During his lifetime his teachings spread not only
to central India but also to more remote areas and people of all
social classes converted to Buddhism. Also, the Buddha had ten
eminently capable disciples who devoted themselves to propagating
the Buddha's teachings.
The spread of Buddhism can be understood by
examining the society of India at that time. Brahmanism, the prominent
religion of India, established a rigid caste system with the Brahmans
supposedly acting as the only rightful intermediaries between
man and God. The system divided all Indians into four classes
or castes, and prohibited the mingling of members of different
castes. The social establishment planted the roots of an impassive
and resigned attitude deeply in the hearts of the people. The
Buddha's teachings were totally against class domination and taught
that all people were fundamentally equal. Buddhism also taught
the universal law of causality and taught that one is not just
resigned to his fate. Thus, due to its democratic and reasonable,
yet profound teachings, Buddhism received the support of commoners
and kings, the poor and the wealthy, resulting in the spread of
Shakyamuni Buddha's teachings. The old Brahmanic order did not
receive the spread of Buddhism passively. Shakyamuni personally
underwent opposition termed the "nine great ordeals:' These were
ceaseless challenges fomented by the Brahmans and also by a movement
against him headed by his own cousin, Devadatta. But he persevered
through all such adversities and continued to preach, expounding
the Law in various ways according to the capacity and circumstances
of those who gathered.
During the last eight years of his life, Shakyamuni
expounded the Lotus Sutra which is the highest of all his teachings.
In this sutra he taught that there is no essential difference
between a common mortal of the nine worlds and a Buddha, and that
the potential fort enlightenment is inherent in everyone.
At the age of eighty, Shakyamuni passed away.
The year before his death he stayed at Gridhrakuta (Eagle Peak)
in Rajagriha. He set out on his last journey from Gridhrakuta
proceeding northward across the Ganges River to Vaishali. He spent
the rainy season in Beluva, a village near Vaishali. There he
became seriously ill, but recovered and continued to preach in
many villages. Eventually he came to a place called Pava in Malla.
There he again became ill after eating a meal. Despite his pain,
he continued his journey until reaching Kushinagara. There in
a grove of sal trees he calmly lay down and spoke his last words.
He admonished his disciples, saying, "You must not think that
your teacher's words are no more, or that you are left without
a teacher. The teachings and precepts I have expounded to you
shall be your teacher" His final words it is said were, "Decay
is inherent in all composite things. Work out your salvation with
diligence. His body was received by the Mallas of Kushinagara
and cremated seven days later. The ashes were divided into eight
parts and eight stupas were erected to enshrine them. Two more
stupas were built to house the vessel used in the cremation and
the ashes of the fire. In the same year, the First Buddhist Council
was held in the Cave of the Seven Leaves (Skt. Saptaparnaguha)
near Rajagriha to compile his teachings.