Siddartha Gautama was born in the sixth century BCE in what is now Nepal. His father, Suddhodana, was the ruler of the Sakya
people, and Siddartha grew up living the extravagant life of a young prince. Tradition tells us that Suddhodana had feared
that the prince might leave the palace to take up the life of a religious wanderer. So he arranged for him to be sheltered
from all the harsh realities of life. When the prince reached the age of sixteen, Suddhodana arranged for him to be married
to his cousin, a charming princess named Yasodhara.
One day, however, Siddartha ventured out into the world
and was confronted with the inevitability of aging, illness, and death. Overcome by dismay, the young prince wondered if there
might be a happiness that was not subject to change and decay. Then, seeing a forest wanderer, he decided that only by taking
up the wilderness life could he find the answer to his question. That night, at the age of twenty-nine, he left his kingdom
and newborn son and entered the wilderness.
For six years, Siddartha submitted himself to rigorous ascetic practices.
First he studied with different religious teachers, but, dissatisfied with what they saw as their highest goal, he set out
to practice extreme physical austerities on his own. Yet even through the ultimate in self-denial, he did not reach his goal.
Then one day he remembered a state of calm mental absorption he had experienced while sitting under a tree as a child, and
realized that only through such a state of calm could liberation be found. And yet the strength of that calm could not be
reached when the body was weak through austerities. The path to true happiness required balancethe middle wayrather than extremes
of indulgence or self-denial. So on that day he ended his extreme austerities and and accepted a gift of milk-rice offered
to him by a young woman.
That night Siddartha sat under the bodhi tree and meditated until dawn. In the first
watch of the night he remembered his past lives; in the second watch, around midnight, he saw how beings die and are reborn
through the power of their karma, which in turn was shaped by the skillfulness of their intentions; in the third watch, toward
dawn, he purified his mind of all cravings, attachments, and defilements, and finally of all intentions, both skillful and
not. With that, he attained awakening at the age of thirty-five, thus earning the title Buddha, or "Awakened One."
For the remainder of his life, the Buddha taught the dharma to othersmen, women, and children; rich and poor; people
from all walks of life and all levels of societyso that they, too, might attain awakening. He established a sangha, or community
of monks and nuns, to maintain his teachings after his death. Then, one full moon night in May when he had reached the age
of eighty, he lay down between two trees in a forest park and gave his last teachings to the assembled followers, counseling
them to be heedful in completing their practice of the dharma. With that, he entered total nirvana.