Buddhism's founder was a wealthy prince, born in India in the 6th or 5th century B.C.E., who renounced wealth and power to seek enlightenment.
Born a wealthy prince in the state of Kapilavastu, in what would become India, as a young man Siddhartha Gautama became discontented with his life. He had wealth, power, a beautiful wife, a healthy son — everything a young man could want. He came to the realization, however, that all of these things were fleeting. Someday he, like everyone else, would become sick and old, and someday he would die. He realized that all of his material things and social benefits provided only temporary happiness, so he gave it all up to become an ascetic. Leaving his ...view middle of the document...
His father therefore tried to shield him from awareness of sickness, old age, and death, but the gods conspired with his chariot driver one day to take him past a sick man, an old man, and a corpse. That night he left home to spend years in spiritual study and ascetic living.
It was said that he lived on a grain of rice a day, and became so thin he could feel his backbone when he pressed upon his stomach. One day, after fainting from hunger, a young woman offered him a bowl of rice milk (or porridge) and he ate it all. This simple meal gave him the strength to continue his quest. He threw the bowl into a river, saying, "If this bowl floats upstream, I am to become a Buddha today." The bowl floated upstream.
Coming upon a tree now known as the Bodhi tree, in the small town of Bodhgaya, he decided to sit there until he attained enlightenment. During the night, Mara, the tempter, deity of desire, appeared and put him through many trials. Mara pounded him with violent storms. He created the illusion of a massive army shooting at Gautama with flaming arrows. When these failed, he sent his beautiful daughters to tempt him. Ignoring all these distractions, Siddhartha continued to meditate through the night until at last he attained realization. At the moment he became enlightened, the Buddha touched the earth as his witness and the earth trembled.
After about forty-five years as a spiritual teacher, the Buddha died. The cause of his death is not clear, but it was apparently some kind of food poisoning. According to legend, he was aware before he ate it that the food was deadly and he protected others from eating it. His body was cremated, and various relics taken from the remains were distributed. These remains of his physical body were believed to have sacred power. Eventually they were interred in stupas, which became important Buddhist symbols and objects of veneration.
Over the centuries, legends of the Buddha's previous lives emerged and were recorded as the Jataka Tales. It was said that in one life he was a rabbit who came across a hunter lost in the woods and starving. First shaking the fleas from his fur, so as not to sacrifice their lives too, he leapt into the hunter's fire in order to offer himself up as a meal. Another of these tales tells of a lifetime as an elephant that jumped from a cliff to provide food for hundreds of starving men.
Still later, the notion developed that there were many Buddhas in the universe, that Buddhas had been incarnated as humans many times previously, and that more...