The life of the Buddha
Prince Siddhartha’s journey to Buddhahood...
The Vesak Full Moon Poya Day is tomorrow. It’s the Thrice Blessed
Day, the day the Buddha was born, attained Enlightenment and passed
away. When we commemorate this day, it would be great to reflect on
the lifestory of the Buddha. We know you are being taught this at
Dhamma School, but we hope the important incidents of His life we
feature here would further enlighten you.
The Buddha, Shakyamuni was born as Siddhartha Gautama, the son of a
local king in Kapilavastu, (what is now the Indian-Nepalese border)
around the fifth century BCE. He was a member of a privileged and
wealthy family and enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle.
The story goes back many eras to when there lived an ascetic called
Sumedha (the future Buddha) who encountered the Buddha Dipankara.
This meeting affected Sumedha in such a way that he too aspired to
become a Buddha.
Sumedha worked hard to set out on the path of the cultivation of the
“Ten Perfections.” The Bodhisattva cultivated these perfections over
many lifetimes. The life, in which he becomes the Buddha Shakyamuni
some time in the fifth century BC, represents the completion of
Sumedha’s past aspiration and tireless activities.
An old tradition tells us that shortly before his final rebirth, the
Bodhisattva spent his life as a god in Thusita (the Heaven of the
Contented). Surveying the world from Thusita, the Bodhisattva saw
that the time had come for him to take a human birth and at last
become a Buddha. The Bodhisattva looked upon for five necessities to
be born; time, country, place, race and mother.
He saw that the ‘Middle Country’ of the great continent of
Jambudvipa (India) was the ideal place in which to be born, for its
people would be receptive to His message. The Bodhisattva was
conceived on the full moon night in July; that night his mother,
Maya, dreamt of a white elephant carrying a white lotus in its trunk
entering her womb through her right side.
The white elephant here symbolised perfect wisdom and royal power;
in India, an elephant was considered the most sacred animal on
Earth.When Queen Maya described this dream to the advisors, they
said the Queen is going to give birth to a very precious and
Having carried the Bodhisattva in her womb for exactly ten lunar
months, Queen Mahamaya gave birth.
On the full moon day in May, passing by the Lumbini grove on her way
to her home town, she was captivated by the beauty of the flowering
sal trees and stepped down from her palanquin to walk among the
trees in the grove. As she reached for a branch of a sal tree, which
bent itself down to meet her hand, the cramps of birth came upon
As soon as the Bodhisattva was born, he took seven steps to the
north and announced: “I am chief in the world, I am best in the
world, I am first in the world. This is my last birth. There will be
no further rebirths.” Because no child can immediately walk or talk,
let alone make declarations at birth, these acts were taken to
reveal the Buddha’s extraordinary nature, even as an infant.
The Bodhisattva was born among the Shakya people into a khsatriya
family whose name was Gautama. Seven days after his birth his mother
died and was born in the Thusita heaven. The child was named
Siddhartha, which means “he whose purpose is accomplished.”
Soon after his birth, the infant Bodhisattva was examined by Brahmin
specialists for “the thirty-two marks of the great man.” According
to Buddhist tradition, two destinies are open to one who possesses
these marks in full: he will either become a great “wheel-turning”
king, ruling the four quarters of the Earth in perfect justice, or
he will become a Buddha.
On hearing the Brahmins saying his son possessed the marks,
Suddhodhana, father of the Bodhisattva, determined that his son
should become a great king. To this end, he arranged matters that
Siddhartha should have no occasion to become unhappy and
disappointed with his life at home. In this way Suddhodhana hoped
that he might prevent Siddhartha from giving up his home-life for
the life of a wandering ascetic.
In search of the truth
After the strange and marvellous circumstances of his birth,
Siddhartha grew up as the son of a royal family, confined within his
palace, leading a life of luxury enjoyed by the very wealthy and
privileged. This lifestyle made him more and more delicate and
sensitive. The King didn’t give any opportunity for him to think
about any unpleasant side to life.
One day, when Siddhartha was riding with his charioteer he
encountered for the first time in his life a feeble old man, a
severely ill man, and a corpse being carried to the funeral by
mourners. This experience was shocking, and when afterwards he saw a
wandering ascetic with serene and composed features, Siddhartha
resolved that he will leave his home and take up the life of a
wandering ascetic himself.
Siddhartha was now nearly thirty and married to Princess Yasodhara.
King Suddhodhana had already begun preparations for the crowning of
his heir, and in seven days, Siddhartha was to be crowned.
Suddhodhana took every precaution to prevent his son’s flight and
even gathered together all Shakya people capable of bearing arms to
guard the palace exits. It was then that Siddhartha’s son, Rahula
“It is a bondage which has come to me,” said Siddhartha when he
heard of his first-born and only child, meaning that it was another
tie added to those already holding him back.
However, that night, as he left his palace, he wanted to see his
son. He went to the residence of his wife and opened the door. She
was asleep on a bed, her hand on her son’s head. Siddhartha, with
one foot in the doorway, stopped and watched.
“If I lift Yasodhara’s hand to take my son in my arms, she will
awaken and my departure will be held back. When I become the Buddha,
I will come back and see him.” And with these words he went to his
horse, accompanied by his charioteer, Channa; Siddhartha was then
twenty-nine years old and this was the beginning of a six-year quest
for the truth.
During these six years, he first spent time with and practised the
systems of meditation taught by two leading ascetics of the time,
Alara Kalama and Uddaka Rama Putta.
Although he mastered their respective theories, he felt that here he
had not found any real answer to the problem of human suffering. So
next, in the company of five other wandering ascetics, the
Bodhisattva practised two extreme ways, which he thought would lead
First he tried the way of giving extreme pleasure to his body, when
this failed, he restricted his food intake; as a result he became a
living skeleton, but neither did this work. Then he realised that
the only way to become the Buddha was to try the middle path.
One day, when he was seated quietly beneath the shade of a
rose-apple tree, his mind had settled into a state of deep calm and
peace. Buddhist tradition calls this state the first meditation or
“dhyana”. As he reflected, it dawned on the Bodhisattva that it was
by letting the mind settle into this state of peace that he might
discover what he was looking for.
This required that he nourish his body and regain his strength. His
five companions thought he had turned away from the quest and left
him to his own devices.
Later, a young woman named Sujata offered milk-rice to the
Bodhisattva. Now nourished, he seated himself beneath a bo tree,
henceforth to be known as “the tree of awakening” or Bodhi Tree. It
was once more the night of the Vesak full moon and he made a final
resolve: “Let only skin, muscle and bone remain, let the flesh and
blood dry in my body, but I will not give up this seat without
attaining complete awakening.”
Mara is a being who, in certain respects, is like Satan in
Christianity. His name means “bringer of death” and his most common
nickname is “the Bad One”. Mara is not so much a personification of
evil as of the power of all kinds of experience to seduce and
entangle the unwary mind.
So, as the Bodhisattva sat beneath the tree, firm in his resolve,
Mara approached, mounted on his great elephant and accompanied by
his dreadful armies. His one purpose was to assault the Bodhisattva
and frustrate his efforts of finding the way to immortality.
The king of death tried to encourage his troops on, but even the
arrows of his monsters lost their sharp points and were instantly
covered with flowers. Enclosed in a zone of complete protection, the
Bodhisattva laughed at his attackers because not a single hair on
his body was disturbed.
Having overcome Mara’s attempts to distract him, the Bodhisattva
then lifted his right hand and touched the ground calling on the
very Earth as his witness. It signalled the defeat of Mara and the
Buddha’s complete awakening. As the Buddha touched the Earth, Mara
tumbled from his elephant and his armies fled in disarray.
The Buddha had achieved His purpose. In Buddhist terms, He had had a
direct experience of Nirvana.
The first Buddhists
It is said that at that point His mind inclined not to teach: “This
Dharma that I have found is profound, hard to see, hard to
understand; it is peaceful, sublime, beyond the sphere of mere
reasoning, subtle, to be experienced by the wise. But this
generation takes delight in attachment, is delighted by attachment,
rejoices in attachment and as such, it is hard for them to see this
truth, namely, Nirvana”.
Buddha spent His first seven weeks near the bo tree. He thought for
a while about whom He should first teach what He has accomplished.
He looked for His first two teachers, but realised that both of them
are dead already. Then He remembered the five ascetics who helped
In a deer park outside Benares, the Buddha approached the five and
gave them instructions in the path to the termination of suffering
that He had discovered. In this way, He set in motion the Wheel of
Dharma, and soon, there were six awakened ones in the world. For the
Buddha, this was the beginning of a life of teaching that lasted
years. Those were the first followers of Buddhism.
Compiled by Janani Amarasekara
The life of the Buddha
HIS RETURN TO KAPILAVASTU AND HIS PASSING AWAY:
Seven years after He left his native city, the Buddha decided to
return to Kapilavastu. King Suddhodhana had not yet forgiven his son
for the “Great Departure,” which had caused him such disappointment.
Suddhodhana even reproached his son for degrading himself as a
beggar in his hometown in front of everybody.
When the Buddha paid a visit to His father’s house, Yasodhara, His
former wife, adorned with all her jewels pushed Rahula, now aged
eight, to Him, saying: “Rahula, that is your father. Go and ask Him
for your inheritance!” Little Rahula did as he was told.
He greeted the Buddha politely, and waited until his father had left
the house without giving any direct answer. Then Rahula followed Him
with these words: “Father, give me my inheritance!” The Buddha’s
reaction was as dignified as it was effective. He instructed His
chief disciple Sariputra to ordain the boy as a novice, saying:
“This is your inheritance.”
Plots to kill Him
Toward the end of His life, the monk Devadatta, His cousin, watched
the Buddha aging great interest and decided to takeover the control
of the Order as His successor.
Devadatta had the courage not to pursue his aim solely by trickery,
but to announce it openly. The Buddha never allowed him to do so.
This made Devadatta His enemy. Devadatta, who was humiliated in
public, planned a series of plots to kill the Buddha. The third
attempt on the Buddha’s life took place within the city of Rajagaha.
Devadatta bribed certain mahouts with promises to let the working
elephant Nalagiri loose against the Buddha.
The mighty elephant, which had already killed one person, stormed
through the streets on the exact path along which the Buddha was
coming on His round to collect alms.
Throwing away a person with his trunk, the brute rushed at the
yellow-robed Buddha who, unafraid, glowed with loving kindness
towards the animal. Then the miracle took place!
Suddenly the raging elephant became calm and peaceful, and knelt
before the Buddha, who lifted His right hand and patted the animal’s
forehead. This is the well-known story of the Buddha’s defeat of a
mad elephant in Rajagaha. At age 80 the Buddha was weary and not in
a good physical condition:
“I am now old, and full of years; my journey is done and I have
reached my sum of days; I am turning eighty years of age. And just
as a worn-out cart is kept going with the help of repairs, so it
seems is the Tathagata’s body kept going with repairs”.
With an untiring enthusiasm for teaching, however, the Buddha
decided to get on another long preaching journey. After passing
through a number of villages, the Buddha proceeded to a place called
Pava where He and His disciples were invited to dinner by a lowly
After the meal, however, the Buddha, who was already in a weakened
condition, became seriously ill. In spite of the severe pains, the
Buddha insisted upon continuing His preaching tour, and soon ended
up in a small village called Kushinagara. By this time the Buddha
was too exhausted to go on and wanted to lie down.
The monk Ananda prepared a resting-place for Him between two
blossoming sal trees. Then Ananda, who was struck by grief, lent
against a door and wept. The Buddha called for him and explained:
“Enough, Ananda, do not sorrow, do not lament. Have I not explained
that it is the nature of things that we must be divided, separated,
and parted from all that is beloved and dear?
How could it be, Ananda, that what has been born and come into
being, that what is compounded and subject to decay, should not
decay? It is not possible”.
The Buddha told Ananda to make His impending death known to the
people in Kushinagara so that they could prepare His funeral. At
that time, a wandering ascetic named Subhadda came to see the
Buddha, but was sent away by Ananda who tried to prevent the
exhausted old master from being disturbed.
But the Buddha, who overheard the conversation, asked the ascetic to
approach His side and, after answering his questions on the Law,
accepted Him into the Order. Thereby Subhadda became the last person
to be accepted to the Order in the Buddha’s lifetime.
Then the Buddha gave the surrounding monks a last opportunity to
question Him about the Law: “Ask, monks, in case you afterwards feel
remorse, thinking: “We sat face to face with the Master, and yet we
failed to ask Him personally.”
The Buddha asked this three times, but the monks remained silent.
Then the Buddha gave them one more chance: if they did not dare to
speak out of respect for Him, they should ask through a fellow-monk.
Again the monks remained silent. It was evident that He had
explained everything very clearly to them.
The night was far advanced, and it was quiet between the trees when
the dying teacher gave the monks His last words: “Now, monks, I
declare to you: all elements of personality are subject to decay.
Strive on untiringly”! With these words He Passed Away.
* The father of Prince Siddhartha was King Suddhodhana and mother
was Queen Mahamaya.
* The wife of Prince Siddhartha was Yasodhara and his son was
* Prince Siddhartha left his palace when he was aged 29.
* The Buddha preached Buddhism for 45 years before He passed away at
the age of 80.
* The two main assistant Bhikkus of the Buddha were Sariputta Thera
and Mugalan Thera, while Ananda Thera was the helper.
Compiled by Janani Amarasekera