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The Historical Buddha

By Dr. Jennifer N. McIntire
Seated Buddha, 15th century (Thailand, Sukhothai style), bronze, 68.6 x 48.9 cm (The Metropolitan Museum of Art; photo: Steven Zucker, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)

A human endeavor

Among the founders of the world's major religions, the Buddha was the only teacher who did not claim to be other than an ordinary human being. Other teachers were either God or directly inspired by God. The Buddha was simply a human being and he claimed no inspiration from any God or external power. He attributed all his realization, attainments, and achievements to human endeavor and human intelligence. A man and only a man can become a Buddha. Every man has within himself the potential of becoming a Buddha if he so wills it and works at it. Nevertheless, the Buddha was such a perfect human that he came to be regarded in popular religion as super-human.
Man's position, according to Buddhism, is supreme. Man is his own master and there is no higher being or power that sits in judgment over his destiny. If the Buddha is to be called a "savior" at all, it is only in the sense that he discovered and showed the path to liberation, to
, the path we are invited to follow ourselves.
It is with this principle of individual responsibility that the Buddha offers freedom to his disciples. This freedom of thought is unique in the history of religion and is necessary because, according to the Buddha, man's emancipation depends on his own realization of Truth, and not on the benevolent grace of a God or any external power as a reward for his obedient behavior.
Fasting Buddha Shakyamuni, 3rd–5th century Kushan period, Pakistan/ancient Gandhara (The Metropolitan Museum of Art)

Life of the Buddha

The main events of the Buddha's life are well known. He was born Siddhartha Gautama of the Shaka clan. He is said to have had a miraculous birth, precocious childhood, and a princely upbringing. He married and had a son.
He encountered an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a religious ascetic. He became aware of suffering and became convinced that his mission was to seek liberation for himself and others. He renounced his princely life, spent six years studying doctrines and undergoing yogic austerities. He then gave up ascetic practices for normal life. He spent seven weeks in the shade of a Bodhi tree until, finally, one night toward dawn, enlightenment came. Then he preached sermons and embarked on missionary travels for 45 years. He affected the lives of thousands—high and low. At the age of 80 he experienced his parinirvana—extinction itself.
Death of the Buddha, late 17th–early 18th century, ink, colors, and gold on silk hanging scroll, 331.5 x 229 cm, Japan (Art Institute of Chicago
This is the most basic outline of his life and mission. The literature inspired by the Buddha's story is as various as those who have told it in the last 2500 years. To the first of his followers, and the tradition associated with
and figures like the great
, the Buddha was a man, not a God. He was a teacher, not a savior. To this day the Theravada tradition prevails in parts of India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Cambodia, and Thailand.
To those who, a few hundred years later, formed the
, Buddha was a savior and often a God—a God concerned with man's sorrows above all else. The Mahayana form of Buddhism is in Tibet, Mongolia, Vietnam, Korea, China, and Japan. The historical Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama) is also known as Shakyamuni.
Additional resources
Essay by Dr. Jennifer N. McIntire

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  • blobby green style avatar for user JosephH90
    Why was he also named Shakyamuni, where is that word from?
    (27 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Sahaj Patel
    In what country god buddha was born and why god buddha not influence India very much ?
    (4 votes)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user ohsamp
      Buddhism did have a pretty strong influence in India, but its following dropped as the person before me mentioned, probably (what seems most logical to me) due to the fact that Hinduism is a very absorptive religion. People who practiced Buddhism in India simply became Hindus with Buddha as their "patron deity", so to speak. The flexibility of both Hinduism and Buddhism allowed for this.
      (8 votes)
  • eggleston blue style avatar for user amelia.dyer
    Dr. Jennifer, how did you find all this information, sorry if this is rude.
    (3 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user Sharad Poudel
    I actually wanted to make some questions but I have some information to share what I have learned since my childhood as I was born in the land where Buddha "The enlightened one" was born. These facts are also based on what I was taught by our community in Nepalese Society and also some holy books of Buddhism

    *When and where Buddha was born?

    Born in Lumbini in the 6th century B.C. which lies in today´s modern day Nepal, Buddha was a spiritual leader and teacher whose life serves as the foundation of the Buddhist religion."Siddhartha Gautama" the renowned prince of Shakya Dynasty in Nepal was born in a royal family.

    His father Suddhodana was king who ruled the tribe, known to be economically poor and on the outskirts geographically. His mother Mayadevi died seven days after giving birth to him, but a holy man prophesized great things for the young Siddhartha: He would either be a great king or military leader or he would be a great spiritual leader. To keep his son from witnessing the miseries and suffering of the world, Siddhartha's father raised him in opulence in a palace built just for the boy and sheltered him from knowledge of religion and human hardship.The main motive of these conditions that Suddhodana made for his son Siddhartha was, to restrict his son to be a Monk or a Holy Sage as he would want his son to be the real fighter and a strong successor of his Kingdom. According to custom, Siddhartha later known as "Gautama Buddha" married at the age of 16, but his life of total seclusion continued for another 13 years.

    *Siddhartha Experiences the Real World.

    The prince reached his late 20s with little experience of the world outside the walls of his opulent palaces, but one day he ventured out beyond the palace walls and was quickly confronted with the realities of human frailty: He saw a very old man, and Siddhartha's charioteer explained that all people grow old. Questions about all he had not experienced led him to take more journeys of exploration, and on these subsequent trips he encountered a diseased man, a decaying corpse and an ascetic. The charioteer explained that the ascetic had renounced the world to seek release from the human fear of death and suffering. Siddhartha was overcome by these sights, and the next day, at age 29, he left his kingdom, wife and son to lead an ascetic life, and determine a way to relieve the universal suffering that he now understood to be one of the defining traits of humanity.

    *The Ascetic Life and Enlightenment.

    For the next six years, Siddhartha lived an ascetic life and partook in its practices, studying and meditating using the words of various religious teachers(Hindu gurus and Hrishi-Munis) as his guide. He practiced his new way of life with a group of five ascetics, and his dedication to his quest was so stunning that the five ascetics became Siddhartha's followers. When answers to his questions did not appear, however, he redoubled his efforts, enduring pain, fasting nearly to starvation, and refusing water.
    Whatever he tried, Siddhartha could not reach the level of satisfaction he sought, until one day when a young girl offered him a bowl of rice. As he accepted it, he suddenly realized that corporeal austerity was not the means to achieve inner liberation, and that living under harsh physical constraints was not helping him achieve spiritual release. So he had his rice, drank water and bathed in the river. The five ascetics decided that Siddhartha had given up the ascetic life and would now follow the ways of the flesh, and they promptly left him. From then on, however, Siddhartha encouraged people to follow a path of balance instead of one characterized by extremism. He called this path the Middle Way.

    *The Buddha Emerges.

    That night, Siddhartha sat under the Bodhi tree, vowing to not get up until the truths he sought came to him, and he meditated until the sun came up the next day. He remained there for several days, purifying his mind, seeing his entire life, and previous lives, in his thoughts. During this time, he had to overcome the threats of Mara, an evil demon, who challenged his right to become the Buddha. When Mara attempted to claim the enlightened state as his own, Siddhartha touched his hand to the ground and asked the Earth to bear witness to his enlightenment, which it did, banishing Mara. And soon a picture began to form in his mind of all that occurred in the universe, and Siddhartha finally saw the answer to the questions of suffering that he had been seeking for so many years. In that moment of pure enlightenment, Siddhartha Gautama became the Buddha ("he who is awake").

    Armed with his new knowledge, the Buddha was initially hesitant to teach, because what he now knew could not be communicated to others in words. According to legend, it was then the king of gods, Brahma, convinced Buddha to teach, and he got up from his spot under the Bodhi tree and set out to do just that.

    About 100 miles away, he came across the five ascetics he had practiced with for so long, who had abandoned him on the eve of his enlightenment. To them and others who had gathered, he preached his first sermon (henceforth known as Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Dharma), in which he explained the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, which became the pillars of Buddhism. The ascetics then became his first disciples and formed the foundation of the Sangha, or community of monks. Women were admitted to the Sangha, and all barriers of class, race, sex and previous background were ignored, with only the desire to reach enlightenment through the banishment of suffering and spiritual emptiness considered.

    For the remainder of his 80 years, Buddha traveled, preaching the Dharma (the name given to the teachings of the Buddha) in an effort to lead others to and along the path of enlightenment. When he died, it is said that he told his disciples that they should follow no leader.

    The Buddha is undoubtedly one of the most influential figures in world history, and his teachings have affected everything from a variety of other faiths (as many find their origins in the words of the Buddha) to literature to philosophy, both within India and to the farthest reaches of the Western world.

    Once again, these information are something that I believe in because I have visited the MayaDevi Temple that lies in (Lumbini) the southern central part of Nepal Bordering to India. This place is also marked by one of many stone pillars built by the Indian Emperor Ashoka during his reign in the 3rd century BC. Today only 19 pillars remain that have inscriptions most of which are found in India. The one located in Lumbini, Nepal is of particular note as it is the oldest inscription found in Nepal and it also commemorate Ashoka's visit to to Buddha's birthplace after he converted to Buddhism.
    (4 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Omar Muhammad
    my god, this article is reductionism at its finest
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Ashley Becerra
    If Buddhism is a non-theistic religion, can we say that it is a religion of science or one of philosophy?
    (3 votes)
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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Eliška
    What is position of woman in Buddhism ?
    (3 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user preethyashokan1999
    is there a book written by Buddha ?
    (1 vote)
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    • blobby green style avatar for user bhaskar.mvbhaskar
      There is no writing evident in India until 300 years after Buddha. No writing instruments have been excavated. The edicts of Asoka, the emperor who made Buddha and Buddhism famous, constitute the earliest securely dated specimens of writing in India. 273 B.C.E. Indian 'education' until then seems to have relied mainly on oral transmission of knowledge. It is unlikely therefore that there ever was a book written by Buddha. It is more likely that his teachings were preserved orally and then committed to writing in the Asokan period and after.
      (2 votes)
  • marcimus pink style avatar for user michelle B
    why are people praised of such old art? what does it mean? is it sacred?
    (1 vote)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Andrea Hunley
    was the Buddha ok with being called a God in some places, or was that after he died, or maybe did he not know?
    (1 vote)
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