This is the second of a two-part series on the life story of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. The first article focused on Siddhartha's birth, childhood, and renunciation of home, while this one focuses on his spiritual quest, awakening, teaching, and death.
When Siddhartha left home, he began life as an unknown beggar, as was customary for spiritual seekers of the time. He was recognized by the servants of a local king, who offered him the throne upon hearing of his quest. But Siddhartha refused, instead offering to return first to this kingdom upon his enlightenment.
Siddhartha then spent several years studying with two famous teachers of the period, mastering the teachings of both, and achieving many subtle meditative states. He was invited to succeed one teacher, but refused. He felt that the states and knowledge he had attained were still transient forms of pleasure, and therefore did not offer a permanent way out of suffering.
Siddhartha thought perhaps more severe renunciation was the answer, in order to detach from all attachment to pleasure or aversion to pain. He and five fellow mendicants set out on their own to test this, living in severe austerity, fasting for long periods and denying themselves any pleasure or comfort.
After long periods of such austerity, the Buddha was weak and his life endangered. He reconsidered his path, and began to accept a little food from a local village girl. His five companions left him, believing he had renounced his quest. As he regained some strength, the Buddha sat meditating under a pipal tree that has since become known as the Bodhi Tree. He vowed not to get up until he achieved enlightenment.
Under the Bodhi Tree, the Buddha contemplated his experience and realized the value of a Middle Way - neither self-indulgent nor self-punishing, revolving around neither pleasure nor aversion. As the Buddha meditated on this, he realized deeper and deeper levels of reality and his own awareness. According to tradition, he was tempted by many visions and promises by both gods and demons. But he never wavered, and eventually realized full Nirvana - direct knowledge transcending all relative truths and the conflicting claims about reality. This knowledge cannot be conveyed in words, only recognized.
With this realization, Siddhartha became Buddha.
With his awakening the Buddha realized the nature and causes of human suffering, and the method for escaping it. This knowledge became
the Four Noble Truths. He sought out his five former companions, and delivered his first sermon to them. Along with their own students and companions, they became the first sangha, or Buddhist community.
For close to 45 years, the Buddha delivered teachings, both in Deer Park, site of his first sermon, and while traveling extensively. At one point he returned to his birth home, and many of his family, including his son Rahula, became monks. His stepmother Pajapati eventually lobbied to form the first order of Buddhist nuns (as did his wife, according to some versions of the story.)
The Buddha was not without enemies. There are many stories of plots to kill or discredit him. The most infamous of these were organized by Devadatta, a cousin of the Buddha’s who originally became a monk, but later renounced him and became an enemy. Throughout Buddhist scripture, Devadatta functions like a classic literary foil, and his plots against the Buddha are used as opportunities to offer lessons on greed, arrogance, and ignorance.
Accounts of the Buddha's death vary, but at around 80, he told his closest disciples he would pass into 'paranirvana', or the final deathless state, in the coming days. Soon after, he accepted a meal as an offering from a lay student. He fell ill from food poisoning, and, knowing the end was near, asked his followers if they had any remaining questions. They had none, and he passed peacefully.
Before his passing, the Buddha instructed his students not to follow a leader, but instead to follow the teachings, or dharma. He also reportedly asked that no images be constructed of him, so that he did not become an object of worship. Over time both of these instructions were disregarded, although within the traditions that do so, it is made clear that images and reverence of the Buddha are meant to be a form of respect for the teachings, not worship of a god.
Just as the first three phases of the Buddha's life story illustrate foundation tenets of Buddhism, these last four do as well. The Buddha's path was one of direct practice and experience, not a study of doctrine, and this forms the basis for the Buddha's statement "Do not believe in anything simply because you have heard it...But after observation and analysis, when you find that anything agrees with reason and is conducive to the good and benefit of one and all, then accept it and live up to it." Also, Buddhism is known as 'the middle way' because the Buddha in his lifetime experienced both profound pleasure (in his protected palace life) and profound pain (in his severe ascetic days.) He saw that neither led to enlightenment, and sought his own way.
Here are my two favorite books of the Buddha's life story, for adults and kids, respectively:
Or, if you prefer e-books, note that this article is included in my e-book Introduction to Buddhism and Buddhist Meditation.