Who was Buddha? | Reclaiming Zen

Who was Buddha?

You may recognise the name Buddha but do you know who Buddha was? Although many people have heard of Buddha few know much else about who he was.

Contrary to what many people in the western world think, Buddha was neither a God or legend. He was a real man called Siddhārtha Gautama (Shakyamuni Gotama in Japanese).

Buddha was born in Nepal in the Lumbini woods, near the town of Kapilavastu  around 2.500 years ago. His name was Siddhārtha Gautama (Shakyamuni Gotama in Japanese),

Siddhārtha  was his given name and Gautama was the name of his clan. The date of his birth and death is not established with certainty however most historians say he was born in 563BC and died in 486BC. Many scholars agree that he did live but the events of his life are still debated.


The word Buddha is a Title which means *one who is awake* meaning one who has woken up to reality. He did not claim to be a God or a Prophet. He was a human being who became enlightened and understood life in the deepest possible way.

According to traditional stories Siddhartha had a privileged upbringing and was born into the royal family of a small kingdom on the Indian-Nepalese border. He showed an early interest in meditation and self growth. By his fathers wishes he married young and took part public life of royalty and had a son named Rāhula.

It was after contemplation of life that Siddhartha was prompted to seek the meaning of life. At age 29 he was impelled to leave the palace walls and follow the traditional Indian path.

His father had kept him sheltered and as he left the palace walls he discovered a new world. For the first time he saw suffering of a newborn baby, an old man, a sick man and a rotting corpse. He realized that suffering is common to all humanity.

As a wandering Holy man seeking truth he became acquainted with a mendicant monk. With this he decided to abandon his family wealth and power to achieve enlightenment. This is known as “The Great Renunciation” and Buddhists consider this a turning point in history.

Buddha began to travel in search of enlightenment. He followed many teachings of gurus but was dissatisfied. He settled in the town of Uruvela with 5 men as his disciples who all shared his same goal. Together they sought to achieve enlightenment. They would achieve this through a severe practice that involved deprivation of wordly goods, meditating for 10 hours  day, eating only few grains a day, never talking and sleeping very little.

It was believed that one could free the spirit by denying the flesh, however it was through this that he became starved and weakened. This ascetic practice led him to collapse. He was helped by a village girl who fed him to restore his health. He realized from this that his extreme lifestyle was unbalanced and would not bring him enlightenment. He quit the practice and in this lost his disciples. The 6 years of self-mortification made him realise that extreme asceticm wasn’t the way and in all things balance is necessary.


In  response he developed The Middle Way, a path of moderation that was away from extremes in every aspect of life.

One evening at age 35 he sat in Dhyana at the feet of a pipal (Bodhi) tree. He was determined not to stop meditating before reaching enlightenment and awakening to the reality of the universe. It was after 49 days of meditation that he is said to have attained enlightenment and become the Buddha- the awakened one.

Buddha experienced a intuitive understanding of existence, he understood all of the suffering he had seen and how it could be eradicated. These observations about suffering became known as the Four Noble Truths. He developed the eight fold path which you may recognise as one of the principle teachings. Both can be seen as the centre to Buddhism and Zen.

He decided to return to his disciples preaching his teaching or Dharma. They were amazed by his wisdom and took him again as their teacher and he was ordained as a monk. Together they formed the first group of Buddhist monks called the Sangha Sanskrit.

When returning home a wealthy admirer paid for a monastery to be built and it was here that Buddha went on to live and teach. He spread teachings and his dharma remained a way of life and a philosophy rather than a religion.


He devoted his life to spiritual activity and died at around age 80 in Kusinagar (modern day Nepal).

Buddha foresaw his death and warned his followers about it but he did not leave them with an specific instructions on the continuation of his teaching.

It is said that he told them to follow no leader. Buddha had already taught all that was necessary. After death his body was cremated and his ashes were put into the eight Buddhist temples across India.

The Buddha is still to this day an influential figure and his teachings have affected everything from literature, philosophy and other faiths within India and across the world.

Have a wonderful day!



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