Siddhartha Gotama was born 2400 years ago (give or take a century) in the village of Lumbini in what is now Nepal. His father, Suddhodana was minor royalty of the Sakya clan and Queen Maya, his mother. You can read about the legend surrounding the circumstances of his birth in any of the books about the early life of the Buddha, but they don’t answer the question of who Siddhartha was.
In Buddhism: A History, Noble Ross Reat offers an account of Siddhartha’s life based primarily on the Nidana-katha from the Pali canon. Admittedly there are many versions of the Buddha’s early life, some focus on the mundane, while others, the mystical. Reat writes, “There is no reason to doubt this basic scenario . . .”
Members of Suddhodana’s court predicted that the boy would grow up to be the king of the world or the spiritual savior of man. They warned that if the boy ever saw the true conditions of the world he would choose the spiritual route. To ensure his son followed in daddy’s footsteps there were three sumptuous palaces built and Siddhartha lived in one or the other for the first twenty-nine years of his life, never seeing the world outside their walls.
He became extraordinarily proficient at the arts of the time. His intellect was unsurpassed, his military prowess was unequalled, and the concubines supplied by his father adored him for his skills. Legend puts a mystical spin on this, but all Siddhartha had was time and the best teachers so his proficiencies could have been a normal course of events. At 16 years of age he was married and soon after he was father to a son. Throughout all this he was never exposed to illness, death, infirmity, or suffering of any type.
For 13 years he was the son, husband and father he was expected to be. It wasn’t until he was 29 that he rebelled, at least a little. He snuck out of the palace to have some fun and had his first experiences with suffering. Were the “gods” involved or was it just the normal, though delayed, restlessness of a man? It was rebellion that changed Siddhartha’s view of the world.
Outside the palace he was exposed to what the masses saw as the mundane facts of life. He saw an elderly person near the end of their life. Siddhartha passed a person crippled by disease. He didn’t see the death in a motionless body until his charioteer told him. Old age, sickness and death had infected his view of the world. Then he spied a holy man and realized what his path needed to be. Soon after, Siddhartha renounced his world of wealth and power and slipped away from the palace leaving his wife and child behind. He discarded his fine robes in exchange for rags from a trash pile, cut off his hair and abandoned all his wealth to seek the truth.
Siddhartha studied and performed the religious practices of his time. He studied meditation under prominent teachers and mastered the highest levels of the consciousness. As an ascetic holy man he wandered the land performing acts of self-mortification and self-inflicted pain. He could not find spiritual liberation in any of the methods he mastered. One day he remembered having a tranquil meditational experience when he was a child just sitting under a tree. Announcing he was going to try a different path his companions abandoned him.
He went on alone, requested alms in whatever village he found himself in the morning, ate one meal a day and spent the bulk of each day in meditation. One night he sat beneath a Bodhi tree and swore he wouldn’t get up until he had attained the enlightenment he sought. During the night legend has it that Mara, an evil being, tempted him to give up and Siddhartha ignored all attempts to divert him from his path. Even Mara’s seductive daughters couldn’t break Siddhartha’s resolve. Rather than the mystical, see Siddhartha’s battles as internal against his own desires and attachments.
By morning Siddhartha had discovered a way to combat unsatisfactoriness in the world. It wasn’t through mystical energies, gods or devils that he attained enlightenment; it was through diligence and concentration that Siddhartha earned the title of Buddha at age 35. Diligence and concentration that any person is capable of attaining through practice.
Siddhartha never claimed to be anything more than a man. As the Buddha he never made claim to being a deity, just a teacher whose lesson was more important than the man.
The historical Buddha is represented in many guises. In Japan he is sometimes shown fat and jolly (like a bald Santa Claus) or serene and compassionate like the Kamakura statue; in India he carries himself with a royal demeanor that radiates wisdom, and statues in Thailand depict a figure lean of body and long of leg. Other countries and peoples have different styles of images that venerate the Buddha. When looking upon the figures whether they are carved from stone or wood, gilded in gold and dotted with precious gems, or molded from cheap plastic it is important to remember that before the title of Buddha, he was Siddhartha Gotama.