One might say that the Buddha needs no introduction, as he is undoubtedly the most famous of all the enlightened ones. Yet his story remains an enduring classic and model of the spiritual search and its successful completion.
The pampered prince, Siddhartha, had a beautiful wife and son, dancing girls, sumptuous food, and three palaces for his own use, and was completely sheltered from the world. One day he left the palace surreptitiously and witnessed for the first time in his life, disease, suffering, old age, and death. This led the prince to renounce his worldly treasures and family to find Truth and a release from suffering for himself and all sentient beings. For six years he pursued ascetic practices in the forest, reducing himself through meditation and fasting to a mere skeleton, at the point of death. At the last moment, he accepted rice milk from a cowherd girl and was revived. Abandoning the ascetic life of the forest for the middle path between indulgence and asceticism, he nevertheless vowed not to move from his meditation seat beneath the Bodhi tree until he reached enlightenment. Defeating Mara, the incarnation of ignorance and evil, all of his past lives appeared before his eyes, and he fell deeply into contemplation of the nature of life and suffering. He sought the transcend birth, suffering, and death. And he succeeded, ultimately attaining the perfect peace of Nirvana. He was absolutely free, liberated while alive.
By means of the exalted state, the Buddha went on to acquire disciples, found an order of monks that persists today, and spread great wisdom and compassion throughout Asia and beyond. Over the past 2,500 years, the Buddha’s story and example have inspired countless others to dedicate their entire lives and renounce all the aspects of worldly life to attain Nirvana for the benefit of everyone. Even those who have not yet given up the world have been deeply affected by the Buddha’s insights, compassion, and teachings. The Buddhist concepts of the middle path, the four noble truths, the eightfold path, the bodhisattva ideal, and the ultimate release from the sufferings of countless human lifetimes have captivated entire cultures. Throughout Asia, Buddhism is deeply engrained in the fabric of society and forms a primary basis for religious expression. Buddhists throughout the world form what is known as the Sangha, or community of those following the Buddha’s example.
The Dharma, as Buddhist teaching is called, has become increasingly popular in the past fifty years in the West as well, as the great diaspora of Buddhist teachers has captivated new generations of spiritual seekers looking beyond their own cultures for Truth. The Buddha did not set out to found a religion and did not even have a concept of God in his teaching. His only mission was to share the truth of his experience, to enlighten others as he had been enlightened, and to save others from the fear and sufferings of old age, sickness, and death. He wandered and taught for forty-five years, giving instruction even on his deathbed, to guide seekers to self-realization. With his dying breath he instructed those by his bedside: “Decay is inherent in all component things, but the truth will remain forever. Work out your salvation with diligence!” His compassion was unbounded, his wisdom supreme.
The Buddha’s story was originally oral history told to his disciple Ananda, approximately 2,500 years ago, and recorded in various sources including the Pali Canon, the Lalitavishtara Sutra, and the Buddhacharita.