Skip to site content

Founders of World Religions: The Buddha

He was a social reformer, a religious revolutionary and a wise mentor. He gathered followers, taught them in parables and discourses and founded a community of disciples. His story shapes the lives of people worldwide.

His name is Siddhartha Gautama, and his title is Buddha (Awakened One).

He made no claims to be divine. He simply claimed to have awakened to the path to enlightenment. His story is the model for all Buddhists to follow in their own religious quest.

Siddhartha was born in 563 B.C. in what is now Nepal. His father was a ruler, who provided Siddhartha with both wealth and protection from life’s unpleasantness. Siddhartha followed the traditional path for his life as prescribed by his Hindu caste. Then one day, he departed from tradition and struck out on a new way.

Siddhartha took a series of chariot rides unsupervised by his father’s servants. In an experience called “The Four Passing Sights,” he saw shocking evidence of human suffering: an aged person shriveled with years, a sick person racked with disease and a corpse decaying. Finally, he saw a wandering beggar who had nothing, yet seemed at peace. Siddhartha realized the shallowness of his own wealth, since his father’s power and fortune could not shield him from age, disease or death.

Siddhartha resolved to leave his householder’s life and seek the truth. In a decisive act called “The Great Renunciation,” he turned away from his family, rode out to the edge of the city and exchanged clothes with a passerby. He plunged into study, first under traditional teachers of yoga (meditation), and then under practitioners of severe asceticism. While adept at both approaches, Siddhartha did not find what he sought. From these experiences he learned the truth of the Middle Way. The spiritual path struck a course between the indulgence of his early life and its opposite extreme of totally denying the body.

Once again, Siddhartha took a seeker’s course. He sat under a tree and resolved to remain there until he achieved his goal. While seated in the posture of meditation he “woke up” to the Four Noble Truths and became the Buddha. He saw the truths that:

1. All life is suffering

2. Suffering is caused by desire

3. Suffering can be ended if one overcomes desire

4. Desire is ended by following the Eightfold Path of right thinking, right acting and right meditating.

The Buddha was tempted to experience full bliss (Nirvana) immediately. Again he made a crucial choice, this time to share the truth with other seekers. He went to a park near Benares and preached his first sermon to some ascetics. He told them that “all things are on fire” with “the fire of craving, with the fire of hate, with the fire of delusion.” He urged them to free themselves from the attachments that produce such suffering.

The Buddha was a wandering teacher until his death in 483 B.C. He taught people to focus their seeking with penetrating insight. “Tread this path … You will make an end of suffering.”

His Parable of the Arrow addressed followers concerned because the Buddha left so many traditional religious questions unanswered. In the story a person is shot by a poisoned arrow. When the doctor comes, the wounded person refuses to have the arrow removed until the doctor tells the age, occupation, height, name, skin color and home town of the archer, along with the kind of bow and the origin of the feathers on the arrow. The Buddha said: “Surely the man will die before he knows all this.” Instead of being paralyzed by puzzling questions that are “not profitable for Enlightenment,” the Buddha urged unrelenting pursuit of liberating wisdom.

According to the Buddha, compassion for all things and wisdom based on penetrating insight can emerge out of the suffering that surrounds us. The lotus flower was his favorite illustration of this unfolding of bliss. The lotus grows in mud, but blossoms out of the muck. “Upon a heap of rubbish in the road-side ditch blooms a lotus. Even so, on the rubbish heap of ignorance the disciple of the Supremely Enlightened One shines resplendent in wisdom.”

With a spirit of pragmatism and clear-thinking, the Buddha set aside tradition and supernaturalism. In his farewell address, he insisted that each person seek Enlightenment for themselves: “Be lamps unto yourselves. Rely on yourselves, and do not rely on external help. Hold fast to the truth as a lamp. Seek salvation alone in the truth.”

James Browning is senior pastor of Englewood Baptist Church in Kansas City, Mo.

Resources for further study:

The story of the Buddha’s life

In the Path of the Masters: Understanding the Spirituality of Buddha, Confucius, Jesus and Muhammad, by Denise and John Carmody.

The World’s Religions: Our Great Wisdom Traditions, by Huston Smith