Who was the Buddha?

For someone that encounters Buddhism for the first time, the first and most natural question is simply this: Who was the Buddha? Who was the man who set this incredible and complex religious tradition in motion? If you are curious about the impact this man had on the lives of the people of India, where he was born, and all the other countries where Buddhism has become such an important part of the religious landscape, it is natural to ask another question. How did the life story of this person we call the Buddha become so deeply woven into the lives of the people who call themselves Buddhists?

In this article I’d like to do two things. To tell you the story of the Buddha and also to reflect about how that story has mirrored in the lives of Buddhist people throughout Asia who have oriented their lives, in one way or another, around this classical image of what the Buddha was, how he acted and how he set the tradition in motion.

The Historical Buddha

Historically, we have just a handful of facts we can hold on to tell ourselves about the life story of the Buddha. We know, we think we know, that he was born in the family of king Suddhodana and queen Maya about the year 563 BCE, in a region of the Indian subcontinent that now lies in Southern Nepal.

He was a member of the Shakya tribe, his clan name was Gautama and his given name was Siddhartha, which means something like “mission accomplished”. It has been common in the Buddhist world to refer to him either as Siddhartha Gautama or even more commonly as Shakyamuni, “the sage of Shakya tribe”. He is often called by this name specially in East Asia when he is distinguished from other Buddhas who represent other traditions.

This handful of facts is important to us, they tell us that the Buddha was not the creations of somebody’s imagination, he was a real human being who walked the dusty roads of Northern India twenty five hundred years ago.

The Buddha Through Buddhist Eyes

These facts don’t tell us very much what the Buddha did or about what he has meant to his followers. To learn about the Buddha this way we’ll have to turn to stories that Buddhists tell about the Buddha and learn to look at the Buddha through Buddhist eyes.

To tell the story of the Buddha the way that Buddhists tell it, we have to begin not with his birth, but with his previous births. As I said in other articles, the Buddhist tradition arose at a time when the doctrine of reincarnation was a basic assumption of Indian religious life.

People assume that humans do not live just one life. They cycle around again and again in a process of death and rebirth. This is not a very pleasant process. In fact, this process, as you know, is called Samsara, which means simply to wander from one life to the next, potentially without end.

How you feel about this depends a lot about how you feel about the process of the endless sequence of lives in this world, or possibly in worlds that may not be as pleasant as the one that we presently inhabit.

In India, serious religious people began to think that Samsara was not an appealing prospect. The inhabitants of ancient India knew about frustration and they thought that the great sages, like the Buddha, could find a way out.

In fact, they assumed that someone as important as the Buddha must have prepared through an enormous number of previous lives, by studying under previous Buddhas and by practicing all the virtues that will come to such glorious flourishing in his life as the Buddha Shakyamuni.

In the next article I’ll talk about these previous lives.

This article is part of the series about The Life of the Buddha.

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