History and Sources

How did Gautama become the Buddha?

At the age of twenty-nine, tradition says, Gautama made the “great renunciation” of comfort and security. Borne aloft by his horse, he went over the palace walls to pursue a realistic understanding of the world and the human condition. Gautama went first to learn from two Hindu teachers, spiritual guides like those who tutor seekers in the Hindu scriptures called the Upanishads. Unsatisfied with that more philosophical approach, Gautama joined a group of ascetics in Benares, representatives of the Jain movement perhaps, and subjected himself to several years of dire austerity. When that, too, failed, he moved on and decided to meditate alone under a tree until he achieved enlightenment. During the course of seven weeks there Siddhartha went through four trancelike stages, arriving finally at the stark realization of what Buddhist tradition calls the most basic truths of human life. Siddhartha was now worthy of the name Buddha, the Enlightened One.

But tradition suggests that the Buddha experienced a terrible interior struggle with the temptation to keep his newfound wisdom to himself. Mara, the demon, summoned up all his might to prevent the truths of enlightenment from spreading abroad. Overcoming all inclination to selfishness, the thirty-five-year-old Buddha dedicated himself to teaching others the way to freedom from attachment that is the cause of all suffering. He returned to Benares, reunited with the five ascetics with whom he had parted company earlier, and preached the sermon called “Turning the Wheel of the Law.” Now the Buddha was indeed a “wheel-turner,” but not as his father had envisioned. For the next forty-five years, he would turn the greatest of all wheels, that of the dharma. He died in Kushinagara at the age of eighty, in about 483 B.C.E., of apparent food poisoning.


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