1:2 The Historical Buddha

The founder of Buddhism was Siddhartha Gautama, born in the 5th century BCE, who became known as the “Buddha” or the “Awakened One;” sometimes this is also translated as the “Enlightened One” or the “Illuminated One.” He is also referred to as “Gautama Buddha,” to distinguish him from other “Awakened Ones,” as an important aspect of Buddhism is the idea that anyone can undergo a similar “Awakening” to that attained by Siddhartha Gautama.

In order to understand the context in which the core concepts of Buddhism were formulated, it is useful to know a bit about the life of the Buddha. Thus the life of the historical Siddhartha Gautama will now be explored in a reality-based way, without delving into all of the mystical mythology which typically surrounds and obscures it.

Siddhartha Gautama was born in approximately the 5th century BCE. He is often said to have been born a “prince,” although it is most likely that his father was not actually a king, but either an oligarch or an elected chieftain. In any event, he grew up in wealth and luxury, and eventually married and had a son, all while living in his father's palace.

Despite the generally pleasant life he had been living, he saw that there was much suffering in the world, and wanted to understand the reasons for this, as well as any possible remedy for it. He left the palace and his family seeking answers.

It seems that he initially followed a path of extreme deprivation and asceticism, due to the belief that that way to overcome suffering was to learn to endure it. Over time, however, he came to see that enduring suffering was just that – enduring suffering – and was not at all the solution he was looking for.

He then rejected this ascetic path, and journeyed to a place which is now called “Bodh Gaya,” where he sat and meditated under a tree which has come to be called “the bodhi tree.” During this meditation he had a special deep insight which may be called his moment of “Awakening,” “Enlightenment,” or “Illumination.” It was during this same meditation that he formulated the core concepts or principles of the “Dhammapada,” i.e., the “Path of the Teaching,” which he spent the rest of his life teaching to others. It is the Dhammapada which came to be known as “Buddhism.”

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