One of the most important religious leaders in world history, the Buddha is viewed by hundreds of millions as the supreme embodiment of compassion and enlightenment.
Technically, “Buddha” is a title, meaning “enlightened” or “awakened” in the ancient Pali language in which much of the Buddhist canon was written. According to Buddhist teachings, there are many buddhas, in the sense of people who have attained enlightenment (including the future Maitreya Buddha, who it is believed will appear in the last days). However, when Buddhists talk about “the” Buddha, they generally refer to Siddhartha Gautama.
Born in the early fifth century B.C., Siddhartha was the son of the king of Kapilavastu in Nepal. Siddhartha’s father, wishing to protect and pamper his son, isolated him in a magnificent pleasure palace, where Siddhartha’s every whim was fulfilled by a host of servants. When Siddhartha became a young man, however, he grew curious about the world outside his palace. Making several secret trips to explore this strange world, he was shocked to discover things he had never seen before — such as sickness, hunger, old age and death. To his horror, he realized that not everyone lived a life of complete pleasure like his; quite the contrary, nearly all mankind lived lives filled with suffering.
This discovery transformed him. He could no longer remain in hedonistic isolation in his fantasy palace. Abandoning his royal title and all his possessions — including his wife and son — Siddhartha set out on a journey to discover the purpose of life and find an escape from suffering and death.
He began a religious quest, seeking out the greatest spiritual teachers of India. For a while, he followed a self-absorbed path of extreme religious asceticism, mortifying his flesh to strengthen the spirit. Nearly starving himself to death, he realized that this did not bring the fulfillment he was seeking, and that it brought no help to others. Finally, in desperation, he sat under a bodhi tree, resolving not to move until he had achieved enlightenment. There it is believed Siddhartha passed through progressive stages of divine insight and revelation, culminating in his full enlightenment, thus becoming the Buddha or “enlightened one.”
Although, at the moment of his enlightenment according to the teachings, the Buddha could have transcended mortality, he chose instead to return to this world of suffering in order to teach mankind the principles by which they, too, could attain this enlightenment. He spent the next 45 years, until his death in the late fifth century BC, as a wandering teacher in India, serving humanity, forming Buddhist communities and teaching mankind the path to enlightenment.
The fundamental teachings of the Buddha were summarized in his First Sermon at the Deer Park, the Buddhist equivalent of the Sermon on the Mount. There he taught the Noble Truth that “life is suffering.” This suffering can only be overcome by following the Eightfold Path, which includes perfecting both one’s inner life, thoughts, speech and conduct. The ethical teachings of the Buddha broadly parallel the commandments of Jews and Christians, but the essence is that one must do nothing that harms another.
The Buddha taught that men and women should follow the “Middle Path,” between the extremes of religious asceticism or self-denial and the emptiness of hedonism or pleasure-seeking. According to a Buddhist parable, a person’s soul is like a stringed instrument. If strung too tightly, it will snap, but if too loose, it can produce no music. Only the soul in perfect balance and harmony can correctly play the music of life.
At an allegorical level, the life of the Buddha serves as an example to his followers. Too many of us lead lives of isolated abundance, ignoring the suffering of those around us. Indeed, in the modern world of super-abundance, many people seem genuinely puzzled by the Buddha’s teaching that “life is suffering.” Like Siddhartha in his pleasure palace, they can’t understand that, for the vast majority of men and women throughout history, the Buddha’s teaching makes absolute sense: Life is, indeed, filled with suffering. (At least, not until they are touched by serious illness, the death of a loved one, or a great personal loss or disappointment.)
By following the teachings and example of Siddhartha, the compassionate Buddha, millions have learned to overcome their egocentric prisons of selfish desire through devoting their lives to alleviating the suffering of others. (For further reading, see Peter Harvey, “An Introduction to Buddhism,” 2nd ed., 2012.)
Daniel Peterson founded BYU's Middle Eastern Texts Initiative, chairs The Interpreter Foundation and blogs on Patheos. Among other things, William Hamblin co-authored “Solomon's Temple: Myth and History.” They do not speak for BYU.