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The Life of Buddha Shakyamuni

Dharmapala Thangka CentreSchool of Thangka Painting

The Life of Buddha Shakyamuni

1.Birth Place

The majority of historians place the birth of Siddhartha; the son of Prince Suddhodana and of his wife Maya, towards the end of the sixth century BC Suddhodana was king of the Shakya clan in the kingdom of Kapilvastu. The name of the Gautama Buddha is often, especially among various followers, applied to Siddhartha, in the same way the among the other he is generally called Shakyamuni ['muni' having the significance simply of 'wise' or 'saint' in Sanskrit]

3. Conception

Buddha's LifeMaha Maya dreamed that a white elephant with six tusks entered her right side without causing any pain, which was interpreted to mean that she had conceived a child who would become either a world ruler or a buddha.

4. Birth

Ten months later the Buddha emerged from his mother's side, as she stood leaning against a tree, in a painless and pure birth. He took seven steps and lotus flowers sprang up in his footsteps. A wise man predicted that this child would be either a great secular ruler or a great religious leader.

5. Education

EducationDespite the supernatural powers shown by this child, who at the time of his birth took seven paces in the four directions corresponding to the four miseries of life, he receives the education reserved for the Princes. Losing his mother seven days after his birth, Prince Siddhartha is brought up first of all by his aunt, Mahaprajapati, than taken to school. There however, he astonishes all his masters by reciting to them everything they desire to teach him and much else besides. In like fashion he proves himself pre-eminent at sports. Nevertheless melancholy pervades his being, and he surrenders himself more and more to mediation.

6. Siddhartha leaves the palace

Buddha's LifeTo dispel his sadness his parents conceive the idea of giving him a wife and he marries a princess of the Kiloya clan, to whom the Buddhist texts ascribe the name of Yasoda or Gopa. By her he becomes the father of a son Rahula. But neither the joys of wedded life, nor the pleasure of harem, nor his love for his son can overcome in the young prince preoccupations of philosophical and moral kind. The evolution of his thought is well represented in the legend by the school of the 'four meetings'.

Buddha's LifeHarassed by the question of the purpose of life, Siddhartha leaves the city in his chariot and falls in with an old man whose decrepit air strikes him. 'We live then to grow old and decrepit!' he cries. In the course of similar wanderings he comes upon a sick man and funeral procession. 'So this is life' he meditates, ' suffering - then final annihilation!' Fortunately the fourth meeting dissipates his pessimism. Seeing hermit perfectly calm in his retreat, perfectly happy in his contemplation, the prince divines that the true way of salvation lies in the renunciation of the joys of life, causes of three great evils, old age, sickness, and death, and in the surrender of oneself to contemplation which frees one from the ties of earth.

7. World escape

Ascetic LifeAt the age of twenty-nine or thirty, having failed to obtain from his father leave to adopt the ascetic life, Siddhartha secretly leaves the palace, and abandons wife, children, kinsfolk, concubines, and all his possessions. The legend tells the story of his journey at some length. He sets out on his horse, Kanthaka under whose shod hooves the gods place their hands lest the noise should waken up the guard. At a certain distance from his native town he discards his princely attire for rough garments of orange color, cuts his hair, and so forth. From this moment Prince Siddhartha deserves the sacred name of Shakyamuni or Gautama. He goes forward to seek salvation; but where is salvation to be sought? At this period India did not lack various sects and schools, metaphysical, religious, and mystical.
Among the widely spread was the school of Sankhya, which taught the doctrine of deliverance from the cycle of renewed births recognized by all the creeds of India. Not less known was the school of Yoga, which was derived from the above, and principally developed the ascetic side of doctrine. To one of the initiated of this later school, the monk Alara [or Arada]- Kamala, Shakyamuni applies on reaching the town of Vaisali. Dissatisfied, however, with the monk's teaching, he continues his journey and comes to Rajgriha, the capital Kingdom of Magadha, where after refusing the offer made by King Bimbisara of a share of the throne; he retires to the mountains and follows the teaching of a celebrated Yogist, the ascetic Udraka Ramaputra. In its desire to emphasize the originality of the doctrine of Buddha, the legends describes him as equally little satisfied with the instructions of this philosopher, but we are forced to believe that as a matter of fact the ascetic benefited by teaching of several masters, for we find in Buddhism more than one fundamental feature of the doctrines of Sankhya, of Yoga, and of other contemporary schools.

8. Ascetic Life

Buddha's LifeThe legend shows us Shakyamuni, wearied at last of all these false teachers, seeking in the mortification of the body the solution of the problems, which vex him. Leaving the country of Magadha, he retires with five deciples whom he has succeeded in gathering about him, to desert place in the small district Urubilva near Gaya. There for six years he gives himself over to the most painful mortification; he attains to the consumption of a single grain of rice in the day, and ends by reducing himself almost to the condition of a skeleton. However, finding in asceticism no help towards the solution of the problems metaphysics and moral philosophy, he changes his system and returns to ordinary life, a course which wins for him the contempt of five pupils, who stigmatize him as glutton and voluptuary because he accepts a little milk and honey offered by two young village women, the sisters [according certain versions] Nanda and Nandabala.

9. Enlightenment

EnlightenmentUnmoved by these reproaches, Shakyamuni goes forth to the town to day called Bodh-Gaya. There he seats himself at the foot of a tree and declares that, though his body may wither away in this position of meditation, he will not leave it until he has attained the 'Bodhi' or perfect knowledge. And one night the miracle happens; Shakyamuni has attained the Bodhi; an inward illumination lays all things open to his understanding. Successively he gains [1] the knowledge of previous existence; [2] the destruction of evil desires; [3] knowledge of the nexus [incarnation] of the twelve interrelated causes; and finally [4] complete knowledge in its three divisions. In a word, from his former state of being Boddhisattva he becomes Buddha.

10. Auf dem Weg nach Benares

Buddha's LifeThe possession of Bodhi once attained, Shakya remains yet seven [or seven times seven] days at the foot of the tree in order to fully enjoy his beatitude. Afterwards he goes forth under other trees and walks by the side of rivers and streams where the Nagas [Serpents] shield him from the rays of the sun with their heads miraculously multiplied and enlarged. According to the texts of the southern Buddhists, this propagation opened with conversion of two merchants, Trapusa and Bhallika, who are considered by the theologians of Buddhism not as the first disciples, but as lay adherents to the faith [Uapasaka in Sanskrit]. Just at the first the preaching of the new gospel does not seem to have had much success. The environment, it would appear, was not very favorable, for Buddha decided to set out for Benares. On the road towards the city he met an aged monk, Upaka, to whom, for the first time, he declared his quality of Arhat [the saint or 'worthy'] and of Jina [the victorious].

11. Temptation

Buddha's LifeBut at what price of superhuman effort has he won this supreme knowledge! To all the causes of difficulty inherent in his task has been added the malevolence of Mara, the Genius of Evil and during his sojourn under the Bodhi tree, this maleficent being spares no effort according to the legend, to prevent Shakya from becoming Buddha. At first he tries to turn him from the way of holiness by threats and by loosing against him all the elements of nature and the fury of the armies of evil spirits. Then he seeks to reach him by the attractions of three virgins and numberless beautiful women. But Shakya comes victorious from these trials. It will be recognized that these narratives are a parable, easily comprehensible by the multitude, of the inward strife waged in the soul of Shakya between natural attachment to the outer world and pleasure of life and the total renunciation of the ascetic. In the same way the refusal of Buddha when Mara offers to make him at once into heavenly Buddha without his passing through the stage of Manushi-Buddha [Human-Buddha] implies the desire of Shakya to propagate his teaching, to make known to men the true path of salvation, and thus to deliver them from the fated circle of renewed births.

12. Propagation of the faith

Buddha's LifeThe real propagation of the faith and the foundation of a School and of a community [sangha], after the fashion of the other religion of contemporary India, only began with the arrival at Benares, where Buddha found once more his five original disciples. At first they receive him with contempt, but are quickly converted by the preaching known as dharmacakraprvartana, i.e. the preaching 'of the foundation of the reign of the Law', or literally, 'the turning [or setting in motion] of the wheel of the law'.
For the first time in this discourse Buddha sets forth the foundation of his teachings on 'the four truths'. Conversions become numerous after this success; there is the rich young man Yasas, with his kinsfolk and dependants; then at Uruvilva we find the thousand Brahmans whose leaders, the brothers Kasyapa, become the first apostles of the new faith; and many more besides. Lastly, Bimbisara, king of Magadha, with the majority of his people, adopts the Buddhist doctrine, and presents to Buddha the 'Park of bamboos' [Veluvana] near Rajgriha, which becomes the headquarters of the community. There were converted Sariputra and Maudgalyayana, the two chief followers of Buddha.

13. Death

Buddha's LifeUnable to digest the unhealthy food, Buddha falls ill, and, feeling death at hand, he lays him down on his right side, his head turned towards the north and gives to his faithful disciple and lieutenant, Ananda, his last instructions for the organization of the community. Warned by Ananda, the people of Malla tribe [and even the beasts, avers the legend] assemble around dying master, who speaks a last word on the vanity of all things that are, and on the necessity of seeking salvation in meditation and renunciation of the worldly pleasures. After seven days of prayer, music, and ceremonies, in which all the living creatures share, the body of Buddha is burnt, and the ashes, distributed among several kings and peoples, are preserved in eight funerary monuments.


The Buddhist documents are sparing of detail about the forty-five later years of Buddha's life, consecrated to the propagation of his teaching and to the organization of the monastic communities. They give, however, the description of his division of his day; narratives of the attacks directed against him by his cousin, the renegade Devadatta, who was eventually converted, and by the six jealous enemies designated collectively as Tirthika; the story of his journey to the city of his birth, Kapilvastu, where he converts his father, and where all the inhabitants become monastic; the foundation of a community of nuns in this city by Gautami, aunt of Shakya ; the conversion of Rahula, the son of Buddha; the donation by the courtesan Amrapali; finally, the wars which brought ruin to the father land of Shakya . On the other hand, there are in the Buddhist works abundant details about the death of Shakyamuni. When over eighty years of age, Buddha sets out for the town of Kusinagara, capital of the Malla tribe. Thence he goes to the village of Pava, where he eats a meal offered him by the blacksmith Cunda.


One of these groups of relics has recently been discovered [in 1908] in its reliquary of silver, which was the work of a Greek artist, and bears inscriptions. The precious casket was buried under a Stupa, raised by King Kanishka, near the city of Peshawar.

The date of Buddha's death was probably 477 BC.