Updated: Dec 14, 2022
The historical Buddha was a prince named Siddhartha Gautama who lived some 2,600 years ago in what is today northern India and Nepal. He was born into a warrior clan known as the Shakya, which is why he is often called Shakyamuni, “Sage of the Shakyas.”
According to legend, shortly after Siddhartha’s birth, a wise man prophesied that the child would grow up to be either a powerful king or a great spiritual leader. His father, the king, did everything in his power to ensure that his son and heir would have no reason to pursue religious life, showering him with every privilege and luxury and sheltering him from the harsh realities of the world outside the palace.
At the age of 29, dissatisfied with palace life, the prince ventured beyond the palace walls on a journey that would change the course of his life. On the first trip, he saw a sick man; on the second, an old man; and on the third, a corpse. These were his first encounters with life’s inevitable suffering, and he was devastated. Then, on a fourth trip, Siddhartha saw a mendicant spiritual seeker and had a revelation: there might be a way out of suffering, and the possibility seemed to lie in the religious life.
Soon thereafter Siddhartha left the palace to seek the end of suffering. He studied with two renowned spiritual teachers and then embarked on a journey with five companions, meditating and taking up severe ascetic practices, such as prolonged fasting, that nearly killed him.
Ultimately, he had another realization: the way out of samsara—the cycle of birth, suffering, and death—lay neither in indulgence—his palace life—nor in extreme physical denial—his spiritual life thus far. There was a “middle way” to end suffering, through training the mind. He resolved to meditate under a ficus tree (now known as the Bodhi tree), in a town called Bodhgaya, until he had discovered the answer to his quest.
After 49 days, he had a series of insights into the nature of reality, and he became enlightened. For the next 45 years, until his death, he was known as the Buddha (“the Awakened One”), and taught the path to liberation that he had realized.