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The Life of the Buddha

The Buddha triumphing over Mara, 900–1000

The Buddha triumphing over Mara, 900–1000. India; probably Kurkihar, Bihar state. Stone. The Avery Brundage Collection, B60S598.

The Buddha—that is, the “Enlightened One”—lived nearly 2500 years ago in northern India. His followers have always seen his life as a shining example to all, but what “really happened” is now impossible to know for certain. Even the earliest stories of his life include miraculous events that may seem hard to take literally. Later versions are even more elaborate, and they differ from one another in many details.

The outline of the story usually runs something like this: The Buddha-to-be had passed through hundreds of previous lives, perfecting himself with the eventual goal of achieving buddhahood and gaining release from the unhappy cycle of death and rebirth. He determined that he was finally ready for his last life and was born miraculously as the son of a king and queen. His father had been warned that the boy might someday abandon his royal destiny to follow a spiritual path, so he surrounded him with luxury and tried to shelter him from awareness of the world’s suffering.

When he was a teenager, however, the prince, sensing his own isolation, left the palace four times and saw three sad sights and one hopeful one: an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and then a wandering truth-seeker. The prince was deeply disillusioned with his artificially happy life. He left his home and family, threw off his royal finery, and set out to discover why people suffered so much and how suffering could be avoided. After long and intense self-searching he achieved a breakthrough into perfect understanding: the Enlightenment. He then spent many decades traveling from place to place preaching and performing miracles. Thanks to his Enlightenment he had freed himself from further rebirths and so on his death he passed into the condition of blissful peace known as nirvana.