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Founder of Buddhism who lived approximately 563-483 BCE. The Buddha was born Siddhartha Gautama (Sanskrit form, or Siddhatta Gotama, Prakrit form). He is also commonly known as Sakyamuni (The sage of the Sakya clan) and the Tathagata (untranslatable: roughly, "The thus-come one" or "The thus-gone one", and emphasizing the nature of a Buddha to go about in the world without "adding" or "subtracting" anything from his experience.)

Biographical sketch

Accounts of his life were passed down by oral tradition and first written a few hundred years after his death. The Buddhist scriptures do contain accounts of metaphysics and magic in the Buddha's life. Some, such as calming an angry elephant his enemies had released to kill him, may be acceptable to materialist readers. Others, such as his conversations with gods or instantaneous teleportation to Sri Lanka, may not. Stripped of these metaphysical or magical aspects a sketch of his life runs thusly:

He was born into the kshatriya caste of warrior/aristocrats -- the nobles in the Iliad and Odyssey are probably similar. (The Indian caste system was also probably somewhat more informal at this time than it later became). He was the heir to the position of "prince" ("village chieftain" may be more accurate) of the Sakya clan's village of Kapilavatthu or Kapilivastu in the foothills of the Himalayas in what is now Nepal.

At age 29, having became increasingly dissatisfied with the contrast between a life of aristocratic luxury and the suffering he observed endemic in all people, he abandoned his inheritance and palace and began living an ascetic life, training with ascetic philosophers, and practicing austere meditative practices. After six years he found that the severe practices did not lead to greater understanding, abandoned them and concentrated on meditation and the "middle way" (a practise of non-extremism), and soon afterwards claimed he had realized complete awakening/enlightenment into the nature and cause of human suffering and the steps necessary to eliminate it. That enlightenment is called a state of "Bodhi," and hence the name "Buddha," or "enlightened one."

The Buddha emphasized that he was not a god nor the messenger of a god and that Enlightenment was not the result of a supernatural process or agency, but rather the result of a close attention to the nature of the human mind which could be rediscovered by anyone for themselves.

For the remaining 45 years of his life he traveled the "Gangetic Plain" of central India (region of the Ganges/Ganga river and its tributaries), teaching his system to an extremely diverse range of people, from nobles to street sweepers, and including many adherants of rival philosophies and religions. He founded the community of Buddhist monks and nuns (the Sangha) to continue the teachings after his death (considered to be the paranirvana or complete ending of the Buddha).

After intermittent illness, the Buddha died at Kusinara (now Kusinagar, India) at the age of 80. His last meal was sukara-maddava which he had received as an offering from a smith. The correct translation of this term is unknown; sukara means "pig", maddava apparently means something like "delicacy". Sukara-maddava may mean "tender pork" or "mushrooms or tubers enjoyed by pigs". Vegetarianism is for Buddhists an ideal rather than a mandate, and monks and nuns in particular are enjoined to accept all offerings of food made to them (unless they know an animal has been killed especially to feed them). The Buddha's last words were: "All things which are made of parts eventually come apart. Be mindful, and achieve Enlightenment!"

Personality and character

The Buddha as presented in the Buddhist scriptures is notable for such characteristics as:

  • Both a comprehensive education and training in those fields appropriate to a warrior aristocrat, such as martial arts, agricultural management, and literature, and also a deep understanding of the religious and philosophical ideas of his culture.
  • Unlike the popular Western idea of the fat "jolly Buddha", was reported to have been athletic and fit throughout his life, competent in martial arts such as chariot combat, wrestling, and archery, and later easily hiking miles each day and camping in the wilderness.
  • A superb teacher, with a fine grasp of the appropriate metaphor, and tailoring his rhetoric to the audience at hand.
  • Fearless and unworried at all times, whether dealing with religious debate, a patricidal prince, or a murderous outlaw. He was not, however, past exasperation when monks of his order misrepresented his teachings.
  • Completely temperate in all bodily appetites. Lived a completely celibate life from age 29 until his death. Indifferent to hunger and environmental conditions.

Other uses of the term "Buddha"

Since the word "Buddha" means "Enlightened-" or "Awakened Person", it may be applied to anyone of such status. The Mahayana schools of Buddhism in particular may refer to many Buddhas and Bodhisattvas (Enlightened beings who have postponed Nirvana in order to assist others).

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