Siddhartha Gautama was born in approximately 567BC in the kingdom of Kapilvastu (now Lumbini), Nepal, the son of a very wealthy king.
At his birth a seer predicted that Siddhartha would either become a great king or a great religious leader.
Because of this prediction, his father sheltered and protected him by confining him to the palace throughout his entire childhood preferring that he become a great king. If he was allowed to leave the palace, it would be more likely that he would become a great religious leader.
For 29 years, Gautama lived a life of luxury and comfort as he was protected from the challenges and adversities of the outside world: "a white sunshade was held over me day and night to protect me from cold, heat, dust, dirt and dew."
Eventually, at 30 years of age Gautama was permitted occasional outings outside the palace. When he ventured out what he saw astonished him. He saw sickness, suffering and death – in other words, the human condition. He inevitably realized that he too would utimately encounter such conditions.
During a fourth excursion outside the palace walls, Gautama came across a holy man who, he discovered, was able to live a spiritual and meaningful life in spite of the difficulty and suffering surrounding him. Resolving to find the same peace and enlightenment, Gautama left the palace, never to look back to his previous life.During his self-imposed exile, Gautama aspired to learn from other holy men. At one point, while avoiding all physical comforts and pleasures, he nearly starved himself to death. To his dismay, this approach did not bring him comfort from the suffering he encountered. He then reflected upon the time he was a small boy and had observed how insects and their eggs were trampled and destroyed when the grass they inhabited was freshly cut. He remembered the profound empathy and compassion he felt for their loss.
This memory of his childhood compassion provided Gautama with an unexpected sense of peace which, in turn, prompted him to meditate at length until he reached what is considered the highest state of enlightenment known as "nirvana", or awakening. Consequently, he became the Buddha, the "awakened one."
Upon awakening from this meditation the Buddha recognized that all creation, from a small insect to the dying human being, is unified by suffering. From this revelation, he discovered how to best deal with suffering. First of all, one should not indulge in luxury, nor should one abstain from food and comfort completely. Alternatively, one should strive to live in moderation or "the middle" way as he suggested. (Note the similarity to Aristotle's philosophy). This allows for maximal concentration to both cultivate compassion for others as well as seek enlightenment. He then delineated a path for transcending suffering which he called the four noble truths:
These four truths, as well as representing the awakening and liberation of the Buddha, likewise, provide the possibility of liberation for all conscious beings. They demonstrate how release from cravings and attachment can be achieved.
By seeking these modes of behavior and awareness, the Buddha taught that one could transcend various aspects of negative individualism such as pride, anxiety, unhappiness and the like, and consequently gain compassion for all other suffering living beings. By cultivating a mindful attitude one could convert negative emotions and states of mind such as ignorance, anger and greed into positive and productive ones such as wisdom, compassion and generosity.
During the last 45 years of his life Gautama travelled extensively throughout India teaching the tenets of meditation and ethical behavior. His teachings are known as the 'Buddha-dharma' or 'teachings of the Enlightened One.'
The importance of the teachings lies in the realization that we are all born into life unaware of the suffering, sickness and death that is imminent. As we mature and encounter this reality, we become overwhelmed and seek to avoid it completely; however, Buddha's teachings seek to stress the importance of confronting suffering directly. We must recognize it as our genuine connection to others and allow it to arouse in us kindness and compassion.
The Buddha, throughout his travels gained many disciples and reached people from all walks of life. He was not a god, nor did he ever make a claim to divinity. He was a human being who, through meditation and great personal effort, attained Enlightenment. He likewise affirmed the same potential and ability of every other human being to attain it as well.
The religion of Buddhism started with the Buddha. Buddha means "one who is awake - one who has woken up to reality". Ultimately, the Buddha was an ordinary human being who became enlightened. He came to understand life in the most meaningful and profound way.