Siddhartha Gautama

by Jim Eubanks

Most Buddhist traditions agree that Siddhartha Gautama was born to a wealthy king in Northern India.  A seer is said to have predicted that Siddhartha would become a great king, or a great spiritual leader.  In an attempt to cultivate the former, Siddhartha’s father ensured that all forms of suffering stayed out of his son’s life.  In his early adulthood, it is said that Siddhartha’s curiosity compelled him to climb his palace walls and discover the condition of average, everyday human beings.  His encounter with four realities, 1) a dead person, 2) a dying person, 3) a decrepit person and 4) an impoverished person shook Siddhartha to his core.  Having been ignorant to such realities, the question of human unsatisfactoriness and the pursuit of its alleviation preoccupied his adult life.  Siddhartha renounced his nobility and wealth, and set out on a course that would ultimately lead to answers.

The first step for Siddhartha was to learn as much as possible about his contemporaries’ answers to the problems associated with human unsatisfactoriness.  The Indian intellectual environment during this time encompassed the major schools of philosophy.  Included in this milieu were the traditionalists, rationalists, and empiricists.  On the extremes, there was strict materialism and the metaphysical beliefs of the Upanishadic tradition.  Strict materialism encompasses the belief that the material world is all that exists, and that the human psyche (mind; consciousness) does not.  The materialists, who asserted only what could be known through the senses and adhered to the philosophy of determinism, believed that:

1) there was no such thing as a “self” or “soul”;
2) that the laws governing the Universe and their consequences (karma) did not affect the human mind--they did not believe in the actual existence of consciousness, much like the modern philosopher Daniel Dennett; and
3) that there is no continuity after death, only annihilation. 

On the other end of the spectrum were the metaphysical theories contained in the Upanishadic tradition. Metaphysics means literally “beyond the physical,” and addresses ideas that cannot be proven through the senses.  The Upanishadic school asserted:

1) the existence of an individual soul;
2) the reality of human consciousness and karma; and
3) the continuity of one’s personality after death. 

Siddhartha committed himself to the intense study of the major schools of Indian thought in the traditional and accepted manner of his time: personal apprenticeship with verified Masters.

Though Siddhartha was verified to have mastered the various schools he studied, which included traditional yogic asceticism of the Upanishadic tradition as well as the analytical traditions, he rejected the teachings he received from these schools, citing their extreme orientations as profound limitations.  According to Siddhartha, extreme views were not only impractical, but they were not reflective of reality.  Extreme views are limited and offer narrow explanations of reality at the expense of the changing, dynamic whole.  Siddhartha’s study and mastery of the available traditions had not yet answer the only question that truly mattered: how do human beings alleviate persistent unsatisfactoriness in thisworld?

Siddhartha is said to have found solace by sitting in contemplation (reflective quietude) and meditation (awareness cultivation) under a Bodhi tree.  According to tradition, it was under the Bodhi tree where Siddhartha realized the source of human unsatisfactoriness and its alleviation.  While the traditions Siddhartha (who will now be referred to as “the Buddha”) studied focused primarily on a deeply personal enlightenment, his pursuit involved a question that was pertinent to all of humanity; the results of his insight under the Bodhi tree necessarily involved all of humanity.  As Buddhist scholar David E. Shaner has pointed out, enlightenment in the Buddhist tradition is necessarily a social question that involves not only oneself, but also the entire community of sentient beings.

After his enlightenment experience (“realization”), the Buddha spent the remainder of his life guiding others in what would come to be known as the Buddhist Path.