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Siddattha Gotama (Siddhartha Gautama - Sanskrit) founded Buddhism and he was called the "Buddha", which means 'one who is awake', by his followers. He was not considered to be a God by those who followed him, and he did not claim to be a God. He was a human being who became enlightened, and gained understanding of life in the deepest way possible.


Siddattha was born into the royal family, the son of a chief (king or raja), of a small kingdom on the Indian Nepalese border. Siddattha was also known as Shakyamuni, which means 'wise man of the Shakya clan'. He lived in northern India, and spent most of his life teaching in the cities of the Ganges plain. He is recorded to have lived from 563 to 483 BCE, but some modern scholars have suggested that he might have lived about a century later. He was traditionally thought to have had a secluded upbringing, but was jolted out of his complacency on understanding that life includes the harsh facts of old age, sickness and death.


There is a tradition that, at his birth, a seer called Asita predicted that he would become either a great ruler or a religious teacher. Siddattha's father did not want him to become a religious teacher because he was expected to follow his father, and take his place as head of the family and as a local ruler. His father was anxious that he should rule, and was afraid that, if his son took an interest in spiritual matters and questions about the meaning of life, he would become too interested in religion. So he tried to keep all knowledge of what life was like for ordinary people from the boy, and kept him in the lavish surroundings of the palace complex.


In spite of his father's efforts to protect him from the realities of life, he saw four things while riding out with his charioteer, Channa, which changed his life. They have become known as the Four Sights, of which the first three are:


An old man

A sick person

A corpse


Then Siddattha saw:


A holy man


He learnt from the four sights that there are examples of suffering that no one can avoid. They are part of life. He realised that all the luxuries of his life could not protect him from old age, sickness and death. When he saw the sadhu, a man who devotes his life to the spiritual path, he decided that he, too, would leave home and become a sadhu in order to seek a cure for the world's suffering. Once he had seen the facts about life and the scope of human suffering, he felt compelled to do something about it.


He left his wife and child to follow the Indian path of the wandering holy man, a seeker of truth. Under various teachers he practiced meditation, and then asceticism. An ascetic is a sadhu who tries to achieve spiritual benefit from living very simply and from treating the body with the strictest discipline. Eventually his practices were so severe that he was close to death - but he did not gain true understanding yet.


He realised that the only way to become enlightened was to practice the Middle Way, which is between the two extremes of luxury and hardship. He abandoned his path and looked into his own heart and mind. He sat beneath the Bodhi Tree and vowed that he would not move from his spot until enlightenment had been achieved. Enlightenment means to be awake; it is a state of having developed the wisdom to see life as it really is. After 40 days, the Buddha finally attained enlightenment, at the age of 35. Siddattha became enlightened by sitting in meditation. At first he had to struggle with temptations to abandon his quest, which came in the form of a 'devil' figure called Mara and his daughters. Siddattha could not be called the Buddha before his enlightenment because Buddha means an enlightened human being. It is difficult to describe enlightenment because you will need to experience enlightenment yourself to understand it.


Buddhists believe that he attained a state of being that goes beyond anything else in the world. If normal experience is based on conditions - upbringing, psychology, opinions, perceptions, and so on - Enlightenment is unconditioned. It was a state in which the Buddha gained insight into the deepest workings of life and therefore into the cause of human suffering, the problem that had set him on his spiritual quest in the first place.


When Siddattha became enlightened and started to travel around preaching, he was seen as one of a large number of wandering preachers - the Brahmins (priests), or sadhus, who had a strong influence on the formal religion of the day. They were wandering, freelance religious teachers, each of whom would attract a number of followers, who would provide them with life's necessities, the lay Buddhists. A lay Buddhist is a householder who accepted the Buddha's teachings, but continued with their normal lives.


The Buddha lived for 80 years. The last 45 years of his life were spent traveling through much of northern India, spreading his teaching of the way to Enlightenment. The Buddha-dharma, as the teaching was known in the East was 'the teaching of the Enlightened One'. The Buddha traveled from place to place, teaching numerous disciples, many of whom gained enlightenment in their own right. They in turn taught others, an unbroken chain of teaching which has continued right to the present day.


When The Buddha died his remains were cremated, but his bones remained unburned. There was some dispute about who should have them, but eventually they were distributed among the various rulers of the northern Indian kingdoms, who built monuments - stupas - over them.


The Buddha was not a god and he did not claim to be one. He was a human being who, through tremendous efforts, transformed himself. Buddhists see him as an ideal and a guide who can lead one to Enlightenment oneself.


Some stories about the Buddha were made up because they were told for religious reasons, elaborated into myths, as it is usual with stories of great religious leaders. They express the devotion of his followers.


Buddhists are not concerned about the historical accuracy of stories about the Buddha because they were told for religious reasons, they have religious significance. Buddhists believe that enlightenment is the state of having developed the wisdom to see life as it really is, and as the Buddha attained this, it is not very important when he did this, only how. There is a belief amongst Buddhists that all people can become enlightened, and in order to do this they must study the Dhamma and practice meditation, not learn about dates. The significance of the Buddha for his followers means that some of the stories told may not all be historical fact. There is a possibility that something can be true without being historical.

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