The story of the Buddha’s life, like all of Buddhism, is a story about confronting suffering.
He was born between the sixth and fourth century B.C., the son of a wealthy king in the Himalayan
foothills of Nepal.
It was prophesied that the young Buddha — then called Siddhartha Gautama — would either
become the emperor of India or a very holy man.
Since Siddhartha’s father desperately wanted him to become the former, he kept the child
isolated in a palace.
Young Gautama had every imaginable luxury: jewels, servants, lotus ponds,
even beautiful dancing women.
For 29 years, Gautama lived in bliss, protected from the smallest misfortunes of the outside world
But then, he left the palace for short excursions.
What he saw amazed him: first he met a sick man, then an aging man, and then a dying man.
show these kind of people in India—add them to the same image one by one
He was astounded to discover that these unfortunate people represented normal—indeed, inevitable—parts
of the human condition that would one day touch him, too.
Horrified and fascinated, Gautama made a fourth trip outside the palace walls—and encountered
a holy man, who had learned to seek spiritual life in the midst of the vastness of human suffering.
Inspired by the holy man, Gautama left the palace for good.
He tried to learn from other holy men.
He almost starved himself to death by avoiding all physical comforts and pleasures, as they did.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, it did not bring him solace from suffering.
Then he thought of a moment when he was a small boy: sitting by the river, he’d noticed
that when the grass was cut, the insects and their eggs were
trampled and destroyed.
As a child, he’d felt a deep compassion for the tiny insects.
Reflecting on his childhood compassion,
Gautama felt a profound sense of peace. He ate, meditated, and finally reached
the highest state of enlightenment:
It refers to the “blowing out” of the flames of desire.
With this, Gautama had become the Buddha, “the awakened one”.
The Buddha awoke by recognising that all of creation, from distraught ants to dying human beings,
is unified by suffering.
Recognising this, the Buddha discovered how to best approach suffering.
First, one shouldn’t bathe in luxury,
nor abstain from food and comforts altogether.
Instead, one ought to live in moderation .
The Buddha called this
the middle way
This allows for maximal concentration on cultivating compassion for others and seeking enlightenment
Next, the Buddha described a path to transcending suffering called
The four noble truths
The first noble truth is the realisation that first prompted the Buddha’s journey:
that there is suffering and constant dissatisfaction in the world.
The second is that this suffering is caused by our desires.
As the Buddha said,
“attachment is the root of all suffering.”
The third truth is that we can transcend suffering by removing or managing these desires.
The Buddha thus made the remarkable claim that we must change our outlook, not our circumstances.
We are unhappy not because we don’t have enough money, love or status but because we
are greedy, vain, and insecure. By re-orienting our mind we can grow to be content.
The people become happier—superimpose smiles or use a second image of their face
With the correct behaviour and what we now term a mindful attitude, we can also become
better people. We can invert negative emotions and states of mind, turning ignorance into
wisdom, anger into compassion, and greed into generosity.
The fourth and final noble truth the Buddha uncovered
is that we can learn to move beyond suffering through what he termed
the noble eightfold path.
The eightfold path involves a series of aspects of behaving “right” and wisely:
right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness,
and right concentration.
What strikes the western observer is the notion that wisdom is a habit, not merely an intellectual
realisation. One must exercise one’s nobler impulses on a regular basis, as one would
train a limb. The moment of understanding is only one part of becoming a better person.
After his death, The Buddha’s followers collected his “sutras” (sermons or sayings)
into scripture, and developed texts to guide followers in meditation, ethics,
and mindful living.
The monasteries that had developed during the Buddha’s lifetime grew and multiplied,
throughout China and East Asia.
For a time, Buddhism was particularly uncommon in India itself, and only a few quiet groups
of yellow-clad monks and nuns roamed the countryside, meditating quietly in nature.
But then, in the 3rd century B.C., an Indian king named Ashoka grew troubled by the wars
he had fought and converted to Buddhism.
He sent monks and nuns far and wide to spread the practice.
Buddhist spiritual tradition spread across Asia and eventually throughout the world.
Buddha’s followers divided into two main schools:
Theravada Buddhism which colonised Southeast Asia, and
Mahayana Buddhism which took hold in China and Northeast Asia.
Today, there are between a half and one and a half billion Buddhists in both East and West
following the Buddha’s teachings and seeking a more enlightened and compassionate
state of mind.
Intriguingly, the Buddha’s teachings are important regardless of our spiritual identification.
Like the Buddha, we are all born into the world not realising how much suffering it
contains, and unable to fully comprehend that misfortune, sickness, and death
will come to us too.
As we grow older, this reality often feels overwhelming,
and we may seek to avoid it altogether.
But the Buddha’s teachings remind us of the importance of facing suffering directly.
We must do our best to liberate ourselves from the grip of our own desires,
and recognise that suffering can be viewed as part of our common connection with others,
spurring us to compassion and gentleness.