Buddhist History - The Buddha
Photo is of Buddha statue at a temple outside the main bot in Nakhon Si Thammarat, southern Thailand. Buddha is almost always represented in gold color.
This is a history of Siddhartha Gotama, also known as “The Buddha”. He was the first person to reach nirvana, or enlightenment - which means, he freed himself from the bonds of the mind. He showed us that freedom in our own lives is also possible…
Birth of a Buddha
The exact birth date of the infant who was to grow up and become the Buddha is disputed, but it is believed to have been around 563 BC. He was born with the name Siddhartha Gotama in a place called Lumpini and grew up in a town called Kapilavastu – both of these locations are now part of Nepal. His father was King Suddhodana who ruled the small kingdom of Sakyas and so Siddhartha enjoyed the privilege upbringing of a prince. His mother died soon after his birth, but his aunt took over many of the responsibilities of bringing him up.
As was the custom in those days, the Buddha’s father sought predictions about his newborn son’s future. What he heard both delighted and worried him – one prediction saw Siddhartha growing up to become a mighty ruler while the other saw him becoming a saint. King Suddhodana was determined that the former prediction would prove to be the one that would become true. In order to make this happen, he decided to protect Siddhartha from any influences that might draw him to the spiritual side of life. In practice this meant pampering the prince with great luxury and ensuring that his every whim was catered to. Siddhartha was protected from the darker side of life - so in many ways he was quite naïve in the ways of the world. He grew up to be a fine warrior and leader. When he reached an appropriate age, he married and had a son.
Dissatisfaction with Life as a Prince
The life that the King planned for his son Siddhartha seemed to be working out as planned but the man who was to become Buddha began to experience an inner sense of dissatisfaction. Despite all the great luxury that was around him, it still felt as if something was missing. Siddhartha had grown up in such a protected environment that he had never even seen what life was like outside his father’s palaces. One day his curiosity of the outside world became overbearing, so much so that he risked the displeasure of the king and went outside. During this outing he witnessed three events that would change his life forever:
- an old person
- a sick person
- a dead body
Siddhartha had been protected from the knowledge that such suffering existed - so the discovery impacted him greatly. He also saw one more sight that day that helped to shape his future – a wandering monk who despite being poor, looked content.
The realization that his own body would one day become old, experience sickness, and eventually die, changed everything for Siddhartha. His world looked different now that he understood how impermanent it all was. It affected him so deeply that within days he had abandoned the palace, his father, and his wife and son. He decided to venture forth into the world until he was able to discover for himself the nature of suffering and how it could be overcome. He would follow the example of the monk he had seen who appeared to be content despite all the suffering in the world.
Living the Life of the Ascetic
Siddhartha devoted himself completely to the spiritual life. He took to the forests and turned his back on all luxuries and pampering. He went in search of a teacher who would be able to answer his questions, but he would always end up feeling dissatisfied after these encounters. He would diligently work to master each teaching he came across, but they just never seemed to fully answer his questions about suffering. This led Siddhartha to suspect that these holy people were only offering comfort and not the full truth. He then gave up on his search for a suitable teacher and decided that the answers could be found through strict ascetic practices. He soon developed a reputation for the lengths he was prepared to go in search of the answers he was seeking. He would do things like only eating one grain of rice per day, or holding his breath for extremely long periods. The monk Siddhartha was soon joined by likeminded spiritual seekers who saw his extreme ascetic practices as the correct path to enlightenment. Even today, in whatever religion we’re talking about – we see people that go to the extremes as being more correct than those that are not as dedicated to practice – don’t we?
Finding the Middle Way
Siddhartha was on the verge of death when he developed one of his most important insights – the one that would lead him to his groundbreaking understanding of the world. He realized that his strict ascetic practices had brought him no closer to the answer of suffering than his previous luxurious lifestyle. This realization caused him to despair greatly until he remembered an incident from his own childhood. There had been a time during those early when he had briefly touched something deeply spiritual while sitting quietly under a rose tree. At that time he wasn’t striving to achieve anything – it had just happened. The image of a stringed instrument entered the Siddhartha’s mind. He remembered how a string that was wound too tightly would break, but if it was too loose it wouldn’t make a pleasant sound either. He realized, a stringed instrument worked best when it wasn’t tuned too tightly or left too loose. This led him to wonder if the same might be true of enlightenment – if the middle way between excessive luxury and strict asceticism might be the better approach to take.
The title ‘Buddha’ means ‘awakened’ and Siddhartha’s discovery of the middle way allowed him to achieve this state, also called nirvana, nibbana, and enlightenment. Buddha made the decision to quit his ascetic practices and begin eating again. His followers saw this as a betrayal and decided to abandon him. After all, he was going against everything they were following him for in the first place.
Siddhartha was left alone. Eating as he wished, he regained his health enough so that he could once again meditate comfortably. Siddhartha is said to have become enlightened over the course of one night. He sat down under a large fig tree (the type is now known as the Bodhi tree) and made a pledge that he would not get up again until he had found he answers he was looking for. During this sitting he reached great understandings and saw all his past lives – by the time the morning came he had become what some say is the most important teacher the world has ever known - the Buddha.
Buddha as a Teacher
Initially after becoming enlightened Buddha wasn’t sure if he wanted to share his discoveries. He worried that his realization of the truth would be too difficult for other people to understand. For a few weeks he remained alone and just enjoyed his awakened state. Then the Buddha remembered his friends who had stayed with him during his time of renunciation. He decided that they might be willing to listen and capable of understanding his discoveries.
When the Buddha first arrived back among his old friends, they tried to ignore him. They were intrigued though, by his behavior and how he looked. He radiated peace. It was obvious that he must have made some significant breakthrough. They agreed to listen to what he had to say, and thus began the Buddha’s life as a teacher. The teaching he gave that day became known as the ‘Turning of the Wheel of Truth’ (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta) and it formed the basis for the rest of his teachings.
First Teaching of the Buddha
The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta set forth the basic teachings of the Buddha. It included the discoveries he made about the causes of suffering and how to escape from them. At the heart of this teaching are the 4 Noble Truths:
- There is suffering
- Suffering exists because of craving
- There exists a way to end suffering
- The Eightfold Path is the way to end suffering
This Eightfold path consists of:
- Right understanding
- Right intention
- Right action
- Right speech
- Right livelihood
- Right concentration
- Right mindfulness
- Right effort
The Buddha shared three other important realizations about reality:
- Everything (with the exception of Nirvana) is impermanent
- The ‘self’ that people cling onto does not really exist
- People suffer because they do not fully grasp the above two conditions
By the time the Buddha had completed that first teaching, all his friends had achieved enlightenment. They joined him in an effort to spread his discoveries. The Buddha devoted the next 45 years of his life to this effort.
Death of the Buddha
The Buddha died in a place called Kushinara (India) when he was 80 years old. He is said to have eaten some poisoned food. It is believed that the Buddha could have saved his own life, but he felt that he had already done enough to spread his teachings. This was to be his last life and at his death he transitioned into parinirvana (full nirvana). Many Buddhists believe that Buddha Relics are important, and most major temples have some. Click the next green link for photos and information about Buddha relics.
Legacy of the Buddha
The Buddha was able to spread his teachings far and wide in northern India during his lifetime, but in the 2,500 years since then, Buddhism has become a very important religion worldwide. As Buddhism flowed into different countries, it soaked up local culture and traditions. This has led to the rise of the different forms of Buddhism such as Theravada, Mahayana, Zen, and Tibetan. The vast majority of humans on the planet will have at least some awareness of what he taught – even though the Buddha himself once predicted that his teachings would only last 500 years. The legacy he left behind changed the world, and the ramifications of what he discovered are still being felt.
Theravada Buddhists from Southern Thailand give donations in bowls at Wat Mahathat, amid a long row of gold Buddha statues.
For the first few hundred years after the Buddha’s death, his teachings were transmitted orally. It is believed that they were first written down in the Pali language. Over time his followers divided into separate groups and each of these then emphasized different aspects of the teachings. For the sake of simplicity it is possible to divide these groups into two Mahayana (larger vehicle) and Hinayana (lesser vehicle). The main difference between the two is that Mahayana is focused on trying to save the whole of humanity while Hinayana is more concerned with personal salvation. The term Theravada (teaching of the elders) is often preferred over Hinayana which could be viewed as a pejorative. It is important to realize that there is no real animosity between these two forms of Buddhism, and there has never been any bloodshed because of the split.
The teachings of Mahayana Buddhism tend to be in another ancient Indian language called Sanskrit. The Pali Cannon arguably contains the teachings that are closest to what the Buddha actually said because they are older. It would take many years to read all the texts attributed to the Buddha (many of them have still not been translated into English) and likely many more lifetimes to understand them.
Understanding of Buddha’s message appears to come not through the usual method of learning, but through breakthroughs that become apparent after a period of time struggling with something that doesn’t appear to make common sense. Buddha’s message, because it was so far beyond our normal understanding, often goes unnoticed, not comprehended – by most. If you’ve ever watched Bruce Lee’s movie where he smacks his student on the head and says something to the effect of, “It is like a finger, pointing to the moon…” Smack! “Don’t concentrate on the finger, or you will miss all of the heavenly glory!” It is something like this. Words are the only communication tool Buddha had to express what had happened and how his followers could find it for themselves. They could not find the answers by focusing on the words… only what is behind the words.
Buddhism in Thailand
One of the countries where Buddhism has had a profound impact is Thailand. It is commonly accepted that 95% of the local population is Theravada Buddhist. It is not sure exactly when Buddhism arrived in Thailand but it has been here since at least the 13th Century. At one time there were many forms of Buddhism in Thailand, but in the 19th Century attempts were made to unify and bring all monks in line with the Pali scriptures. Much of this work was led by King Mongkut (Rama IV) who had spent time as a monk and devoted a great deal of his life to studying the Buddhist scriptures.
Amulets to Commemorate the Life of the Buddha
In Thailand the Buddha is commemorated in many ways but one of the most interesting is in the form of amulets of many shapes, sizes and materials. These amulets are not only worn out of respect for this great teacher, but they are also believed to offer special protection and even special powers to those that choose to wear them. Most Buddhists in Thailand wear Buddha amulets and then some also wear revered monk amulets.
Some of the most popular amulets depicting the Buddha’s life include:
Sothorn Buddha amulets are meant to signify the three aspects of Buddhism – or, the Triple Gem - the Buddha, his teachings (Dhamma), and his followers (Sangha). They are made from copper, gold, silver, bronze, and many other materials and are created by monks at temples all over Thailand, but they originated at Wat Chao Chaengso near Bangkok. These amulets are said to help the wearer enjoy more luck in their life, and it also helps to keep them safe.
See our Sothorn Buddha amulets here ->
Jinarat (Chinnarat) style amulets were originally created by monks in Sukothai, but they have now spread to other parts of the country, as all amulet styles eventually do. Jinarat Buddhas depict Buddha with a flaming halo around the outside of his body and is a reminder of the time that he had to face and overcome the devil Mara. Those who wear the Jinarat amulet are reminded of just how much the Buddha had to go through in order to achieve his enlightenment. It is said that the Jinarat Buddha is the most beautiful, awe-inspiring Buddha image to ever be created. We have a number of Jinarat (also called Chinnarat) Buddha amulets here on this site, and they are very popular among customers.
See our Jinarat Buddha amulets here ->
4 Headed Buddha Amulets are desirable because perhaps in part because they are so unusual. They depict the Buddha with four faces on one head – one pointing at each of the compass points north, south, east, and west. Some may view this as a reminder that his teaching spread in every direction or that when he became enlightened he could fully see the world for the first time.
The Som Dej Buddha amulets are among the most popular in Thailand. Perhaps the most popular Buddha amulet ever. They can be made from different materials including real jade. There are many styles of this amulet available in Thailand and some collectors will only focus on these pieces. The cost of Som Dej Buddha amulets can vary a great deal – some of them can be astronomically expensive – some have sold for over $1,000,000 USD. The genuine Som Dej amulets in good condition start at a couple of thousand dollars, so if you see someone representing their Som Dej amulets as genuine – they won’t be selling them for less than that.
See some of our Som Dej Buddha amulets here ->
Jatukam (Jatukum) Amulets refer to Jatukam Ramathep and come in various styles and they are much prized in Thailand because they are believed to provide the wearer with special powers and protection. The original amulets were inspired by two Thai princes who had been charged with protecting important Buddhist relics brought back from Sri Lanka. The home of Jatukam amulets is a large Buddhist temple located in the province and town center, Nakhon si Thammarat in southern Thailand. We have many original Jatukam amulets from this temple, and have made it a focus of our collecting activities. We have amulets that the temple doesn’t even have any more.
There are Jatukam style amulets with images of Buddha on them, which we sell at our Jatukam page.
See our Jatukam amulets page here ->
Below we have history about some important Buddhist figures and concepts.
Click one to see more: