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The Buddha Tree

    There was a small country in what is now southern Nepal that was ruled by a clan called the Shakyas. The head of this clan, and the king of this country, was named Shuddodana Gautama. 

    His wife, Mahamaya, was expecting her first born. In the small town of Lumbini, she asked her handmaidens to assist her to a nearby grove of trees for privacy, where she gave birth to a son. She named him Siddhartha, which means "he who has attained his goals." Sadly, Mahamaya died only seven days after the birth. After that Siddhartha was raised by his mother’s kind sister, Mahaprajapati. 
When it came time for him to marry, he won the hand of Yashodhara, and they married when both were 16 years old.

    Siddhartha was kept in one or another of their three palaces, and was prevented from experiencing much of what ordinary folk might consider quite commonplace. He was not permitted to see the elderly, the sickly, the dead, or anyone who had dedicated themselves to spiritual practices. Siddhartha grew increasing restless and curious about the world beyond the palace walls and he finally demanded that he be permitted to see his people and his lands. 

    The king carefully arranged that Siddhartha should not see the kind of suffering that he feared would lead him to a religious life. But, inevitably, he saw old people, sick people, and even death. He asked his friend and squire Chandaka the meaning of all these things, and Chandaka informed him of the simple truths that Siddhartha should have known all along: That all of us get old, sick, and eventually die. 

    Siddhartha also saw an ascetic, a monk who had renounced all the pleasures of the flesh. The peaceful look on the monks face would stay with Siddhartha for a long time to come. Later, he would say this about that time: 

    When ignorant people see someone who is old, they are disgusted and horrified, even though they too will be old some day. I thought to myself: I don’t want to be like the ignorant people. After that, I couldn’t feel the usual intoxication with youth anymore. 
When ignorant people see someone who is sick, they are disgusted and horrified, even though they too will be sick some day. I thought to myself: I don’t want to be like the ignorant people. After that, I couldn’t feel the usual intoxication with health anymore. 

    When ignorant people see someone who is dead, they are disgusted and horrified, even though they too will die some day. I thought to myself: I don’t want to be like the ignorant people. After that, I couldn’t feel the usual intoxication with life anymore.

    At the age of 29, Siddhartha came to realize that he could not be happy living as he had been. He wanted more than anything to discover how one might overcome suffering. After kissing his sleeping wife and newborn son Rahula goodbye, he snuck out of the palace and into the forests of northern India.

    He then began to practice the austerities and self-mortifications practiced by a group of five ascetics. For six years, he practiced. The sincerity and intensity of his practice were so astounding that, before long, the five ascetics became followers of Siddhartha. But the answers to his questions were not forthcoming. He redoubled his efforts, refusing food and water, until he was in a state of near death.

    For six years, he practiced the ascetic life, eating only what he found on the ground, drinking only rain water, wearing nothing but a loin cloth. When the answers he was seeking wouldn't come to him, he tried even harder. But Siddhartha realized that these extreme practices were leading him nowhere, that in fact it might be better to find some middle way between the extremes of the life of luxury and the life of self-mortification. 
Outside of the town of Bodh Gaya, Siddhartha decided that he would sit under a certain fig tree as long as it would take for the answers to the problem of suffering to come. He sat there for many days, first in deep concentration to clear his mind of all distractions, then in mindfulness meditation, opening himself up to the truth. On the full moon of May, with the rising of the morning star, Siddhartha finally understood the answer to the question of suffering and became the Buddha, which means “he who is awake.”

    At the deer park in Sarnath near Benares, about one hundred miles from Bodh Gaya, he preached his first sermon, which is called “setting the wheel of the teaching in motion.” In it, he explained to the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path. The king of Magadha, having heard Buddha’s words, granted him a monastery for use during the rainy season. This and other generous donations permitted the community of converts to continue their practice throughout the years, and gave many more people an opportunity to hear the teachings of the Buddha. 

    His aunt and wife asked to be permitted into the Sangha, or monastic community, which was originally composed only of men. The culture of the time ranked women far below men in importance, and at first it seemed that permitting women to enter the community would weaken it. But the Buddha relented, and his aunt and wife became the first Buddhist nuns. 

    The Buddha said that it didn’t matter what a person’s status in the world was, or what their background or wealth or nationality might be. All were capable of enlightenment, and all were welcome into the Sangha. The first ordained Buddhist monk, Upali, had been a barber, yet he was ranked higher than monks who had been kings, only because he had taken his vows earlier than they!

    Buddha had achieved his enlightenment at the age of 35. He would teach the Dharma (the way) throughout northeast India for another 45 years. When the Buddha was 80 years old, he ate some spoiled food and became very ill. He went into a deep meditation under a grove of sala trees and died. His last words were... 

Impermanent are all created things; 
Strive on with awareness.

    Soon after Buddha's death, five hundred monks met at the first council at Rajagrha, under the leadership of Kashyapa. Upali recited the monastic code (Vinaya) as he remembered it. Ananda, Buddha's cousin, friend, and favorite disciple -- and a man of prodigious memory! -- recited Buddha's lessons (the Sutras). The monks debated details and voted on final versions. These were then committed to memory by other monks, to be translated into the many languages of the Indian plains. It should be noted that Buddhism remained an oral tradition for over 200 years.

    In the next few centuries, the original unity of Buddhism began to fragment. The most significant split occurred after the second council, held at Vaishali 100 years after the first. After debates between a more liberal group and traditionalists, the liberal group left and labeled themselves the Mahasangha -- "the great sangha." They would eventually evolve into the Mahayana tradition of northern Asia. The traditionalists would become known as Theravada or "way of the elders," and be the tradition of Sri Lanka and most of southeast Asia.


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