According to the Buddhist calendar, which is still used in many countries, including Laos, Buddha’s birth goes back 543 years before J.C. Historians are unanimous as to the real existence of a man, Gautama (also called Siddhârta or Sakyamuni) who dedicated his life to the research for a transcendence or superiority, repudiating spirits and Gods.
He even went as far as to go against the principles of destiny and of divine judgement. He wanted to put man’s body and soul in his own hands, at a time when, not only was there the impact of classes over men’s lives, but when he, because of his birth, could have benefited from all the advantages due to him by his blood.
Siddhârta was born in Kapilavastu (or Lumbini, as it is now thought, see the article about his birth), to the north of what is now called Benares (town situated in the north of India, on the Indian side of the Himalayas), in the realm of Maghada where Brahmanism or Hinduism was predominant.
Fantastic legends surround the birth of the child who received the name of Siddhârta, or "He Who Reached His Goal". Born to a Raja family of the Sakya clan, he passed a particularly quiet and peaceful childhood and was destined to follow his father. Even though he was pampered and over protected, as much by his mother (Maya) as by his father (Suddhodana), Siddhârta wasn’t happy, and as he grew up he felt a great anguish for the fragility of life, bitterness for everything that died.
At the age of 17, he married his young and very pretty cousin Yashodara, daughter of the Prince of a neighbouring country. At that time, the future Buddha discovered the 4 plagues of man (apparently during 4 walks around the palace) : illness, old age, death and poverty. The main idea of Buddhism ; "find a way to leave human sufferance behind" came to mind and never left him.
Siddhârta was 29 years old, and his wife had just given him a son, Rahula. Was it this birth, that brought him the confirmation, that this was a new "chain" holding him to this existence, woven with sufferance and death, that he so much wanted to end? He decided to leave and wandered the valley of the Ganges for 7 years, meeting several Masters, and disciplining himself to practice Samadhi (meditation).
His reputation of wisdom and his rigorous self-mortification caused 5 disciples to follow him like a Master. This is how, he who was now being called Sakyamuni, or "the Silent Monk of Sakya", continued on his way, listening a lot, torturing his body with inhuman abstinence, sleeping on thorns, fasting to extreme limits, trying all the tortures of himself that were possible so as to be no more than a spirit looking for total concentration, delivered from human uncertainty.
It was at that time, when he was broken by his forced diet, exhausted and with no strength left, that he suddenly realised that, this was not the path to deliverance. No more than was the luxurious life that he had led at the palace. A life of instability and terrible abstinence was not satisfactory. So came the first revelation, the well-known "Middle Path".
Siddhârta acknowledged that excessive privations were taking him nowhere and realised that he had to satisfy his elementary needs. He started to eat again, sparingly… losing the aura that he’d had with his disciples, who immediately deserted him. Siddhârta was now alone, forlorn … a temptation (by the demon Mara, who sent girls to seduce Buddha) was then put before him under the Bodhi tree, a temptation that he overcame. An awakening occurred, giving way to 7 days of ecstasy according to tradition; Sakyamuni then discovered the 4 truths.
He then left for Varanasi (Benares), where he pronounced his first sermon called "The Wheel of Dharma” to the original 5 disciples who had abandoned him . He gave them their first ordination : the first community of Buddhist monks is formed, the Sangha. As from then, the one they called "The Supreme Buddha" never stopped travelling through Asia, simply dressed with a yellow robe, shaven headed, begging for his bowl of rice, sleeping out in the open or under potter’s sheds during the rain season …
Buddha quickly had a following of numerous supporters, rich and poor, simple peasants, social outcasts and Kings. In his community, strict equality prevailed, the only recognized authority being seniority, castes didn’t exist anymore. Sakyamuni was proposing a complete revolution … There were even women’s monasteries created at that time, which in those days was unthinkable.
During 40 years of travelling which took him from the foothills of the Himalayas to the banks of the Ganges River, Buddha came across numerous hostile religious sects, but, it is said, he remained the same to them all, whether they be friends or foes, he had no enemies … He came across a traitor in the person of his cousin Devatta who dreamt of taking his place at the head of the community and who tried several times to assassinate him. He also had to support the almost complete disappearance of his family. The Sakya clan was completely wiped out because Bimbisara’s son, who had his father assassinated so as to take his place, wanted to appease a personal vengeance and to do so, massacred the whole family, sparing neither women nor children.
The hour of death is coming nearer. For the last time he goes travelling. The stages are short because the Master is tired. He is surrounded by numerous disciples, one of which is the faithful Ananda. He crossed the Ganges, where later the town of Pataliputra (nowadays known as Patna) was built, and went on to Vanugrama where he nearly died, struck down by an attack of dysentery, to finally stop on the road to Kusinagara.
He was worn out. He lay down on his right side, his head pointing towards the North and his face turned towards the West. This is where he pronounced his last words : to a priest of another sect who insisted on seeing him. This priest was ordained (in spite of the 4 month rigorous period of initiation and training, that the Master insisted be done). This is a typical example of the task of interpreting the rules and the act of mind over matter, relying on man’s qualities …. Then he went into meditation and passed from a trance to release.
He died at the age of 80, approximately 480 years before our era. According to Sanskrit tradition, this happened during the full moon in the month of Kârttika (November), or the month of Vaisâkha (April-May) like the Birth and the Awakening, according to the Pali tradition. His body was burnt, according to custom, and he was given royal honours.