Thailand - Ayuthaya 5 - Buddha headAn image of the Buddha is carved into a banyan tree at Wat Mahathat in Thailand. (photo: McKay Savage/Flickr, cc by 2.0)

The name Buddha means “awakened one.” This is the story of how a young man became the Buddha. As with all ancient tales, we can’t know what is to be taken literally and what is to be taken metaphorically. It doesn’t matter to me. I’m inspired by his story either way.

The Buddha was born a prince in a small kingdom in northern India. His name was Siddhartha Gautama. His father, the king, indulged his son’s desires and protected him from being exposed to human suffering. The king posted guards at the palace gates to keep Siddhartha from seeing how less fortunate people lived. He even had attendants hold a parasol over his son so he wouldn’t experience heat or cold or dust. Everything unpleasant about life was hidden from him.

When Siddhartha was nine years old, his father took him to a plowing festival. At one point, the nurses left the prince unattended under a rose-apple tree. In striking contrast to the noise of the festival, it was calm and quiet under the tree. Siddhartha sat cross-legged and became aware of the sensation of his breath going in and out of his body. It was his first experience of true calm and peacefulness. Soon his nurses returned and broke this peaceful abiding, but the experience had a profound effect on the young prince.

One day, when Siddhartha was a young man, he talked his attendant, Channa, into taking him beyond the walls of the palace. For the first time, Siddhartha was exposed to life as the rest of us experience it.

As the story goes, when he saw an old person with shriveled skin, bent over and leaning on a walking staff, he asked Channa what was wrong with him. Channa replied, “He’s old. Everyone who lives for a long time gets old and looks like that.”

When Siddhartha saw a person who was delirious with fever and whose skin was covered with blotches, he asked Channa what was wrong with him. Channa replied, “He is sick. Everyone is subject to disease.”

When Siddhartha saw a corpse on the side of the road, he asked Channa what was wrong with him. Channa replied, “He’s dead. We all die, sweet prince.”

Then Siddhartha saw a man seated cross-legged under a tree, looking calm and peaceful. He asked Channa, “What sort of man is this?” Channa replied, “He is a homeless wanderer in search of truth.”

Siddhartha was shaken to the core by this first glimpse of human suffering and by the man he’d seen under the tree. He felt called to leave his life of luxury and become a wanderer himself. He sought the answer to three questions: Why did people suffer, could one find freedom from it, and if so, how?

Siddhartha’s renunciation is unparalleled in history. At 29, he was a prince in the prime of his life — a life of power, privilege, and wealth. But he gave it all up. He traded his opulent clothes for a robe made of scraps of material found lying around. He ate only what was given to him. He slept under a tree for shelter.

He sought out spiritual teachers and undertook many different practices. He found that he could easily attain transcendent states of mind, but they always passed, leaving him with his three unanswered questions. At one point, he became an ascetic, starving himself in an attempt to gain spiritual awakening. This extreme didn’t bring him any closer to understanding the cause of suffering and to the freedom that he sought than had the other extreme of a life of luxury and sensual pleasure at his father’s palace.

So, Siddhartha decided to go off by himself. Recalling his experience as a child under the rose-apple tree, he accepted some much-needed food from a young girl and then sat down under a Banyan tree, vowing not to get up until he knew the answer to his questions.

As he sat, he was assailed by mental suffering in all the forms that are so familiar to each of us—the painful mind states of greed, ill-will, confusion, and their cousins: temptation, fear, and doubt. He just sat. After seven days, he had his great insight, which people have been speculating about for 2,500 years and which I describe here based on my understanding of his teachings.

He saw that everything arises due to causes and conditions, and that everything is subject to dissolution — both the physical body and mind states of all varieties. When he saw that painful mind states arise as the result of causes and conditions and are impermanent (as opposed to being a fixed part of his personality), they lost their power over him. He realized that he need not cling to them. He could just sit in their presence, without identifying with them and let them pass away on their own.

In this stillness, he at last found the peace and contentment he’d been looking for. He became the Buddha — the awakened one — seeing clearly these things:

  1. the presence of suffering in this life;
  2. the cause of suffering: identifying with and clinging to painful mind states by erroneously believing them to be a fixed part of oneself; and
  3. the path to cessation of suffering: just being present — without aversion or clinging — when these mind states arise and cultivating their opposites instead: non-greed (generosity), non-ill-will (kindness and compassion), and wisdom (seeing clearly the impermanent and interdependent nature of all things).

The Buddha spent the rest of his life — 45 years — as a wandering monk, sharing his insight with others, regardless of their caste or gender. He devised an astounding number of practices. These practices help us understand the cause of our suffering and point the way to attaining the peace and contentment of a Buddha.

It is said that soon after his experience under the Banyan tree, the Buddha passed a stranger on the road who was so struck by the Buddha’s calm radiance that he asked him, “Are you a god?” The Buddha replied, “No. I am not.” “What are you then?” the man asked. And the Buddha said, “I am awake.”

For me, this story is inspiring because it means that, through our own effort, the peaceful contentment we see in statues of the Buddha is within the reach of all of us.

The Buddha’s teachings have given rise to dozens of schools and traditions. Some of them have elevated the Buddha to a god-like figure to be worshipped. But the ancient texts make it clear that he was just an ordinary — if remarkable — person who embarked on an extraordinary journey of discovery. This is why I and many others don’t consider Buddhism to be a religion.

To me, Buddhism is a path of practice that unearths the cause of my suffering and points the way to opening my heart so wide that it can hold with compassion all the suffering in the world, while, at the same time, resting in the peaceful contentment of a Buddha.

Tony BarnhardToni Bernhard was a law professor and dean of students of the Law School at the University of California–Davis before retiring due to chronic illness. She’s the author of How to Be Sick: A Buddhist-Inspired Guide for the Chronically Ill and Their Caregivers. You can read more of her work on the How to Be Sick website.

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Let me correct some vital thing every body should know about Buddha. He was not born in India. He was born in Nepal. I don't know are these big knowledgable professor trying to favor India or they don't even know where was Siddhartha Gautam born?
The location of his birth: Lumbini, Nepal
Try googling it, see for yourself. Being should check or do some research before even posting such thing, for god shake,

You are right. He was born in Lumbini of NepalBut, would it be possible at that time (thousand years ago), Lumbini was part of India?

Hi Bidosh and NonYoe. Yes, when the Buddha was born, Lumbini was part of India. That's why my piece reads the way it does.

@Toni; 2500 years ago, there was no Nepal no India; It used to be called. A Mahabaharat. Then years after smaller nations were built . By then Lumbini came under Nepal. If you can't consider this fact and say Lumbini, Nepal as a birthplace of Gautam Buddha, I don't think you should consider India as a birth place as India in itself was established in 1947. Either it should be Nepal or if you think it was thousands of years back, then why ndont you write it as a " somewhere in northern part of South Asia". It is very important to maintain this fact for Nepal and Nepalese people .and when the western media promotes the it in other way, the identity of Nepal seems to be in crisis. I would suggest you to visit Lumbini, Nepal where King Ashoka Build a enacted a pillar on the Buddhas memory

Bidosh - since you are making so many suggestions to Toni, may I made one to you - instead of spending time being so critical of the details in a lovely article that I'm sure many besides myself appreciated, perhaps you might consider as deeply some of the Buddha's teachings - on compassion and kindness toward others.

The earliest known stories about Siddharta place his birth in northern India.  Buddhist scholars from many traditions have come to this conclusion after deep study and comparison of ancient writings and traditions   with this.  But does it make any difference? So much that you have forgotten the essence of Buddha's teaching? Every culture has adapted Buddhism to its own shape, and has adopted Buddha as part of itself.  That is as it should be.  The essence of Buddhism is his teachings about impermanance and compassion, not where Suddharta was born.  I think perhaps today there were Buddhas to be born in every place on earth. Celebrate! 

Thanks Dayle for your comment. As I said above, my understanding is that when the Buddha was born, Limbini was part of India.

And Buddha would consider your statement as having value?

Fantastic description of Siddhartha.  Thank you for sharing this, I will do the same.

Thank you so much for your comment, Babscorley. It means a lot to me!

Thank you for this lucid account of the Buddha and his teachings.

Thanks so much, IvarsKrafts. I'm so glad you liked the piece. I worked so hard on it!

 A really wonderful, insightful summary that goes right into the essence of Buddhist philosophy.  hank you for this.

You are so welcome, Joe. I'm so glad that you liked the piece. That's what I was trying to do in it—present the essence of Buddhist philosophy!

Thia is one best short descriptions of the Buddha's story I've read!


Thank you so much Stuart. I appreciate your feedback. I worked so hard on the piece!

Lovely. Well and clearly said. Thank you. Namaste.

Thank you so much, m.a. I'm so glad you read it and liked it. Warmly, Toni

This is just beautiful, Ms. Bernhard. I am exploring ways to connect with God and the Universe, including Centering Prayer and Contemplation, which come from the Roman Catholic tradition. Many people believe Jesus was influenced by Eastern thought. What a blessing to see how the traditions relate to each other and bring us all closer to our true self and the best we can possibly be.

Your comment is so inspiring, Mary Beth. I do think that, at the highest levels, all traditions connect with each other. They certainly share the same values: compassion for oneself and others. Warmest wishes, Toni

Thank you for sharing Toni.  Can you recommend a book(s) where I might learn more about Buddha?