Step into a journey back in time, to the 6th century BCE, to a land filled with the splendor of royal palaces and the mystique of ancient traditions. It’s here, in the shadows of the Himalayas, that the story of Siddhartha Gautama begins—a story that would profoundly alter the course of human spirituality and philosophical thought. Today, we know him as Shakyamuni Buddha, the “Sage of the Shakyas”, the founder of Buddhism, one of the world’s most influential religions.
Life of Shakyamuni Buddha
Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as the Buddha or Shakyamuni Buddha, was a spiritual leader and philosopher, whose teachings form the foundation of Buddhism. The precise details of his life are largely shrouded in legend and are the subject of ongoing historical debate, but the following sketch presents a widely accepted account of his life.
Siddhartha Gautama was born in Lumbini (in present-day Nepal) in the 6th century BCE to the Shakya clan, hence his sobriquet “Shakyamuni,” which translates to “sage of the Shakya clan.” His father, King Suddhodana, was a local ruler and his mother was Queen Maya. Legend has it that Queen Maya had a dream about a white elephant with six tusks entering her right side, which was interpreted by the court seers as a divine sign of her conceiving a son who would either become a great king or a great spiritual leader.
Shortly after giving birth to Gautama, Queen Maya passed away, leaving him to be raised by his aunt, Mahaprajapati Gotami. Gautama grew up in the luxuries of his father’s palace in Kapilavastu and, in accordance with his father’s wish for him to become a great king, he was shielded from religious teachings and human suffering.
At the age of 29, however, Siddhartha ventured outside the palace and encountered the “Four Sights”: an old man, a sick man, a dead man and an ascetic. These experiences profoundly impacted him, leading him to contemplate the sufferings inherent in life (old age, illness, and death), which the blissful palace life had hidden from him. The sight of the peaceful ascetic led him to realize that renunciation might be the path to the end of such sufferings.
Thus, he left his palace, wife Yasodhara, and son Rahula, to lead an ascetic life in search of enlightenment and the end of suffering, a decision known as the “Great Renunciation.” He wandered for six years, practicing austerities, studying with various teachers and gathering a group of followers. Despite his dedicated efforts, he was unable to attain his goal.
Eventually, Siddhartha Gautama, realizing the futility of self-mortification, decided to follow a middle path between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification. He practiced meditation under a Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya (in present-day Bihar, India), and it is here that he attained enlightenment at the age of 35, thus earning the title of Buddha, meaning “Awakened One” or “Enlightened One.”
For the next 45 years, the Buddha traveled extensively throughout the Indian subcontinent, teaching his path of the Middle Way, the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path. His teachings attracted a diverse range of followers, including kings, courtesans, murderers and Brahmins. He established a monastic order (Sangha) comprising of men and women.
Shakyamuni Buddha passed away at the age of 80 in Kushinagar (present-day Uttar Pradesh, India). This event, known as the “Great Passing Away” (Mahaparinirvana), marked his complete release from the cycle of death and rebirth (Samsara). His last words to his disciples were, “All composite things pass away. Strive for your own liberation with diligence.”
The teachings and philosophy of Shakyamuni Buddha have had a profound impact on the world, leading to the establishment of one of the major world religions—Buddhism. His teachings continue to guide millions of people worldwide on the path towards enlightenment and cessation of suffering.
Meaning of the name “Shakyamuni”
The name Shakyamuni Buddha is derived from two words, “Shakya” and “Muni”. “Shakya” refers to the clan to which Buddha belonged, and “Muni” means “enlightened one” or “sage.” So, Shakyamuni Buddha means “the sage of the Shakya clan.” It is also a common way to refer to Siddhartha Gautama after he achieved enlightenment and began teaching the Dharma.
Shakyamuni Buddha’s appearance
Buddhist scriptures and oral legends describe various theories about the physical appearance of Buddha Shakyamuni. According to these sources, Prince Siddhartha possessed all 32 good physiognomies and was trained in strength, willpower and spiritual cultivation.
He received a thorough education in literature and martial arts, including archery, from his teenage years onwards. Prior to becoming a monk, Gautama Buddha had a more robust physique and deeper knowledge than his contemporaries.
A Brahmin follower praised Shakyamuni Buddha’s attractive skin, magnetic presence, and majestic aura, describing him as a trustworthy figure with unique features. The Anguttara Nikaya sutta 36 portrays Shakyamuni Buddha as a handsome and dignified individual with a pure and peaceful mind, akin to a perfectly tamed elephant.
In Buddhist art, Shakyamuni Buddha is often depicted with his eyes looking downwards, indicating introspection, and is portrayed as a serene figure with a peaceful expression.
He is usually shown wearing a simple robe, with a shaved head and a ushnisha, or small topknot of hair, on his head. Elongated earlobes, signifying his renunciation of material possessions, and an urna, or bump, on his forehead, representing his spiritual wisdom, are also common physical features depicted in Buddhist art.
However, the physical appearance of Shakyamuni Buddha is less important than the teachings he imparted, which emphasize inner peace, compassion and wisdom.
Buddha’s teachings encourage individuals to self-correct their behavior and thoughts, thereby achieving peace and happiness. In Buddhist tradition, the light around the statue of Shakyamuni Buddha symbolizes wisdom illuminating the world, while the lotus pedestal upon which Buddha statues are placed represents purity and liberation from the pitfalls and suffering of life.
Although many disciples have been mesmerized by Shakyamuni Buddha’s appearance, he advised them to look beyond his external appearance and instead focus on his teachings to attain genuine enlightenment.
The enlightenment of the Buddha
The enlightenment of Siddhartha Gautama, who would henceforth be known as the Buddha or “Awakened One”, is one of the most seminal events in Buddhist tradition. This transformative moment marked the culmination of Gautama’s quest for the ultimate truth and the end of suffering, a quest that had led him to renounce his royal heritage and embrace a life of asceticism.
The Buddha’s enlightenment is traditionally believed to have occurred in Bodh Gaya, in present-day Bihar, India. Upon realizing the futility of extreme ascetic practices, Siddhartha decided to pursue a middle path, one that eschewed both the indulgence of sensual pleasures and the harshness of severe self-mortification. This led him to meditate under a pipal tree, famously known as the Bodhi Tree. Here, he resolved not to rise until he had attained perfect enlightenment.
As the accounts of the Pali Canon depict, Gautama’s meditation was disturbed by the onslaught of Mara, a demon figure symbolizing desire, death and delusion. Mara attempted to unsettle him with apparitions and temptations, but Siddhartha remained steadfast. In response to Mara’s challenge to his right to attain enlightenment, Gautama touched the earth, calling it to bear witness to the countless lifetimes of merit he had accumulated in his journey. This event is known as the “earth-touching mudra” or the “Bhumisparsa mudra”, a critical moment in Buddhist iconography.
As he sat through the night, Siddhartha is said to have experienced a series of profound realizations. During the first watch of the night, he gained the knowledge of all his past lives. During the second watch, he attained the “divine eye”, perceiving the death and rebirth of all beings and understanding the workings of karma. In the final watch, he discovered the Four Noble Truths, which explain the nature and cessation of suffering. By dawn, at the age of thirty-five, Siddhartha had attained complete enlightenment, becoming the Buddha.
The event of the Buddha’s enlightenment has had a lasting impact on the world, marking the birth of one of the world’s major religions, Buddhism. It has profoundly influenced philosophical thought, ethical norms, and spiritual practices across diverse cultures and societies. The site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, Bodh Gaya, is now a major pilgrimage site, drawing practitioners from around the world who seek to connect with the Buddha’s journey to enlightenment.
Teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha
Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings, widely known as Buddhism, are profound and extensive, focusing on the nature of suffering and the means to overcome it. Here are some key teachings:
Four Noble Truths: These truths are the cornerstone of Buddhism, shedding light on the reality of existence and offering a path toward liberation.
- The Truth of Suffering (Dukkha): All life is characterized by suffering. Suffering isn’t just physical pain but includes all forms of dissatisfaction and unease.
- The Truth of the Origin of Suffering (Samudaya): The root cause of suffering is craving (tanha) and ignorance (avidya). This is the constant desire for things to be different than they are and ignorance about the nature of reality.
- The Truth of the Cessation of Suffering (Nirodha): It is possible to end suffering by eliminating craving and ignorance.
- The Truth of the Path leading to the Cessation of Suffering (Magga): The path leading to the cessation of suffering is the Noble Eightfold Path.
Noble Eightfold Path: This is the practical guide provided by the Buddha to end suffering. The path is often divided into three basic divisions: wisdom (panna), ethical conduct (sila) and concentration (samadhi).
- Right Understanding: Understanding the Four Noble Truths is the foundation for this path.
- Right Thought: This refers to having thoughts free from ill-will, harm, and cruelty, and filled with compassion and love.
- Right Speech: Abstaining from lying, divisive speech, harsh words, and idle gossip, while promoting words that are truthful, harmonious, pleasant and worthwhile.
- Right Action: This involves acting in ways that do not harm others, oneself or the world, abstaining from killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct.
- Right Livelihood: Making a living in a way that does not harm others.
- Right Effort: Making a concerted effort to cultivate wholesome qualities and abandon unwholesome ones.
- Right Mindfulness: Developing awareness of the body, feelings, thoughts, and dhammas (phenomena/teachings).
- Right Concentration: Cultivating a concentrated mind through practices like meditation.
The Three Marks of Existence: These are characteristics that summarize the changing nature of reality.
- Impermanence (Anicca): All conditioned phenomena are impermanent and subject to change.
- Suffering (Dukkha): All conditioned phenomena are subject to suffering.
- Non-Self (Anatta): All things, including beings, do not possess a permanent, unchanging self.
The Middle Way: This is the path of moderation, between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification.
Dependent Origination: This concept describes the interconnectedness of all things, explaining that all phenomena arise in dependence upon other phenomena.
Karma and Rebirth: Buddha taught that beings are trapped in a cycle of birth and death (samsara) due to the law of karma, which states that every volitional action has a consequence. The goal is to attain nirvana, a state of liberation and freedom from this cycle.
The Five Precepts: These are ethical guidelines for the lay Buddhist community, which include refraining from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying, and intoxication.
Shakyamuni Buddha’s teachings transcend cultural and societal boundaries, offering insightful wisdom on the nature of existence, the realization of inner peace, and the potential for personal transformation. These teachings have had a profound influence on a multitude of cultures and continue to inspire millions worldwide.
The death of the Buddha
The death of Shakyamuni Buddha, also known as his “Great Passing Away” or Parinirvana, represents a significant event in the annals of Buddhist tradition. His demise marked the end of an era of direct teachings from the Enlightened One and the commencement of the propagation of his teachings by disciples, leading to the development of various schools of Buddhism.
Shakyamuni Buddha’s passing occurred when he was eighty years old in the town of Kushinagar, located in present-day Uttar Pradesh, India. Prior to his death, he had spent 45 years travelling extensively throughout the Indian subcontinent, sharing his teachings of enlightenment and the cessation of suffering.
The accounts of the Buddha’s death are well-documented in ancient texts, particularly in the Maha-parinibbana Sutta of the Pali Canon. According to this account, the Buddha, realizing his impending death, journeyed to Kushinagar with his disciples. Upon arrival, he asked his disciple Ananda to prepare a couch for him in the grove of Sala trees. Lying down on his right side, he entered into a meditative state.
Before his passing, Shakyamuni Buddha gave a final discourse to his disciples. He emphasized the impermanence of all conditioned things, encouraging his followers to strive diligently for their own liberation. His last words, as recorded in the Maha-parinibbana Sutta, were: “All composite things pass away. Strive for your own liberation with diligence” (Vayadhammā saṅkhārā appamādena sampādethā).
Upon his death, his body was cremated according to the tradition for revered individuals of his time. His ashes and relics were divided among his followers and enshrined in monument-like structures called stupas. These stupas served as places for veneration and remembrance, becoming significant centers for Buddhist practice and pilgrimage.
The Buddha’s passing is considered neither an end nor a tragedy within the context of Buddhist philosophy. It is regarded as the final liberation from the cycle of birth and death, an event referred to as Parinirvana. Parinirvana signifies the complete cessation of karma and rebirth, embodying the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice.
Thus, the death of Shakyamuni Buddha offers enduring insights into the nature of existence, the reality of impermanence, and the goal of liberation, all central themes in his teachings. His legacy continues to inspire and guide millions of people around the world towards the path of enlightenment and liberation from suffering.
The difference between Shakyamuni and Amitabha Buddha
When learning about Buddhism, many people often confuse Shakyamuni Buddha with Amitabha Buddha, both of whom are revered Buddhas but are, in fact, two separate entities. Shakyamuni Buddha is the actual historical Buddha and the founder of Buddhism, while Amitabha Buddha only appears in Buddhist scriptures.
In Buddhist art, Shakyamuni Buddha is depicted with a bun or spiral-shaped cluster of hair, wearing a yellow or brown robe, and with no “swastikas” on his chest if it is open. He is usually shown sitting on a lotus platform with his eyes open three-quarters of the way.
According to Buddhist scriptures, Amitabha Buddha has spiral-shaped clusters of hair, a slight smile, and ordinary eyes that look down with sympathy to save people. He wears a red robe that represents the sun and often shows his chest with the “swastika” symbol. Amitabha Buddha’s hand posture is usually a saving seal, and he is often accompanied by two bodhisattvas, Avalokitesvara and Mahāsthāmaprāpta Bodhisattva.
It is impossible to say which Buddha is better since both have their own unique qualities and teachings. Both Buddhas want sentient beings to trust, find peace, and follow the Buddha’s example by diligently doing good, avoiding bad deeds, and practicing the Buddha’s teachings every day.
In the Saha world, Shakyamuni Buddha teaches and is respected by the world as a real historical Buddha mentioned in many Buddhist scriptures. On the other hand, Amitabha Buddha is the most worshipped Buddha in Mahayana Buddhism, and his name means “immeasurable longevity” and “immeasurable light.”
After his enlightenment, Shakyamuni Buddha used his wisdom to see the workings of things and phenomena in the universe, which allowed him to see Amitabha Buddha’s practice in countless previous lives. He also saw the daily life and living environment of beings in the Western Pure Land (Sukhavati) of Amitabha Buddha. Therefore, Amitabha Buddha is the Buddha introduced by Shakyamuni Buddha to set an example for Buddhists to follow.