By Daniel Scharpenburg
Sometimes we just come to the Buddha’s story over and over, telling it in different ways.
Gautama was the son of a wealthy king, and he lived a sheltered life. It’s said that he didn’t even know about suffering, sickness, and death but that’s almost certainly not true. The story is that his father did everything he possibly could to prevent his son from knowing that life is hard. We should all be so lucky. I think even people today that are born into incredible wealth still know something about suffering: we all get older, we all get sick, and we all die.
So, it’s said that one day Gautama discovered that life is full of suffering. A servant explained the whole thing to him, and he just couldn’t stop thinking about it. He dwelt on this information in the same way that we can’t stop thinking about how stressful our jobs or ex’s are sometimes. And he just had to ask himself, “If life is full of suffering and, in the scheme of things, short then what’s the point?” This question really bothered him, and he couldn’t even enjoy his privileged life anymore.
So he just left.
He left behind this life of luxury to look for answers, to really try to figure out the meaning of life. At that time, in that part of the world, it wasn’t rare for people to renounce the home-life and become mendicants. There were lots of guys wandering around trying to get spiritual insights in those days. Still, he was so privileged that it’s hard for us to really think about what it’d be like to give it all up.
He wandered around in the woods for years. He learned a lot from various spiritual teachers, but he really didn’t see any of the teachings he was getting as helpful. Nothing could make him stop wondering if life was worth living. “What is the purpose of life when there’s all this suffering and transient joy?”
One day, while sitting under a tree, he experienced Enlightenment. He had a great insight that revealed to him the origin, cause, and way out of suffering. We call this the Four Noble Truths, and it’s really the foundation of all of Buddhism. But this is just about the man; more about the teachings another time.
From that day on, he was called the Buddha. This means, “One who is Awake.” He taught for over forty years. He taught this path to everyone: rich and poor, men and women, virtuous people and also criminals. His teaching about the cause of and liberation from human suffering was and remains something that can benefit anyone. It is open and helpful to anyone who tries it for themselves.
After the Buddha had become a spiritual teacher, people asked many questions. One day a man approached him and had this exchange:
“Are you a wizard?”
“Are you an angel or spirit?”
“What are you?”
“I am awake.”
I can’t even imagine walking up to someone, no matter how special they appear to be, and saying, “Are you an angel or a spirit?” That seems very strange. But this is how the story is told.
The Buddha never called himself anything other than an ordinary human being like us; he didn’t claim to be a god or inspired by a god; he didn’t claim to have super powers. He said that everything he achieved was due to normal human capabilities and efforts.
The Buddha isn’t something we pray to or worship. He was just a person who became awake. That is all.
Editor: John Pendall