The Buddha was a philosopher, spiritual teacher and religious leader who lived in ancient India. He is best-known as the founder of the world religion of Buddhism. His teachings are focused around suffering and the end of suffering--referred to as Nirvana.
There has been many stories of various Buddhas that achieve spiritual enlightenment, but the first to do it was Gautama (also known as Siddhartha) in the 5th-4th century. The life of the first Buddha was not always one of deep contemplation, and the spiritual path that led Buddha to his awakening was long and tedious.
The Buddha was born to an aristocratic family of rice farmers near the modern border of India and Nepal. Different from the story of Jesus, there is not much recorded about the youth of the Buddha. Though legend has it that on the night of Buddha's birth, his mother Queen Maya dreamt that a white elephant with six tusks entered the right side of her stomach, and ten months later the Buddha was born. In those times, a white elephant was important and positive sign because it signified mental strength and responsibility.
During the birth celebration of Buddha, a hermit seer named Asita journeyed from his mountain and analyzed the Buddha child for marks of a great man. Asita professed that the Buddha would either become a great king, or a great religious leader. Eight brahmans were invited to confirm the seer's speculation, and they too saw the Buddha's future in either law or religion.
One of the last sparing things about that we have about his childhood came from the Buddha himself. "I lived a spoiled life," he said. "A very spoiled life, in my parents' home."
The Holy Path
The earliest accounts of the Buddha's spiritual quest report that Buddha's explanation for leaving his wealthy home is because the household life was impure and narrow, perhaps even a shallow form of living. The Buddha claimed that it was not easy for a householder to live a perfected, pure and holy life. Thus when he announced his decision to leave, his mother and father wept with tearful faces.
When Gautama first left his well-protected home, he was horrified at the suffering that existed outside of his castle. Legends say that his father had shielded him from religious teachings and any knowledge of human suffering, so he would become a great king and wouldn't be tempted to become a spiritual leader. Firstly, Buddha comes across suffering in the form of old age. When the Buddha asks his driver why the man was so hideous, the driver explained that all people grow old. That day, the Buddha returned to his castle and didn't come out again for a month, contemplating the fact that he will too grow old. When he was ready to leave the castle again, the Buddha prince encountered a diseased man, and the driver told him that everyone is always subject to disease. This frightened the Buddha, and he hid once more. On his next trip out of the castle he encountered the sight of a dead body, and the driver explained to him that death is something that no living being can avoid. Buddha retreated into the castle, but on his return he encountered an ascetic, who told him that he has dedicated his life to finding the cause of suffering. This strange man gave hope to Buddha, that he may too escape the suffering that comes with life.
Moved by all that he had seen, the Buddha decided to leave his palace, against the will of his father, and live the life of an ascetic. Gautama went to a nearby river and cut off his hair, changing into monks robes in the forest.
All sources agree that the Buddha practiced under two teachers, but he was left unsatisfied at his life as an ascetic. He claimed that the practice he was taught did not lead to dispassion, cessation, calm, knowledge, awakening, or any other sense of peace he had set out to find in his journey.
After leaving his teachers, Gautama practiced other various ascetic techniques such as minimal food intake, breath control, and forceful mind control. Reports on the Buddha during this time said that one could see the bones through his skin. This did not work for awhile, and after even these techniques failed him, Gautama set out to discover his own techniques of awakening. The other ascetics shunned him because they thought this meant the Buddha had abandoned his search.
Following his abandonment of traditional ascetic practices, Gautama Buddha sat down under a Bodhi tree with the intention of not to get up until he reached full awakening. It was during this meditation session that the Buddha remembered a childhood experience of contemplation while he sat under a tree next to his father. This memory led him to understand meditation as the path to awakening, and achieve awakening as such.
Thus Gautama became known as Buddha or 'the Awakened One'. This title means that while most people are 'asleep', the Buddha is 'woken up' to the true nature of reality and he sees the world as it is. A Buddha has achieved liberation and freedom from desire, hatred, and ignorance--three feelings that keep the cycle of rebirth going. The objective of the Buddha is to achieve this nirvana, which is contradictory in itself because to strive toward achieving nirvana is desire in itself. You are desiring to be free of desire.
Gautama Buddha then sat under the Bodhi tree for seven days "feeling the bliss of deliverance."
Immediately after his awakening, the Buddha hesitated on whether or not he should share his teachings. He was concerned that humans were so overwhelmed with desire, ignorance, and hatred that they could never recognize the path of enlightenment--a path that is as subtle as it is deep.
The Buddha had initially returned to his former teachers in order to teach them of his insights, but when he returned they had all already died. He then returned to his five former companions, who he told of his enlightenment, most chose to believe the Buddha, but some did not.
Thus the Buddha gave his first sermon on his teachings about the eightfold path, and how it is the middle path that one walks between order and chaos, staying safe from the two dangers of self-indulgence and self-shaming. The Buddha continued to teach long after this, for the benefit of the community and the world.
End of the Path
One of the most interesting parts about the lives of spiritual leaders is how they confront death.
The Buddha ate his last meal, which he had received as an offering from a blacksmith named Cunda. After his meal, the Buddha and his companions continued to travel for as long as they could until the Buddha grew weak and had to rest next to a grove of Sala trees. The Buddha then told his companions that he would soon be entering into the final nirvana.
Gautama Buddha asked if anyone had doubted his teachings, and nobody spoke. Then he spoke his last words, "All formations decay. Strive for the goal with diligence."
What does this mean? Is the Buddha trying to say that death is the goal? What is an example of the diligence we must strive with?
Ultimately, we don't know what the Buddha was trying to say, and every person is likely to have their own view, but the Buddha was rather clear on his teachings. He spoke of following the eightfold path, and releasing yourself from the cycle of rebirth by shedding all desire, ignorance, and hate. Leaving what then? Must one shed all of these things to be convinced of what lay on the other side?
Ultimately, the story of the Buddha is about finding the ultimate freedom--freedom from yourself--and achieving an enlightened state without a sense of suffering. I'm not sure if it's possible to achieve this state, but there are obviously some critical takeaways from the religion.
If we all were a little better at dealing with the desire that we have for that midnight snack or the attractive model on Instagram; if we did our part in learning about the world around us instead of living in blind ignorance; if we analyzed our hate for the person who cut us off while driving or toward our family members, we'd see that it all comes from a part of us that doesn't deserve the attention it requires.
That in essence is the central message of the story of the Buddha: shed yourself of all your worldly desires, and live a life driven by love.