Siddhārtha Gautama (563 BCE to 483 BCE) is known as “the Supreme Buddha of our age.” Buddha means awakened one and Siddhārtha’s teachings were preserved through oral tradition and eventually written down long after his death. Although his birth story and enlightenment are enshrined in mythic symbolism, the heart of Siddhārtha’s story is the search to alleviate suffering and his subsequent awakening. A pragmatic teacher, Siddhārtha compared his words to medicine.
“Monks, doctors give a purgative for warding off diseases caused by bile, diseases caused by phlegm, diseases caused by the internal wind property. There is a purging there; I don’t say that there’s not, but it sometimes succeeds and sometimes fails. So I will teach you the noble purgative that always succeeds and never fails, a purgative whereby beings subject to birth are freed from birth; beings subject to aging are freed from aging; beings subject to death are freed from death; beings subject to sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress & despair are freed from sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress & despair.” — Gautama Buddha
Siddhārtha’s first Sermon, Setting in Motion the Wheel of the Law, outlines three important elements; The Middle Way, The Eight-Fold Path and The Four Noble Truths.
The Four Noble Truths correspond to the stages of Siddhārtha’s enlightenment.
The first noble truth: There is suffering (dukkha)
At the onset of the story, Prince Siddhartha lives in a magnificent palace, sheltered from suffering by his father the King. When he finally ventures from the palace he sees an aged person, a sick person and a corpse. These are the three woes or sorrows; aging, sickness and death. Every person, rich or poor, famous or obscure must encounter these difficulties. Overwhelmed by compassion for all mankind, Siddhartha vows to relieve mankind’s suffering.
The second noble truth: There is a cause of suffering (craving)
In order for Siddhārtha to awaken from ignorance, he must cut through worldly attachment and cravings. Leaving his wife, son and privileged life behind, Siddhārtha joins the ascetics who reside in the forest and begins a long meditation. His aim is to discover the cause of suffering. After practicing extreme self-denial, Siddhārtha rejects that path as too severe and arrives at The Middle Way, the path between asceticism and indulgence.
The third noble truth: The cessation of suffering (is attainable)
After facing temptation in the form of Mara (Satan), Siddhartha conquers the illusion of his ego and discovers how the five aggregates of form, feeling, perception, mental constructions and consciousness, cause us to cling to objects and thoughts. After 49 days beneath the Bodhi Tree, Siddhārtha awakens.
“I have passed in ignorance through a cycle of many rebirths, seeking the builder of the house. Continuous rebirth is a painful thing. But now, housebuilder, I have found you out. You will not build me a house again. All your rafters are broken, your ridge-pole shattered. My mind is free from active thought, and has made an end of craving.” — Gautama Buddha
The fourth noble truth: The path to the cessation of suffering (Eight Fold Path)
Siddhārtha Gautama, now known as Gautama Buddha, arrives at the “cure” or Noble Eight-Fold Path, a clear and practical guide to staying on the path. The eight elements of the path are as follows.
samyañc = Right, whole, integrated, healing, truthful
Siddhārtha Gautama’s great compassion for all living beings shines through his teaching. He left a map of his journey for us, so that we could follow.