Who Was the Buddha?

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Who Was the Buddha?


For thirteen years, I’ve worked as a journalist, interviewing writers, actors, activists, dharma teachers, and more. Recently, someone asked me whom I’d interview if there were no limits and I could interview anyone I wanted.

This was not a question I had to think twice about. Beyond a doubt, I would zip back in time some 2,600 years and hoof it all over northern India until I found the Buddha. Then I would turn on my recorder and dive into my million and one questions.

Tradition has it that the Buddha was born a prince named Siddhartha Gautama. There was a prophecy that Siddhartha would either become a great king or a great spiritual master. Siddhartha’s father carefully sheltered his son from anything unpleasant so his son would choose the path of royalty.

Prince Siddhartha got married and had a son of his own. Then, at the age of twenty-nine, he saw suffering for the very first time: an old person, a sick person, and a corpse. He also encountered a spiritual seeker who was attempting to find freedom from suffering. Siddhartha was profoundly affected and, in the middle of the night, he slipped away from his worldly life in the palace.

For six years, Siddhartha lived as an acetic, eating almost nothing. Eventually he realized that if he continued to mistreat his body, he would die. If he wanted to reach enlightenment, he needed a middle way — neither harsh asceticism nor indulgence. Siddhartha ate a bowl of milky rice, which gave him enough strength to sit under a tree until he understood the true nature of things, becoming the Buddha.

For the next forty-five years, the Buddha taught others how they too could reach enlightenment. Then at the age of eighty, he apparently died of food poisoning.

So that is quite a lot of information about the Buddha — and, trust me, there is a mountain more — but is it true? Nothing, apparently, was written down about him — neither his teachings nor his life story — until the end of the first century BCE. Passed down orally for hundreds of years, parts of his biography were surely misremembered and maybe even fabricated.

Since I can’t actually get that interview with the Buddha, each of us will just have to decide for ourselves what we believe is factual and what we believe is myth. But in the end I’m not convinced it matters so much. What’s important is whether or not we feel the basic tenets of the teachings attributed to the Buddha, such as the four noble truths and the practice of mindfulness, are deeply true and helpful to our lives, however they originated.

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