Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha

Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, was born in Nepal in about 563 B.C.E. He was the son of a king. When Siddhartha was born, his father was told that the boy had two possible futures. He would be either a great king or a great spiritual leader.

Siddhartha’s father wanted him to be a king. He gave Siddhartha every luxury and kept him from any sadness. Then a series of carriage rides changed Siddhartha’s life. On the first ride, he saw an old person for the first time. He had not known that old age existed. On the next ride, he saw a sick person. He became aware of sickness and disease. Next he saw a corpse, and became aware of death. Finally he saw a holy man who had given up the world for the sake of spiritual things. Siddhartha decided that he too would give up the life he knew in order to seek spiritual fulfillment.

Why do you think that seeing old age, sickness, and death prompted Siddhartha to leave his life as a prince?

A Life-Changing Incident

Siddhartha Gautama was raised as a prince. Then a series of carriage rides changed his life. He left his home to search for spiritual fulfillment. He eventually found enlightenment, becoming the Buddha, the Awakened One, and the founder of Buddhism.

Think of an event or experience that changed your world. (It doesn’t need to be as complete or as sudden as the change Siddhartha experienced.) Describe the experience and how it affected you.

I am Awake

After his enlightenment, the Buddha passed a man on the road.

This man saw that the Buddha was different from other men.
He asked the Buddha “Are you a god?”
The Buddha replied “No.”
The man continued, “Then are you a magician or a wizard?”
“Are you a man?”
“Then what are you?” said the man.
The Buddha answered, “I am awake.”
Thus he was given his name. Buddha means “The awakened One.”

What do you think the Buddha meant by this answer?

The Four Noble Truths

The Four Noble Truths are central to Buddhism. These truths were taught by the Buddha shortly after he became enlightened.

The First Noble Truth is that life is frustrating and full of suffering, or dukkha.

The Second Noble Truth is that suffering is caused by tanha, the desire for private fulfillment.

The Third Noble Truth is that suffering can come to an end. If suffering is caused by selfish desire, it can be cured by overcoming desire.

The Fourth Noble Truth is that there is a path that leads away from suffering, the Eightfold Path. This path consists of eight practices that the Buddha believed would lead to enlightenment.

How could these four ideas form the core of a way of life?

The Eightfold Path

The Buddha devised the Eightfold Path to help others free themselves from suffering. The path calls for eight practices: Right Views, Right Intent, Right Speech, Right Conduct, Right Work ,Right Effort, Right Mindfulness, Right Concentration.

Think about what each of these practices might mean. How could they be applied? Choose one practice and explain how you could apply it in your life.

Right Association

The Buddha stressed the importance of right association. He said that people cannot find the truth unless the people they spend time with also seek the truth.

Think of a situation where a person’s decisions are affected by the people around them. Describe a real or made up situation.

Death of the Buddha

The Buddha died in about 483 B.C.E. He had gone from a prince to an ascetic, from a wealthy man to a nomadic beggar. For more than fifty years he wandered India, teaching others about enlightenment.

Imagine that you are a newspaper columnist. Write an obituary for the Buddha as if for a modern newspaper.

Include as much information as you can about the people who were important in his life and the events that shaped his life and beliefs.

The Buddha and Traditional Religion

Scholar Huston Smith has identified six common aspects of traditional religion.

They are authority, ritual, speculation (answers to questions like “Why are we here?”), tradition, grace, and mystery. But these aspects are not found in Buddhism.

Imagine a conversation between the Buddha and a student, where the Buddha is asked about one of these aspects or religion. What do you think the Buddha would have said?

Write a short dialogue to show the conversation.

The Ten Perfections of a Bodhisattva

In Buddhism, a bodhisattva struggles to achieve ten perfections. Only when these have been achieved can the bodhisattva become a Buddha.

The ten perfections are charity, right conduct, dispassionateness, wisdom, steadfastness, forbearance, truthfulness, determination, loving compassion, nonattachability.

Think about the ten perfections. How do you think they can be achieved? Choose one perfection. Describe how a person could achieve it.


Another Buddhist practice is bowing to the Buddha. This is not a slight bow from the waist, but a full prostration. The practitioner’s knees, forearms, and forehead all touch the ground.

Bowing sounds like an easy way to practice Buddhism. Proper bowing, though, requires physical, mental, and spiritual awareness. It is not enough to bow because other people bow, or because you want other people to think well of you because you are devoted.

While you are bowing, your mind can’t wander. You can’t think about getting something to eat as soon as you’re done bowing. You need to focus on bowing, on the Buddha’s teachings, and on the Buddha-nature.

How do you think that bowing in this way could help a student of Buddhism?