The Buddha’s Path to Awakening

The Buddha discovered a path to liberation, and more than two thousand years later people are still following in his footsteps. Heather Sanche unpacks his life, legacy, and essential teachings.

Heather Sanche13 June 2023
Photo by iStock.com / Chunyip Wong

The figure we know as the Buddha was a real person, Siddhartha Gautama. He lived and he died, as all humans do. He was not a god or born of a god. But his discoveries about how we experience reality are practical, profound, and groundbreaking, and over the ages, people have felt compelled to share his discoveries with others. People have also told and retold the intriguing story of how he came to make those discoveries.

It’s important to keep in mind as we explore the Buddha’s biography that, as with all stories, the person telling it tends to emphasize the aspects that speak to him or her and disregard aspects that don’t. In this way, over time, the Buddha’s story has become more myth than fact. Yet this doesn’t mean we can’t be inspired and moved by his life and discoveries. Myth can contain powerful spiritual truths.

Siddhartha realized he’d gone beyond all suffering. He had become the awakened one. He touched the earth as his witness and the earth trembled.

There are aspects of the Buddha’s biography that highlight his humanness, and for many people it’s these aspects that fuel their devotion to following in his footsteps. After all, if the Buddha was an ordinary human being, that surely means other ordinary humans can attain liberation. Ultimately, the Buddha taught that everyone has the inherent potential to become a buddha, regardless of their race, class, social standing, or gender.

The Buddha’s life story and teachings can inspire us to look deep within our own minds and remove the perceptions clouding and distorting how we experience the world. Whether we regard it as a religion, philosophy, or a spiritual tradition, the Buddhist path, which is encapsulated in the Buddha’s biography, can help us find flexibility of mind. His story illuminates the wisdom of willingly accepting change.

The Buddha’s story began roughly 2,600 years ago when he was born Prince Siddhartha Gautama in what is now Lumbini, Nepal. Before his birth, his mother, Queen Maya, dreamed of a magnificent white elephant. This dream was interpreted to mean that Siddhartha would be an exceptionally gifted and noble child. And, indeed, his father, King Suddhodhana, was told by spiritual advisors that his son would become either a great king or a great spiritual leader. Shortly after giving birth, Maya died, leaving Siddhartha in the care of her sister Prajapati.

Hoping Siddhartha would follow in his footsteps and become a great king and successor to the throne, Suddhodhana did what he thought was best. In an attempt to steer Siddhartha away from a spiritual life and toward ascending the throne as king, Suddhodhana forbade him to leave the palace grounds.

In this way Siddhartha was deeply sheltered. He was treated with the privileges befitting a young prince and protected from the harsh realities of life. He became a kind and talented young man, gifted in archery and poetry. He married a princess, Yosodhara, and they had a son, Rahula.

But at the age of twenty-nine, Siddhartha’s mind turned to what was beyond the confines of his known world. He began to question what exactly was beyond the palace walls. Siddhartha approached his father several times to ask if he could explore the kingdom beyond the palace; finally, his father relented.

The king, still desiring his son to become his successor to the throne and eager to steer him away from a spiritual life, curated Siddhartha’s exploration, attempting to ensure he would only encounter a benevolent and tranquil view of life beyond the palace walls. Suddhodhana sent Siddhartha with his charioteer and confidant, Channa. He arranged for all the healthy and able-bodied young men and women to line the streets as they passed through the village and surrounding territory.

Siddhartha took four successive journeys out of the palace. Despite his father’s attempts to hide the harsh realities of life, Siddhartha noticed an old man, a sick man, and a dead man on his first three trips. On his final journey out of the palace, he observed a sadhu wandering peacefully, unperturbed by the commotion of village life. When Siddhartha witnessed these four sights, he was deeply moved and couldn’t shrug off feeling overwhelmed and despairing. He’d never before encountered the realities of the human predicament of old age, sickness, and death, and he felt deep sadness. Siddhartha recognized that this suffering was an inescapable part of the human experience. Later, this would become the first of his foundational teachings known as the four noble truths.

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Painting by SiriKatar Khalsa / sirikartar.com.

The first noble truth, the truth that there is dukkha or suffering, is universally accepted, practiced, and meditated upon by the Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana schools of Buddhism. Dukkha is also sometimes translated as stress, dissatisfaction, discomfort, or a sense of unease. It’s taught that this stress or unease is seen in all aspects of life: birth is stressful, aging is stressful, death is stressful, pain is stressful, separation from what you want is stressful, and not getting what you want is stressful. There’s no end to the ways in which all beings, past and present, experience stress and suffering.

Upon returning to the palace, Prince Siddhartha could no longer engage in the joys and pleasures of palace life. Contemplating all he had seen on his four journeys outside of the palace walls, he thought about the suffering of birth, old age, sickness, and death, and he thought about the sadhu he’d seen, free of worldly attachment. With deep sadness, he woke Channa and requested him to ready his horse, then they departed under the darkness of night. When they reached the river Anomiya, Siddhartha dismounted, exchanged his royal robes for those of an ascetic, cut his long hair, and instructed Channa to return to the palace and inform his family that he’d return to them once he’d uncovered the secret of how we as humans can attain relief from suffering.

Siddhartha then wandered the northern plains of India, searching for answers. He eventually came upon five holy men, and for six years he followed a strict regimen of austere practices, such as extreme fasting and meditations that required long periods of time without breathing.

Then one day, a group of young girls was passing by the forest hermitage playing lutes and joyfully singing. Upon hearing a well-strung lute, Siddhartha remembered that a lute only sounds beautiful when it’s strung neither too tightly nor too loosely—a lute’s beauty resounds when it’s in balance. In that moment he realized the extremes of fasting and other austerities were not beneficial to the search for the end of suffering.

A local woman named Sujata offered the emaciated Siddhartha a bowl of rice pudding. The five holy men were shocked to see Siddhartha accept the offering. Thinking he’d abandoned his spiritual search, the holy men left him by the side of the Niranjana River. After eating the pudding, Siddhartha bathed in the river. Feeling refreshed, he walked through a field of kusa grass toward a grand tree in what is now the village of Bodhigaya. A farmer who was threshing the grass auspiciously offered him a bundle of it. Siddhartha used this grass as his cushion when he settled himself under the cool shade of a tree.

Siddhartha vowed to remain in meditation until he found an end to suffering, and he did not waver from his resolve. In the early morning hours as the sun arose, he discovered the profound and simple truth that everything is fundamentally impermanent. Thoughts of all kinds simply come and go. If we do not attach to them, push them away, fiddle, or meddle with our thoughts and sensations, they’ll simply arise and dissipate. In this way he discovered the second noble truth: being attached to feelings and experiences, which all come and go, is the cause of suffering.

Siddhartha realized he’d gone beyond all suffering. He had become the awakened one, the Buddha. He knew this without the need or desire to have it confirmed by others. He simply touched the earth as his witness, and the earth trembled. In this way, the Buddha discovered the third noble truth: there is an end to suffering. He remained under the Bodhi Tree, his mind relaxed and open, free of discursive thought, completely unfettered and at ease.

Seven weeks passed and the Buddha traveled to Deer Park in Sarnath, where he found the five holy men with whom he’d previously lived in the forest. Upon seeing the Buddha, the men recognized he had gone beyond all suffering.

In India at this time there were two extreme views. Eternalists believed in the existence of a lasting true soul and permanent reality, while nihilists held the belief that nothing fundamentally mattered and posited that our actions have no lasting consequences. It’s within the context of these two extreme views that the Buddha gave his first teachings, defining Buddhism as the moderate or middle way between these two opposing views.

The Buddha offered the holy men in Deer Park his first teaching. He taught them the four noble truths: the truth of suffering, the cause of suffering, the end of suffering, and the path to the end of suffering, which he called the eightfold path. It consists of right understanding, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

The eightfold path is not necessarily sequential; the eight parts can be practiced simultaneously. For example, right speech, which is speech free from malice, slander, gossip, and abusive or harsh words, can be practiced while also practicing right conduct, which requires respect for life and abstaining from stealing or taking what’s not offered.

The Buddha taught that the eightfold path can be divided into three groupings. Right speech, right livelihood, and right action comprise the grouping shila, or morality. The grouping samadhi, or mental discipline, consists of right concentration, right mindfulness, and right effort. Shila and samadhi work together to create a mind that is stable and focused. Then there’s the final grouping, prajna (wisdom). It consists of right understanding and right intention, which work together to create intuitive insight. With this insight, we come to grasp the origins of ignorance and, thus, of suffering.

The Buddha taught that there’s a causal chain called the twelve nidanas, or the twelve links of dependent origination. He explained that these are twelve factors or conditions leading to suffering or samsara. The first factor is ignorance. Samsara, the Buddha taught, is how we experience the world, and that experience is shaped by what’s going on in our minds. In other words, the cause of samsara or suffering is within our own minds. Since it’s not external, we can actually do something about it. The Buddha taught that if ignorance, the first of the twelve links of dependent origination, which leads to suffering, is ended, then the chain is broken, and suffering is no more.

Paiting of Buddha sitting in the grass with leaves in background.
Art by Mayumi Oda

Ignorance, which is sometimes translated as delusion, is a basic misunderstanding of reality due to our own individual, distorted perception of the world. Distorted perceptions come about because of the five hindrances or emotional states of ill will, irritation, restlessness, doubt, and anger. The stronger these five hindrances are, the more powerful our ignorance and suffering will be. For example, the Buddha taught that if we’re really angry, we often experience a sense of self-righteousness, and if we act out in that state, we can create tremendous suffering for ourselves and others. But once we cool off and the anger subsides, we’ll often experience regret or remorse.

The Buddha taught the eightfold path as a means to reduce the lived experience of the five hindrances. By practicing the eightfold path, we weaken or go against the habits of the five hindrances. By removing the five hindrances, we cut the habit of ignorance, which then cuts the chain of dependent origination and creates an end to suffering. The Buddha laid out these systematic teachings that, when practiced simultaneously with an understanding that all phenomena arise in dependence upon other phenomena and that there is no permanent, unchanging self or soul, one can cultivate a mental discipline, strength of mind, and wisdom that will lead to liberation from suffering. The five holy men, upon hearing these teachings, understood the logical and brilliant simplicity of what the Buddha had discovered, and they became his first students.

Eventually, the Buddha traveled back to his family. After he gave teachings to Prajapati, who had raised him with the tender love of a mother, she insisted that she become a nun and wholeheartedly practice the eightfold path. At first, the Buddha was reluctant to offer her ordination and denied her request because she was a woman. Prajapati continued to petition her son along with many women whose husbands had joined the monastic order. Ananda, who was one of the main disciples and the Buddha’s personal attendant, agreed to help Prajapati gain entrance into the order of monastics. In time, the Buddha changed his mind and allowed Prajapati to become the first Buddhist nun.

The Buddha’s wife, Yosadhara, and son, Rahula, likewise joined the monastic order. And the Buddha’s father, Suddhodhana, also heard the teachings. It’s said that he understood and found liberation from suffering before he passed away.

Over the next forty-five years, the Buddha wandered throughout India teaching all who wanted to learn, and the sangha, the community, grew. At the end of his life, in a grove of Sal trees near the village of Kushinagar, the Buddha lay down, surrounded by his disciples, and gave his final teaching: “All that is born dies. Apply yourselves wholeheartedly to the path of freedom.”

Photo of Buddha statue facing away from camera
Photo by Poppy R

The teachings on the four noble truths, the eightfold path, the middle way, and the chain of dependent origination had a profound and lasting influence on millions of people throughout the centuries. In retelling his story and teachings, we learn a complete and logical path that can lead us to enlightenment in this life. We learn from his story that even after enlightenment, he made the mistake of denying his stepmother, Prajapati, entrance into the monastic order. But he did a remarkable thing: he changed his mind and went against deep-seated social prejudices, allowing her entrance into monasticism. We learn from the Buddha’s story that adaptability and flexibility of mind makes it possible to repair all the countless mistakes and errors, large and small, we make in our day-to-day lives. His story gives us an opportunity to learn not to be so heavy-handed with ourselves and others.

More than twenty-six hundred years after the birth of the Buddha, people from all over the world follow the extraordinary path he laid out, recognizing that suffering exists and has a cause and that if you take away the cause of suffering—ignorance—suffering will cease. The Buddha’s teachings have spread throughout the world and have contributed greatly to the modern fields of philosophy, psychology, ethics, and neuroscience. Anyone who’s willing to put in the effort to practice the eightfold path can, like the Buddha did, end the causes of suffering.

Heather Sanche

Heather Sanche

Heather Sanche is the author of The Life of the Buddha. In 2007, she took temporary ordination within the Pa-Auk tradition and lived in a forest monastery in Myanmar.