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The man known as Gautama Buddha, or simply “Buddha,” was born as Siddhartha Gautama around the 6th century BC. Much of what we know of Buddha is passed down from legends and oral traditions. There are no written works mentioning him until several centuries after his death. According to mainstream accounts, he was born to an aristocratic family who sheltered him from worldly suffering. Despite their efforts, he learned of pain and misery, became discouraged, and gave up his wealth in order to become a religious ascetic. Eventually, Gautama Buddha settled on an approach avoiding the extremes of gluttony and self-denial. His teachings form the basis of the religion known today as Buddhism.
Historical information about Buddha is difficult to find. The earliest written texts detailing his life and teachings are dated nearly 500 years after his death. However, he is referenced indirectly in other texts, and his teachings are mentioned by others well before this. Despite the scarcity of information, scholars are confident that Gautama Buddha was an historical person and that the commonly held outline of his life is accurate. Particular details about him, including finer details of his philosophy, are impossible to know with any certainty. Not surprisingly, biographical details of Buddha’s life tend toward the fantastic, including his possessing various supernatural powers.
Siddhartha Gautama’s family was wealthy and powerful. Various biographies describe him as athletic, beautiful, and well trained as a warrior. His parents attempted to shelter him from knowledge of pain and suffering. They also kept him from religious teachings, which in that time and place were a blend of local superstitions and various interpretations of Hinduism. As a result, Buddha was nearly thirty years old before first experiencing sickness or death. Against his parents’ wishes, he ventured outside the palace walls and discovered dead bodies, elderly people, and sick people. In response, he ran away from his family and became an ascetic, living as a beggar and owning no property.
During these early years, Gautama experimented with various spiritual disciplines but rejected all of them. Buddha eventually attempted to live without even eating, an experiment that nearly killed him. This experience convinced him that neither greed nor austerity were the keys to happiness. He determined meditation to be the only way to determine truth. So, he sat under a tree and resolved to stay there until he had discovered ultimate truth. Nearly fifty days later, Siddhartha Gautama is said to have attained Enlightenment, or a state of perfect spiritual awareness. From this point on, he was known as “Buddha” or “The Enlightened One.”
For the rest of his life, Buddha lived as a wandering teacher and developed a large following. The only teaching definitively tied to Buddha himself is an emphasis on meditation as the “middle way” between hedonism and self-denial. Whether by Buddha himself or by his early followers, Buddhism was founded on concepts such as the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and a continuation of certain Hindu beliefs including karma and reincarnation. According to Buddhist teachings, life is suffering, and suffering is primarily caused by desire. The only way to break the cycle of rebirth, per Buddhism, is to shed all desires, follow the Middle Way, and attain the perfect state of emptiness. Once a person is purged of all cravings and repulsions, he or she becomes a Buddha and stops reincarnating.
Gautama Buddha died around the age of eighty. Various biographical sources attribute his death to either food poisoning or a bowel obstruction.
Despite what well-meaning people may claim, Buddha’s life and teachings are starkly different from those of Jesus Christ. Their backgrounds, morality, and spirituality were drastically different, as were their approaches to life and human advancement.
Buddha’s life is known only by texts dated centuries after his life, most of which strongly contradict each other. The written documents we have speaking of Jesus’ life were written within a few years of his crucifixion, were widespread less than a century later, and contain harmonized details.
Buddha was born into privilege, struggled to find his way, and eventually spent decades as a spiritual guru. Jesus was born poor (Matthew 8:20), was renowned for lifelong virtue (Hebrews 4:15; 1 Peter 1:19), and taught publicly for only about three years.
Buddhism teaches that life is suffering and that one’s only hope is to cease to exist upon attaining emptiness. Christ taught that each person’s life is meaningful (John 14:3; Matthew 5:22) and capable of happiness (John 10:10) and that the ultimate goal of existence is eternity with God (Revelation 21:3–4).
Buddhism makes no factual or empirical claims—one either accepts its philosophical approach, or not. Christianity is rooted in history (1 Corinthians 15:3), evidence (Psalm 19:11; Romans 1:2), Scripture (Acts 17:11; John 5:39, 46–47), and prophecy (Luke 18:31; 24:27); and it requires a person to make a decision whether to accept or reject Jesus as Messiah (John 3:17–18).
Buddha died a revered sage of his people, at a ripe old age. Jesus was brutally executed (Mark 15:24) at the insistence of His own people (Mark 15:14–15) while just in His early thirties.
Most importantly, Buddha never claimed to be divine, and his death is considered the end of his story. Jesus Christ claimed to be God (Matthew 26:63–65), intended to prove it by His miracles (John 20:30–31), and was seen resurrected after His death by His closest friends and family (John 21:14; Acts 1:3).
Who was Gautama Buddha?
Encountering World Religions by Irving Hexham
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