Shakyamuni's Life

Buddhism In A Nutsell: Shakyamuni’s Life | Shakyamuni’s Teachings

The information on these pages is excerpted from Ken McLeod’s book, Wake Up To Your Life.

Wealth and Luxury

Approximately 2,500 years ago, Siddhartha, a prince of the Shakya clan in northern India, abandoned his royal heritage to seek the source of human suffering.

Siddhartha grew up in the greatest luxury that his time could provide, sheltered by an overly protective father who wanted his son to succeed to the throne. Not until his twenties did the prince venture beyond the palace grounds. His illusions about life were quickly shattered as he encountered illness, old age, and death among his subjects. Soon afterward, Siddhartha saw an old religious mendicant who was utterly present and at peace. How could that be? How could anyone be at peace in the midst of all that suffering?

No matter how we grow up, in wealth or poverty, in love or adversity, we form a view of life. Everything we do subsequently is based on the belief that that view of life is how things are. Perhaps you grew up in an environment in which you could easily trust everyone not to hurt you, but then you encounter a person who, for no reason you can imagine, is intent on doing you harm. Perhaps you grew up learning to trust no one and can’t imagine trusting another person with anything that is important to you. We first encounter the mystery of being when our view of life is called into question. All too often, we react by ignoring, closing down, manipulating, or controlling what arises in experience to avoid questioning that view of life and what we feel we are.


Siddhartha could not simply ignore what he had seen. Power, wealth, and position became meaningless to him in the face of illness, old age, and death. His conception of life and what he was were turned upside down and inside out. He saw another possibility, however, in the presence and peace of the religious mendicant.

The first encounter with the mystery of being momentarily shatters the structures of ordinary life. When everything falls away, a moment of opening takes place. In that moment, we are free – free from the fetters of beliefs and ideas about who and what we should be. In other words, in the midst of the destruction of our illusions about life, we experience being what we actually are – free, open awareness. Most of the time, we don’t notice that freedom and open awareness. We’re too busy putting our view of life back together. Even if we do notice it, we don’t stay there for long. But we have, like Siddhartha, encountered the religious mendicant and the possibility of presence.

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Following Your Own Question

Siddhartha soon left the court life he knew to examine the issue of suffering. Why is there suffering? Where does it come from?

His first step was to turn to the religious teachers of the day. He quickly learned everything they had to teach: their philosophies, meditation techniques, and codes of conduct. He practiced what he was taught, and he gained abilities equal to those of his teachers. Yet his questions remained unanswered.

The mystery of being often makes itself felt in our lives in the form of questions. We turn to institutions, traditions, and respected teachers, hoping to find answers to our questions. We study and practice, learning much that is helpful. When we really listen to our own questions, however, we know that we can never receive answers to them from an institution, tradition, or another person. The answer can come only through our own experience. At some point, we take what we have learned and apply it to our own questions. We have to make the practice our own.


Along with five companions, Siddhartha began a life of extreme asceticism in order to understand the source of human suffering. Tradition records that for six years he ingested only one sesame seed, one grain of rice, and one drop of water per day.

When they discover that their approach to life is based on an illusion, many people react by pursuing wealth and power. In pursuing asceticism, Siddhartha was taking an approach to life that was the opposite of the one that most people adopt. He had learned that wealth and power were meaningless. Perhaps the answers to his questions could be found in poverty and austerity.

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The Bodhi Tree

Whether we pursue wealth or austerity, our lives are still based on the same conditioning; it’s just running in the other direction. Which direction the conditioning runs makes no difference. Like a train that has been going the wrong direction, we stop, turn around, and go the opposite way, but we are running on the same tracks. The same ideas and assumptions are still operating. To enter the mystery of being, we have to step off the tracks.

After six years of starving himself, Siddhartha could no longer keep his mind clear. He concluded that the practice of asceticism for its own sake would not lead him to understand suffering. Siddhartha stopped his regimen and began to eat normally, despite being rejected by his companions.

With his body restored, he sat under a tree and resolved not to move until he understood the source of suffering. He let his mind rest in attention, undistracted, not trying to make anything happen, not trying to cultivate any particular quality or ability. He stopped everything and simply sat with his question: what is the source of suffering?

How do we step off the tracks? We stop trying to avoid, close down, manipulate, or control what arises in experience. When we do stop, we are inevitably regarded with suspicion, and even rejected, by those who continue to live their lives based on patterns and conditioning. We go forward alone.

Attention in Reaction

That evening Siddhartha entered progressively deeper states of attention. The traditional accounts describe how Mara, the demon of obsession, tried to distract Siddhartha and bring him back into the realm of reaction and confusion, where Mara held sway. He first tried to distract Siddhartha with desire by sending his daughters, in the form of beautiful women, to seduce him with affection, relationships, and sexual pleasure. Understanding that all experience, no matter how pleasurable, comes and goes, Siddhartha remained in attention. Mara tried anger next, sending armies of demons to the attack. Siddhartha saw the demonic armies as the play of mind, so the rain of weapons arose in his experience as a rain of beautiful flowers. Siddhartha then saw that the source of suffering was emotional reaction to what arises in experience. He saw that reactivity is based on the misperception that the “I” exists apart from experience. When he saw through the misperception, it dissolved completely. In that moment, Siddhartha became a Buddha, a person who has awakened from the sleep of unawareness and reactive patterning.

To wake up is hard. We must first realize that we are asleep. Next, we need to identify what keeps us asleep, start to take it apart, and keep working at dismantling it until it no longer functions. As soon as we make an effort to wake up, we start opening up to how things are. We experience what we have suppressed or avoided and what we have ignored or overlooked. When that happens, the reactive patterns that have run our lives, kept us in confusion, distorted our feelings, and caused us to ignore what is right in front of us are triggered. They rise up strongly to undermine the attention that is bringing us into a deeper relationship with what we are and what we experience. When we can see those patterns and everything that is constructed out of them as the movement of mind and nothing else, we begin to wake up.

The Final Challenge

Mara had one final challenge for him and demanded an external validation of his experience. Buddha Shakyamuni smiled, touched the earth, and said, “The earth is my witness.” That was the end of it.

The final challenge of habituated patterns is to question direct experience. How do we know? How can we trust this knowing, which is totally beyond the ordinary conditioned experience of life? Like Buddha Shakyamuni, we turn to no external reference and live in the knowing. We rest in presence, in the very mystery of being itself.

Buddhism In A Nutsell: Shakyamuni’s Life | Shakyamuni’s Teachings  

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