The Buddha, or Siddhartha Gautama, was born around 567 B.C.E., in a small kingdom just below the Himalayan foothills. His father was a chief of the Shakya clan. It is said that twelve years before his birth the brahmins prophesied that he would become either a universal monarch or a great sage. To prevent him from becoming an ascetic, his father kept him within the confines of the palace. Gautama grew up in princely luxury, shielded from the outside world, entertained by dancing girls, instructed by brahmins, and trained in archery, swordsmanship, wrestling, swimming, and running. When he came of age he married Gopa, who gave birth to a son. He had, as we might say today, everything.
And yet, it was not enough. Something—something as persistent as his own shadow—drew him into the world beyond the castle walls. There, in the streets of Kapilavastu, he encountered three simple things: a sick man, an old man, and a corpse being carried to the burning grounds. Nothing in his life of ease had prepared him for this experience. When his charioteer told him that all beings are subject to sickness, old age, and death, he could not rest.
As he returned to the palace, he passed a wandering ascetic walking peacefully along the road, wearing the robe and carrying the single bowl of a sadhu. He then resolved to leave the palace in search of the answer to the problem of suffering. After bidding his wife and child a silent farewell without waking them, he rode to the edge of the forest. There, he cut his long hair with his sword and exchanged his fine clothes for the simple robes of an ascetic.
With these actions Siddhartha Gautama joined a whole class of men who had dropped out of Indian society to find liberation. There were a variety of methods and teachers, and Gautama investigated many—atheists, materialists, idealists, and dialecticians. The deep forest and the teeming marketplace were alive with the sounds of thousands of arguments and opinions, unlike in our time.
Gautama finally settled down to work with two teachers. From Arada Kalama, who had three hundred disciples, he learned how to discipline his mind to enter the sphere of nothingness. But even though Arada Kalama asked him to remain and teach as an equal, he recognized that this was not liberation, and left. Next Siddhartha learned how to enter the concentration of mind which is neither consciousness nor unconsciousness from Udraka Ramaputra. But neither was this liberation and Siddhartha left his second teacher.
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