Who Was Buddha?

(The image above is Keanu Reeves as the Buddha in Little Buddha, a movie that actually does a pretty good job of retelling the Buddha’s story, and also feature a weird Chris Isaak performance)

Yesterday was Vesak, a Buddhist holiday that, with extreme efficiency, celebrates the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment AND death all at once. It’s highly unlikely that all of those events took place on the same day, and as Buddhism is one of those ancient religions that is less interested in facts than modern religions are, nobody really got upset about it.

Vesak seems like a good opportunity to talk really briefly about just who the Buddha was, because it’s clear to me most people don’t know. I certainly didn’t know until a couple of years ago, and I had taken comparative religion courses and had a lifelong interest in religious mythology. I always thought Buddha was the fat guy whose statue you see in Chinese restaurants, but it turns out that ain’t him. In fact those fat Buddha statues couldn’t be farther from the real thing.


First. let’s get the fat Buddha out of the way: that’s Budai, not Buddha. He’s a Chinese monk who lived about 1400 years after the Buddha. He’s sort of a Buddhist saint, and rubbing his belly brings luck, and he has this magic cloth sack from which he would dispense treats. Think of him as the Chinese Buddhist Santa.

It’s possible that he’s an incarnation of Maitreya, the prophesied Buddha of the future who will arise when all memory of the dharma is forgotten. On his deathbed Budai supposedly said something to that effect. But he’s not the Buddha that we’re talking about when we talk about Buddhism.

The Buddha we are talking about is a guy named Siddhartha Guatama, a prince from a region of what is now Nepal. He was born in (maybe) 623 BCE, and his father was told he would either be the greatest king in the world or the greatest holy man in the world. Dad decided baby Sid should be a king, so he raised him hidden away from all the problems of the world.

Sid grew up in a series of palaces, and never saw illness or poverty or death. All he knew was abundance, everything he wanted he got. He trained in all the kingly arts of war, he married a beautiful woman. But he was never happy – no matter what he got it never satisfied the fundamental unease at the center of his soul.

One day he managed to slip out of the palace and travel through the town without his father’s interference. Usually his dad would sterilize the path Sid would take, so that the young prince would only see happy, prosperous people who loved him. But on this day Sid saw the real world. He saw, for the first time, desperately ill people. He saw, for the first time, very old and decrepit people. He saw, for the first time, a dead body. And finally he saw a holy man.

Sid was confused at first, but soon learned that all people get sick, all people get old, and all people die. And he learned that some people dedicate their lives not to feasts and war and women but to higher callings of spirituality, and they search for big answers to the questions of the universe.

With this knowledge Sid knew he couldn’t stay in the palace anymore. One night he escaped, leaving behind his wife and his infant son Rahula (which means ‘fetter,’ a truly brutal name to give your child) and began a search for spiritual meaning. He wandered for years, studying under many of India’s holiest men. And he mastered their teachings, mastered their paths of asceticism and strict renunciation. None of it made him happy. None of it brought him closer to fulfillment. (That skinny Buddha statue above is Sid during his ascetic days)

Knowing that pure physical abundance doesn’t bring happiness, and knowing that pure renunciation doesn’t bring happiness, Sid decided there had to be another way. So he sat underneath a tree and vowed to not get up until he was enlightened. He would think on it and figure it out.

According to the mythology Sid sat there for SEVEN WEEKS. And as he sat there he unlocked the secrets of his own mind, and in the process discovered the keys to enlightenment – The Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

The myth of the awakening of Sid is great; in the final days Mara, a trickster god, noticed that Sid was close to becoming enlightened and didn’t want it to happen, so he tried to interfere. First he sent his hot daughters to tempt Sid, but they failed. Then he sent a phantom army to attack him, but when their arrows entered the space around Sid they transformed into a rain of flower blossoms. Finally Mara showed up and angrily demanded Sid explain what he thought gave him the right to be enlightened, tried to sow seeds of doubt in Sid’s mind. Sid’s reply was to simply touch the earth and ask it to bear witness to his right to become enlightened.


And so he awoke. Buddha means ‘enlightened one,’ one who has attained bodhi, aka wisdom. It’s a title, one that many traditions say we can achieve for ourselves.

After he became enlightened Buddha thought he might do what so many other enlightened people had done before him (Sid was only the latest in a long line of awakened ones) – fuck off to a cave and just be happy. He didn’t think that people could grok the teachings he had come to understand, and he thought he might be wasting his time trying to explain all the stuff he had figured out while sitting under the tree. But he decided that he had to give a shot, and he went on to teach for the next 40 something years.

I used to think that when the Buddha achieved nirvana under that tree that he disappeared. That nirvana was a place you went, a heaven-like location (to be fair, in Pure Land Buddhism that is sort of the story. There are a lot of different kinds of Buddhism. I study Theravadan Buddhism, which tries to be OG Buddhist, going back to the original teachings of the Buddha and ignoring much of the other stuff that accumulated in the years after he died. It’s like hipster Buddhism – I like my awakening on vinyl). But nirvana is actually a state of being, and you can reach nirvana and, like the Buddha, run around for decades and decades.

Nirvana means that you have stepped outside of the cycle of death and rebirth; in India people really don’t want to be reborn. It seems crazy from our point of view, where we want to live forever, but in the Vedic traditions it is understood that we have been born and died and reborn millions of times. It’s like getting up every day for the same shitty commute – you eventually would like to just retire, please. When the Buddha finally died – done in either by a mushroom or bad pork, but either way he shit himself to death – he achieved paranirvana, the final death. He was not reborn. He became deathless.

The Buddha isn’t a god. You really shouldn’t pray to him, since he stopped existing when he died. Like I said, there are a lot of kinds of Buddhism, and in some of those traditions you can petition the Buddha, but it doesn’t make sense to me. Sid was just a guy, and he did the work he needed to do to attain the wisdom necessary to become awakened.

But that work didn’t end under the tree. He had to keep working at it for the rest of his life. Buddhist mythology is full of times when Mara showed up and got going at the Buddha. These stories are metaphors for the times that, even when awakened, Buddha was troubled by his fear, anxiety, doubt, greed and anger. But because he was awakened he knew how to deal with these negative emotions – the stories tell us that Buddha would invite Mara in for tea.

You don’t lose the bad stuff when you’re awakened, you just understand how the negative emotions and feelings work, and how to handle them. You no longer have to listen to the voice that tells you you’re unworthy, and over time that voice gets softer and softer.

What the Buddha taught was not a magical system or a metaphysical system, it was a practical system to deal with the things that plague us in our own minds. It was a practical system that allows us to see the world more clearly, to get out from behind our delusional and self-centered viewpoint and to understand what is really happening around us. How little of it is personal, how little of it has any external meaning beyond what we give it. The Buddha himself spoke very little about the meaning of life or the age of the universe or who created it. He didn’t care. He had his own little John Nada attitude about all that stuff – “I’ve come here to talk about two things,” he is sometimes credited with saying (he didn’t say it, but it’s a good distillation so I’ll repeat it anyway). “Suffering and the ending of suffering.”

Oh, and his wife and kid? They eventually left their cushy lives and joined him. His wife became a nun, Rahula became a monk.