April 8 is the day Buddhists celebrate the birthday of Buddha. Gautama Buddha was born as Siddhartha Gautama, Prince of Kapilavastu in India in the sixth-century B.C.E.
I first encountered his story when in Siddhartha. a novel by Herman Hesse. (In the novel, the Buddha is referred to as “Gotama.”) Though it is a novel and not a religious tract, it put me on a path to learn about this man who is revered as the founder of Buddhism and his teachings.
He is worshipped by most Buddhist schools as the Enlightened One because he transcended Karma and escaped the cycle of birth and rebirth.
He taught for around 45 years and built a large following of both monastics and laypeople.
What I learned through Hesse’s novel was that the Prince was raised in luxury with no view of suffering. He married. He fathered a son. It was a normal life for a Prince in India at the time.
When he was 29 he decided he wanted to see the world outside the palace walls. In some short trips outside the palace, he encountered suffering for the first time. It shocked him to see people starving, ill, or crippled. It also amazed him that people often seemed to be calm in the midst of all their pain and sickness.
He left his palace life, wife, and child and for six years he traveled the country. He studied meditation. He lived the life of an ascetic with severe self-discipline and abstention from all forms of indulgence.
At age 35, he outlined the basic tenets of Buddhism. He wrote that the Four Noble Truths are: the nature of life is suffering; suffering is caused by human cravings and desire; there is relief from suffering in the state of Nirvana; and Nirvana is attainable by following an eightfold path to self-improvement. But a philosophy or a religion cannot be reduced to a few paragraphs or even to one book.
The word Siddhartha is from Sanskrit siddha (achieved) + artha (what was searched for) and is translated as “he who has found the meaning of existence” or “he who has attained his goals.”
It was several centuries after his death that he came to be known by the title Buddha, which means “Awakened or Enlightened One” His teachings were compiled by the Buddhist community in the Suttas. They contain his discourses and the rules and procedures that govern the Buddhist monastic community (sangha).
I recommend Hesse’s novel to people not because it will turn you toward Buddhism but because following Gotama’s path with him may bring you some insights. It won’t bring you enlightenment.
Actually, Hesse deliberately tries to through you off the path. No spoilers here his fictional Siddhartha disrespects Gotama but achieves enlightenment because he does not worship Gotama like a god. I find that people who know of the novel but haven’t read it think it is a historical novel about the origins of the Buddha. It is not.
Much of Hesse’s writing is West meets East. He was a Western man changed by the mysticism of Eastern thought, and it became a guiding force in his books. In 1946, he won the Nobel Prize for Literature for The Glass Bead Game.