According to traditional biographies, Siddhartha Gautama (c. 563-483 BCE) was a prince from northern India who renounced his privileged life to seek spiritual awakening. At first he followed the ascetic tradition of Indian holy men, mortifying the flesh with extreme fasting and other hardships. After seven years of such striving, and now so emaciated as to be barely alive, he came to sit under the Bodhi Tree at Gaya. One evening, he accepted a little nourishing food, relaxed, and felt a profound change overtake him. After sitting through the night, at dawn he achieved a state of perfect understanding, becoming a Buddha (enlightened one).
Siddhartha’s insight into the nature of reality was later formulated as the Four Noble Truths of Buddhism.
- The first truth is that life, as usually lived, is suffering “Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering.” The Pali Canon of Buddhist scriptures (duhkha)-frustration of desire, losing what we want, having to live with what we do not want.
- The second truth is that suffering results from clinging to the illusory things of the world with desire or hatred, striving for one or fleeing another.
- The third truth spells out the solution: the achievement of nirvana, the state of enlightenment in which the world can be seen for the delusion that it is. Freedom from illusion will mean freedom from attachment to illusory desires.
- The final truth sets out the practical path to enlightenment dharma—including right understanding, right speech, right action, and right concentration.
In the context of the traditional Indian belief in reincarnation, nirvana is seen as the escape from the endless cycle of death and rebirth. Freedom is found in the realization that even the self is an illusion.