Who was King Ajatashatru

Buddha's life according to the Buddhist tradition

Buddha's life according to the Buddhist tradition

Buddhism can be traced back to a founder who is commonly referred to simply as "Buddha - Buddha (skt.) बुद्ध "The Enlightened One", jap. butsu (hotoke) 仏 or Budda 仏 陀; - " referred to as. He was born the son of a king, but resigned all offices and dignities and ended up as a religious teacher after a series of asceticisms and meditations. The most important episodes from the Buddha's life are briefly summarized on this page: Birth, Four Exits, Asceticism and Enlightenment, Dissemination of the Teaching and Death.

Buddha as a prince (Image: Nara National Museum). Siddhartha, the future Buddha, enjoys the good life of a prince. The illustration comes from one of the oldest illustrated versions of the Buddha Vita from the Nara period.
1 The adolescent Buddha as a prince, surrounded by his playmates (Nara period)

Key data and sources

According to recent research, the historical Buddha probably lived and worked from around 450 to 370 BC.1 He came from the Shakyas of the Kingdom of Kosala - Kosala (skt.) कोसल country of birth of Buddha Shakyamuni; - in today's Nepal, hence its nickname Shakyamuni - Śākyamuni (skt.) शाक्यमुनि "The sage of the Shakya clan", Gautama Siddhartha, Japanese Shaka 釈 迦 or Shakamuni 釈 迦 牟尼; - (= the wise one from the Shakya family). His personal name was Siddhartha - Siddhārtha (skt.) सिद्धार्थ proper names of the historical Buddha, Japanese Shiddatta 悉達多; -, his family name Gautama - Gautama (skt.) गौतम proper names of the historical Buddha; Pali: Gotama, Japanese kudon 瞿曇; - which is why he is often called Gautama Buddha. The legends from his life condensed into a standard biography in the course of time, which was published in the so-called Pali - Pāḷi (skt.) पाळि Middle Indian language, closely related to Sanskit; Language of the earliest canonical texts of Buddhism; - -canon is included. 2 Later biographies of the Buddha are e.g. in the BuddhacaritaBuddhacarita (skt.) बुद्धचरितम “Deeds of the Buddha”, biography of the historical Buddha of Ashvaghosha from the 2nd century CE; - (2nd century CE) as well as in Cause and Effect Sutra (jap. Inga-kyōInga-kyō因果 経 "Sutra of cause and effect (= karma)"; own Kako genzai inga-kyō 過去 現在 因果 経 (Sutra of cause and effect in the past and present, chin. Guoqu xian zaiyin guo jing) often too E-ingakyō 絵 因果 経 (Illustrated Sutra of Cause and Effect); Biography of the historical Buddha; available for the first time in Chinese translation by Gunabhadra, middle of the 5th century; -), works that were also known in Chinese versions since the fifth century. The Sutra of Cause and Effect was also illustrated in East Asia. The oldest surviving copies can be seen on this page. They come from the Nara - Nara 奈良 capital and seat of the Tennō, 710–784 (= Nara period); also: Heijō-kyō; - -time (8th century) and not only represent the oldest illuminated versions of the Inga-kyō, but also the beginning of Japanese book illumination.


Buddha was born a prince. His father, King Shuddhodana - Śuddhodana (skt.) शुद्धोदन father of Buddha Shakyamuni, king in North India, Japanese Jōbon-ō 浄飯王; - and his mother, Queen Maya, had been childless for twenty years when the queen saw in a dream a white elephant descending from the sky into her body. Then she became pregnant.

Buddha's birth (Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). The future Buddha sees the light of day for the last time in the flower garden of Lumbini. He is born from the right side of his mother, a sign that he has not experienced the “impurity” of birth.
2 Buddha is born from the right side of his mother

According to the customs of the country, the birth should take place in the queen's parental home, in the neighboring kingdom. However, the child came to the flower garden of Lumbini on the way there - Lumbinī (skt.) लुम्बिनी birthplace of Gautama Siddhartha (Buddha Shakyamuni), Japanese Ranbini 藍 毘尼; - to the world. The newborn was completely free from any impurity, which was also expressed in the fact that it emerged from the right side of its mother. (Many of the pictorial images of this scene clearly show the queen holding onto a branch during childbirth.) Immediately after giving birth, Buddha took seven steps, each with a lotus blossom growing out of the ground, and proclaimed, “That is my last birth, I will never be in a womb again. ”3 This happened on the eighth day of the fourth month. The child was called Siddhartha, which roughly means "who has achieved his goal". Queen Maya died seven days after he was born. Siddhartha was therefore raised by his aunt, Prajapati Gautami, who now took over her sister's position as queen.

The four exits

At 16 Siddhartha married his cousin Yashodhara - Yaśodharā (skt.) यसोधरा “Who receives the fame”, wife of Siddhartha Gautama, Japanese Yashodara 耶 輸 陀 羅; - and from then on lived in carefree luxury. Some biographies also report that he excelled in numerous aristocratic sports, such as archery. In other versions it is said that he owned a harem of 60,000 women.4 In this way, King Shuddhodana sought to shield his son from the world outside the palace and thus the Buddha's turning away from the world, as already indicated by soothsayers (and thus his renunciation of the worldly His father's succession). In his 29th year, however, Siddhartha felt the urge to get to know the real world and he undertook the legendary four trips. In doing so, he became aware of four views that had hitherto remained hidden from him. For the first time he saw an old man (old age), a febrile (illness), a corpse (death), and finally an ascetic (religion).

Exit of Prince Siddhartha (Photo: Bunka Isan). Prince Siddhartha, the future Buddha, leaves his father's palace and meets a sick person. After further encounters with an old man, a dead man and an ascetic, he decides to become an ascetic himself. The illustration comes from one of the oldest illustrated versions of the Buddha Vita from the Nara period.
3 Siddhartha leaves the royal palace for the first time
Siddhārtha meets an ascetic (Image: Nara National Museum). Prince Siddhartha, the future Buddha, leaves his father's palace and meets an ascetic. Before that he saw an old man, a sick man and a dead man for the first time and understood that all earthly existence amounts to suffering. He now decides to become an ascetic himself. The illustration comes from one of the oldest illustrated versions of the Buddha Vita from the Nara period.
4 encounter with an ascetic

These experiences prompted Siddhartha to leave his house, shave his head and start looking for a way to overcome old age, illness and death. At this point in time, Siddharta had a son, but this did not prevent him from doing his job, on the contrary, it encouraged him. The son was named Rahula - Rāhula (skt.) राहुल son of the Buddha; According to a common interpretation, the name means "fetter", "obstacle", Japanese Ragora 羅睺羅; -: "Fetter" .5

Asceticism and enlightenment

The volatile bodhisattva - Bodhisattva (skt.) बोधिसत्त्व "Enlightened Being", jap. bosatsu 菩薩; - 6 initially sought out some famous teachers, but soon withdrew completely from everyday life with five other ascetics. In his ascetic exercises Siddhartha surpassed his confreres. He was emaciated to the bone, dressed in the rags of the dead, and meditated at night among wild animals and in cemeteries. After six years, however, he realized that this path too tied him too closely to this world. He accepted a bowl of rice pudding, which the pious Sujata - Sujātā (skt.) सुजाता “The well-born”, maid who offered a bowl of rice pudding to Buddha; - offered (accepting a pleasure) and washed in a river (accepting cultural customs). From then on he walked the middle way between asceticism and abundance. But his five confreres turned away from him indignantly.

Buddha in meditation (Image: Museum of Fine Arts, Boston). At the end of his apprenticeship, Buddha meditates in order to eventually experience full enlightenment. During this time he is haunted by various temptations from the demon Mara. On the left of the picture you can see the daughters of Mara who are supposed to seduce him, while on the right the warriors of Mara shoot the Buddha unsuccessfully: the arrows are simply diverted.

Left to his own devices, the Bodhisattva made the decision to meditate until he came to the knowledge of overcoming illness, old age and death. Under the famous poplar fig tree (Banyan [ficus religiosa], also as bodhibodhi (skt.) बोधि “awakening, enlightenment”, jap. bodai 菩提; - -Tree known) in Bodhgaya - Bodhgayā (skt.) बोध्गया "place of enlightenment", place where Buddha had his enlightenment experience, Japanese buddagaya 仏 陀 伽 邪; - sitting he began his 49-day meditation, which should lead him to final enlightenment. Before that he had to deal with a demon (or god) named Mara - Māra (skt.) मार demon of evil, a kind of equivalent of Satan in Buddhism, Japanese mara 魔 羅; - who tried in various ways to interfere with the bodhisattva's meditative contemplation. On the one hand he sent terrifying spirits, on the other hand his own seductive daughters, in order to finally claim the status of an enlightened one for himself. The Bodhisattva, however, only touched the ground with his fingertips, as a sign that the earth was a witness of his karmic merits (mudramudrā (skt.) मुद्रा "Seal", prayer gesture, jap. inzō 印 相; - the earth contact). Eventually he gained a higher insight into his own previous existences, recognized the cycle of life and death in which all beings are entangled, and freed himself from the emotional ties to this very cycle. So on the 8th day of the twelfth month, in his 35th year of life, he became a Buddha, an enlightened one.

Meditation and temptation of the Buddha (Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art). At the end of his apprenticeship, Buddha meditates in order to eventually experience full enlightenment. During this time he is haunted by various temptations from the demon Mara. In this version of the Inga-kyō the beasts that are used are particularly drastic.
7 Various demons try to tear the Buddha out of his meditation.

Buddha as a teacher

The Buddha then went near the city of Benares, in the deer park of Sarnath - Sārnāth (skt.) सार्नाथ् City in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh, 10 km north of Benares (Varanasi), known for the Dhamek Stupa, one of the oldest Buddhist grave monuments; - where he met his five confreres again and explained four noble truths to them in his first sermon as an enlightened one. This sermon is also known as the "First Turning of the Wheel of Doctrine". His confreres were converted to his teaching and became arhats - arhat (skt.) अर्हत् highest level of human existence before leaving the birth cycle, jap. rakan; - (= highest level of human existence before leaving the birth cycle). The deer park of Sarnath is therefore the place where the first Buddhist monastic community (sanghasaṃgha (skt.) संघ "(monk) community", jap. so 僧 or sōgya 僧伽; -) constituted.

For the next 45 years the Buddha led the life of a dispossessed mendicant monk and traveled with a crowd of disciples preaching through India, primarily through the northern Indian empire of Magadha - Magadha (skt.) मगध Northeast Indian kingdom that existed in the 6th to 4th centuries B.C.E. reached its prime; -. He defied all existing caste barriers and was a welcome guest both with the poorest and in many ruling houses. In particular, Buddha enjoyed the trust of Magadha's King Bimbisara - Bimbisāra (skt.) बिम्बिसार important king of the kingdom of Magadha during the Buddha's lifetime, Japanese Binbasara 頻 婆娑 羅; - who had offered Siddharta to become his successor even before he became Buddha. Bimbisara entered Buddhism as a lay follower and founded the first monastery. Not far from Bimbisara's capital Rajagrha - Rājagṛha (skt.) कोसल capital of Magadha and place of the first Buddhist council, shortly after the death of the Buddha; today Rajgir; - there is also the so-called "Geierberg" (Grdhrakuta - Gṛdhrakūṭa (skt.) गृध्रकूट "Vulture's peak", Indian mountain near Rajagrha (Rajgir), on which Buddha preached, Japanese Ryōjusen 霊 鷲 山; -). Many sutras, including the Lotos Sutra - Hoke-kyō法 華 経 Lotus Sutra; skt. Saddharma pundarika sutra; jap. too Hokkekyō or Myōhō renge kyō; is one of the most influential texts of Mahayana Buddhism, the oldest versions are believed to be in the first century B.C.E. be created .; - can be traced back to sermons that the Buddha is said to have preached here. After the Buddha succeeded, mighty devadeva (skt.) देव "Deity", highest class of Indian gods, jap. -th 天 or tenbu 天 部; - -Deities led by Indra - Indra (skt.) इन्द्र high Indian deity, comparable to Zeus / Jupiter, Japanese Taishaku-ten 帝釋 天; - to convert to his teaching, he even made heaven himself ready devas made a temporary visit to preach to his mother, who has since become a goddess. His return to earth turned out to be a triumphal procession, led by the deities Brahma - Brahmā (skt.) ब्रह्मा one of the three main Hindu deities, also Brahman; derived from: Brahmins (priests); - and Indra was cited. 7

Devadatta, the adversary of the Buddha

Despite his success, Buddha was also questioned or even attacked. Even within his monastic community there was a split, that of Buddha's own cousin, Devadatta - Devadatta (skt.) देवदत्त “God's gift”, cousin and opponent of the Buddha, Japanese Daibadatta 提婆達多; -, was cited. Later legends stylized Devadatta as the epitome of evil: He not only tried to divorce the Buddha from his allegiance, he also carried out attacks on the Buddha's life. For example, he once had an elephant chased at Buddha, who, however, immediately knelt down in awe in the face of the enlightened one (this kneeling elephant is often the subject of hagiographic depictions).In the already mentioned kingdom of Magadha, Devadatta, out of jealousy, instigated a coup d'état by the king's son, Ajatashatru - Ajātaśatru (skt.) अजातशत्रु King v. Magadha in North India (r. 491-461 B.C.), Japanese Ajase 阿闍世; - (Japanese Ajase), who, according to some versions of this story, killed his own father Bimbisara on this occasion. The conversion of the repentant Ajatashatru and his acceptance into the Buddha's allegiance is an important episode that underscores the Buddha's generosity. But Devadatta is said to have fallen into hell with a living body because of his offenses. Some stories also go back to the youth of Shakyamuni and Devadatta, when both courted the beautiful Yashodhara and she finally chose the Buddha. Devadatta is thus a double of the Buddha who, due to its imperfection, ultimately becomes his antagonist. But he also finds a Christian equivalent in the figure of Judas.

Katsushika Hokusai, Devadatta's journey into hell (Image: Waseda University Library). The picture comes from a book with legends from Buddha's life. It shows Buddha, surrounded by several disciples and in the foreground Buddha's opponent, his cousin Devadatta, who made various attacks on Buddha's life out of jealousy. The picture bears the following inscription: "Devadatta, who wanted to harm the world saint [Buddha], as he falls alive into hell."

The historical core of the Devadatta narratives is likely to be that there actually was a schism in the early Buddhist community. Devadatta and his followers seem to have campaigned against the “middle way” between asceticism and enjoyment and for stricter forms of turning away from the world. The earliest accounts of Chinese monks from India suggest that in the early centuries C.E. still practicing Devadatta Buddhism must have existed. The demonization of Devadatta can thus be seen as an expression of a strategy against apostate confreres.


At the age of 80 the Buddha fell ill after knowingly eating a poisoned meal and foresaw that he would now enter nirvana.8 In the forest of the castle of Kushinagara - Kuśīnagara (skt.) कुशीनगर place of Buddha's death, Japanese Kushinagara 拘 尸 那 愒 羅; -, in the shade of two large Shala trees, he gave his last sermon and then breathed out his earthly life in the company of his disciples. The Buddha's body was cremated after his death. A dispute arose between the king of Kushinagara and the surrounding rulers as to who owed possession of the holy man's ashes. In the end it was agreed to divide them up, and so the Buddha was buried in eight places, each with grave monuments (stupastūpa (skt.) स्तूप "hill", grave monument, jap. 塔 or sotoba 卒 塔 婆; -) were built (see well-known pagodas and stupas outside of Japan).

Entry of the Buddha into Nirvana (Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). At Buddha's death, which also means his entry into nirvana, not only his human disciples complain. Various protective deities can hardly contain themselves from pain. Only the noble bodhisattvas are able to keep their emotions in check.
10 laments at the Buddha's demise

Dissemination of teaching

In the year after the Buddha's death, his teachings were at the "first Buddhist council" in Rajagrha - Rājagṛha (skt.) कोसल capital of Magadha and place of the first Buddhist council, shortly after the death of the Buddha; today Rajgir; - codified and thus the foundation stone for the Buddhist canon (tripitakatripiṭaka (skt.) त्रिपिटक "Three baskets", canonical writings of Buddhism, jap. sanzō 三 蔵; - ) placed. A hundred years after the Buddha's death, the second "council" took place in Vaishali - Vaiśālī (skt.) वैशाली place of the 2nd Buddhist Council; Site of a famous Buddhist funerary monument (stupa); - instead, on which above all the monastic rules were redefined. Other councils followed. In connection with these assemblies (the details of which are of course beyond historical examination) also appear the names of the Buddha's disciples who, like the apostles of Christianity, first created the teaching structure from Buddha's words that we call Buddhism today. The most famous students include:

  • Shariputra - Śāriputra (skt.) शारिपुत्र main disciple of the Buddha, Japanese Sharihotsu 舎 利 佛; -, main disciple of the Buddha, of whom in Theravada - Theravāda (pali) थेरवाद "School of the elderly", Buddhist direction (given here in Pali; skt: Sthaviravada), jap. jōzabu bukkyō 上座 部 仏 教; - -Buddhism many own sermons are handed down. Older than the Buddha himself, he died while he was still alive and went into nirvana - Nirvāṇa (skt.) निर्वाण “extinguished, extinguished”, place of redemption from all suffering, Japanese Nehan 涅槃; - a. In Mahayana - Mahāyāna (skt.) महायान "large vehicle", Buddhist direction, jap. daijō bukkyō 大乗; - Buddhism less prominent, e.g. it appears in the Heart Sutra - Hannya shingyō般若 心 経 "Heart Sutra of Perfect Wisdom"; - as a dialogue partner of Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara - Avalokiteśvara (skt.) अवलोकितेश्वर “Lord who perceives [the world] below”, Bodhisattva, Japanese Kannon 観 音 or Kanzeon 観 世 世; - (Kannon - Kannon 観 音 also Kanzeon 観 世 音, wtl. who hears the sound of the world; skt. Avalokiteśvara; Chinese guanyin; known as the Bodhisattva of Compassion; - ) on.
  • Maudgalyayana - Maudgalyāyana (skt.) मौद्गल्यायन 2. Disciple of the Buddha; gifted with psychic abilities, it was possible for him to visit the underworld; in East Asian versions of his legend he saves his mother there, Japanese Mokuren 目 連; - (Japanese Mokuren - Mokuren 目 連 disciple of the Buddha; skt. Maudgalyayana; deliver his mother from hell; -), a close friend of Shariputra. Various supernatural properties are ascribed to him. He too died a violent death before the Buddha, which the Buddha with his bad karma - Karma (skt.) कर्म “act”, also “consequent consequence”; moral balance of the actions taken, Japanese Gō 業; - explained from previous existences. In Japan Maudgalyayana / Mokuren is best known for the fact that he freed his deceased mother from hell or from her existence as a hunger ghost through prayers.
  • Mahakashyapa - Mahākāśyapa (skt.) महाकाश्यप disciple of the Buddha, Japanese Daikashō 大 迦葉; - (Japanese Daikashō), the organizer of the first council in Rajagrha. Especially the chan - Chan (chin.) 禅 jap. Zen, wtl. Meditation; Chinese description of Zen Buddhism; - or Zen Buddhism sees Mahakashyapa as its first patriarch. According to this tradition, the Buddha once stepped before the assembled monks and did nothing more than turn a lotus flower in his hand in silence. All the monks were at a loss, only Mahakashyapa smiled mysteriously. The Buddha then announced that all of his wisdom and mind had passed to Mahakashyapa.
  • Ānanda - Ānanda (skt.) आनन्द "Joy", disciple of the Buddha, Japanese Anan 阿難; - (Japanese Anan), the younger brother of the apostate Devadatta (see above), both cousins ​​of the Buddha. Known for his good memory, he is said to have recited the Buddha's discourses by heart at the first council of Buddhism. So he was something of an evangelist of Buddhism, from whose oral tradition the sutras emerged. Some interpretations say that Ānanda had enlightenment (or Arhat - arhat (skt.) अर्हत् highest level of human existence before leaving the birth cycle, jap. rakan; - -schaft) obtained. Basically he never understood the Buddha's words and therefore literally memorized them. This narrow-mindedness made him the ideal chronicler of the Buddha's words.
  • Vimalakirti - Vimalakīrti (skt.) विमलकीर्ति "Shining fame", rich merchant and lay follower, hero of his own sutra, Japanese Yuima 維摩; - (jap. Yuima), a rich merchant and lay follower, who only appears in the Mahayana, but here is the hero of his own sutra. His example shows that Buddhism is also the right option for “house keepers”, that is, for people who are involved in worldly life.

Buddha images in different cultures


In Gandhara - Gandhāra (skt.) गन्धार Kingdom in today's Pakistan or city of the same name (also Purushapura, today Peshavar); after the Greek conquests under Alexander the great under the influence of the Hellenistic culture, later, in the 1st – 3rd centuries. Century C.E. Capital of the Buddhist Kushana Empire; early center of Buddhist art; -, a region in what is now Pakistan, Buddhism came into contact with Hellenism9 and developed a distinctive naturalistic iconography for the first time. Although the Greek formal language of these figures was soon replaced by other styles, most of the motifs from this period were preserved and can also be recognized in later East Asian representations.

Alchi, Ladakh

The following images are from Alchi, a Buddhist monastery complex in the western Indian part of the Himalayas (Ladakh). All detailed pictures from Buddha's life are on the hip scarf (dhotidhoṭī (skt.) धोटी traditional trousers of Indian men; -) a nearly 5m high sculpture of Bodhisattva Maitreya - Maitreya (skt.) मैत्रेय "The kind, the loving", Buddha of the future, Japanese Miroku 弥勒; -, the "Buddha of the future". The images come from the web project Indian and Tibetan Buddhist Art by Christian Luczanits & Jaroslav Poncar and have been reproduced here with the kind permission of the authors. Luczanits writes in the introduction to the series of pictures of Buddha's life:

The depiction of the legend on Maitreya’s dhoti is a unique interpretation of the Buddha’s life that not only incorporates the different authoritative traditions but also successfully hints towards the true nature of the Buddha in Mahayana. The life of a Buddha is nothing else than the marvelous dress of a super-human, namely Maitreya, who is himself an emanation of the true nature of a Buddha represented as Vairocana in his crown.10


Borobudur - Borobudur (skt.) Largest Buddhist monument in Java, Indonesia, in the form of a three-dimensional mandala; - is considered the largest Buddhist monument in the world (see pagodas and stupas outside of Japan. It is located on the island of Java, which was once an important link on the sea route from India to China. Java was founded in the 8th and 9th centuries by ruled by the Buddhist Sailendra dynasty, which is responsible for the construction of the monument. It is a walk-in, three-dimensional mandala - maṇḍala (skt.) मण्डल "Circle", schematic representation of the cosmic order, jap. mandara 曼荼羅; -, a mountain of sculptures that represents the Buddhist world as a whole. Each surface of the monument is decorated with reliefs that, among other things, deal with the life of the historical Buddha.