There was once a king named Suddhodana and a queen named Mahamaya who lived in the city of Kapilavastu in the sixth century B.C. One day, as the queen was resting in her palace, she dreamt that a white elephant carrying a white lotus in its trunk entered her right side. Sometime later, a baby was born to the queen. He was named Siddhartha Gautama.
A group of astrologers predicted that the young prince would grow up to be either a great emperor or that he would turn his back on privilege and power to become a great spiritual leader.
The prince grew up within the palace walls, having no contact with the outside world. He learned the skills and engaged in the pastimes of princes. Prince Siddhartha married a beautiful princess named Yashodhara and they had a son. The little boy was named Rahula. They all lived happily together within the world of wealth and power.
Until one day, when Prince Siddhartha finally persuaded his father to let him go outside the palace walls to see the city. What Siddhartha did not know was that his father had ordered the city streets cleared of anyone who was old or sick. So when Siddhartha and his groom set out for their tour of the city in chariots they saw many young and happy people.
However, they also happened upon a feeble old man who was lying at the side of the road. As this was different from anything Siddhartha had ever seen before, he asked someone to explain what was wrong with the man. It was only then that Siddhartha learned about how people get old. Siddhartha was very moved by the suffering of the old man. He journeyed out into the city three more times and saw a sick man, a dead man, and a sage. These visits led to his realizing the fundamental truths of life.
Siddhartha left his wife and son at the palace and set out to learn the way of finding salvation and understanding. At the edge of the city, he took off his princely robes, cut his hair and sent his groom back to the palace with his horse.
Siddhartha wandered through the forests seeking understanding from wise men and ascetics. However, this did not bring him satisfaction or greater understanding. Finally, Siddhartha settled under a tree to meditate. While he sat under the tree, demons came to tempt him. However, he resisted them. After many days of meditating, Siddhartha achieved Enlightenment. From that point, he was known as the Buddha.
The Buddha delivered his first sermon at Sarnath. In this sermon, he shared the knowledge he had gained through meditation and set the Wheel of the Law in motion. For the rest of his life, the Buddha traveled around sharing his teachings with many people.
The Buddha died in 483 B.C. at the age of 80. Upon his death he attained Nirvana. After his body was cremated, his ashes were divided up and taken to eight different sites. At each of these sites, a mound-like structure called a stupa was built to contain the ashes. Over time, many stupas were built and rebuilt, serving as centers of worship for the Buddha's followers.
“I can die happily. I have not kept a single teaching hidden in a closed hand. Everything that is useful for you, I have already given. Be your own guiding light.”
– The Buddha, while leaving his body at the age of eighty.