Buddha was born in Kapilavastu, Became Enlightened in Magadha, Taught in Varanasi, Entered Nirvana in Kushinagara. Now we set out Buddha's bowls; May we, with all living beings, realize the emptiness of the three wheels: giver, receiver, and gift.
This verse, which is chanted before formal meals during Zen Buddhist retreats, sets out in abbreviated form the life and career of the man who has come to be known as the Buddha. The known facts of the Buddha's life do not fill much more space than that eight-line verse, and there is a certain irony in presenting a biography of the Buddha. Buddhism, as a set of religious practices, places little emphasis on the individual, and so is not inclined to concern itself with the life of its founder.
We do know that he was born in northern India around the year 600 B.C.E., the son of the ruler of the Shakya clan. His name was Siddhartha Gautama. We are told that prior to his birth his father received a prophecy that his son would be either a great religious leader or a mighty ruler. To ensure that his son would make what the father thought was the proper decision, he raised Siddhartha within the walls of the court, showering him with luxuries but not allowing him to venture outside. Siddhartha succeeded in slipping out of the palace and was confronted with a vision of a sick man, an old man, a corpse, and a wandering holy man. The realization that life involved suffering weighed heavily on Siddhartha's mind, leading him to abandon his previous life, leaving behind the palace, his wife, and his infant son, and setting out into the forest to pursue the life of a wandering monk. Siddhartha studied with many of the holy men who wandered through the forests with their disciples seeking ways to come to terms with the unhappiness and dissatisfaction that people faced in their day-to-day lives. Despite his ability to master the various meditation techniques taught by the many schools of wandering monks, Siddhartha was unable to find answers to the question of why there was suffering. Following the ascetic practices prescribed by the various teachers left Siddhartha emaciated and weakened.
One day, a passing child from a nearby village offered him a bowl of rice cooked in milk. Siddhartha, in violation of what he had been taught, that the source of suffering lay in the body and that the path out of suffering required turning away from the body, understood that his own body was the vehicle through which he would reach enlightenment and that ignoring the needs of the body hindered his attainment of the Way.