The historical Buddha (or ‘enlightened one’) was born in Lumbini in what is now the border region of Nepal and India. He was born some 2,500 years ago into privilege and ease and his early life as a prince was, materially, a good one. He married young and all seemed well with his world. However, over the course of three rides on a chariot, accompanied only by his charioteer, he was forced to confront the fact that not everyone was as fortunate as him: in the world, there was illness, old age and death. As he thought about this, the young man, named Gautama (or Gotama or sometimes Siddhartha) decided that he needed to think more about the nature of life and would prefer to be an itinerant monk rather than a prince. The attitude of his parents and young wife when he announced this to them can be imagined.
For the next few years, the Buddha followed a life of great asceticism while becoming recognised by fellow monks as a leader and holy person. It is said that he became so thin that he could count all of his bones. However, he eventually came to realise that rejection of the phenomena of the universe, just like his previous life of ease and luxury, was no way to reach enlightenment. He then announced that he would follow a middle path of moderation – this again was very unpopular with his monk followers and he was forced to start again alone. Nevertheless, he persisted and went from place to place, teaching, meditating and accepting offerings of food from followers and supporters. Eventually, he settled down underneath a bodhi tree until such time as he achieved enlightenment – nirvana, the freedom of the spirit from desire for worldly things and the ability to escape the endless cycle of birth, suffering, death and rebirth.
Gautama, the living Buddha, then returned to his family, was reconciled with them and helped them too to become enlightened. He subsequently spent a number of years teaching and helping others to achieve their own spiritual awakening. He was also responsible for establishing the sangha, the organisation of monks that meets at regular periods to establish and practice doctrine (dharma) and to exchange knowledge and practice. The sangha continues to the present day and is the oldest social organisation in the world.
After many years of quiet happiness and achievement in this late stage of his life, the Buddha accepted that his death was upon him and prepared himself for movement into a new state of being. As an enlightened creature, the Buddha was free to escape from the universe that we know into another universe for enlightened creatures about which we know nothing.