Adapted, with permission, from "How the Swans Came to the Lake" (Shambhala Publications).

Siddhartha Gautama was born around 567 B.C.E. in a small kingdom just below the Himalayan foothills. His father was chief of the Shakya clan. It is said that 12 years before his birth, the brahmins prophesied that he would become either a universal monarch or a great sage. To prevent him from becoming an ascetic, his father kept him within the confines of the palace. Gautama grew up in princely luxury, shielded from the outside world, entertained by dancing girls, instructed by brahmins, and trained in archery, swordsmanship, wrestling, swimming, and running. When he came of age, he married Gopa, who gave birth to a son. He had, as we might say, everything.

And yet, it was not enough. Something--something as persistent as his own shadow--drew him into the world beyond the castle walls. There, in the streets of Kapilavastu, he encountered three simple things: a sick man, an old man, and a corpse being carried to the burning grounds. Nothing in his life of ease had prepared him for this experience, and when his charioteer told him that all beings are subject to sickness, old age, and death, he could not rest. As he returned to the palace, he passed a wandering ascetic walking peacefully along the road, wearing the robe and carrying the single bowl of a sadhu, and Siddhartha resolved to leave the palace in search of the answer to the problem of suffering. He bade his wife and child a silent farewell without waking them, and rode to the edge of the forest, where he cut his long hair with his sword and exchanged his fine clothes for the simple robes of an ascetic.

With these actions, Siddhartha Gautama joined a whole class of men who had dropped out of Indian society to find liberation. There were a variety of methods and teachers, and Gautama investigated many.

He finally settled down to work with two teachers. From Arada Kalama, who had 300 disciples, he learned how to discipline his mind to enter the sphere of nothingness; but even though Arada Kalama asked him to remain and teach as an equal, he recognized that this was not liberation and left. Next, Siddhartha learned from Udraka Ramaputra how to enter the concentration of mind that is neither consciousness nor unconsciousnes. But neither was this liberation, and Siddhartha left his second teacher.

For six years, Siddhartha, along with five companions, practiced austerities and concentration. He drove himself mercilessly, eating only a single grain of rice a day, pitting mind against body. His ribs stuck through his wasted flesh, and he seemed more dead than alive. His five companions left him after he made the decision to take more substantial food and to abandon asceticism. Then, a woman named Sujata offered him a dish of milk and a separate vessel of honey. His strength returned, Siddhartha washed himself in the Nairanjana River, and then set off to the Bodhi tree. He spread a mat of kusha grass underneath, crossed his legs, and sat.

He sat solid and unmoving and determined as a mountain, until finally, after six days, his eye opened on the rising morning star, and he realized that what he had been looking for had never been lost, neither to him nor to anyone else. Therefore, there was nothing to attain, and no longer any struggle to attain it.

"Wonder of wonders," he is reported to have said, "this very enlightenment is the nature of all beings, and yet they are unhappy for lack of it." So it was that Siddhartha Guatama woke up at the age of 35 and became the Buddha, the Awakened One, known as Shakyamuni, the sage of the Shakyas.

For seven weeks, he enjoyed the freedom and tranquility of liberation. At first, he had no inclination to speak about his realization, which he felt would be too difficult for most people to understand. But when, according to legend, Brahma, chief of 3,000 worlds, requested that the Awakened One teach, since there were those "whose eyes were just a little clouded over," the Buddha agreed.

Shakyamuni's two former teachers, Udraka and Arda Kalama, had both died only a few days earlier, and so he sought the five ascetics who had left him. When they saw him approaching the Deer Park in Benares, they decided to ignore him, since he had broken his vows. Yet they found something so radiant about his presence that they rose, prepared a seat, bathed his feet, and listened as the Buddha turned the wheel of dharma, the teachings, for the first time.

The five ascetics who listened to the Buddha's first discourse in the Deer Park became the nucleus of a community, a sangha, of men (women were to enter later. These bhikshus, or monks, lived simply, owning a bowl, a robe, a needle, a water strainer, and a razor, since they shaved their heads as a sign of having left home.

They traveled around northeastern India, practicing meditation alone or in small groups, begging for their meals.