Shakyamuni Buddha was a spiritual teacher from ancient India. He was born a prince named Siddhartha Gautama. “Shakya” refers to the clan of his origin and means “compassion”; “muni” means “wisdom.” Therefore, Shakyamuni Buddha is the “Awakened one with perfect compassion and wisdom”.
At Prince Siddartha’s birth, a wise man, Asita, predicted that the prince would either grow up to be a great king, or leave the palace to become an enlightened one, a savior of all sentient beings. His father, King Suddodana, was alarmed by this prophecy. Wishing for his son to become a worldly ruler like himself, the king surrounded his son with luxuries, and provided him everything a child would ever need or want. When the prince was sixteen, the King arranged for him to marry a beautiful princess. He hoped Siddhartha would be too preoccupied with starting a family of his own in this opulent environment to ever wonder if there was more to life. Prince Siddhartha wondered about the life outside the palace. Eventually, during a city visit, he witnessed people suffering from old age, sickness, and death. These sights troubled and alarmed Siddhartha. He was overcome with sorrow, realizing that everyone would suffer painful illnesses, become old, frail, and die. He was determined to find a way to end this suffering. Prince Siddhartha decided that he must leave his riches, father, wife, and newborn son to seek the truth of life and death in order to find peace, liberation, and enlightenment. He donned the saffron robe, cut off his hair, and left his family and palace life. For six years, Siddhartha lived the life of an ascetic, studying under various teachers and following different methods of meditation. But after meditating on the years of extreme opulence in the palace and the years of extreme asceticism, he realized that the path to liberation was one of balance rather than of extremism.
Siddhartha then sat under a Bodhi tree, vowing not to rise until he discovered the truth. He meditated until dawn. He purified his mind of all defilements and recognized the true nature of existence and suffering. He thus attained enlightenment, earning the title Buddha, or “Enlightened One”.
The Buddha began “turning the Dharma Wheel”, and taught mankind the paths to attain liberation such as the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, the Principle of Causality, Dependent Origination, Emptiness, the Six Paramitas, and the Middle Way. The Buddha taught for 49 years, always patient, compassionate, wise, and never in anger. He lived up to his teachings to perfection. He entered nirvana at the age of 80. His chief disciples, such as the Venerables Mahakasyapa and Ananda, collected Buddha’s verbal teachings for future generations.
Images of Shakyamuni Buddha usually depict one of the eight stages in his life: his 1) descending from Tushita Heaven, 2) entering into the womb, 3) dwelling in the womb, 4) birth, 5) departure from home,6) attainment of enlightenment, 7) turning the Dharma wheel (his dharma talks to enlighten others), and 8) entering nirvana. The most common image is the Buddha sitting in a lotus position during meditation, representing both the importance of meditation in his life and the moment of his enlightenment. His eyes are closed, the soles of his feet visible, and his hands rest in his lap. Sometimes his right hand touches the ground in the earth-touching mudra, representing the moment when, during his final meditations prior to attaining enlightenment, the Buddha was tempted by an evil deity but resisted, calling the earth to bear witness to his resolve. The earth-touching mudra symbolizes steadfastness, as well as the union of skillful means (upaya), symbolized by the right hand touching the earth, and wisdom (prajna), symbolized by the left hand on the lap in a meditation position.