In Sanskrit, an ancient language of India, buddha means "awakened one." While Buddhist art and writings describe at least a dozen beings referred to as "buddhas," there is only one historical figure known as the Buddha, a spiritual teacher whose path to enlightenment forms the core of Buddhist thought and practice.
The Buddha was born Siddhartha Gautama in 567 B.C.E. to a wealthy ruling family in the Himalayan foothills of modern-day Nepal. According to legendary biographies compiled centuries after his lifetime, Siddhartha was raised in princely luxury and isolated from the world beyond the palace gates. As a young man riding through town on his chariot, he encountered three things that jolted him out of his privileged detachment: a sick man, an old man and a corpse.
Newly aware to the existence of pain and death, he sought to understand the meaning of life. So Siddhartha renounced his riches, shaved his head and took up the life of a wandering holy man. Under different teachers, he learned how to enter deep states of meditation and to deny his body all but the most basic sustenance. At one point, it's said that he lived on one grain of rice a day and grew dangerously thin and weak [source: Fields].
Unsatisfied that meditation and acetic self-denial alone were the keys to liberation, Siddhartha accepted some food to regain his strength and sat beneath the Bodhi Tree to meditate on everything he had learned and experienced. After 40 consecutive days of meditation, he achieved the ultimate state of enlightenment — known as nirvana or freedom from suffering and desire — and became the Buddha.
For the remaining 45 years of his life, the Buddha traveled throughout Northern India teaching the dharma, the essential truths about the nature of existence, the cause of suffering and how to overcome desire [source: The Buddhist Centre]. Although none of his discourses were recorded during his lifetime, his followers would spread the Buddha-dharma across India, China, Japan and eventually the world.