According to the documents written down more than two hundred years after Buddha’s death, his mother, Maya Devi, an Indian queen, one day dreamed that she would become pregnant from a white elephant touching her right side with its trunk.
In Indian mythology, elephants are seen as strong and fertile beings. And white is seen as a sign of purity and immaculacy.
The Birth of Buddha
According to the legend, Queen Maya was pregnant for 10 months. When she was aware that her time was near, she followed an old custom and went on a journey to her parents’ home in Nepal.
However, before reaching her parents’ home, she gave birth to her son in a garden in Lumbini, in today’s Nepal. Queen Maya grabbed the branch of a tree and Buddha was born by coming out of her right side, the way he was conceived. Queen Maya Devi died seven days later. There have been discussions among scholars if the historical birth of Buddha may have been by caesarian section
Life at Court
Gautama Siddhartha grew up behind high court walls, well protected from the ugliness of the real world of average people. He could have enjoyed the luxurious life of a rich prince. But he was not happy.
To distract him his father wanted the prince to marry. A tournament was organized as a test who was the strongest and best marriage candidate for Princess Gopi. In one contest, Buddha’s rivals killed a white elephant. However, Buddha, repelled by the senseless killing, tossed the elephant over the palace wall and brought it back to life.
Prince Siddharta Encounters Suffering
One day the prince left the palace and realized what real life was. He saw poverty, illness, the fate of aging and he saw a burial of a deceased person. Buddha recognized that there was suffering outside the luxury of the palace.
Prince Siddharta Leaves the Palace Forever
Prince Siddhartha, in the meantime 29 years old, married and father of one son, decided to leave the palace to find an answer why there is suffering in the world and how to free the world from it. Secretly at night he left the palace on horseback and accompanied by a servant. Once he was far away from the palace, he sent the servant with the horseback. Buddha took the seat in front of a stupa and cut his long hair off and dressed like a monk to begin the life of a simple student under different guru teachers.
Ascetism and Meditation
For six years the Buddha practiced asceticism under different guru masters. But after six years he and his friends who accompanied him were close to death due to extreme asceticism. But Buddha recognized that this did not take him anywhere closer to understand the mechanisms of this world.
After 6 years of fruitless ascetism, the Buddha decided to eat again. This is what Buddhists call the “middle way”, avoiding extremes to both sides. Buddha began to meditate under a large tree.
After several weeks of meditation Buddha finally found enlightenment by understanding the causes of suffering and how to end suffering.
This was the right moment for Demon Mara to enter the stage. Mara is a kind of incarnation of the evil, the devil so to say. Mara does not want Buddha to find enlightenment and does his best to prevent it. He sends evil monsters who shoot with arrows at the Buddha. But the arrows turn into flowers. Finally, he sends his beautiful daughters to seduce the Buddha. But the beautiful young ladies turn into old, ugly women.
After having found enlightenment the Buddha spent the rest of his life traveling in Nepal, Northern India and teaching his findings and principles.
At the age of roughly 80 years, the historical Buddha passed away. As he had reached the state of enlightenment, he passed into nirvana. For Buddhists, nirvana is the final bliss, the end of the cycle of rebirths and the end of all suffering.
In the center of all Buddha Life thangkas, one finds always the historical Buddha Shakyamuni. He is shown with a beggar’s bowl in his left hand and with his right hand calling the earth as the witness, a scene from the story of Mara’s attack.
The details of a Buddha Life thangka may vary and even the different scenes may not always be found in the same place. But the basic pattern is always the same.