Some 2,500 years ago a young man named Siddhartha Gautama, exhausted by years of spiritual quest and relentless ascetic practice, sat down to meditate under a tree in a place that is now known as Bodh Gaya in northern India. When he got up again - it's hard to know how much later - he had undergone a fundamental change at all levels of his being. He had had a series of spiritual experiences which had shattered his views of who he was and how the world and universe worked. The experiences had revealed to him the true nature of things - how all phenomena arise in dependence on conditions; how everything we experience is impermanent, without intrinsic existence and incapable of satisfying us; and how our minds, steeped in ignorance, craving and aversion, forge the chains that keep us bound to suffering. He also saw how human beings could liberate themselves from this suffering. The insights Siddhartha had gained liberated him at a stroke from suffering and its causes, eradicating his craving, aversion and spiritual ignorance once and for all. They woke him up from the sleep of ignorance, the "bleary half-light of opinions" to the brilliant and luminous awareness of the truth. He had become a Buddha.

The word "Buddha" is a title rather than a name, and means "the Awakened One". It also has connotations of wisdom, of insight into the true nature of reality. The Buddha's insights and the many years he spent wandering the dusty paths and forest tracks of what is now northern India teaching them to all he met are the foundation of the Buddhist tradition, which spread in many and various forms throughout much of Asia and is now making its presence felt ever more strongly in the western world. Buddhists believe that the Buddha's enlightenment is genuine and that the path he has taught is the way to realise it for themselves. Without the Buddha, the originator and fountain head of the tradition, there would be no Dharma, no Buddhism, no true path to liberation from suffering.

All of this is why the Buddha is the first of the Three Jewels - what Buddhists consider to be the most precious values in existence. The other two - the Dharma, which is both the path to enlightenment and the Truth itself, and the Sangha, or spiritual community of Buddhist practitioners - are the subjects of the next two sections.

Click here to go to the Dharma section