The founder of Buddhism was, Siddhartha Gautama, a member of the Shakya klan. He came to be known as the Buddha, "awakened one," and as Shakyamuni, "wise man of the Shakyas."
Siddhartha Gautama, Shakyamuni Buddha was the Shakaya's chief's son, around 566 BCE. At the age of twenty-nine he left his family in order to lead an ascetic life. A few years later he reappears with a number of followers; he and his followers devote their lives to "The Middle Way," a lifestyle that is midway between a completely ascetic lifestyle and one that is world-devoted.
His teaching lasted for several decades and he perished at a very old age, somewhere in his eighties. Following his death, only a small group of followers continued in his footsteps. Calling themselves bhikkus , or "disciples," they wandered the countryside in yellow robes (in order to indicate their bhakti , or "devotion" to the master). For almost two hundred years, these followers of Buddha were a small, relatively inconsequential group among an infinite variety of Hindu sects. But when the great Mauryan emperor, Asoka, converted to Buddhism in the third century BCE, the young, inconsequential religion spread like wildfire throughout India and beyond.
When Siddhartha Gautama was born, a seer predicted that he would either become a great king or he would save humanity. Fearing that his son would not follow in his footsteps, his father raised Siddhartha in a wealthy and pleasure-filled palace in order to shield his son from any experience of human misery or suffering. This, however, was a futile project, and when Siddhartha saw four sights: a sick man, a poor man, a beggar, and a corpse, he was filled with infinite sorrow for the suffering that humanity has to undergo.
After seeing these four things, Siddhartha then dedicated himself to finding a way to end human suffering. He abandoned his former way of life, including his wife and family, and dedicated himself to a life of extreme asceticism. So harsh was this way of life that he grew thin enough that he could feel his hands if he placed one on the small of his back and the other on his stomach. In this state of wretched concentration, in heroic but futile self-denial, he overheard a teacher speaking of music. If the strings on the instrument are set too tight, then the instrument will not play harmoniously. If the strings are set too loose, the instrument will not produce music. Only the middle way, not too tight and not too loose, will produce harmonious music. This chance conversation changed his life overnight. The goal was not to live a completely worldly life, nor was it to live a life in complete denial of the physical body, but to live in a Middle Way. The way out of suffering was through concentration, and since the mind was connected to the body, denying the body would hamper concentration, just as overindulgence would distract one from concentration.
With this insight, Siddhartha began a program of intense yogic meditation beneath a pipal tree in Benares. At the end of this program, in a single night, Siddhartha came to understand all his previous lives and the entirety of the cycle of birth and rebirth, or samsara, and most importantly, figured out how to end the cycle of infinite sorrow. At this point, Siddhartha became the Buddha, or "Awakened One." Instead, however, of passing out of this cycle himself, he returned to the world of humanity in order to teach his new insights and help free humanity of their suffering.
His first teaching took place at the Deer Park in Benares. It was there that he expounded his "Four Noble Truths," which are the foundation of all Buddhist thought:
1.) All human life is "dhukka" (impermanent unsatisfactoriness).
2.) All suffering is caused by human desire, particularly the desire that impermanent things be permanent.
3.) Human suffering can be ended by ending human desire.
4.) Desire can be ended by following the "Eightfold Noble Path": right understanding, right thought, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.
From a metaphysical standpoint, these Noble Truths make up and derive from a single fundamental Truth (Dharma). The Buddhadharma is based on the idea that everything in the universe is causally linked. All things are composite things, that is, they are composed of several elements. Because all things are composite, they are all transitory, for the elements come together and then fall apart. It is this transience that causes human beings to sorrow and to suffer. We live in a body, which is a composite thing, but that body decays, sickens, and eventually dies, though we wish it to do otherwise. Since everything is transient, that means that there can be no eternal soul either in the self or in the universe.