Siddhartha Gautama, the fourth historical Buddha and the Buddha of our era, was born in 563 BCE in what is now southern Nepal - a prince in a powerful family of the Shakya clan. His father was King Shuddodana, and his mother was Queen Mahamaya. At his birth, Asita - a well-known soothsayer - proclaimed that he would become a great king, even an emperor. Or he could become a great sage and savior of humanity. The king, eager that his son should become a king like himself, was determined to shield the child from anything that might result in his taking up the religious life. And so Siddhartha was kept in one or another of their three palaces and was not permitted to see the elderly, the sickly, the dead, or anyone who had dedicated themselves to spiritual practices. Only beauty and health surrounded Siddhartha.
Siddhartha grew up to be a strong and handsome young man. As a prince of the warrior caste, he trained in the arts of war. When it came time for him to marry, he won the hand of a beautiful princess of a neighboring kingdom by besting all competitors at a variety of sports. Yashodhara was her name, and they married when both were 16 years old.
As Siddhartha continued living in the luxury of his palaces, he grew increasing restless and curious about what lay beyond the palace walls and decided to explore the world outside. One day, he chanced to see a couple of old men. Then he came across some people who were severely ill. And finally, he came across a funeral ceremony by the side of a river and for the first time in his life saw death. He asked his friend and squire Chandaka the meaning of all these things, and Chandaka informed him of the simple truths that Siddhartha should have known all along: all of us get old, sick, and eventually die.
Siddhartha also saw an ascetic, a monk who had renounced all the pleasures of the flesh. The peaceful look on the monk's face deeply impressed Siddhartha. As a result, he renounced his life of power and wealth and became a wandering ascetic, determined to find a solution to the problem of suffering.
When he was 35 years old, he entered into a deep meditative state, and when he emerged, he was a person whose mind was tamed and free of ignorance, desire, and hatred - he was a "Buddha" - an enlightened being. He was awake. The Buddha continued to live about 45 more years, teaching his many followers throughout northeast India how to become awakened also.
When the Buddha was 80 years old, he told his friend and cousin Ananda that he would be leaving them soon. And so it came to be that in Kushinagara, not a hundred miles from his homeland, he ate some spoiled food and became very ill. He went into a deep meditation under a grove of sala trees and died. His last words were... Impermanent are all created things; Strive on with awareness.