Birth & Youth

Twenty-five hundred years ago, nestled in a fertile valley along the border between India and Nepal, a child was born who was to become the Buddha. The stories say that before his birth, his mother, the queen of a small Indian kingdom, had a dream. Queen Maya’s Dream
Queen Maya’s Dream
La Collection
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A beautiful white elephant offered the queen a lotus flower, and then, entered the side of her body. When sages were asked to interpret the dream, they predicted the queen would give birth to a son destined to become either a great ruler or a holy man.

One day, they said, he would either conquer the world, or become an enlightened being—the Buddha.

Jane Hirshfield, poet: "People like stories. It is one of the ways we learn. The story of the Buddha’s life is an archetypal journey. But it is a means to an end. It is not an end."

Within ten months, as a tree lowered a branch to support her, a baby boy was born, emerging from her side. Seven days later, the Queen died. The Buddha would one day teach his followers:

“The world is filled with pain and sorrow. But I have found a serenity that you can find, too.”

W. S. Merwin, poet: "Everybody understands suffering. It's something that we all share with everybody else. It's at once utterly intimate, and utterly shared. So Buddha says, 'That's a place to begin. That's where we begin.'"

Hirshfield: "No matter what your circumstances, you will end up losing everything you love, you will end up aging, you will end up ill. And the problem is that we need to figure out a way how to make that all be all right."

Mark Epstein, psychiatrist: "What he actually said was that life is blissful. There’s joy everywhere only we’re closed off to it. His teachings were actually about opening up the joyful or blissful nature of reality, but the bliss and the joy is in the transitoriness.

[Ajahn Chah said] 'Do you see this glass? I love this glass. It holds the water admirably. When I tap it, it has a lovely ring. When the sun shines on it, it reflects the light beautifully. But when the wind blows and the glass falls off the shelf and breaks or if my elbow hits it and it falls to the ground I say of course. But when I know that the glass is already broken every minute with it is precious.'"

His Holiness the Dalai Lama: "Everybody, every human being want happiness. And Buddha, he act like teacher. 'You are your own master. Future, everything depends on your own shoulder.' Buddha’s responsibility is just to show the path, that’s all"

Hirshfield: "The Buddha can shine out from the eyes of anybody. Inside the buffeting of an ordinary human life at any moment what the Buddha found, we can find"

Young woman praying
Young woman praying
David Grubin Productions
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In Southern Nepal, at the foot of the Himalayas, is one of the world's holiest places, Lumbini where, according to the sacred tales, the Buddha was born. Today, Buddhist pilgrims from all over the world make their way here to be in the presence of the sage whose life story is inseparable from centuries of anecdotes and legends.

D. Max Moerman, scholar: "There are countless stories of the Buddha. Each tradition, each culture, each time period has their own stories. We have lots of visual narratives and artwork from all over Buddhist Asia. But the first written material actually, the first biography say of the Buddha really we don’t see that before about 500 years after his death. For the first few centuries, Buddhist narrative was oral."

Merwin: "Historically, it is based on something certainly that happened. There must have been someone who corresponded with Gautama Buddha, but we don't know. We don't know how much of it is pure fairy tale, and how much of it is historic fact. But it doesn't matter. It touches something that we all basically know."

Moerman: "The relevance of it is in the message of the story. The promise of the story, like any good story it has a lot to teach. So the story of his life then is a beautiful way of telling the teaching. The Buddha said:"

"He who sees me sees the teaching and he who sees the teaching sees me.”

Born five hundred years before the birth of Jesus, the Buddha would grow to manhood in a town vanished long ago. For nearly three decades, he would see nothing of the world beyond.


Major funding provided by: National Endowment for the Humanities, PBS, Corporation for Public Broadcasting, and the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation. Additional funding provided by: the Arthur Vining Davis Foundations, the Shinnyo-en Foundation, the Shelley and Donald Rubin Foundation, the Bumper Foundation, and viewers like you.