The life of Siddhartha Gautama, the individual who would ultimately become Shakyamuni Buddha, presents the human situation at its most intense. Born as the heir to a royal throne, the Bodhisattva Siddhartha had sole responsibility for the continued well-being of an entire people. His unequaled talents and perfections earned him universal admiration. Surrounded by luxury and pleasure, married to the perfect mate, with world empire in his grasp, he stood at the pinnacle of every human aspiration. Yet matched against all this was his great understanding, matured through countless lifetimes of selfless action, which saw the limitations of worldly accomplishments and the impermanence of all worldly pleasure. In the end, his resolve to benefit others would take him from his palace, his people, and his home. Having known the greatest human joys, he would subject himself to the greatest disciplines, systematically investigating every means of subjugating the attachment to the body and the senses. Only when he had explored the whole range of human experience would he proceed to the Bodhi tree and the moment of enlightenment.
"Here on this seat my body may shrivel up,
my skin, my bones, my flesh may dissolve,
but my body will not move from this very seat
until I have obtained Enlightenment,
so difficult to obtain in the course of many kalpas."
Once seated, Siddhartha had to face his fear as he ventured into an unknown realm of experience. Mara, the lord of the realm of desire and the embodiment of illusion, seized this opportunity to try and distract the Bodhisattva from his resolve to attain Enlightenment. As seen in the image below, Mara's sons, fierce, demonic figures of all kinds, assaulted Siddhartha with every weapon and tactic available. However, after countless aeons of practice, the Bodhisattva Siddhartha was able to meet this attack poised in supreme equilibrium, his mind effortlessly repelled all negativity, all thoughts of grasping, and all forms of delusion. As the demon's arrows and spears approached they turned into flowers and fell in showers that beautified his presence. Next, Mara sent his daughters before Siddhartha in an effort to seduce him. Indifferent to their charms, Siddhartha saw the ugliness of the passions that lay beneath their beauty, and under his gaze they became withered hags. In the end, Mara fled, defeated. The power of illusion had been broken.
"Oh Hero, having gently overcome by your love,
the forces of the crafty demon,
here on the best of seats you will today
obtain incomparable Enlightenment."
After defeating Mara, the Enlightenment was still to come, emerging through the watches of the night. During the first watch the Buddha saw how beings are born again and again in all realms of existence, in accord with their actions, their words, and their thoughts. In the second watch, he recalled his countless former lives, with complete awareness of every past action; its cause, its course, and its consequences. He saw as well the lives of all beings, in exactly the same way. During the third watch of the night, the Bodhisattva saw the conditions and causes of suffering, and how they produce and reproduce themselves in both the physical and mental realms. He saw the aimless, self-perpetuating character of samsaric activity, and he saw what had not been seen before: suffering has a cause, rooted in ignorance and governed by desires. Suffering itself will end when the cycle of causes is completely stopped.
With the coming of dawn, his awareness broke through every limitation. Gone beyond samsara, gone beyond pain, sorrow, and the chain of karma, he manifested as the Buddha Shakyamuni. Great Compassion welled forth, flooding all the universes with the incomparable radiance of enlightenment, and beings everywhere awoke to the potential for realization. As night gave way to dawn, all forms of ignorance were vanquished, and the Dharma and the path of its realization stood revealed.
The sun rose on a totally unique being, a Buddha, alone under the bodhi tree.