This article is part of a series on a journey through Buddhism.
See http://jpoesen.com/articles/isms-and-belief-systems for personal context.
The beginning: Siddhārtha Gautama becomes The Buddha
The story goes that one day, roughly 2600 years ago, Siddhārtha Gautama, a young Indian prince, had a stroll outside the palace. He discovered he was completely outside his comfort zone: never having been outside the palace walls he had never encountered sickness, starvation, old age, or death.
So distressed, Siddārtha abandoned palace life at age 29 and set out to understand and conquer the suffering he had witnessed. His quests brought him to various practices and beliefs, which he all studied guided by venerated teachers. However, these became increasingly ascetic and austere, ultimately leading him to self-starvation, self-mortification and near-death.
During his recovery, while sitting under a bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, Siddārtha is said to have experienced awakening (bodhi): insight into karma, how and why human beings suffer, and what each and every one of us can do about it.
From that point on Siddhārtha Gautama was referred to as the Buddha - the Awakened One, also translated as the Enlightened One. That said, as we'll see later on, the Buddha teaches us that awakening can be achieved by anyone at any time, and anyone who is awakened can be referred to as a buddha as well.
The Four Noble Truths
While sat under the bodhi tree, the Buddha came to deeply understand the nature of suffering and how to alleviate it. These understandings form the Four Noble Truths, and they are the essence of Buddhism.
There are many, many Buddhist schools, traditions, flavours, sects, and whatnot. Some proclaim the be the One and Only Absolutely Correct Buddhist Way, while others just do their thing in their own corner without bothering anyone else.
However, the Core of the Buddhist teaching - The Four Noble Truths - is a set of values and practices common to all practitioners of Buddhism.
» Coming up: Minimal Viable Buddhism Part 2: The Four Noble Truths