Blogs:Robert Walker/Life of the Buddha according to the sutras

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Author: Robert Walker

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Standard edition of the Thai Pali Canon
File:MaraAssault.jpg
Mara's assault on the Buddha (an aniconic representation: the Buddha is only symbolized by his throne), 2nd century, Amaravati, India

There can be something inspiring about reading the life of the Buddha in the traditional account - complete with the stories about his life in the palace, seeing the four sights, asceticism, meeting meditation teachers before he became enlightened, the enlightenment itself, first sermon, his 45 years as a wandering teacher, death, and paranirvana.

If you want to learn about the story as it is usually presented now in its fully elaborated form, there are plenty of "Life of the Buddha" web pages and books for you to read, also videos to watch and Buddhist art with scenes from the story. Here are a few links if you need them:

However, what's the background to this story. How did it develop?

Traditional life story as inspiring literature - that went through many transformations

While finding the story inspiring, we also recognize that - though Buddha surely was a historical figure - much of that traditional life story just as surely is not describing what actually happened. For instance, it is not credible that he reached the age of 35 without ever seeing an old person or someone who was sick, however secluded and insulated a life he lead.

It is inspiring all the same. It's teaching us something that connects to us in a way different from intellectual study, also in a way different from meditation. It speaks to the heart somehow. And generations of practitioners have found inspiration from reading his life in this traditional account.

I'm not so interested here in finding out what we know about the historical Buddha. He surely came from North India, and taught extensively and so on. See the article Gautama Buddha for a discussion of the historical Buddha. But the details of his early life , would already be events from over four decades earlier - by the time the monks came to memorize them in the First Buddhist council when he died aged 80. As for his birth, there can't have been many present at the First Buddhist council who were even alive when he was born, never mind remembered his birth.

If you accept the "theory of authenticity" about the Pali Canon that it does describe the teachings of the Buddha - still, with his early life, you are talking about events that happened 45 years or more before the 500 arhats met to decide on the final version of the sutras to memorize. Also, their main focus was on preserving the teachings, not the historical accuracy of accounts of his early life. What's more, we are talking about a time when people believed things that we would now consider miraculous. I think that probably we will never know much, in the modern sense of historical fact, especially about the first 35 years of his life.

But - I'm interested instead to explore what the traditional accounts say. Just treating them as literature, like Lord of the Rings, or like traditional folk stories.

In that sense, then the traditional account went through many transformations. The earliest accounts have hardly any of the events from the later stories.

Life of the Buddha as presented in the Pali Canon

So let's start with the earliest of all, the story of the life of the Buddha as presented in the Pali Canon.

Here I'm using Bhikkhu Bodhi's: Readings from the Pali Canon and Bhikkhu Nanamoli's book The Life of the Buddha

The surprising thing there is that according to their collected sutras on his life, there seems to be nothing in the Pali Canon at all about the four sights, about his life in the palace, his charioteer and so on.

Birth

It has an obviously mythological in flavour account of his birth in the Acchariya Abbhuta Sutta

As soon as the Bodhisattva was born, he stood firmly with his feet on the ground; then he took seven steps north, and with a white parasol held over him, he surveyed each quarter and uttered the words of the Leader of the Herd: "I am the highest in the world; I am the best in the world; I am the foremost in the world. This is my last birth; now there is no renewal of being for me.

Discussion of it here By Bhikkhu Sujato:

In some of these mir­acles we can dis­cern *dham­matā* in a mean­ing­ful sense. For example, the super­hu­man prodi­gies dis­played by the baby Bod­hisatta pre­fig­ure his future career as a Buddha. Stand­ing on his own feet he demon­strates his own self-Awakening; facing the North (*uttara*) he sig­ni­fies his ori­ent­a­tion to the ‘bey­ond’ (*uttara*); seven ‘mighty strides’ indic­ate his cross­ing over the cycles of cre­ation (and, in doing so, usurp the three great strides of Viṣṇu); the umbrella is the pur­ity of lib­er­a­tion; sur­vey­ing the quar­ters shows his unob­struc­ted know­ledge of the spir­itual capa­cit­ies of beings; and his bull’s roar of suprem­acy pres­ages the future rolling forth of the Wheel of Dhamma. This sym­bolic bio­graphy in mini­ature describes the essen­tial qual­it­ies of all Buddhas. It is impossible to ima­gine a Buddha who does not have these qual­it­ies, and so this ‘mir­acle’ is read­ily com­pre­hens­ible as a mythic expres­sion of a nat­ural prin­ciple, albeit a super­nat­ural nat­ural principle.
See A Magic Birth - Santipada

Then it has Asita's prophecy.

Rose-apple tree

The Pali Canon does refer to the incident under the rose-apple tree:

"I thought of a time when my Sakyan father was working and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree: quite secluded from sensual desires, secluded from unwholesome things I had entered upon and abode in the first meditation, which is accompanied by thinking and exploring, with happiness and pleasure born of seclusion. I thought: `Might that be the way to enlightenment?' Then, following up that memory, there came the recognition that this was the way to enlightenment."

Three palaces

And it talks about his three palaces.

"I was delicate, most delicate, supremely delicate. Lily pools were made for me at my father's house solely for my benefit. Blue lilies flowered in one, white lilies in another, red lilies in a third. I used no sandalwood that was not from Benares. My turban, tunic, lower garments and cloak were all made of Benares cloth. A white sunshade was held over me day and night so that no cold or heat or dust or grit or dew might inconvenience me. I had three palaces, one for the winter, one for the summer and one for the rains. In the rains palace I was entertained by minstrels with no men among them. For the four months of the rains, I never went down to the lower palaces."

Only three of the four sights - and as reflections on past experiences, not new sights

But has only three of the four sights - and these presented as reflections on his previous experience not as new sights that bring the matter home to him.

"Whilst I had such power and good fortune, yet I thought: `When an untaught ordinary man, who is subject to ageing, not safe from ageing, sees another who is aged, he is shocked, humiliated and disgusted; for he forgets that he himself is no exception. But I too am subject to ageing, not safe from ageing, and so it cannot befit me to be shocked, humiliated and disgusted on seeing another who is aged.' When I considered this, the vanity of youth entirely left me."..

"I thought: `When an untaught ordinary man, who is subject to sickness, not safe from sickness, sees another who is sick, he is shocked, humiliated and disgusted; for he forgets that he himself is no exception. But I too am subject to sickness, not safe from sickness, and so it cannot befit me to be shocked, humiliated and disgusted on seeing another who is sick.' When I considered this, the vanity of health entirely left me."

"I thought: `When an untaught ordinary man, who is subject to death, not safe from death, sees another who is dead, he is shocked, humiliated and disgusted, for he forgets that he himself is no exception. But I too am subject to death, not safe from death, and so it cannot befit me to be shocked, humiliated and disgusted on seeing another who is dead.' When I considered this, the vanity of life entirely left me."

The four sights are from a later 2nd century long poem, the Buddhacharita by Asvaghosha. ratnaghosha: The Four Sights

Brief account of the setting forth

All the Pali Canon says about the setting forth is:

"Before my Enlightenment, while I was still only an unenlightened Bodhisatta, I thought: house life is crowded and dusty; life gone forth is wide open. It is not easy, living in a household, to lead a holy life as utterly perfect and pure as a polished shell. Suppose I shaved off my hair and beard, put on the yellow cloth, and went forth from the house life into homelessness?“

”Later, while still young, a black haired boy blessed with youth, in the first phase of life I shaved off my hair and beard – though my mother and father wished otherwise and grieved with tearful faces –, and I put on the yellow cloth and went forth from the house life into homelessness."

Or as Bhikkhu Bodhi translates it

"Before my Awakening, when I was still an unawakened Bodhisatta, the thought occurred to me: 'Household life ... is confining, a dusty path. Life gone forth is the open air. It isn't easy, living in a home, to practice the holy life totally perfect, totally pure, a polished shell. What if I, having shaved off my hair & beard and putting on the ochre robe, were to go forth from the household life into homelessness?"

"So at a later time, when I was still young, black-haired, endowed with the blessings of youth in the first stage of life, having shaved off my hair & beard — though my parents wished otherwise and were grieving with tears on their faces — I put on the ochre robe and went forth from the home life into homelessness."
Maha-Saccaka Sutta: The Longer Discourse to Saccaka

Mother still alive when he sets forth and he doesn't slip away in secret

It is interesting there also that he says that when he set forth, both his mother and father wished otherwise and were grieving. "though my parents wished otherwise and were grieving with tears on their faces" While in the fully developed traditional story, his mother dies soon after he is born. Also of course this means he didn't set forth in secret but told his parents what he was going to do.

Traditional account is present - but as the life of Vipassa - the first of all the Buddhas in our world system

In the Pali Canon we do get much of the traditional account of the life of the Buddha, with the four sights charioteer, etc - but not presented as the life of Buddha himself, but rather as the life of Vipassa - the first of all the Buddhas in our world system who lived in the far distant past and whose teaching has completely died out.

In this sutra, we do have the examples of the four "divine messengers" - an old person, a sick person, dead person and "one who has gone forth" shaven headed and wearing robes. But all attributed to the long distant past Buddha Vipassa.

Also there's one significant difference. In this earlier story, 100,000 years pass by between each of those encounters of the young Buddha Vipassa with one of the four sights - obviously the idea is that people had much longer lifespans back then.

Mahāpadāna Sutta: The Great Discourse on the Lineage

To be continued

WORK IN PROGRESS

(to be continued, likely to take a fair while to write this)