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

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Author: Robert Walker

License: CC BY-NC-ND 4.0
Standard edition of the Thai Pali Canon
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

Therevadhan non canon texts preserved in Sri Lanka and translated in the first century

There is not much else about Buddha’s early life in the Pali Canon. For some of the background see:

As he explains there, the elaborate later account comes from an ancient non canonical Therevadhan text called the “Introduction to the Jataka” which was preserved and translated into Pali by Buddhagosa.

(Links below take you to information about the texts, not the texts themselves):

Following up further it’s the Avidūre Nidāna by Buddhaghosha, also published as the Madhuratthavilāsinī in the Nidānakathā in his commentary on the Jātaka tales called the Jātakatthakathā. There’s another text with his life story in 278 verses called the Jinālaṅkāra

They come from texts that were preserved in Sri Lanka and later around the 1st century AD translated from Sinhalese to Pali by Budhaghosha and others. See: Beyond the Tipitaka.

I can’t find English translations of those texts at present (I don't have access to a library, only texts available online). If anyone has a source for them online - do say! Meanwhile this is an account from a scholar in Myanmar that covers many details of the fully developed more elaborate Therevadhan account. It doesn’t seem to give the sources however.

It is Therevadhan the complete story, in an account preserved in Sri Lanka from the distant past in an oral tradition of memorization like the Pali Canon but it is not included in the Pali canon.

See also Gautama Buddha#Traditional biographies

The Play in Full: Lalitavistara

This is a large Mahayana life of the Buddha, the Lalitavistara, mainly focusing on his life up to enlightenment

Summary:

The Play in Full tells the story of how the Buddha manifested in this world andat-tained awakening as perceived from the perspective of the Great Vehicle. The sūtra, which is structured in twenty-seven chapters, first presents the events surrounding the Buddha’s birth, childhood, and adolescence in the royal palace of his father, king of the Śākya nation. It then recounts his escape from the palace and the years of hardship he faced in his quest for spiritual awakening. Finally the sūtra reveals his complete victory over the demon Māra, his attainment of awakening under the Bodhi tree, his first turning of the wheel of Dharma, and the formation of the very early Saṅgha.

The story begins in the divine realms where the future Buddha (who, prior to his awakening, is known as the Bodhisattva) enjoys a perfect life surrounded by divine pleasures. Due to his past aspirations, however, the musical instruments of the palace call out to him, reminding him of his prior commitment to attain awakening (chap. 2). Inspired by this reminder, the Bodhisattva announces, to the despair of the gods, that he will abandon his divine pleasures in pursuit of full and complete awakening on this earth (Jambudvīpa), where he will take birth within a suitably noble family (chap. 3). However, before his departure from the heavenly realms, the Bodhisattva delivers one final teaching to the gods (chap. 4) and, having installed the bodhisattva Maitreya as his regent, he sets out for the human realm accompanied by great displays of divine offerings and auspicious signs (chap. 5). He enters the human world via the womb of Queen Māyā, where he resides for the duration of the pregnancy within an exquisite temple, enjoying the happiness of absorption (chap. 6).

After taking birth in the Lumbinī Grove and declaring his intention to attain complete awakening (chap. 7), we follow the infant Bodhisattva on a temple visit where the stone statues rise up to greet him (chap. 8) and hear of the marvelous jewelry that his father, the king, commissions for him (chap. 9). Next, as the Bodhisattva matures, the sūtra recounts his first day at school, where he far surpasses even the most senior tutors (chap. 10); his natural attainment of the highest levels of meditative concentration during a visit to the countryside (chap. 11); and his incredible prowess in the traditional worldly arts, which he uses to win the hand of Gopā, a Śākya girl whose father requires proof of the Bodhisattva’s qualities as a proper husband (chap. 12).

The Bodhisattva has now reached maturity and can enjoy life in the palace, where he is surrounded by all types of pleasure, including a large harem to entertain him. Seeing this, the gods begin to worry that he will never leave such a luxurious life, and they therefore gently remind him of his vows to awaken (chap. 13). This reminder, however, turns out to be unnecessary, as the Bodhisattva is far from attached to such fleeting pleasures. Instead, to the great despair of everyone in the Śākya kingdom, he renounces his royal pleasures. Inspired by the sight of a sick person, an old man, a corpse, and a religious mendicant (chap. 14), he departs from the palace to begin the life of a religious seeker on a spiritual journey, which eventually leads him to awakening (chap. 15).

Already at this early stage of his religious career, the Bodhisattva is no ordinary being. It quickly becomes apparent that he surpasses all the foremost spiritual teachers of his day. His extraordinary charisma also attracts many beings, such as the king of Magadha, who requests the Bodhisattva to take up residence in his kingdom, but without success (chap. 16). In a final test of the established contemplative systems of his day, the Bodhisattva next follows Rudraka, a renowned spiritual teacher. But once again he is disappointed, although he quickly masters the prescribed trainings.

These experiences lead the Bodhisattva to the conclusion that he must discover awakening on his own, so he sets out on a six-year journey of austere practices, which are so extreme in nature that they take him to the brink of death (chap. 17). Finally the Bodhisattva realizes that such practices do not lead to awakening and, encouraged by some protective gods, he begins to eat a normal diet once again, which restores his former physique and health (chap. 18). At this point he senses that he is on the verge of attaining his goal, and therefore sets out for the seat of awakening (bodhimaṇḍa), the sacred place where all bodhisattvas in their last existence attain full and complete awakening (chap. 19). As he arrives at the seat of awakening, the gods create a variety of impressive miraculous displays, and the place eventually comes to resemble a divine realm, fit for the epic achievement that awaits the Bodhisattva (chap. 20).

Still, just as everything has been prepared to celebrate the attainment of awakening, Māra, the most powerful demon in the desire realm, arrives with the aim of preventing the Bodhisattva from attaining his goal. Together with his terrifying army and seductive daughters, Māra tries every trick in the book to discourage the Bodhisattva, but to no avail. Sad and dejected, Māra eventually gives up his disgraceful attempt at creating obstacles (chap. 21). Now the stage is finally set for the Bodhisattva to attain awakening under the Bodhi tree, a gradual process that unfolds throughout the night until he fully and perfectly awakens at dawn to become the Awakened One (Buddha), or Thus-Gone One (Tathāgata), as he is known subsequent to his awakening (chap. 22). As is only suitable for such an epic achievement, the entire pantheon of divine beings now hurry to the Thus-Gone One, making offerings and singing his praise (chap. 23).

During the first seven weeks following his awakening, the Buddha keeps to himself and does not teach. In fact he worries that the truth he has discovered might be too profound for others to comprehend, except perhaps a bodhisattva in his last existence. Māra, who senses the Buddha’s dilemma, turns up and tries one last trick, suggesting to the Buddha that perhaps this would be a suitable time to pass straight into parinirvāṇa. The Buddha, however, makes it clear that he has no such plans, and finally Māra relents. During these first seven weeks, we also hear of other encounters between the Buddha and some local passersby, but significantly no teaching is given (chap. 24). Setting up an important example for the tradition, the Buddha eventually consents to teach the Dharma only after it has been requested four times, in this case by all the gods, headed by Brahmā and Śakra. As he says, “O Brahmā, the gates of nectar are opened” (chap. 25).

At this point, the Buddha determines through his higher knowledge that the first people to hear his teaching should be his five former companions from the days when he was practicing austerities. Although these ascetics originally rejected the Bodhisattva when he decided to abandon their path, when they meet the Buddha again at the Deer Park outside of Vārāṇasī, they are rendered helpless by his majestic presence and request teachings from him. The five companions instantly receive ordination and, in a seminal moment, the Buddha teaches them the four truths of the noble ones: suffering, the origin of suffering, the cessation of suffering, and the path that leads to the cessation of suffering. Thus this occasion constitutes the birth of the Three Jewels: the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Saṅgha (chap. 26). This marks the end of the teaching proper. Finally, in the epilogue, the Buddha encourages his retinue of gods and humans to take this sūtra as their practice and propagate it to the best of their abilities (chap. 27).

As pdf

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Selected videos:

  • Featured Translation: “The Play in Full”
    Description: Catherine Dalton, one of the translators from the Dharmachakra Translation Committee, shares about the life and deeds of the Buddha in "The Play in Full."

    Catherine and her colleagues translated "The Play in Full" from Tibetan into English under a grant offered by 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha (84000.co)., transcript of the interview here.

To be continued

WORK IN PROGRESS

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