The passages marked ‘L.’ in this book concern the life of the Buddha. For the texts that these passages are drawn from, see the introduction on the Theravāda passages below.1. The dates of the Buddha
Scholars are yet to come to an agreement on the exact dates of the historical Buddha. Indian culture has not been as concerned with recording precise dates as have Chinese or Graeco-Roman cultures, so datings cannot always be arrived at with accuracy. All sources agree that Gotama was eighty when he died (e.g. Dīgha-nikāya II.100), and the Sri Lankan chronicles, the Dīpavaṃsa and the Mahāvaṃsa, say that this was ‘218’ years before the inauguration of the reign of the Buddhist emperor Asoka (Pāli, Sanskrit Aśoka): the ‘long chronology’. The Theravāda tradition has seen Asoka’s coronation as in 326 BCE, making the Buddha’s dates 624–544 BCE. These dates have been traditionally accepted in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia and were the basis for the celebrations of the 2500th anniversary of the Buddha’s parinibbāna (Pāli, Skt parinirvāṇa; final nirvana, at death) in 1956/57 and the 2600th anniversary of his sambuddhatva (awakening/enlightenment) in 2011/12.
However, references in Asokan edicts to named Hellenistic kings have meant that modern scholars have put the inauguration at c. 268 BCE. Accordingly, some who accept the long chronology see the Buddha’s dates as 566–486 BCE. Sanskrit sources preserved in Chinese and Tibetan have a ‘short chronology’, with the Buddha’s death ‘100’ years or so before Asoka’s inauguration. If we then apply the Greek dating of Asoka’s coronation, the Buddha’s dates would be 448–368 BCE.2. Background of the Buddha
Religion around this time in India was complex in character. It was made up of: local indigenous cults continued from the beliefs and practices of the Indus Valley religion (which went back to c. 2500 BCE); the dominant orthodox Brahmanism established and maintained by the brahmin priests (brāhmaṇa) of the Āryan people, and the various non-orthodox sects of renunciant ascetics and wandering philosophers known as samaṇas (Pāli, Skt śramaṇa; literally ‘strivers’, but here translated as ‘renunciants’). The brahmins saw themselves as the highest class in society; and many but not all functioned as orthodox priests. They alone learned the body of sacred oral texts known as the Veda, the sacred scriptures of Brahmanism that were centred on sacrificial rituals to many gods; they knew its mantras, and could conduct sacrifices to the gods. The samaṇas rejected the authority of the Veda, and renounced family life and the ritual system associated with it in Brahmanism. They gave up normal work and social status to live from donated alms-food. Their wandering lifestyle made them dwell outside the villages in forest ashrams, places of spiritual striving, and formed unstable congregations around masters who propounded a diversity of teachings. Like the brahmins, their rivals, they received the respect from all classes, and their teachings were many and varied.
This period saw the establishment of new republics, kingdoms and empires, the development of cosmopolitan cities like Kapilavatthu, Rājagaha, Sāvatthī and Ujjenī, and the emergence of a new lifestyle organized around these urban centres. A large number of people living in these cities were either cut off from or dissatisfied with the old sources of worldviews.
They were seeking new orientations to their religious concerns and there was much intellectual curiosity. Both the sages connected with Brahmanism, who expressed their ideas in symbolic and mystical texts known as Upaniṣads, and their rivals the samaṇas, responded to this new situation by leading radical intellectual and religious movements.
In this context, in northern India, the son of a ruler gave up his worldly heritage and, after six long years of spiritual striving, convincingly declared himself the ‘Buddha’ of the age. It was he who introduced what has come to be known as Buddhism, a religion that was a middle way between a materialistic pursuit of sensual pleasures and a life of ascetic self-denial. It was neither focused on pleasing the gods through sacrifice, so ensuring a life rich in sensual pleasures, nor on pursuing the kind of extreme asceticism practised by some samaṇas as a way to forcefully master the body and its desires.3. The meaning of the term ‘Buddha’
Originally, ‘buddha’ was a concept among the samaṇas, though by the time of the Buddha it had become accepted in the larger religio-philosophy of India. The Pāli and Sanskrit word buddha means ‘awakened one’ – awakened from the sleep of the deluding defilements, and awakened to the true nature of reality4 – or ‘enlightened one’. Its usage in Indian literature identifies a broad spectrum of persons, from the learned to those rare individuals who have achieved liberating insight. The Buddhist use of the term is in the latter sense, as referring to those exceptional selfless individuals who, with a direct penetration into the true nature of reality, have irrevocably reached release from the cycle of birth, death and rebirth, along with its attendant pains.
Buddhists use the term buddha in a range of related senses:
• Its primary meaning is to refer to ‘the Buddha’, the founder of Buddhism, Siddhattha Gotama (Pāli, Skt Siddhārtha Gautama), also known as Sakyamuni (Pāli, Skt Śākyamuni), the sage of the Sakyan/Śākyan people. Following his awakening/enlightenment, he became a teacher, sharing with others what he had discovered for himself. As a discoverer and teacher of liberating truth, he was a sammā-sambuddha (Pāli, Skt samyak-sambuddha), a perfectly awakened Buddha, who attained his virtues and wisdom as the end-product of many past lives of spiritual striving. The term Buddha, on its own, typically refers to such perfectly awakened Buddhas. They teach the Dhamma (Pāli, Skt Dharma), a term which means something like the ‘Basic Pattern’ of things, and which in practice means a perfectly awakened Buddha’s teachings, the nature of reality as seen by him, and the path he teaches.
• Other sammā-sambuddhas of previous and future eons, who likewise discover and teach the Dhamma at times when it is lost to human society.
• Awakened disciples of a sammā-sambuddha, who have, like them, attained release from the cycle of birth and death. These are sāvaka-buddhas (Pāli, Skt śrāvaka-buddha), disciple- awakened ones, also known as arahants (Pāli, Skt arhant). The extent of their knowledge and powers is less than that of a sammā-sambuddha.
• Solitary-buddhas (Pāli pacceka-buddha, Skt pratyeka-buddha), who arise at a time when there is no sammā-sambuddha to teach the Dhamma. They develop the same level of liberating wisdom as them, but only teach others to a limited extent, not founding a new tradition of teaching Dhamma.
• In the Mahāyāna movement, which developed from the first century BCE, there is also the idea of samyak-sambuddhas of innumerable other world-systems spread throughout the vastness of the universe. Some are seen as in ordinary worlds similar to our own. Others are seen as in celestial Buddha-fields or Pure Lands, created by their presiding Buddha. It is held that these celestial Buddhas can be contacted in meditation, dreams and visions, and give teachings, and their devotees can seek rebirth in their realms.
• The celestial Buddhas are seen as able to produce recognized earthly incarnations, such as the Panchen Lama of Tibet.
The enlightened nature of a perfectly awakened Buddha, their Buddha-ness, is seen as identical with the highest reality, nirvana (Pāli nibbāna, Skt nirvāṇa), that which lies beyond all rebirth and the sufferings of the conditioned, temporal world. This identification perhaps caused the early Buddhist communities to use only impersonal and symbolic representation of the Buddha, and for several centuries discouraged composing a comprehensive biography of the founder.Over time, ideas about the nature of the Buddha and Buddhas have evolved, often leading to more elevated or refined ideas about the nature of Buddhahood.4. Epithets of the Buddha
The Buddha’s many qualities, as inspirations to faith in him, are expressed in a range of epithets applied to him. Some of these express particular human qualities such as his compassion, kindness, and wisdom. Some emphasize aspects of him that might otherwise remain unemphasized. Some refer to his lineage and name. Some reveal his extraordinary aspects and marvellous nature. Some epithets define the Buddha as having attained perfection in all domains. His wisdom is perfect, as are his physical form and manner. In some cases the epithets indicate that the Buddha was without equal. The superhuman aspect expressed in several epithets often has laid the foundation for deep devotion.
Among the many epithets, buddha was the favourite. Even hearing the word caused people to rejoice. The epithet bhagavā, ‘blessed one’5 or ‘exalted one’, conveys a sense of beneficent lordship in one full of good qualities. It is the most commonly used word referring to the Buddha in the canonical texts. The word tathāgata, ‘thus come’ or ‘thus gone’ (see *L.20), has an aura of ambiguity and mystery, but implies the Buddha’s attunement to the nature of reality (what is ‘thus’). It is often used when the Buddha refers to himself or to awakened ones like him in general. The epithet satthā deva- manussānaṃ, ‘teacher/guide of gods and humans’, shows the Buddha as one who helped others to escape from the cycle of death and rebirth. He is like a leader who guides a caravan of travellers across a wilderness, getting them to reach a land of safety (representing nirvana). The epithet anuttaro purisa-damma-sārathi, ‘unsurpassed leader of persons to be tamed’, describes the Buddha’s skills in taming those difficult to be tamed; his taming of the murderer Aṅgulimāla (*L.45), and the elephant Nāḷāgiri (*L.44) were often highlighted. Sakya-muni, sage of the Sakyans, refers to his human lineage. The epithet mahā-purisa, ‘great man’, whose body is endowed with thirty-two major and eighty minor characteristics, expresses his extra-ordinary character and good qualities developed in past lives (*L.38).
The epithets of the Buddha, in addition to having a central place in Buddhist devotion, are featured in the meditation known as the recollection of the Buddha (buddhānussati: *Th.134). This form of meditation, like all Buddhist meditational practices, aims at the training and purification of the mind. It is a technique of visualization, a way of recovering the image of the Buddha. Such visualization of the Buddha by contemplation of his epithets has been important in all Buddhist traditions.5. The life of the Buddha
While there is debate over the Buddha’s dates, there is no debate over his actual existence. This innovative and charismatic person, known as samaṇa Gotama (Pāli, Skt śramaṇa Gautama), wandered along the plains of the river Ganges in the north and north-eastern parts of India, leading a religious community consisting of monks, nuns, laymen and laywomen. Gotama was born in the Sakyan state as the son of an elder elected as its ruler. He later came to be seen as a ‘prince’, with his father as a ‘king’. The state, whose capital was Kapilavatthu (Skt Kapilavastu), on the northern Gangetic plain just below the Himalayan foothills, in the region of the current Indian border with Nepal.
Scattered passages in the early texts focus on key events in his life. These were later woven together, embellished and added to in more sustained allegorical biographies, though even the early passages contain some wonders and marvels (such as in *L.1). His father was Suddhodana (Skt Śuddhodana), ruler of a small state and Mahāmāyā was his mother (*L.3–4). At the time of his conception, his mother dreamed of an auspicious white elephant entering her right side. When her time was approaching, while travelling to her relatives, she gave birth in the Lumbinī grove, while standing with her up-stretched right hand on the branch of a tree. The newborn child miraculously stood up, strode seven paces and, declaring that this was his last birth, said he was destined for awakening (*L.1). A few days later, Asita, an aged sage, examined the marks on the infant, and prophesied that he would become either a Buddha, if he chose to leave his father’s palace and become a samaṇa (see *L.2), or a Cakka-vatti (Pal, Skt Cakra-vartin; Wheel-turner), a monarch ruling the whole of the known world.6 The child was named Siddhattha, meaning ‘one who has achieved his goal’.
Just days after, Siddhattha’s mother died, so that her sister Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī brought him up, as his step-mother. When he came of age, his father, desiring to see his son become a great monarch, tried to prevent him from leaving the palace and becoming a samaṇa. He tied him down with sensual pleasures by constructing three palaces for him to live in luxury in the three seasons, by providing him with dancing girls and every delight a young man could desire (*L.5–6), and by arranging his marriage to princess Yasodharā. In due course Yasodharā bore him a son, who was given the name Rāhula, Fetter (*L.4).
In his twenties, he started to reflect on some of the stark truths of life. In the later biographies, it is said that due to his father’s constant care and over-protection, Siddhattha knew no sorrow, pain, or unhappiness, and saw no old age, disease or death. However, one day he went out for a chariot ride, which allowed him to see an aged man for the first time in his life. Shocked by the unanticipated scene, he asked his charioteer about old age, and came to know that it is the destiny of all humans. He returned to the palace right away, depressed, taking no relish in the gaiety and pleasure around him. On a second occasion, he saw a diseased man for the first time. He considered that people are foolish to thoughtlessly enjoy themselves under the constant threat of disease. On a third trip, he saw his first corpse; dismayed, he marvelled that people could forget the fear of death and live heedlessly. On a fourth occasion, he saw a calm, wandering samaṇa, and made up his mind to leave the home life and follow the lifestyle of this kind of renunciant religious seeker. Thus what in the early texts is presented as a reflective confrontation with the universal existential truths of ageing, sickness and death (*L.5 and 7), becomes in the later texts a story of a sequential discovery of them.7
In the depth of night Gotama took a last look at his wife and newborn child.8. He mounted his horse together with his charioteer, and rode out of the sleeping city. He removed his royal clothes and ornaments and arranged them to be taken back to his father. He cut off his hair and wore simple ascetic clothes. This was the great renunciation that took place when Gotama was twenty-nine years old (*L.8).
In his search for peace, Gotama went first to Āḷāra Kālāma. The latter taught him the way to attain the meditative state of ‘nothingness’, a ‘formless’ state that transcended any sensory or material form (*L.10). Gotama practised the method and quickly attained its goal. Āḷāra Kālāma offered to set him up as his equal and co-teacher. However, Gotama knew that the attained state was conditioned and limited, and led only to a refined rebirth, not escape from all rebirths. He turned down the offer and went away. Then he went to Uddaka Rāmaputta (son of Rāma), who taught him the way to attain the even subtler meditative state of ‘neither-perception-nor-non-perception’ (*L.11). He mastered his teaching and attained its goal. At the end, he was acclaimed even Rāmaputta’s teacher. However, he found that this attainment also did not reach to what he was seeking, the deathless nirvana beyond all rebirths, and so he left Rāmaputta.
Then Gotama went eastward to Uruvelā near Gayā, and found a pleasant spot suitable for striving. Having tried the above mystical body-transcending states, he now tried another of the available methods of spiritual striving: mortification of the body and its desires (*L.12–13). He held his breath for long periods, fasted and came as close as he could to eating nothing at all. He became utterly emaciated. Seeing his incomparable striving, he was joined by five ascetics. He continued in this painful rough course for six long years, in time seeing that this practice led him nowhere. He then wondered if there was another way.
At this point, he recollected an incident in his youth: when seated under a shading tree while his father was ploughing, his mind reached a joyful and calm meditative absorption known as the first jhāna (Pāli, Skt dhyāna). This recollection pointed him to a fruitful method (*L.15). However, Gotama’s body was too weak to practise and gain such a blissful experience, so he started taking solid food. Seeing him giving up his hard practice, the five ascetics left him in disgust.
Gotama had five dreams, assuring him that he would soon become a Buddha. The next day he sat under a sacred tree. Sujātā, a woman who had vowed to make a yearly offering to the deity of this tree if she bore a son, having had her wish fulfilled, prepared as offering a fine bowl of rice and milk. Her maid came upon Gotama sitting under the tree, and mistook him for the tree spirit. She reported the apparition to her mistress Sujātā, who rushed to the place and presented Gotama with the food. After taking the meal, Gotama sat under a tree which became known as the Bodhi-tree (Awakening- tree) in Gayā, facing east. He resolved not to arise until he attained awakening. Māra (‘The Deadly’), a misguided deity intent on keeping beings within the round of rebirth and re-death, was alarmed at the prospect of Gotama’s victory, that is, his escape from the realm of death. Māra came to assail him with an army of fearful demons. Gotama was protected by his accumulated good qualities and his love for living beings. After failing to shake him, the hosts of demons fled in defeat (*L.14).
Māra then invoked his own magic power to try to overthrow Gotama. But Gotama invoked his own superior good qualities, amassed through many previous lives. Māra called on his retinue to witness his good qualities, so Gotama, having no other witness on his side, touched the earth with his right hand, calling the earth to testify to his moral and spiritual perfections. The earth quaked in response.
Then Māra, having failed with intimidation and compulsion, turned to temptation. He sent his three daughters, Desire, Delight, and Discontent, to seduce Gotama; but he remained as impervious to lust as he had to fear. Māra and his hosts then gave up and withdrew.
Later that full-moon night, Gotama attained the first jhāna again, and then three further jhānas till he was in a state of profound equanimity, mindfulness and mental alertness. From this, he then attained to three higher knowledges (*L.15). During the first watch of the night (evening), he acquired the first of these, remembering a countless number of his past lives. During the second watch (the hours around midnight) he acquired the divine eye, with which he surveyed the dying of other living beings, and how the nature of their rebirths depended on the moral quality of their karma, or intentional actions. During the third watch (late night), he acquired the third knowledge, that of the extinction of deep-rooted intoxicating inclinations (*Th.128). He perceived the four Truths of the Noble Ones (usually called ‘Noble Truths’), directly seeing that which is dukkha (painful and unsatisfactory), that which causes this, that which is its cessation (nirvana), and that which is the path leading to its cessation (detailed in *L.27). His mind was free from intoxicating inclinations. The new day dawned on Gotama, now a Buddha (*L.17). In response to this great event, it is said that the earth swayed, thunder rolled, rain fell from a cloudless sky, and blossoms fell from the heavens.
After attaining awakening, Gotama remained at the foot of the Bodhi-tree for seven days, contemplating dependent arising (see *Th.156–168), the central principle of his teaching. Seeing the profundity of the realty that he had realized, and seeing that people were so engrossed in attachment, he was hesitant about teaching what he had found (*L.25). But Sahampati (‘Lord of our World’), a compassionate great Brahmā deity (and seen as taught by a past Buddha), saw his hesitation and rushed to him to plead that he should teach others. Seeing that some would understand his message, the Buddha decided to teach. He walked many miles to find the five former companions that he had practised asceticism with, in Varanasi9 (*L.26). With a discourse to them (*L.27), the Buddha ‘set the wheel of the Dhamma rolling’, inaugurating the influence of his teachings. For the next forty-five years, he walked around north and north-east India converting men and women to follow the Dhamma. He established a monastic community of monks and nuns and community of Buddhist laymen and laywomen. Sāriputta, Moggallāna, Ānanda, Anuruddha, Khemā, Uppalavaṇṇā were among his chief monastic disciples. Anāthapiṇḍika, King Pasenadi Kosala, Citta and Visākhā10 were among his chief lay disciples.
At the age of 80, his lifespan came to end and he breathed his last, ending his teaching life. Since his awakening and experience of nirvana, he was without that which could lead to any rebirth. Now he attained final nirvana (Pāli parinibbāna, Skt parinirvāṇa; *L.69). Henceforth gods and humans could no longer see him through his physical body, but only through his Dhamma-body, i.e. the collection of his teachings and the qualities these espoused (*Th.2–4).6. Early biographies of the Buddha
The early collections of Buddhist texts, such as the Pāli Canon, give priority to the Buddha’s teachings, and so contain no full biography of him. However, material on episodes during his life are scattered throughout these texts, and the selections in the Life of the historical Buddha section of this book are examples of these. There are two main scholarly views on the formation of the Buddha-biography. One is that a basic ur-text of it existed in an early period, composed prior to King Asoka (c. 268–39 BCE). No longer extant now, it was complete only up to the conversion of the two great disciples, Sāriputta and Moggallāna. This Buddha-biography was composed as an introduction to the Khandhaka, a text on vinaya (monastic discipline) finalized at the second Buddhist council (roughly a century after the Buddha’s death). Also included is an account of the Buddha’s passing away, and of the first years of the formation of the monastic community. According to this first view, all subsequent Buddha-biographies have been derived from this basic ur-text.
The other view is that there was a gradual development of biographical cycles, and these materials were later synthesized into a series of more complete biographies. According to this view, the earliest stages of the development of the Buddha biography are the fragments found in the suttas (discourses) and the vinaya texts. As can be seen from some selections in this book, they show no concern for chronology or continuity, and are simply narratives to help convey the message of the Buddha. The suttas emphasize stories of the Buddha’s previous births, episodes leading up to the awakening, the awakening, and an account of his last journey, passing away, and funeral. The vinaya texts, on the other hand, focus on the Buddha as the shaper of the monastic community, and in addition to accounts of the events associated with his awakening, include narratives that describe the early days of his ministry, including an account of the conversion of his first disciples.
The Mahāvastu, Lalitavistara, Abhiniṣkramaṇa Sūtra, Buddhacarita, and part of the vinaya of the Mūlasarvāstivādins were the new autonomous biographies of the Buddha, compiled by various early Buddhist schools between the first and third centuries CE. They mainly follow the vinaya tradition where the story ends at a point soon after the Buddha had begun his ministry. These new autonomous biographies testify to three important changes that affected the traditions of Buddha-biography during the centuries immediately after King Asoka: the inclusion of new biographical elements drawn from non-Buddhist sources; the inclusion of stories about the Buddha’s previous lives (jātaka) as a device for explicating details of his final life as Gotama; and an increasing emphasis on the superhuman and transcendent dimensions of the Buddha’s nature. Whereas the Mahāyāna accepted the early autonomous biographies and supplemented them with additional episodes of their own, the Theravāda tradition displayed a continuing resistance to developments in the biographical tradition.
Two types of Buddha-biographies have had an important impact and role in the later history of the Theravāda tradition. One type is the Nidānakathā, a second or third century CE text that serves as an introduction to the Jātaka commentary. It traces the Buddha’s career from the time of his birth as Sumedha, many lives ago, when he made his original vow to become a Buddha in front of the Buddha Dīpaṅkara, to the year following Gotama’s awakening, when he took up residence in the Jetavana monastery. The other type is the biographical material included in Sri Lankan chronicles of Buddhism. These describe the Buddha’s meditation-powered flights to the island, and then trace the influence which his two ‘bodies’ had on the island after his death. That is, they trace the bringing to the island of his physical relics, seen to contain something of his beneficent power, and his Dhamma- body, or collection of teachings. The first is a link back to the Buddha’s physical body, the second links to his mind.
The selections in the Life of the historical Buddha chapter of this book are translations from the Pāli suttas and the vinaya texts on the life and the person of the Buddha. These selections include material on significant events in his life, and show something of his nature. The descriptions of his human as well as superhuman characteristics are expected to serve the reader for understanding the life and the person of that greatest selfless being who, wandering tirelessly along the Ganges valley in India, established Buddhism for the benefit of the world.7. Some significant terms and names: bodhisatta, Māra and brahmā
Bodhisatta: prior to the Buddha’s awakening, from the time of his vowing, in a long-past life, to become a Buddha, he is known as a bodhisatta (Pāli, Skt bodhisattva). This means a being destined to attain Bodhi, awakening.11 As one commentary defines it,12 a bodhisatta is one who is working towards awakening (bujjhanaka-satto), a being who is worthy of moving towards the realization of the perfect awakening (sammā-sambodhiṃ gantuṃ arahā satto). In the Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna traditions, the term bodhisattva is used for the ideal person, compassionately aiming to aid other beings, especially by attaining the perfect awakening that allows their skilful and wise guidance (see *MI.2, below).
Māra: also known as ‘Pāpimā’, the ‘Bad/Evil One’, whose name echoes the Vedic Pāpmā Mṛtyu, ‘Evil Death’. In Buddhism, one commentary says:13 ‘He is Māra since, in inciting beings (to do) that which is to their detriment, he kills (māreti) them’. So māra means ‘death-bringing’, ‘deadly’, and Māra is ‘the Deadly One’. A misguided tempter-deity dwelling in the highest of the lower (sense-desire) heavens, he tries to weight people down by keeping them within his main scope of influence, the field of sensual pleasures. He is intent on encouraging both bad behaviour and even some religious behaviour, such as Brahmanic sacrifice, which keeps people entranced by the attractive aspects of the conditioned world, and hence bound to the realm of rebirth and re-death. He is a living embodiment of spiritual ignorance and the clinging attachment fed by it, who worked to hinder the Buddha in his efforts. Each inhabited region of the universe is said to have its Māra, and a Māra is not eternal, but is the current holder of a kind of cosmic position. As well as ‘Māra’ as the name of a tempter-deity, the term māra is also used to refer to other ‘mortal’ or ‘deadly’ things, namely anything impermanent and subject to death (Saṃyutta-nikāya III.189), and refers to the negative, pāpa, traits found in the human mind, that stifle its bright potential for awakening.
Brahmā: the higher deities are known as brahmās, and the most important of them is a Great Brahmā, with each world-system having one. In Brahmanism he is seen as creator of the world, but in Buddhism he is seen, like all unawakened beings, as within the round of rebirths and re-death, though he is endowed with great compassion. Buddhism also uses the term brahmā in the general sense of seṭṭha, ‘supreme’, and in this sense the Buddha is said to have ‘become brahmā’ (*Th.4).G.A. Somaratne