The life of the Buddha is more than an account of one man’s quest for and realisation of the truth; it is also about the people who encountered that man during his forty-five year career and how their encounter transformed them. If the Buddha’s quest and his encounters with others is set against the backdrop of the world in which these events were acted out, a world with its unique customs, its political intrigue and its religious ferment, it becomes one of the most fascinating stories ever told. One will meet with proud kings and humble out- castes, with saffron-robed monks (some saintly, others all too human), with generous patrons and jealous rivals.
Some of the events in the Buddha’s life are described by scholars as being ‘legendary’, but if we look at them objectively, few of them could be considered implausible.
One might be tempted to dismiss Angulimala’s practice of cutting a finger from each of his victims as unbelievable, but the criminal history of mankind furnishes us with ample evidence of behaviour far more bizarre and gruesome than that. Samavati’s rapid rise from destitution to royalty is certainly unusual but it is well within the realm of possibility. Devadatta’s plots might be slightly exaggerated, and certainly as they have been recorded in the Vinaya they are in the wrong sequence, but they are just the sort of thing we could expect from a highly talented and at the same time highly jealous and ambitious person. And moving like a cool breeze through all this drama is the Buddha, patient, smiling and unmistakably real.
The oldest and most authentic information we have about the Buddha’s life is to be found in the Pali Tipitaka, not in any chronological order, but scattered here and there, like specks of gold in the bed of a sandy river. Less reliable but nonetheless sometimes helpful is the information in the Pali commentaries, especially the Dhammapada Atthakta and the Jataka Nidanakatha. After that, we have the Mahayana sutras in which the historical Buddha begins to recede from view behind a veil of legends and romance, becoming less and less accessible as he does. We are human, imperfectly human, and if we are to transcend this state we will need a guide and an ideal that is both human and perfect. The Buddha is such a guide and ideal and in the Pali Tipitaka he is portrayed as such. Thus the story of the Buddha and his disciples as told in Pali sources is not just an authentic and fascinating one, it is also one that has a spiritual significance.
Dozens of books on the Buddha’s life have been published, two of the best only recently. They are The Historical Buddha by H W Schumann and The Buddha by Michael Carrithers. Both of these books admirably avoid the extremes of including too much of what is obviously mythological on one hand and on the other taking the dry-as-dust academic approach which, being conceived without faith, is unable to inspire faith in the reader. Unfortunately, neither of these books is widely available in local bookshops. The only locally written life of the Buddha that likewise avoids these extremes is The Life of Gotama The Buddha by Venerable B Dhammaratana and Senarath Vijayasundara. However, as this well-written little book is out of print, a new and more complete account of the Buddha’s life is justified.
The Buddha and His Disciples is the second in what will eventually be a series of three textbooks to be used by the Buddha Dhamma Mandala Society’s Introductory Dhamma Course. The Course has so far proved to be popular amongst Singaporeans and this book will, I hope, add to its value. I would like to thank Doris Teo and Donna Pang for all the help they gave in preparing this book. The illustrations designed by Eric Yeo have enlivened this text as did his earlier designs for the first volume in the series. Thanks are due also to the many people who have assisted in innumerable ways.