The Buddha

The Buddha

Introductory BuddhaBuddha.doc


The Life story of the Buddha

Historically speaking, we know very little for certain about the life of Siddhartha Gautama, the man who came to be known as “the Buddha.” Although no one today seriously questions his actual existence in ancient India, debates still rage over the dates of his life, with the year of his death now being set anywhere between 486 and 360 b.c.e. And though few would doubt that his charisma had something to do with the formation of the religion we call “Buddhism” there is still much disagreement about the contents of his teachings and the nature of the religious community he is said to have founded.

To be sure, we can place what we do know about the Buddha and early Buddhism into reconstructions of the social, political, economic, and cultural contexts of ancient India, and we can set this into the still broader framework of the history of religions. We know, for example, that the India of his day was caught up in a period of religious ferment and questioning, spawned by the rise of new urban centers and the breakdown of old political systems. This context saw the ongoing emergence of groups of renunciant questers (sramanas), as well as the formation of founded “heterodox” religions such as Jainism and Buddhism. As two prominent contemporary scholars put it, at this time,

A significant number of people, cut off from the old sources of order and meaning, were open to different ways of expressing their religious concerns and were quite ready to support those engaged in new forms of religious and intellectual endeavor. The historical Buddha responded to this kind of situation. He was a renouncer and an ascetic, although the style of renunciation and asceticism he practiced and recommended was, it seems, mild by Indian standards. He shared with other renunciants an ultimately somber view of the world and its pleasures, and he practiced and recommended a mode of religious life in which individual participation in a specifically religious community was of primary importance. He experimented with the practices of begging, wandering, celibacy, techniques of self-restraint (yoga), and the like — and he organized a community in which discipline played a central role. Judging from the movement he inspired, he was not only an innovator but also a charismatic personality. Through the course of his ministry, he gathered around him a group of wandering mendicants and nuns, as well as men and women who continued to live the life of householders. (Reynolds and Hallisey, 1987, p.321)

There is nothing inherently wrong with this portrait, and I am happy to espouse it. But it must be realized that this is not the way Buddhists tell the story of the Buddha. Instead, they narrate many tales that have been remembered and revered, repeated and reformulated over the centuries, and whose episodes have been accepted as inspiring and worth recalling, whatever their grounding in history. Together these stories make up a sacred biography, or rather, several sacred biographies, for we shall see that there are many versions of tales about the Buddha. These narrations may contain “fictions” about the Buddha — legends and traditions that have accrued around him — but these “fictions” are in many ways “truer,” or at least religiously more meaningful, than the “facts.” They are certainly more plentiful, more interesting, and more revelatory of the ongoing concerns of Buddhists. We may know very little about the “Buddha of history,” but we know a great deal about the “Buddha of story,” and the purpose of this book is to present the life of this Buddha of story.

The study of this lifestory commenced in earnest, in the West, in the first half of the nineteenth century. As scholars began to read Sanskrit and Pali biographical materials about the Buddha, they found themselves facing traditions they deemed to be unbelievable exaggerations or ridiculous superstitions. In light of these, some of them concluded that the Buddha was a mythic being and denied his historicity. At first, accepting the Hindu theory that portrayed the Buddha as an incarnation of the god Visnu, they proclaimed him to be a divinity, the particular god of the Buddhists whom they saw simply as belonging to a sect of Hinduism. Alternatively, tracing out complex and dubious etymological connections, they compared the Buddha to more familiar divinities of Western “paganism,” among them the Roman god Mercury and the Scandinavian Woden. Then, in the second half of the nineteenth century, with the popularity of solar mythology, they read his biography as a great allegory recounting the saga of a sun god, giving solar twists to virtually all of the details of his life. Thus, for example, they viewed the Buddha’s mother as a goddess of the dawn and interpreted her death soon after the birth of the Buddha as the dissipation of the matutinal mists in the light of the rising sun (her son); or they saw the Buddha’s rival, his cousin Devadatta, as the moon, trying to contest with a solar hero. This was not only viewing the Buddha as a mythic being, but remythologizing his story in the process, making him into something the tradition probably did not intend.

Other scholars, however, took a different tack. Dismissing the exaggerations of the biographies as hyperbole, they sought to strip them away so as to demythologize the tradition and come to an understanding of the “real Buddha.” In this, they mirrored to some extent the rationalist, positivist quest for the historical Jesus being undertaken by some of their contemporaries in Biblical studies. In some instances, however, the “real historical Buddha” they discovered tended to appear in peculiar guises, depending on their own enthusiasms and inclinations. He was sometimes seen as a reformer of the “evils” of the Hindu system, a sort of Protestant opponent of Hindu papism; or he was clothed in the mantle of one of Thomas Carlyle’s Heroes, a great individual who changed the course of history; or he was viewed as a socialist, a radical revolutionary who sought an egalitarian society; or, if that was disturbing, he was praised as an intelligent, loving, and predominantly moral man, “an ideal Victorian gentleman” (Almond, 1988, p.79).

In this book, I shall follow none of these leads. As Alfred Foucher has pointed out, to make the Buddha into a myth is “to dissipate his personality into thin air,” but to take away that mythic ambiance is to arrive at an “equally grave misapprehension” (1987, p.13). What is needed is a middle way between remythologizing and demythologizing, between myth-making and history-making, between seeing the Buddha as a god and seeing him as “just a man,” In reading and in presenting the life of the Buddha, I shall, therefore, try to respect the extraordinary supernatural elements in the tales told about him, to understand them without explaining them away; and I shall try at the same time to honor the ordinary down-to-earth elements that root him in humanity, in a given time and place.


A few words should be said here about some of the sources that I will use. The full formulation of the biographical traditions about the Buddha took some time to develop and, in some ways, it is still an ongoing process since, even today, Buddhists continue to retell and rethink the significance of the life of their founder. Scholars have much debated the issue of when a continuous narrative of the whole of Gautama’s life was first composed. Some have thought such a biography was written relatively soon after the Buddha’s death. Others have claimed it was centuries before such an account was finally put together. The question of chronology is a very complicated and tricky one. Even when we know when a particular text was written or compiled, that does not mean that the tradition or story it incorporates originated at that time; it may, in fact, be far older, or it may, in some cases, be a later addition to the text.

Nonetheless it is possible to establish a rough relative chronology of sources. Adapting and simplifying a scheme presented by Etienne Lamotte, I would like to suggest that we distinguish three “layers” of tradition, without actually dating any of them.

First, there are biographical fragments found in canonical texts, presenting particular episodes of the life of the Buddha. These, for the most part, were written in Pali or Sanskrit although they may presently exist only in Tibetan or Chinese. For example, the “Discourse on the Noble Quest” (Ariyapariyesana-sutta) is a sermon in which the Buddha himself is said to recall his departure from home and his early meditative endeavors culminating in his enlightenment and his decision to preach. It is part of that portion of the Pali Canon known as the Middle Length Sayings (Majjhima Nikaya), but it also has parallels in a number of other Sanskrit and Chinese texts. Andre Bareau and others have made a career from comparing and contrasting parallel versions of such biographical texts in an attempt to identify layers of traditions, much as Biblical scholars might compare versions of the life of Jesus found in the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. In “Sources and Further Reading,” I have listed some of the canonical biographical fragments used in this book.

Secondly, there are fuller, more autonomous lives of the Buddha. These were also written, for the most part, in Sanskrit or Pali. Some of them may have been incorporated into the Buddhist canon, or into commentaries on canonical texts, but, in all cases, they also enjoyed separate existences as biographical compositions in their own right. Unlike the biographical fragments their purpose is not to recount a sermon, but to narrate a life. Some of these biographies (e.g. The Great Story [Mahavastu]) are incomplete, in that they do not trace the Buddha’s life to its end but stop at an earlier point, such as his enlightenment or one of the early conversions made by him. Others (e.g.,the Acts of the Buddha [Buddhacarita]) are “complete” in that they extend their narration to his death and beyond. Again, a listing of all such biographies used in this book may be found in “Sources and Further Reading.”

Finally, there are a host of comparatively late lives of the Buddha, composed in Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, Tibet, and East Asia, sometimes in one of the so-called canonical languages (Sanskrit, Pali, Tibetan, Chinese) but often in local vernaculars (for example Sinhalese, Burmese, Thai, Khmer, Mongolian, Korean, Japanese). These all tend to be “complete.” Some of them are simple narrative biographies; others are hymns of praise based on episodes of the Buddha’s life. Some are stylistically very straightforward; others are tremendously ornate. In general, however, these sources are interesting for the local twists they give to stories about the Buddha, and also for the way in which they attempt to resolve certain problems and questions about the Buddha’s life left unanswered (or not even posed) in more “classic” sources. I shall not hesitate to turn to some of these late materials as the occasion arises, and, again, translations of those used may be found in “Sources and Further Reading.”


In all of these sources — both canonical and post-canonical — it is possible to distinguish a number of factors at work in the ongoing formulations and reformulations of the Buddha’s lifestory. One of these, clearly, was the development of the practice of pilgrimage in Buddhism. By all accounts, the Buddha at least began his career as a peripatetic teacher, occasionally stopping to give teachings in a place for a while, but before long, moving on. Perhaps as a result of this, in his lifestory, “where” something happened is as significant as “what” happened there. Each of the major events of the Buddha’s life was associated with a distinct site which, of course, was also a place of pilgrimage. Early on, four of these places, in particular, were featured: the garden of Lumbini, just over the North Indian border in what is now Nepal, where the Buddha was born, and the nearby town of Kapilavastu where his father was a ruler and where he grew up. The Bodhi tree at Bodhgaya, in what was the land of Magadha and is now the province of Bihar, in North India. This is where the Buddha attained enlightenment. The Deer Park at Sarnath near the city of Benares on the Ganges River. This is where the Buddha preached his first sermon. And the village of Kusinagari, the present town of Kasia, where the Buddha, lying between two trees, passed away, never to be reborn again, an event known as his parinirvana (complete extinction).

The Buddha himself is said to have advocated visits to these four places. As time went on, however, four “secondary” pilgrimage sites were added to this list to form a group of eight; these were listed and described in texts, and depictions of them on stelae came to be very popular in Indian Buddhist art. The identity of these four additional sites varies somewhat, but they all appear to be places commemorating “supernatural” events, and they all were fit into the Buddha’s biography in between his first sermon and his death. The following are usually included: Sravasti, the capital of the kingdom of Kosala, where the Buddha put on a great display of magical powers; Samkasya, upstream on the Ganges, where he descended from heaven after spending a rainy season preaching to the gods and to his mother who had been reborn there; Rajagrha, the capital of Magadha, where he is variously thought to have tamed a wild elephant, put an end to a schism, and converted such luminaries as King Bimbisara and Indra, the lord of the gods; and Vaisali, where among other things, he received an offering of honey from a monkey, and is said to have announced his decision not to remain in this world. It should be noted that these four “secondary” sites are all situated in major cities or towns, in contrast to the four “primary” sites located in groves of trees in rather out-of-the way places. It would seem that as Buddhism spread to new urban centers, the lifestory of the Buddha grew in tandem, and there was a desire to incorporate those places into it.

It is also clear that each of these centers became a locale where pilgrims could recall not just a single event in the life of the Buddha but a whole set of stories. This has prompted scholars such as Alfred Foucher to speak of the Buddha’s biography in terms of “cycles” of events located in particular places — the cycle of Kapilavastu (concerning his birth and youth); the cycle of Magadha, featuring his enlightenment and its aftermath; the cycle of Benares (the first sermon), and so on. This development and amplification of the pilgrimage areas coincided, of course, with a further expansion of the biography. The cycle of Lumbini-Kapilavastu, for instance, was now no longer limited to just the event of the Buddha’s birth but to a whole set of episodes relating to his infancy and youth. Thus one text, speaking of Kapilavastu, specifies the following places as being on the pilgrimage “circuit”: the site where the baby Buddha was shown to his father and where the latter fell down to worship him; the place where he was presented to the gods of his clan and where the statues of those deities all broke and fell down at his feet; the place where the infant Buddha was shown to the brahmin soothsayers, and where they, seeing the signs on his body, predicted that he would become either a Buddha or a great wheel-turning monarch (cakravartin); the place where one soothsayer named Asita more accurately predicted that he would, for certain, become a Buddha; the place where the infant Buddha was suckled by his aunt and foster-mother, Mahaprajapati; the place where the young Buddha was taught how to write; the place where he trained and excelled in the arts appropriate to his royal lineage: how to ride a horse, how to drive a chariot, how to handle a bow, grasp a javelin, goad an elephant; the place where, somewhat later, he enjoyed himself in his harem with his wives; the place where, still later, he saw the signs of an old man, a sick man, and a corpse — signs that inspired him to quest for an answer to life’s sufferings; the place where he sat under a jambu tree and watched his father plowing a field and where he first entered into a meditative trance; finally, the place of his great departure, where he left Kapilavastu, and set out on his quest for enlightenment.

This kind of detail reflects the simultaneous and symbiotic growth of both biographical and pilgrimage traditions. On the one hand, sites became established as the places where certain stories happened; on the other hand, stories came to be told to explain the existence of certain sites. This was a process that could easily feed on itself, for, once a site was considered sacred, any unusual topographical feature in the area could be enough to give rise to a new story. Indeed, Alfred Foucher speculates that the authors of some biographies must have had available to them pilgrims’ manuals — guidebooks reflecting local oral traditions and topography. Thus, in the biography entitled the Living out of the Game (Lalitavistara), one reads of how an arrow shot by the young Gautama struck the ground with such force that it caused water to gush forth where it hit. One suspects that this was spawned by the existence in Kapilavastu of a particular spring, described in fact as the “Spring of the Arrow” by the Chinese pilgrims, Faxian (Fa-hsien) (fifth century) and Xuanzang (Hsuan-tsang) (seventh century).

As a result of this kind of intimate connection between place and event, in the course of time, biographical and pilgrimage traditions became more or less fixed, and the boundaries of the area in which the Buddha lived and preached, in Eastern and Central North India, were more or less defined. This, however, did not prevent Buddhists living outside of that region — in Northwest India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and beyond — from claiming that their lands too had been visited by the Buddha and from establishing pilgrimage centers at those sites. These extra-Indian journeys are often called “apocryphal” by scholars, and they are obviously of a different nature than the North Indian events recounted above. The Buddha’s grand tour of sites in what is now Afghanistan and Kashmir, for instance, is said to have been made during the course of a single night, while he was in a meditative trance. Alternatively, the accounts of his journeys to Sri Lanka have him flying through the air in order to get there and show him using his supernatural powers to tame various non-Buddhist forces (yaksas and nagas) on the island. Nonetheless, the hagiographers who made up these traditions saw fit to insert them into existing biographies; thus the Buddha’s three journeys to Sri Lanka are specified as having taken place in the ninth month, the fifth year, and the eighth year after his enlightenment.


Another important factor in the development of the legend of the Buddha was the influence of art. Some of the earliest narratives of the Buddha’s life were not literary texts, but sculpted bas-reliefs, and these works of art and the moments they capture could easily influence the biographical tradition. If there is symbiosis in the relationship between the Buddha’s biography and pilgrimage traditions, the same is true about its relationship to art. Simply put, what is recounted in story may affect what is sculpted in stone, just as what is sculpted in stone can influence what is recounted in story. There is nothing surprising in this; the impact of art on narrative is well-known. In Western culture, one need only think of how artistic depictions of, say, Jesus’s nativity (e.g. cre(c)che scenes) or of his crucifixion have influenced the reading, imagining, and rewriting of those moments in his lifestory.

Etienne Lamotte has detected no fewer than thirty-four episodes from the life of the Buddha in the first century b.c.e. bas-reliefs at the Sanchi stupa, in Central India. A number of these, significantly, appear to predate any literary account of the same event. For instance, on one of the pillars of the North Gate at Sanchi, there is a representation of a monkey making an offering of a bowl of honey to the Buddha, whose presence is symbolized by a tree and an empty throne. (At Sanchi, the Buddha is represented only by symbols such as a tree, a wheel, or a set of footprints.) This recalls an event that is supposed to have taken place in the town of Vaisali; the episode is commonly found in art, but it does not figure in literary accounts of the Buddha’s life until centuries later. Clearly, alongside the biographical tradition there existed a sculptural tradition which interacted with it in sometimes complex ways. Etienne Lamotte (1988, p.666) has described the process as follows:

Before laying hands on a chisel, the … artists undoubtedly consulted one or other biography of the Buddha in order to refresh their memories and ascertain this or that detail of the scene to be reproduced. It is no less certain that they questioned their employers and tried to meet the demands and preferences of their clients. Alongside the literary tradition recorded in the “Lives” of the period, there was also an oral tradition, publicly widespread, which had to be taken into account. There was necessarily much interaction between the two. The artists drew inspiration from the texts, but the texts in turn were influenced by the works created by the sculptors.

In this give-and-take, the technical exigencies of the artistic medium could sometimes be a factor (just as topographical facts could sometimes influence pilgrimage traditions). Thus, the statement in certain texts that the Buddha had “webbed hands” comparable to the feet of a swan probably stems from a misunderstanding due to a particular sculptural practice. At least according to Lamotte, the word “web” (jala) originally meant the “network” (jala) of lines on the skin, the visibility and particular configuration of which on the hands and feet were one of the physical signs of the Great Man (mahapurusa) (for a list of these signs, see Table 2.1 page 42). The fact that, in time, this original meaning was forgotten can be explained by the technical artistic practice of leaving a web of stone interconnecting the spread fingers of the Buddha’s hand so as to reinforce them and keep them from breaking. The texts were thus reread and interpreted in light of the sculptures.


In addition to the influence of the artistic tradition, it is also important to keep in mind the relationship between the developing biography of the Buddha and the practice of Buddhist rituals. Just as accounts of Jesus’s Last Supper are linked to the Christian rite of Holy Communion, or just as the celebration of Passover involves a reading of the events of the Exodus, so too stories about the Buddha’s life were to be recited and reenacted on ritual and festival occasions. In Southeast Asia today, for example, the consecration of a new Buddha image involves “infusing” or “programming” it with the lifestory of the Buddha. This must be ritually recited in front of the image so that it will know what it is to “be” a buddha. More specifically, as we shall see, certain events in the life of the Buddha were directly correlated to particular ritual acts. For instance, the bodhisattva’s “Great Departure” from his home in Kapilavastu provided the model for the Buddhist rite of ordination of new monks. Still today, candidates for the monkhood ritually dress up in their finery, and ride forth from their homes as “princes,” sometimes to be opposed by friends or relatives acting out the part of Mara, the “Evil One” (who opposed the Buddha’s going forth), before arriving at the monastery where they exchange their “royal” garb for monastic robes and have their heads tonsured. Such ritual ordinations, of course, were not without their own repercussive influences on the biography. One suspects, for instance, that the whole literary account, at least in one text, of the bodhisattva being dressed up and adorned magnificently by the gods just prior to his departure at midnight on his Great Renunciation is an infusion of the ritual tradition back into the lifestory. We shall see that similar symbioses may be found in other events and episodes.



Finally, it is important to remember that not all Buddhist schools were in agreement about the nature and identity of the Buddha. Doctrinal developments, as well as other contextual considerations, could thus affect presentations of the Buddha’s lifestory. I have, so far, spoken of the biography of the Buddha as though it were limited to his life as Gautama. That is, of course, nonsense. Buddhist acceptance of the doctrines of karma and rebirth made possible, perhaps even mandated, the extension of the Buddha’s biography to include his many previous births (jatakas), during which he was a bodhisattva, a buddha-to-be. Thus, we find a text such as the Pali “Introduction” (Nidana-katha) to the Jataka Commentary (Jatakatthakatha) beginning its account of the Buddha’s life, “four incalculable world periods plus one hundred thousand aeons ago” (Jayawickrama, 1990, pp.3ff.) when, in a previous life as the brahmin Sumedha, the bodhisattva first made the determination that he wanted to become a buddha someday. In the hundreds and thousands of births subsequent to this embarkation on the path, he was then variously reborn as a human, as a god, and as an animal. In these guises, he did good deeds, made merit, and strove in a variety of ways that eventually resulted in his finally attaining buddhahood as Gautama. Buddhahood thus was a long time in coming, but in achieving it, Gautama at last put an end to his rebirth process. This did not mean the end of his lifestory, however, since, in significant ways, it is possible to think of the Buddha’s relics — the remains of his physical body as well as the “body” of teachings which he left behind — as continuing his life and biography, even up to the present. As we shall see, it is only some time in the future, with the expected loss of the Buddha’s doctrine and the disappearance of his bodily relics, that his lifestory will truly finally come to an end.

After it does, however, it will in a sense be taken up again, to be lived once more by another buddha and then another and another and another. It is important to realize that, even in the earliest Buddhist traditions, the Buddha Gautama was not thought to have been unique. He had predecessors, the buddhas of the past whom he periodically encountered over the aeons during which he was striving for buddhahood; and he will have successors, some of whom are, right now, bodhisattvas walking the same lengthy path to buddhahood that he did. Gautama is important because he is “our” Buddha, i.e., the most recent one from our perspective, but his lifestory should not be limited to him alone.

Such a message is made clear in the “Discourse on the Great Legend” (Mahavadana-sutra) which exists in both Sanskrit and Pali versions. It narrates at some length the life of the Buddha, from birth through enlightenment, but it is not the life of the Buddha Gautama that it recounts but that of the past Buddha Vipasyi, who is said to have lived ninety-one aeons ago. In all its details, this lifestory is exactly like the lifestory of Gautama, except that the names — of his disciples, his family members, the places where he dwelt, etc. — have all been changed. The young Vipasyi does not grow up in Kapilavastu but in Bandhumati; he was not of the Gautama clan but of the Kaundinya; he attained enlightenment not under a fig tree but under a trumpet-flower tree; his two chief disciples were not Sariputra and Maudgalyayana but Khanda and Tissa, and so on. It is clear to scholars that this tale has been patterned on the life of “our” Buddha, Gautama, but the text, in fact, points us towards the opposite conclusion: that the life of “our” Buddha has been patterned on that of Vipasyi, or more accurately that both of their lifestories reflect a biographical paradigm, a Buddha-life blueprint, which they, and all buddhas, follow.

In time, the particulars of this bio-blueprint became quite detailed and specific. One Sanskrit text, for example, enumerates ten “indispensible actions” which every Buddha must necessarily accomplish in order to “be” a buddha. No buddha, we are told, can pass away into final nirvana until he has predicted that another person will become a buddha some day, has inspired in someone else an unswerving resolve for buddhahood, has converted all those whom he should convert, has lived more than three quarters of his potential lifespan, has clearly drawn distinctions between good and evil deeds, has appointed two of his disciples as most prominent, has descended from Heaven at Samkasya, has held an assembly of his disciples at Lake Anavatapta, has brought his parents to a vision of the truth, has performed a great miracle at Sravasti.

The Tibetan tradition favored instead a quite different list of the “Twelve Great Acts” of a buddha, starting with his existence in Tusita Heaven, his descent from that Heaven, and his entrance into the womb of his mother. It then goes on to narrate his birth, his skill at various arts, his life in the harem, his great departure from the palace, his practice of asceticism, his defeat of Mara, his attainment of nirvana, his first sermon, and his death and parinirvana.

But it was the Pali commentarial tradition that was to present the longest and most detailed list, expanding the number of obligatory deeds and facts to thirty. Here, it is clearer than ever that what makes a buddha is living the buddha-life. We are told that: on descending into his mother’s womb, the bodhisattva must be aware that this will be his final birth; within his mother’s womb, he should assume a cross-legged position facing outwards; his mother must give birth to him while in a standing position, in a forest grove. Immediately after his birth, he should take seven steps to the north, survey the four quarters and roar the lion’s roar; his Great Departure occurs only after he has seen the four signs and the birth of his son; he must practice austerities for at least seven days and wear the yellow robe; on the day of his enlightenment, he must first have a meal of milk-rice. Then he should sit on a seat made of grass, concentrate on his breathing, defeat the forces of Mara, and attain full enlightenment in a cross-legged position. After enlightenment, he should spend seven weeks in the vicinity of the Bodhi tree; and the god Brahma must ask him to preach the Dharma, which he first does in the Deer Park at Sarnath. He should recite the rules of the community to an assembly of monks, reside mostly at the Jetavana monastery, perform the Twin Miracle at Sravasti, teach the Abhidharma in Indra’s Heaven, and descend from that Heaven at Samkasya. He should constantly abide in the attainment of fruits, survey the capacities of others during two nightly meditational trances, lay down new monastic rules only when necessary, recount jatakas when appropriate, and recite the Buddha-Chronicle in an assembly of his kinsmen. He should welcome monks who visit him, spend the rains-retreat where invited to do so, and daily carry out his duties prior to and after eating and in the three watches of the night. He should eat a meal containing (pork) meat on the day of his death, and pass into parinirvana after myriads of attainments.

Given such standardization and establishment of a “Buddha blueprint,” it is perhaps not surprising that some schools of buddhism should come to think of Gautama and other buddhas as mere embodiments or projections of a transcendent pattern. This, of course, was not without its effect on the presentation of their lifestories. The biography known as the Great Story (Mahavastu), for instance, belongs to a school of Buddhism that emphasized the supramundane nature of the Buddha. In that work, Gautama is seen as conforming to the ways of the world but as basically being unaffected by them. Thus, he may seem to exert himself, but he feels no fatigue; he may sit in the shade, but he is not tormented by the heat of the sun; he may eat and drink, but he is never hungry or thirsty. Much the same kind of thing can be found in Living out of the Game (Lalitavistara) which never fails to magnify and glorify events in the life of the Buddha, emphasizing his purity and transcendental qualities.

Both of these texts reflect tendencies that came to be associated with the rise of Great Vehicle (Mahayana) Buddhism. This is not the place to embark on an analysis of the changes in Buddha doctrine that came about in the Mahayana tradition. Suffice it to point out that, in the Mahayana, the lifespan of buddhas in general, and of Sakyamuni in particular, was greatly extended to the point of being more or less eternal in duration. The notion developed that the Buddha had always been enlightened, that his life on earth was but a manifestation of a transcendent, unchanging, eternal Body of Truth, the Dharmakaya. Consequently, the Buddha’s life-events — his birth, quest, enlightenment, and death — came to be seen not as transformative personal existential processes for him, but as a manifestation of his compassionate attempts to teach others and to be a model for them. In this context, the Mahayana schools also saw the opening up of the way to buddhahood for all beings. Inspired by the model of the Buddha and guided by his compassion, devotees began to think not just of their own salvation, but of the path to a realization of buddhahood that would help others. The description of that path was sometimes greatly elaborated, but at some point it still tended to incorporate the tradition of the Buddha’s lifestory.

Enough has been said to make it clear that the lifestory of the Buddha is many-faceted, in some ways embodying and reflecting the whole history of the Buddhist experience. It is not without reason that we may speak of the “many lives” of the Buddha, not only to take note of the countless jatakas that are part of his lifestory, but also to do justice to the often striking divergences between different biographical traditions. In doing that, however, we must avoid the risk of obscuring the unitive function that the Buddha’s lifestory has played throughout much of the Buddhist world. Of course, there are variant versions of different episodes, and we shall pay attention to some of them in the chapters below, but the overall outline of the story remains the same.

In this book, then, I propose to examine and discuss, chapter by chapter, the following topics: previous lives of the Buddha; his ancestry, birth, and youth as Gautama; his spiritual quest and enlightenment; his decision to preach and to establish a community; the growth of monasticism and his further spread of the doctrine by means of miracles and distant journeys; and finally his last days, complete extinction (parinirvana), and ongoing existence in his relics.

Siddhartha Buddha was born a prince in Lumbini, Nepal, at the foot of Mount Palpa in the Himalayan ranges, in 560 B.C. He died at age 80 in 480 B.C. His father was Suddhodana, king of the Sakhyas. Because his mother, Maya, died seven days after his birth, he was raised by his foster mother, Maya’s sister Mahaprajapati.


Siddhartha means “one who has accomplished his aim.” Gautama was Siddhartha’s family name. He was also known as Sakhya Muni, meaning an ascetic of the Sakhya tribe.
Upon his birth, astrologers predicted that upon achieving manhood, Siddhartha would become either a universal monarch (Chakravarti), or would abandon all earthly comforts to become a monk and a Buddha, a perfectly enlightened soul who would then assist all mankind to achieve enlightenment. His father, who desired his son to become a universal monarch, asked the astrologers what his son would see that might cause him to retire from the world. They replied: “A decrepit old man, a diseased man, a dead man and a monk.”
Doing his best to prevent his son from becoming a monk, Suddhodana raised him in luxury and indulgence and sought to keep him attached to sensual pleasure.

Guards were posted to assure that Siddhartha did not make contact with the four men described by the astrologers. He placed his son in a magnificent walled estate with gardens, fountains, palaces, music, dancing and beautiful women. Siddhartha married Yasodhara at age sixteen, who subsequently gave birth to their son, Rahula. Throughout these early years of his life, he knew nothing of the sufferings that were taking place outside his enclosure.
Then one day, desiring to see how the people in his town were living, he managed to get out of his walled enclosure accompanied by his servant, Channa. He came upon a decrepit old man, a sick man, and a corpse and he was shocked! Seeing their mortality, he realized that he also would one day become prey to old age, disease and death. He then met a monk who impressed him with his serenity and beauty. It was at this time that Siddhartha decided to renounce the material world with its luxuries and comforts, as well as suffering and pain, and take up a monastic life, realizing that “Worldly happiness is transitory.”

Siddhartha left his home forever, donning yellow robes and shaving his head, to take up Yogic practices. Seeking instruction from several hermit teachers who lived in caves in the neighboring hills, he practiced severe Tapas (austerities) and Pranayama (breath control) for six years, during which time he almost starved to death and became exceedingly weak. He finally realized that starvation did not serve his aims, as it would lead to the very conditions he was trying to surmount. At this point he decided to give up the extreme life he had been living, eat food in moderation, and take to the “middle path.”

A Bo Tree

Given food by a young woman, he sought a comfortable place to sit and eat it. He found a large tree, now known as the great Bo-tree, or Tree of Wisdom. Upon consuming the physical food, he realized that he was starved for spiritual nourishment. Going deep into meditation, he contemplated his journey with its temptations and desires but did not yield to them. The legends tell us that he came out of the meditation victorious, his face shining with illumination and splendor, having attained Nirvana. (Nirvana is the completion of the path of Buddhism in which the person has achieved self-enlightenment and all delusion and anguish are permanently ended). He got up and danced in divine ecstasy for seven days and nights around the sacred Bo-tree, after which he returned to a normal state of consciousness filled with incredible compassion for all. He had an overwhelming desire to share his illumination with humanity. 

Thus at age 35, Siddhartha was a Boddhisatva (one who has achieved enlightenment but chooses to remain in this world who help those who are suffering). He expressed the experience of his Samadhi (state of consciousness in which Absoluteness is experienced attended with all-knowledge and joy; Oneness): “I thus behold my mind released from the defilement of sensual pleasures, released from the defilement of heresy, released from the defilement of ignorance.”
“The Buddha” (enlightened one) left his wondrous Bo-tree behind, venturing out into the world to teach others who were seeking Wisdom and Enlightenment. The subsequent teachings of The Buddha are the foundation of Buddhism.

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