Buddha By Karen Armstrong


By Karen Armstrong

Buddha-Introduction | Music Codes


Some Buddhists might say that to write a biography of Siddhatta Gotama is a very un-Buddhist thing to do. In their view, no authority should be revered, however august; Buddhists must motivate themselves and rely on their own efforts, not on a charismatic leader. One ninth-century master, who founded the Lin-Chi line of Zen Buddhism, even went so far as to com¬mand his disciples, “If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha!” to emphasize the importance of maintaining this indepen¬dence from authority figures. Gotama might not have ap¬proved of the violence of this sentiment, but throughout his life he fought against the cult of personality, and endlessly de¬flected the attention of his disciples from himself. It was not his life and personality but his teaching that was important. He believed that he had woken up to a truth that was inscribed in the deepest structure of existence. It was a dhamma; the word has a wide range of connotations, but originally it denoted a fundamental law of life for gods, humans and animals alike. By discovering this truth, he had become enlightened and had experienced a profound inner transformation; he had won peace and immunity in the midst of life’s suffering. Gotama had thus become a Buddha, an Enlightened or Awakened One. Any one of his disciples could achieve the same enlighten¬ment if he or she followed this method. But if people started to revere Gotama the man, they would distract themselves from their task, and the cult could become a prop, causing an un¬worthy dependence that could only impede spiritual progress.
The Buddhist scriptures are faithful to this spirit and seem to tell us little about the details of Gotama’s life and personal¬ity. It is obviously difficult, therefore, to write a biography of the Buddha that will meet modern criteria, because we have very little information that can be considered historically sound. The first external evidence that a religion called Bud¬dhism existed comes from inscriptions made by King Asoka, who ruled the Mauryan state in North India from about 269 to 232 B.C.E. But he lived some two hundred years after the Buddha. As a result of this dearth of reliable fact, some West¬ern scholars in the nineteenth century doubted that Gotama had been a historical figure. They claimed that he had simply been a personification of the prevailing Samkhya philosophy or a symbol of a solar cult. Yet modern scholarship has re¬treated from this skeptical position, and argues that even though little in the Buddhist scriptures is what is popularly known as “gospel truth,” we can be reasonably confident that Siddhatta Gotama did indeed exist and that his disciples pre-served the memory of his life and teachings as well as they could.
When trying to find out about the Buddha, we are depen¬dent upon the voluminous Buddhist scriptures, which have been written in various Asian languages and take up several shelves in a library. Not surprisingly, the story of the composi¬tion of this large body of texts is complex and the status of its various parts much disputed. It is generally agreed that the most useful texts are those written in Pali, a north Indian di¬alect of uncertain provenance, which seems to have been close to Magadhan, the language that Gotama himself may have spoken. These scriptures were preserved by Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Burma and Thailand who belonged to the Theravada school. But writing was not common in India until the time of Asoka, and the Pali Canon was orally preserved and probably not written down until the first century B.C.E. How were these scriptures composed?
It seems that the process of preserving the traditions about the Buddha’s life and teaching began shortly after his death in 483 (according to the traditional Western dating). Buddhist monks at this time led itinerant lives; they wandered around the cities and towns of the Ganges plain and taught the people their message of enlightenment and freedom from suffering. During the monsoon rains, however, they were forced off the road and congregated in their various settlements, and during these monsoon retreats, the monks discussed their doctrines and practices. Shortly after the Buddha died, the Pali texts tell us that the monks held a council to establish a means of as¬sessing the various extant doctrines and practices. It seems that about fifty years later, some of the monks in the eastern regions of North India could still remember their great Teacher, and others started to collect their testimony in a more formal way. They could not yet write this down, but the prac¬tice of yoga had given many of them phenomenally good memories, so they developed ways of memorizing the dis¬courses of the Buddha and the detailed rules of their Order. As the Buddha himself had probably done, they set some of his teachings in verses and may even have sung them; they also developed a formulaic and repetitive style (still present in the written texts) to help the monks learn these discourses by heart. They divided the sermons and regulations into distinct but overlapping bodies of material, and certain monks were assigned the task of committing one of these anthologies to memory and passing it on to the next generation.
About a hundred years after the Buddha’s death, a Second Council was held, and by this time it seems that the texts had reached the form of the present Pali Canon. It is often called the Tipitaka (“Three Baskets”) because later, when the scrip¬tures were written down, they were kept in three separate re-ceptacles: the Basket of Discourses (Sutta Pitaka), the Basket of Disciplines (Vinaya Pitaka), and a miscellaneous body of teach¬ings. Each of these three “Baskets” were subdivided as follows:

[1] Sutta  Pitaka,  which  consists  of  five   “collections” (nikayas) of sermons, delivered by the Buddha:
[i] Digha Nikaya, an anthology of thirty-four of the longest discourses, which focus on the spiritual train¬ing of the monks, on the duties of the laity, and on var¬ious aspects of the religious life in India in the fifth century B.C.E. But there is also an account of the Buddha’s qualities (Sampasadaniya) and of the last days of his life (Mahaparinibbdna).
[ii] Majjhima Nikaya, an anthology of 152 middle-length sermons (suttas). These include a large number of stories about the Buddha, his struggle for enlighten¬ment and his early preaching, as well as some of the core doctrines.
[iii] Samyutta Nikaya: a collection of five series of suttas, which are divided according to subject, on such matters as the Eightfold Path and the makeup of the human personality.
[iv] Anauttara Nikaya, which has eleven divisions of suttas, most of which are included in other parts of the scriptures.
[v] Khuddaka-Nikaya, a collection of minor works, which include such popular texts as the Dhammapada, an anthology of the Buddha’s epigrams and short po¬ems; the Udana, a collection of some of the Buddha’s maxims, composed mostly in verse, with introductions telling how each one came to be delivered; the Sutta-Nipata, another collection of verses, which include some legends about the Buddha’s life; and the Jataka, stories about the former lives of the Buddha and his companions, to illustrate how a person’s kamma (“ac¬tions”) have repercussions in their future existences.

[2] The Vinaya Pitaka, the Book of Monastic Discipline, which codifies the rules of the Order. It is divided into three parts:
[i] the Sutta Vibhanga, which lists the 227 offenses which must be confessed at the fortnightly chapter, with a commentary explaining how each rule came to be made.
[ii] The Khandhakhas, which are subdivided into the Mahavagga (the Great Series), and the Cullavagga (the Lesser Series), which give rules for admission to the Or¬der, the way of life and the ceremonies, also with com¬mentaries, explaining the incidents which gave rise to the rules. These commentaries introducing each rule have preserved important legends about the Buddha.
[iii] The Parivara: summaries and classifications of the rules.

The “Third Basket” (Abhidhamma Pitaka) deals with philo¬sophical and doctrinal analyses and has little of interest to the biographer.
After the Second Council, there was a schism in the Bud¬dhist movement, which split up into a number of sects. Each school took these old texts but rearranged them to fit its own teaching. In general, it seems that no material was discarded, even though there were additions and elaborations. Clearly the Pali Canon, the scripture of the Theravada school, was not the only version of the Tipitaka, but it was the only one to sur¬vive in its entirety. Yet fragments of some lost Indian material can be found in later translations of the scriptures into Chi¬nese, or in the Tibetan scriptures, which give us our earliest collection of Sanskrit texts. So even though these translations were composed in the fifth and sixth centuries C.E., about a thousand years after the Buddha’s death, some parts are as old as and corroborate the Pali Canon.
From this brief account, several points emerge that will af¬fect the way we approach this scriptural material. First, the texts purport to be. simple collections of the Buddha’s own words, with no authorial input from the monks. This mode of oral transmission precludes individualistic authorship; these scriptures are not the work of a Buddhist equivalent of the evangelists known as Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, each of whom gives his own idiosyncratic view of the Gospel. We know nothing about the monks who compiled and edited all these texts, nor about the scribes who later committed them to writing. Second, the Pali Canon is bound to reflect the view¬point of the Theravadin school, and may have slanted the originals for polemical purposes. Third, despite the excellence of the monks’ yoga-trained memories, this mode of transmis¬sion was inevitably flawed. Much material was probably lost, some was misunderstood, and the monks’ later views were doubtless projected onto the Buddha. We have no means of distinguishing which of these stories and sermons are authen¬tic and which are invented. The scriptures do not provide us with information that will satisfy the criteria of modern scien¬tific history. They can only claim to reflect a legend about Gotama that existed some three generations after his death, when the Pali Canon took definitive form. The later Tibetan and Chinese scriptures certainly contain ancient material, but they also represent a still later development of the legend. There is also the sobering fact that the oldest Pali manuscript to have survived is only about 500 years old.
But we need not despair. The texts do contain historical material which seems to be reliable. We learn a great deal about North India in the fifth century B.C.E., which agrees with the scriptures of the Jains, who were contemporary with Buddha. The texts contain accurate references to the religion of the Vedas, about which the Buddhists who composed the later scriptures and the commentaries were largely ignorant; we learn about historical personages, such as King Bimbisara of Magadha, about the emergence of city life, and about the po-litical, economic and religious institutions of the period which agrees with the discoveries made by archeologists, philologists and historians. Scholars are now confident that some of this scriptural material probably does go back to the very earliest Buddhism. Today it is also difficult to accept the nineteenth-century view that the Buddha was simply an invention of the Buddhists. This mass of teachings all has a consistency and a coherence that point to a single original intelligence, and it is hard to see them as a corporate creation. It is not at all impos¬sible that some of these words were really uttered by Siddhatta Gotama, even though we cannot be certain which they are.
Another crucial fact emerges from this description of the Pali Canon: it contains no continuous narrative of the Bud¬dha’s life. Anecdotes are interspersed with the teaching and simply introduce a doctrine or a rule. Sometimes in his ser-mons, the Buddha tells his monks about his early life or his enlightenment. But there is nothing like the developed chronological accounts of the lives of Moses or Jesus in the Jewish and Christian scriptures. Later, Buddhists did write ex¬tended, consecutive biographies. We have the Tibetan Lalita-Vistara (third century C.E.) and the Pali Nidana Katha (fifth century C.E.), which takes the form of a commentary on the Jataka stories. The Pali Commentaries on the Canon, put into their final form by the Theravadin scholar Buddhaghosa in the fifth century C.E., also helped readers to place the sporadic and unconsecutive events recounted in the Canon in some chronological order. But even these extended narratives have lacunae, They contain almost no details about the forty-five years of the Buddha’s teaching mission, after his enlighten¬ment. The Lalita-Vistara ends with the Buddha’s first sermon, and the Nidana Katha concludes with the foundation of the first Buddhist settlement in Savatthi, the capital of Kosala, at the outset of his preaching career. There are twenty years of the Buddha’s mission about which we have no information at all.
All this would seem to indicate that those Buddhists who claim that the story of the historical Gotama is irrelevant are right. It is also true that the people of North India were not in¬terested in history in our sense: they were more concerned about the meaning of historical events. As a result, the scrip-tures give little information about matters that most modern Western people would consider indispensable. We cannot even be certain what century the Buddha lived in. He was tra¬ditionally thought to have died in about 483 B.C.E., but Chi¬nese sources would suggest that he could have died as late as 368 B.C.E. Why should anybody bother with the biography of Gotama, if the Buddhists themselves were so unconcerned about his life?
But this is not quite true. Scholars now believe that the later extended biographies were based on an early account of Gotama’s life, composed at the time of the Second Council, which has been lost. Further, the scriptures show that the first Buddhists thought deeply about several crucial moments in Gotama’s biography: his birth, his renunciation of normal do-mestic life, his enlightenment, the start of his teaching career, and his death. These were incidents of great importance. We may be in the dark about some aspects of Gotama’s biography, but we can be confident that the general outline delineated by these key events must be correct. The Buddha always insisted that his teaching was based entirely on his own experience. He had not studied other people’s views or developed an abstract theory. He had drawn his conclusions from his own life his¬tory. He taught his disciples that if they wanted to achieve en-lightenment, they must abandon their homes, become mendicant monks, and practice the mental disciplines of yoga, as he had done. His life and teaching were inextricably com¬bined. His was an essentially autobiographical philosophy, and the main contours of his life were described in the scrip-tures and commentaries as a model and an inspiration to other Buddhists. As he put it: “He who sees me, sees the dhamma (the teaching), and he who sees the dhamma sees me.”
There is a sense in which this is true of any major religious figure. Modern New Testament scholarship has shown that we know far less about the historical Jesus than we thought we did. “Gospel truth” is not as watertight as we assumed. But this has not prevented millions of people from modeling their lives on Jesus and seeing his path of compassion and suffering as leading to a new kind of life. Jesus certainly existed, but his story has been presented in the Gospels as a paradigm. Chris¬tians have looked back to him when delving into the heart of their own problems. Indeed, it is only possible to comprehend Jesus fully if one has in some sense experienced personal transformation. The same is true of the Buddha, who, until the twentieth century, was probably one of the most influen¬tial figures of all time. His teaching flourished in India for 1,500 years, and then spread to Tibet, Central Asia, China, Korea, Japan, Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia. For millions of human beings, he has been the person who has epitomized the human situation.
It follows that understanding the Buddha’s life, which is to an extent fused with his teaching, can help us all to under¬stand the human predicament. But this cannot be the sort of biography which is usually written in the twenty-first century; it cannot trace what actually happened or discover controver-sial new facts about the Buddha’s life, since there is not a sin¬gle incident in the scriptures that we can honestly affirm to be historically true. What is historical is the fact of the legend, and we must take that legend whole, as it had developed at the time when the Pali texts took their definitive shapes about a hundred years after the Buddha’s death. Today, many readers will find aspects of this legend incredible: stories of gods and miracles are interspersed with the more mundane and histor¬ically probable events in Gotama’s life. In modern historical criticism, it is usually a rule of thumb to discount miraculous events as later accretions. But if we do this with the Pali Canon, we distort the legend. We cannot be certain that the more normal incidents are any more original to the legend than these so-called signs and wonders. The monks who evolved the Canon would certainly have believed in the exis-tence of the gods, even though they saw them as limited be¬ings and, as we shall see, were beginning to regard them as projections of human psychological states. They also believed that proficiency in yoga gave the yogin extraordinary “mirac¬ulous” powers (iddhi). The yogic exercises trained the mind so that it could perform exceptional feats, just as the developed physique of the Olympic athlete gives him powers denied to or¬dinary mortals. People assumed that an expert yogin could levitate, read people’s minds and visit other worlds. The monks who compiled the Canon would have expected the Buddha to be able to do these things, even though he himself had a jaun¬diced view of iddhi and felt that they should be avoided. As we shall see, the “miracle stories” are often cautionary tales, designed to show the pointlessness of such spiritual exhibi¬tionism.
Many of the stories recorded in the Pali scriptures have an allegorical or symbolic meaning. The early Buddhists looked for significance, rather than historically accurate detail, in their scriptures. We shall also find that the later biographies, like the one found in the Nidana Katha, give alternative and more elaborate accounts of such incidents as Gotama’s deci¬sion to leave his father’s house, or his enlightenment, than the more sparse and technical narratives in the Pali Canon. These later stories too are even more rich in mythological elements than the Canon: gods appear, the earth shakes, gates open miraculously. Again, it would be a mistake to imagine that these miraculous details were added to the original legend. These later consecutive biographies were probably based on that lost account of the Buddha’s life which was composed about a century after his death, at the same time that the Canon took its definitive form. It would not have worried the early Buddhists that these overtly mythological tales were dif¬ferent from those in the Canon. They were simply a different interpretation of these events, bringing out their spiritual and psychological meaning.
But these myths and miracles show that even the Theravadin monks, who believed that the Buddha should simply be regarded as a guide and an exemplar, were beginning to see him as a superman. The more popular Mahayana school vir¬tually deified Gotama. It used to be thought that the Ther¬avada represented a purer form of Buddhism and that the Mahayana was a corruption, but, again, modern scholars see both as authentic. The Theravada continued to stress the importance of yoga and honored those monks who became Arahants, “accomplished ones” who, like the Buddha, had achieved enlightenment. But the Mahayana, who revere the Buddha as an eternal presence in the lives of the people and as an object of worship, have preserved other values that are just as strongly emphasized in the Pali texts, particularly the im-portance of compassion. They felt that the Theravada was too exclusive and that the Arahants hugged enlightenment self¬ishly to themselves. They preferred to venerate the figures of the Bodhisattas, the men or women destined to become Buddhas but who deferred enlightenment in order to bring the message of deliverance to “the many.” This, we shall see, was similar to Gotama’s own perception of the role of his monks. Both schools had seized upon important virtues; both, per¬haps, had also lost something.
Gotama did not want a personality cult, but paradigmatic individuals such as himself, Socrates, Confucius, and Jesus tend to be revered either as gods or as superhuman beings. Even the Prophet Muhammad, who always insisted that he was an ordinary human being, is venerated by Muslims as the Perfect Man, an archetype of the complete act of surrender (islam) to God. The immensity of the being and achievements of these people seemed to defy ordinary categories. The Bud¬dha legend in the Pali Canon showed that this was happening to Gotama, and even though these miraculous stories cannot be literally true, they tell us something important about the way human beings function. Like Jesus, Muhammad, and Socrates, the Buddha was teaching men and women how to transcend the world and its suffering, how to reach beyond human pettiness and expediency and discover an absolute value. All were trying to make human beings more conscious of themselves and awaken them to their full potential. The bi¬ography of a person who has been canonized in this way can¬not satisfy the standards of modern scientific history, but in studying the archetypal figure presented in the Pali Canon and its related texts, we learn more about human aspiration and gain new insight into the nature of the human task. This paradigmatic tale delineates a different kind of truth about the human condition in a flawed and suffering world.
But a biography of the Buddha has other challenges. The Gospels present Jesus, for example, as a distinct personality with idiosyncrasies; special turns of phrase, moments of pro¬found emotion and struggle, irascibility and terror have been preserved. This is not true of the Buddha, who is presented as a type rather than as an individual. In his discourses we find none of the sudden quips, thrusts and witticisms that delight us in the speech of Jesus or Socrates. He speaks as the Indian philosophical tradition demands: solemnly, formally and im¬personally. After his enlightenment, we get no sense of his likes and dislikes, his hopes and fears, moments of despera¬tion, elation or intense striving. What remains is an impres¬sion of a transhuman serenity, self-control, a nobility that has gone beyond the superficiality of personal preference, and a profound equanimity. The Buddha is often compared to non-human beings—to animals, trees or plants—not because he is subhuman or inhumane, but because he has utterly tran¬scended the selfishness that most of us regard as inseparable from our condition. The Buddha was trying to find a new way of being human. In the West, we prize individualism and self-expression, but this can easily degenerate into mere self-promotion. What we find in Gotama is a complete and breathtaking self-abandonment. He would not have been sur¬prised to learn that the scriptures do not present him as a fully-rounded “personality,” but would have said that our concept of personality was a dangerous delusion. He would have said that there was nothing unique about his life. There had been other Buddhas before him, each of whom delivered the same dhamma and had exactly the same experiences. Buddhist tra¬dition claims that there have been twenty-five such enlightened human beings and that after the present historical era, when knowledge of this essential truth has faded, a new Buddha, called Metteyya, will come to earth and go through the same life-cycle. So strong is this archetypal perception of the Bud¬dha that perhaps the most famous story about him in the Nidana Katha, his “Going Forth” from his father’s house, is said in the Pali Canon to have happened to one of Gotama’s prede¬cessors, Buddha Vipassi. The scriptures were not interested in tracing Gotama’s unique, personal achievements but in set¬ting forth the path that all Buddhas, all human beings must take when they seek enlightenment.
The story of Gotama has particular relevance for our own period. We too are living in a period of transition and change, as was North India during the sixth and fifth centuries B.C.E. Like the people of North India, we are finding that the tradi¬tional ways of experiencing the sacred and discovering an ul¬timate meaning in our lives are either difficult or impossible. As a result, a void has been an essential part of the modern ex-perience. Like Gotama, we are living in an age of political vio¬lence and have had terrifying glimpses of man’s inhumanity to man. In our society too there are widespread malaise, ur¬ban despair and anomie, and we are sometimes fearful of the new world order that is emerging.
Many aspects of the Buddha’s quest will appeal to the modern ethos. His scrupulous empiricism is especially conge¬nial to the pragmatic tenor of our own Western culture, to¬gether with his demand for intellectual and personal independence. Those who find the idea of a supernatural God alien will also warm to the Buddha’s refusal to affirm a Supreme Being. He confined his researches to his own human nature and always insisted that his experiences—even the supreme Truth of Nibbana—were entirely natural to human¬ity. Those who have become weary of the intolerance of some forms of institutional religiosity will also welcome the Bud¬dha’s emphasis on compassion and loving-kindness.
But the Buddha is also a challenge, because he is more rad¬ical than most of us. There is a creeping new orthodoxy in modern society that is sometimes called “positive thinking.” At its worst, this habit of optimism allows us to bury our heads in the sand, deny the ubiquity of pain in ourselves and others, and to immure ourselves in a state of deliberate heartlessness to ensure our emotional survival. The Buddha would have had little time for this. In his view, the spiritual life cannot begin until people allow themselves to be invaded by the reality of suffering, realize how fully it permeates our whole experience, and feel the pain of all other beings, even those whom we do not find congenial. It is also true that most of us are not pre-pared for the degree of the Buddha’s self-abandonment. We know that egotism is a bad thing; we know that all the great world traditions—not just Buddhism—urge us to transcend our selfishness. But when we seek liberation—in either a reli¬gious or secular guise—we really want to enhance our own sense of self. A good deal of what passes for religion is often de¬signed to prop up and endorse the ego that the founders of the faith told us to abandon. We assume that a person like the Buddha, who has, apparently, and after a great struggle, van¬quished all selfishness, will become inhuman, humorless and grim.
Yet that does not seem to have been true of the Buddha. He may have been impersonal, but the state he achieved inspired an extraordinary emotion in all who met him. The constant, even relentless degree of gentleness, fairness, equanimity, im¬partiality and serenity acquired by the Buddha touch a chord and resonate with some of our deepest yearnings. People were not repelled by his dispassionate calm, not daunted by his lack of preference for one thing, one person over another. Instead, they were drawn to the Buddha and flocked to him.
When people committed themselves to the regimen that he prescribed for suffering humanity, they said that they “took refuge” with the Buddha. He was a haven of peace in a violent world of clamorous egotism. In one of the most moving stories in the Pali Canon, a king in a state of acute depression took a drive one day through a park filled with huge tropical trees. He dismounted from his carriage and walked among their great roots, which were themselves as tall as an ordinary man, and noticed the way that they “inspired trust and confidence.” “They were quiet; no discordant voices disturbed their peace; they gave out a sense of being apart from the ordinary world, a place where one could take refuge from people” and find a re¬treat from the cruelties of life. Looking at these wonderful old trees, the king was reminded immediately of the Buddha, jumped into his carriage and drove for miles until he reached the house where the Buddha was staying. The search for a place apart, separate from the world and yet marvelously within it, that is impartial, utterly fair, calm and which fills us with the faith that, against all odds, there is value in our lives, is what many seek in the reality we call “God.” In the person of the Buddha, who had gone beyond the limitations and partial¬ities of selfhood, many people seemed to find it in a human be¬ing. The life of the Buddha challenges some of our strongest convictions, but it can also be a beacon. We may not be able to practice the method he prescribed in its entirety, but his example illuminates some of the ways in which we can reach for an enhanced and more truly compassionate humanity.
Note. In quoting from the Buddhist scriptures, I have drawn on the translations made by other scholars. But I have paraphrased them myself and produced my own version to make them more accessible to the Western reader. Some key terms of Buddhism are now commonly used in ordinary En¬glish discourse, but we have usually adopted the Sanskrit rather than the Pali forms. For the sake of consistency, I have kept to the Pali, so the reader will find kamma, dhamma and Nibbana, for example, instead of karma, dharma and Nirvana.

About Biomed MU

Biomedical Engineering @ CWRU,USA
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