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Buddha: a historical and legendary as well as mythical figure.


Gandhara Buddha circa 1900 years ago, courtesy of wikimedia commons

This post is for those of you who do not know who Buddha was/is/will be (there are more than one.)   Most of what follows is taken from Wikipedia.  The Buddha was a historical person, said to have been born in Lumbini, in present-day Nepal, in 563 BCE (before Christ, or Before the Current Era).  He grew up in a place called Kapilavastu, whose exact location is unknown; it is close to the place he was born, in northern India or southern Nepal.  Most details of his life are legendary or unverifiable.  His given name was Siddhartha, and his family name was Gautama.

Much of what has been passed down to us about the Buddha was popularized by the Emperor Ashoka (ruled circa 268 to 232 BCE) who ruled over most of India from present-day Afghanistan to Bangladesh.  He is said to have converted to Buddhism after conquering Kalinga (modern day Odisha) in 260 BCE.  Most of what we know about Ashoka comes to us from inscriptions on rock and on stone pillars erected throughout his kingdom, apparently during his reign.  Some of these pillars were were put up at the western borders of the kingdom and were in Greek as well as Aramaic and the language of his people, Brahmic.

The inscriptions, called the Edicts of Ashoka, include some of the earliest known Buddhist principles.  They prescribe moral virtues, like obedience to one’s parents and elders, tolerance of other religions, and against maltreatment of animals.  The texts are not clear in modern English translations, but we can interpolate many of the Buddhist virtues that are extant today.

The events of the Buddha’s life are mostly legendary.  It is said that he was born into an aristocratic family; the government locally was apparently republican rather than a hereditary monarchy.  According to tradition, he was married and had a son.   He is said to have renounced his position and taken to wandering, asceticism, and mendicancy.  He is agreed to have studied under two teachers of meditation, first the “sphere of nothingness” and then the “sphere of neither perception nor non-perception.”  However, he was still dissatisfied.

He then began to practice extreme asceticism.  At one point, he sat down to meditate and decided not to get up until he had reached “full awakening.”  He apparently starved himself over a period of seven days into a state of nirvana.  It is at this point that he had an enlightening while sitting under a tree now known as the Bodhi tree.  He then decided that meditation was the best way and described what he called the “middle way.”  Wikipedia says, ” A Buddha has achieved liberation (vimutti), also called Nirvana, which is seen as the extinguishing of the “fires” of desire, hatred, and ignorance, that keep the cycle of suffering and rebirth going.”

After becoming “awakened” and becoming the Buddha (“the Awakened One”), he began to teach others.  (There are more than one Buddha, and there were others called Buddha before this one.)  He is said to have intended to return to his two meditation teachers, but they had already died.  Instead, he gathered some (five?) other ascetics.  He “then taught them the “first sermon”, also known as the “Benares sermon”, i.e. the teaching of ‘the noble eightfold path as the middle path aloof from the two extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification.’ ” (Wikipedia)  The first ascetic was convinced by this lecture.

The Buddha’s second sermon was said to be about the doctrine of “non-self”– the idea that there is no permanent, unchanging self.  This lecture convinced the other four ascetics that he had the right idea.  His third sermon was the “Discourse on Fire”, “in which he taught that everything in the world is inflamed by passions and only those who follow the Eightfold path can be liberated.” (Wikipedia)  By the end of that rainy season (roughly four months) he had convinced some sixty disciples, whom he advised to go and proselytize elsewhere.

For the next forty or forty-five years, the Buddha wandered the valleys of the Indus and Ganges rivers and their tributaries, giving sermons to all walks of life, from commoners to kings.  He is even said to have lectured to murderers and cannibals.  He is said to have added his son, cousin, half-brothers, and his father as disciples.

His father was said to have become a “stream-enterer”, a term which means that a person has seen the dharma (the set of rules, rights, laws, conduct, and virtues, and so on, basic to Buddhism) and “and consequently, has dropped the first three fetters (saŋyojana) that bind a being to rebirth, namely self-view (sakkāya-ditthi), clinging to rites and rituals (sīlabbata-parāmāsa), and skeptical indecision (Vicikitsa).” (Wikipedia)  I’ll have another post about “fetters” because there are several authors who describe different sets of them, either ten or three, and they correspond with other teachings of Buddhism.

It is said that during the latter part of his life, the Buddha settled in one place and that his fame grew, and with it, his disciples.  He developed a set of general rules for his “sangha” or religious community.  He established an order of female monks or “bhikkhunis.”  He critiqued the practices of other sects of ascetics or “sramanas.”  He dealt with a schism instigated by his cousin, who it is claimed tried to kill him.

The Buddha apparently lived to a great old age (more than 80), as the various texts about him say that he suffered from back pain and delegated some of his teaching to his disciples so that he could rest.  He was asked to appoint a leader for his community (for after he died) but refused, saying in essence that each person (and each group) should depend on itself and that a group had only a certain lifetime which could not readily be extended.  He apparently said that he had not held back any truths which he could impart to a new leader in secret.

The early (and later) texts go into great detail about the Buddha’s life and death.  For example, they say that just before his death, he received a meal donated by a blacksmith named Cunda, consisting of either pork or possibly truffles (or some kind of mushroom that pigs like.)  He began to suffer severe abdominal pain and told his attendant to tell Cunda that the “dysentery” was not Cunda’s fault and the food was not to blame.  One contemporary author claims that he must have suffered a mesenteric infarction (blockage of the arteries leading to the intestines, often a result of hardening of the arteries in old age.)

The details of the Buddha’s life need to be taken with a grain of salt.  Some of them are probably quite accurate, while others are clearly not.  The claim that he was born on a full moon could easily be correct, but could just as easily be hagiographic (a term referring to stories about the lives of saints.)  On the other hand, the claim that, at his birth, a famous hermit and seer came down to examine the infant for the “32 signs of a great man” and concluded that he would either be a great king or a great religious leader seems likely to be made up.  There are also a number of statements that appear to be purely supernatural, such as the claim that he was given his first monastic robes by a god.

Students of Buddhism may wish to peruse these stories in greater detail– or ignore them.  A good place to start, as with everything, is Wikipedia.  Trying to dive into the original texts, even in English translation, is sure to be frustrating.  Personally, I think that the stories about someone who lived over 2,000 years ago are unlikely to reveal much other than broad outlines.  The notion of accurately recording historical details about anyone or anything is a relatively recent development.  For a better narrative, I suggest the Herman Hesse novel “Siddhartha” (available widely as it is out of copyright.)

We have, for example, Herodotus (who lived circa 484-425 BCE) as “the father of history”, and if we read him in original translations into English, we find that he records both believable and fantastic “factoids” with equal patience.  There is little indication that even someone who sees himself as a historian (if, in fact, he did see himself that way) is not thoroughly credulous when it comes to things he is told.  He may or may not even reveal that he has seen something with his own eyes as opposed to having been told that it is so.  Finally, even eyewitness testimony is easily mistaken, as we have seen from recent criminal cases in which video evidence contradicts eyewitness statements.   It is Herodotus who said, “Of all men’s miseries the bitterest is this: to know so much and to have control over nothing.”





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