When we wish to find out who Shakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism was, we find that there are many different versions of Buddha’s life story. That being the case, we could ask: Are they all talking about the same person? This is not a simple question to answer.
One version of the Buddha’s life emerges from the Pali Canon, the scriptures of the Theravada tradition. They do not actually contain a full account of his life in one place, but we can patch one together from bits and pieces from different texts. Later Buddhist literature then added many details to this bare skeleton.
The Mahayana, expanding greatly on the identity of the Buddha, is another version of the Buddha’s life, a version which differs from that of the Theravada. In the Theravada version, Buddha is an historical figure commonly accepted to have lived from 566 to 485 BC, and who became enlightened during his lifetime, ending his continuum at death. The Mahayana version further elaborates on the story as presented in the Pali canon, and describes how the Buddha had become enlightened numerous lifetimes before and had descended to earth in the form of Shakyamuni. On earth he performed twelve acts of being enlightened as an example to show others how it can be done, and at death his continuum continues in order for him to manifest in many other realms, teaching and benefiting all beings.
Another version of the Buddha is the one which we find in the tantras. In this version, the Buddha appears in various different forms simultaneously. These forms, which are referred to as “meditation deities,” have various colors, numerous arms, faces and legs, all representing various aspects of the Buddha’s realizations. The Buddha appears in these different forms, yet at the same time teaches in a human form, for example at Vulture’s Peak in India, where he also taught the sutras.
The Life of the Buddha within Specific Contexts
These various versions, which also include subversions, seem confusing, therefore, who actually was the Buddha? In order for us to make sense of these various versions, we first need to understand the basic Buddhist principle that each version of Buddha’s life taught the scriptures according to that particular aspect of Buddhism, i.e. within a specific context. The type of Buddha described in the Pali Canon taught within the context of the Theravada teachings. Therefore, it would make no sense that that same Buddha taught general Mahayana and tantric teachings.
In the Mahayana texts, the type of Buddha described is not the “historical Buddha” (i.e. one who became enlightened in one lifetime and whose continuum ended at death). This is also true in reference to the type of Buddha described in the tantric teachings.
In summary, when discussing the life of the Buddha, or indeed other topics, a basic Buddhist principle to keep in mind is that whatever is described or formulated in various teachings is to be understood within a specific context. Another way to consider the same material in different contexts would be to ask certain questions, such as: What use is learning about this material in terms of my daily life? What benefit does this material have on the Buddhist spiritual path?
By looking at the Buddha Shakyamuni’s life in different contexts we can hopefully avoid the following problematic questions: Did Buddha really teach the Mahayana sutras? Did he really teach the tantra? At the time of Buddha, because teachings were only transmitted orally and nothing was written down, there have been many debates amongst Buddhists about whether or not Buddha taught Mahayana and tantric teachings. One debate was presented in the great Indian master Shantideva’s text “Engaging in Bodhisattva Behaviour,” where he said, “Any of the reasons that you Hinayanists (Theravadas etc.) give for disqualifying our Mahayana sutras, I could use the exact same reasons to disqualify yours.” In other words, both schools, Hinayana and Mahayana, say that their teachings are transmitted as an oral tradition. Therefore, if the Theravadas say to the Mahayanists “Your teachings aren’t authentic as they weren’t taught by the Buddha, because they came about later,” the Mahayanists can respond, “The same thing is true of yours. Your teachings were also transmitted through the oral tradition and were written down much later. So if our teaching aren’t authentic then neither are yours.”
Another argument, presented earlier in this article, was that there is a different concept of Buddha within both the context of Theravada and Mahayana. The Theravada type of Buddha taught the Theravada scriptures and the Mahayana type taught the Mahayana scriptures. From these contexts within the three traditions: the Theravada as representative of Hinayana, the Mahayana sutra tradition, and the Mahayana tantric tradition, we can learn about the general life of the Buddha.
The Time of the Buddha
First, we need to ask: When did the Buddha live? He lived during a certain time in a specific society, i.e. within a determined context. This society already had certain basic beliefs, which Buddha addressed. Within this belief system, basic themes found in all Indian ways of thinking were present at that time and developed throughout history. Buddha explained these themes, such as rebirth, which is determined according to karma (personal actions), and how to gain liberation from this cycle of rebirth. All Indian systems generally say that knowledge, or the understanding of reality, is the method that enables someone to be liberated from rebirth. Buddha, dissatisfied with the answers of various philosophies and religions at that time, contemplated, meditated and did various practices in order to arrive at his realization of the truth.
In India, at the time of the Buddha, there was a strong movement towards an autocratic system. There were various types of kingdoms in which the merchants were becoming richer, rivalling the kings in their wealth. In response, the kings became more autocratic. In a few areas of India, small republics began to establish a more non-hierarchical system of thought based on that of the general population. Buddha, born in [or near] one of these republics, was influenced by this system and set up his monastic organisation in which decisions had to be taken jointly by all the members.
Also, at that time, there was a movement of people who reacted against the old Vedic religion with its rituals and priests etc., a religion followed by all including the republics and autocracies. The reactionaries were the “Shramaneras,” the wandering ascetics or “drop-outs” from society, those who withdrew from society to wander in the forest, meditate and work on their own spiritual development. Representatives of this type of movement not only included the Buddha but also other schools and followers. A withdrawal from society, at least for a certain period of time, is important if one wishes to follow a spiritual path - to be independent in order to seek the truth. Once we feel that we have found the truth then not to impose it on others in a hierarchical and autocratic manner, but reveal it in a more “democratic” way.
The Purpose and Validity of Biographies
In a Buddhist context – Indian or Tibetan – biographies are used to teach and illustrate certain points of the life story of a great figure, rather than presenting just the facts. The life of a great religious figure, within this context, is to inspire others and therefore, from a Western point of view, parts of the story may seem quite fantastic. For example, from the life of the Buddha, when the mother was visited in a dream by a white elephant with six tusks, or when Buddha was born from the side of the mother and took seven steps, saying “Here I am!” etc. From an Indian/Tibetan point of view, it is not important whether the story was historically accurate or not. The point is what does the story actually represent or teach the audience. This is relevant whether we want to piece together the life of the Buddha historically to find out what Buddha actually did, or what happened among his followers. Or, if we want to look at the story from the point of view of how an Indian or Tibetan would read it. In each context the life story is to teach us something, without one way being more valid than the other. An important principle of how Buddhist thinking works is to be able to understand things on many different level from various points of views, and to consider that many of these can be perfectly valid; there is more than one truth of how it really was.
A popular example in Buddhist literature is that of a liquid. To humans this liquid looks like water; to the hungry ghosts it looks like pus; to the hell beings it looks like acid; to the gods it looks like nectar. Which one is correct? According to the Buddhist way of thinking, they are all correct because the validity of something is only relative within a certain context.
Another example is in a branch of family therapy, called contextual therapy, in which within a family situation each family member is asked to describe their version of the situation. The father recounts one version, the mother another and each of the children recount their own. Each one of these versions is correct and is given equal respect because all of the family members experience the situation in their own way. This is a very Buddhist way of thinking and can be applied to the life story of the Buddha. If we read the story in many different ways, each version is correct and will teach us something.
The Main Facts of Buddha’s Life and Relevance to our Practice
Buddha was born into a privileged and wealthy family (it is debateable as to whether or not he was a prince), and therefore enjoyed great pleasures and benefits, including a good education. He married and had a son. In terms of a career, he was offered to take over his father’s position as head of a republic, but Buddha, being a follower of the Shramanera movement, declined the offer. Here, it is important to emphasise that Buddha was not irresponsible for leaving his wife and children. In Indian society, wives and children are cared for within extended families of grandparents and other members. Also, Buddha was born into the warrior caste, a caste in which the men left home to fight battles. Buddha fought his own battle, the internal one against ignorance and disturbing emotions.
Buddha’s decision to leave the family life teaches us that seeking the truth, i.e. the end of suffering in terms of either rebirth or mental and emotional suffering, is far more important than having a good position, power and money. It is more important to understand how to find solutions to universal personal problems, such as anger, greed, selfishness, etc., or societal problems, than seeking power and money for ourselves. That is the lesson that Buddha’s life teaches us.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama says that following a spiritual life one hundred percent is not for everybody, instead what is important is the quality of your life and the life of those around you. Buddha followed the spiritual path completely leaving the palace in a chariot (an example from the Bhagavad Gita) and witnessing various types of suffering of sickness, old age and death, and the wanderers that were not visible in the palace.
The symbolism in these various stories of the Buddha’s life can be applied to Jungian theory where Buddha is blinded so much by wealth and sensual pleasures that he doesn’t see the sufferings of the world. It is only when he goes out of the palace in his chariot, the beginning of his spiritual journey, that he is shown suffering and realises all the problems that everybody faces.
A very important aspect of Buddha’s story and Buddhist teachings is not to go into fanatic extremes of practice. After leaving the palace, Buddha engages in intensive meditation and very extreme ascetic practices, in which he practically nearly starved himself to death. Whilst sitting under a tree, he realised that these practices were not beneficial and breaking his fast, accepted yogurt from a shepherd girl. In Indian thought a cow (yogurt, milk) represents motherly love and compassion, therefore it is symbolic that Buddha was offered produce from a cow to teach us that it is compassion that wakens us up from self-mortification to enable us to find the proper way, a way that is concerned with universal suffering.
Just before attaining enlightenment, Buddha is sitting under the Bodhi tree (holy trees in Indian thought are a general theme) and Mara appears. Mara, the Sanskrit word for death, represents obstacles, hindrances and temptations, etc. From this we can see that even Buddha, right before he became enlightened, faced obstacles and hindrances in trying to accomplish something positive.
Just before he became enlightened, Buddha was extremely spiritually advanced; at this point he didn’t go from being a complete beginner to becoming an enlightened being. Even at the final stages of his practice, obstacles and hindrances appeared even stronger, and as Buddha had to face obstacles that hindered him from accomplishing his purpose so do we. In fact, the more positive the act that we are trying to accomplish, the greater the hindrances. Therefore, the teaching here is that we must not get discouraged, but instead fight through the obstacles with strength, like a warrior. This relates to the idea that Buddha came from the warrior caste because it really is an internal battle against our delusion, fears, etc.
After Buddha became enlightened, he was hesitant to teach and wondered who in the world would be able to understand his teachings. However, as he was requested to teach, he thought that he would still try. This teaches us that even if it is extremely difficult to teach or explain the teachings to others, we must out of compassion still do so, however difficult it might be.
After teaching others, many people wanted to follow the Buddha and from this emerged monasticism. In the beginning, there were no monastic regulations. However, since the monastics were living in society, various rules of discipline known as the “Vinaya” were introduced to help avoid the problems of living in a community and society. These rules were not formulated by someone who dictated them but were introduced as the problem came up. For example, to avoid people thinking that the monks were greedy when they begged for food (the custom of shramaneras at that time), rules were set where they couldn’t ask for food; they could only accept what was given; they couldn’t hoard food; they couldn’t ask for more, etc. These rules were to ensure that society would not disapprove of monastics, and they are still valid for us today.
In the beginning, Buddha hesitated to include women in the monastic order as nuns because he was worried that society would think that men and women would be in the forest together inappropriately. But, when he eventually accepted women into the order, he set extremely specific rules to ensure that society would not get the wrong idea, such as a monk and nun were not allowed to be alone together, a chaperone (nun) had to always be present, and they couldn’t sit on the same seat or bed. These rules teach us that on the one hand, Buddha rejected all the glories of society to find the truth, and on the other hand, he didn’t want to give society the wrong idea. Even though one might not agree with all the principles of society in terms of their values, nevertheless, you don’t want to alienate society. This relates to politicians who nowadays need to learn to be diplomatic, to understand how not to offend nor cause unfounded suspicion, even though they disagree as to what are society’s values.
Buddha had a cousin, Devadatta, who took a great dislike to the Buddha and always caused him trouble. In fact, if you look further in the Pali canon, a lot of people caused him trouble and disliked him. This teaches us a valuable lesson in that Buddha was disliked and couldn’t please everybody, so how can we? We must therefore be realistic and not get depressed if others dislike us and if we are unable to please everybody.
In the life stories when Buddha’s passing is mentioned, Ananda (one of Buddha’s main disciples) had the opportunity to ask Buddha not to pass away but he didn’t and so Buddha’s life ended. This teaches us that Buddha only teaches when he is asked and Buddha only stays when he is asked. If nobody wants him to stay then he leaves. We can apply this to ourselves in that if people don’t want our help or don’t need us, we mustn’t push ourselves on them. There are plenty of others who might be more receptive and may wish for our help.
We can look at the Buddha’s life from many angles. We could try to find all the historical facts, which although would have validity within the context of the Western view of history, would not enable us to gain any certainty as to specific dates or years. Or, we can look at the lessons we can learn in terms of the various symbols evident in a story, such as in the Jungian analysis to ask questions: What does it indicate? What does it represent?
We could look at the Buddha’s life in a larger Mahayana context with the presentation of Buddha becoming enlightened aeons ago and teaching us the Mahayana theme of universality and benefiting others for many more lifetimes. This teaches us that what we are doing now is the result of all the generations that came before us and that, if we are trying to do something positive, we must think in terms of all future generations.
In the tantric presentation, Buddha teaches in one place on profound philosophy and in another place he appears with four faces, from which each of them is teaching something different simultaneously. This indicates that all the many various aspects of the Buddha’s teachings that we find throughout history fit together from the same source or basic idea, and can be presented differently.
We find basic principles that are present in all the various types of the Buddha’s teachings, whether we think of the Theravada presentation, the Mahayana sutra presentation or the Mahayana tantric presentation. In all these presentations there are basic principles which are represented by the various arms, legs and number of faces of Buddha-figures. The basic Buddha teachings were in terms of the four noble truths which we can say represents four faces! This presentation of the life of the Buddha is not given in terms of actual readable facts but to help us to inquire as to the application of each presentation and its purpose. From this inquiry we are able to gain a deeper appreciation of this material.
There are three versions of the Buddha’s life: the Theravada presentation, and the Mahayana sutra and tantric presentations. There are debates about whether these presentations are in conflict but through logic we can show that each one is taught within a different context. These differing presentations are to inspire and teach us. If we look at the story of the Buddha, he lived within a specific society which had a belief system explaining certain themes on how to gain liberation from suffering. Buddha, dissatisfied with this system, sought the truth to be taught within a non-hierarchical system. Leaving the comfort of his home and family, he sought to fight his inner battle of afflictions. This was not gained through ascetic practice but through compassion concerned with universal suffering. Buddha faced great obstacles but these did not deter him and once he became enlightened, he fulfilled the request to teach out of compassion. For followers of the Buddha, monasticism for both monks and nuns was formed with rules that were established in harmony with society.