According to traditional dating, Shakyamuni Buddha, also known as Gautama Buddha, lived from 566 to 485 BCE in central north India. Different Buddhist sources contain numerous, varying accounts of his life, with further details appearing only gradually, over time. It is difficult to ascertain the accuracy of many of these details, seeing as the first Buddhist literature was written down only three centuries after Buddha passed away. Nevertheless, just because certain details emerged in written form later than others is not a sufficient reason to discount their validity, as many could have continued to be passed down in oral form.
Generally, traditional biographies of great Buddhist masters, including Buddha himself, were compiled for didactic purposes, not for the sake of mere historical records. More specifically, the biographies were fashioned in such a way as to teach and inspire Buddhist followers to pursue the spiritual path to liberation and enlightenment. In order to benefit from Buddha’s life story, we need to understand it within this context, and analyze the lessons that we can learn from it.
Sources of Buddha’s Life
The earliest sources for the life of the Buddha include, within the Theravada scriptures, several Pali suttas from The Collection of Middle-Length Discourses (Pali: Majjhima Nikaya) and, from the various Hinayana schools, several Vinaya texts concerning monastic rules of discipline. Each of these texts, however, gives only pieces of Buddha’s life story.
The first expanded account appeared in Buddhist poetic works of the late 2nd century BCE, such as Great Matters (Skt. Mahavastu) of the Mahasanghika school of Hinayana. This text, which was outside The Three Basket-like Collections (Skt. Tripitaka, Three Baskets), added, for instance, the detail that Buddha was born as a prince in a royal family. Another such poetic work appeared in the literature of the Sarvastivada school of Hinayana, The Extensive Play Sutra (Skt. Lalitavistara Sutra). Later Mahayana versions of this text borrowed and elaborated on this earlier version, for instance by explaining that Shakyamuni had become enlightened ages ago and, emanating as Prince Siddhartha, was merely demonstrating the way to attain enlightenment in order to instruct others.
Eventually some of these biographies were included in The Three Basket-like Collections. The most famous is Deeds of the Buddha (Skt. Buddhacarita) by the poet Ashvaghosha, written in the 1st century CE. Other versions appeared even later in the tantras, such as in the Chakrasamvara literature. There, we find the account that, while appearing as Shakyamuni teaching the Sutras on Far-Reaching Discriminating Awareness (Skt. Prajnaparamitasutra, Perfection of Wisdom Sutras), Buddha simultaneously emanated as Vajradhara and taught the tantras.
From each account, we can learn something and gain inspiration. Let us look primarily, however, at the versions that depict the historical Buddha.
Buddha’s Birth, Early Life, and Renunciation
According to the earliest accounts, Shakyamuni was born into an aristocratic, wealthy warrior family in the state of Shakya, which had its capital at Kapilavastu, on the border between present-day India and Nepal. There is no mention that Shakyamuni was born as a prince in the royal family, with accounts of his princely birth and name Siddhartha appearing only later. His father was Shuddhodana, but the name of his mother, Mayadevi only appears in later versions, as does the account of Buddha’s miraculous conception in her dream of the white six-tusked elephant entering her side, and the sage Asita’s prediction that he would become either a great king or a great sage. After this, there appeared as well the description of Buddha’s pure birth from his mother’s side, a short distance from Kapilavastu in the Lumbini Grove, where he then took seven steps and said, “I have arrived,” as well as the death of his mother during childbirth.
As a young man, Buddha lived a life of pleasure. He married a woman named Yashodhara, and together they had a son, Rahula. At the age of 29, Buddha renounced his family life and princely heritage and became a wandering mendicant spiritual seeker.
It is important to look at Buddha’s renunciation within the context of his society and times. When Buddha left to become a spiritual seeker, he did not abandon his wife and child to a life of hardship and poverty. They would certainly have been taken care of by his rich, extended family. Buddha was also a member of the warrior caste, meaning that he would undoubtedly have to leave his family one day to go into battle, as was accepted as being a man’s duty.
Battles can be fought endlessly against external enemies, but the real battle is against our internal enemies, and this is the battle that Buddha went off to fight. Buddha leaving his family behind for this purpose indicates that it is the duty of the spiritual seeker to devote his or her entire life to the pursuit. If, in our modern world, we were to leave our families to become monastics, we would need to make sure that they are well taken care of. This doesn’t just mean our partners and children, but also our elderly parents. Whether we leave our families or not, as Buddhists, it is our duty to diminish suffering by overcoming addiction to pleasure, as Buddha did.
Buddha wants to overcome suffering, through an understanding of the nature of birth, aging, sickness, death, rebirth, sadness, and confusion. In later stories, Buddha is taken on journeys out of the palace by his chariot driver Channa. In the city, Buddha saw people who were sick, old, and dead, as well as an ascetic, with Channa providing an explanation of each. In this way, Buddha came to identify the suffering that everyone has to experience, and tried to think of a way out of it.
This episode where Buddha receives help on the spiritual path from his chariot driver is parallel to the account of Arjuna being told by his chariot driver, Krishna about his duty as a warrior to fight a battle against his relatives, in the Bhagavad Gita. In both the Buddhist and Hindu cases, we can see a deeper significance of going beyond the walls of our comfortable lives to try and discover the truth. The chariot can be seen to represent a vehicle of mind leading to liberation, with the chariot driver’s words the driving force – that of searching for reality.
Buddha’s Studies and Enlightenment
As a celibate, wandering spiritual seeker, Buddha studied methods for attaining mental stability and formless absorption with two teachers. He was able to attain the highest level of these deep states of perfect concentration, in which he no longer experienced gross suffering or even ordinary worldly happiness, but he was not satisfied. He saw that these states provided only temporary, not permanent relief from these tainted feelings; they certainly didn’t remove the deeper, universal sufferings that he sought to overcome. With five companions, he then practiced extreme asceticism, but this also didn’t remove the deeper problems associated with uncontrollably recurring rebirth (samsara). Only in later accounts does the incident appear of Buddha breaking his six-year fast on the banks of the Nairanjana River, with the maiden Sujata offering him a bowl of milk rice.
For us, Buddha’s example indicates that we shouldn’t be satisfied with just becoming totally calm or getting “high” on meditation, let alone on artificial means such as drugs. Withdrawing into a deep trance, or torturing or punishing ourselves with extreme practices is also not a solution. We must go all the way to liberation and enlightenment, and we should never be satisfied with spiritual methods that fall short of bringing us to these goals.
After Buddha rejected asceticism, he went to meditate alone in the jungle, to overcome fear. Underlying all fear is the grasping at an impossibly existing “me” and an even stronger self-cherishing attitude than that which underlies our compulsive search for pleasure and entertainment. Thus, in The Wheel of Sharp Weapons, the 10th century CE Indian master Dharmarakshita used the image of peacocks wandering in jungles of poisonous plants to represent bodhisattvas employing and transforming the poisonous emotions of desire, anger and naivety to help them overcome their self-cherishing attitude and grasping for an impossible “me.”
After much meditation, Buddha attained complete enlightenment at the age of 35. Later accounts provide details of his attaining this under a bodhi tree in present-day Bodh Gaya, after successfully fighting off attacks from the jealous god Mara, who tried to prevent Buddha’s enlightenment by emanating further fearful and seductive appearances to disturb his meditation.
In the earliest accounts, Buddha achieved full enlightenment by gaining the three types of knowledge: complete knowledge of all his own past lives, of the karma and rebirths of all others, and the Four Noble Truths. Later accounts explain that, with enlightenment, he achieved omniscience.
[See also: What Are the Four Noble Truths]
Teaching and Establishing a Buddhist Monastic Community
After attaining enlightenment, Buddha was hesitant in teaching others the way to achieve the same, as he felt that no one would be able to understand. However, the Indian gods Brahma, the creator of the universe, and Indra, the King of Gods, implored him to teach. In making his request, Brahma told Buddha that the world would suffer without end if he failed to teach, and that there would at least be a few people able to understand his words.
This detail might be a satirical element, indicating the superiority of Buddha’s teachings, which surpassed the methods offered by traditional Indian spiritual traditions of his time. If even the highest gods admit that the world needs Buddha’s teachings because they themselves lack methods to bring everyone’s suffering to a permanent end, what needs to be said of how much the teachings are needed by ordinary people. Furthermore, in Buddhist imagery, Brahma represents arrogant pride; his false belief that he is the omnipotent creator represents the epitome of confusion in thinking that this impossibly existing “me” exists, and can control everything in life. Such a belief inevitably brings frustration and suffering. Only Buddha’s teachings about how we actually exist can offer a way to bring about a true stopping of this true suffering and its true cause.
Accepting Brahma and Indra’s request, Buddha went to Sarnath and in the Deer Park taught the Four Noble Truths to his five former companions. In Buddhist imagery, deer represent gentleness and thus Buddha teaches a gentle method, avoiding the extremes of hedonism and asceticism.
Soon, a number of young men from nearby Varanasi joined Buddha, following strict celibacy. Their parents became lay disciples and began to support the group with alms. As soon as any member became sufficiently trained and qualified, they were sent out to teach others. In this way, Buddha’s group of mendicant followers quickly grew and soon they settled and formed individual “monastic” communities at various locations.
Buddha organized these monastic communities according to practical guidelines. Monks, if we may use this term at this very early stage, could admit candidates to join the communities, but they had to follow certain restrictions to avoid clashes with the secular authorities. Thus, at this time, Buddha disallowed criminals, those in royal service such as the army, slaves not released from slavery, and those with contagious diseases such as leprosy from joining the monastic communities. Further, no one under the age of 20 could be admitted. Buddha wanted to avoid trouble and secure the public’s respect for the communities and the Dharma teachings. This shows that, as Buddha’s followers, we need to be respectful of local customs and act respectably, so that people will have a good impression of Buddhism and respect it in return.
Soon, Buddha returned to Maghada, the kingdom in which Bodh Gaya lay. He was invited to the capital city, Rajagrha – modern-day Rajgir – by King Bimbisara, who became his patron and disciple. There, Shariputra and Maudgalyayana also joined Buddha’s growing order, and became some of his closest disciples.
Within one year of his enlightenment, Buddha returned to Kapilavastu, his home, where his son Rahula joined the order. Buddha’s half-brother, the handsome Nanda, had already left home and joined. King Shuddhodana, Buddha’s father, was very sad that the family line had been cut and so requested that in the future, a son must have the consent of his parents to join the monastic order. Buddha fully agreed. The point of this account is not that it could be seen as cruelty on the part of the Buddha toward his father, but to see the importance of not creating ill will toward Buddhism, especially within our own families.
A later detail about Buddha’s encounter with his family is his use of extraphysical powers to travel to the Heaven of the Thirty-three Gods, or according to some sources, Tushita Heaven, to teach his mother, who had been reborn there. This indicates the importance of appreciating and repaying motherly kindness.
Growth of the Buddhist Monastic Order
The early communities of Buddha’s monks were small, and contained no more than 20 men. Each was autonomous, following set boundaries for the monks’ rounds of seeking alms. The actions and decisions of each community were decided by consensus vote among its members, to avoid any discord, and no one person was set as the sole authority. Buddha instructed them to take the Dharma teachings themselves as the authority. Monastic discipline itself could even be changed if necessary, but any changes had to be based on the consensus of the community as a whole.
King Bimbisara suggested that Buddha could adopt some customs from other mendicant spiritual groups, such as the Jains, who held quarter-monthly assemblies. According to this custom, members of the spiritual community would assemble at the start of each quarter phase of the moon to discuss the teachings. Buddha agreed, showing that he was open to suggestions to follow the customs of the times, and he ended up modelling many aspects of his spiritual communities and the structure of his teachings after the Jains. Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, lived about half a century before Buddha.
Shariputra also asked Buddha to formulate rules for a code of monastic discipline. Buddha decided that it was best to wait until specific problems arose, when they could institute a vow to avoid any recurrences of a similar incident. This policy was followed with respect to both naturally destructive actions, which were harmful for anyone committing them, and ethically neutral actions prohibited for certain people in certain situations and for certain reasons. Thus, the rules of discipline (vinaya) were pragmatic and formulated ad hoc, with Buddha’s main considerations being to avoid problems and not cause offense.
Based on the rules of discipline, Buddha then instituted the recitation of the vows at the quarter-monthly monastic assembly, with monks openly admitting to any infractions. Expulsion from the community followed for the most serious infractions, otherwise just the disgrace of probation. Later on, these meetings came to be held only bimonthly.
The Buddha then instituted a three-month rainy season retreat, during which the monks would stay in one location and avoid any travel. The aim was to prevent the monks from damaging crops when having to walk through fields when the roads were flooded. This led to the establishment of fixed monasteries, which was practical. Again, this development arose in order to avoid causing harm to the lay community, and to gain their respect.
Starting from the second rainy season retreat onwards, Buddha spent 25 summers in the Jetavana Grove outside Shravasti, the capital city of the kingdom of Koshala. Here, the merchant Anathapindada built a monastery for Buddha and his monks, and King Prasenajit further sponsored the community. This monastery at Jetavana was the scene of many great events in Buddha’s life, with the most famous perhaps being his defeat of leaders of the six major non-Buddhist schools of the time in a contest of miraculous powers.
While nowadays none of us may be able to perform miraculous feats, Buddha’s use of them, rather than logic, to defeat his opponents indicates that when others’ minds are closed to reason, the best way to convince them of the validity of our understanding is to demonstrate our level of realization through actions and behavior. We also have this kind of saying in English, “Actions speak louder than words.”
Founding the Buddhist Monastic Order of Nuns
Later in his teaching career, Buddha instituted a community of nuns in Vaishali, at the request of his aunt Mahaprajapati. He was initially reluctant to start such an order, but then decided it would be possible if he prescribed more vows for the nuns than for the monks. In doing so, Buddha was not saying that women were more undisciplined than men and so required more taming through upholding more vows. Rather, he feared that establishing a female order would bring ill repute and a premature end to his teachings. Above all, Buddha wanted to avoid the disrespect of the community at large, and so the nun community would need to be above suspicion of any immoral behavior.
Overall, however, Buddha was reluctant to formulate rules and was willing to have lesser ones abolished if they were found to be unnecessary, a policy showing the dynamic of the two truths – the deepest truth, and yet respect for conventional truth in accord with local customs. Although in deepest truth, there is no problem at all with having a nuns’ order, in order to prevent ordinary people of the time looking down on the Buddhist teachings, there needed to be more rules of discipline for the nuns. In deepest truth, it doesn’t matter what society says or thinks, but in conventional truth it is important for the Buddhist community to merit the respect and confidence of the public. Thus, in modern times and societies in which it would bring disrespect to Buddhism if there were any prejudice shown to nuns or women in general, or any minority group by Buddhist customs, the spirit of Buddha is to amend them in accord with the norms of the times.
After all, tolerance and compassion have been major keynotes of Buddha’s teachings. For instance, Buddha encouraged new disciples, who had previously supported another religious community, to continue supporting that community. Within the Buddhist order, he instructed members to take care of each other, for example if they were sick, because they were all members of the Buddhist family. This is an important precept for all lay Buddhists as well.
[For more detail, see: Establishment of the Bhikshuni Order in India]
Buddha’s Didactic Method
Buddha taught others both through verbal instructions and by his living example. For verbal instructions, he followed two methods, depending on whether he was teaching a group or an individual. Before groups, Buddha would explain his teachings in the form of a discourse, often repeating each point with different words so that the audience could better understand and remember it. When giving a personal instruction, which was usually after a meal at a household that had invited him and his monks for lunch, Buddha used a different approach. He would never oppose or challenge a listener’s view, but would adopt their position and ask questions to help the listener clarify his or her own thoughts. In this way, Buddha led to the person to improve his or her position and gradually gain a deeper understanding of reality. One example is when Buddha led a proud member of the Brahmin caste to understand that superiority derives not from the caste in which one is born, but from a person’s development of good qualities.
Another example is Buddha’s instruction to a bereft mother who brought her dead baby to him, begging Buddha to bring the child back to life. Buddha told her to bring him a mustard seed from a house in which death had never visited and he would see what he could do. The woman went from house to house, but every household had experienced someone in it having died. She slowly realized that, one day, everyone must die, and in this way she was able to cremate her child with more peace of mind.
Buddha’s teaching method shows us that to help people in individual encounters, it’s best not to be confrontational. The most effective way is to help them think for themselves. However, in teaching groups of people, it is better to explain things straightforwardly and clearly.
Plots against Buddha and Schisms
Seven years before Buddha passed away, his jealous cousin Devadatta plotted to take Buddha’s place as head of the order. Similarly, Prince Ajatashatru plotted to replace his father, King Bimbisara, as ruler of Magadha, and so the two conspired together. Ajatashatru made an assassination attempt on Bimbisara’s life and, consequently, the king abdicated the throne in favor of his son. Seeing Ajatashatru’s success, Devadatta asked him to assassinate Buddha, but all attempt to murder him failed.
A frustrated Devadatta then tried to lure monks away from Buddha by claiming to be even “holier” than him, proposing a stricter set of rules of discipline. According to The Path of Purification (Pali: Visuddhimagga) by the 4th century CE Theravada master Buddhaghosa, Devadatta’s new proposals included:
- Wearing robes patched together from rags
- Wearing only three robes
- Going only for alms and never accepting invitations to meals
- Not skipping any house when going for alms
- Eating at one sitting whatever alms one has collected
- Eating only from one’s alms bowl
- Refusing all other food
- Living only in the forest
- Living under trees
- Living in the open air, not in houses
- Staying mostly in charnel grounds
- Being satisfied with whatever place to stay that one finds, while continually wandering from place to place
- Sleeping in the sitting position, never sleeping lying down.
Buddha said that if monks wished to follow these additional rules of discipline, it was absolutely fine, but that it would be impossible to obligate everyone to do so. A number of monks did choose to follow Devadatta and so left Buddha’s community to form their own order.
In the Theravada school, the additional rules of discipline that Devadatta set down are called the “13 branches of observed practice.” The forest monk tradition, as still found for instance in modern-day Thailand, seems to derive from this practice. Buddha’s disciple Mahakashyapa was the most famous practitioner following this stricter discipline, much of which is observed today by wandering holy men, sadhus, in the Hindu tradition. Their practice seems to be a continuation of the tradition of wandering mendicant spiritual seekers of Buddha’s time.
The Mahayana schools have a similar list of 12 characteristics of observed practice. This list omits “not skipping any house when going for alms,” and adds “wearing robes discarded in the dustbin” instead, while “going for alms” and “eating only from one’s alms bowl” are counted as one. Much of this discipline was later followed by the Indian tradition of greatly accomplished tantric practitioners, mahasiddhas, found both in Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism.
Splitting from an established Buddhist tradition to form another order, or in modern-day terms perhaps, forming a separate Dharma center, was not the problem. Doing so was not seen as creating a “schism in the monastic community,” one of five heinous crimes. Devadatta did create such a schism, because the group that broke off and followed him harbored extreme ill will toward Buddha’s monastic community, and criticized them severely. According to some accounts, the bad will of this schism lasted for several centuries.
The account of this schism shows that Buddha was extremely tolerant, and not at all fundamentalist. If his followers wished to adopt a stricter code of discipline than what he had set for them, that was all right; and if they had no such wish, that was also all right. No one was ever obligated to practice what Buddha taught. If a monk or nun wished to leave the monastic order, that too was fine. What is extremely destructive, however, is to split the Buddhist community, especially the monastic community, into two or more groups that harbor ill will and try to discredit and damage one another. Even joining one of the factions afterwards and participating in its hate campaign is very detrimental. If, however, one of the groups is engaged in destructive or harmful actions, or follows harmful discipline, then compassion calls for warning people against the dangers of joining that group, but the motive should never be mixed with anger, hatred, or the wish for revenge.
[For further detail, see: Buddhism in India before the 13th-Century Invasions]
Buddha’s Passing Away
Although, with the attainment of liberation, Buddha was beyond having to experience ordinary death uncontrollably, nevertheless, at the age of 81, Buddha decided it would be beneficial to teach his followers impermanence and leave his body. Before doing so, he gave his attendant Ananda a chance to ask him to live and teach longer, but Ananda did not get the hint that Buddha gave. This shows that a Buddha teaches only when requested, and if no one asks or is interested, then he leaves to go elsewhere, where he can be of more benefit. The presence of a teacher and the teachings depends on students.
In Kushinagara, then, at the home of a patron named Chunda, Buddha became deathly ill after eating the meal offered to him and his monks. On his deathbed, Buddha told his monks that if they had any doubts or unanswered questions, they should rely on his Dharma teachings and their ethical discipline, which would now be their teacher. Buddha was indicating that each person must figure things out for himself or herself from the teachings, as there would be no absolute authority to provide all the answers. Then, Buddha passed away.
Chunda was totally distraught, thinking that he had poisoned Buddha, but Ananda comforted him, by saying that he had in fact built up great positive force or “merit” from having offered Buddha his final meal before his passing away.
Buddha was then cremated, and his ashes were placed in stupas – reliquary monuments – especially in the locations that would become the four major Buddhist pilgrimage places:
- Lumbini – where Buddha was born
- Bodh Gaya – where Buddha attained enlightenment
- Sarnath – where he gave his first teaching of the Dharma
- Kushinagara – where he passed away.
Various Buddhist traditions teach different accounts of Buddha’s life. Their differences indicate how each tradition conceives of a Buddha and what we can learn from his example.
- The Hinayana versions – these speak only of the historical Buddha. By showing how Buddha worked intensely on himself to reach enlightenment, we understand that even as normal people we can do the same, and we learn to put in effort ourselves.
- The general Mahayana versions – Buddha had already attained enlightenment many eons ago. By manifesting a life with 12 enlightening deeds, he teaches us that enlightenment entails working forever for the sake of all.
- The anuttarayoga tantra accounts – Buddha manifested simultaneously as Shakyamuni teaching The Sutras on Far-Reaching Discriminating Awareness (The Prajnaparamita Sutras) and as Vajradhara teaching the tantras. This indicates that tantra practice is fully based on the Madhyamaka teachings of voidness (emptiness).
Thus, we can learn many helpful things from each of the versions of Buddha’s life and gain inspiration on many different levels.