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The Buddha You Never Knew

By | 4/14/2024

According to the most ancient sources, several months after the Buddha passed away, 500 monks, all of them Awakened, met together in Rājagaha and held what is usually called the First Council (sangīti pariyāya). The purpose of convening this council was to make sure that what the Buddha had taught during the previous forty- five years would not be forgotten. The arahats (awakened saints) and probably many others too, believed that the Buddha’s Dhamma was too precious, too important to be confused or forgotten. It had done so much for them, leading them to awakening (bodhi), that they wanted to make sure that others, at that time and forever after, would have the chance of attaining the freedom and peace of Nirvana too. The result was what came to be called the Tipitaka, meaning ‘the three collections.’ It is likely that the arahats did not preserve everything the Buddha had said, because he had repeated some things many times, but they did preserve what they judged to be the essentials. It is certain that some information was added to this authentic material later, although it is not always clear which is and which is not. The Mathurā Sutta for example, a discourse by Anuruddha, specifically says it was recorded sometime after the Buddha’s passing. Some of the poems in the Theragāthā and Therigāthā were composed by monks and nuns at least two or three generations after the Buddha, and one is said to have been composed by King Asoka’s son. The Vinaya includes an account of the Second Council which took place about a hundred years after the Buddha’s passing. But the language, style and contents of some books in the less important books in the Tipitaka, particularly in the Khuddaka Nikāya, indicate that they may date from several hundred years after the Buddha. Although such books are not attributed to the Buddha or even to his direct disciples, they are traditionally considered authoritative. However, we can say with a high degree of confidence that the core material in the Dīgha, Majjhima, Saṃyutta, and Aṅguttara Nikāyas, and in books such as the Sutta Nipāta, Dhammapada, Udāna, Itivuttaka, etc. accurately reflects what the Buddha taught. A combination of all these texts constitute the earliest and most authentic record we have of his life and teaching. 

However, there is a great deal of information about the Buddha in particular that most people think comes from the Tipitaka which actually does not, which might surprise and even shock many Buddhists. So in this article I will discuss, not what the Tipitaka says about the Buddha but what it does not say about him. Many Buddhists have only a rudimentary knowledge of the Dhamma but even they are probably familiar with what are widely considered the highlights of the Buddha’s life. Even many non-Buddhists know some of them. They are recounted in text books and encyclopedias, celebrated in song and film, taught in thousands of Buddhist Sunday schools throughout Sri Lanka, and depicted on temple walls and in Vesak cards.

His Father

The Buddha’s father was Suddhodana, a name meaning ‘pure rice’. It is always said that Suddhodana was a king of the Sakyans and depictions of him usually show him in regal attire, sometimes sitting on a throne, wearing a crown, or situated in a palace. Despite this, nowhere in the Tipitaka is the Buddha called a prince (rāja kumara), is he or his father said to live in a palace, and only once in the whole of the Tipitaka is his father called rāja, a word usually translated as king. In reality, in the 5th century BCE the word rāja almost certainly did not mean king in the sense the word is understood today, but a ruler, or as we might say, a chief. Even in the very places where one would expect the Buddha to refer to his father as a king he did not do so. For example, when asked by King Bimbisāra about his family and his birth, the Buddha simply replied that he was from a Sakyan family (Sn.322-4). It is known that the Sakyans had a body of men called “rāja makers” (rāja kattaro). It seems almost certain that this body was made up of Sakyan elders and elected someone to be their leader either for a set period or for as long as he had their confidence. Therefore, it would be more correct to refer to Suddhodana as a chief rather than a king. Thus we can say that while the Buddha was almost certainly from a ruling class family he was not royalty. It is also worth noting that Suddhodana is only referred to three times in the whole of the Tipitaka, once in the Sutta Nipāta, once in the Dīgha Nikāya and once in the Vinaya.

Mahāmāya’s Dream

Just as everyone believes the Buddha’s father was a king and he was a prince, they also believe that his mother was a queen who dreamed of a white elephant around the time he was conceived. This may have happened, but if it did, the arahats of the First Council did not mention it because it occurs nowhere in the Tipitaka.

Seven Lotuses

Every depiction of Gotama’s birth shows him taking seven steps and lotus blossoms emerging from each of them. To be fair, although improbable, this is a charming image and may even have some didactic value as well. Some have interpreted it to be a colorful way of communicating the idea that in later life Gotama would fulfill the Seven Factors of Awakening (sattabojjhaṅga) - mindfulness, scrutiny of mental states, energy, joy, tranquility, concentration and equanimity – and become the Buddha. The lotus of course symbolizes world transcendence in Indian culture. This image of the babe walking and the lotuses emerging from each step was ingeniously depicted in Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1993 film ‘Little Buddha’ and visually may have been the highlight of the film. The Acchariyaabbhūta Sutta describes a series of perhaps less charming and colorful events that supposedly took place at Gotama’s conception and birth (M.III,118 ff), but mentions nothing about lotuses springing from the new-born babe’s footsteps.

Name

Throughout the Tipitaka the Buddha is referred to or addressed as Gotama, good Gotama or ascetic Gotama, as Tathāgata, occasionally as Kinsman on the Sun (ādiccabandhu), a reference to the Sakyan Adicca linage, and once as the Sakyan Sage (sakyamuni). Gotama is a clan name meaning ‘best cow’ and reflects an earlier time in India when having many cattle was a measure of wealth and a source of pride. But interestingly, never once is the Buddha ever called Siddhattha Gotama. In fact, the name Siddhattha occur nowhere in the Tipitaka except in the Apadāna, one of the latest books added to the Tipitaka. It may well have been the Buddha’s given name but it gets no mention in the earliest records.

Asita’s Prediction

According to the Sutta Nipāta, when the devas told the hermit Asita that a special child had been born in Kapilavatthu he went there to see it. Suddhodana welcomed him and gave him the baby to hold. Being accomplished in the art of “signs and mantras” he examined the boy and proclaimed that he would attain complete Awakening, reach “the ultimate purified vision” and proclaim the Truth “out of compassion of the many” (bahujana hitānukampī). Then tears welled up in Asita’s eyes. Noticing this and alarmed by it, Suddhodana asked him if he had foreseen some misfortune in the boy’s future. The sage replied that he was sad because he knew that he would have passed away before this all happened and he would be unable to witness it (Sn.685 ff). The later elaborations of this Asita story, and there are several of them, each more detailed than the earlier ones, often say that Asita predicted that the baby would become either a universal monarch (cakkavatin) or a fully awakened sage (buddha). This ‘either’ ‘or’ prediction is not mentioned the Tipitaka account.

Youth and Marriage

We are told that the young Gotama grew up into a virile and handsome young man. When the time came for him to be married he participated in a competition in the manly arts and won the hand of a charming young maiden named Yasodharā, and the two were married. Of course there is nothing unbelievable about this story, it is exactly what would have been usual for a young man at that time, but it gets no mention in the Tipitaka. We know that Gotama was married because there are several references to his son Rāhula. But the name Yasodharā does not occur even once in the Tipitaka. Gotama’s wife, whatever her name was, is only ever referred to indirectly as “Rāhula’s mother” (rāhula mātā).

Young Gotama and the Goose

Surely the loveliest story told about the young Gotama, indeed one of the loveliest from any religious tradition, is the one about him, Devadatta and the goose. Once, while walking through a garden, young Gotama saw a goose fall from the sky with an arrow lodged in its wing. He gently nestled the bird in his lap, extracted the arrow and anointed the wound with oil and honey. Soon afterwards, his cousin Devadatta sent a message saying he had shot the bird and demanded its return to him. Gotama sent a reply saying: “If the goose was dead, I would return it forthwith but as it is still alive, you have no right to it.” Devadatta sent a second message arguing that it was his skill that had downed the goose and as such, it belonged to him. Again, Gotama refused to give him the bird and asked that an assembly of Sakyan wise men be called to settle the dispute. This was done and after discussing the matter for some time, the most senior of the wise men delivered his opinion, saying: “The living belongs to he who cherishes and preserves life, not to he who tries to destroy life.” The assembly agreed with these wise and kind words and Gotama was allowed to keep the goose.

It is a great story! But where does it come from? It’s not in the Pāḷi Tipitaka, it’s not in the commentaries, and it’s not in the sub-commentaries. In fact, it is not to be found in any Pāḷi literature. It comes from a Sanskrit text called the Abhiniskramana Sūtra composed around the 2nd or 3rd centuries AD, seven or eight hundred years after the Buddha and translated into Chinese in the 6th century. Samuel Beal published his English translation of it in 1875 and sometime after that a copy must have made its way to Sri Lanka where some English educated Sinhalese Buddhists must have read it, been charmed by the story and gradually it became incorporated into the popular Theravādin understanding of the Buddha’s life. This is a good example of how legends from one tradition grow and get absorbed into other traditions, even in modern times.

Under the Jambu Tree

The Buddha mentioned that at some point during his youth as he sat in the cool shade of a jambu tree (Syzygium cumini) he spontaneously fell into the first jhāna, a profound meditative state. Years later, after giving up the practice of self-mortification, as he sat under the Bodhi tree, he remembered this incident, he cultivated the jhāna again, and this helped him attain Awakening. If you ask any Buddhist what the young Gotama was watching as he sat under the jambu tree they will tell you – he was watching his father doing the first ceremonial ploughing of the year, what was called the vappamaṅgala (e.g. Ja I 57; IV 167) which was usually done by monarchs to guarantee good harvests throughout their realms. But when the Buddha mentions this, his first meditational experience, he includes nothing about ploughing, he just says he was observing “my Sakyan father work” (pitu sakkassa kammante, M I,246). His father might have been weeding the fields, supervising the harvest, perhaps milking the cows, or a range of other tasks. So why did the general and non-specific “work” (kammanta) get transformed into “ceremonial ploughing”? Because later tradition came to believe that Gotama’s father was a king and kings do not milk cows or supervise agricultural work. They do regal and ritually significant things such as the first ceremonial ploughing of the year. This is an interesting example where one legend - Suddhodana a king - has required the creation of another - he was doing the annual ceremonial ploughing.

The Four Signs

Probably the most iconic story told about Gotama’s life is the so-called Four Signs (catu nimitta). Supposedly as Gotama was driven through the streets of Kapilavatthu by his faithful charioteer Channa, he encountered a man decrepit with age, a sick person, a corpse being taken for cremation and lastly a wandering ascetic, a monk. Having been sheltered from the ugly realities of life and never having seen such things before, he was profoundly shocked by this. It was this, so the story goes, that triggered Gotama’s determination to renounce his life of privilege and go in search of the state beyond old age, sickness and death. The Four Signs is a dramatic, powerful and poignant story and justly famous. It lends itself wonderfully to depiction in art. But unfortunately, it does not come from the Tipitaka. There the Buddha merely says that it was contemplating the fact that he would be subject to old age, sickness and eventually death that motivated him to renounce the world.

Stealing away at Night

It is said that Gotama’s father confined him to a luxurious palace provided with every imaginable pleasure in order to prevent him from ever renouncing the world. But after Gotama decided that he would do exactly that, he stole out of the palace in the dead of night so that no one would know, having one last glance at his wife and new-born son as he went. Again, none of this appears in the Tipitaka. In fact, the Buddha distinctly says that he left his home “despite the weeping and wailing of my parents” (akāmakānaṃ mātāpitunnaṃ assumukhānaṃ, M.I,163). This suggests that there was some sort of argument with his parents, and certainly that his leaving took place with their full knowledge, and more probably during the daytime.

Encountering the Sleeping Dancing Girls

Another thing that is said to have happened to Gotama the night he renounced the world concerns the women in his palace. As he crept through the dark and silent palace he came across the female dancing girls and musicians asleep in unseemly positions; their hair disheveled, their clothes unkempt, their makeup smudged and some with saliva dribbling from their mouths. The contrast between how they looked and presented themselves to him during the day and what they looked like while asleep, brought home to Gotama the difference between appearance and the reality in much of life, and it disgusted him. Again this is a powerful story and it is in the Tipitaka. But extraordinarily, it is not said to have happened to Gotama but to the wealthy young man Yasa. So here is an example of where something that happened to one person has been grafted onto the Buddha’s biography.

The Bodhi Tree

We will look at one last detail thought to have a significant presence in the Tipitaka but about which it actually says almost nothing. All over the Buddhist world Bodhi trees are revered as being special because one of them, growing in Bodh Gaya, then known as Uruvelā, sheltered the Gotama under its spreading boughs on the night he attained Awakening. It might be true to say that the Bodhi Tree is as iconic to Buddhists as the cross is to Christians or the menorah is to Jews. There are numerous stories about the Bodhi Tree and of course a branch of it was brought to Sri Lanka by Ven. Saṅghamitta where it has been revered ever since. Considering the attention given to this tree one would expect it to find a special place in the Tipitaka. But it does not. Astonishingly, the Bodhi Tree gets only two brief mentions in the Tipitaka, once in the Dīgha Nikāya and once in the Udāna, this passage being repeated verbatim in the Vinaya (D,II,4; Ud.1, Vin.I,1-7). Even the famous story about the Buddha sitting gazing at the Bodhi Tree for a week without blinking is only to be found in the commentaries.

These examples, to which quite a few others could be added, leave the Buddha’s biography depleted of much that the average Buddhist is familiar with, and which have considerable color and beauty as well as some archetypal significance. And of course, simply because they are not in the Tipitaka does not necessarily mean that they are factional. But if they did happen and were true, clearly the arahats of the First Council did not consider them important enough to be remembered and included in the sacred canon. But why? Why discard stories that are so meaningful and memorable, and illustrate aspects of the Dhamma in ways that make them understandable, alive and compelling? One possible explanation is that these details were known but ignored. A much more likely explanation is that they are legends that grew up in the centuries after the Buddha’s passing and after the first two Councils.

It seems that the arahats and other monks and nuns were deeply concerned with what the Buddha had to say about how to achieve Awakening, but had little or no interest in his life before he became a monk. This does not mean that these and the other wonderful stories about the Buddha’s life need to be considered “just legends” and summarily dismissed. They have added colour and drama to millions of sermons, they are a testament to the creative imagination of the ancient Buddhists, and they almost certainly came into being due to a devotional desire to know more about one of the most significant individuals in history. But as Buddhism has to contend with modernity and alternative religions which seek to displace it, it is crucial that Buddhists know their religion better – know what is fact and what is tradition, what is reality and what is legend, and particularly what the Tipitaka actually says.

Shravasti Dhammika

1 Comments

Jeppe Strandskov
Date: 5/3/2024

Most interesting. Thank you very much!

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