Gautama Buddha [Paperback]
The Life and Teachings of the Awakened One
By the same author
New paperback edition. An insightful new biography of one of the great global spiritual figures. The words and example of the Buddha have affected billions of people. But what do we really know about him? While there is much we cannot say for certain about the historical Gautama Buddha, this persuasive new work by a Western Buddhist teacher provides a full new life story from a modern perspective.
Weaving ancient sources and modern understanding into a compelling narrative, this book places his birth around 484 BCE, his enlightenment 449 BCE and his death 404BCE, a century later that the traditional dates. Vishavapani examines the Buddha's words and impact to shed fresh light on his culture, his spiritual search and the experiences and teachings that led his followers to call him the "Awakened One". Placing the Buddha in a credible historical setting without assuming that he was really just an ordinary person, this book draws on the myths and legends that surround him to illuminate the significance of his life. It traces the Buddha's investigations of consciousness, his strikingly original view of life and his development of new forms of religious community and practice.
This insightful and thought-provoking biography will appeal to anyone interested in history and religion, and in the Buddha as a thinker, spiritual teacher and a seminal cultural figure. Gautma Buddha is a gripping account of one of history's most powerful personalities.
Read an extract of this title
It is morning; the sun is hot but not yet overwhelming and a man named Bahiya scours the streets of Shravasti. His gaunt frame is covered by a rough tunic that is stitched together from pieces of tree bark and he is weary after walking night and day from India's west coast. But he draws little attention from the townspeople, who recognise him as a holy man: a part of the tide of spiritual seekers that washes constantly through the city.
Shravasti is the capital of the kingdom of Kosala and a major metropolis of the culture that thrives in the central Ganges Valley. We have no detailed descriptions of its streets to fill out the scene, but the city's ruins have been partially unearthed and reveal that it was a large town, guarded by huge ramparts, at the junction of three important trade routes. A slightly later text evokes the profusion of such a city: furnished with solid foundations and with many gateways and walls.behold the drinking shops and taverns, the slaughterhouses and cooks' shops, the harlots and wantons.the garland-weavers, the washermen, the astrologers, the cloth merchants, the gold workers and the jewellers.
With such clues we may imagine the scene that confronted Bahiya: the wattle-and-daub houses with domed roofs of tiles or thatch, the sturdier brick-built civic buildings and homes of the wealthy; the main streets clogged with mules, oxen, chariots and pedestrians; the elephants lumbering impassively along the roadway laden with produce; the alleys spidering out from the main thoroughfare, thick with smells and resounding with the cries of food-sellers.
As Bahiya jostles through the press, he catches sight of a singular figure and knows instantly that it is the man he seeks. He is in the middle years of his life and the Bahiya Sutta - the account of this meeting in the ancient Buddhist scriptures - describes him as 'pleasing, lovely to see, with calmed senses and tranquil mind, possessing perfect poise and calm'. He stands silently at a doorway, his eyes cast downwards, as the woman of the house places a little food in his bowl. Like other townspeople, he wears lengths of cloth draped around his midriff and across his shoulder to make a robe. But their mud-yellow fabric is much coarser than the embroidered muslin used by the rich, or even the plain cotton of the poor. It is a patchwork sewn together from scraps gathered on rubbish heaps or from the charred remnants of the shrouds that covered corpses in the cremation grounds. These robes, along with the bowl made from dried palm leaves that he holds before him, a needle and thread, a girdle, a razor and a water-strainer, are the sum of his possessions. Most people call him "Gautama" the name of the clan into which he was born in Shakya, Kosala's north-eastern province; but his disciples address him by a host of titles, especially "Bhagavat" meaning Blessed Lord; 'Tathagata' - 'the one who is like that's
and 'Buddha' - the Awakened.
The encounter is intense and dramatic. Bahiya throws himself at Gautama's feet and cries: 'Please teach me! Teach me the Truth that will be for my lasting benefit.' Gautama spoke to no one when he was collecting food, so he tells Bahiya, 'Come to me later and I will answer your questions! But Bahiya insists he cannot wait. 'It is hard to know how long you or I will live!' At the third time of asking, Gautama turns to face Bahiya and speaks a few spare words:
Bahiya, you should train yourself thus: In the seen will be merely what is seen. In the heard will be merely what is heard. In the sensed will be merely what is sensed. In the cognised will be merely what is cognised. In this way should you should train yourself.. . Then, Bahiya, you are not 'in that'. When you are not 'in that', then you will be neither here nor beyond nor between the two. Just this, is the end of suffering.
A sudden moment of communion cocoons the men beyond time or place, and something happens to Bahiya. Exactly what is hard to say, but its effect is shattering. It is bound up with the meaning of Gautama's words, but that meaning is mixed with the sense that Gautama, himself, embodies them completely and has inwardly expanded into the open spaces they disclose. A shift occurs deep in Bahiya's consciousness - a silent opening. And then the moment is over. The street noises return, Bahiya walks away and Gautama returns quietly to his alms round.
The term rendered as 'the Truth' in Bahiya's request is 'dhamma' in Pali, or 'dharma' in Sanskrit. It was a crucial word in Gautama's India that had many meanings, but here it means the underlying nature of things and also the way a person should act to be in accord with it. Bahiya was asking Gautama to show him the true nature of existence, and Gautama's reply, which compresses his realisation into a concentrated essence, instructs Bahiya to train himself to experience the world in new way: 'In the seen there will be merely the seen; in the heard there will be merely the heard!
That was his message.. . but what did it mean? What does it mean for there to be no 'you' in experience? And if Gautama truly embodied his teaching, who or what was he - this man who was 'neither here nor beyond nor between the two'?
Gautama said the Dharma he had discovered was 'profound, hard to see and hard to understand; peaceful, sublime, beyond the sphere of mere reasoning, subtle and to be experienced only by the wise'. He offered many explanations of it, and Buddhist tradition has added many more, but his words often point to something that language cannot contain and the same is true of Gautama, the man. Asked if Gautama was wise, one of his disciples replied that he didn't know, but he could deduce Gautama's accomplishments by examining external signs, in the way that an elephant tracker knows the dimensions of the beast he is following from the size of the footprint it leaves behind. This book will approach Gautama like that elephant hunter, examining his words and his impact in the hope of deducing the dimensions of their elusive author.
We find such clues in the many stories about Gautama that have come down to us in the Buddhist scriptures. By their account, for forty-five years after his Awakening Gautama travelled continually across the Ganges Valley. The dust of its roadways caked his feet, he gathered food amid the grime and bustle of its cities and he gave talks in the parks just outside them where religious wanderers stayed. Wherever he went he met people - full-time religious seekers like Bahiya or householders from each and every walk of life: merchants and musicians, kings and lepers, priests and prostitutes. He spoke with the curious, the sceptical and the intensely devout, and he tried, again and again, to communicate his explosive understanding of existence. He stretched the meanings of the words and concepts that people already knew; and he invoked venerable, established ideas but turned them on their heads.
For all the glimpses in the scriptures of this vividly real Gautama of the plains, cities and wilderness tracks, we encounter unavoidable difficulties when we try to thread them together into a coherent and credible narrative. The first is the nature of our evidence. Gautama wrote nothing himself; in fact, we have no reason to think he was literate and writing may not even have existed in his society. The Bahiya Sutta is one of the many 'Discourses' of the Buddhist canon (Buddhist tradition counts 17,505 of them) on which we must rely for our information about Gautama. According to the traditional account, they are accurate records of actual events that were preserved thanks to the phenomenal memory of Ananda - Gautama's confidant, assistant and companion for the last twenty-five years of his life, while a monk named Upali recalled the incidents surrounding the establishment of the monastic rules that are recorded in a body of texts called the Vinaya - the monastic code. Historians, however, regard this account as a pious fiction, and, whatever truth the Discourses contain, they were clearly reshaped, as they were remembered (by monks who weren't trained from childhood in memorising skills), then repeated and finally rendered into the ancient Indian languages of Pali and Sanskrit. They are full of repetitions and stock formulas, and Gautama's teachings often come in a great list. It is hard to think that Gautama, or anyone else, ever spoke in their convoluted way. These conventions only make sense as ways of helping the monks memorise the words.
The process of committing the Pali versions of the Discourses to writing began in Sri Lanka in the first century BCE, when the material was already at least 300 years old. Sanskrit versions of the early texts have a different history, but almost all of them were lost when Indian Buddhism disappeared in the twelfth century. The original palm-leaf manuscripts of both the Pali and the Sanskrit scriptures sweltered and crumbled in the tropical humidity. They were recopied repeatedly and very few Buddhist manuscripts, barring some fragments, are more than 500 years old (though we do have much older rock-cuttings and inscriptions). Finally, the scholar-monks, for whom memorising, editing and interpreting the texts became a full-time activity, reshaped them in the light of their own concerns.
The earliest evidence about Gautama that we can date reliably comes from inscriptions left by the Buddhist Emperor Ashoka, around 150 years after Gautama's death. Consequently, some authorities think that any attempt to locate the historical Buddha - the figure behind the legends and the texts - is inherently 'quixotic' and some even doubt that we can say for certain that an historical individual called Gautama Buddha existed at all. This book follows a different approach. Someone must have founded the Buddhist tradition and the early Buddhists themselves were convinced that it was Gautama. They strove mightily to preserve the oldest teachings as accurately as possible, even before they were written down, and they zealously excluded other material from their canon. Most Indian religious scriptures that preceded Gautama and most that followed him (including Buddhist ones) are plainly mythological, or else concern highly abstruse metaphysics and analysis. By contrast, the Discourses present a vivid and credible portrait of an historical society that matches the political situation prevailing in Gautama's time and is largely backed by archaeology. What's more, their portrait of Gautama is vibrant and individual, as if they are depicting an actual person, and while the teaching contains some inconsistencies, in broad terms it expresses a coherent and strikingly original account of life. My approach, therefore, is to trust the texts unless there are good reasons to doubt them, and where things are uncertain we can draw on the battery of methods that scholars have developed to assess them. Other sources fill out what we can glean from the Discourses, especially the remarkable poems of the Theragatha ('Songs of the Monks') and Thengatha ('Songs of the Nuns') in which Gautama's immediate disciples recount their experiences, including their meetings with the master himself.