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What Do We Really Know About the Buddha

by Dhivan

What Do We Really Know About the Buddha?

by Dhivan
Audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/talks/details?num=OM783
Talk given Cambridge Buddhist Centre, 2008
So, what do we really know about the Buddha?
It’s obviously a slightly rhetorical kind of title for a talk because it’s obvious in a way that the
Buddha is removed from us by a considerable amount of time. So, in terms of really knowing
about the Buddha, we’re not likely to know very much. And anyway, who is the Buddha?
The Buddha being an awakened being, which is in theory at least a present possibility for all
human beings. So, the recollection of the Buddha we are doing is, in a way, the recollection
of qualities that are always possible. That kind of way of looking at things is reflected in the
idea that the Buddha isn’t the only Buddha: there’ve been many past Buddhas and there will
be Buddhas in the future.
But what I want to talk about is in fact the historical Buddha. I’ve got a particular interest in
the person of the Buddha. I think for me it’s a devotional kind of thing: I’ve got a strong faith
in the teaching of the Buddha. I love studying the Pali Canon and I’ve been studying Pali
recently which has really heightened my sense of connection with the material and with the
person of the Buddha, if you like.
I believe that the Buddha did exist and was a very particular sort of person with a particular
kind of spiritual intellectual genius, which is responsible still to some degree for the nature of
the Buddhist tradition, for certain ways of thinking about the spiritual life, for instance. So
that’s where I’m coming from. But the rhetorical bit of the title ‘What Do We Really Know
about the Buddha?’ is to do with the way that in a slightly less obvious way, there is a tension
in our feelings of devotion towards the Buddha or just our sense of the Buddha between, on
the one hand, you could say, the humanity of the Buddha. In our threefold puja we say ‘The
Buddha was born as we are born’. That’s Sangharakshita’s composition and it’s supposed to
remind us that the Buddha was a human being just like us. So, we too can overcome
everything that a Buddha managed to overcome, which seems to sort of level the field a bit,
in theory. On the other hand, especially in the Mahayana, the Buddha is not at all human: he’s
an eternal principle of enlightenment and was only ever in a human body as a sort of artifice
or skilful means, to teach the Dharma.
So, there’s a kind of tension in the Buddhist tradition between the Buddha as a human figure
and the Buddha as a magnificent archetypal principle of wisdom, as it were. And feelings of
devotion tend to accentuate the magnificent archetypal side of things. But my idea is that
distinguishing these two ways of approaching the Buddha gives us a sort of clearer way of
reflecting upon who the Buddha was. Hence the title ‘What do we really know about the
So, as for the humanity of the Buddha, I’d like to read a bit to you from a sutta in the
Majjihima Nikaya. It’s called ‘The analysis of the elements’, but that’s not the bit that’s
really interesting. It’s an opening section from a sutta. A lot of these suttas in the Majjihima
Nikaya have stories at the beginning, a little narrative section which puts the teaching in
context, presents the Buddha in a particular sort of environment, and this one’s quite a long
‘Thus have I heard, on one occasion the Blessed One, was wandering in the Magadhan
country and eventually arrived at Rajagaha. There he went to the potter Bhaggava and said
to him, “if it is not inconvenient for you Bhaggava, I will stay one night in your workshop”.
”It is not inconvenient for me, venerable sir, but there is a homeless one already staying
there. If he agrees then stay as long as you like, venerable sir.”
Now there was a clansman named Pukkusati, who had gone forth from the home-life into
homelessness out of faith in the Blessed one, and on that occasion he was already staying in
the potter’s workshop. Then the Blessed one went to the venerable Pukkusati and said to him
“If it is not inconvenient for you Bhikkhu, I will stay one night in the workshop.”
“The potter’s workshop is large enough friend. Let the venerable one, stay as long as he
Pukkusati doesn’t realize it’s the Buddha. That’s the point.
The Blessed one entered the potter’s workshop, prepared a spread of grass at one end and
sat down, folding his legs crosswise, setting his body erect and establishing mindfulness in
front of him. Then the Blessed one spent most of the night seated in meditation and the
venerable Pukkusati also spent most of the night seated in meditation. The Blessed one
thought, “This clansman conducts himself in a way that inspires confidence, suppose I were
to question him?” So he asked the venerable Pukkusati “Under whom have you gone forth
Bhikkhu? Who is your teacher? Whose Dhamma do you profess?”
“Friend” This is Pukkusati speaking “There is the recluse Gotama, the son of the Sakyans,
who went forth, from the Sakyan clan. Now a good report of that Blessed one has been
spread to this effect” – And he repeats the Buddha Vandana – “I have gone forth under that
Blessed One, that Blessed One is my teacher, I profess the Dhamma of that Blessed one.”
“But Bhikkhu, where is that Blessed One, accomplished and fully enlightened, now living?”
“There is friend, a city in the northern country named Savatthi. The Blessed One is now
living there.”
“But Bhikkhu, have you ever seen the Blessed One before? Would you recognise him, if you
saw him?”
“No friend, I have never seen that Blessed One before, nor would I recognise him if I saw
“The Blessed One then thinks, “I’ll teach him Dhamma”
And he gives him a Dhamma discourse on the six elements.
And then the venerable Pukkusati thought “Indeed the teacher has come to me. The Sublime
One has come to me.”
He rises from his seat and he prostrates himself in front of the Buddha and asks his
forgiveness because he called the Buddha ‘friend’ instead of Blessed One. And of course the
Buddha forgives him.
I think this is a very beautiful story and it shows us that the people that compiled these
Scriptures were completely prepared for the people hearing these scriptures to regard the
Buddha as completely ordinary. You wouldn’t know it was him. Presumably he just looked
like any other monk, until you hear him teach the Dhamma. So I wanted to read that as an
example of the way in which the tradition regards the Buddha as a human being. But no
doubt you’ve come across from time to time, the life story of the Buddha, in its traditional
form and you’ve probably noticed that the way the Buddha is represented there, the Buddha
and the bodhisattva prior to his enlightenment, in ways which don’t sound all that normal at
There are only a few traditional biographies of the Buddha (Actually, there are four) and they
obviously all rely on the same basic pool of stories and information and all of them are
written centuries after the Buddha. In the main Theravada one which is called the
Nidanakatha, the extended story; it starts with a Bhikkhu named Sumedha vowing to attain
Buddhahood under the Buddha Dipankara who lived four incalculables and a hundred
thousand kalpas ago: he was twenty four Buddhas ago. So in that story our Buddha has got a
very long history behind him of striving through various lives to become the Gotama in this
life. So that is not at all very ordinary, in a way.
Another biography of the Buddha, The Mahavastu, is explicit in the way it describes the
Buddha as lokuttara, ‘beyond the world’; the Buddha just appears as a human being, as in a
body, just for the sake of teaching. It’s quite explicit.
In another biography, the Lalitavistara, or the Sports of the Buddha, the figure of the Buddha
becomes magnificently exaggerated – and I would like to read you some of this. This bit of
the Lalitavistara concerns the bodhisattva, having resolved upon attaining enlightenment,
walking towards the bodhi tree. You might remember the traditional story: he gives up
austerities and realises that the way to gain enlightenment is by attaining jhana, so he takes
food and then heads to the bodhi tree.
“Thus, O bhikshus, the Bodhisattva, having bathed in the river Nairañjana, and having
restored his physical strength and vigour by eating, departed unto the spot under the lordly
Bodhi tree, in the spot on the Earth with sixteen forms, with the victorious walk of a great
man, the untroubled walk, the walk which is satisfying to the senses, the well established
walk, the walk of a Lord Meru, the walk which is straightforward, not a zigzag walk, an
unaffected walk, not a tripping walk, not a limited walk, not a dispirited walk, not a frivolous
walk, ...

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