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What Do We Really Know About the Buddha

by Dhivan

... a playful walk, a pure walk, an auspicious walk, a faultless walk, an undeluded walk,
an unattached walk, the walk of a lion, the walk of swan, the walk of a lordly elephant, the
walk of Narayana, a walk that did not touch the earth, a walk as wonderful on earth as a
thousand-spoked wheel, the walk with webbed toes and red nails, a walk to resound on Earth,
a walk to break open the lord of mountains, a walk that made uneven areas, a walk that
emitted a ray of light, as though in between the webs of fingers, which travelled well and
touched the creatures, a walk that created pure lotuses at every step, a walk that came from
previous auspicious deeds, a walk of the previous Buddha-lions, a walk tough and
unpierceable as adamant, a walk that obstructed the path of all evil and ill...”
And on, and on:
“With such a walk did the bodhisattva go to the seat of enlightenment.”
I read that so you get a feeling for the kind of stories that nourished the early Buddhists in
their attempts to represent the Buddha. And with those stories they made absolutely no
distinction between this kind of Buddha and what we regard as a ‘human Buddha’ as it were.
This is clearly not of importance to the Indian imagination: to distinguish between myth and
reality in the way that we might.
Now this has some interesting consequences, because when we think about the life story of
the Buddha we perhaps take it rather factually. An example is that we think ‘oh the Buddha
was called Siddharta Gotama’. Well it’s true that in the early canon he’s always called
Gotama, everyone calls him Gotama, it’s the name of his clan or ‘family’; but the name
Siddharta is never found in the early scriptures, it is simply a name that means ‘one who has
achieved his aim’. So the later story tellers gave the Buddha this name clearly as a way to
relate his qualities. He’s given other names as well. ‘Sarvartha Siddha’ is another one, which
means something similar. So he wasn’t called Siddharta, as far as we know.
Actually it’s almost impossible to extract any historical information out of these very early
scriptures. I mentioned the Pali Canon, that’s our only source for what we might regard as
information, historical information, about the Buddha. But as you might know it was only
written down in the first century BC, about four hundred years after the Buddha died and it
contains a mass of material that was transmitted orally, for all those years it was passed on
through a well organised system of monks reciting these texts. And clearly at some point in
the remote past, in ways that we’ve got no idea about, these scriptures were put together, they
were compiled. The story goes that a council just after the Buddha died, the monks got
together and just pooled all the stories they’d heard about the Buddha, all the teachings they’d
had. But it’s clear that a lot more sorting and compiling and story-telling went on after that.
There are all sorts of layers of material in the early texts as we have them, some of it clearly
later. And there’s just no way of really sorting it out. So when we ask about historical
information about the Buddha, we’re asking something that the materials that are available
just aren’t able to provide.
But surely, we might think there’s at least a bit of information. Well of course there is, and its
limited but interesting, so this is what I want to talk about by way of describing what we
really know about the Buddha, and a really important bit of information is that he came from
(he was a member of) the Sakya people, or the Sakya Clan, and these people lived to the
north of India, just below the Himalayas. And they weren’t really a Vedic people; they
weren’t really a Brahminical people. They were possibly a tribal people who were just getting
assimilated into the Brahminical culture of North India. This is important because it means
the Buddha didn’t really belong to a caste if that makes sense. He wasn’t a Brahmin, we
know that. He wasn’t a priest, and he wasn’t a warrior or Kshatriya; and in fact, among the
Sakya peoples, they didn’t have Kings. They didn’t have a system of government with a
monarch. That was just coming in. There were large kingdoms developing in India which
very soon after the Buddha’s time engulfed the whole of India in large monarchic states. So
the Sakya peoples had a sort of republican system. And what this means is that the Buddha
certainly wasn’t a prince and the son of a King, because they didn’t have kings. Almost all
the stories of the Buddha relate him as a prince, the son of a king, who had a very privileged
upbringing. And clearly this is actually not compatible with him being from the Sakya
people. It’s quite possible he was from an upper class influential family, a member of the
ruling elite, that’s quite possible. It’s sort of likely in a way, but there’s no more information
than that. So the idea that the Buddha was a prince, the son of a king, is a later story, and you
can understand what it’s supposed to illustrate. It’s supposed to illustrate that he had a lordly
kind of inheritance. He had kingly qualities. And he knew about life at the very highest level
of society, which the ideal sort of saviour of humanity would have. But this is an archetypal
kind of quality rather than what you might call a historical one.
And the next historical bit of his life is the fact that Gotama, the future Buddha, at some point
‘went forth’ from home life into the homeless life. This is very important, because it was as a
homeless wanderer that Gotama had the chance to meet teachers, take up meditation practice,
develop the kinds of understandings and practices which later led to his enlightenment. And
in India at that time there’d been for a hundred or two hundred years, a whole culture of
wandering philosophers and ascetics, the samanas, or shramanas in Sanskrit, and the Buddha
basically joined in with this culture. Very interesting that that should have risen at that time.
It was as if the culture (the Indian religious culture) was obsessed with the search for truth,
such that large numbers of people, men and women, would leave home and wander about and
get supported to do nothing other than quest for wisdom, or at least appear to quest for
wisdom, in all sorts of ways.
Now our story of the Buddha has him being a prince, marrying Yasodhara, fathering a little
boy, and then leaving home, ‘buggering off’. This is quite an important part of the usual
story. But interestingly, the earlier sutta, in which the Buddha describes his going forth,
doesn’t even mention his wife and child. In fact the opposite. I’ll read it to you. In the
Ariyapariyesana Sutta, ‘the discourse on the noble search’, the Buddha, describing his noble
search for enlightenment says that he recognised that he was subject to birth, to suffering, to
old age and death, and he was looking for a solution to these problems. And so later he says:
“Whilst still young, a black haired young man, endowed with the blessing of youth, in the
prime of life, though my father and mother wished otherwise, and wept with tearful faces, I
shaved off my hair and beard, I put on the yellow robe, and went forth from the home-life into
Having gone forth he went and found his first teachers Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta,
but anyway, that little excerpt shows the Buddha, in my opinion as just a young man, perhaps
in his late teens, that age where you are prepared to act in impulsive, adventurous ways.
There’s no mention of a wife and child. And in a way, it would make more sense to talk of
his being married and having a child, if you wanted to portray the Buddha as someone who’d
known all sides of life. He’d known about the home-life, he’d known about the life of sense
pleasures, the life of sexuality and family and that again is an archetypal sort of ideal,
portraying the Buddha as someone who had all life experience, and therefore is talking from
full life experience when he’s teaching the Dharma. But it doesn’t appear from the earliest
records, that that was actually the case. There are other mentions of a son Rahula, but I’m not
sure actually, whether they are very early. I haven’t looked into it closely. I know for some
people the idea that the Buddha abandoned his wife and children, is not very appealing, but
another way of looking at it is that, well, it’s only a story.
So then the central event in the Buddha’s life, his enlightenment, is one about which of
course, we can know nothing. How can we know anything, when it’s an event that happened
to him alone? The only possible information we could have is that which comes from the
Buddha. And what is in these earlier sources about the enlightenment is very varied. The
Buddha gives several different accounts of what happened, of the actual thought process, and
experiential process by which he came to full and perfect enlightenment, whatever that is. But
there is one thing that all the accounts agree on, and that is that there was an event. There was
a particular night, is the usual way its written about, is recorded as, in which the Buddha
attained to that which he called ...

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