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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Spiritual Teachers > The Life of the Buddha As Pieced Together from the Pali Canon

The Life of the Buddha As Pieced Together from the Pali Canon

Alexander Berzin, August 2010

The life of the historical Buddha emerges in several layers from the classical Buddhist literature. The earliest version does not appear in any one text, but can only be pieced together from incidents recorded in the Pali sutta (Skt. sutra) and vinaya literature of the Theravada tradition. Later texts of the Mahasanghika, Sarvastivada, and Mahayana traditions embellish the bare outline that emerges from these earlier texts with many, sometimes superhuman features. The original picture that emerges from the Pali literature, however, reveals a very human person who, living in troubled, insecure times, faced numerous difficulties and challenges, both personally and to his monastic community. Here, we shall outline this earliest version of Buddha’s life, based on the scholarly research of Stephen Batchelor presented in his Confession of a Buddhist Atheist. All names shall be given in their Pali versions.

Buddha was born in 566 BCE in Lumbini Park (Lumbi-na’i tshal), in present-day southern Nepal. This park lay not too far from Kapilavatthu (Ser-skya’i gnas, Skt. Kapilavastu), the capital of Sakiya (Sha-kya, Skt. Shakya). Although his personal name Siddhattha (Don-grub, Skt. Siddhartha) does not appear in the Pali canon; nevertheless, for convenience sake, we shall use it here. Gotama (Gau-ta-ma, Skt. Gautama), another name often used in reference to the Buddha, was, in fact, the name of his clan.

Siddhattha’s father, Suddhodana (Zas tsang-ma, Skt. Shuddhodana), was not a king, as described in later Buddhist literature. Rather, he was a nobleman from the Gotama clan, who maybe served as a regional governor in Sakiya. The Pali canon does not record his mother’s name; but later Sanskrit sources identify her as Maya-devi (Lha-mo sGyu-‘phrul-ma). Siddattha’s mother died shortly after his birth and so he was raised by her sister Pajapati (sKye-dgu’i bdag-mo chen-mo, Skt. Mahaprajapati), whom his father married, as was the custom of the times.

Sakiya was an ancient republic, but by the time of Siddhattha’s birth, it was part of the powerful kingdom of Kosala (Ko-sa-la, Skt. Koshala). Kosala stretched from the northern bank of the Ganges River in present-day Bihar to the foothills of the Himalayas. Its capital was Savatthi (gNyan-yod, Skt. Shravasti).

Since a brief description of the geography of the major places in Buddha’s life may make his biography easier to follow, let’s outline it here. Sakiya lay in the eastern part of Kosala, with the province of Malla (Gyad-kyi yul, Skt. Malla) to Sakiya’s southeast. East of Malla was the Vajji (Skt. Vrji) republic, with its capital at Vesali (Yangs-pa-can, Skt. Vaishali). The Vajji Republic was ruled by a confederation of clans; the Licchavi (Li-ccha-bi, Skt. Licchavi) clan was the most famous of them. South of Vajji and Kosala, across the Ganges River, lay the mighty kingdom of Magadha (Yul Ma-ga-dha, Skt. Magadha), with its capital at Rajagaha (rGyal-po’i khab, Skt. Rajagrha). To the west of Kosala, in present-day Pakistani Punjab, was Gandhara (Sa-‘dzin, Skt. Ghandhara), which was a satrapy of the Persian Achaemenid Empire. In its capital, Takkasila (rDo-‘jog, Skt. Takshashila), was the most famous university of that time. There, Greek and Persian ideas and cultures mingled with their contemporary Indian counterparts.

Kapilavatthu, where Siddhattha grew up, was a major city on the North Road, the main commercial artery of the time. The North Road linked Kosala to Gandhara to the west and, passing through Sakiya, Malla, and the Vajji Republic, to Magadha to the south. Thus, although the Pali canon says very little about Siddhattha Gotama before the age of twenty-nine, he was quite likely exposed to many cultures. He might even have studied at Takkasila, although that cannot be established.

Siddhattha married Bhaddakaccana, who is known in the Sanskrit literature as Yashodhara (Grags ‘dzin-ma). She was Siddhattha’s cousin and the sister of Devadatta (Lhas-byin, Skt. Devadatta). Devadatta later became Buddha’s main rival. They had one child, a son Rahula (sGra-gcan ‘dzin, Skt. Rahula). Shortly after the birth of his son, Buddha left Kapilavatthu at the age of twenty-nine and headed for Magadha in search of spiritual truth. Travelling along the North Road and crossing the Ganges River, he arrived in Rajagaha. At that time, Magadha was ruled by King Bimbisara (gZugs-can snying-po) and Kosala by King Pasenadi (rGyal-po gSal-rgyal, Skt. Prasenajit). As part of an alliance between Kosala and Magadha, the two kings had married each other’s sisters. King Pasenadi’s sister was named Devi (Lha-mo, Skt. Devi).

In Magadha, Siddhattha studied in the communities of two teachers, Alara Kalama (Skt. Arada Kalama) and Uddaka Ramaputta (Skt. Udraka Ramaputra). Coming from the brahmanic tradition, they taught him to achieve absorbed concentration on nothingness and on neither distinguishing nor not distinguishing anything. Siddhattha was dissatisfied with these attainments, however, and so he left these teachers. He then undertook a regimen of extreme austerities, eating almost nothing. Again he felt that such practice did not lead to liberation. He then broke his fast and went to nearby Uruvela (lDeng-rgyas, Skt. Urubilva), present-day Bodh Gaya, where he attained enlightenment under the bodhi tree at the age of thirty-five. This was six years after he had arrived in Magadha.

After attaining enlightenment, he went west to Migadaya (Ri-dvags-kyi gnas, Skt. Mrgadava), the Deer Park, at Isapatana (Drang-srong lhung-ba, Skt. Rshipatana), present-day Sarnath, just outside Varanasi. Although north of the Ganges River, King Pasenadi had ceded this area to Magadha as part of the dowry when he had given his sister Devi in marriage to King Bimbisara. Buddha spent the rainy season there at the Deer Park with his five companions and soon attracted a small number of followers, who formed a celibate community that he needed to care for.

The Licchavi nobleman Mahali from Vesali heard of the Buddha and suggested to King Bimbisara that he invite him to Magadha. So after the monsoon, Buddha and his growing community returned east to the Magadha capital Rajagaha. King Bimbisara was impressed with Buddha’s teachings and offered him a disused park called “Veluvana” (‘Od-ma’i tshal, Skt. Venuvana), the “Bamboo Grove,” where he could base his community during the rainy season.

Soon, Sariputta (Sha-ri’i bu, Skt. Shariputra) and Moggallana (Mo’u dgal-gyi bu, Skt. Maudgalyayana), the leading disciples of a prominent local guru, joined Buddha’s community. Later, they became Buddha’s closest disciples. Sariputta requested Buddha to formulate vows for the growing monastic community and King Bimbisara suggested that the community adopt some of the customs of other mendicant spiritual groups, such as the Jains. Specifically, the King recommended that they hold quarter-monthly assemblies (gso-sbyong, Skt. uposhadha) to discuss the teachings. Buddha agreed.

One day, Anathapindika (dGon-med zas-sbyin, Skt. Anathapindada), a wealthy banker from the Kosala capital Savatthi, came to Rajagaha on business. Impressed by the Buddha, he offered him a place to spend the rainy seasons in Savatthi, King Pasenadi’s capital. Shortly afterwards, Buddha and his community of monks moved to Kosala; but it was several years before Anathapindika could offer them a suitable place to stay.

In the meantime, Buddha returned to visit his family in Kapilavatthu. His father, Suddhodana, quickly became one of his followers and his eight-year old son Rahula joined the monastic order as a novice. Over the following years, several Sakiyan noblemen also joined, including Buddha’s cousins Ananda (Kun dga’-bo, Skt. Ananda), Anuruddha (Ma-‘gag-pa, Skt. Anuruddha), and Devadatta, as well as Buddha’s half-brother, Nanda (dGa’-bo, Skt. Nanda), also known as “Sundarananda” (mDzes-dga’, Skt. Sundarinanda), “Handsome Nanda.”

Buddha’s stepmother and aunt, Pajapati, asked to join the growing community, but Buddha at first refused. Not being discouraged, she nevertheless shaved her head, donned yellow robes and, with a large group of other women, followed Buddha anyway. Pajapati continued to request ordination from Buddha, but Buddha refused a second and a third time. Finally, a few years before Buddha passed away, Ananda interceded and requested once more on her behalf, and Buddha finally agreed to ordain the women. This took place in Vesali, in the Vajji Republic, and was the start of the nun’s order in Buddhism.

Anathapindika was noted for his great generosity and a few years after Buddha’s return to Kosala, he paid a huge amount of gold to buy a park in Savatthi, called “Jetavana” (rGyal-byed-kyi tshal, Skt. Jetavana), “Jeta’s Grove.” There, he built an extremely luxurious rainy season residence for Buddha and his monks. Eventually, about twenty years after his enlightenment, Buddha instituted the custom of the formal rainy season retreat (dbyar-gnas, Skt, varshaka), for his monastic community, during which the monastics would remain in one place for the three months of the monsoon each year and not wander from place to place as they did during the rest of the year. All in all, Buddha spent nineteen rainy season retreats at Jeta’s Grove, during which he delivered 844 of his discourses. Anathapindika continued to be a major patron of Buddha’s monastic community, although near the end of his life he became bankrupt.

The Kosala King Pasenadi first met the Gotama Buddha at Jeta’s Grove, when the Buddha was about forty years old. The Buddha greatly impressed the King, and subsequently Pasenadi also became one of his patrons and followers. Buddha’s relation with King Pasenadi, however, was always very delicate. Although the King was an intellectual patron of learning; nevertheless he was also a sensualist and often very cruel. For example, out of paranoia, the King had Bandhula, his friend from Malla and commander of his army, killed; although, feeling remorse, he then appointed Bandhula’s nephew, Karayana, to head his army. Many years later, General Karayana deposed Pasenadi in revenge for his uncle’s death. Buddha, however, tolerated the King’s erratic ways and changing fortunes, undoubtedly because he needed his protection for his community against thieves and wild animals, as well as access to wealthy patrons who would support them.

To secure the succession of his ruling dynasty, King Pasenadi needed to have a son. His first wife, the sister of the Magadha King Bimbisara, apparently bore him no children. The King then took a second wife, Mallika (Ma-li-ka, Skt. Mallika), a beautiful low-caste follower of the Buddha. The brahmin priests in the royal court were scandalized at her lowly birth. Mallika bore King Pasenadi a daughter, Vajiri (rDo-rje-ma, Skt. Vajri).

The King then felt he needed to take a third wife in order to bear him a son. So he then married Vasabha, the daughter of Buddha’s cousin Mahanama (Ming-chen, Skt. Mahanama), who had become the governor of Sakiya after the death of Buddha’s father. Mahanama was the brother of Buddha’s close disciples Ananda and Anuruddha. Although Mahanama passed Vasabha off as a noblewoman, she was actually his illegitimate daughter from a slave woman. Although Vasabha bore King Pasenadi a son, Vidadabha, his position as heir to the Kosala throne was precarious due to the hidden deception concerning his mother’s blood line. This deception also put Buddha in a difficult position, because of his being related to Vasabha.

Not knowing of his illegitimacy, Vidadabha visited Sakiya and his grandfather Mahanama for the first time when he was sixteen. While there, Karayana, the commander of Pasenadi’s army, learned of the true background of Vidadabha’s mother. When the army chief reported to Pasenadi that his son was the illegitimate grandson of a slave woman, the King flew into a rage against the Sakiyans. He stripped his wife and son of their royal positions, and turned them out into slavery. Buddha interceded on their behalf and the King finally reinstated them.

After this, however, Buddha’s position in Kosala became insecure and, at around the age of seventy, he returned for the first time to Magadha and its capital Rajagaha. There, he stayed in the Mango Grove owned by Jivaka (‘Tsho-byed, Skt. Jivaka), the royal physician, rather than at the Bamboo Grove of the King. This indicates that perhaps Buddha was already sick at this time.

When Buddha was seventy-two, his first patron, King Bimbisara of Magadha, was forced to abdicate in favor of his son, Ajatasattu (Ma-skyes dgra, Skt. Ajatashatru). Ajatasattu imprisoned his father and starved him to death. Bimbisara’s widow, Devi, the sister of King Pasenadi, died of grief. To avenge her death, Pasenadi launched a war against his nephew Ajatasattu to try to regain the villages around Varanasi to the north of the Ganges that he had presented to Bimbisara as part of Devi’s dowry. The war was inconclusive and to secure the peace, Pasenadi was forced to give his daughter Vajiri in marriage to Ajatasattu.

At about the same time, Buddha’s cousin, Devadatta, who had become Ajatasattu’s teacher, tried to seize control of Buddha’s monastic order. Devadatta tried to convince Buddha to impose several additional rules of discipline for the monks, such as having them live in forests, sleep only under trees, not enter the homes of laypeople, wear only rags and not accept gifts of cloth from them, and be strict vegetarians. Buddha refused, since he felt it would make his order too ascetic and cut them off from society. Devadatta challenged Buddha’s authority and, attracting many of Buddha’s young monks to his ideas, created a schism by forming his own rival monastic community. In fact, Devadatta tried repeatedly, but unsuccessfully, to assassinate the Buddha. In the end, Sariputta and Moggallana persuaded the monks who had left Buddha’s community to return.

It seems that Devadatta regretted his actions, but died before being able to ask Buddha’s forgiveness. In any case, Buddha never harbored a grudge or ill will against him. King Ajatasattu also regretted killing his father and, upon the royal physician Jivaka’s advice, openly admitted to Buddha his patricide and sought to repent.

About a year later, Buddha journeyed to his native region Sakiya once more. During King Pasenadi’s visit to the Buddha to pay his respects, General Karayana staged a coup and set Prince Vidadabha on the Kosala throne. The deposed king Pasenadi, having nowhere to turn, fled to Magadha to seek protection from his nephew and son-in-law King Ajatasattu in Rajagaha. Pasenadi, however, was refused entry into the city and was found dead the next day.

Meanwhile, the new Kosala King Vidudabha launched a war against Sakiya in revenge for his grandfather Mahanama’s deception about his bloodline. Mahanama, you will recall, was Buddha’s cousin and the current governor of Sakiya. Although Buddha tried three times to convince the King not to attack, he was ultimately unsuccessful. The Kosala forces had orders to slaughter all the inhabitants of the Sakiya capital Kapilavatthu. Unable to prevent the massacre, Buddha fled to Rajagaha in Magadha, seeking the protection of King Ajatasattu, as Pasenadi had unsuccessfully done before him.

The road to Magadha passed through the Vajji Republic, where Buddha’s closest disciple Sariputta was waiting for him in the capital Vesali. There, however, one of Buddha’s former attendants, Sunakkatta (Legs-pa’i rgyu-skar, Skt. Sunakshatra), a nobleman from Vesali who had previously disrobed and had left the Buddhist community, discredited the Buddha to the Vajji parliament. He told them that Buddha did not possess any superhuman powers and taught merely according to logic how to stop craving, but not how to attain transcendental states. Buddha took this as a compliment. Nevertheless, this denunciation, plus perhaps his founding of a nun’s order possibly at this time, caused Buddha to lose his support and good standing in Vajji. Consequently, Buddha crossed the Ganges and proceeded to Rajagaha, where he stayed in the caves on the nearby Gijjhakuta (Bya-rgod-kyi phung-po, Skt. Grdhrakuta), Vulture’s Peak.

Vassakara, King Ajatasattu’s prime minister, came to visit the Buddha. He informed him of Ajatasattu’s plan to expand his kingdom and his intention soon to invade the Vajji Republic. Although Buddha advised that the Vajjians could not be won over by force, but would keep their traditional honorable ways, he was unable to prevent the impending outbreak of war, as had been the case with the Kosala invasion of Sakiya. As a further loss, Buddha’s closest disciples, Sariputta and Moggallana, both died at around this time. The elderly Sariputta died of an illness and Moggallana was beaten to death by bandits while in a solitary retreat.

Having gained no sympathy or support in Magadha, Buddha decided to return north once more, most likely to his homeland of Sakiya, perhaps to see what was left after the Kosala attack. Before setting out, Buddha asked Ananda to gather all the monks at Vulture’s Peak, where he would deliver his last advice to them. He instructed them to model the monastic community after the democratic system of the Vajjian parliament. They should hold regular assemblies, live in harmony, share their alms, and respect their elders.

Buddha soon left Vulture’s Peak and Magadha, and upon reaching Vesali in the Vajji Republic, stopped to spend the rainy season retreat. He found the society there seeped in decadence despite the looming threat of war. Having lost favor with the Vajji parliament, Buddha spent the monsoon alone and told his monks to find shelter among their friends or supporters.

During the course of the monsoon rains, the eighty year old Buddha became severely ill and was close to death. Ananda asked him to deliver a final piece of advice to the monks. Buddha told them that he had taught them everything he knew and that, in the future, the teachings themselves should be their primary refuge and source of direction. To gain liberation from suffering, they must integrate the teachings into themselves and not depend on some leader or a community to save them. Buddha then announced that soon he would die.

With his disciple cousins Ananda and Anuruddha, Buddha set out once more after the rains. On the way to Sakiya, they stopped in Pava, one of the two principal cities of Malla. There, the party was served poisoned pork by a blacksmith named Chunda (Tsu-nda, Skt. Cunda). Suspecting something afoul, Buddha told his cousins not to eat the pork, but rather ate it himself and told them to bury the rest. Malla was the homeland of General Karayana, who had led the massacres in Sakiya, and it is quite possible that the poison was intended for Ananda, who was famed for having memorized all of Buddha’s teachings. If Ananda were killed, Buddha’s teachings and community would never endure.

Suffering from acute bloody diarrhea, Buddha told Ananda to bring him to nearby Kusinara (Ku-sha’i grong-khyer, gNas-rtsva-mchog, Skt. Kushinagara). There in a bed laid out between two trees, Buddha asked the few monks with him if they had any more questions or doubts. Overwhelmed with grief, Ananda and the others remained silent. Buddha then passed away at the age of eighty, in 485 BCE.

Just before Buddha’s remains were about to be cremated, a group of monks arrived from Pava. They were headed by Mahakassapa (‘Od-srung chen-po, Skt. Mahakashyapa), who insisted that the cremation wait until they had paid their last respects. Mahakassapa was a brahmin from Magadha who had become a monk in his old age a few years earlier. When Buddha had first met him, he had given Mahakassapa his old worn out robe in exchange for the brahmin’s new one. Later, this presentation of Buddha’s robe was taken to represent the transmission of authority and the start of the line of Buddhist patriarchs.

Buddha, however, had stated explicitly to his disciples on several occasions that, after he had passed away, the Dharma itself would serve as their teacher. He wished his community to continue on the model of the parliamentary system of Vajji. He did not intend for them to model themselves after a kingdom like Kosala and Magadha and have a single chief monk as its head.

Nevertheless, after Buddha’s passing away, there seems to have been a power struggle between Mahakassapa and Ananda, in other words a struggle between a traditional Indian system of transmission of autocratic authority from guru to disciple and a more democratic egalitarian system of mendicant monks living in small communities and following a common set of practices and principles. Mahakassapa won out.

After Buddha was cremated and his relics distributed, the monks agreed to Mahakassapa’s proposal to hold a council in Rajagaha the next rainy season to recount, confirm, and codify what Buddha had taught. Mahakassapa was to choose those elders who could attend. He chose only arhats, those who had attained liberation, and these numbered 499. At first, Mahakassapa did not include Ananda on the grounds that he had not yet attained arhatship. Mahakassapa excluded him despite Ananda having the best memory of Buddha’s discourses. In addition, Ananda was a strong supporter and vocal advocate of Buddha’s wish for his order not to have a singular leader. Perhaps another factor involved in Mahakassapa’s dislike of Ananda was the fact that Ananda was the one who had convinced the Buddha to ordain women. This would have offended Mahakassapa’s conservative brahmin background. In the end, however, the monastic elders protested Ananda’s exclusion and Mahakassapa gave in and allowed Ananda to attend. According to the Theravada account, Ananda attained arhatship the night before the council.

While waiting for the council to convene, however, Ananda met Vassakara (dByar-gyi rnam-pa, Skt. Varshakara), King Ajatasattu’s prime minister. Ananda learned from him that in addition to the attack on Vajji that the Magadha forces were preparing, they were also preparing for an expected attack from King Pajjota (Rab-gsal, Skt. Pradyota) of Avanti (A-banti’i yul, Skt. Avanti), the kingdom to the west of Magadha. Thus, although Buddha did not intend for there to be a line of patriarchs heading his community, Mahakassapa’s taking over the leadership undoubtedly contributed to the survival of Buddha’s teachings and monastic community through these perilous and uncertain times.

Five hundred arhats attended this First Buddhist Council, held at Sattipanniguha (Lo-ma bdun-pa’i phug, Skt. Saptaparnaguha), the Seven Leaf Cave, near Rajagaha. Mahakassapa presided, Ananda recited from memory most of the suttas and Upali (Nye-bar ‘khor, Skt. Upali) recited the vinaya rules of monastic discipline. According to the Theravada version of this council, the abhidhamma (chos mngon-pa, Skt. abhidharma) teachings on special topics of knowledge were not recited at this time. Within the Sarvastivada tradition, however, the Vaibhashika version relates that Mahakassapa recited some, but not all of the abhidhamma teachings. But according to the Sautrantika assertions, these abhidharma teachings were not actually the words of the Buddha, but were composed by seven of the arhats.

According to the Tibetan traditions, Mahakassapa began a line of seven patriarchs (bstan-pa’i gtad-rabs bdun). The Chan traditions of China, followed by the Korean Son and Japanese Zen traditions, trace a line of twenty-eight patriarchs in India, with Bodhidharma as the twenty-eighth. Bodhidharma was the Indian master who brought the Chan teachings to China. In East Asia, he is counted as the First Chan Patriarch.

In summary, the Pali literature of the Theravadins reveals a picture of the Buddha as a charismatic, almost tragic spiritual leader who struggled to establish and support his ever-growing community of disciples and followers under extremely difficult circumstances. He had to face political intrigues, several wars, the massacre of the people of his homeland, a personal denunciation before a government, a challenge of his leadership from among his disciples, the murder of one of his closest disciples, and, in the end, a death by poisoning. Yet, throughout all these ordeals, Buddha maintained peace of mind and did not get discouraged. Throughout the forty-six years during which he taught after achieving enlightenment, he remained steadfast in his commitment to show the world the way to liberation and enlightenment.