The Life of Shakyamuni Buddha
February 2005, revised April 2007
According to traditional dating, Shakyamuni Buddha (Shakya thub-pa), also known as Gautama Buddha (Gau-ta-ma), lived from 566 to 485 BCE in central north India. Buddhist sources contain numerous, varying accounts of his life, with further details appearing only gradually, over time. Since the first Buddhist literature was written down only three centuries after Buddha’s passing away, it is difficult to ascertain the accuracy of any of the details found in these accounts. Further, just because certain details emerged in written form later than others is not a sufficient reason to discount their validity. Many details could have continued being passed down in oral form after others were written down.
Moreover, traditional biographies of great Buddhist masters, including Buddha himself, were generally compiled for didactic purposes and not for the sake of keeping historical records. More specifically, biographies of great masters were fashioned in such a way as to teach and inspire Buddhist followers to pursue the spiritual path to liberation and enlightenment. Therefore, in order to benefit from Buddha’s life story, we need to understand it within this context and analyze the lessons that we can learn from it.
The earliest sources for the life of the Buddha include, within the Theravada scriptures, several Pali suttas from The Collection of Middle-Length Discourses (Pali: Majjhima Nikaya) and, from the various Hinayana schools, several Vinaya texts concerning monastic rules of discipline. Each of these texts, however, gives only pieces of Buddha’s life story.
The first more expanded account appeared in Buddhist poetic works of the late second century BCE, such as Great Matters (Skt. Mahavastu) of the Mahasanghika school of Hinayana. This text, which was outside The Three Basket-like Collections (sDe-snod gsum, Skt. Tripitaka, Three Baskets), added, for instance, the detail that Buddha was a born as a prince in a royal family. Another such poetic work appeared in the literature of the Sarvastivada school of Hinayana: The Extensive Play Sutra (Skt. Lalitavistara Sutra). Later Mahayana versions of this text (rGya-cher rol-pa’i mdo) borrowed and elaborated on this earlier version, for instance by explaining that Shakyamuni had become enlightened ages ago and, emanating as Prince Siddhartha, was merely demonstrating the way to attain enlightenment in order to instruct others.
Eventually some of these biographies were included in The Three Basket-like Collections. The most famous is Deeds of the Buddha (Sangs-rgyas-kyi spyod-pa zhes-bya-ba’i snyan-ngag chen-po, Skt. Buddhacarita) by the poet Ashvaghosha (rTa-dbyangs), written in the first century CE. Other versions appeared even later in the tantras, such as in the Chakrasamvara (‘ Khor-lo bde-mchog) literature. There, we find the account that, while appearing as Shakyamuni teaching the Sutras on Far-reaching Discriminating Awareness (Sher-phyin mdo, Prajnaparamita Sutras, Perfection of Wisdom Sutras), Buddha simultaneously emanated as Vajradhara and taught the tantras.
From each account, we can learn something and gain inspiration. Let us look primarily, however, at the versions that depict the historical Buddha.
According to the earliest accounts, Shakyamuni (Shakya thub-pa) was born into an aristocratic, wealthy warrior family in the state of Shakya, with its capital at Kapilavastu (Ser-skya’i gnas), on the border between present-day India and Nepal. There is no mention of his being born as a prince in the royal family. Only in later accounts does his princely birth and name, Siddhartha (Don-grub), appear. His father was Shuddhodana (Zas gtsang-ma). In later versions, the name of his mother, Maya-devi (Lha-mo sGyu-‘ phrul-ma), also appears, as well as the account of Buddha’s miraculous conception in her dream of the white six-tusked elephant entering her side and the prediction, by the sage Asita, that the child would be either a great king or a great sage. Also appearing later is the description of Buddha’s pure birth a short distance from Kapilavastu in the Lumbini Grove (Lumbi-na’i tshal) from his mother’s side, his taking seven steps at birth and saying, “I have arrived,” and the death of his mother in childbirth.
As a youth, Buddha lived a life of pleasure. He married and had a son, Rahula (sGra-gcan ‘dzin). In later versions, the name of his wife, Yashodhara (Grags ‘ dzin-ma), appeared. At age twenty-nine, however, Buddha renounced his family life and princely heritage and became a wandering mendicant spiritual seeker (dge-sbyong, Skt. shramana).
It is important to look at Buddha’s renunciation within the context of his society and times. In becoming a wandering mendicant spiritual seeker, Buddha did not abandon his wife and child, leaving them to live alone in poverty. They would certainly have been taken care of by his rich extended family. Also, Buddha’s being a member of the warrior caste meant that he would undoubtedly leave his home one day for battle. A warrior’s family would accept this as the man’s duty. Warriors in ancient India did not bring their families with them to an army camp.
Although battles can be fought against external enemies, the real battle is against our internal enemies, and this is the battle that Buddha went off to fight. Buddha’s leaving his family for this purpose indicates that it is the duty of a spiritual seeker to devote his or her entire life to the same type of pursuit. In our modern world, however, if we leave our families to become a monastic and wage this internal battle, we need to make sure that they are well taken care of. This means attending to the needs of not only our marriage partners and children, but also our elderly parents. But whether we leave our families or not, it is the duty of a Buddhist spiritual seeker to diminish suffering by overcoming addiction to pleasures, as Buddha did.
To overcome suffering, Buddha wanted to understand the nature of birth, aging, sickness, death, rebirth, sadness, and confusion. An expanded version of this appeared later in the form of the episode of Channa, the chariot driver, taking Buddha out on a journey through the city. When Buddha saw persons who were sick, old, dead, and ascetic, Channa explained to him what they were. In this way, Buddha came to identify clearly the true suffering that everyone experiences and a possible way out of it.
This episode involving receiving help on the spiritual path from a chariot driver is parallel to the Bhagavad Gita account of Arjuna (Srid-sgrub) being told by his chariot driver, Krishna (‘ Dom-pa nag-po), about the necessity of following his duty as a warrior and fighting in a battle against his relatives. In both the Buddhist and the Hindu cases, we can see a deeper significance of going beyond the walls of our comfortable life with what is familiar and never forsaking our duty to discover the truth. In each case, the chariot represents, perhaps, a vehicle of mind leading to liberation and the chariot driver’s words would then represent the driving force that propels this vehicle, namely the truth about reality.
As a celibate wandering spiritual seeker, Buddha studied with two teachers the methods for attaining the various levels of mental stability (bsam-gtan, Skt. dhyana) and formless absorption. Although he was able to attain these deep states of perfect concentration in which he no longer experienced gross suffering or even ordinary worldly happiness, he was not satisfied. These higher states provided only temporary, not permanent relief from these tainted feelings and certainly did not remove the deeper, universal sufferings he sought to overcome. He then practiced extreme asceticism with five companions, but this too did not remove these deeper problems involved with uncontrollably recurring rebirth (‘ khor-ba, Skt. samsara). Only in later accounts does the incident appear of Buddha breaking his six-year fast on the banks of the Nairanjana River (Chu-bo Nai-ranyja-na), with the maiden Sujata (Legs-par skyes-ma) offering him a bowl of milk rice.
For us, Buddha’s example indicates not to be satisfied with just becoming totally calm or getting “high” on meditation, let alone on artificial means such as drugs. Withdrawing into a deep trance or torturing or punishing ourselves is also not the solution. We must go all the way to liberation and enlightenment and not be satisfied with spiritual methods that fall short of bringing us to these goals.
After rejecting asceticism, Buddha then meditated alone in the jungle, to overcome fear. Underlying fear are an even stronger self-cherishing attitude and grasping at an impossibly existing “me” than those that underlie the compulsive search for pleasure and entertainment. Thus, in The Wheel of Sharp Weapons (Blo-sbyong mtshon-cha’i ‘khor-lo), the tenth-century C.E. Indian master Dharmarakshita (Dharma-rakshi-ta) used the image of peacocks wandering in jungles of poisonous plants to represent bodhisattvas using and transforming the poisonous emotions of desire, anger, and naivety to help them overcome their self-cherishing attitude and grasping for an impossible “me.”
After much meditation, Buddha attained complete enlightenment at the age of thirty-five. Later accounts provide the details of his attaining this under a bodhi tree (byang-chub-kyi shing) in present-day Bodh Gaya (rDo-rje gdan), after successfully fighting off the attacks of Mara (bDud). The jealous god Mara tried to prevent Buddha’s enlightenment by emanating further fearful and seductive appearances to disturb Buddha’s meditation under the bodhi tree.
In the earliest accounts, Buddha achieved enlightenment by gaining the three types of knowledge: complete knowledge of all his own past lives, of the karma and rebirths of all others, and the Four Noble Truths. Later accounts explain that, with enlightenment, he achieved omniscience.
After attaining liberation and enlightenment, Buddha hesitated teaching others the way to achieve the same. He felt that no one would be able to understand. But the Indian gods Brahma (Tshang-pa) and Indra (dBang-po) implored him to teach. According to the Brahmanic teachings that later developed into Hinduism, Brahma is the creator of the universe and Indra is the King of the Gods. In making his request, Brahma told Buddha that the world would suffer unendingly if he failed to teach, and at least some people would understand his words.
This detail may be a satirical element indicating the superiority of Buddha’s teachings, which surpassed the methods offered by the traditional Indian spiritual traditions of his time. After all, if even the highest gods admit that the world needs Buddha’s teachings because they themselves lack the methods to bring everyone’s suffering to a permanent end; we ordinary followers need these teachings even more. Further, in Buddhist imagery, Brahma represents arrogant pride. His misbelief that he is the omnipotent creator represents the epitome of the misbelief in oneself existing as an impossible “me” – namely, as a “me” who can control everything in life. Such confused belief inevitably brings frustration and suffering. Only Buddha’s teachings about how each of us exists offer the way to bring about a true stopping of this true suffering and its true cause.
Accepting Brahma and Indra’s request, Buddha went to Sarnath and, in the Deer Park (Ri-dags-kyi gnas, Skt. Mrgadava) there, taught the Four Noble Truths to his five former companions. In Buddhist imagery, deer represent gentleness and thus Buddha teaches a gentle method that avoids the extremes of hedonism and asceticism.
Soon, a number of young men of nearby Varanasi (Va-ra-na-si) joined the Buddha as wandering mendicant spiritual seekers, following strict celibacy. Their parents became lay disciples and began to support the group with alms. Once any member became sufficiently trained and qualified, Buddha sent him out to teach others. In this way, the group of Buddha’s mendicant followers quickly grew and soon they settled and formed individual “ monastic” communities at various locations.
Buddha organized these monastic communities according to practical guidelines. Monks, if we may use this term at this early time, could admit candidates to join the communities, but they had to follow certain restrictions to avoid clashes with the secular authority. Therefore, Buddha disallowed criminals, those in royal service such as in the army, slaves not released from slavery, and those with contagious diseases such as leprosy from joining the monastic communities. Further, no one was to be admitted under the age of twenty. Buddha wanted to avoid any trouble and to secure the public’s respect for the communities and the Dharma teachings. This shows us that, as Buddha’s followers, we need to be respectful of local customs and act respectably so that people will have a good impression of Buddhism and respect it in return.
Soon, Buddha returned to Magadha (Yul ma-ga-dha), the kingdom in which Bodh Gaya lay. He was invited to the capital city, Rajagrha (rGyal-po’i khab) – modern-day Rajgir – by King Bimbisara (gZugs-can snying-po), who became his patron and disciple. There, the friends Shariputra (Sha-ri’i bu)and Maudgalyayana (Mo’u dgal-gyi bu) also joined the Buddha’s growing order and became some of his closest disciples.
Within one year of his enlightenment, Buddha returned to his home city-state of Kapilavastu, where his son Rahula joined the order. Buddha’s half-brother, the handsome Nanda (dGa’-bo), had left home and joined earlier. Buddha’s father, King Shuddhodana, was very sad that the family line was cut, and so he requested Buddha that, in the future, a son must have the consent of his parents to join the monastic order. Buddha fully agreed. The point of this account is not how cruel the Buddha was to his own father, but rather it shows the importance of not creating bad will toward Buddhism, especially within our own families.
A later detail to appear about Buddha’s encounter with his family is his using his extraphysical powers to go to the Heaven of the Thirty-three Gods or, according to some sources,Tushita Heaven (dGa’-ldan) and teach his mother, who had been reborn there. This indicates the importance of appreciating and repaying motherly kindness.
The early communities of Buddha’s monks were small, containing no more than twenty men. Each was autonomous and followed set boundaries for the monks’ rounds of seeking alms. The actions and decisions of each community were decided by consensus vote among its members, to avoid any discord. No one person was set as the sole authority. Instead, Buddha instructed them to take the Dharma teachings themselves as the authority. Even the monastic discipline itself could be changed, if necessary, but any changes could only be based on the consensus of the community as a whole.
King Bimbisara suggested that Buddha adopt the custom of other mendicant spiritual groups, such as the Jains (gCer-bu-pa), of holding a quarter-monthly assembly (gso-sbyong, Skt. uposhadha). According to this custom, the members of the spiritual community would assemble at the start of each quarter phase of the moon to discuss the teachings. Buddha agreed, which shows that he was open to suggestions to follow the customs of the times. Actually, Buddha modeled many aspects of his spiritual communities and of the structure of his teachings after the Jains. Mahavira, the founder of Jainism, lived about half a century before Buddha.
Shariputra soon asked Buddha to formulate rules for a code of monastic discipline. Buddha, however, decided to wait until specific problems arose and then to institute a vow to avoid any recurrence of a similar incident. Buddha followed this policy with respect to both naturally destructive actions, which were harmful for anyone committing them, and ethically neutral actions prohibited for certain people in certain situations and for certain reasons. Thus, the rules of discipline (‘ dul-ba, Skt. vinaya) were pragmatic and formulated ad hoc, with Buddha’s main considerations being to avoid problems and not cause offense.
Based on these rules of discipline, Buddha then instituted the recitation of the vows at the quarter-monthly monastic assembly, together with monks openly admitting to any infractions. Expulsion from the community followed for the most serious infractions, otherwise just the disgrace of probation. In later times, these meetings became held only bimonthly.
The next custom that Buddha instituted was the three-month rainy season retreat (dbyar-gnas, Skt. varshaka), during which the monks would stay in one location and avoid any travel. The aim was to prevent the monks from damaging any crops when having to walk through the fields when the roads were flooded. Keeping the rainy season retreat led to the establishment of fixed monasteries. Again, this development arose to avoid causing any harm to the lay community and to gain their respect. The building of fixed monasteries was also adopted because it was practical.
Starting from the second rainy season retreat onwards, Buddha spent twenty-five rainy season retreats in the Jetavana Grove (rGyal-bu rgyal-byed-kyi tshal) outside Shravasti (gNyan-yod), the capital city of the kingdom of Koshala (Ko-sa-la). Here, the merchant Anathapindada (mGon-med zas-sbyin) built a monastery for Buddha and his monks, and King Prasenajit (rGyal-po gSal-rgyal) further sponsored the community. This monastery at Jetavana was the scene of many great events in Buddha’s life. The most famous was his defeat of leaders of the six major non-Buddhist schools of his time in a contest of miraculous powers.
Nowadays, none of us may be able to perform miraculous feats. However, Buddha’s use of miraculous powers, rather than logic, to defeat his opponents indicates that when others’ minds are closed to reason, the best way to convince them of the validity of our understanding is to demonstrate our level of realization through our actions and behavior. There is a saying in English, “Actions speak louder than words.”
Later in his teaching career, Buddha instituted a community of nuns in Vaishali (Yangs-pa-can), at the request of his aunt Mahaprajapati (sKye-dgu’i bdag-mo chen-mo). At first he was reluctant to start such an order, but then he decided that it would be possible if he prescribed more vows for the nuns than for the monks. In doing so, Buddha was not indicating that women were more undisciplined than men and required more taming through upholding more vows. Rather, he feared that establishing a female order would bring ill repute and a premature end to his teachings. Buddha wanted, above all, to avoid gaining the disrespect of the community at large and so the nun community needed to be above any suspicion of immoral behavior.
Overall, however, Buddha was reluctant to formulate rules and was willing to have lesser ones abolished if they were found to be unnecessary. His policy shows the dynamic of the two truths – the deepest truth and yet respect for conventional truth in accord with local customs. Although in deepest truth, there is no problem with having a nuns’ order; yet to avoid ordinary people looking down on the Buddhist teachings, there needed to be more rules of discipline for the nuns. In deepest truth, it does not matter what society says; yet the conventional truth is that it is important for the Buddhist community to merit the respect and confidence of the public. Thus, in modern times and societies in which it would bring disrespect to Buddhism if there were any prejudice shown to nuns or to women in general or to any minority group by the Buddhist customs, the spirit of Buddha is to amend them in accord with the norms of the times.
After all, tolerance and compassion have been major keynotes of Buddha’s teachings. For example, Buddha encouraged new disciples who had previously supported another religious community to continue to support that community. Within the Buddhist order, as well, he instructed the members to take care of each other. If a monk became sick, for instance, the other monks must take care of him, because they were all members of the Buddhist family. This is an important precept for all lay Buddhists as well.
Buddha taught others both by his living example and through verbal instructions. For the latter, he followed two methods, depending on whether he was teaching a group or an individual. Before groups, Buddha would explain his teachings in the form of a discourse, often repeating each point with different words, so that the audience could better remember it. However, when giving personal instruction, often after a meal at a household that had invited him and his monks for lunch, Buddha used a different approach. He would never oppose or challenge the listener’s view, but would adopt the person’s position and ask questions to help the listener clarify his or her thoughts. In this way, Buddha led the person to improve his or her position and gradually to gain a deeper understanding of reality. An example is Buddha leading a proud member of the brahmin priest caste to understand that superiority does not derive from the caste in which one is born, but from a person’s development of good qualities.
Another example is Buddha’s instruction to a bereft mother who brought her dead baby to him and begged Buddha to bring the child back to life. Buddha told her to bring him a mustard seed from a house in which death had never visited and then he would see what he could do. The woman went from house to house, but every household had experienced someone in it having died. Slowly, she realized that everyone must some day die and, in this way, she was able to cremate her child with more peace of mind.
Buddha’s teaching method shows us that to help people in individual encounters, it is best not to be confrontational. Most effective is to help them think for themselves. However, in groups of people wishing to learn the teachings, we need to explain straightforwardly and clearly.
Seven years before Buddha passed away, his jealous cousin Devadatta (Lhas-byin) plotted to take Buddha’s place as head of the order. Similarly, Prince Ajatashatru (Ma-skyes dgra) plotted to replace his father, King Bimbisara, as ruler of Magadha. Therefore, the two conspired together. Ajatashatru made an assassination attempt on Bimbisara’s life and, consequently, the king abdicated his throne in favor of his son. Seeing Ajatashatru’s success, Devadatta asked him to assassinate Buddha, but all attempts to murder the Buddha failed.
Devadatta then tried to lure the monks away from Buddha by claiming to be even “ holier” than his cousin, and so he proposed a stricter set of rules of discipline. According to The Path of Purification (Pali: Visuddhimagga) by the fourth century C.E. Theravada master Buddhaghosa, Devadatta’s proposals for monks included:
- wearing robes patched together from rags,
- wearing only three robes,
- going for alms and never accepting invitations to meals,
- not skipping any house when going for alms,
- eating at one sitting whatever alms one has collected,
- eating only from one’s alms-bowl,
- refusing all other food,
- living only in the forest,
- living under trees,
- living in the open air, not in houses,
- staying mostly in charnel grounds,
- being satisfied with whatever place to stay that one finds, while continually wandering from place to place,
- sleeping in the sitting position, never sleeping lying down.
Buddha said that if his monks wished to follow these additional rules of discipline, that was all right; but no one was obligated to do so. A number of his monks, however, chose to follow Devadatta and so left Buddha’s community and formed their own order.
In the Theravada school, the additional rules of discipline that Devadatta set are called the thirteen branches of observed practice (Pali: dhutanga). The forest monk tradition, as still found, for instance, in modern-day Thailand, seems to derive from this practice. Buddha’s disciple Mahakashyapa (‘ Od-bsrung chen-po) was the most famous practitioner following this stricter discipline. Many of these forms of discipline are also observed by the wandering holy men (Skt. sadhu) in the Hindu tradition. Their practice seems to be a continuation of the tradition of wandering mendicant spiritual seekers of Buddha’s time.
The Mahayana schools have a similar list of twelve characteristics of observed practice (sbyangs-pa’i yon-tan, Skt. dhutaguna). This list omits “not skipping any house when going for alms,” adds “wearing robes discarded in the dustbin,” and counts “going for alms” and “eating only from one’s alms bowl” as one. Much of this discipline was later followed by the Indian tradition of greatly accomplished tantric practitioners (grub-thob chen-po, Skt. mahasiddha), found in both Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism.
Splitting from an established Buddhist tradition, then, and forming another order – for instance, in modern-day terms, forming a separate Dharma center – was not the problem. Doing so, in and of itself, is not creating a “schism in the monastic community,” one of the five heinous crimes (mtshams-med lnga). Devadatta, however, created such a schism and committed such a crime because the group that broke off and followed him harbored extreme ill will toward Buddha’s monastic community and criticized them severely. According to some accounts, the bad will of this schism lasted for several centuries.
[For a list of the five heinous crimes, see: The Root Bodhisattva Vows.]
The account of this schism shows that Buddha was extremely tolerant and not fundamentalist. If his followers wished to adopt a stricter code of discipline than what he had set for them, this was all right; and if they had no such wish, that was also all right. No one was obligated to practice what Buddha taught. Even if a monk or a nun wished to leave the monastic order, that too was all right. What is extremely destructive, however, is splitting the Buddhist community, especially the monastic community, into two or more groups in which either one or the both groups harbor extreme ill will toward the other and try to discredit or damage it. Even joining one of these warring factions afterwards and participating in its hate campaign toward the other is extremely detrimental. However, if one of the groups is engaged in destructive or harmful actions or follows harmful discipline, then compassion calls for warning people against the dangers of joining that group. But, one’s motive for doing so must never be mixed with anger, hatred, or the wish for revenge.
Although, with the attainment of liberation, Buddha was beyond having to experience ordinary death uncontrollably; nevertheless, at the age of eighty-one, Buddha decided it would be beneficial to teach his followers impermanence and leave his body. Before doing so, he gave his attendant Ananda (Kun-dga’-bo) a chance to ask him to live and teach longer, but Ananda did not get the hint that Buddha gave. This shows that a Buddha teaches only when requested, and if no one asks or is interested, then he leaves to go elsewhere, where he can be of more benefit. The presence of a teacher and the teachings depends on students.
In Kushinagara (Ku-sha’i grong-khyer, gNas rtsva-mchog), then, at the home of Chunda, Buddha became deathly ill after eating a meal that this patron offered him and a group of his monks. On his deathbed, Buddha told his monks that if they had any doubts or unanswered questions, they should rely on his Dharma teachings and their ethical discipline. These would now be their teacher. Thus, Buddha was indicating that each person must figure things out for himself or herself from the teachings. There was no absolute authority to provide all the answers. Then, Buddha passed away.
Chunda was totally distraught, thinking that he had poisoned the Buddha. But Ananda comforted the householder by telling him that he had in fact built up great positive force or “merit” from having offered Buddha his final meal before his passing away.
Buddha was cremated and his ashes placed in stupas – reliquary monuments – especially in the locations that became the four major Buddhist pilgrimage places:
- Lumbini, where Buddha was born,
- Bodh Gaya, where Buddha attained enlightenment,
- Sarnath, where he gave his first teaching of the Dharma,
- Kushinagara, where he passed away.
Various Buddhist traditions teach different accounts of Buddha’s life. Their differences indicate how each tradition conceives of a Buddha and what we can learn from his example.
- The Hinayana versions speak only of the historical Buddha. By showing how Buddha worked intensely on himself to reach enlightenment, we learn to put in effort ourselves.
- According to the general Mahayana versions, Buddha had already attained enlightenment many eons ago. By manifesting a life with twelve enlightening deeds, he teaches us that enlightenment entails working forever for the sake of all.
- In the anuttarayoga tantra accounts, Buddha manifested simultaneously as Shakyamuni teaching The Sutras on Far-reaching Discriminating Awareness (The Prajnaparamita Sutras) and as Vajradhara teaching the tantras. This indicates that tantra practice is fully based on the Madhyamaka teachings of voidness.
Thus, we can learn many helpful things from each of the versions of Buddha’s life and gain inspiration on many different levels.
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