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Home > Approaching Buddhism > Spiritual Teachers > Who Was Shakyamuni Buddha? > Who Was Shakyamuni Buddha?

Who Was Shakyamuni Buddha?

Alexander Berzin
Knappenberg, Austria, March 2010

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:34 hours)

I am very delighted to be here in Klappenberg, Austria. Today we are going to begin our series of talks with a discussion of the life of the Buddha. And this is not a very simple topic. And the reason why it is not a simple topic is because there are many different versions of the Buddha’s story, and one could ask are they all talking about the same person. And, as I said, that is not a simple question to answer.

We have one version of the Buddha’s life which we find in the Pali Canon – these are the scriptures of the Theravada tradition. And this is not really a whole account which is all put together; but you draw bits and pieces from different texts, and from that you can construct the life of the Buddha. But then, later on, as the Buddhist literature developed, many things were added to this bare skeleton of Buddha’s life.

But then, we have a Mahayana version of the Buddha’s life, which expands very much the concept of who was Buddha. In this Theravada version, they are speaking about a historical figure who lived from – well, again, there are many different versions of the dates, but one commonly accepted version is from 566 to 485 before the common era. And he became enlightened during his lifetime and he passed away, and that was the end of the continuum of Buddha Shakyamuni. But according to the Mahayana version, that was just part of the story, what was described in the Pali canon. But according to this version, Buddha became enlightened many, many lifetimes before that. And he descended to the earth in this form of Shakyamuni, and he went through the acts of becoming enlightened in order to show others how it can be done. And after he passed away, it wasn’t that his continuum ended; but his mental continuum goes on forever, and he manifests in many other realms and continues to teach and benefit all beings.

Then we have another version, the Buddha which we find in the tantras. And in this version, the Buddha appears in all sorts of different forms, simultaneously. And many of these forms are the various so-called “meditation deities,” which have various colors, and many arms, and many faces, and many legs, all of which represent various aspects of the Buddha’s realizations. And the Buddha is appearing in these forms and teaching the tantras at the same time as he is appearing in a human form in, for instance, Vulture’s Peak in India, also teaching sutra teachings.

So, when we look at these three versions – and within each of these versions there are subversions – then we become a little bit perplexed: who actually was the Buddha? But I think we need to understand the basic Buddhist principle here in order to make sense of all these various versions – that each version of Buddha’s life describes the Buddha that teaches, or taught, the scriptures according to that particular aspect of Buddhism. In other words, a Buddha doesn’t exist independently of a context. And so we have the whole context of the Theravada teachings (this was written in Pali). And a Buddha that is described in these sources would be a Buddha that would teach what is in those sources. And so, of course, from the point of view of these Theravada sources, it makes no sense that that same person also taught general Mahayana and also taught tantra. It doesn’t fit in to the context of the type of Buddha described in the Pali Canon.

And if we look within the Mahayana texts, then that is talking about a Buddha that taught Mahayana. It is not talking about the historical Buddha. By historical Buddha, here, I mean one that became enlightened in his lifetime and after he died, finished – you know, no more continuum. Mahayana is not taught by that kind of Buddha. Same thing with tantra. No need to repeat the whole analogy; it is analogous.

So we need to understand things within a context. Nothing exists out of a context. This is a very basic Buddhist principle. And the way that something is described or formulated, it exists, exists relative to that context. So, in discussing the life of the Buddha, or discussing any of the topics that we will be covering during these next days, what I would like to do is not just present information. One could present all this material just as information, and I could just, for instance, just give fact, after fact, after fact. And that would be a presentation within a certain context, isn’t it – like what we are talking about the presentation of the life of a Buddha: in a context. But I could also present the same material in a different context, which would be a context of: What use is learning about this material? What is the benefit? Because you can pick up the information and the facts from books or from my website; there is no need for me to just read it out or repeat it. And in terms of what use is this material, what benefit, then of course there are various subcategories of that. Buddhism loves to have – at least the Indo-Tibetan tradition loves to have – subcategories of everything, everything presented in logical order. So we could say, “What use or what benefit is this material in terms of my daily life?” Or, “What benefit would it have on the Buddhist spiritual path?” So let us limit – what I suggest that we do is limit ourselves to the first of these subcategories: what benefit or use does this have to us in our daily lives. Why have we come here? What do we want to gain from this? So if that is agreeable to you – and in a good Tibetan didactic way, I won’t wait for your answer – I will proceed in that manner.

And let’s look first at the life of Buddha Shakyamuni. The reason why I introduced this point of different context of the life of a Buddha is to hopefully avoid the problematic area that comes up, which is: “Did Buddha really teach the Mahayana sutras? Did he really teach the tantra?” Because there have been many debates concerning that within the Buddhist world. Because you see nothing was written down at the time of the Buddha: everything was passed on orally. And a great Indian master, Shantideva, answered this question in debate in his great text Engaging in Bodhisattva Behavior. He said, “Any reason that you Hinayanists, Theravadans, any of the schools of the Hinayana – any of the reasons that you give for disqualifying our Mahayana sutras, I could use the exact same reasons to disqualify yours.” In other words, we say ours were carried on by oral traditions, and you say yours were carried on by oral traditions. So how do you know that it actually was authentic and that somebody didn’t just make it up? So if yours are authentic, ours are authentic. The Theravada says to the Mahayana, “Yours weren’t really taught by the Buddha, because they came about later.” And then the Mahayanas say back to the Theravadans, “Well, the same thing is true of yours. Ours were carried on by oral tradition. Yours didn’t come around in writing until much later, either; they were also carried on by oral tradition. So if yours are authentic, then ours are authentic. If ours are inauthentic, yours are inauthentic.” So he argues like that quite nicely.

So, another argument – the one that I was presenting – was that well, within the context of the Theravada, they are not saying that the Buddha taught Mahayana; and in the Mahayana, they are not saying that Buddha only taught Theravada. So, it’s a different concept of Buddha that we have in each of these. And it is the Mahayana type of Buddha that taught the Mahayana scriptures, and it is a Theravada type of Buddha that taught the Theravada scriptures. End of discussion. Why waste time with it?

So, what lessons then can we learn from the general life of the Buddha that we find in each of these traditions: in the Theravada as representative of Hinayana, and the Mahayana sutra tradition, and the Mahayana tantra tradition.

First of all, when did the Buddha live? He lived at a certain time in a certain society, so again within a context. And this society at that time already had certain basic beliefs, and so Buddha addressed those beliefs, that system, and spoke in terms of that belief system. And so there are basic themes that we find in all Indian ways of thinking that were present at that time, and as they developed over history they continued as basic themes; and Buddha had his own explanation of these things. So basic ideas of rebirth according to karma: that your rebirth is affected by what you do – all the Indian systems talk about that, except maybe one. And all of them are speaking about how to gain liberation from this cycle of rebirth. And all of them pretty much speak in terms of knowledge, or understanding of reality, being the way that you get out of rebirth. And Buddha was dissatisfied with the answers that the various philosophies and religions gave at his time, and he thought about it, and thought about it, thought about it, meditated, and did various practices, and he figured out what he said was the truth.

So, this is a context that I think that we need to understand. Not just the life of the Buddha, but also the Buddha’s teachings, within the context of Indian thought. And almost all of the themes that we find in Buddhism, you have discussions of the same themes in the various Hindu schools, Jainism (another Indian religion), and so on. So Buddha is dealing in dialogue with all these various other thought systems.

Now, at the time when Buddha lived, it was a very difficult time in Indian history, because things were changing very much. You had various types of kingdoms, and what was happening was that you had a growing merchant class – the society was no longer primarily agrarian – and the merchants were getting richer and richer and were becoming rivals of the kings in their wealth. And in reaction to this, the kings became more and more autocratic. And in a few areas, you had small republics that were trying to do things a little bit more differently based on the general thought of the people. And it was in [or near] one of these republics that the Buddha was born. And that influenced very much the Buddha’s thought, because he set up his monastic organization in a very nonhierarchical way in which decisions had to be done, or taken jointly, by all the members. So again, this is in reaction to this autocratic situation that was going on at his time.

And also at that time, there was the old Vedic religion with all its rituals and ritual priests, and so on; and whether we are talking about republics or these autocracies, they all followed these rituals. But there was a reaction against that: the shramanera movement. “Shramanera” means those who are wandering about, the wandering ascetics – not really ascetics, but the wandering “drop-outs” from the society. And so these were the ones that withdrew a bit from society, wandered in the forest, meditated, worked more on their own spiritual development. And Buddha was not alone as a representative of this type of movement; there were others besides him, other schools. So what do we learn from that? That often if one wants to follow a spiritual path, one needs to be a bit independent – in the sense of withdrawal from society – at least for a certain period of time, and seek the truth. And even if we find what we consider to be the truth, not to impose it in a hierarchical, autocratic manner on others, but have it be more – to use the modern word, perhaps a different term here – a more “democratic” type of way.

So this is what we see from this aspect of Buddha’s life, what we can learn. And there is so much we can learn. I think a better way of formulating that is: Why write a biography at all? And the answer to that, from a Buddhist point of view, is that you write a biography in order to teach, to illustrate various things. Biographies in a Buddhist context – Indian or Tibetan context – they are not so concerned about the facts; they are concerned about teaching something from the life story of a great figure. And sometimes they add things to make it a better story in order to teach the point more clearly. The life of a great religious figure, within this context of Indian/Tibetan thought, is to inspire people; and so when we look at it within this context, then it is perfectly understandable that a lot of things are thrown into the life of a Buddha which, from a Western point of view, seem quite fantastic. You know, the mother was visited in a dream by a white elephant with six tusks, and Buddha was born from the side of the mother and took seven steps and “Here I am!” and these sort of things. From an Indian/Tibetan context, they don’t care whether this was historically accurate or not – that’s not the point. The point is what does it represent? What does it teach me? So, from each context within which we look at the life of a Buddha – whether we’re trying to piece it together historically: what did he actually do, what actually happened among his followers and so on; or we look at it from the point of view of how an Indian or Tibetan would look at it – each one teaches us something. And you can’t say one is more valid than the other. So another very important principle of how Buddhist thinking works is to be able to understand things on many different levels from many different points of view, and to consider that many of these can be perfectly valid; and it isn’t that there is only one truth: how it really was.

That is illustrated by an example that you find a great deal in the Buddhist literature: that you could have a liquid, and to humans it looks like water; to the ghosts it looks like pus; to the hell creatures it looks like acid; to the gods it looks like nectar. Which one is correct? They are all correct: that is the Buddhist way of thinking. They are all correct, because the validity of something is only within a certain context, relative to the context.

It helps us very much, actually. I’m thinking of an example in a branch of family therapy – contextual therapy – in which you look, for instance, at a family situation and you ask each member of the family to describe what is going on. The father has one version, the mother has another version, each of the children have a different version; and they are all correct, because this is the way that each of them are experiencing it, and you have to give equal respect to each of these points of views. This is a very Buddhist way of thinking. And the same thing in terms of the life of the Buddha: many different ways you can look at it, and each one will teach us something.

So, some of the main facts of Buddha’s life: He was born into a privileged family, whether he was a prince or not, that could be debated – different versions, different things – but, in any case, he was born into a privileged, wealthy family and enjoyed all the pleasures and benefits that go with that. And he was well-educated, and he married, had a son. And he was offered a very good career possibility, which was to take over after his father and rule this republic and be the head person of it. And Buddha rejected that – as I indicated from the shramanera movement, he was a drop-out. But again, we have to be careful not to look at it – it is unfair to look at this from a Western viewpoint that he was being irresponsible and he left his wife and children, and he was a terrible husband and a terrible father. In Indian society, extended family, his wife and his son were very well cared for within the context of grandparents, grandfather, and all the various members of the family in his home. So it wasn’t as if he was leaving them and they were going to starve to death. And also, Buddha was born into the warrior caste, which meant that men usually left home and fought in battles: so Buddha fought in the internal battle against ignorance and disturbing emotions. So it was not so unusual. It wasn’t some sort of “Oh, how terrible, Buddha went off!”

But what we learn from this example given in Buddha’s life is that seeking the truth, seeking an end to suffering – whether we talk about the suffering of rebirth or we just talk about mental and emotional suffering – is far more important than having a good position, making a lot of money, and having power. And this is what is indicated by Buddha’s leaving all of that and going off to seek some sort of solution to this universal dilemma of suffering and problems that everybody faces. So it is more important to try to seek the truth, to try to seek how do we get over basic problems that we all have. Whether we think of it in terms of personality disorders: anger, greed, selfishness, etc.; or social problems – whatever level we want to do that on – but somehow trying to find solutions to personal and societal problems is more important than money and power: individual money and power, wealth. Buddha’s life gives that lesson.

And, as His Holiness the Dalai Lama says, it is not for everybody to go off and go into a hundred percent spiritual life, but fifty-fifty: just consider it important, the quality of your life, the quality of the life of those around you. So Buddha left the palace and he went out in a chariot, and saw all the various types of suffering that were around him in the realm that he had been blind to before: he had not seen in terms of sickness, old age, and death, and those that leave and wander – these shramaneras. Now of course, this is taking the example from the Bhagavad Gita and this probably came in later in terms of going out in the chariot and the charioteer showing him things; but, hey, it doesn’t matter: it makes a good story.

So, very interesting, now we get a sort of Jungian type of analysis of stories: of what is symbolized and represented in these various stories. So he is blinded by wealth, blinded by pleasure, so that he doesn’t see the sufferings of the world, and it’s only when he goes out on the chariot – this is sort of a spiritual journey, being shown these things – that he comes to realize all the problems that everybody faces. It is a good story.

And then he goes off and he does very intensive meditation, and very extreme ascetic practices, and sees or realizes that this is not the way. This is also a very important aspect of Buddha’s story and Buddhist teachings, which is: don’t go to fanatic extremes. And so then Buddha gave up these ascetic practices – he practically starved himself to death – and he sat under the tree and he was given yoghurt by a shepherd lady to break his fast: yoghurt, milk, these sorts of things – the cow represents love, compassion. It is added later in the story, but it again gives a very nice touch to it: that it is compassion that wakens us up from self-mortification to actually find the proper way – to be more concerned with the universal problems of suffering.

Being associated with the cow, milk and yoghurt in Indian thought represents love, motherly love, compassion, and so on, and so it is this which turns us away from these self-mortifications, ascetic practices, to being more concerned with universal problems of suffering.

And then, very interestingly, Buddha attains enlightenment. He is sitting under the bodhi tree – it is a general theme in Indian thought, you always have these holy trees and so on, and lots of associations with that – but leaving that aside (the tree), Mara comes. Mara is the representation of obstacles, and hindrances, and temptations, and things like that. Actually, the name “Mara” comes from the Sanskrit word for death. And what I find so helpful from that example is that even Buddha, right before he became enlightened, faced obstacles and hindrances in trying to accomplish something positive. So what do we expect from our own experience?

He was very, very spiritually advanced right before he became enlightened: he didn’t start from being a dummy to being an enlightened being. So even at these final stages, obstacles are there, hindrances are there, and they appear even stronger at that point. So don’t get discouraged that now, at our level in our ordinary lives – whether we are following a spiritual path or not – there are hindrances, obstacles, different things that hinder us from accomplishing our purposes. Of course it is going to happen. And what is really quite strange is that the more positive what it is that we’re trying to accomplish, the greater the hindrances trying to prevent us from doing that. And that – if you’ve lived long enough and had enough experience in life – you find is quite true. So don’t get discouraged is what it’s teaching us. You have to fight through it with strength, like a warrior. That is the point to Buddha coming from a warrior caste, because it really is an internal battle against our delusions, against our fears and so on.

Now, after Buddha became enlightened, he then hesitated teaching. He was wondering, “Who in the world can understand what I understood?” But he was requested to teach and he taught; he was going to try, anyway. So that teaches us, even if it is really very difficult, in this sense, to teach others – to explain to others – nevertheless, out of compassion, you do so. You try, try to help, regardless of how difficult it might be.

And many people wanted to follow the Buddha, which eventually started a monastic situation. And in the beginning there were no regulations there. But various problems came up with society, and in consideration – in other words, in the context of the fact that they were living in a society – then various rules were set up, the so-called “vinaya,” rules of discipline, to help avoid problems in the community and to help avoid problems with society. So that indicates, it is not as though there are laws – that these are the things you have to follow just because I said so – but rather the various regulations that you have were all formulated, and you find in the literature: this problem came up, and then Buddha said, okay to avoid, let’s say, the people thinking that the monks were greedy in terms of begging for food (which was the custom of shramaneras at that time, it wasn’t something new) that you look down; you only take what’s accepted; you don’t ask for more; you don’t hoard the food away; you eat what you’ve gotten – these sort of things, to ensure that they fit into society okay, and the society would not disapprove of them, and so on. It is important. It is very valid for us today as well.

The monks and nuns can’t ask for food: they just walk around and the people come and they give them whatever they give. And in the beginning, Buddha hesitated to include women in the monastic order as nuns because he was quite worried in terms of society. The society would think that they were the men and women off together in the forest – they must be doing all sorts of naughty things! And so he hesitated at first. But then when he accepted women into the order he set very, very specific rules to make sure that the people weren’t violating it within the order, and that society wouldn’t get the wrong idea in terms of why there were both men and women in the monastic order. So, you couldn’t have a monk and a nun together just by themselves. There always had to be more than one nun together – sort of chaperones. These type of things are very practical and all of this teaches us a lesson. And they can’t sit on the same seat or the same bed together – these sort of things. And so, what it teaches us is, on the one hand, Buddha rejected all the glories of society to find the truth, but on the other hand, he doesn’t want to offend society, doesn’t want them to get the wrong idea. And so, although one might not agree with all the principles of society in terms of their values; nevertheless, you don’t want to alienate society. This indicates very well – politicians perhaps need to learn about this, perhaps they do, perhaps they do – how to be diplomatic, how not to offend, how not to cause unfounded suspicion, and so on, even though you might disagree with what society’s values are.

And one thing I find so wonderful in Buddha’s life is that he had a cousin who really disliked him, Devadatta, and he always caused trouble with the Buddha. And actually, if you look further in the Pali canon, a lot of people caused trouble with the Buddha; a lot of people didn’t like him. So it teaches a very valuable lesson, which I always tell my students, which is that if not everybody liked even the Buddha, what do you expect: that everybody’s going to like you? So of course there are going to be people that don’t like us. There’s going to be people that – we can’t please absolutely everybody, Buddha wasn’t able to please everybody, and so be realistic and don’t get depressed.

And then Buddha passed away. And a very interesting thing in the life stories: it says that Ananda (that’s one of his main disciples) had the opportunity to ask Buddha not to pass away, but somehow he didn’t ask and so Buddha passed away. And this teaches us that Buddha only teaches when he is asked, and Buddha only stays when he is asked to stay, and if nobody wants him around, he leaves. That is a very good lesson for us. If others don’t want our help, and if others don’t need us, don’t push yourself on them. There are plenty of others elsewhere who might be much more receptive to us and might wish for our help – a very good lesson.

So we can see, we can look at the Buddha’s life and try to find all the historical facts – and in this year he did this, and on this date he did that, and so on – and that would have its validity within the context of the Western view of history. Very nice, but even that would be quite difficult to get any sort of certainty that this happened in this particular year and so on. But anyway, that has its importance. Or we can look in terms of what lessons can we learn – in terms of when you tell a story, or legend, the various symbols or things that are used in it, like in the Jungian analysis – what does it indicate to us? What does it represent? Very helpful.

And we can look at it in a larger Mahayana context, with the presentation that Buddha became enlightened ages ago, many lifetimes before, and is going to go on for endless eons in the future, to teach us the theme of universality: that you want to be able to help others forever – this is the main Mahayana theme – it doesn’t just end when we die. And so what does that teach us even if we don’t accept rebirth, which perhaps most of us don’t? Nevertheless, it teaches us: whatever we are doing now is the result of all the generations that came before us, and if we are trying to do something positive in the world, don’t just think in terms of my generation, but think in terms of future generations, endlessly into the future – think big. That’s what it teaches us.

And then we have the tantra presentation. The tantra presentation is quite fantastic, actually, if you look at it. Buddha appears and he is teaching in one place the teachings on the deepest philosophical themes, and in another place he is appearing as this figure with four faces and from each face he is teaching something different simultaneously – quite extraordinary. But what does it indicate? It indicates that all the various aspects of the Buddha’s teachings – and there are many, many different kinds of Buddhist teachings that we find if we look at the history – and all of them fit together, all coming from the same source. Now whether these are historical sources, I’ve been trying to indicate, is irrelevant. They come from the same basic ideas: and you can give it a historical presentation, or you can give it another type of presentation.

So we find basic principles that are present in all the various types of Buddha teachings: whether we think of the Theravada presentation, the Mahayana sutra presentation, the Mahayana tantra presentation. In all the various things there are these basic principles, and actually they are represented by the various arms of these figures, and the number of faces, and so on. It’s all there. In these Buddha-figures they have many arms, and they have many faces, and they have many legs. So the basic Buddha teachings was in terms of the four noble truths – four faces! Everything represents something.

So we have our presentation, then, of the life of the Buddha. This is, I think, all that we have time to go into. But this is the approach that I would like to take through our topics these days that we are together: is what can we learn from these topics – not the actual facts, the facts you can read, and the many presentations of it – but what is the purpose of it, what’s the application of it? And that way we gain, I think, a deeper appreciation for this material. Not just to memorize a list and give it back in a test. Okay? Thank you.