EXTRACT FROM The Life of Shakyamuni Buddha
Alexander Berzin 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.
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.
Birth, Early Life, and Renunciation
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. More ….