All forms of Buddhism celebrate various events in the life of the Buddha Gautama, including his birth, enlightenment, and passage into nirvana. In some countries, where the older and more conservative Theravada tradition predominates, the three events are observed on the same day, which is called Wesak. In regions adhering to the other major form of Buddhism, the Mahayana tradition, the festivals are held on different days and incorporate a variety of rituals and practices. The birth of the Buddha is celebrated in April or May, depending upon the lunar date, in these countries. In Japan, which does not use a lunar calendar, the Buddha’s birth is celebrated on April 8. The celebration there has merged with a native Shintō ceremony into the flower festival known as Hanamatsuri.
The clan name of the historical figure referred to as the Buddha (whose life is known largely through legend) was Gautama (in Sanskrit) or Gotama (in Pali), and his given name was Siddhartha (Sanskrit: “he who achieves his aim”) or Siddhatta (in Pali). He is frequently called Shakyamuni, “the sage of the Shakya clan.” In Buddhist texts, he is most commonly addressed as Bhagavat (often translated as “Lord”), and he refers to himself as the Tathagata, which can mean both “one who has thus come” and “one who has thus gone.” Information about his life derives largely from Buddhist texts, the earliest of which were not committed to writing until shortly before the beginning of the Common Era, several centuries after his death. The events of his life set forth in these texts cannot be regarded with confidence as historical, although his historical existence is accepted by scholars. He is said to have lived for 80 years, but there is considerable uncertainty concerning the date of his death. Traditional sources on the date of his death or, in the language of the tradition, “passage into nirvana,” range from 2420 bce to 290 bce. Scholarship in the 20th century limited this range considerably, with opinion generally divided between those who place his death about 480 bce and those who place it as much as a century later.
The Buddha was born in Lumbini (Rummin-dei), near Kapilavastu (Kapilbastu) on the northern edge of the Ganges River basin, an area on the periphery of the civilization of North India, in what is today southern Nepal. Scholars speculate that during the late Vedic period the peoples of the region were organized into tribal republics, ruled by a council of elders or an elected leader; the grand palaces described in the traditional accounts of the life of the Buddha are not evident among the archaeological remains. It is unclear to what extent these groups at the periphery of the social order of the Ganges basin were incorporated into the caste system, but the Buddha’s family is said to have belonged to the warrior (Kshatriya) caste. The central Ganges basin was organized into some 16 city-states, ruled by kings, often at war with each other.
The rise of these cities of central India, with their courts and their commerce, brought social, political, and economic changes that are often identified as key factors in the rise of Buddhism and other religious movements of the 6th and 5th centuries bce. Buddhist texts identify a variety of itinerant teachers who attracted groups of disciples. Some of these taught forms of meditation, Yoga, and asceticism and set forth philosophical views, focusing often on the nature of the person and the question of whether human actions (karma) have future effects. Although the Buddha would become one of these teachers, Buddhists view him as quite different from the others. His place within the tradition, therefore, cannot be understood by focusing exclusively on the events of his life and times (even to the extent that they are available). Instead, he must be viewed within the context of Buddhist theories of time and history.
According to Buddhist doctrine, the universe is the product of karma, the law of the cause and effect of actions, according to which virtuous actions create pleasure in the future and nonvirtuous actions create pain. The beings of the universe are reborn without beginning in six realms: as gods, demigods, humans, animals, ghosts, and hell beings. The actions of these beings create not only their individual experiences but the domains in which they dwell. The cycle of rebirth, called samsara (literally “wandering”), is regarded as a domain of suffering, and the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice is to escape from that suffering. The means of escape remains unknown until, over the course of millions of lifetimes, a person perfects himself, ultimately gaining the power to discover the path out of samsara and then compassionately revealing that path to the world.
A person who has set out on the long journey to discover the path to freedom from suffering, and then to teach it to others, is called a bodhisattva. A person who has discovered that path, followed it to its end, and taught it to the world, is called a buddha. Buddhas are not reborn after they die but enter a state beyond suffering called nirvana (literally “passing away”). Because buddhas appear so rarely over the course of time and because only they reveal the path to liberation (moksha) from suffering (dukkha), the appearance of a buddha in the world is considered a momentous event in the history of the universe.
The story of a particular buddha begins before his birth and extends beyond his death. It encompasses the millions of lives spent on the bodhisattva path before the achievement of buddhahood and the persistence of the buddha, in the form of both his teachings and his relics, after he has passed into nirvana. The historical Buddha is regarded as neither the first nor the last buddha to appear in the world. According to some traditions he is the 7th buddha; according to another he is the 25th; according to yet another he is the 4th. The next buddha, named Maitreya, will appear after Shakyamuni’s teachings and relics have disappeared from the world. The traditional accounts of the events in the life of the Buddha must be considered from this perspective.
Sources of the life of the Buddha
Accounts of the life of the Buddha appear in many forms. Perhaps the earliest are those found in the collections of sutras, discourses traditionally attributed to the Buddha. In the sutras, the Buddha recounts individual events in his life that occurred from the time that he renounced his life as a prince until he achieved enlightenment six years later. Several accounts of his enlightenment also appear in the sutras. One text, the Mahaparinirvana-sutra (“Discourse on the Final Nirvana”), describes the Buddha’s last days, his passage into nirvana, his funeral, and the distribution of his relics. Biographical accounts in the early sutras provide little detail about the Buddha’s birth and childhood, although some sutras contain a detailed account of the life of a prehistoric buddha, Vipashyin.
Another category of early Buddhist literature, the vinaya (concerned ostensibly with the rules of monastic discipline), contains accounts of numerous incidents from the Buddha’s life but rarely in the form of a continuous narrative; biographical sections that do occur often conclude with the conversion of one of his early disciples, Shariputra. While the sutras focus on the person of the Buddha (his previous lives, his practice of austerities, his enlightenment, and his passage into nirvana), the vinaya literature tends to emphasize his career as a teacher and the conversion of his early disciples. The sutras and vinaya texts, thus, reflect concerns with both the Buddha’s life and his teachings, concerns that often are interdependent; early biographical accounts appear in doctrinal discourses, and points of doctrine and places of pilgrimage are legitimated through their connection to the life of the Buddha.
Near the beginning of the Common Era, independent accounts of the life of the Buddha were composed. They do not recount his life from birth to death, often ending with his triumphant return to his native city of Kapilavastu (Pali: Kapilavatthu), which is said to have taken place either one year or six years after his enlightenment. The partial biographies add stories that were to become well-known, such as the child prince’s meditation under a rose-apple tree and his four momentous chariot rides outside the city.
These accounts typically make frequent reference to events from the previous lives of the Buddha. Indeed, collections of stories of the Buddha’s past lives, called Jatakas, form one of the early categories of Buddhist literature. Here, an event reminds the Buddha of an event in a past life. He relates that story in order to illustrate a moral maxim, and, returning to the present, he identifies various members of his audience as the present incarnations of characters in his past-life tale, with himself as the main character.
The Jataka stories (one Pali collection contains 547 of them) have remained among the most popular forms of Buddhist literature. They are the source of some 32 stone carvings at the 2nd-century bcestupa at Bharhut in northeastern Madhya Pradesh state; 15 stupa carvings depict the last life of the Buddha. Indeed, stone carvings in India provide an important source for identifying which events in the lives of the Buddha were considered most important by the community. The Jataka stories are also well-known beyond India; in Southeast Asia, the story of Prince Vessantara (the Buddha’s penultimate reincarnation)—who demonstrates his dedication to the virtue of charity by giving away his sacred elephant, his children, and finally his wife—is as well-known as that of his last lifetime.
Lives of the Buddha that trace events from his birth to his death appeared in the 2nd century ce. One of the most famous is the Sanskrit poem Buddhacharita (“Acts of the Buddha”) by Ashvaghosa. Texts such as the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya (probably dating from the 4th or 5th century ce) attempt to gather the many stories of the Buddha into a single chronological account. The purpose of these biographies in many cases is less to detail the unique deeds of Shakyamuni’s life than to demonstrate the ways in which the events of his life conform to a pattern that all buddhas of the past have followed. According to some, all past buddhas had left the life of the householder after observing the four sights, all had practiced austerities, all had achieved enlightenment at Bodh Gaya, all had preached in the deer park at Sarnath, and so on.
The life of the Buddha was written and rewritten in India and across the Buddhist world, elements added and subtracted as necessary. Sites that became important pilgrimage places but that had not been mentioned in previous accounts would be retrospectively sanctified by the addition of a story about the Buddha’s presence there. Regions that Buddhism entered long after his death—such as Sri Lanka, Kashmir, and Burma (now Myanmar)—added narratives of his magical visitations to accounts of his life.
No single version of the life of the Buddha would be accepted by all Buddhist traditions. For more than a century, scholars have focused on the life of the Buddha, with the earliest investigations attempting to isolate and identify historical elements amid the many legends. Because of the centuries that had passed between the actual life and the composition of what might be termed a full biography, most scholars abandoned this line of inquiry as unfruitful. Instead they began to study the processes—social, political, institutional, and doctrinal—responsible for the regional differences among the narratives of the Buddha. The various uses made of the life of the Buddha are another topic of interest. In short, the efforts of scholars have shifted from an attempt to derive authentic information about the life of the Buddha to an effort to trace stages in and the motivations for the development of his biography.
It is important to reiterate that the motivation to create a single life of the Buddha, beginning with his previous births and ending with his passage into nirvana, occurred rather late in the history of Buddhism. Instead, the biographical tradition of the Buddha developed through the synthesis of a number of earlier and independent fragments. And biographies of the Buddha have continued to be composed over the centuries and around the world. During the modern period, for example, biographies have been written that seek to demythologize the Buddha and to emphasize his role in presaging modern ethical systems, social movements, or scientific discoveries. What follows is an account of the life of the Buddha that is well-known, yet synthetic, bringing together some of the more famous events from various accounts of his life, which often describe and interpret these events differently.
Many biographies of the Buddha begin not with his birth in his last lifetime but in a lifetime millions of years before, when he first made the vow to become a buddha. According to a well-known version, many aeons ago there lived a Brahman named (in some accounts) Sumedha, who realized that life is characterized by suffering and then set out to find a state beyond death. He retired to the mountains, where he became a hermit, practiced meditation, and gained yogic powers. While flying through the air one day, he noticed a great crowd around a teacher, whom Sumedha learned was the buddha Dipamkara. When he heard the word buddha he was overcome with joy. Upon Dipamkara’s approach, Sumedha loosened his yogin’s matted locks and laid himself down to make a passage across the mud for the Buddha. Sumedha reflected that were he to practice the teachings of Dipamkara he could free himself from future rebirth in that very lifetime. But he concluded that it would be better to delay his liberation in order to traverse the longer path to buddhahood; as a buddha he could lead others across the ocean of suffering to the farther shore. Dipamkara paused before Sumedha and predicted that many aeons hence this yogin with matted locks would become a buddha. He also prophesied Sumedha’s name in his last lifetime (Gautama) and the names of his parents and chief disciples and described the tree under which the future Buddha would sit on the night of his enlightenment.
Over the subsequent aeons, the bodhisattva would renew his vow in the presence of each of the buddhas who came after Dipamkara, before becoming the buddha Shakyamuni himself. Over the course of his lifetimes as a bodhisattva, he accumulated merit (punya) through the practice of 6 (or 10) virtues. After his death as Prince Vessantara, he was born in the Tusita Heaven, whence he surveyed the world to locate the proper site of his final birth.
Birth and early life
He determined that he should be born the son of the king Shuddhodana of the Shakya clan, whose capital was Kapilavastu. Shortly thereafter, his mother, the queen Maha Maya, dreamed that a white elephant had entered her womb. Ten lunar months later, as she strolled in the garden of Lumbini, the child emerged from under her right arm. He was able to walk and talk immediately. A lotus flower blossomed under his foot at each step, and he announced that this would be his last lifetime. The king summoned the court astrologers to predict the boy’s future. Seven agreed that he would become either a universal monarch (chakravartin) or a buddha; one astrologer said that there was no doubt, the child would become a buddha. His mother died seven days after his birth, and so he was reared by his mother’s sister, Mahaprajapati. As a young child, the prince was once left unattended during a festival. Later in the day he was discovered seated in meditation under a tree, whose shadow had remained motionless throughout the day to protect him from the sun.
The prince enjoyed an opulent life; his father shielded him from exposure to the ills of the world, including old age, sickness, and death, and provided him with palaces for summer, winter, and the rainy season, as well as all manner of enjoyments (including in some accounts 40,000 female attendants). At age 16 he married the beautiful princess Yashodhara. When the prince was 29, however, his life underwent a profound change. He asked to be taken on a ride through the city in his chariot. The king gave his permission but first had all the sick and old people removed from the route. One old man escaped notice. Not knowing what stood before him, the prince was told that this was an old man. He was informed, also, that this was not the only old man in the world; everyone—the prince, his father, his wife, and his kinsmen—would all one day grow old. The first trip was followed by three more excursions beyond the palace walls. On these trips he saw first a sick person, then a corpse being carried to the cremation ground, and finally a mendicant seated in meditation beneath a tree. Having been exposed to the various ills of human life, and the existence of those who seek a state beyond them, he asked the king for permission to leave the city and retire to the forest. The father offered his son anything if he would stay. The prince asked that his father ensure that he would never die, become ill, grow old, or lose his fortune. His father replied that he could not. The prince retired to his chambers, where he was entertained by beautiful women. Unmoved by the women, the prince resolved to go forth that night in search of a state beyond birth and death.
When he had been informed seven days earlier that his wife had given birth to a son, he said, “A fetter has arisen.” The child was named Rahula, meaning “fetter.” Before the prince left the palace, he went into his wife’s chamber to look upon his sleeping wife and infant son. In another version of the story, Rahula had not yet been born on the night of the departure from the palace. Instead, the prince’s final act was to conceive his son, whose gestation period extended over the six years of his father’s search for enlightenment. According to these sources, Rahula was born on the night that his father achieved buddhahood.
The prince left Kapilavastu and the royal life behind and entered the forest, where he cut off his hair and exchanged his royal robes for the simple dress of a hunter. From that point on he ate whatever was placed in his begging bowl. Early in his wanderings he encountered Bimbisara, the king of Magadha and eventual patron of the Buddha, who, upon learning that the ascetic was a prince, asked him to share his kingdom. The prince declined but agreed to return when he had achieved enlightenment. Over the next six years, the prince studied meditation and learned to achieve deep states of blissful concentration. But he quickly matched the attainments of his teachers and concluded that despite their achievements, they would be reborn after their death. He next joined a group of five ascetics who had devoted themselves to the practice of extreme forms of self-mortification. The prince also became adept at their practices, eventually reducing his daily meal to one pea. Buddhist art often represents him seated in the meditative posture in an emaciated form, with sunken eyes and protruding ribs. He concluded that mortification of the flesh is not the path to liberation from suffering and rebirth and accepted a dish of rice and cream from a young woman.
The experience of that night was sufficiently profound that the prince, now the Buddha, remained in the vicinity of the tree up to seven weeks, savouring his enlightenment. One of those weeks was rainy, and the serpent king came and spread his hood above the Buddha to protect him from the storm, a scene commonly depicted in Buddhist art. At the end of seven weeks, two merchants approached him and offered him honey and cakes. Knowing that is was improper for a buddha to receive food in his hands, the gods of the four directions each offered him a bowl. The Buddha magically collapsed the four bowls into one and received the gift of food. In return, the Buddha plucked some hairs from his head and gave them to the merchants.
The first disciples
He was unsure as to what to do next, since he knew that what he had understood was so profound that it would be difficult for others to fathom. The god Brahma descended from his heaven and asked him to teach, pointing out that humans are at different levels of development, and some of them would benefit from his teaching. Consequently, the Buddha concluded that the most suitable students would be his first teachers of meditation, but he was informed by a deity that they had died. He thought next of his five former comrades in the practice of asceticism. The Buddha determined through his clairvoyance that they were residing in a deer park in Sarnath, outside Varanasi (Banaras). He set out on foot, meeting along the way a wandering ascetic with whom he exchanged greetings. When he explained to the man that he was enlightened and so was unsurpassed even by the gods, the man responded with indifference.
Although the five ascetics had agreed to ignore the Buddha because he had given up self-mortification, they were compelled by his charisma to rise and greet him. They asked the Buddha what he had understood since they left him. He responded by teaching them, or, in the language of the tradition, he “set the wheel of the dharma in motion.” (Dharma has a wide range of meanings, but here refers to the doctrine or teaching of the buddhas.) In his first sermon, the Buddha spoke of the middle way between the extremes of self-indulgence and self-mortification and described both as fruitless. He next turned to what have come to be known as the “Four Noble Truths,” perhaps more accurately rendered as “four truths for the [spiritually] noble.” As elaborated more fully in other discourses, the first is the truth of suffering, which holds that existence in all the realms of rebirth is characterized by suffering. The sufferings particular to humans are birth, aging, sickness, death, losing friends, encountering enemies, not finding what one wants, finding what one does not want. The second truth identifies the cause of this suffering as nonvirtue, negative deeds of body, speech, and mind that produce the karma that fructifies in the future as physical and mental pain. These deeds are motivated by negative mental states, called klesha (afflictions), which include desire, hatred, and ignorance, the false belief that there is a permanent and autonomous self amidst the impermanent constituents of mind and body. The third truth is the truth of cessation, the postulation of a state beyond suffering, called nirvana. If the ignorance that motivates desire and hatred can be eliminated, negative deeds will not be performed and future suffering will not be produced. Although such reasoning would allow for the prevention of future negative deeds, it does not seem to account for the vast store of negative karma accumulated in previous lifetimes that is yet to bear fruit. However, the insight into the absence of self, when cultivated at a high level of concentration, is said to be so powerful that it also destroys all seeds for future lifetimes. Cessation entails the realization of both the destruction of the causes of suffering and the impossibility of future suffering. The presence of such a state, however, remains hypothetical without a method for attaining it, and the fourth truth, the path, is that method. The path was delineated in a number of ways, often as the three trainings in ethics, meditation, and wisdom. In his first sermon, the Buddha described the Eightfold Path of correct view, correct attitude, correct speech, correct action, correct livelihood, correct effort, correct mindfulness, and correct meditation. A few days after the first sermon, the Buddha set forth the doctrine of no-self (anatman), at which point the five ascetics became arhats, those who have achieved liberation from rebirth and will enter nirvana upon death. They became the first members of the sangha, the community of monks.
The post-enlightenment period
The Buddha soon attracted more disciples, sometimes converting other teachers along with their followers. As a result, his fame began to spread. When the Buddha’s father heard that his son had not died following his great renunciation but had become a buddha, the king sent nine successive delegations to his son to invite him to return home to Kapilavastu. But instead of conveying the invitation, they joined the disciples of the Buddha and became arhats. The Buddha was persuaded by the 10th courier (who also became an arhat) to return to the city, where he was greeted with disrespect by clan elders. The Buddha, therefore, rose into the air, and fire and water issued simultaneously from his body. This act caused his relatives to respond with reverence. Because they did not know that they should invite him for the noon meal, the Buddha went begging from door to door instead of going to his father’s palace. This caused his father great chagrin, but the Buddha explained that this was the practice of the buddhas of the past.
His wife Yashodhara had remained faithful to him in his absence. She would not go out to greet him when he returned to the palace, however, saying that the Buddha should come to her in recognition of her virtue. The Buddha did so, and, in a scene often recounted, she bowed before him and placed her head on his feet. She eventually entered the order of nuns and became an arhat. She sent their seven-year-old son Rahula to his father to ask for his patrimony, and the Buddha responded by having him ordained as a monk. This dismayed the Buddha’s father, and he explained to the Buddha the great pain that he had felt when the young prince had renounced the world. He asked, therefore, that in the future a son be ordained only with the permission of his parents. The Buddha made this one of the rules of the monastic order.
The Buddha spent the 45 years after his enlightenment traveling with a group of disciples across northeastern India, teaching the dharma to those who would listen, occasionally debating with (and, according to the Buddhist sources, always defeating) masters from other sects, and gaining followers from all social classes. To some he taught the practice of refuge; to some he taught the five precepts (not to kill humans, steal, engage in sexual misconduct, lie, or use intoxicants); and to some he taught the practice of meditation. The majority of the Buddha’s followers did not renounce the world, however, and remained in lay life. Those who decided to go forth from the household and become his disciples joined the sangha, the community of monks. At the request of his widowed stepmother, Mahaprajapati, and women whose husbands had become monks, the Buddha also established an order of nuns. The monks were sent out to teach the dharma for the benefit of gods and humans. The Buddha did the same: each day and night he surveyed the world with his omniscient eye to locate those that he might benefit, often traveling to them by means of his supernormal powers.
It is said that in the early years the Buddha and his monks wandered during all seasons, but eventually they adopted the practice of remaining in one place during the rainy season (in northern India, mid-July to mid-October). Patrons built shelters for their use, and the end of the rainy season came to mark a special occasion for making offerings of food and provisions (especially cloth for robes) to monks. These shelters evolved into monasteries that were inhabited throughout the year. The monastery of Jetavana in the city of Shravasti (Savatthi), where the Buddha spent much of his time and delivered many of the discourses, was donated to the Buddha by the wealthy banker Anathapindada (Pali: Anathapindika).
The Buddha’s authority, even among his followers, did not go unchallenged. A dispute arose over the degree of asceticism required of monks. The Buddha’s cousin, Devadatta, led a faction that favoured more rigorous discipline than that counseled by the Buddha, requiring, for example, that monks live in the open and never eat meat. When the Buddha refused to name Devadatta as his successor, Devadatta attempted to kill him three times. He first hired assassins to eliminate the Buddha. Devadatta later rolled a boulder down upon him, but the rock only grazed the Buddha’s toe. He also sent a wild elephant to trample him, but the elephant stopped in his charge and bowed at the Buddha’s feet. Another schism arose between monks of a monastery over a minor infraction of lavatory etiquette. Unable to settle the dispute, the Buddha retired to the forest to live with an elephant for an entire rainy season.
The death of the Buddha
Shortly before his death, the Buddha remarked to his attendant Ananda on three separate occasions that a buddha can, if requested, extend his life span for an aeon. Mara then appeared and reminded the Buddha of his promise to him, made shortly after his enlightenment, to pass into nirvana when his teaching was complete. The Buddha agreed to pass away three months hence, at which point the earth quaked. When Ananda asked the reason for the tremor, the Buddha told him that there are eight occasions for an earthquake, one of which was when a buddha relinquishes the will to live. Ananda begged him not to do so, but the Buddha explained that the time for such requests had passed; had he asked earlier, the Buddha would have consented.
The Buddha’s relics
The Buddha had instructed his followers to cremate his body as the body of a universal monarch would be cremated and then to distribute the relics among various groups of his lay followers, who were to enshrine them in hemispherical reliquaries called stupas. His body lay in a coffin for seven days before being placed on a funeral pyre and was set ablaze by the Buddha’s chief disciple, Mahakashyapa, who had been absent at the time of the Buddha’s death. After the Buddha’s cremation, his relics were entrusted to a group of lay disciples, but armed men arrived from seven other regions and demanded the relics. In order to avert bloodshed, a monk divided the relics into eight portions. According to tradition, 10 sets of relics were enshrined, 8 from portions of the Buddha’s remains, 1 from the pyre’s ashes, and 1 from the bucket used to divide the remains. The relics were subsequently collected and enshrined in a single stupa. More than a century later, King Ashoka is said to have redistributed the relics in 84,000 stupas.
The stupa would become a reference point denoting the Buddha’s presence in the landscape of Asia. Early texts and the archeological record link stupa worship with the Buddha’s life and the key sites in his career. Eight shrines are typically recommended for pilgrimage and veneration. They are located at the place of his birth, his enlightenment, his first turning of the wheel of dharma, and his death, as well as sites in four cities where he performed miracles. A stupa in Samkashya, for example, marked the site where the Buddha descended to the world after teaching the dharma to his mother (who died seven days after his birth) abiding in the Heaven of the Thirty-three Gods.
The importance given to the stupa suggests the persistence of the Buddha in the world despite his apparent passage into nirvana. Two types of nirvana are commonly described. The first is called the “nirvana with remainder,” which the Buddha achieved under the Bo tree, when he destroyed all the seeds for future rebirth. This first nirvana is therefore also called the final nirvana (or passing away) of the afflictions. But the karma that had created his present life was still functioning and would do so until his death. Thus, his mind and body during the rest of his life were what was left over, the remainder, after he realized nirvana. The second type of nirvana occurred at his death and is called the “final nirvana of the aggregates (skandha) of mind and body” or the “nirvana without remainder” because nothing remained to be reborn after his death. Something, in fact, did remain: the relics found in the ashes of the funeral pyre. A third nirvana, therefore, is sometimes mentioned. According to Buddhist belief, there will come a time in the far distant future when the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha will disappear from the world and the relics will no longer be honoured. It is then that the relics that have been enshrined in stupas around the world will break out of their reliquaries and magically return to Bodh Gaya, where they will assemble into the resplendent body of the Buddha, seated in the lotus posture under the Bo tree, emitting rays of light that illuminate 10,000 worlds. They will be worshiped by the gods one last time and then will burst into flame and disappear into the sky. This third nirvana is called the “final nirvana of the relics.” Until that time, the relics of the Buddha are to be regarded as his living presence, infused with all of his marvelous qualities. Epigraphic and literary evidence from India suggests that the Buddha, in the form of his stupas, not only was a bestower of blessings, but was regarded as a legal person and an owner of property. The relics of the Buddha were, essentially, the Buddha.
Images of the Buddha
The Buddha also remains in the world in the form of the texts that contain his words and statues that depict his form. There is no historical evidence of images of the Buddha being made during his lifetime. Indeed, scholars of Indian art have long been intrigued by the absence of an image of the Buddha on a number of early stone carvings at Buddhist sites. The carvings depict scenes in which obeisance is being paid, for example, to the footprints of the Buddha. One scene, considered to depict the Buddha’s departure from the palace, shows a riderless horse. Such works have led to the theory that early Buddhism prohibited depiction of the Buddha in bodily form but allowed representation by certain symbols. The theory is based in part on the lack of any instructions for depicting the Buddha in early texts. This view has been challenged by those who suggest instead that the carvings are not depictions of events from the life of the Buddha but rather represent pilgrimages to and worship of important sites from the life of the Buddha, such as the Bo tree.
Consecrated images of the Buddha are central to Buddhist practice, and there are many tales of their miraculous powers. A number of famous images, such as the statue of Mahamuni in Mandalay, Myanmar, derive their sanctity from the belief that the Buddha posed for them. The consecration of an image of the Buddha often requires elaborate rituals in which the Buddha is asked to enter the image or the story of the Buddha’s life is told in its presence. Epigraphic evidence from the 4th or 5th century indicates that Indian monasteries usually had a room called the “perfumed chamber” that housed an image of the Buddha and was regarded as the Buddha’s residence, with its own contingent of monks.
The Mahayana tradition and the reconception of the Buddha
Some four centuries after the Buddha’s death, movements arose in India, many of them centred on newly written texts (such as the Lotus Sutra) or new genres of texts (such as the Prajnaparamita or Perfection of Wisdom sutras) that purported to be the word of the Buddha. These movements would come to be designated by their adherents as the Mahayana, the “Great Vehicle” to enlightenment, in contradistinction to the earlier Buddhist schools that did not accept the new sutras as authoritative (that is, as the word of the Buddha).
The Mahayana sutras offer different conceptions of the Buddha. It is not that the Mahayana schools saw the Buddha as a magical being whereas non-Mahayana schools did not. Accounts of the Buddha’s wondrous powers abound throughout the literature. For example, the Buddha is said to have hesitated before deciding to teach after his enlightenment and only decides to do so after being implored by Brahma. In a Mahayana sutra, however, the Buddha has no indecision at all, but rather pretends to be swayed by Brahma’s request in order that all those who worship Brahma will take refuge in the Buddha. Elsewhere, it was explained that when the Buddha would complain of a headache or a backache, he did so only to convert others to the dharma; because his body was not made of flesh and blood, it was in fact impossible for him to experience pain.
One of the most important Mahayana sutras for a new conception of the Buddha is the Lotus Sutra (Saddharmapundarika-sutra), in which the Buddha denies that he left the royal palace in search of freedom from suffering and that he found that freedom six years later while meditating under a tree. He explains instead that he achieved enlightenment innumerable billions of aeons ago and has been preaching the dharma in this world and simultaneously in myriad other worlds ever since. Because his life span is inconceivable to those of little intelligence, he has resorted to the use of skillful methods (upuya), pretending to renounce his princely life, practice austerities, and attain unsurpassed enlightenment. In fact, he was enlightened all the while yet feigned these deeds to inspire the world. Moreover, because he recognizes that his continued presence in the world might cause those of little virtue to become complacent about putting his teachings into practice, he declares that he is soon to pass into nirvana. But this also is not true, because his life span will not be exhausted for many more billions of aeons. He tells the story of a physician who returns home to find his children ill from having taken poison during his absence. He prescribes a cure, but only some take it. He therefore leaves home again and spreads the rumour that he has died. Those children who had not taken the antidote then do so out of deference to their departed father and are cured. The father then returns. In the same way, the Buddha pretends to enter nirvana to create a sense of urgency in his disciples even though his life span is limitless.
he doctrine of the three bodies
Such a view of the identity of the Buddha is codified in the doctrine of the three bodies (trikaya) of the Buddha. Early scholastics speak of the Buddha having a physical body and a second body, called a “mind-made body” or an “emanation body,” in which he performs miraculous feats such as visiting his departed mother in the Heaven of the Thirty-three Gods and teaching her the dharma. The question also was raised as to whom precisely the Buddhist should pay homage when honouring the Buddha. A term, dharmakaya, was coined to describe a more metaphorical body, a body or collection of all the Buddha’s good qualities or dharmas, such as his wisdom, his compassion, his fortitude, his patience. This corpus of qualities was identified as the body of the Buddha to which one should turn for refuge.
All of this is recast in the Mahayana sutras. The emanation body (nirmanakaya) is no longer the body that the Buddha employs to perform supernatural feats; it is rather the only body to appear in this world and the only body visible to ordinary humans. It is the Buddha’s emanation body that was born as a prince, achieved enlightenment, and taught the dharma to the world; that is, the visible Buddha is a magical display. The true Buddha, the source of the emanations, was the dharmakaya, a term that still refers to the Buddha’s transcendent qualities but, playing on the multivalence of the term dharma, came to mean something more cosmic, an eternal principle of enlightenment and ultimate truth, described in later Mahayana treatises as the Buddha’s omniscient mind and its profound nature of emptiness.
The presence of multiple universes
Along with additional bodies of the Buddha, the Mahayana sutras also revealed the presence of multiple universes, each with its own buddha. These universes—called buddha fields, or pure lands—are described as abodes of extravagant splendour, where the trees bear a fruit of jewels, the birds sing verses of the dharma, and the inhabitants devote themselves to its practice. The buddha fields became preferred places for future rebirth. The buddhas who presided there became objects of devotion, especially the buddha of infinite light, Amitabha, and his Western Paradise called Sukhavati. In the buddha fields, the buddhas often appear in yet a third form, the enjoyment body (sambhogakaya), which was the form of a youthful prince adorned with the 32 major marks and 80 minor marks of a superman. The former include patterns of a wheel on the palms of his hands and the soles of his feet, elongated earlobes, a crown protrusion (usnisa) on the top of his head, a circle of hair (urna) between his brows, flat feet, and webbed fingers. Scholars have speculated that this last attribute derives not from a textual source but the inadequacies of early sculptors.
The marvelous physical and mental qualities of the Buddha were codified in numerous litanies of praise and catalogued in poetry, often taking the form of a series of epithets. These epithets were commented upon in texts, inscribed on stupas, recited aloud in rituals, and contemplated in meditation. One of the more famous is “thus gone, worthy, fully and completely awakened, accomplished in knowledge and virtuous conduct, well gone, knower of worlds, unsurpassed guide for those who need restraint, teacher of gods and humans, awakened, fortunate.”
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