Bringing a human Buddha to life

July 29, 2009

Who sits on my cushion, the confused individual reaching out for a spot of clarity, confidence, and serenity in his life, or the bundle of mental habits/neuroses that chased me to the cushion in the first place? Both, of course. I take a clear breath, hear a bird chirping in the trees, and then, unbidden, expectation, desire, and aversion all leap in to pilot my thoughts. Is this the path to Awakening? Am I doing this right? What would it be like to be free of these poisons?

My teachers and sangha friends are pretty quiet on these topics. Just keep sitting, they say. But what makes them confident that this road is the right one? Clearly, someone must have traveled it already, must have said, “follow me”, and persuaded his or her followers that this path is a good one. What was his or her life like after Awakening?

There are numerous stories of monks leading awakened lives in caves or forests. These do not interest me. If I have to move to a cave or forest, this path is of no use to me, so I was surprised to learn that Siddhatta Gotama, the Buddha, the Awakened One, didn’t spend his life in this way. After he awoke, he spent the rest of his life traveling from city to city, seeking and attracting followers, and speaking, sometimes debating, with whomever he met. He traveled the road of meditation and awakening and then came back to show others the way. Those who studied with him had the example of a living Buddha right in front of them. I have no doubt that they studied him, the way he looked, the way he spoke, and the way he acted, just as much as they studied his teachings.

Sadly, the Buddha lived and died over 2,000 years ago. All we know about him today are an unsystematic assortment of story fragments that, we are told, were originally preserved through an oral tradition (or, more likely, multiple traditions) and then eventually converted into written texts in Pali. These texts, the so-called Pali Canon, are considered the most authentic record of the Buddha’s life and teaching. Of course, given the large displacements (spatial, temporal, lingual, and cultural) that occurred between the Buddha’s lifetime and the writing of the Pali Canon, one must read the Pali account with a substantial grain of salt. But perhaps skepticism is unwarranted? Maybe what matters more is not the historical accuracy of the Pali Canon, but the reverence in which it has been held? If people have been able to use the signposts saying “this way to awakening” that are contained in this ancient record, maybe that’s good enough for me?

The next section summarizes three different sources I have examined regarding the life of the Buddha. Of these, I particularly recommend Buddha for general readers and The Life and Death of Siddhattha Gotama for Buddhist practitioners.

  1. The Biography of the Buddha by Dr. K.D.P. Wickremesinghe
  2. Buddha by Karen Armstrong
  3. The Life and Death of Siddhattha Gotama, a series of eight talks by Stephen Batchelor

My college library contains a number of scholarly books on the Buddha’s life, all of them based more or less on the Pali Canon. A short book seemed like the best place to start, so I first read The Biography of the Buddha by Dr. K.D.P. Wickremesinghe. Each chapter of the book is extensively referenced and one has to marvel at the author’s diligence in finding and reconciling a large number of sources from within the Pali Canon and other Buddhist traditions. Truly a labor of love as well as scholarship, but this book shed little light on the matters that concerned me. The book is faithful to the Pali Canon to the point of being literal, and so it was suffused with details that I can only picture as supernatural, mythological, and improbable. The “human” Buddha was absent.

After turning my attention to other matters for several months, I went back to the college library and found Buddha by Karen Armstrong. This book was a delight to read because it addressed many of the questions that concerned me: who was this Buddha fellow, what made him different from every other wandering ascetic traipsing up and down the roads, what parts of his story are likely to be historic and what parts mythic, and so on.

Although I don’t see any evidence that Armstrong is a Buddhist herself (and some of her terminology that she relies on, like ‘yogic this’ and ‘yogic that’, never appears in other Buddhist literature that I’ve read), she is a clearly a fan of the Buddha’s program. Moreover, she describes again and again the relationships between the Buddha and society. He was a human being, not only before his Awakening, but also after. Awakening changed the Buddha, but it didn’t make him an apathetic zombie. Also, even though he and the sangha lived their lives by different rules from the rest of society, this was not in an effort to separate themselves from society, but rather to make sure that the sangha could practice and follow the dhamma.

Here are three sections that I found noteworthy preceded by my questions:

Does awakening require one to crush all human impulses? “The secret was to … foster such wholesome states of mind as the disinterested compassion that had made him grieve for the insects and the shoots of young grass. At the same time, he would carefully avoid any state of mind that would not be helpful or would impede his enlightenment. … Later, he would say that a person seeking enlightenment must be ‘energetic, resolute and persevering’ in pursuing these ‘helpful,’ ‘wholesome’ or ‘skillful’ states that would promote spiritual health” (69-70).

What does a Buddhist need to believe? “A person’s theology was a matter of total indifference to the Buddha. … He saw no virtue in submitting to an official creed. ‘Faith’ meant trust that Nibbana existed and a determination to prove it to oneself. … A religious idea could all too easily become a mental idol, one more thing to cling to, when the purpose of the dhamma was to help people to let go” (101).

How did the Buddha’s contemporaries see him? “But even though the members of the Sangha had all turned their backs on the lifestyle of the vast majority of the population, the people at large did not resent them but found them profoundly attractive. The lay folk did not see the bhikkus and bhikkhunis as grim renouncers, but sought them out. This again tells us that the lifestyle devised by the Buddha was felt not to be inhuman but to be deeply humane. … Delegations would come to ask the Buddha a question; noblemen and merchants would arrive, mounted on elephants, and the gilded youth of a district would ride out en masse to invite the Buddha to dinner. In the midst of all this excitement and activity was the quiet, controlled figure of the Buddha, the new, ‘awakened’ man. He remains opaque and unknowable to those of us who are incapable of his complete self-abandonment, because after his enlightenment he became impersonal, though never unkind or cold. … He had no personal attachments and had no aggressively doctrinaire opinions. In the Pali texts he is often compared to nonhuman beings, not because he was considered unnatural, but because people did not know how to classify him.” (159-160)

Armstrong’s book makes for compelling reading, but her goal seems to be one of locating the Buddha on the great stage of human history and thought. She is not interested in looking at the Buddha’s life from the standpoint of contemporary Buddhist practice. Fortunately, practitioners have a wonderful resource presentation of the Buddha’s life and it is free. I refer to eight lectures entitled, “The Life and Death of Siddhattha Gotama,” that Buddhist scholar and practitioner, Stephen Batchelor, gave at the Spirit Rock community in 2005. These lectures, are similar in orientation to Armstrong’s book, locating the Buddha in his social-cultural-religious milieu, but Batchelor goes far beyond Armstrong by forging deep connections between the practice of modern Buddhists and the life, death, and teachings, of the Buddha. Armstrong’s book, and especially Batchelor’s lectures, offer me much to think about as I slowly inch my way along the path.


One Response to “Bringing a human Buddha to life”

  1. John said

    I can assure you the buddah is alive and well.

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