Sunday, December 28, 2014

The Buddha's and His Disciples (book)

Wisdom Quarterly; Ven. S. Dhammika (

The life of the Buddha is more than an account of one person’s quest for and realization of the ultimate truth. It is also about the people who encountered that person during his 45 year career and how their encounter transformed them.

If the Buddha’s quest and his encounters with others is set against the backdrop of the world in which these events were acted out, a world with its unique customs, its political intrigue, and its religious ferment, it becomes one of the most fascinating stories ever told.

One will meet with proud kings and humble outcasts, with saffron-robed ascetics (some saintly, others all too human), with generous patrons and jealous rivals. Some of the events in the Buddha’s life are described by scholars as being "legendary," but if we look at them objectively, few of them could be considered implausible.

One might be tempted to dismiss Angulimala’s practice of cutting a finger from each of his more than 1,000 victims and wearing them as a mala (necklace) as unbelievable. But the criminal history of humankind furnishes us with ample evidence of behavior far more bizarre and gruesome than that.

Samavati’s rapid rise from destitution to royalty is certainly unusual, but it is well within the realm of possibility. [The traitorous monk] Devadatta’s plots to kill the Buddha might be slightly exaggerated, and certainly as they have been recorded in the Disciplinary Code (Vinaya) they are in the wrong sequence, but they are just the sort of thing we could expect from a highly talented yet at the same time highly jealous and ambitious person.

And moving like a cool breeze through all this drama is the Buddha, patient, smiling, and unmistakably real.
The oldest and most authentic information we have about the Buddha’s life is to be found in the Pali language's Threefold Collection (Tipitaka, lit. "Three Baskets" of sutras, disciplinary code, and ultimate teachings), not in any chronological order, but scattered here and there, like specks of gold in the bed of a sandy river.

Less reliable but often indispensable is the information in the vast commentaries, particularly the Dhammapada Atthakta (the commentary to Buddhist aphorisms and origin stories called the Dharma-path or Dharma-imprint) and the Jataka Nidanakatha (commentary to the Rebirth Stories).

After that, we have the Mahayana sutras [apocryphal, Hindu syncretic, later fabrications or tales not originating with the historical Buddha] in which the historical Buddha begins to recede from view behind a veil of [Vedic, Brahminical, and Hindu] legends and romance, becoming less and less accessible as he does.
We are human, imperfectly human, and if we are to transcend this state we will need a guide and an ideal that is both human and perfect. The Buddha is such a guide and ideal and in the Pali collections he is portrayed as such.
Thus the story of the Buddha and his disciples as told in Pali sources is not just an authentic and fascinating one, it is also one that has a spiritual significance.

Many books on the Buddha’s life have been published, two of the best only recently. They are The Historical Buddha by H.W. Schumann and The Buddha by Michael Carrithers. Both of these books admirably avoid the extremes of including too much of what is obviously mythological on one hand and on the other taking the dry-as-dust academic approach which, being conceived without faith (saddha, conviction, confidence), is unable to inspire faith (confidence) in the reader. More

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