PBS’s recently aired documentary, “The Buddha”, was promoted as the story of the historical Buddha.
Unfortunately, the “historical” Buddha was nowhere in sight, instead viewers were presented with the same old mythological Buddha of the magical birth, who struggled with the demon Mara, performed miracles and so on. It is a nice story, but much of it cannot possibly be true, and the rest is certainly elaboration.
Perhaps those viewers unfamiliar with the traditional account, and others, found it interesting, however I can’t help but feel the program would have been much stronger if they had not relied so heavily on the myths.
As mythology, the story serves its allegorical purpose, but only if those receiving the story are able to see the allegory.
Over twenty years ago, another PBS program, The Power of Myth, a dialogue between Bill Moyers and Joseph Campbell, gave the world fresh insight into the meaning of mythology. A tutorial, if you will, that came with this now-famous caveat from Campbell: “Every religion is true one way or another. It is true when understood metaphorically. But when it gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.”
I do not know if we are yet capable of resisting the temptation of getting stuck, and so, I wonder if it creates any value to keep perpetuating religious myths, especially when we invest so much in our religions. I am inclined to think that we would be better off if we put these myths behind us.
I will leave that for now, to give you a glimpse of the ordinary man behind the curtain, the Buddha.
Admittedly, the historical Buddha is hard to find. His time is remote to us and there were no biographies of his life produced until centuries after his passing when the myth was already set in stone. Nonetheless, modern scholars have been able to provide us with a rough sketch of Siddhartha Gautama which shows us that he was not a superhuman being, a performer of miracles, the creator of a religion, or a monk,
It is said that the purpose of the appearance in this world of the Buddha, lies in his behavior as a human being. This suggests that if one ordinary person can acquire great wisdom and overcome sufferings by practicing self-reflection and compassion, any other person can, too. That is what the Buddha represents, the potential for awakening, the possibility of lasting happiness, and that is the prime point of his message.
Some years ago there was a report that archaeologists had discovered the Buddha’s birthplace, however, it turned out that the only discovery was of a stone marker erected by Ashoka, a king who lived some two to three hundred years after Buddha, signifying nothing other than that is what they believed at that time. Hardly conclusive.
The one thing we can say about the Buddha’s entry into this world that it wasn’t from his mother’s side. This a standard mythological device. Almost all of the world’s great religious founders are said to have had miraculous births. For instance, by the time of Jesus, the Hebrew people already had a long tradition of using miraculous birth stories to signify important people. It is the same thing here.
According to tradition, Siddhartha was from Kapilavastu, a town on a busy trade route north of Banaras, near the area known today as Nepal. He belonged to the Shakya clan, who inhabited a territory that was about fifty square miles in size.
The Shakyas had a republican style government at the time, not a monarchy, so it seems doubtful that his father, Suddhodana, was a rich and powerful king, more likely the elected head of a tribal ruling council.
There are no precise details available concerning Siddhartha’s early life; however, it is safe to say that he grew up in an urban setting, with the status and privilege enjoyed by a member of the ruling class, but far less than the richness and luxury described in legend.
People have remarked to me from time to time that it appears as if the Buddha cruelly abandoned his wife and child.
Throughout the Indian sub-continent, there was an established tradition of wandering ascetics, “homeless ones”, or spiritual seekers, known then, as ajivakas. These were men, and sometimes women, who had “dropped out”, as we used to say. They were critical of Vedic social culture and religious practice. In most cases, before departing on this path, they took steps to ensure that their family members were provided for, and it is reasonable to assume that the Buddha did the same.
Additionally, in Buddhism, bhikkhus, monks and nuns, do not always give up all their worldly possessions, as they often entrust their possessions to some family member or close friend for safekeeping.
The legends say that his wife and son later joined Siddartha in the Buddhist community, the Sangha. Yasodhara, his wife, became the first Bhikkhuni or female follower.
Soon after the Buddha’s passing, or perhaps even during his lifetime, his followers began to elaborate his story, borrowing elements from traditional folklore and other myths. In magnifying his early life to that of a royal prince enjoying every luxury to show one extreme and contrasting it with his period of extreme asceticism, they were able to illustrate the Buddha’s concept of the Middle Way.
One of the Buddha’s early teachings is that there is a Middle Way, a path that runs between sensual indulgence and self-mortification. The key to spiritual wayfaring is moderation, to live a well-rounded life by avoiding either extreme.
In the PBS program, and in other accounts, Siddhartha Gautama’s attainment of enlightenment under the bodhi tree, where he became the Buddha, the one who had awakened, is portrayed as a kind of mind-blowing, psychedelic experience.
Professor Trevor Ling, in his book, The Buddha, says “In later Buddhist literature [the Buddha’s enlightenment] is described in terms which make it literally an earth-shaking event, but the earlier literature gives a more prosaic and analytical account . . . This was no ‘inaugural vision’, such as the prophets of Israel underwent. There was no sense of awe at the realization of the presence of the divine, such as Isaiah felt; no ecstatic experience like that of Jeremiah; no voice from heaven . . . “
The attainment of enlightenment is not like an LSD trip. It is not an attainment at all, but rather an unfolding of wisdom, a continual awakening to the truth. Meditation, through which the Buddha came to his realizations, is far less esoteric and far more mundane than many imagine.
I should also mention that Mara, the demon with whom the Buddha battled while sitting beneath the bodhi tree is more or less the Indian equivalent of Satan. Mara represents the fundamental darkness that lies within all people. The Buddha was actually battling with himself.
As the Buddha, Siddhartha became a shramana, literally “one who strives.” Sharamanas flourished in India during the 6th Century BCE and there were essentially three types: ascetics, meditation practitioners, and philosophers. The Buddha was a combination of the latter two; he was a philosopher who taught meditation.
Prof. Ling: “[The Buddha] was not regarded by the earliest generation of Buddhists as a superhuman figure of any kind. He had no religious role, such as that of the chosen revealer of divine truth, nor was he regarded by the early Buddhists as in any sense a superhuman saviour.”
He did not intend to start a religion. The concept of religion as we know it in the West did not exist in the East at that time. Although there were Brahman priests and rituals and prayers and a pantheon of gods, the Buddha was critical of them, and doubted their efficacy.
The Buddha was essentially a meditation teacher with a simple message: everyone has problems, and if you want to learn how to better cope with your problems, and perhaps even overcome the sufferings they bring, then once or twice a day, sit down, be still, and calm your mind.
Followers of shramanas would literally follow, forming small wandering communities. They called these groups sangha, meaning “republic”, named and styled after the republican governments that were slowly giving way to monarchies.
J.P. Sharma, in “Republics of Ancient India” says that in the tribal sanghas (republics) “each member of he assembly was called a ‘raja’ (ruler), but none had the individual power to mould the decisions of the assembly.” It would appear that the Buddha applied this same principle to the Buddhist Sangha, and he repeatedly told his disciples that “It is [not] I who leads the brotherhood” and that “the community is not dependent upon me.”
The individual members of the Sangha were known as bhikkhus or “sharesmen.” They shared in a communal life. The bhikkhu was not a monk, a recluse or religious hermit. This was not a cloistered community, but a wandering band, always staying on the edge of towns and cities and interacting daily with people of all castes. Although they may have worn robes of a certain color to distinguish them from other homeless seekers, it is doubtful that they shaved their heads or that the Sangha established many of the religious trappings we now associate with Buddhism.
Originally, the Buddhist Sangha had little formalism to their activities or organization. Becoming a bhikkhu was a fairly simple matter. You’d ask, and the reply was simply “ehi bhikkhu” or “come, bhikkhu.” The idea of “ordination” is problematic because it raised the question, what was the Buddha ordaining them to? He, himself was not ordained, and again, did not intend to create a “religion.”
The Buddha was interested in forming a new society, a counter-culture, or as David Loy, Besl Professor of Ethics/Religion and Society at Xavier University in Cincinnati, states, “the Buddha wasn’t just forming a small group of monastics to support their own realization, but that he was modeling a broader, transformative vision for how society should function.”
It is absurd to think that the Buddha, a man who was critical of religious ritual and formalism, would establish a “Order” with new rituals and hundreds of rules for its members to follow. Obviously, much of the Vinaya, the Sangha rules, was created sometime after the Buddha’s passing.
As for the Buddha performing miracles, there is no historical or reliable documentary evidence that anyone has ever performed miracles. This is the standard stuff of myth-making. To think that the Buddha performed miracles is to miss entirely the point of his teachings, which is awakening through humanistic discovery. Buddhism is a philosophy of the real world. Miracles are found only in fantasy.
Many philosophers have sought to answer questions we would characterize as religious with the concept of faith, a belief in something that is ultimately unknowable. The Buddha on the other hand, in his teachings, offered analysis, an inquiry into the human mind and condition. He maintained that if anyone followed his formula, his simple meditation, they would find the meaning of life and overcome their sufferings.
The meaning of life, he taught, was compassion, to be of benefit and service to others. Let me tell you, there is no harder or nobler spiritual practice than that.