01 July 2011

The Buddha's Biography

I'VE ALREADY WRITTEN quite a lot on the confusion surrounding the name of the Buddha, and concluded that we don't really know what his name was. More recently I was pondering the Buddha's biography and considering the two different accounts of his going forth: the familiar elaborate version in which a princely man aged 29 who leaves behind wealth, status, wife, child, and family; and the shorter, less detailed, and probably less familiar story found in the Ariyapariyesanā Sutta [MN 26], but corroborated in other places. Scholars seem to agree that the biography found in the Ariyapariyesanā represents a more primitive version of the story which is likely to predate the more elaborate version. It's a given that the life stories of famous people tend to become more elaborate with time, not less, especially post-mortem. I'm sure many Buddhists will be surprised to discover that there are two different stories, as the more elaborate version is usually presented as a more or less factual, historical account.

Whether or not the Ariyapariyesanā version is the original story we will probably never know. But it provides a valuable insight into how the legend of the Buddha grew after his death. The process is no different from other saintly figures in other cultures and times. It's a case of the medium is the message: the common outlines of hagiographies tell us more about human nature than the content of such stories tell us about the historical Buddha. I want to look at just one paragraph from this earlier, less elaborate biography and draw out the implications it has for our stories about the Buddha.
So kho ahaṃ, bhikkhave, aparena samayena daharova samāno susukāḷakeso, bhadrena yobbanena samannāgato paṭhamena vayasā akāmakānaṃ mātāpitūnaṃ assumukhānaṃ rudantānaṃ kesamassuṃ ohāretvā kāsāyāni vatthāni acchādetvā agārasmā anagāriyaṃ pabbajiṃ. [M i.163]

At a later time, though still only a boy, with much black hair, in the first stage of life, and endowed with youth and good fortune; with my mother and father unwilling, tearful and wailing, I cut off my hair and beard, donned brown robes, and went forth from home, into homelessness.
I don't think it's overstating things to say that this is one of the most important biographical passages in the whole canon, because here much of what we think we know about the Buddha is contradicted.

Let's begin with his age. The text reinforces his young age with several terms: dahara, yobbana and paṭhama vaya. The word dahara means 'little, a young boy, a youth'. Buddhaghosa glosses it with taruṇa 'a tender young age, esp. a young calf'. The second word, yobbana, also means 'a youth'. The phrase paṭhama vaya means in 'the first stage of life', as opposed to middle age and old age. However the text also says he shaves off hair and beard (kesa-massuṃ ohāretvā) and this is common to all of the various narratives of the Buddha's going forth. Unless this is simply a stock phrase the youth must have passed puberty, and had a year or two to grow a beard. But not much more: if we were to describe a grown man as 'a boy' or 'a youth' it would seem awkward at best. I think we could say that this is describing a youth of 15 or 16. The tradition later made him 29, which is into middle-age by the standards of the day. Why 29? I don't think anyone knows, but it is interesting that the Jain leader, Mahāvīra, an elder contemporary of the Buddha, is described as a prince of Magadha who left home aged 30.

Something which is noticeable for being absent here is any mention of wife and child. The youth here is apparently not married. His parents weep and wail as he leaves, but not his wife. In my opinion the whole story of a wife and child is a later fiction, as is everything associated with them, including stories about Rāhula (who calls their child 'fetter'?). Many people are disturbed by the idea that the young bodhisatta left behind a wife and child. Of course had they existed they would not have been trapped in a neurotic nuclear family like most of us, but would have been part of a large extended family, and if we believe the stories they were wealthy and privileged. They were certainly not alone, nor destitute, and Gotama's role in the raising of his infant, and in the day to day life of his wife would most likely have been minimal in any case. I've never had a problem with young aspirant leaving wealth and family to pursue the deathless, because in the story he returns liberated and frees his family from suffering forever. One must take the story as a whole. But this whole story is a probably a fiction anyway.

Another interesting thing about this passage is that his mother and father -- mātāpita -- are unwilling witnesses to his leaving. He doesn't sneak out at night, there is no servant, no horse, none of the rich symbolism of later times. Notice in particular that his mother is present. The Buddha's mother seems not to have died in childbirth in this account. The stories of her death were presumably part of some important legendary strand that is not unlike the sanctity attached to Mary, the mother of Jesus. Though early Buddhists rejected most notions of Brahmanical ritual purity this is not true of later Buddhists. For example in the eighth century Śāntideva wrote:
If you have no passion for what is foul, why do you embrace another, born in a field of filth, seeded by filth, nourished by filth? [Bodhicaryāvatā ch8 8 v.59; translation by Skilton & Crosby]
This reflects Brahmanical notions of the polluting nature of bodily fluids, which with the Brahmanisation of the subcontinent, became pan-Indian concerns. The Buddha himself is shown to mock the Brahmins for this attitude in the Agañña Sutta (DN 27.4). He says their creation myth (Ṛgveda 10.90) which tells that the Brahmins were born from the mouth of Brahmā is a lie, since they were born in the usual way -- with all the implications of ritual pollution that entailed in the Brahmins own belief system. So in the later stories the Buddha is not born from his mother's (polluted and polluting) vagina covered in amniotic fluid and other nasty substances, but miraculously and pollution free from her side. And then she, rather too conveniently, dies and is transported to heaven where she can not cast any doubt on the sanctity of the Buddha himself. One is reminded of those 1950's and 60's American sitcoms that featured a family without a mother, ostensibly to play down the subject of where children come from. If indeed this represents a Brahmanical spin, then we can observe that the Brahmanisation of India was not completed until after the reign of Aśoka, ca. 2nd century BCE, about 150 years after the most likely date Buddha's death, which may give us a limit for dating these stories.

Finally observe that when he leaves the bodhisatta dons robes (vatthāni) which are brown (kāyāsa). It's well known that the wanderers of the day would stain the cloth of their simple robes with dirt to make them unattractive to bandits. The samaṇas who didn't go naked did not originally wear elaborate robes, or use expensive fabrics (unlike many Buddhist monks these days) but the cheapest cloth, or even rags, stained with dirt. The word kāyāsa means 'brown', but is often interpreted as 'yellow'. I think the latter is because of the brightly coloured robes that many modern Theravādins wear. PED links kāyāsa to Sanskrit śyāma 'dark' which can mean anything from black to dark blue or green; or śyāva 'dark brown, brown'. Neither of which suggest yellow, orange or red! There is a direct cognate kāṣāya but PED says this is a Sanskritisation of a Pāli word, and in any case it also means 'brown, or reddish-brown'. So the word means 'brown, dark', except in the context of bhikkhu's robes. Which suggests that changes in the colour of the robes lead to the change in meaning of the word in this specific context.

Though it is not related to this particular text, there is another little oddity about the way we see the Buddha. All of the early literature describes the Buddha as having a shaved head, and cutting of his hair and beard, as I have already mentioned is a central part of all of the Buddhist biographies of the Buddha. And yet more or less all images of the Buddha show him with tightly curled hair. Eisel Mazard goes into this puzzling discontinuity in some depth in an essay entitled The Buddha was Bald. I think Mazard makes a mountain from a mole hill (he seems to see depicting the Buddha with hair as a sinister conspiracy to defraud us), but it does confirm that the popular conception of the Buddha has changed over time, and that earlier versions of his life story get over-written.

So this 'man', who's name we are unsure of, was probably a 16 year old, unmarried youth when he left his (still living) mother and father, against their wishes. And this is not so far fetched really. Ramana Maharshi (1879-1950), with whom there are other biographical parallels, was this age when he left his home to go forth. Sangharakshita was about this age when he had his first mystical experiences also, and had be been living in India at the time might have wandered off at that point (as it was he had to wait 6 years to go forth aged 22.).

It's probably meaningless to talk about the "historical Buddha". I forget now where I first came across the distinction, but I like to see the information we do have as pertaining to the traditional or legendary Buddha. The historical Buddha is lost in the mists of time, though it seems very likely that the traditional Buddha is based on an historical person. Another important character, the mythic Buddha, is a product of our imaginations - which is not a criticism, or a pejorative. I think myth -- a word I use in the same spirit as Joseph Campbell -- is very important and significant aspect of our traditions. Myths are vital for a living spiritual tradition. I've written about how a much later figure went from being an historical figure, to a legendary one, and finally attained to the mythic dimension as a kind of Avalokiteśvara-like figure who intercedes to ensure one gets into the pureland. (see: Kūkai: Buddhist Hero of Japan.)

Reginald Ray's book Buddhist Saints in India documents the way that the Buddha's life story became the archetype for stories of later Buddhist saints, with the biographical details being recapitulated throughout history. And indeed the same thing has happened in other world religions. There is no reason to think this process began with the Buddha, or that the biographies that have come down to us are not influenced by his predecessors even if they are even less clearly visible than he himself is.

Across cultures saints often share common features. It would be interesting for instance to compare the Buddha with St. Francis of Assisi. This is not to devalue the methods of Buddhism, or of religion generally. Though I am not in favour of superstition, I think there are remarkable people who rise above the ordinary concerns of the rest of us: saints, for want of a better word. And these people leave us with a legacy of alternatives to: "the life of man, solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." (Hobbes. Leviathan. Chap. 13, para. 9).

In writing on this subject, critically and even polemically, I ask readers to opt for an honest confrontation with history, rather than a dishonest collusion with either tradition or secular humanism. The former blinds us and leaves us mired in eternalistic superstition, and the latter urges us to lives of nihilistic mediocrity. One of the main ideas communicated by the biography of the Buddha is that we do not have to accept either common superstitions or the general consensus; nor do we have to accept ourselves as we are, as limited and earth bound. We can be free. However the confrontation with history can be painful as it challenges our beliefs and calls into question aspects of our religious faith. I think in the end this makes us stronger, and forces us to focus less on belief and ideology, and more on practical matters, i.e. on doing the practices. Everything changes, and it seems very likely indeed that the stories we tell of the Buddha have changed too.

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