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For early Indian Buddhism, the life of the Buddha,

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David Sommer

1)For early Indian Buddhism, the life of the Buddha, that is the story of the actual person that was the Buddha, is useful for understanding Buddhism's origins. The story of his life is, in some ways, all that is needed to understand what early Indian Buddhism was all about, at least for those of us who are outsiders merely interested in the rise and development of Buddhism as a human religious phenomenon. The Buddha is not crucial to soteriology of early Buddhism, though. For example unlike in Christianity, human salvation is not entirely dependent on the acts of the founder. The Buddha was merely a teacher of the dharma, and he encouraged everyone to analyze their own experiences rather than place faith in a proposition in order to access salvation. Ultimately each person's salvation can only be obtained through the efforts of his/herself. Interestingly, the early Indian tradition emphasized the Buddha's ability to teach the subtle mysteries of the dharma as his most miraculous power even though, according to tradition, he had many supernatural abilities.

The essential elements of the story of the Buddha's life are different according to whom one asks. Many western scholars tend to edit out the supernatural or mythological components of the story on the premise that they lack empirically verifiable content. If we use this line of reasoning, though, not much in the story of the Buddha is empirically verifiable. In fact, we will never be able to be sure beyond a doubt that there ever was a historical person that lived the life attributed to the Buddha. As a result, the mythological components of his story are just as important as the more mundane or humanistic components. At the very least, they serve to emphasize the importance of a person, place, or event in the story. We must not forget that this story has been used for generation upon generation for close to 2500 years to elucidate the miracle that was the founding of their tradition, their way of life. As a result, the memory of the Buddha himself has been appropriated as a pedagogical tool by the practitioners of the religion he founded.

There are a couple of different methods that are commonly used to frame the story of the Buddha. One is the Buddha as a person who, in his concern with the state of the human condition, discovered a way to live commensurate with the facts of reality. This tends to be the more humanistic version employed by western audiences. The other way is to frame the story of the life of the Buddha in which he finally attains Nirvana in a greater narrative of the many lifetimes in which he struggled along with gods, ghosts, animals, and men (and of course women, too) to attain this goal amidst the particularly Indian problems that are inherent to the nature of the universe. This version frames Buddhist thought in terms of samsara, karma, and extensive periods of time and space. This tends to be the more mythic version, but its cosmological backdrop is essential to the life and worldview of traditional practitioners of the religion. For example, the Jataka tales, stories of the Buddha's past lives, are extremely popular in Southeast Asian forms of Buddhism. In most stories of the Buddha's birth, it is recounted how, at the moment of his birth, he arose and proclaimed, “I am born for supreme knowledge, for the welfare of the world,—thus this is my last birth...” Thus we can see how the Buddha's life fits into a broader cosmological, ontological, and soteriological framework that Buddhist cultures have used to understand the life of the Buddha and Buddhist principles. When the broader cultural framework of a society changes, so too the ideas and tenets of their religion change to fit the new framework. In trying to understand the importance of the Buddha's life in the early Indian Buddhist community, understanding these cultural processes is essential to how we as scholars must understand the subjects in our field of inquiry.

That being said, we can now explore some of the major events and crucial elements in the life of the Buddha. According to Aśvagosha's Buddha-Karika, the first or second century CE text which pays homage to the life of the Buddha in a lavishly poetic style, the Buddha was born into an affluent and secure position in the world. The text describes Kapilavastu, the kingdom or municipality of his birth, to be overflowing with wealth and peaceful with contented subjects: “In that city, shining with the splendour of gems, darkness like poverty could find no place; prosperity shone resplendently, as with a smile, from the joy of dwelling with such surpassingly excellent citizens.” The text goes into extreme detail describing an almost utopian condition in the kingdom which at first appears odd given that the Buddha's insights were dependent upon the reality that such conditions, if they ever exist simultaneously at all, can never be sustained. Nonetheless, the literary devises that the author employs emphasize the overall secure (or seemingly permanent) conditions into which the young Siddhattha was born. This device may have been employed, though, to show that not even the most utopian conditions were blinding enough to keep the Buddha from realizing the ultimate nature and conditions of human life.

Aśvagosha also situates young Siddhattha's birth in a definite cosmological framework as well. The text describes how Siddhattha descended from the Tushita heaven into his mother's womb in the form of a, “...huge elephant white like Himâlaya, armed with six tusks...” Then upon his birth, he immediately stood up and proclaimed this to be his last birth. Thus, in a certain sense, the Buddha's birth fits a certain economy of salvation in Buddhist cosmology. His birth was not the beginning of a Buddhism which was previously unknown, but it was a continuation of the great cosmological cycle of the dharma in which the dharma is rediscovered, propounded, and followed then finally decays and disappears until it is rediscovered some time later. His birth and awakening are requirements in a larger master narrative. As a result, the historical Buddha is the great savior of this world cycle.

One of the most important elements of the Buddha's life is his discovery of undeniable facts of existence: birth, disease, old age, and death. In the Buddha-Karika, these facts of reality are not stumbled upon by the Buddha, but manifested to him by the gods. At his birth, the sage Asita had told his father that Siddhattha, “...has been born for the sake of supreme knowledge.” Therefore to keep his son from retiring from the world (as no good father wants his child to grow up to be a wanderer), it is said that the king kept any and all unpleasantness from the eyes of his son. In order for Siddhattha to see these crucial realities of life and fulfill the prophesy foretold for him, the gods had to step in. This is essential to the story because it signifies the relevance of the four marks to all of reality, not just the human world. Even the gods are subject to birth, decay, and death. The whole of the Buddhist cosmology is permeated by these facts. After witnessing an old man, a sick man, and a dead man, a god manifested itself as an ascetic in order to show Siddhattha the way to supreme knowledge: retirement from the world. This is the foundation of early Buddhism. The path to salvific knowledge is renunciation. One must exit the social world in order to gain this insight.

During the Buddha's early years as a renunciate, he encountered a wide variety of philosophies and practices. The renunciate community functioned primarily as a counter-current of religious thought and action against the dominant forms of Vedic and Upanishadic religion that dominated society. Upanishadic philosophy was concerned with the uncovering of the Atman, or self, in relationship to the essence of the universe, or Brahman. It was also concerned with perpetuating the social order as a reflection of the greater cosmological order through ritual. The communities of renunciates in which Siddhattha found himself were rejecting some or all of these notions in an attempt to reconstruct more relevant or “truer” forms of religious practice and thought.

Much of the Buddha's thought can be traced to the groups that he encountered during this period. There were the materialists who, in believing only in the reality of the material world, practiced a form of hedonism. At the other end of the spectrum there were extreme ascetics who believed that only in denying the body it's every desire, even the seemingly healthy ones, such as sleep, food, and water, could one attain real knowledge. There were the also the nihilists that believed that nothing was real and the essentialists that posited an essential eternal reality like Brahman/Atman. In founding his path, the Buddha positioned himself in between all these groups and established his middle way. The middle way consisted in nourishing the body with adequate amounts of food, water, and rest while denying all forms of indulgence. The method of his middle way was meditation. Only when the body was adequately sustained would the mind be in the proper position to realize the true nature of experience.

Aśvagosha describes the extreme difficulty that this middle way still posed to the young Siddhattha, though. During the meditation that finally leads to Siddhattha's awakening, he was seated under a Banyan Tree, and Mara, the god of unskillful practice or temptation , appears before him with a vast cosmic army poised to unseat the Buddha from his final meditation. Of course the Buddha defeats Mara by remaining seated throughout the attempted onslaught which he commands. If nothing else this mythical component to the story stresses the seemingly insurmountable difficulty involved in extinguishing the roots of desire during meditation. It also shows the cosmological political re-adjustment that occurred as a result of the Buddha's awakening. No longer did the gods control the fate of mankind, relegating the only agency that a person had in his/her life to the realm of ritual, but every individual was personally responsible for their own karmic rewards and punishments and, in return, his/her own salvation. When Mara notices that the Buddha is about to attain Nirvana, he cries, “Prince Siddhattha is desirous of passing beyond my control, but I will never allow it!” Literally then, when the Buddha woke up, the universe was shaken.

These are some of the most important elements of the life of the Buddha as presented in Aśvagosha's Buddha-Karika. Of course, there are other important elements, but these help illuminate some of the central concepts undergirding early Buddhist thought. The mythological components of the story need not be thrown out by those of us accustomed to speaking in empirically verifiable terms. The Buddha's past lives, the gods, and the supernatural occurrences in the story highlight its most important moments but also embed the story within a larger narrative or worldview. The circumstances surrounding Siddhattha's discovery of old age, disease, and death; his great retirement; and his final awakening are a good jumping off point for us to delve into the deeper issues and systematic philosophy of early Buddhist thought.

2)The Pali Cannon corpus is immense, to say the least. It is composed of volumes upon volumes ranging in topics from monastic codes in the Vinaya to the Suttas, or words of the Buddha, to the Abhidhamma collections on metaphysical and philosophical issues. With such a large corpus of material, it would be next to impossible for each sect, village, or lineage to utilize it in its entirety. As a result, certain schools draw from a few particular texts more than others, or a village may have its favorite books or passages that are more often read from. As scholars of religion, it would also be next to impossible, nor would it be warranted, for us to reconcile all the different perspectives and ideas presented within the cannon. That being said, here I will be attempting to adduce a basic description of Buddhist thought from passages of just a few of the books in the Pali Cannon. T

here are a number of places that one could start in weaving the tapestry of early Buddhist philosophy. The four noble truths, no self, dependent origination, and impermanence could all function as a good starting point for us. Any discussion of these concepts necessarily entails a discussion of all others. Since the starting point is arbitrary, and because the Buddha himself is traditionally thought to have started teaching with the four noble truths, I will also proceed in the same vein. In other words, I will be attempting to discuss all the major elements of early Buddhist thought within the framework of the four noble truths. This is important because it seems that the Buddha was always focused on pragmatism. Deviating from the scope of the practicality of any of the major elements in early Buddhism too much can lead to an improper understanding of what it was all about.

The central and first insight of the four noble truths is that all experiences are dukkha. Dukkha has been traditionally translated into English to mean something like pain or suffering. Williams translates from the Dhammacakkapapavattana Sutta that states:

Birth is dukkha, decay is dukkha, disease is dukkha, death is dukkha, to be united with the unpleasant is dukkha, to be separated from the pleasant is dukkha, not to get what one desires is dukkha. In brief, the five aggregates of attachment are dukkha.

This is a good description but it can be misleading in that it suggests that the word has an extremely negative and overly simplified connotation. For it is not simply negative experiences which are painful but positive ones as well. Williams acknowledges this when he says, “...laughter and happiness still come under duhka.” I think a more precise definition of dukkha, would entail something along the lines of “not leading to sustained contentment and livelihood commensurate with the nature of reality and the conditions of existence.” This understanding of dukkha, makes it an extremely loaded and flexible term. Defining it simply as pain or suffering does not leave room for the many different nuances that the word has probably assumed from time to time throughout its history in Buddhism. It also requires much more discussion to flesh out the what the different components of this definition exactly mean. What is contentment? What is the nature of reality and the conditions of existence? Why is it important that these things are sustained? That is where the second noble truth comes into play.

Before going into the second noble truth, it is important to note that dukkha is not the only characteristic of all things. All things bear three marks, the three marks of existence: dukkha, anicca, and anatta. Anicca, impermanence, means that all phenomenal objects are subject to birth, decay, and death. Literally then, there is nothing that any being, whether it be human, god, ghost, or demon, can experience that is permanent. In his sermon at Benares, the Buddha states, “Whatsoever is originated will be dissolved again. All worry about the self is vain; the ego is like a mirage, and all the tribulations that touch it will pass away. They will vanish like a nightmare when the sleeper awakes.” At this time, I need to note that while the Buddha was primarily talking about human experience, these ideas were extended to “supernaturalrealms as well. Gods, while existing for much longer and in more pleasant circumstances than humans, were still subject to the three marks. They must still suffer rebirth into the realms of earth, heaven, or hell. Moving on, Anatta is the doctrine of no-self. This is another dense term whose precise meaning still evades many people studying Buddhism. The term presupposes notions of attachment and identity and prescribes an attitude of indifference to the phenomenal world. For the Buddha, the human subject was really just a constantly evolving combination of the five aggregates (khandha), which compose the body and mind. Attaching any of these aggregates, or any other object for that matter, to the atta is a misconception based on ignorance and only leads to more dukkha. Since every aggregate of the human experience is subject to the three marks of existence, there naturally can be no self.

The second noble truth is that of the origins of dukkha. This is where the specifically Indian nature of the Buddha's thought emerges. The discussion of the origins of dukkha assumes a cyclical nature to reality. Rather than the linear conception of time to which we as Westerners are accustomed, in the Buddha's day, people in the classical Indian region had a cyclical understanding of time. This was either extended to or adopted from their understanding of the nature of reality as well. I mention this because the Buddha's discussion of the origin of dukkha is founded upon the twelve chain wheel of causation which Paul Williams quotes from the Samyutta Nikaya:

Conditioned by (i) ignorance (avijja) are (ii) formations (sankhara), conditioned by formations is (iii) consciousness (vinnana), conditioned by consciousness is (iv) mind-and-body (namarupa; nama—name—equals mind here), conditioned by mind-and-body are (v) the six senses (salayatana), conditioned by the six senses is (vi) sense-contact (phassa), conditioned by sense-contact is (vii) feeling (vedana), conditioned by feeling is (viii) craving (tanha), conditioned by craving is (ix) attachment (or 'grasping'; upadana), conditioned by attachment is (x) becoming (bhava), conditioned by becoming is birth (jati), conditioned by birth is (xii) old age and death (jaramarana)

This is the process of samsara. It describes both birth and death in the sense of the lives of living things and birth and death in the momentary sense as well. Every moment is born, decays, and dies and causes another moment which progresses likewise ad infinitum. Therefore the world of samsara is dukkha, impermanent, and lacking in a locus of self. The nature of reality and the conditions of existence condition dukkha in the samsaric cycle.

The third noble truth is that of the cessation of dukkha. This is the Buddha's discussion of Nibbana, as in the extinguishing of a flame. This is perhaps the most elusive of all terms in the Buddhist lexicon as words by nature cannot describe it, only approximate it, and only Buddhas and arhats can experience it fully. In the Dhammapada, it is described by, “...the mind, approaching the Eternal (Visankhara, Nirvana), has attained to the extinction of all desires.” This much we know, though. The total cessation (nirodha) of attachment to objects in the world via knowledge gained by meditative experience is Nirvana. Many times the Buddha speaks of uprooting Mara, thirst or desire. In the Dhammapada he says, “...dig up the root of thirst, as he who wants the sweet-scented Usira root must dig up the Birana grass, that Mara, the tempter, may not crush you again and again as the stream crushes the reeds.” What does the extinguished flame of Nirvana represent, though. Is it the self? Or is it more subtle? In the Fire Sermon, the Buddha speaks of everything burning with the flames of tanha. For example, the Buddha explains that all things are burning, “With the fire of passion, say I, with the fire of hatred, with the fire of infatuation; with birth, old age, death, sorrow, lamentation, misery, grief, and despair are they on fire.” Is this the flame that is extinguished? Is it both?

As of yet, I have not mentioned the role of kamma in early Buddhist thought. Kamma simply means action, but because it is informed by intentions and has consequences as its results, it has a very religious meaning. In order to eradicate dukha, one must cultivate right intentions which engenders right kamma which builds merit and leads to Nibbana. (quotes) We can clearly in the discourse of kamma, how the Buddha salvaged human agency from the playing fields of the gods. The Buddha taught not only that salvation was in one's own hands, but dukha was also. No ritual or sacrifice could lead to the betterment of earthly life and final annihilation of dukha, only the cultivation of proper thought and behavior. Both salvation and further embroilment in the world of samsara occur as a result of a person's kamma.

The final noble truth is that of the eightfold path or magga. This is the culmination of early Buddhist thought, and it prescribes the way of being commensurate with the nature of reality and the conditions of existence. The eight dimensions, as Williams calls it, are: (i) right view (ii) right intention (iii) right speech (iv) right action (v) right livelihood (vi) right effort (vii) right mindfullness (viii) right concentration. The first two dimensions are mental in nature. The first two have to do with properly orienting oneself to the path. The next three are about the proper social behaviors, and the final three inform the proper “posture” (both mental and physical) during mediation. The eighfold path aligns kamma and intention with the three marks of existence and the mechanism of reality's unfolding, dependent origination. Williams quotes R. Gombrich as saying, “I do not see how one could exaggerate the importance of the Buddha's ethicisation of the world...” This is a very astute observation. The noble eightfold path is founded upon a fundamental worldview and cosmology that infuses the universe with kammic import.

Any discussion of early Buddhist thought must involve several interrelated topics: the three marks, dependent origination, attachment, kamma, and practice. My discussion of the four noble truths has been an attempt to tie all of these subjects together in a coherent manner so that all of the topics were adequately addressed while most of the major points of contention were left out. If we take my working definition of dukkha as satisfactory for an introduction to early Buddhism (though of course it is still problematic), it leaves room for those being introduced to Buddhism to make their own assumptions about early Buddhist thought without being able to easily dismiss it as pessimistic or world-denying.

3)The gradual rise of Mahayana Buddhism was the product of a very different conception of what it meant to be Buddhist. As Mahayana began to appear some 500 years or so after the death of the Buddha Sakyamuni, Mahayana, as a disparate group of productive loci, began the enterprise of an entire re-presentation of the dominant themes of early Buddhism. Foremost among these was the changing conception of who the Buddha was and what his role as savior in the world is. As we will see, previously central terms such as atta began to evolve into different notions based on changing conceptions of the nature of reality. By understanding the differences between key terms and figures, we can better highlight the differences between early Buddhism and Mahayana.

In Mahayana, the ideal person progresses from an arahant to a bodhisattva. This corresponds to the change in the Buddha's characteristics that were most valued. The arahant was valued for following the path out of this world while the bodhisattva was valued for staying in the world and helping to ease the suffering of all in it. The bodhisattva ideal is founded upon the notion of compassion for the suffering of others almost entirely while the arahant ideal includes compassion as only one dimension of the path to liberation. Williams describes the importance that Mahayana places on compassion: “The proper commencement of the path of the bodhisattva is not thought to be just some vague sense of care, but an actual revolutionary event which occurs in the trainee bodhisattva's mind, an event which is a fundamental switch in orientation from self-concern to concern for others, to compassion.”

In early Buddhism, Sakyamuni Buddha emphasized the importance of individual agency in the path to liberation. One of the major presuppositions in early Buddhism was that anyone renouncing the world could potentially attain Nirvana in their lifetime. At least earlier on in the development of Mahayana, we can see that the understanding of the amount of time required to attain Nirvana increases dramatically. Williams admits that in Mahayana, “[[[Buddhahood]]] is often said to take three incalculable aeons.” This reflects a kind of “cosmologizing” of the categories of Nirvana and Buddha. Here awakening takes such an infinitely long time that any individual finally attaining it has effectively lived so many lives that every being in the universe has at some time existed in some form of nurturing relationship to the individual. Looking at the universe in this way, all beings can more effectively be appropriated under the domain of compassion. If every being has at some time been closely related to a person, then the awakening of the bodhisattva mind has more relevance to everyday life than it would originally seem. As a result, Mahayana Buddhism theoretically involves the agency of all beings in the universe in each being's progression on the path to awakening. It would seem natural, then, that the amount of time required in attaining awakening would be so infinitely long if, along the way, the bodhisattva is essentially helping every other being on his/her own path toward the same goal.

In Mahayana, the concept of emptiness (sunyata) displaces that of anatta in describing the phenomenal world. In early Buddhism the phenomenal world, rooted in perception and constituted by the five aggregates, was said to be anatta, meaning that no residue of self can be located in any phenomenal objects. In Mahayana, there is a subtle but monumental change in the perspective from which the world is understood. No longer is perception the root of the unfolding of the phenomenal, that is, the perceived world. The concept of anatta is effectively exported into the ontological realm. In other words, there is a sort of world, posited ontologically, that exists, yet is sunya. Sunya can be understood, then, as the same lack of any essential enduring quality(s) in external objects just as anatta posits none for the individual. The category of emptiness would not have made much sense given the framework of early Buddhism just as the concept of no-self becomes obsolete with the change in perspective of Mahayana Buddhism. In early Buddhism, the status of the world is analyzed from the perspective of personal experience while in Mahayana the status of the world seems to be considered from the perspective of the dharmakaya, which I will explain next.

The identity of the Buddha undergoes a major transformation in Mahayana thought. No longer is the historical Buddha of central importance; the trikaya (three bodies), a major philosophical elaboration on the Buddha's identity, subsumes him. The trikaya is a conceptual infusion of the Buddha's identity into that of the nature of the universe. Williams describes these as, “...the dharmakaya (or svabhavakaya) – the 'real body' – the samboghakaya – the 'body of communal enjoyment' – and the nirmanakaya – 'the body of magical transformation'.” The dharmakaya, a completely abstract category, is the transcendent non-dual, empty, and eternally becoming nature of the Buddha. It is that which an awakened being is, that which emanates awakened beings. At the other end of the spectrum is the nirmanakaya, the actual bodily manifestations of Buddhas. Mediating these two categories is that of the samboghakaya, a much more obscure category. It seems to point to a much more subtle force of awakening and compassion in the world. Williams pulls all these categories together in describing the Mahayana perspective on the Buddha Sakyamuni's ultimate identity: “Thus the historical figure of Sakyamuni Buddha and the events of his life, as a body of magical transformation, were simply emanations. In effect they were a magical show teaching out of compassion, manifested by a samboghakaya Buddha but ultimately, as it were, the spontaneous compassionate 'overflow' of the dharmakaya.”

As we have seen, the most important difference between the Buddha of Mahayana and the Buddha of early Buddhism is that the Buddha of Mahayana becomes embodied compassion bent toward only one purpose: alleviating the suffering of others. This is conceived as the compassion of the dharmakaya being radiated around the universe by means of the various samboghakaya and nirmanakaya Buddhas and bodhisattvas working towards the alleviation of suffering and ultimate awakening of all beings. Simply put, compassion is how awakened consciousness behaves in Mahayana. Whereas in early Buddhism, compassion was only one of the Buddha's attributes, rather than the character of his being. These differences do not suggest that one presentation of Buddhism is in any way more useful or accurate than the other, though. The Buddha in early Buddhism operated in a cultural and religious context different from that of the cultures throughout which Mahayana Buddhism eventually spread. Buddhism was the cultural underdog when the Buddha Sakyamuni lived and shortly thereafter, but Buddhism during the time of the rise of Mahayana was well-established in the Indian subcontinent. The Buddha, then, having secured his place in Indian society was simply called upon to meet other needs and answer new questions.