Creative Commons License photo credit: rbnlsn

When discussing the life of the Buddha the words ‘story’ or ‘account’ are commonly used. This is because there is no verifiable factual data regarding his life. So the story of the life of the Buddha or Awakened One who realized the Dharma: ‘that which really is’ is all we have. In Indian storytelling tradition the story of his life is portrayed in a series of disconnected incidents, generally including his birth, enlightenment, first sermon, and death. Such Indian stories traditionally acted as a means by which the unchanging nature of the hero is revealed and highlighted. However, is it possible to separate out the account of the Buddha’s life from his teachings?

Siddhartha Gautama was his personal and clan name respectively before he became the Buddha. Gautama lived in a time (the 5th century BCE) of changing social conditions. Expanding kingdoms were swallowing up small kin-based communities. New cities with money economies formed urban centers where old certainties came under question and disease from population-concentration was increasing. Wandering philosophers called samana’s rejected the predominant Vedic traditions and severed family ties in order to think, debate and investigate while wondering and living by alms. Buddhism has it origins as a samana-movement and it is unsurprising that such changing and insecure times gave rise to a search for true and lasting happiness.

The essence of the Buddhist religion is comprised of the ‘three jewels’ (triratna) – namely the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha (monastic community). The Dharma denotes the teachings and doctrines as set forth by the Buddha and is also a word by which Buddhists refer to their religion. What the Buddha teaches to Buddhists is not a doctrine of his own creation but rather an eternally existent Dharma.

As a result the Buddha is not central to Buddhism and Buddhists in the same sense that Jesus is central to Christianity and Christians. A chronological story of the life of the Buddha did not even exist until several centuries after his death. The Dharma is what the Buddha rediscovered and it is the Dharma that leads the followers of Buddhism to enlightenment and liberation, not the Buddha. The story of the life of the Buddha is in one sense the story of the rediscovery of the Dharma and the setting in motion of the Dharma-Wheel.

There is support for the notion that the account of the Buddha’s enlightenment, after deep meditation through the three watches of the night under the Bodhi tree, has a didactic intent. Early Buddhists drew upon the account as a lesson in the possibility of mastering a skill leading to happiness.

Further this lesson has implications for understanding the Buddha’s teachings on the nature of karma or action. According to the Jain everything one does generates karma. The Buddha however shifted the emphasis from the action to the intention. According to the Buddha karma is determined by the mind and the quality of the results is determined by the intention motivating the action. The skillful intention resulting from training the mind is the very skill leading to better karma (or even, in the case of the Buddha, to a type of karma which puts an end to karma) and the happiness mentioned above.

Karma is what Buddhists believe drives rebirth. Buddhist’s also believe that a beings’ particular karma determines what sort of rebirth that being will have within the endless cycle of samsara. In the story of the Buddha he renounced a perfectly comfortable household existence; described as including everything one could probably want in life including a wife and young son, (aptly named Rahula or ‘Fetter’) at the age of twenty-nine to seek liberation from samsara. This incident is a clear illustration of the Buddha’s teaching of the inadvisability of being satisfied with existence in samsara with its unending cycle of suffering (dukkha), old age, dying, death and rebirth.

The Story of the Buddha – Part 2 is now available. If you enjoyed this article you might like to subscribe and check out my other articles on Buddhism, meditation and life. You can do that by using the links in the category list and the tag cloud.

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