Creative Commons License photo credit: eyeliam

This is the second in a two part series on the story of the life of the Buddha. If you missed it you might like to check out The Story of the Buddha – Part 1.

In the Buddha’s renunciation of the world lies the key theme of the story of his life and perhaps the very core idea of Buddhism. Gautama’s upbringing was such that it gave rise to his radical miss-perception of things. The gap between the way he perceived things to be and the way they actually were in reality is the very same gap considered by Buddhists to be afflicting all unenlightened beings.

An unawareness of this gap gives rise to suffering and frustration. The Dalai Lama in his book The Art of Living when discussing the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination as taught by the Buddha states that ‘although sentient beings do not desire suffering and dissatisfaction, it is through ignorance that they accumulate karmic actions which then lead to undesirable consequences’. And so the Dharma as rediscovered by the Buddha during his awakening and subsequently taught by him is that which really is. The Dharma is the means by which ignorance of the gap between perception and reality can be dissolved and the cessation of karmic actions leading to endless rebirths is achievable. Ignorance is the very first link in the Twelve Links of Dependent Origination that gives rise to such rebirths.

‘It is not surprising that the gap caused by ignorance is the theme of Buddhism, for the whole story of the Buddha exemplifies what Buddhism is all about’

On the night of his awakening the Buddha realized the Four Nobel Truths. This expression has been alternatively and perhaps better translated as the truths of the noble one (the Buddha), which amounts to a statement of the way of things are seen by a Buddha. As such they encapsulate the Buddha’s understanding of the human predicament and its solution. The Four Nobel Truths consist of the structural framework upon which all higher teachings of the Buddha rest and so form the cornerstone of Buddhism.

The Four Nobel Truths represent the Buddha’s use of fabricated experience to lead to the unfabricated, in simplified terms they are:

  1. Life is dukkha (suffering)
  2. Suffering is caused by craving
  3. Suffering can have an end
  4. There is a path which leads to the end of suffering

Anyone wishing to study the teachings of the Buddha has not himself or herself experienced nirvana and so must first take a large and important part of his teaching on faith. In the account of his life the Buddha did not teach until those listening admitted his integrity as an awakened being and so would be receptive to his words. Since his death the Buddha is no longer physically in the world and so the life story of the Buddha takes on an important role of engendering confidence in the effectiveness of the teachings.

While there is no way of verifying the historical accuracy of the accounts of the Buddha’s life the accounts themselves posses great historical importance as their content has provided a religious ideal for many millions of individuals. The story of the Buddha’s life presents an ideal of how to live in order to attain the ultimate realization of the end of suffering.

It is evident that it is not possible to separate out the Buddha’s life from his teachings. It seems possible that one could analyze each incident in an account of the Buddha’s life and see how that particular part of the story illustrates an aspect of what to Buddhists is important – the Dharma. So the story of the Buddha reads not as a historical account but as a hagiography.

A Hagiography is a typically worshipful or idealizing writing of the lives of saints. As such the story of the Buddha’s life acts as a medium by which his teachings may be imparted. The Buddha himself said ‘whoever sees Dharma, sees me; whoever sees me, sees Dharma’. Thus the Buddha exemplified the Dharma and so any story of the Buddha is a teaching by metaphor of the Dharma itself.

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