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The Buddha and history

From Chinese Buddhist Encyclopedia
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 It is in this milieu that the historian must understand the historical Buddha as existing. And given this milieu, the bare 'facts' of the Buddha's life as presented by tradition are historically unproblematic and inconsequential. The precise dates of the Buddha's life are uncertain. A widespread Buddhist tradition records that he was in his eightieth r4 The Buddha year when he died, and the dates for his life most widely quoted in modern published works are 566-486 BCE.

These dates are arrived at by, first, following a tradition, recorded in the Pali sources of 'southern' Buddhism, that the great Mauryan king, Asoka, was consecrated 2r8 years after the death of the Buddha, and, secondly, taking 268 BCE as the year of Asoka's accession. This is done on the basis of the Asokan rock-edict reference to rulers in the wider Hellenic world who can be dated from other ancient sources. But both the figure 2r8 and the accession of Asoka in 268 BCE are problematic. In contrast to the southern 'long chronology', northern Buddhist Sanskrit sources. adopt a 'short chronology', placing Asoka's accession just roo years after the death of the Buddha, while recent research suggests that Asoka's accession may be plausibly placed anywhere between 280 and 267 BCE.10

But such figures as 2 r8 and roo should properly be seen as ideal round numbers.U Moreover, as was first pointed out by Rhys Davids and more recently by Richard Gombrich, a time lapse of rather less than 2r8 years from the Buddha's death to Asoka's accession is suggested by the figures associated with the lineage of teachers found in a Pali source, namely an ancient Sri Lankan chronicle, the DipavaJ!lsa.12 While there is no scholarly consensus on the precise dates of the Buddha, a detailed examination of all the available data and arguments by scholars in recent years has resulted in a general tendency to bring the date of the Buddha considerably forward and pl&ce his death much nearer 400 BCE than 500 BCE. .

The earliest Buddhist sources state that the future Buddha was born Siddhartha Gautama (Pali Siddhattha Gotama), the son of a local chieftain-a riijan-in Kapilavastu (Pali Kapilavatthu) on what is now the Indian-Nepalese border. He was thus a member of a relatively privileged and wealthy family, and enjoyed a comfortable upbringing. While the later Buddhist tradition, in recounting the story of his youth, certainly likes to dwell on the wealth of Siddhartha's family and the extravagance of his princely upbringing, there is something of a cultural misunderstanding involved in the notion that the Buddhist tradition presents the Buddha as born a royal prince, the son of a great king.

In representing the Buddha as a rajan or k$atriya the tradition is effectively recording little more than that he was, in European cultural terms, a member of a locally important aristocratic family. At some point he became disillusioned with his comfortable and privileged life; he became troubled by a sense of the suffering that, in the form of sickness, old age, and death, sooner or later awaited him and everyone else. In the face of this, the pleasures he enjoyed seemed empty and of little value. So he left home and adopted the life of a wandering ascetic, a srama!Ja, to embark on a religious and spiritual quest. He took instruction from various teachers; he practised extreme austerities as was the custom of some ascetics. Still he was not satisfied.

Finally, seated in meditation beneath an asvattha tree on the banks of the Nairafijana in what is now the north Indian state of Bihar, he had an experience which affected him profoundly, convincing him that he had come to the end of his quest. While the historian can make no judgement on the nature of this experience, the Buddhist tradition (apparently bearing witness to the Buddha's own understanding of his experience) calls it bodhi or 'awakening' and characterizes it as involving the deepest understanding of the nature of suffering, its cause, its cessation, and the way leading to its cessation. The Buddha devoted the rest of . his life to teaching this 'way to the cessation of suffering' to groups of wanderers and ordinary householders.

In the course of his wanderings across the plains that flank the banks of the Ganges he gathered a considerable following and by the time of his death at about the age of So he had established a well-organized mendicant community which attracted considerable support from the wider population. His followers cremated his body and divided up the relics which were enshrined in a number of stupas which became revered shrines.

That the subsequent Buddhist tradition is founded upon and inspired by the teaching activity of a charismatic individual who lived some centuries before the beginning of the Christian era can hardly be doubted. In the words of the great Belgian scholar Etienne Lamotte, 'Buddhism cannot be explained unless we accept that it has its origin in the strong personality of its founder.'13 Given this premiss, none of the bare details of the Buddha's life is particularly problematic for the historiansomething we should bear in mind in the face of certain modern scholarly discussions of the life of the Buddha, such as Andre Bareau's, which, in dwelling on t.he absence of corroborative evidence for many of the details of the traditional life of the Buddha, introduces a note of undue scepticism with regard to the whole account.

Of course, as the Buddhist tradition tells it, the story of the life of the Buddha is not history nor meant to be. The whole story takes on a mythic and legendary character. A wealth of detail is brought in capable of being read metaphorically, allegorically, typologically, and symbolically. Much of this detail is to modern sensibilities of a decidedly 'miraculous' and 'supernatural' kind.

The story of the Buddha's life becomes not an account of the particular and individual circumstances of a man who, some 2,500 years ago, left home to become a wandering ascetic, but something universal, an archetype; it is the story of all those who have become buddhas in the past and all who will become buddhas in the future, and, in a sense, of all who follow the Buddhist path. It is the story of the Buddhist path, a story that shows the way to a profound religious truth. Yet for all that, many of the details of his eady life given in the oldest sources remain evocative of some memory of events from a distant time.

If we persist in distinguishing and holding apart myth and history, we are in danger of missing the story's own sense of truth. Furthermore, the historian must recognize that he has virtually no strictly historical criteria for distinguishing between history and myth in the accounts of the life of the Buddha. And at that point he should perhaps remain silent and let the story speak for itself.