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Buddhadharma : Winter 2015
36 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly winter 2 0 1 5 leading to agitation at the aging, sickness, and death that we are all heir to. Yet the early texts talk of his renunciation only as the result of gradual reflection (AN.I.145–46, MN.I.163). A story of seeing an old person, a sick person, a corpse, and a calm and inspiring renunciant is there in the texts but applied to a past Buddha, Vipassi (DN.II.22–9). Given that the lives of all Buddhas are said to follow a recur- ring pattern, we can see why this story was applied to the Buddha of our age. In any case, the story expresses a fundamental teaching in a very memo- rable way. While the facts of human frailty and mortality are known to us all, a clear realization and acceptance of them often does come as a novel, disturbing insight. There are also small variations between the developed biographies. The Theravada Nidan akatha says that the Gotama’s renunciation was just after the birth of his son, Rahula (Ndk.61–3), while the Sarvastivada tradition has Rahula being con- ceived on the night of the renunciation, thus ensur- ing that Gotama’s family line is continued. Was the Buddha Omniscient? A quality that is regularly applied to the Buddha in later texts is omniscience (sabbaññuta). To what extent is this claim found in the early texts? In the Kannakatthala Sutta, the Buddha accepts that omni- science is possible but asserts, “There is no renun- ciant or brahmin who knows all, who sees all, simul taneously; that is not possible” (MN.II.126–27). Likewise, he denies he has “complete knowledge and vision” continuously. Rather, what he claims is the “threefold knowledge” (tevijja). That is, as experi- enced on the night of his enlightenment, he could, “in so far as I wish,” remember his past lives, see beings being reborn according to their karma, and directly know his state of liberation (MN.I.482). The suttas attribute the claim of continuous omniscience to Mahavira, the Jain leader, though they also say that he prevaricated when actually asked a question to prove it (MN.II.31). Ananda joked that some teachers who made this claim still had to ask people’s names, failed to get alms food, and got bitten by dogs—so they then had to cover themselves by saying they knew these events were destined and so did not avoid them (MN.I.519). In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha says on the breadth of his knowledge: Monks, in the world with its gods, maras, brah- mas, in this generation with its renunciants and brahmins, gods and humans, whatever is seen, heard, sensed, and cognized, attained, searched into, pondered over by the mind—all that do I know.... I fully understand. (AN.II.25) echoing such passages, the Milindapañha, a post-canonical Theravada text (developed from first century BCe), asserts: ...the Blessed One was omniscient, but knowl- edge and vision were not constantly and contin- uously present to the Blessed One. The Blessed One’s omniscient knowledge was dependent on the adverting [of his mind]; when he adverted it, he knew whatever it pleased [him to know]. (Miln.102) Accordingly, the Theravada tradition holds that all knowable things could be known by the Buddha. But the threefold knowledge, as the key example of the Buddha’s knowledge, says little about the future other than how particular beings will be reborn. On the question of whether the Buddha’s great knowledge extends to the future, he claims that it does (DN.III.134), but the example given is that he knows he will have no further rebirths. In other con- texts, however, the Buddha claims to know things in the distant future, such as the coming of the next Buddha Metteyya (Skt., Maitreya; DN.III.76). The Buddha Makes Mistakes The idea that Gotama possessed a kind of omnis- cience only applies once he had become a Buddha. Hence his six wasted years of harsh asceticism could be seen as a mistake, as part of a human quest to find the right way to awakening, although later tradition has tended to see even such actions as pre- planned, done in order to make some teaching point. But the early texts show Gotama making mis- takes even after his enlightenment. A striking one is when, having taught monks to contemplate the