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Buddhadharma : Winter 2015
W In Search of the Real Buddha Whatever Buddhist tradition we follow, we are probably all familiar with some version of the story of the Buddha, featuring his life and qual- ities. But what are contemporary Buddhists to make of this figure, generally known as Gotama Buddha by Theravadins and Shakyamuni Buddha by Mahayanists, who lived in the fifth-century BCe (perhaps 484–404)? How close can we get to knowing what he was really like based on critical analysis of the early texts? This is a question related to Buddhist practice, for not only is it said that to have insight into the Dhamma is to have insight into the Buddha, but also that to have insight into the Buddha is to have insight into the Dhamma (SN.III.120). For a modern Buddhist practitioner, the devel- oped story and figure of the Buddha is a bit like a venerated piece of antique furniture, with a fine patina on it from centuries of handling by previ- ous generations. We are also adding our own fin- gerprints to it. But trying to dig back to the “bare facts” of the Buddha’s life can be like stripping the patina off a fine antique—something many people would be wary of doing, since it might be disrespectful to the original. However, perhaps it is necessary, as the “antique” Buddha needs restoring, and doing so may reveal the various decorations that have been added over the centuries. Still, we need to beware of being restricted by too narrow a view of what is possible; our modern perspectives and ideas may lead us to a rather thin and shallow way of seeing the world. We may be tempted to say of some element of the Buddha’s life story, Ah, that cannot be true, so it must be a later addition that we can ignore. And we also need to remember that myths are meaningful stories that may convey truth or a direction worth exploring. The Buddha’s Life Stories The earliest recorded stories of the Buddha are preserved mostly in Pali texts from the Theravada tradition, which express and share ideas common to various early schools prior to the development of the Mahayana, which in turn developed further reinterpretations and extensions. Some material on the life of the Buddha exists in the Vinaya, or texts on monastic discipline, but more are found in the suttas, the discourses of the Buddha. In their Pali versions, these are grouped in five nikayas, or col- lections: the Digha Nikaya (DN), Majjhima Nikaya (MN), Samyutta Nikaya (SN), Anguttara Nikaya (AN), and Khuddaka Nikaya (KN). The suttas and Vinaya were originally transmit- ted by communal chanting, then written down for the first time around 20 BCe in Sri Lanka. As in Indra Worshipping the Buddha Gandhara Photograph by Alexander Caddy, 1896 Buddhist scholar Peter Harvey examines the facts, myths, and deeper truths of the Buddha’s life story. winter 2 0 1 5 buddhadharma: the practitioner’s quarterly 33