“Fortunate is the arising of Buddhas.
Fortunate is the teaching of the true Dharma.
Fortunate is the harmony of the saṅgha.
The practice of those in harmony is fortunate.” (Dhp 194)
Some hundred generations have passed since Gotama, the sage of the Sakyans, eighty years of age, departed from the world. He had warned his assistant, the Venerable Ānanda, three months beforehand of this intention. This greatly upset the younger monk, but the Buddha put the situation into perspective for him.
“Have I not already told you, Ānanda, that there is separation and parting and division from all that is dear and beloved? How could it be that what is born, come to being, formed and bound to fall, should not fall? That is not possible?”
The Buddha’s foremost disciples. Sāriputta and Moggallāna, had already died. The Blessed One then asked Ānanda to summon all of the monastics (bhikkhus) living near Vesāli to meet so that he could make his intention public. When they had convened he spoke these words:
“Bhikkhus, I have now taught you things that I have directly known: these you should thoroughly learn and maintain in being, develop and constantly put into effect so that this holy life may endure long; you should do so for the welfare and happiness of many, out of compassion for the world, for the good and welfare and happiness of gods and men. And what are these things?
“They are the four foundations of mindfulness, the four right endeavors, the four bases for success, the five spiritual faculties, the five spiritual powers, the seven enlightenment factors, and the Noble Eightfold Path.
“Indeed, bhikkhus, I declare this to you: It is in the nature of all formations to dissolve. Attain perfection through diligence. Soon the Perfect One will attain final Nirvāna.”
In the forty five years since his Awakening, the Buddha had realized the goals he had set for himself, when he had vowed that he would not leave the world …
“… until the monks, nuns, laymen followers, laywoman followers, my disciples, are wise, disciplined, perfectly confident, and learned,
“until they remember the Dharma properly, practice the way of the Dharma, practice the true way, and walk in the Dharma,
“until after learning from their own teachers they announce and teach and declare and establish and reveal and expound and explain,
“until they can reasonably confute the theories of others that arise and can teach the Dharma with all its marvels.
“… [until] this holy life has become successful, prosperous, widespread, and disseminated among many,
“until it is well exemplified by humankind.”
Indeed, his disciples on the Gangetic Plain of northern India already numbered in the many thousands by the end of the Buddha’s life, and included those from all walks of life and every caste, and had in his lifetime even included kings. Those who, through understanding the Buddha’s teachings and through putting them into practice, had awakened themselves, to share the Buddha’s awakening, now numbered in the hundreds.
He had instituted a well-regulated order of monks and within a few years the order of nuns (bhikkhunīs), providing them with a detailed code of conduct, the Vinaya (Discipline), setting standards for governance, means for maintaining harmony, relations with laity, as well as renunciation of worldly ways, so that future generations might live the holy life.
In the years to come, the vast corpus of the Buddha’s teachings would be remembered, and preserved, sometimes reformulated in new cultural contexts, and its civilizing influence would sweep over almost half of the world. Today hundreds of millions of people still count as sons and daughters of the Buddha. Both monastic orders still exist, following the same discipline the Buddha defined one hundred generations ago. More importantly, he had founded a civilization, a culture of Awakening that alongside of many cases of individual awakening would infuse peace, wisdom and virtue into the broader society.
Buddhism is not a revealed religion, that is, of otherworldly origin communicated through a human prophet to benefit mankind, nor the product of patching together various ancient and obscure sources of wisdom. Rather it was, particularly in its early form, the product of this single mind, the Buddha’s, whose life and being also illustrate and motivate the teachings he espoused. The British scholar of early Buddhism Richard Gombrich calls the Buddha “the first person.” By this he means that we know almost nothing about any prior historical figure anywhere in the world. He is certainly the most influential personality in all of South Asian history. The tale of the Buddha’s life has been told many times, sometimes in highly mythical and embellished forms with which the reader may be familiar. We will start from the beginning and according to the earliest telling, but before we pan in let’s first let’s look at the world into which the Buddha was born.
Scholars disagree by a matter of centuries when the Buddha was born; the median estimate seems to be the beginning of the fifth century BCE (Before Common Era, which is the same as BC). This is later than most of the traditions from within the various later schools of Buddhism state. We do know that the Buddha-to-be (bodhisatta) was born on the northern Indian sub-continent, in the foothills of the great Himalayan mountains, on the fringes of the great Ganges river plain, some two and a half millennia ago. Much of what we think we know about the time and place of the Buddha comes, in fact, from the early Buddhist texts themselves, since there was no written literature at the time and the Buddhists were the primary source of new texts to be memorized and preserved for posterity, alongside the brahmans.
Centuries before, Ariyan (Indo-European) invaders had intruded from the steppes of Central Asia to dominate, over time, most of the north of the subcontinent, whose peoples had been heirs of a still somewhat mysterious civilization that had been centered in the Indus River valley. The intruders brought with them the early Vedic lore, assumed positions of power and prestige and propagated Indo-European tongues that would become Sanskrit and Pali along with many regional Prakrits and, later still, Hindustani, Bengali, Punjabi, and many other languages found on the subcontinent today.
Land use. India was heavily forested in those days and most of its still modest population inhabited small villages cleared from the forest, themselves surrounded by farms and then further out pasture land. Alluvial silt spilling over the banks of the Ganges during frequent flooding provided rich soil for growing crops. Land was communally shared and irrigation was a communal project. The peasantry was generally well-off because of the abundance of fertile land available for clearing and cultivation as the population grew. Moreover, the forests also provided places were hermits could live and meditate in seclusion if they did not mind the tigers, wild elephants, deadly snakes and ogres.
Indeed, this was a time when the economy was turning increasingly from its early pastoral base to agriculture, when land was being increasingly cleared to grow crops and when the surplus of foodstuffs was resulting in a rapid growth in population and the rise of urban centers, in which lived merchants, bankers and government officials –who traveled about in horse-drawn chariots or elephants – along with craftspeople such as tanners, garland-makers, carpenters, goldsmiths and weavers. Although writing was known at this time, it was primarily utilized for accounting and stock management; there were no books, and important texts, such as the Vedas, were preserved only through memorization.
Travel and trade were difficult. There seem to have been almost no bridges, such that crossing one of the many large rivers and tributaries involved either ferry or ford. There were no planned roads to speak of, and trade routes simply made use of the paths that villagers maintained to neighboring villages. Caravans were lines of small carts pulled by bullocks making their way along these precarious paths single-file. Although there was relatively little crime in the villages, thieves were common in the forests, such that caravans often hired guards for protection.
In Gotama’s time, the Gangetic plain encompassed a number of small kingdoms and republics. The two dominant kingdoms of the region were Magadha and Kosala. The presence of iron mines to the south of Magadha made it a major producer of farming implements and weapons. Soon after the time of the Buddha, probably in part because of this advantage, Magadha would come to be the dominant power in the region and form the basis of a vast empire. The republics were largely lined up along the northern edge of the Gangetic plain in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains. The westernmost of these was the Sakyan Republic where the Buddha-to-be was born. The republics were generally governed by an unelected assembly of elders from the kshatriyas or warrior/administrative class.
Social relations. The Vedic tradition and its influence entailed a stratification of society. The three highest of four castes seem in origin to have been formed of Ariyans, and the lower castes of the indigenous Indians. The word for caste in Indic languages in fact means color, the Ariyans being of lighter complex-ion that the indigenous peoples. The kshatriyas were the warriors and government officials. The brahmans were the priestly caste, who memorized and retained the Vedas. The vaishyas were the farmers, herders and merchants. The lowest caste, the shudras were an innovation in India; they were primarily servants and workers, employed by members of the higher castes. Finally, what are now called the dalits or untouchables, were so low they fell outside of the caste system altogether. Strict as it was, the caste system does not seem to have restricted downward mobility, such that brahmans or kshatriyas might take up farming or weaving with no loss of face. However only brahmans could become priests.
This was also a patriarchal society that would become more patriarchal with time. Spiritual practice and education were widely considered masculine pursuits and women were generally subject in all stages of life to masculine authority. The last point is prescribed, for instance, in the following ancient Sanskrit passage,
By a girl, by a young woman, or even by an aged one, nothing must be done independently, even in her own house. In childhood a female must be subject to her father, in youth to her husband, when her lord is dead to her sons; a woman must never be independent. (Law of Manu, V, 147-8)
Women who were, in spite of this admonition, independent of masculine authority, by choice or happenstance, were commonly regarded as “loose women,” or as prostitutes. But apparently even prostitutes could retain their good name by becoming official wards of the male-administered villages where they offered their services.
Religion. There were three strands of religiosity at the time of the Buddha: Brahmanism, the ascetic movement and folk animism.
Brahmanism derived from the Vedic tradition that came to India with the Indo-European conquerers. By the time of the Buddha the Vedic tradition upheld by the brahman priests was undergoing some unsystematic reform, as represented in the series of Upanishads, some of which seem to pre-date, and some to post-date the Buddha. Brahmanism worships a number of deities and gives weight to the efficacy of rituals performed by brahman priests on behalf of subjects. The rituals, often including animal sacrifice, are not so much to propitiate deities but their correct performance has an intrinsic power to bring well-being to the subject. Rituals also sustain the order of the universe and of society. Brahmans are the sole possessors of the knowledge of these rituals.
The ascetic (samaṇa in Pali, śramaṇa in Sanskrit) movement began at least three hundred years before the Buddha. The Jains may be the oldest school of within the movement, and can be found in India to this day. Asceticism involved renunciation of conventional life, “dropping out,” generally to become a wandering homeless mendicant. It had little uniformity beyond that, in doctrine, practice nor attire. Some ascetics wore no clothes, others kept modestly covered. Some had unkempt matted hair and long fingernails, others shaved their heads. Some were morbidly austere, starving themselves or lying on a bed of nails, others were philosophers engaged in endless debate. Yogic practices such as meditation or controlling bodily functions were an important component of the ascetic movement. Ascetics had almost every conceivable philosophical view, from that of an eternal soul to that of the complete annihilation of the self at death, from that of strict karmic retribution for one’s deeds to absolute fatalism. There were a number of famous teachers with huge followings that also enjoyed great respect among the laity.
It may be that the most common religious expression in India of the time was popular animism, belief in a range of spirits, gods and other creatures closely associated with nature, along with practices for controlling or predicting the processes of nature. Most of what we know about this comes to us indirectly through the brahmans and through Buddhism, since almost no one else was preserving information about these times in memory. We find references to many deities that do not seem to have a Vedic origin, such as Siri, the goddess of luck, and to mythical creatures, such as nāgas, snake-like creatures who live under water in great luxury, and gaḍudas, huge half-man, half-bird beings who swoop down and eat nāgas. Also, we find references to palmistry, divination, astrology, interpretation of dreams, determining lucky sites, charms, exorcising ghosts, snake charming, oracles and so on. With time the bhamanic literature seem to incorporate these beliefs into their doctrines and myths.i
The Noble Search
The Buddha-to-be grew up in the ancient city of Lumbini, in the Sakyan Republic in present day Nepal. He was born of the warrior/administrative class and his father seems to have a prominent role in the government of the republic. Moreover, the Buddha tells us of a privileged upbringing:
“Monks, I lived in refinement, utmost refinement, total refinement. My father even had lotus ponds made in our palace: one where red-lotuses bloomed, one where white lotuses bloomed, one where blue lotuses bloomed, all for my sake. I used no sandalwood that was not from Varanasi. My turban was from Varanasi, as were my tunic, my lower garments, and my outer cloak. A white sunshade was held over me day and night to protect me from cold, heat, dust, dirt, and dew.
“I had three palaces: one for the cold season, one for the hot season, one for the rainy season. During the four months of the rainy season I was entertained in the rainy-season palace by minstrels without a single man among them, and I did not once come down from the palace. Whereas the servants, workers, and retainers in other people’s homes are fed meals of lentil soup and broken rice, in my father’s home the servants, workers, & retainers were fed wheat, rice, and meat.” (AN 3.38)
Pretty cushy. His privilege must certainly have also entailed an optimal education, perhaps particularly in statecraft. Yet, he was not satisfied with a life of ease and sensual pleasure. As the passage continues, he begins reflecting on the inevitability of old age, sickness and death.
“Even though I was endowed with such fortune, such total refinement, the thought occurred to me: ‘When an untaught, run-of-the-mill person, himself subject to aging, not beyond aging, sees another who is aged, he is horrified, humiliated, & disgusted, oblivious to himself that he too is subject to aging, not beyond aging. If I — who am subject to aging, not beyond aging — were to be horrified, humiliated, and disgusted on seeing another person who is aged, that would not be fitting for me.’ As I noticed this, the young person’s intoxication with youth entirely dropped away. (AN 3.38)
The passage is then repeated word for word substituting illness/ill/health and again death/dead/life for aging/aged/youth. He was contemplating sickness, old age and death.
Like many of us at a young age, the Buddha experienced an existential crisis, and like the hippies of olde, he set off for India on a spiritual quest. Young Gotama became a wandering ascetic.
“Before my Awakening, when I was still an unawakened bodhisatta, the thought occurred to me: ‘The household life is crowded, a dusty road. Life gone forth is the open air. It isn’t easy, living in a home, to lead the holy life that is totally perfect, totally pure, a polished shell. What if I, having shaved off my hair and beard and putting on the ochre robe, were to go forth from the home life into homelessness?’
“So at a later time, when I was still young, black-haired, endowed with the blessings of youth in the first stage of life, having shaved off my hair and beard — though my parents wished otherwise and were grieving with tears on their faces — I put on the ochre robe and went forth from the home life into homelessness.” (MN 36)
Gotama’s youthful noble spiritual quest went through three phases: discipleship, extreme austerities and – his own discovery – the Middle Way. The first phase entailed training under an accomplished yogi.
“Having gone forth in search of what might be skillful, seeking the unexcelled state of sublime peace, I went to Ālāra Kālāma and, on arrival, said to him: ‘Friend Kālāma, I want to practice in this doctrine and discipline.” (MN 36)
Soon the Buddha-to-be soon understood the dhamma of Ālāra Kālāma, as did others, and progressed in his practice. The highest extent to which Kālāma declared that he himself entered and dwelt in this dhamma was the meditative attainment of nothingness. Before long the buddha-to-be also entered and dwelt in that dimension, upon which Kālāma declared,
“’The Dhamma I know is the Dhamma you know; the Dhamma you know is the Dhamma I know. As I am, so are you; as you are, so am I. Come friend, let us now lead this community together.’”
“… But the thought occurred to me, ‘This Dhamma leads not to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to Awakening, nor to Nirvāna, but only to reappearance in the dimension of nothingness.’ So, dissatisfied with that Dhamma, I left.” (MN 36)
Undaunted, the Buddha-to-be sought out a second teacher, this time one Uddaka Rāmaputta, the son of Rāma, whose doctrine Uddaka carried on, but had apparently not himself mastered. Again, it was not long before the Buddha-to-be had learned the doctrine, then having learned that Rāma himself had entered & dwelled in this dhamma to the extent of the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception, before long the buddha-to-be also entered and dwellt in the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception, upon which Uddaka invited the buddha-to-be to lead the community’.
“But the thought occurred to me, ‘This Dhamma leads not to disenchantment, to dispassion, to cessation, to stilling, to direct knowledge, to Awakening, nor to Nibbāna, but only to reappearance in the dimension of neither perception nor non-perception.’ So, dissatisfied with that Dhamma, I left.” (MN 36)
At this point the Buddha-to-be’s period of discipleship came to and end. His second plan was to practice extreme austerities, a way of life common to many homeless mendicants of the time, which he seems to have accomplished in a way both extreme and austere, and which he describes with some humor.
“I thought: ‘Suppose I were to take only a little food at a time, only a handful at a time of bean soup, lentil soup, vetch soup, or pea soup.’ So I took only a little food at a time, only handful at a time of bean soup, lentil soup, vetch soup, or pea soup. My body became extremely emaciated. Simply from my eating so little, my limbs became like the jointed segments of vine stems or bamboo stems… My backside became like a camel’s hoof… My spine stood out like a string of beads… My ribs jutted out like the jutting rafters of an old, run-down barn… The gleam of my eyes appeared to be sunk deep in my eye sockets like the gleam of water deep in a well… My scalp shriveled and withered like a green bitter gourd, shriveled and withered in the heat and the wind… The skin of my belly became so stuck to my spine that when I thought of touching my belly, I grabbed hold of my spine as well; and when I thought of touching my spine, I grabbed hold of the skin of my belly as well… If I urinated or defecated, I fell over on my face right there… Simply from my eating so little, if I tried to ease my body by rubbing my limbs with my hands, the hair — rotted at its roots — fell from my body as I rubbed, simply from eating so little.” ( MN 36)
He practiced in this way for years, much of this period with five companions in the austerities, but once again became frustrated with the degree of his progress he had made.
His third plan was the middle way and he discovered it himself. It is the middle way that would carry him to final Awakening. In discovering the middle way the Buddha seems to have considered a recollection of a childhood incident, entering spontaneously into a meditative state (jhāna), to be of pivotal significance. As he recounts,
“I recall once, when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite withdrawn from sensuality, withdrawn from unskillful mental qualities — I entered and remained in the first jhāna: rapture and pleasure born from withdrawal, accompanied by directed thought & evaluation. Could that be the path to Awakening?’
“Then, following on that memory, came the realization: ‘That is the path to Awakening.’ I thought: ‘So why am I afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskillful mental qualities?’ I thought: ‘I am no longer afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskillful mental qualities, but it is not easy to achieve that pleasure with a body so extremely emaciated. Suppose I were to take some solid food: some rice and porridge.’ So I took some solid food: some rice and porridge.
“Now five monks had been attending on me, thinking, ‘If Gotama, our contemplative, achieves some higher state, he will tell us.’ But when they saw me taking some solid food — some rice and porridge — they were disgusted and left me, thinking, ‘Gotama the contemplative is living luxuriously. He has abandoned his exertion and is backsliding into abundance.’” (MN 36)
He would have been familiar with jhānic states of some kind from his training with his two meditation teachers, so we can assume that a critical difference in his childhood experience was that it was fun. He had already abandoned the pursuit of sensual or worldly pleasures in his spiritual quest, but it seems that others had been telling him that all pleasure must be squeezed out of practice and discarded (“no pain no gain”). He had discovered a crack in this understanding that he would pry open to gain access to the middle way. The crack was the difference, previously unnoticed, between worldly (loka) pleasure and unworldly (lokuttara) pleasure. Likewise fear of pleasure would not be the primary consideration in his dietary habits, but rather keeping the body healthy in order to sustain his practice.
It is reported that the Buddha-to-be sat down at the root of a bodhi tree and entered the first level of meditative concentration (jhāna), then progressed to the second, to the third and to the fourth. He describes the unfolding of his awakening as follows.
“When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of recollecting my past lives. I recollected my manifold past lives, i.e., one birth, two… five, ten… fifty, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, many eons of cosmic contraction, many eons of cosmic expansion, many eons of cosmic contraction and expansion: ‘There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.’ Thus I remembered my manifold past lives in their modes and details.
“This was the first knowledge I attained in the first watch of the night. Ignorance was destroyed; knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed; light arose — as happens in one who is heedful, ardent, and resolute. But the pleasant feeling that arose in this way did not invade my mind or remain.” (MN 36)
This is clearly a direct recognition that the present life is one link in a long and monotonous continuum of death and rebirth, what is known as saṃsāra. Rebirth was not a universally accepted fabrication at the time of the Buddha, but became the context for Buddhist practice. We will see presently that awakening entails a break from the cycle.
“When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of the passing away and reappearance of beings. I saw — by means of the divine eye, purified and surpassing the human — beings passing away and re-appearing, and I discerned how they are inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate in accordance with their kamma: ‘These beings — who were endowed with bad conduct of body, speech, and mind, who reviled the noble ones, held wrong views and undertook actions under the influence of wrong views — with the break-up of the body, after death, have re-appeared in the plane of deprivation, the bad destination, the lower realms, in hell. But these beings — who were endowed with good conduct of body, speech and mind, who did not revile the noble ones, who held right views and undertook actions under the influence of right views — with the break-up of the body, after death, have re-appeared in the good destinations, in the heavenly world.’ Thus — by means of the divine eye, purified and surpassing the human — I saw beings passing away and re-appearing, and I discerned how they are inferior and superior, beautiful and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate in accordance with their kamma.
“This was the second knowledge I attained in the second watch of the night. Ignorance was destroyed; knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed; light arose — as happens in one who is heedful, ardent, and resolute. But the pleasant feeling that arose in this way did not invade my mind or remain.” – (MN 36)
This recognizes that saṃsāra generalizes to all beings and that our past actions (kamma, Sanskrit karma) determine the circumstances of our rebirths. We build the house in this life through our ethical choices that we will live in next. It is also our choices that will serve to end this process.
If the first two knowledges are cosmological in nature, the last is psycho-logical, in that it provides an internal view of what happens in the process of Awakening.
“When the mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, and attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of the ending of the mental fermentations. I discerned, as it had come to be, that ‘This is suffering… This is the origination of suffering… This is the cessation of suffering… This is the path leading to the cessation of suffering… These are taints… This is the origination of taints… This is the cessation of taints… This is the way leading to the cessation of taints.’ My heart, thus knowing, thus seeing, was released from the taint of sensuality, released from the taint of becoming, released from the taint of ignorance. With release, there was the knowledge, ‘Released.’ I discerned that ‘Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.’
“This was the third knowledge I attained in the third watch of the night. Ignorance was destroyed; knowledge arose; darkness was destroyed; light arose — as happens in one who is heedful, ardent, and resolute. But the pleasant feeling that arose in this way did not invade my mind or remain.” (MN 36)
The third knowledge makes implicit reference to the Four Noble Truths, which we will revisit in later chapters, as well as to the taints (āsava) of sensuality, becoming and ignorance. We will see that the Buddha regarded mind in terms of networks of mental factors which condition one another. Upon awakening, Gotama is said to have uttered the following verse, oft recited to this day:
“Through the round of many births I roamed without reward, without rest, seeking the house-builder. Painful is birth again and again. House-builder, you’re seen! You will not build a house again. All your rafters broken, the ridge pole destroyed, gone to the unconditioned, the mind has come to the end of craving.” (Dhp 153-154)
The house-builder is to be found in our own minds. Once we find him, he will not provide us with a new home in saṃsāra. Gotama had discovered the deathless, the end of suffering, the extinguishing of the flame (nibbāna, Sanskrit nirvāna), and henceforth would be known by the following epithets, among others:
The Blessed One Bhagavā
The Awakened One Buddha
The Perfectly Awakened One Sammāsambuddha
The Such-gone One Tathāgata
Setting the Wheel of Dharma in Motion
The newly awakened one is said to have remained by the banks of the Nerañjara River in the shade of the Bodhi tree for seven days, sensitive to the bliss of release. At the end of seven days, in the third watch of the night, he contemplated dependent co-arising. Dependent co-arising is, quite simply, the principle of conditionality:
When this is, that is.
From the arising of this comes the arising of that.
When this isn’t, that isn’t.
From the cessation of this comes the cessation of that.
Virtually everything we comprehend in the world is like this, that is, ever contingent on other things. The Buddha’s concern was to understand the mind in these terms as a organic system of dependently arisen factors, for which he recognized the following chain of conditions active for the unawakened being.
ignorance → fabrications → consciousness →
name-and-form → sense bases → contact →
feeling → craving → attachment → being →
birth → old age, death, this mass of
We will discuss dependent co-arising in more detail in a later chapter. Suffice it to say that the Buddha had weakened these very factors through years, perhaps lifetimes, of practice and that for him the entire chain had dissolved all at once with the final eradication of ignorance, inducing a radical reworking of the cognitive and affective qualities in his now Awakened mind. On realizing the significance of dependent co-arising, the Blessed One exclaimed:
As phenomena grow clear,
To the ardent, meditating brahman,
He stands, smoking out the troops of Māra,
Like the sun that illumines the sky (Ud 1.3)
Māra is a kind of fallen deity who visits the Buddha and a number of his disciples over the years whose mission seems to be to hinder their practice and spiritual development. Dependent co-arising would form a foundation for the Buddha’s teachings.
Nonetheless, the Buddha was at first not committed to assuming a role as a teacher. Assessing the profundity of what he had experienced, he doubted that others would grasp what he might teach, for …
“This Dhamma that I have attained is deep, hard to see, hard to realize, peaceful, refined, beyond the scope of conjecture, subtle, to-be-experienced by the wise. But this generation delights in attachment, is excited by attachment, enjoys attachment. For a generation delighting in attachment, excited by attachment, enjoying attachment, conditionality and dependent co-arising are hard to see. This state, too, is hard to see: the resolution of all fabrications, the relinquishment of all acquisitions, the ending of craving, dispassion, cessation, Nirvāna. And if I were to teach the Dharma and if others would not understand me, that would be tiresome for me, troublesome for me.”
Perhaps, he thought, a life of meditative ease would be preferable. Where we might expect an inner dialog to ensue, Brahmā Sahampati, an eves-dropping deity, took up the cause in favor of teaching. Showing now appropriate veneration – for deities are never introduced in the early texts as objects of worship but rather to venerate the Buddha and often other monastics – the deity knelt down, bowed and said,
“Lord, let the Blessed One teach the Dharma! Let the Such-Gone One teach the Dharma! There are beings with little dust in their eyes who are falling away because they do not hear the Dharma. There will be those who will understand the Dharma.”
On reflection there seemed to be some truth in the deity’s words. The Buddha at first thought to teach the Dharma to his former teachers, but they had both died. So he decided to seek out the five ascetics who had abandoned him in a huff when he had begun to eat “luxuriously” according to middle-way principles. On the way thither he encountered another ascetic, Upaka of the Ājīvika school, who recognized something special in this monk’s demeanor:
“Clear, my friend, are your faculties. Pure your complexion, and bright. On whose account have you gone forth? Who is your teacher? In whose Dharma do you delight?”
To this the Buddha explained that he had no teacher, but was fully Awakened through his own efforts. He was, indeed, just now on his way to turn the wheel of the Dharma and beat the drum of the deathless. Upaka’s response was a bit disappointing.
“May it be so, my friend,”
Shaking his head and taking a side-road Upaka departed.
Having botched his first Awakened encounter with another ascetic, then walking for many days, the Buddha found his five former friends at Vārānasī at the Deer Park in Isipatana. They too noticed something special about their former colleague, something that wasn’t there before, aside from weight gain. The Buddha declared,
“The Tathāgata, friends, is an arahant, rightly self-awakened. Lend ear, friends: the Deathless has been attained. I will instruct you. I will teach you the Dharma. Practicing as instructed, you will in no long time reach and remain in the supreme goal of the holy life for which clansmen rightly go forth from home into homelessness, knowing and realizing it for yourselves in the here and now.’ (MN 26)
And then the Buddha began his very first Dharma talk, the first turning of the wheel of Dharma. First, he explained the middle way.
“There are these two extremes that are not to be indulged in by one who has gone forth. Which two? That which is devoted to sensual pleasure with reference to sensual objects: base, vulgar, common, ignoble, unprofitable; and that which is devoted to self-affliction: painful, ignoble, unprofitable. Avoiding both of these extremes, the middle way realized by the Tathāgata — producing vision, producing knowledge — leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Nirvāna.” (SN 56.11)
Then, he enumerated the Noble Eightfold Path:
“And what is the middle way realized by the Tathāgata that — producing vision, producing knowledge — leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Nirvāna? Precisely this Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right intention, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness and right concentration. This is the middle way realized by the Tathāgata that, producing vision and producing knowledge, leads to calm, to direct knowledge, to self-awakening, to Nirvāna.” (SN 56.11)
We will spend a chapter later clarifying these eight factors, the master checklist for advanced practice that, when taken up with diligence, ensures progress on the path toward Awakening.
The Buddha then discussed the Four Noble Truths.
“Now this, monks, is the noble truth of suffering: Birth is suffering, aging is suffering, death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, distress, and despair are suffering; association with the unbeloved is suffering, separation from the loved is suffering, not getting what is wanted is suffering. In short, the five clinging-aggregates are suffering.
“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the origination of suffering: the craving that makes for further becoming — accompanied by passion and delight, relishing now here and now there — i.e., craving for sensual pleasure, craving for becoming, craving for non-becoming.
“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the cessation of suffering: the remainderless fading and cessation, renunciation, relinquishment, release, and letting go of that very craving.
“And this, monks, is the noble truth of the way of practice leading to the cessation of suffering: precisely this Noble Eightfold Path — right view, right resolve, right speech, right action, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right concentration. – SN 56.11
The Four Noble Truths have been compared to a doctor’s formula: the first identifies the symptoms, the second the diagnosis, the third the prognosis and the fourth the treatment. At its core is once again the principle of conditionality: since that arises, this arises; since that ceases, this ceases, which underlies most of the Buddha’s thinking. Here, as elsewhere, what the Buddha presents initially as a concise statement unfolds into something much more complex. Suffering and craving are prominent conditionally related mental factors that provide initial points of investigation for the Buddhist practitioner. We will see, in chapter five, that the chain of dependent co-arising is a more elaborate system of conditionality relating many mental factors. By matching up the Buddha’s descriptions of mental factors and their interrelations the practitioner is able to alter habituated patterns of conditionality point by point to produce more beneficial results.
With the offering of this one discourse, one of the five ascetics, whose name was Kondañña, attained the eye of Dharma, a brief view of the deathless, an insight that marks one as a stream enterer, ideally fit to embark firmly on the Path with no going astray. We will have more to say about the eye of Dharma and stream entry in later chapters. It was at that moment of insight also that the saṅgha arose.
The Buddha’s second Dharma talk, on the self, (SN 22.59) develops some consequences of the conditional nature of mental factors. Considering five categories experienced factors – the aggregates (khaṅdha) of form or materiality, feeling, perception, volitions and consciousness – he demonstrates that each has three characteristics (lakkhana): each is impermanent or unreliable, leads to suffering as a result, and therefore cannot be identified with a self. It is because we misperceive reality as something far more substantial that we attach to things to our own detriment, and the disenchantment that comes from this realization leads to awakening. In fact the delivery of this talk is said to have resulted in the full awakening of all of the Buddha’s five disciples.
Awakened disciples are known as arahants (literally, worthy ones). They share the Buddha’s awakening, but are not buddhas. The Buddha explained the difference:
The Tathāgata — the worthy one, the rightly self-awakened one — is the one who gives rise to the path (previously) unarisen, who engenders the path (previously) unengendered, who points out the path (previously) not pointed out. He knows the path, is expert in the path, is adept at the path. And his disciples now keep following the path and afterwards become endowed with the path. (SN 22.58)
Establishing the Saṅgha
The Buddha was a three-fold genius. First, he became awakened without a teacher who could explain the path to awakening. Second, he succeeded in describing, explaining, illustrating and elaborating the Path he had discovered so that many (hundreds) of his disciples were able to realize his Awakening. Third, he succeeded in perpetuating his teachings and their practice so that future generations might realize Awakening and in ensuring that others would share the fruits of Awakening. The Buddha created not only a path to Awakening, but a culture of Awakening with an institutional structure that has perpetuated Awakening up to the present day.
The community of the Buddha’s disciples seems to have grown by leaps and bounds beyond the original five. A wealthy young man named Yassa, who was disenchanted with dancing girls and other worldly pleasures, showed up, his father in hot pursuit. By the time his father found them, Yassa had also attained the eye of Dharma through the gradual instruction that we will look at in the next chapter. Through hearing the Buddha’s next discourse, the father too attained the Dharma eye, while Yassa became an arahant. The father asked to go for refuge (declare his trust in the Buddha, the Dharma and the Saṅgha) and, presumably still not completely disenchanted with dancing girls, became the first lay follower of the Buddha. Realizing that bringing Yassa home was futile, the father instead invited the seven arahants to his home for a meal offering the next day. Delivering a discourse there, Yassa’s mother and his former wife both attained the Dharma eye, asked for refuge and became the Buddha’s first women followers. Many of Yassa’s friends subsequently became monks to boot.
Soon, the Buddha was off to visit the three Kassapa brothers, matted-hair ascetics who among them had one thousand followers. Convincing the eldest of the brothers, who had fancied himself fully Awakened, that he was not, he, his brothers and their whole complement of followers became disciples of the Buddha.
Upitissa and Kolita were ascetics and best of friends since childhood. Searching for the deathless, they agreed that whichever found the path thereto would immediately inform the other. One day Upitissa noticed a lone ascetic gathering alms and was so impressed with his demeanor and comportment that he suspected some degree of attainment must lay behind it. In fact, this ascetic was Assaji, one of the Buddha’s first five Awakened disciples. Upitissa approached Assaji in inquired about who his teacher might be and what he taught. Assaji indicated the recluse Gotama of the Sakyan clan and stated his teachings is a single verse:
“Of those things that arise from a cause,
The Tathāgata has told the cause.
And also what their cessation is:
This is the Doctrine of the Great Recluse.”
Immediately, Upitissa attained to the eye of Dharma, achieving stream entry. Later that day Upitissa repeated this verse to Kolita, with exactly the same effect on the part of the latter. Upitissa and Kolita would soon achieve the deathless, and indeed become the two leading disciples of the Buddha, and be known respectively as Sāriputta and Moggallāna.ii
The Buddha had been planting seeds in fertile fields. With time, however, the quality of his many new disciples began to drop off, to become more like arid or rocky patches of land. Even those who wished to devote themselves full-time to the monastic life, but had not become arahants, fell into actions and speech that caused others harm, that disrupted the harmony of the Saṅgha, that were inconsistent with a life of renunciation and simplicity or that reflected poorly on the entire saṅgha in the public eye. Simply teaching Dharma as the Buddha had been doing was not effective in bringing these less fertile monks into line.
In response the Buddha began tightening up, in a very explicit way, the parameters of the monastic life. He did this by introducing a new precept every time an incident occurred that transgressed in some new way what he felt was proper monastic behavior. For instance, a monk took something for his own use that had not been given to him, so the Buddha introduced a precept that prohibited this. Another monk responded to justified constructive criticism by other monks in a vengeful way, so the Buddha introduced a precept that prohibited being difficult to admonish. Many monks became adept at endearing themselves to lay donors in order to receive the best alms, perhaps unwittingly at the expense of the less charming monks, so the Buddha prohibited “corrupting families,” as he called it. Other monks accumulated so many robes that the Buddha asked if they were planning on opening a shop, so the Buddha put a limit on the number of robes a monk could possess. Other monks wore their permitted robes in disarray, so the Buddha required that robes be worn even all around. More often than not the Buddha enacted new rules in response to complaints from lay people, for he understood as a practical matter that the Saṅgha was critically dependent on the goodwill of the laity and that the laity took inspiration from the Saṅgha. The full set of monastic rules is called, in Pali, the Pātimokkha.
And so, through repeated enactment of new regulations and the refinement of old regulations, as well as the development of procedures for governance within the Saṅgha, along with supplementary discussion and narration, the Vinaya arose, the entire monastic code of discipline, of which the Pātimokkha was a very small part. Although there were ascetics in India before the Buddha, “… among all of the bodies of renouncers it was only the Buddhists who invented monastic life,”iii that is who provided an organized institution capable of sustaining its teachings. It is not often appreciated that institutionalizing the Saṅgha in this way was a truly monumental achievement. The Buddha himself consistently referred to the body of his teachings as Dharma-Vinaya. The Scholar Richard Gombrich observes that the Buddhist Saṅgha is likely the world’s oldest human organization in continual existence on the planet. If the Buddha were to return to modern times he would recognize his Saṅgha, so enduring is it.v
Yet in spite of its robustness the Saṅgha is delicate. Without any centralized authority or substantial hierarchy, its governance is based on the consensus of local monastic communities (saṅghas), its regulations are enforced through an honor system and its support is completely entrusted to the good-will of others. The Buddha could have set up a hierarchy, with something like Pope and bishops and a range of severe punishments for transgressing authority, but he did not. Who would have thought it would last? This amazing institution is the product of one genius, who cobbled it together from diverse elements present in the ascetic life, clearly articulated for it a mission and a charter and released it into the world. The Saṅgha is the instrument by which the Buddha implemented a culture of Awakening rather than mere instructions whereby individuals might become Awakened.
About five years after the beginning of the monks’ Saṅgha, the Buddha also established a nuns’ (bhikkhunī) Saṅgha, roughly equivalent to the monks’ Saṅgha. The very first nun, we are told, was his own aunt and stepmother, Mahāpajāpati, who had suckled him as a babe after his own mother had died, and had later become his disciple. One can appreciate that the establishment of the nuns’ Saṅgha presented many new challenges, for, in a highly patriarchal society, he had to ensure that the women enjoy the recognition and respect and receive the same support from the laity as the monks’ Saṅgha, that nuns not be dismissed as “loose women,” that in their encounters with monks they not unwittingly fall into traditional gender roles – for instance, spending their time cleaning and repairing monks’ robes – and that they be protected and safe in the rugged environment in which itinerant monastics spend much of their time. Studying the nuns’ Pātimokkha, as well as the monks’ rules with regard to their behavior toward nuns, reveals how the Buddha implemented each of these requirements.vi
The Buddha seems to have had the highest regard for womens’ potential for Awakening, and the many recorded Awakened bhikkhunīs bears this trust out. Indeed, a number of nuns became prominent teachers whose discourses are found alongside the Buddhas and Sāriputta’s in the earliest sources.
To Whom and What the Buddha Taught
It is said that the Buddha awakened at the age of thirty-five and died at the age of eighty. He taught for the intervening forty-five years. The other chapters of this book describe the core of what he taught over those forty-five years. We have abundant reports of the discourses he delivered to diverse audiences in diverse locations on the Gangetic plain, venues that he reached by foot, wandering from place to place, generally in the company of disciple monks, living on alms, often living in monasteries, land donated by kings or wealthy donors and developed for habitation by monks. For relatively few of these discourses is it stated when during this forty-five-year period they were delivered.
The Buddha’s initial goal in teaching was extremely ambitious: to light the path to Awakening for those who had little dust in their eyes through explaining the human condition and training disciples in the necessary practices to transcend that condition. His natural target audience would be those profoundly dedicated to spiritual development, of great aptitude and dedication, willing and able to give up all other significant assets and responsibilities. Most of these people became nuns and monks. And this remained his emphasis throughout his teaching career.
Nonetheless, he broadened that goal – without sacrificing depth – to provide guidance for those who did not fit this profile, in order, instead, to ease the harshness of the human condition rather than to transcend it. For these he also provided wise advice on how to live a conventional life with dignity and with virtue. He was comfortable moving through every level of society, speaking with paupers, lepers, those suffering calamities, with brahmans, merchants and with kings and ministers. On an early visit to his home town of Kapilavatthu his wealthy father was aghast at seeing him walking through the streets of the city collecting alms. Another account has him spending the night in a barn with the permission of a farmer, to be joined by another itinerant Buddhist monk, who had never met him and had no idea who he was until after long Dharma discussion.
He also moved about in high social circles. King Bimbasāra of Magadha and King Pasenadi of Kosala were on friendly terms with each other. Each was married to the sister of the other. Once, at King Pasenadi’s request, King Bimbasāra asked one of his five “billionaires,” Dhanañjaya, to relocate to Kosala, because King Pasenadi had none in his realm. Each king also became a disciple of the Buddha.
King Bimbasāra, in whose kingdom Gotama had awakened, became, it is said, a stream enterer on hearing a discourse by the Buddha, once when the Buddha visited Rājagaha, Bimbasāra’s capital. He became a promoter of the Saṅgha and donated land near Rājagaha where the Saṅgha might dwell. It was in Rājagaha that the Buddha met Sāriputta and Moggallāna, his chief disciples. King Bimbasāra also later assigned his personal physician, Jīvaka, to care for the health of the monastics; Jīvaka also became a disciple.
The Buddha also met a banker, Anāthapindika, in Rājagaha who had come there on business from Sāvatthi, the capital of Kosala. Meeting privately with the Buddha, he became a disciple and a stream enterer. He invited the Buddha to spend the rainy season in Sāvatthi, which the Buddha did, and donated land there, Jetavana, to the Saṅgha, which became the Buddha’s primary residence for the rains retreats of the years to come, and the site of many of the Buddha’s discourses. In Sāvatthi, King Pasenadi also became a devoted disciple, visiting the Buddha daily when he was present and often asking the Buddha’s advice on matters of state. Also in Sāvatthi, Visākhā, Dhanañjaya the “billionaire’s” daughter, became a strong supporter of the Saṅgha and appears frequently in the discourses of the Buddha.
The Buddha is reported to have been remarkably adept in shining the light of Dharma in the most unlikely corners. A great achievement was the conversion of the mass-murderer Aṅgulimāla, whom the Buddha apparently sought out for that purpose. His conversion, and ordination as a monk, occurred just before King Pasenadi decided to capture the bandit:
“Then King Pasenadi of Kosala, with a cavalry of roughly 500 horsemen, drove out of Savatthi and entered the monastery. … He got down from his chariot and went on foot to the Blessed One. On arrival, having bowed down, he sat to one side. As he was sitting there, the Blessed One said to him, “What is it, great king? Has King Seniya Bimbisāra of Magadha provoked you, or have the Licchavis of Vesali or some other hostile king?”
“No, lord, … there is a bandit in my realm, Lord, named Aṅgulimāla: brutal, bloody-handed, devoted to killing & slaying, showing no mercy to living beings. … Having repeatedly killed human beings, he wears a garland made of fingers. I am going to stamp him out.”
“Great king, suppose you were to see Aṅgulimāla with his hair and beard shaved off, wearing the ochre robe, having gone forth from the home life into homelessness, refraining from killing living beings, refraining from taking what is not given, refraining from telling lies, living the holy life on one meal a day, virtuous and of fine character: what would you do to him?”
“We would bow down to him, lord, or rise up to greet him, or offer him a seat, or offer him robes, alms food, lodgings, or medicinal requisites for curing illness; or we would arrange a lawful guard, protection and defense. But how could there be such virtue and restraint in an unvirtuous, evil character?”
Now at that time Ven. Aṅgulimāla was sitting not far from the Blessed One. So the Blessed One, pointing with his right arm, said to King Pasenadi Kosala, “That, great king, is Aṅgulimāla.” Then King Pasenadi Kosala was frightened, terrified, his hair standing on end. So the Blessed One, sensing the king’s fear and hair-raising awe, said to him, “Don’t be afraid, great king. Don’t be afraid. He poses no danger to you.” (MN 86)
Aṅgulimāla later became an arahant.
The Buddha’s is known for his apt metaphors or similes often tuned particularly to his audience. For instance, dissatisfaction with practice often arises when one fails to progress quickly and begins to feel guilt about the many impurities that remain in the mind. This happened to a young monk, Soṇa, who felt frustrated at his unresolved unwholesome thoughts that it seemed to him the monks around him did not share. This was at Vulture Peak at Rājagaha, where the Buddha had delivered his first discourse.
“Sona, were you a good lute player as a layman?”
“When the strings of your lute were too taught, did your lute sound good and respond well?”
“When the strings of your lute were too lax, did your lute sound good and respond well?”
“When the strings of your lute were neither too taught nor too lax, did your lute sound good and respond well?”
So too, Sona, overstriving leads to agitation and understriving leads to laxness. Therefore resolve upon evenness of energy, evenness of your faculties and take that as a sign.” (AN 6.55)
A common technique utilized by the Buddha in teaching those who have non-Buddhist beliefs or practices is to adopt their perspective, but to reinterpret some terms from that perspective, thereby subverting them in the direction of more useful beliefs or practices. A well-know example concerns young Sigala, the son of a householder who used to rise early in the morning, leave town with wet clothes and wet hair, and then bow to the East, the South, the West, the North, up and down.
Then the Exalted One, having robed himself in the forenoon took bowl and robe, and entered Rājagaha for alms. Now he saw young Sigala worshipping thus and spoke to him as follows:
“Wherefore do you, young householder, rising early in the morning, departing from Rājagaha, with wet clothes and wet hair, worship, with joined hands these various quarters — the East, the South, the West, the North, the Nadir, and the Zenith?”
“My father, Lord, while dying, said to me: The six quarters, dear son, you shall worship. And I, Lord, respecting, revering, reverencing and honoring my father’s word, rise early in the morning, and leaving Rājagaha, with wet clothes and wet hair, worship with joined hands, these six quarters.”
“It is not thus, young householder, the six quarters should be worshipped in the discipline of the noble.”
“How then, Lord, should the six quarters be worshipped in the discipline of the noble? It is well, Lord, if the Exalted One would teach the doctrine to me showing how the six quarters should be worshipped in the discipline of the noble.”
“The following should be looked upon as the six quarters. The parents should be looked upon as the East, teachers as the South, wife and children as the West, friends and associates as the North, servants and employees as the Nadir, ascetics and brahmans as the Zenith.
“In five ways, young householder, a child should minister to his parents as the East:
(i) Having supported me I shall support them, (ii) I shall do their duties, (iii) I shall keep the family tradition, (iv) I shall make myself worthy of my inheritance, (v) furthermore I shall offer alms in honor of my departed relatives.
“In five ways, young householder, the parents thus ministered to as the East by their children, show their compassion:
(i) they restrain them from evil, (ii) they encourage them to do good, (iii) they train them for a profession, (iv) they arrange a suitable marriage, (v) at the proper time they hand over their inheritance to them.
“In these five ways do children minister to their parents as the East and the parents show their compassion to their children. Thus is the East covered by them and made safe and secure.
… (DN 31)
This continues with the remaining directions, for each describing the reciprocal obligations that one should enact and that one should expect from the other, then stating that that direction is covered and made safe and secure. The result is the turning of what to Sigala was an empty ritual into a valuable teaching about living harmoniously and responsibly in the world.
Aside from adapting teachings to the audience, the Buddha characteristically took care not to teach more than is necessary. As a result, he carefully avoided useless speculation or expressing views on topics irrelevant to the understanding or practice of the Dharma. This method is made clear in the famous handful of leaves simile.
“What do you think, monks? Which are the more numerous, the few leaves I have here in my hand, or those up in the trees of the grove?”
“Lord, the Blessed One is holding only a few leaves: those up in the trees are far more numerous.”
“In the same way, monks, there are many more things that I have found out, but not revealed to you. What I have revealed to you is only a little. And why, monks, have I not revealed it? Because, monks, it is not related to the goal, it is not fundamental to the holy life, does not conduce to disenchantment, dispassion, cessation, tranquility, higher knowledge, enlightenment or Nibbāna. That is why I have not revealed it.” (SN 56.31)
The resulting agnosticism with regard to many religious views and folk beliefs gives Buddhism its characteristic tolerance that allows it to blend easily with the presuppositions of various cultures. For instance, whether one believes in tree spirits or the flying spaghetti monster doesn’t really matter, as long as these beliefs are compatible with virtue and practical wisdom and conducive to serenity. On the other hand, the Buddha did not hesitate to criticize views that detract from spiritual development, such as annihilationsim, the widely held view that our karmic effects end with the death of the body, which limits our willingness to take responsibility for the future, or eternalism, the opposing view that our essence (soul) is not destroyed at death. (The middle way between these opposites will be discussed in a later chapter).
After his death, the Buddha’s earthly remains were cremated by his lay followers and the residual ash, bones and teeth, the relics, were distributed among his lay disciples according to tribe. These were interred in , burial mounds, which were venerated as a remembrance of the Buddha in the years to come.
Many of his closest disciples met shortly after the Buddha’s death in order to recite together the discourses of the Buddha and the Vinaya from memory in order to ensure uniformity of what would be preserved in memory for future generations. We know a lot about the teachings as they existed during this early period, either as spoken by the Buddha himself or as reworked or augmented by his closest disciples before the development of seperate sects, largely through geographical dispersion. We know because seperate sects accurately preserved these teachings even as they added new texts. It is clear they were for the most part accurately perserved because the versions preserved in the various sects are in close agreement.
The primary sources of early Buddhism are two huge largely parallel collections of early discourses (Dharma talks) of the Buddha and his contemporary disciples: the Pali Nikāyas and the Chinese Āgamas. The former is preserved in an early Indic language, the second are translations originally transmitted to China through various South Asian and Middle Asian sects in a variety of languages, but most commonly in Sanskrit. In addition, the early Buddhist monastic code, the Vinaya, exists in several parallel versions preserved and studied in diverse sects. Confidence in the early origin of these texts is gained by observing that essentially the same texts, with little variation in content, have been transmitted through different sects that must have gone their separate ways very early in, or prior to, the sectarian period.
Indeed in the early years the Buddhist movement, the Sāsana, seems to have spread quickly through northern India and regional differences began to accrue. About two centuries after the Buddha, the Mauryan Empire, which grew out of Magadha, had extended its boundaries to encompass a vast area, and its emperor, Ashoka, became a great promoter of Buddhism, in true Buddhist style without neglecting other religious and philosophical traditions. Ashoka ran the empire according to Dharmic principles, caring for the poor, for travelers, for the sick. He also sent monks as missionaries to far-flung places, even as far as the Mediterranean, in some of which Buddhism took root. In the following centuries the Sāsana spread westward as far as Persia, eastward into Indochina and Indonesia, northward into Central Asia and from there eastward into China and the rest of East Asia.
In many schools and sects the Buddha assumed a god-like identity, something he never claimed for himself in the earliest stratum of texts. In an early text a Brahman, Ganaka-Moggallāna, had once asked the Buddha,
“… do all the good Gotama’s disciples attain the unchanging goal, nibbāna, or do some not attain it?”
“Some of my disciples, brahman, on being exhorted and instructed thus by me, attain the unchanging goal, nibbāna; some do not attain it.”
“What is the cause … that some of the good Gotama’s disciples on being exhorted thus and instructed thus by the good Gotama, attain the unchanging goal, nibbāna, but some do not attain it?”
“Well then, brahman, I will question you on this point in reply. As it is pleasing to you, so you may answer me. What do you think about this, brahman? Are you skilled in the way leading to Rājagaha?”
“Yes, sir, skilled am I in the way leading to Rājagaha.”
“What do you think about this? A man might come along here wanting to go to Rājagaha. Having approached you, he might speak thus: ‘I want to go to Rājagaha, sir; show me the way to this Rājagaha.’ You might speak thus to him: “Yes, my good man, this road goes to Rājagaha; go along it for a while. When you have gone along it for a while you will see a village; go along for a while; when you have gone along for a while you will see a market town; go for a while. When you have gone along for a while you will see Rājagaha with its delightful parks, delightful forests, delightful fields, delightful ponds. But although he has been exhorted and instructed thus by you, he might take the wrong road and go westwards. Then a second man might come along wanting to go to Rājagaha…(as above)…’ Exhorted and instructed thus by you he might get to Rājagaha safely. What is the cause, brahman, what the reason that … the one man, although being exhorted and instructed thus by you, may take the wrong road and go westwards while the other may get to Rājagaha safely?”
“What can I, good Gotama, do in this matter? I am simply a guide, good Gotama.”
“Even so, brahman, … some of my disciples, on being exhorted and instructed thus by me attain the unchanging goal, nibbāna, some do not attain it. What can I, brahman, do in this matter? I am simply a guide.” (MN 107)
The Life of the Buddha by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli, Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society, 1992.