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Undocumented Buddha

So what is this all about, anyway?

Charlie Martin


January 19, 2014 - 1:00 pm
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Guess who?

Sometime in the 6th century (see “About Dates” below) not far south of the Himalayan mountains on the Indian subcontinent, a man laid out a simple idea: people are unhappy, lack peace of mind, because they cling to their illusions and fantasies about the world instead of seeing things as they are.

Traditional accounts agree his personal name was Siddhartha, “the successful one” or “the one who achieves”, which was a popular name then and is popular today. His gotra family name was Gautama, and he was born into a clan called the Shakya, of the Kshatriya or “warrior” class. His father was named Suddhodana, and his mother was named Mayadevi. Suddhodana is usually called a “king” but he was an elected ruler, and the Shakya’s government was something more or less like a republic.

The traditions say he was born prematurely, and unexpectedly, under a tree in a place called Lumbini, and recent archeological discoveries show that there was indeed a tree-shrine at the location the tradition identifies. Mayadevi died shortly after Siddhartha’s birth.

Siddhartha was raised as a rich princeling, but he left this life of wealth to become a renunciate, and eventually became known as a teacher called “the one who woke up” — the Buddha.

The first written records we have, however, are from at least a century after his death, and most of the written texts describing his life and teaching were first written down more than 500 years after he died. Many of these stories are fantastic, magical — and, as they say, they probably grew in the telling.

Can we look into these stories, the sutras, and see more clearly what this man’s original teachings were? What he taught before the sutras were written down?

What can we learn from the Undocumented Buddha?

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All Comments   (6)
All Comments   (6)
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I recommend-if you haven't read it-Zelazny's "Lord of Light" which is about the Buddha.Although when questioned about his identity,the central character replies, "No,my name is Sam."
46 weeks ago
46 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thank you for a lovely and helpful post. . Here in Perth Western Australia we have an outstanding Theravada community headed by Ajahn Brahm. They put on a course in Early Buddhism last year that examined in scholarly fashion how we can tell by various means such as language and usage how old a particular sutta may be. Because Perth's Buddhist is so diverse - probably half the attendees were East or South Asian there was plenty of language skill in the room in addition to the two scholar monks who had both Pali and Sanskrit but not Chinese. Perhaps the most amazing moment in the course came when a side by side comparison of a Pali text with its Chinese translation was put on the screen from the Internet. The Instructors and a Chinese man in the audience parsed the differences - which were very few -indicating how well the original had been preserved by monks who traversed the mountains and the language differences to bring Buddhism to the Far East. Like many things today the audio course is still available in MP3 format from the Buddhist Society of Western Australia. The first lecture is here:
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Oh yeah, the translations were careful and seem good, and hell, the Sanskrit is pretty certainly a translation because no one but Panini probably ever spoke pure Classical Sanskrit, and even he probably spoke a Prakrit with his laundry lady. And thanks for the link btw.

But I think part of the motivation and idea for me is to get at the meaning under the words. I honestly don't think Mayadevi was a virgin or that Siddhartha emerged from her side without pain, and I don't really think that at birth Siddhrtha took eight steps and annouced, with perfect enunciation, "Heaven above and Earth below, I alone am most blessed." That's the stuff I think grew in the telling.

And even simple translations can be sort of obscure. Something as simple as the "Holy Eightfold Path" -- in Sanskrit aryashtangamarga, "worthy road of eight branches", in Chinese 八正道, "ba1 zheng4 dao4" "eight proprieties road".

No, I'm not going to try to beat wordpress into displaying devanagari.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Both informative and entertaining, as usual. Thanks, Charlie.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thanks. I thought this one would be a little dry; I'm basically starting to really try to write the book, and this is something like the first chapter.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
Thank you, Charlie, and not dry at all. Motivated me to look up the life of Francis of Assisi (because I have been there) and reflect on the lives of both. Please keep writing these essays.
47 weeks ago
47 weeks ago Link To Comment
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