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?
The modern convention establishes a “time zero” or epoch based on the Easter table of Dionysius Exiguus, which placed the birth of Jesus 531 years before the year 247 of the Diocletian Era. He did the best he could, but he couldn’t exactly consult Google for sources. Dating is further confounded by the relative lack of documentation of Jesus’ exact date of birth, or lifetime until a century or more after his death — a problem of course shared by the dating of Siddhartha. Dionysius Exiguus (which sounds a lot classier than the translation, “Dennis the Dwarf”) called these years Anno Domini, “the year of our Lord.”
But Dionysius’ date, we now think, was off by several years, one way or the other.
Jewish and Asian scholars, crankily insisting “the year of your Lord thank you very much”, object. They use the terms “Common Era” (CE) and “before the Common Era” (BCE). This inevitably leads to complaints about the old terminology being perfectly good and charging that making that change is disrespectful of Christians.
My view, basically, is that this “time zero” is an arbitrary one, with about the same justification as, say, the Unix Epoch of 00:00 on 1970 January 1. And yes, I’m going to give dates in ISO/Astronomical/Asian format, year-month-day; it’s the only format that is unambiguous to everyone.
To avoid the whole BC/AD controversy, dates are expressed as positive and negative numbers around Dionysius’ epoch; “the -6th century” then is effectively the same as the sixth century BC, or the 6th century BCE. The reader is cordially invited to interpret these numbers as “Common Era”, or “Anno Domini” or to translate them mentally to refer to any other epochal date they prefer.
Complaints may be referred to the Complaints Department, which is unfortunately closed.
Sources for the Buddha’s Life and Teaching
The first historical sources describing the teachings of the Buddha are from the Edicts of Ashoka the Great, who conquered most of the Indian subcontinent, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and a good chunk of modern-day Iran. Ashoka became a follower of the teachings of Siddhartha and changed his style of conquest from war to proselytizing the dharma or “law of right conduct”. This was recorded on various pillars and carvings, including one at Lumbini, about 200 years after Siddhartha died.
From the standpoint of a modern historian, the written records of Buddhist teachings are a mess. They were first transmitted orally, then written on palm-leaf pages that had a limited lifetime in that climate, so had to be re-copied and re-copied. They were also written down in Sanskrit (“refined speech”) and then translated to Tibetan and Chinese. The Chinese version considered canonical was first printed (yes printed, the Chinese beat Gutenberg by hundreds of years) in 868.
I learned about Buddhism first from Chinese and Japanese sources, which are derived from these Sanskrit sources, so I tend to use the Sanskrit words for things; other Buddhists use the Pali version, and some words are better known in English from Pali. So the collection of short verses that has become widely known in English is called the Dhammapada, where the Sanskrit term would be “Dharmapada”. Both words mean “the path of right conduct”.
This gigantic collection of texts are called the Tripitaka (“tipitaka” in Pali), or “three baskets”, and it’s no-kidding gigantic, over 80,000 pages. Basically, it’s broken into three parts: the Vinaya Pitaka or instructions to monks; the Sutra Pitaka, discussions with the Buddha that contain most of the Buddha’s own direct teaching; and the Abhidharma Pitaka, the “special teachings” that include lots of commentaries, discussions and traditions of various sorts.
To me, at least, the Sutras are the most helpful. The Vinaya has a lot of rules that, frankly, made more sense to organize a 6th century mob in India than they make today; in any case, the Japanese/Chinese/Tibetan Mahayana tradition I was raised in doesn’t use the same rules. The Abhidharma has lots of good stuff in it, but honestly is sort of the “everything else” category — stuff to be saved, but not necessarily one cohesive thing.
Of course, then there’s this other little problem: some of the Mahayana Sutras, including my favorite, the Prajña-paramita-hridaya-sutra, aren’t in the original Pali Canon at all. (That’s commonly called the “Heart Sutra” by the way, but I like the Sanskrit name. It’s got a good beat.) From a Buddhist point of view, this isn’t necessarily that much of a problem. After all, everyone is potentially a Buddha, just like when you’re asleep you’re only one 6AM hungry-cat prod from being awake. We’ve just, right now, been caught napping. From a Western point of view, though, it seems a little suspicious: how is it that something apparently written 1200 years after Siddhartha’s death can be called a teaching of the Buddha?
I think this kind of misses the point. Siddhartha, the historical Buddha, wasn’t a deity or special being: he was just some guy, a smart and persistent and maybe even obsessive guy, who applied himself to one problem: why do things suck so badly? When people asked Siddhartha during his lifetime what they would do without his own personal teaching, he said that if you know the teaching, you know the Buddha.
To me, if it helps us to escape our illusions and achieve peace of mind, that’s a true teaching of the Buddha. Whenever it was written.
So that’s my point. I do think that the Buddha’s teachings, the Dharma, the Law of Nature and of correct conduct in harmony with the laws of nature, can help us escape illusion and achieve peace of mind. And I think these teachings can be explained, without the fancy Oriental art and the esoteric symbolism, in a way that anyone can understand it, and learn to increase their own peace of mind.