In Search of the Real Buddha

Shakyamuni BuddhaFor a modern Buddhist practitioner, the developed 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 previous generations. We are also adding our own fingerprints 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.


Buddhist scholar Peter Harvey explores the facts, myths, and deeper truths of the Buddha’s life story.

Whatever Buddhist tradition we follow, we are probably all familiar with some version of the story of the Buddha, featuring his life and qualities. But what are contemporary Buddhists to make of this figure, generally known as Gotama Buddha by Theravadins and Sakyamuni 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 developed 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 previous generations. We are also adding our own fingerprints 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 collections: the Digha Nikaya (DN), Majjhima Nikaya (MN), Samyutta Nikaya (SN), Anguttara Nikaya (AN), and Khuddaka Nikaya (KN).

The suttas and Vinaya were originally transmitted by communal chanting, then written down for the first time around 20 BCE in Sri Lanka. As in other early textual collections, such as the Chinese Agamas, the suttas of the Pali Nikayas begin, “Thus have I heard, at one time the Blessed One was staying at… and…,” which purport to be the words of Ananda, the Buddha’s faithful attendant for many years, and spoken at the council of five hundred enlightened monks (arahants) convened after the death of the Buddha to collect his teachings.

The story of the historical Buddha is told in various stages across diverse sources. In the suttas and Vinaya, for example, there is scattered material on certain periods in his life, notably his conception and birth (Acchariya-abbhuta Sutta, MN.123); a few aspects of his pre-renunciation life (e.g. Sukhumala Sutta, at AN.I.145); his renunciation (Ariya-pariyesana Sutta, MN.26); his spiritual quest, in which he was taught two “formless” mystical states (MN.26 and Maha-saccaka Sutta, MN.36) and then practiced harsh asceticism (MN.36); temptation by Mara (Padhana Sutta of the Sutta-nipata, verses 425–49); his using the four jhanas as a basis for remembering many past lives, seeing how beings are reborn according to their karma, and attaining enlightenment (MN.36); considering whether to teach and then teaching (MN.26; Dhamma-cakka-ppavatana Sutta, SN.V.420–25; Vin. I.4–12); and gaining his first disciples and sending them out to spread the Dhamma (Vin. I.12–21). Events in his forty-five years of teachings are hard to sequence, but the last three months of his life are dealt with in the Maha-parinibbana Sutta (DN.16, DN. II.72–168).

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