The Buddha – Chapter 15: A Life of the Buddha

As noted in the previous chapter, the earliest accounts of the life of the Buddha are those found in the collections of discourses traditionally attributed to the Buddha. Here the Buddha autobiographically recounts individual events that occurred from the time that he left his life as a prince until he achieved enlightenment six years later. A separate text, the Mahaparinibbanasutta, describes the Buddha’s last days, his passage into nirvana, his funeral and the distribution of his relics. Biographical accounts in the early sutras provide little detail about the Buddha’s birth and childhood.

Near the beginning of the Common Era, independent accounts of the life of the Buddha began to be composed. Yet here again, they do not recount his life from birth to death, often ending instead with his triumphant return to his native city of Kapilavastu, which is said to have taken place either one year or six years after his enlightenment. These partial biographies add stories that were to become well known, such as the four chariot rides outside the city in which he first learns of the existence of old age, sickness and death.

In a sense, jataka stories (see chapters 17-19) might also be considered part of the Buddha’s biography, recounting his lives as a bodhisattva. These jataka stories (of which there are 547 in a Pali collection) have remained among the most popular forms of Buddhist literature over the centuries; at the stupa at Bharhut in India, dating from the second century bce, there are some thirty-two jataka stories depicted in stone carvings, compared with fifteen events from the last life of the Buddha.

Lives of the Buddha that comprised events from his birth until his death began to appear in the second century of the Common Era; one of the most famous is the Sanskrit poem Buddhacarita (Deeds of the Buddha) by Asvaghosa However, it is only in texts such as the Mulasarvastivada Vinaya (probably dating from the fourth or fifth century ce) that there is an attempt to gather the many stories of the Buddha into a single chronological account. In the centuries that followed, the life of the Buddha would be written and rewritten in India and across the Buddhist world, adding and subtracting elements as necessary.

The biography of the Buddha that appears here is taken from a work called the Chronicle of the Councils (Sangityavamsa) by Vimaladhamma, written in Pali in Thailand in 1789. It is a highly compressed biography, moving through the events of the Buddha’s life and death at a rapid rate. Unlike the autobiographical account in the previous chapter, this version begins long before the Buddha’s final birth, and ends after his death. Indeed, this account begins with the story of Sumedha, the yogin who, aeons ago, vowed to free all beings from rebirth, and who made that vow in the presence of the past buddha Dipamkara, who predicted that he would become a buddha named Gotama The bodhisattva perfected himself over millions of lifetimes until his penultimate birth, in the Tusita heaven, from whence he surveyed the world to select the place of his final birth and achievement of buddhahood. The biography goes on to describe his childhood and youth, his renunciation of the world, practice of asceticism and achievement of enlightenment. It moves quickly through the conversion of his first disciples and the establishment of the order of monks (there is no mention of the order of nuns), before describing the Buddha’s passage into nirvana. The text does not end there, but continues to describe the concern of Mahakassapa and other senior disciples that the dharma and the vinaya may pass away with the master. They therefore convened a council of elders to recite everything that they had heard from the Buddha and to codify it into what is known as the tripitaka (tipitaka in Pali), the three collections of the sutra, vinaya and abhidharma.

Each biography of the Buddha has perspectives which it seeks to promote; among those here is the view of the Theravada school as standing in a direct line of transmission to this council of the Buddha’s chief disciples.

Many millions and hundreds of thousands of millions of years ago, our teacher was a brahman boy named Sumedha in the city of Amaravati. He reached perfection in every branch of knowledge. After his mother and father died, he gave away their wealth in the amount of many tens of millions and went forth as an ascetic. Living in the Himalayas, he learned how to produce meditative absorption and higher powers as well as other special abilities.

Travelling through the air one day, he saw a road being cleared to allow DIpamkara Buddha to come to the city of Amaravati from the Sudassana monastery. Sumedha himself set to work on a section of the road with the thought, ‘I will clean it.’ When the teacher approached before he had finished, he made his body into a bridge, spread his garment of black antelope skin in the mud and, lying down, said, ‘May the teacher, together with his community of disciples, not step in the mud, but go, stepping on me.’ When the teacher saw him, he explained, ‘This is one who will be a buddha. In the future, after four incalculable aeons together with one hundred thousand aeons, he will be the buddha named Gotama.’

He received the same prediction in the presence of a succession of twenty-three buddhas after that teacher, each of whom, when born, illuminated the world; he received it first from Kondanna, then Sumangala, Sumana, Revata, Sobhita, AnomadassI, Paduma, Narada, Padumuttara, Sumedha, Sujata, PiyadassI, AtthadassI, DhammadassI, Siddhattha, Tissa, Phussa, VipassI, SikhI, Vessabhu, Kakusandha, Konagamana and finally from Kassapa. He also fulfilled the thirty perfections, that is, the ten perfections, the ten minor perfections and the ten superior perfections. When he was Vessantara, he gave great offerings of gifts seven times, each one accompanied by such signs as earthquakes, and he also gave away both his wife and children. At the end of that life, he was born in the heavenly city of Tusita and lived there for as long as a life lasts in that heaven.

The gods of the ten thousand worlds gathered together and begged him to become a buddha:

Time is passing, O great hero.

Be born in your mother’s womb.

To help the gods and all the rest

Discover the thing without death.

Hearing that, he considered the five great portents and seeing each, he said:

Tathagatas are born After they

consider and know These

five things: the time,

The country, the continent,

The family, and the mother.

Then having descended from there, he was first conceived and then born in the royal family of the Sakyans, where he was delighted by its great wealth. In due course he enjoyed a happy youth, experiencing such royal splendour in three palaces appropriate for each of the three seasons that it was comparable to the splendour of heaven.

At the time of going for amusement in his gardens, he saw in sequence three divine messengers, namely, an old person, a sick person and a dead person, and shocked as he was, he turned back each time. On a fourth occasion, he saw one who had renounced the world, and having the thought ‘renunciation is good’, he developed the intent to go forth into the life of an ascetic. He went to the garden and then spent the day there, sitting on the bank of the royal pond where he was adorned by the god Vissukamma who came disguised as a barber. He then heard the message that his son Rahula had been born, and knowing the force of a parent’s love for a child, he thought, ‘This is a tie that binds and I will cut it indeed.’

In the evening, he returned to the city, and when Kisa Gotami saw him, she praised him, saying this verse:

This is the kind of man Whose

mother must be happy Whose

father must be happy Whose

wife must be happy.

Hearing this verse spoken by his cousin Kisa Gotami, he thought, ‘Surely she is teaching about the place of peace’, and he took off a pearl necklace from his neck and sent it to her. He entered his dwelling and, while he sat on the royal bed, he watched the bodily changes in the sleeping dancers. His heart was disgusted and he woke Channa and had Kanthaka fetched. He mounted Kanthaka and, together with Channa and surrounded by the gods of the ten thousand worlds, he went forth, making the great renunciation, and became an ascetic on the banks of the Anoma River. In the course of time, he went to the city Rajagaha and there begged for alms. Once, sitting on the slope of Pandava

Mountain, he was invited to become king by the king of Magadha. He refused that, but he gave the king the promise that once he had attained omniscience he would visit his kingdom. He then approached Alara and Uddaka but with them he did not reach the highest to be attained. He then engaged in great exertions for six years. Very early on the day of the full moon in the month of Visakha, he enjoyed a meal of rice boiled in milk given by Sujata and caused his golden bowl to float on the Neranjara River. He passed the time throughout the day in various stages of meditation while in the Mahavana grove on the other shore of the Neranjara River. In the evening, he received the grass given by Sotthiya and his qualities were praised by the naga king named Kala.

He ascended to the place of awakening, scattered the grass, and made the vow that ‘I will not rise from this posture as long as my mind is not freed from the cankers without any remainder.’ He sat facing east, and when the sun was measured in eight parts he had already conquered Mara’s army. In the first watch of the night, he gained the remembrance of his former existences, in the middle watch, he gained knowledge of the disappearance and reappearance of beings. At the end of the last watch of the night, he acquired knowledge of the various modes of the conditions of existence. At the time of the sunrise, he attained omniscience and was adorned with all the qualities of a buddha… Having thus become awakened, for seven weeks he remained at the place of awakening. In the eighth week, while sitting at the foot of the Ajapala banyan tree, he became torpid because of examining the depth of the dhamma. Before he agreed to teach the dhamma as requested by Sahampati Brahma, king of the gods, with his retinue of ten thousand mahabrahmas, he examined the world with the eye of a buddha and then consented to the god’s plea. Thinking, ‘To whom will I teach dhamma first?’, he examined the world, and realizing that Alara and Uddaka had died, he remembered the many services of the monks of the group of five. He rose from his seat and, going to the city of Kasika, he spoke with the Ajivaka ascetic Upaka while on the way. On the full moon day of the month of Asalha, he reached the place of residence of the monks of the group of five in the Deer Park at Isipatana. After being addressed with improper behaviour, he corrected them, and then he set in motion the wheel of the dhamma, making the eighteen kotis [ten millions] of brahmas, and above all the ascetic Annakondanna, drink the ambrosia of the deathless. After the excellent wheel of the dhamma was set in motion, on the fifth day of the fortnight, he helped all of those monks to attain enlightenment. On that same day, he saw that Yasa, a boy of good family, had the good fortune of being certain to attain enlightenment. When Yasa, turning away from that in the night, had left his house, he called him saying, ‘Come, Yasa, to being homeless!’ and made him attain the fruit of being a stream-winner that night. On the next day, he made him become an arahant. Afterwards, he ordained his other fifty-four friends with the ‘ehi bhikkhu’ [‘come, monk’] formula of ordination and made them become enlightened.

Thus in the world sixty-one arahants had arisen. Having come to the end of the rainy season, the teacher sent forth the sixty monks, saying, ‘Wander about, O monks.’ He himself began going to Uruvela, and while on the way he instructed the thirty young men of the happy group in the Kappasika grove. All of the least of these became stream-winners, while the best became never-returners. All of these were ordained with the ‘ehi bhikkhu’ formula and sent out to all directions. When he himself had gone to Uruvela, he displayed three and a half thousand miracles and instructed the three brother ascetics, Uruvelakassapa and the others, along with their retinue of one thousand ascetics. He ordained them by inviting them to become monks, and, making them sit at Gayasisa, he taught them the Fire Sermon and helped them to become enlightened.

Then thinking, ‘I will keep my promise given to King Bimbasara’, he went to the Latthivana garden, which was near the city of Rajagaha. Hearing that the Teacher had come, the king came, together with twelve myriads of brahmans and householders. The Buddha preached a sweet sermon and the king along with eleven myriads were established in the fruit of a stream-winner and one myriad was established in taking refuge in the Buddha, his teaching, and his monastic order. The next day his qualities were praised by Sakka, king of the gods, who had taken the form of a young man. The Buddha then entered the city of Rajagaha and after the meal given in the palace, he accepted the Veluvana park and began to live there.

Sitting at the first place of enlightenment, the lord of the world examined the establishment of his teaching in the middle and neighbouring regions with his omniscient knowledge. He saw it along with exact times and places in the middle regions of Jambudipa, beginning with Baranasi, and in the neighbouring regions beginning with Lanka. He thought, ‘There will be the establishment of my teaching in many places.’ With respect to this, the teachers of old said:

While he lived at the place of awakening

Whether absorbed in his attainments or

In between enjoying his attainments

The Lord was completing the last of a buddha’s duties

With the establishment of his teachings.

Thus for seven weeks, he who is best Passed his time

there at the place of awakening.

Moreover the Lord Buddha, reflecting on all of a buddha’s duties and on the establishment of his teachings in various regions, did not dwell in one place. He went to various regions and the excellent wheel of the dhamma was set in motion. He established gods and humans in the paths and their fruits. He sent out monks for the sake of establishing the Buddha’s teachings in various regions. He lived in various parks, such as Veluvana and Jetavana, in places beginning with Rajagaha and Savatthi, teaching the most excellent dhamma, bringing benefit and happiness to beings. His life was eighty years long, with the time from his enlightenment to when he made his final nibbana being forty-five years. With respect to this, the teachers of old said:

Thus the Lord saw at that moment

‘Now forty-five years have passed for me.

While I lie on the bed of final enlightenment

In between the two sala trees

There will be humans living in Lanka then,

And the elder Mahakassapa will hold

The First Council, a recitation with 500 monks…’

To repeat the story, the Teacher, while living for forty-five years from the time of his enlightenment rescued a total of twenty-four incalculables together with nine kotis and a hundred thousand beings from the ocean of samsara and established them on the shore, that is, nibbana.

The Lord taught 84,000 units of dhamma in that period of time that had passed bringing beings out of the wilderness. He then thought, ‘I will not live much longer but will attain final nibbana. The body of each buddha who lives a long time becomes one solid mass like a piece of gold. My teachings are not yet widespread in all places, therefore, after my final nibbana, people will take my relics, as small as a mustard seed, and making shrines in their own communities will worship and heaven will be their end. He thus finished all of the duties of a buddha. While lying on the bed of final enlightenment in between the twin sola trees in the saLa grove in the city of Kusinara, he instructed the ascetic Subhadda in the first watch of the night and established him in the fruit of being an enlightened person.

In the middle watch he preached to the gods of the ten thousand world-systems. In the first part of the last watch he addressed his last words to the community of monks led by the elder Anuruddha: ‘O monks, I exhort you. Compounded things decay and pass away. You should strive with diligence.’ In this last watch of the night, at the time near dawn on the full moon day of the month of Visakha, when the moon was in the house of Visakha, he attained the first jhana, and then in order up to the jhana of neither perception nor non-perception, and then he attained the state of cessation. Then he attained each of the jhanas again down to the first jhana, and then and there he attained the realm of nibbana without remainder.

Then, the Lord was honoured by gods and humans for a week, beginning from the day he attained final nibbana, still between the twin saLa trees.

Then his beautiful body was cremated for seven days, and then what remained was in a public hall for seven days.

Thus when twenty-one days had gone by after the death of the Blessed One, lord of the world, the venerable Mahakassapa was the elder of the community of 700,000 monks who had come together.

About this, it is said in the Mahavamsa,, ‘Leading monks were among those 700,000 and the elder Mahakassapa was at that time the elder of the community having performed the duties to the bodily relics of the teacher.’

Seven days after the death of the Blessed One, lord of the world, Mahakassapa, remembered the speech that was said by Subhadda, who had become a monk in old age, ‘Surely, friends, do not grieve, do not lament, it’s good riddance for us. We were annoyed by that great ascetic, who told us what is proper and what is not proper. Now we can do what we wish to do and not do what we don’t wish to do.’ Mahakassapa then thought, ‘This setting which now exists is one where evil monks think “This word is from a teacher who has passed away”, and when they get followers, the true dhamma may disappear quickly. As long as the dhamma and vinaya exist, there will be the word of a teacher who has not passed away. Since the Blessed One said, “O Ananda, the dhamma and the vinaya that I have taught and made known to you will be your teacher after my death”, what if I should recite the dhamma and the vinaya so that this sasana [teaching] will last for a long time and be perpetual?’

Then the elder said, ‘Let us, friends, recite the dhamma and the vinaya. Formerly what is contrary to dhamma shined and dhamma was disregarded, formerly what is contrary to vinaya shined and vinaya was disregarded, formerly those who held views contrary to dhamma were powerful and those who professed the dhamma were weak, formerly those who held views contrary to vinaya were strong and those who professed vinaya were weak.’ The monks said, ‘In that case, sir, may you pick elder monks.’

The elder rejected many hundreds and many thousands of monks who were ordinary monks, stream-winners, once-returners, non-returners and dry-visioned enlightened ones, all of whom were versed in the entire nine-fold learning of the sasana of the teacher, and he chose 499 enlightened monks who were well-versed in the analytic insights, who had great powers, who usually had been said by the Blessed One to be the best in the separate areas such as the three knowledges.

Why did the elder make the number incomplete by one? For the purpose of making space for the venerable elder Ananda, since it was not possible to hold the council without him. Then the venerable Mahakassapa chose the venerable one with the enlightened ones. There were thus five hundred venerable ones who were chosen with the agreement of the monks.

Later the venerable elder Ananda attained the analytic insights and became an enlightened one.

Then the elder Mahakassapa and the elder Anuruddha, taking the entire order of monks, went to Rajagaha. At that time, there were eighteen great monasteries in Rajagaha, and all of them had become houses in a state of nature and were filled with refuse, because when the Blessed One died, all the monks there had taken their own robes and bowls and went away, abandoning the monasteries and cells. The elders, when they arrived there, thought, ‘For the first month, we will make repairs on the broken and shattered units [of dhamma]’, for the purpose of honouring the Blessed One and for the purpose of avoiding the criticism of the heretics.

Then this occurred to the elder monks, ‘Friends, the repairs of broken and shattered units [of dhamma] has been praised by the Blessed One. Now let us for the first month, friends, make repairs on the broken and shattered units, and in the middle month, after assembling, we will recite the dhamma and the vinaya. With respect to this, it is said in the Mahavamsa:

In the bright half of the month of Asalha, desiring that the good might long endure, they went to Rajagaha, which had the four requisites. There they stayed for the rainy season, these elders, beginning with Mahakassapa, endowed with steadfast virtues and knew the path of the buddha. In the first month of the rains, having made repairs on all the beds and seats, they told Ajatasattu about this.

Then the king made an excellent pavilion on a jewelled spot of ground at the entrance to the Sattapanna cave, which is on the slope of the Vebhara Mountain to the east of Rajagaha, and he dedicated it to the elders. About this, it is said in the Mahavamsa:

An elder’s seat was properly prepared for the elder right there in the middle of that pavilion. A high preaching seat, worthy of the Buddha, was properly prepared facing east. The king informed the monks, ‘My work is finished.’

This is what is said about that council. It was held on the full moon day of the month of Bhaddapada during the rainy season,
four months after the death of the Lord, which occurred on the day of the festival of the full moon in the month of Visakha. On the second day, after the duties were done, the elder monks arranged their robes and bowls and gathered in the dhamma assembly made by King Ajatasattu.

When the community of monks was all seated together, the elder Mahakassapa addressed the monks, ‘Friends, will we recite dhamma or vinaya first?’ The monks said, ‘Mahakassapa Sir, the vinaya is the life of the sasana of the Buddha. When the vinaya exists, the sasana exists, therefore we will first recite vinaya. ’

‘Who should have the responsibility for the vinaya being recited?’ ‘The venerable elder Upali should have the responsibility,’ they said. Mahakassapa himself agreed to do the questioning about the vinaya, and the elder Upali agreed to answer about the vinaya.

The venerable Upali, rising from his seat and putting his upper robe over one shoulder, paid respect to the elder monks. He sat on the preacher’s seat holding a fan with an ivory-inlaid handle. Then the venerable Mahakassapa, seated on the elder’s seat, asked the venerable Upali about vinaya. Thus, the teachers of old said:

And the elder Mahakassapa himself agreed to ask about the vinaya and the elder Upali agreed to answer. Among them, the Parajika section, next the Pacittiya, the Vibhanga for bhikkhums, then the Mahavagga, the Cullavagga, and the Parivara are considered to be the Vinayapitaka. They are called the Vinayapitaka.

Then the venerable elder Upali laid down the fan with the ivory- inlaid handle and descended from the preacher’s seat. He paid respect to the older monks and sat in the seat assigned to him.

Then the venerable elder Mahakassapa agreed to ask about dhamma and the elder Ananda agreed to answer about dhamma. The elder Ananda sat in the preacher’s seat and took the fan with the ivory-inlaid handle. Ananda said, ‘Thus have I heard.’ Thus, the teachers of old said:

The thirty-four suttas which are grouped in three sections are the Dighanikdya and come first in a natural sequence. The 152 suttas which are taken in fifteen sections, these are the Majjhimanikdya. The 7762, suttas are the Samyuttanikdya and the 9557 numbered suttas are the Anguttara. The Khuddakanikdya is considered as divided into fifteen books: the Khuddakapatho, Dhammapada, Uddna, Itivuttako, Suttanipdta, Vimdna and Petavatthu, and next the Thera and Theri gdthds, the Jdtaka, the Niddesa, the Patisambhidd, the Apaddna, the Buddhavamsa, and the Cariydpitaka. This is the Suttapitaka by name, divided into five collections. The Dhammasangani and the Vibhanga, and the Dhdtukathd come next. Then the Puggalapannatti and the Kathdvatthuppakarana, the Yamaka and the Mahdpatthdna, these are the seven divisions of the basket called the Abhidhamma which was taught by the fully enlightened one. This is what is called the Abhidhammapitaka.

Thus, the Council members said:

I have learned 82,000 from the Buddha and 2,000 from the monks, but all 84,000 units of the dhamma are beneficial.

Kassapa asked about vinaya and Upali answered, and Kassapa asked about dhamma and Ananda answered. Thus the First Council was finished in seven months.

Translated by Charles Hallisey from the Sangityavamsa by Vimaladhamma, from an unpublished edition of the Pali text by Charles Hallisey, pp. 45-59.

Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.

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