The picture of the human condition that emerges from the Nikāyas, as sketched in the preceding chapter, is the background against which the manifestation of the Buddha in the world acquires a heightened and deepened significance. Unless we view the Buddha against this multi-dimensional background, extending from the most personal and individual exigencies of the present to the vast, impersonal rhythms of cosmic time, any interpretation we may arrive at about his role is bound to be incomplete. Far from capturing the viewpoint of the compilers of the Nikāyas, our interpretation will be influenced as much by our own presuppositions as by theirs, perhaps even more so. Depending on our biases and predispositions, we may choose to regard the Buddha as a liberal ethical reformer of a degenerate Brahmanism, as a great secular humanist, as a radical empiricist, as an existential psychologist, as the proponent of a sweeping agnosticism, or as the precursor of any other intellectual fashion that meets our fancy. The Buddha who stares back at us from the texts will be too much a reflection of ourselves, too little an image of the Enlightened One.
Perhaps in interpreting a body of ancient religious literature we can never fully avoid inserting ourselves and our own values into the subject we are interpreting. However, though we may never achieve perfect transparency, we can limit the impact of personal bias upon the process of interpretation by giving the words of the texts due respect. When we pay this act of homage to the Nikāyas, when we take seriously their own account of the background to the Buddha’s manifestation in the world, we will see that they ascribe to his mission nothing short of a cosmic scope. Against the background of a universe with no conceivable bounds in time, a universe within which living beings enveloped in the darkness of ignorance wander along bound to the suffering of old age, sickness, and death, the Buddha arrives as the “torchbearer of humankind” (ukkādhāro manussānaṃ) bringing the light of wisdom. In the words of Text II,1, his arising in the world is “the manifestation of great vision, of great light, of great radiance.” Having discovered for himself the perfect peace of liberation, he kindles for us the light of knowledge, which reveals both the truths that we must see for ourselves and the path of practice that culminates in this liberating vision.
According to Buddhist tradition, the Buddha Gotama is not merely one unique individual who puts in an unprecedented appearance on the stage of human history and then bows out forever. He is, rather, the fulfillment of a primordial archetype, the most recent member of a cosmic “dynasty” of Buddhas constituted by numberless Perfectly Enlightened Ones of the past and sustained by Perfectly Enlightened Ones continuing indefinitely onward into the future. Early Buddhism, even in the archaic root texts of the Nikāyas, already recognizes a plurality of Buddhas who all conform to certain fixed patterns of behavior, the broad outlines of which are described in the opening sections of the Mahāpadāna Sutta (Dīgha Nikāya 14, not represented in the present anthology). The word “Tathāgata,” which the texts use as an epithet for a Buddha, points to this fulfillment of a primordial archetype. The word means both “the one who has come thus” (tathā āgata), that is, who has come into our midst in the same way that the Buddhas of the past have come; and “the one who has gone thus” (tathā gata), that is, who has gone to the ultimate peace, Nibbāna, in the same way that the Buddhas of the past have gone.
Though the Nikāyas stipulate that in any given world system, at any given time, only one Perfectly Enlightened Buddha can arise, the arising of Buddhas is intrinsic to the cosmic process. Like a meteor against the blackness of the night sky, from time to time a Buddha will appear against the backdrop of boundless space and time, lighting up the spiritual firmament of the world, shedding the brilliance of his wisdom upon those capable of seeing the truths that he illuminates. The being who is to become a Buddha is called, in Pāli, a bodhisatta, a word better known in the Sanskrit form, bodhisattva. According to common Buddhist tradition, a bodhisatta is one who undertakes a long course of spiritual development consciously motivated by the aspiration to attain future Buddhahood. Inspired and sustained by great compassion for living beings mired in the suffering of birth and death, a bodhisatta fulfills, over many eons of cosmic time, the difficult course needed to fully master the requisites for supreme enlightenment. When all these requisites are complete, he attains Buddhahood in order to establish the Dhamma in the world. A Buddha discovers the long-lost path to liberation, the “ancient path” traveled by the Buddhas of the past that culminates in the boundless freedom of Nibbāna. Having found the path and traveled it to its end, he then teaches it in all its fullness to humanity so that many others can enter the way to final liberation.
This, however, does not exhaust the function of a Buddha. A Buddha understands and teaches not only the path leading to the supreme state of ultimate liberation, the perfect bliss of Nibbāna, but also the paths leading to the various types of wholesome mundane happiness to which human beings aspire. A Buddha proclaims both a path of mundane enhancement that enables sentient beings to plant wholesome roots productive of happiness, peace, and security in the worldly dimensions of their lives, and a path of world-transcendence to guide sentient beings to Nibbāna. His role is thus much wider than an exclusive focus on the transcendent aspects of his teaching might suggest. He is not merely a mentor of ascetics and contemplatives, not merely a teacher of meditation techniques and philosophical insights, but a guide to the Dhamma in its full range and depth: one who reveals, proclaims, and establishes all the principles integral to correct understanding and wholesome conduct, whether mundane or transcendental. Text II,1 highlights this wide-ranging altruistic dimension of a Buddha’s career when it praises the Buddha as the one person who arises in the world “for the welfare of the multitude, for the happiness of the multitude, out of compassion for the world, for the good, welfare, and happiness of devas and humans.”
The Nikāyas offer two perspectives on the Buddha as a person, and to do justice to the texts it is important to hold these two perspectives in balance, without letting one cancel out the other. A correct view of the Buddha can only arise from the merging of these two perspectives, just as the correct view of an object can arise only when the perspectives presented by our two eyes are merged in the brain into a single image. One perspective, the one highlighted most often in modernist presentations of Buddhism, shows the Buddha as a human being who, like other human beings, had to struggle with the common frailties of human nature to arrive at the state of an Enlightened One. After his enlightenment at the age of thirty-five, he walked among us for fortyfive years as a wise and compassionate human teacher, sharing his realization with others and ensuring that his teachings would remain in the world long after his death. This is the side of the Buddha’s nature that figures most prominently in the Nikāyas. Since it corresponds closely with contemporary agnostic attitudes toward the ideals of religious faith, it has an immediate appeal to those nurtured by modern modes of thought.
The other aspect of the Buddha’s person is likely to seem strange to us, but it looms large in Buddhist tradition and serves as the bedrock for popular Buddhist devotion. Though secondary in the Nikāyas, it occasionally surfaces so conspicuously that it cannot be ignored, despite the efforts of Buddhist modernists to downplay its significance or rationalize its intrusions. From this perspective, the Buddha is seen as one who had already made preparations for his supreme attainment over countless past lives and was destined from birth to fulfill the mission of a world teacher. Text II,2 is an example of how the Buddha is viewed from this perspective. Here, it is said, the future Buddha descends fully conscious from the Tusita heaven into his mother’s womb; his conception and birth are accompanied by wonders; deities worship the newborn infant; and as soon as he is born he walks seven steps and announces his future destiny. Obviously, for the compilers of such a sutta as this, the Buddha was already destined to attain Buddhahood even prior to his conception and thus his struggle for enlightenment was a battle whose outcome was already predetermined. The final paragraph of the sutta, however, ironically hearkens back to the realistic picture of the Buddha. What the Buddha himself considers to be truly wondrous are not the miracles accompanying his conception and birth, but his mindfulness and clear comprehension in the midst of feelings, thoughts, and perceptions.
The three texts in section 3 are biographical accounts consistent with this naturalistic point of view. They offer us a portrait of the Buddha stark in its realism, bare in its naturalism, striking in its ability to convey deep psychological insights with minimal descriptive technique. In Text II,3(1) we read about his renunciation, his training under two famous meditation teachers, his disillusionment with their teachings, his solitary struggle, and his triumphant realization of the Deathless. Text II,3(2) fills in the gaps of the above narrative with a detailed account of the bodhisatta’s practice of self-mortification, strangely missing from the previous discourse. This text also gives us the classic description of the enlightenment experience as involving the attainment of the four jhānas, states of deep meditation, followed by the three vijjās or higher types of knowledge: the knowledge of the recollection of past lives, the knowledge of the passing away and rebirth of beings, and the knowledge of the destruction of the taints. While this text may convey the impression that the last knowledge broke upon the Buddha’s mind as a sudden and spontaneous intuition, Text II,3(3) corrects this impression with an account of the Bodhisatta on the eve of his enlightenment reflecting deeply upon the suffering of old age and death. He then methodically traces this suffering back to its conditions by a process that involves, at each step, “careful attention” (yoniso manasikāra) leading to “a breakthrough by wisdom” (paññāya abhisamaya). This process of investigation culminates in the discovery of dependent origination, which thereby becomes the philosophical cornerstone of his teaching.
It is important to emphasize that, as presented here and elsewhere in the Nikāyas (see below, pp. 353-59), dependent origination does not signify a joyous celebration of the interconnectedness of all things but a precise articulation of the conditional pattern in dependence upon which suffering arises and ceases. In the same text, the Buddha declares that he discovered the path to enlightenment only when he found the way to bring dependent origination to an end. It was thus the realization of the cessation of dependent origination, and not merely the discovery of its origination aspect, that precipitated the Buddha’s enlightenment. The simile of the ancient city, introduced later in the discourse, illustrates the point that the Buddha’s enlightenment was not a unique event but the rediscovery of the same “ancient path” that had been followed by the Buddhas of the past.
Text II,4 resumes the narrative of Text II,3(1), which I had divided by splicing in the two alternative versions of the bodhisatta’s quest for the path to enlightenment. We now rejoin the Buddha immediately after his enlightenment as he ponders the weighty question whether to attempt to share his realization with the world. Just at this point, in the midst of a text that has so far appeared so convincingly naturalistic, a deity named Brahmā Sahampati descends from the heavens to plead with the Buddha to wander forth and teach the Dhamma for the benefit of those “with little dust in their eyes.” Should this scene be interpreted literally or as a symbolic enactment of an internal drama taking place in the Buddha’s mind? It is hard to give a definitive answer to this question; perhaps the scene could be understood as occurring at both levels at once. In any event, Brahmā’s appearance at this point marks a shift from the realism that colors the earlier part of the sutta back toward the mythical-symbolic mode. The transition again underscores the cosmic significance of the Buddha’s enlightenment and his future mission as a teacher.
Brahmā’s appeal eventually prevails and the Buddha agrees to teach. He chooses as the first recipients of his teaching the five ascetics who had attended on him during his years of ascetic practices. The narrative culminates in a brief statement that the Buddha instructed them in such a way that they all attained the deathless Nibbāna for themselves. However, it gives no indication of the specific teaching that the Buddha imparted to them when he first met them after his enlightenment. That teaching is the First Discourse itself, known as “The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of the Dhamma.”
This sutta is included here as Text II,5. When the sutta opens, the Buddha announces to the five ascetics that he has discovered “the middle way,” which he identifies with the Noble Eightfold Path. In the light of the preceding biographical account, we can understand why the Buddha should begin his discourse in this way. The five ascetics had initially refused to acknowledge the Buddha’s claim to enlightenment and spurned him as one who had betrayed the higher calling to revert to a life of luxury. Thus he first had to assure them that, far from reverting to a life of self-indulgence, he had discovered a new approach to the timeless quest for enlightenment. This new approach, he told them, remains faithful to the renunciation of sensual pleasures yet eschews tormenting the body as pointless and unproductive. He then explained to them the true path to liberation, the Noble Eightfold Path, which avoids the two extremes and thereby gives rise to the light of wisdom and culminates in the destruction of all bondage, Nibbāna.
Once he has cleared up their misunderstanding, the Buddha then proclaims the truths he had realized on the night of his enlightenment. These are the Four Noble Truths. Not only does he enunciate each truth and briefly define its meaning, but he describes each truth from three perspectives. These constitute the three “turnings of the wheel of the Dhamma” referred to later in the discourse. With respect to each truth, the first turning is the wisdom that illuminates the particular nature of that noble truth. The second turning is the understanding that each noble truth imposes a particular task to be accomplished. Thus the first noble truth, the truth of suffering, is to be fully understood; the second truth, the truth of suffering’s origin or craving, is to be abandoned; the third truth, the truth of the cessation of suffering, is to be realized; and the fourth truth, the truth of the path, is to be developed. The third turning is the understanding that the four functions regarding the Four Noble Truths have been completed: the truth of suffering has been fully understood; craving has been abandoned; the cessation of suffering has been realized; and the path has been fully developed. It was only when he understood the Four Noble Truths in these three turnings and twelve modes, he says, that he could claim that he had attained unsurpassed perfect enlightenment.
The Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta illustrates once again the blending of the two stylistic modes I referred to earlier. The discourse proceeds almost entirely in the realistic-naturalistic mode until we approach the end. When the Buddha completes his sermon, the cosmic significance of the event is illuminated by a passage showing how the deities in each successive celestial realm applaud the discourse and shout the good news up to the deities in the next higher realm. At the same time, the entire world system quakes and shakes, and a great light surpassing the radiance of the gods appears in the world. Then, at the very end, we return from this glorious scene back to the prosaic human realm, to behold the Buddha briefly congratulating the ascetic Koṇḍañña for gaining “the dust-free, stainless vision of the Dhamma.” In one split-second, the Lamp of the Doctrine has passed from master to disciple, to begin its journey throughout India and across the world.
- One Person (AN 1. xiii, 1, 5, 6) [AN 1.170-186]
- The Buddha’s Conception and Birth (MN 123, abridged)
- The Quest for Enlightenment
- Seeking the Supreme State of Sublime Peace (from MN 26)
- The Realization of the Three True Knowledges (from MN 36)
- The Ancient City (SN 12.65)
- The Decision to Teach (from MN 26)
- The First Discourse (SN 56.11)
Note: This series was based on a post at Dhamma Wheel. For this SuttaCentral version I have included the full text of the Introductions, which were made available under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence by Wisdom Publications.