Buddha's Biography in the Discourse to Prince Bodhi - parallels and translations

The Buddha’s biographical account contained in the Bodhirājakumāra Sutta (MN 85) is certainly no ordinary Buddhist text. What seems not to be always appreciated is the fact that this discourse contains the earliest available version of the near-complete biographical account, from the going forth to the conversion of the first disciples. In part this may be due to its postion within MN, since parallel versions of parts of the account preceeding MN 85 (as MN 26 for part 2, and MN 36 for part 1) have led to heavy abbreviations in most edtions of the Pāli text and its translations, ‘hiding’ as it were the actual significance of the text.

There are many good reasons to agree with Erich Frauwallner (‘The Earliest Vinaya and the Beginnings of Buddhist Literature’, Roma 1956) that this biographical account originally formed the initial part of the Vinaya Mahāvagga of the Mahākhandhaka, where it still stands in the Mahīśāsaka and Dharmaguptaka Vinaya tradition, and where the Theravāda tradition has retained the second part which comences after the event of the awakening. However it should not be forgotten that right at the beginning of Vin III, Mahāvibhaṅga, Verañjakaṇḍa 1 has preserved the portion from jhāna-meditation up to awakening (see references below). The Mahāvastu (which refers to itself as a Vinaya text) and the Saṃghabhedavastu seem to confirm this fact.

No other text has shaped the history of the Buddhist community in a comparable manner, and certainly the composition of further Sutta and Vinaya texts as well. The numerous parallels, pericopes, quotations, verses, references etc. found in other texts are a clear indication that this account was held in the highest esteem ever since from the earliest times. The genial move of its author(s) to incorporate the central Buddhist doctrines in a biographical garb certainly contributed much to its preservation in the face of constant pressure from an intensely competitive religious and social environment. Besides it is a true masterpiece from a purely literary point of view, certainly unique as a composition of its time and for many centuries to come.

Therefore I am glad to share some more quotations of parallel versions and translations into modern languages. Where I found the listing in SC to be incomplete or too unspecific I have specified the page numbers for easier reference. Only major parts or whole portions of the text have been listed as parallels below. Pericopes, single passages, verses etc. found in other texts have not been considered, since that would probably exceed the purpose and intent of SC.

The multiple listing in SC of a ‘Chinese Mahīśāsaka Bhikkhu Vibhaṅga Sekhiya 1–100#t0074b12’ parallel, which has been listed an estimated 200 times as a parallel, has probably occured due to a technical error, and if so could perhaps be removed.

Near-complete Parallels (from going forth up to conversion of first disciples):

Mahāvastu II, 117 – 133 (Part 1), III 314 – 329 (Part 2)
(Note: corresponding passages in Mvu III, 314-315, 317-318, 322-323, 325-327, 329)

English Translation by J.J. Jones, Mahāvastu Vol. 2 and Vol. 3

Lalitavistara 174 – 175, 180 – 188, 192 – 193, 250 – 253 (Part 1), 289 – 298 (Part 2)

English Translation by the Dharmachakra Translation Committee, ‘The Play in Full’, tanslated from the Tibetan version Toh 95, Degé Kangyur, vol. 46 (mdo sde, kha), folios 1b–216b. Chapter 16 - The Visit of King Bimbisāra, p. 178 ff.

Saṃghabhedavastu I, 97 – 108, 116 – 119, 128 – 134

Dharmaguptaka Vinaya, T 1428, 780b7 -788a5

Translated into English by the Bodhi Translation Committee, Published by the Bodhi Foundation for Culture and Education, 2014, Dharmaguptaka Vinaya - Ordination Skandhaka Part 1 and 2, available at http://dharmaguptakavinaya.wordpress.com

French Translation by A. Bareau in ‘Recherches sur la Biographie du Buddha’, 1963

Mahīśāsaka Vinaya, T 1421, 102c14 -104b22

French Translation by A. Bareau in ‘Recherches sur la Biographie du Buddha’, 1963

First Part of the Biography (going forth up to awakening):

DĀs 20, Kāyabhāvanā Sūtra (Gilgit Sanskrit Manuscripts)
(Parallel to MN 36, Mahāsaccaka Sutta and EĀc 31.8, T II 670c02)

‘Versenkung und Askese’, Zhen Liu, Dissertation LMU München 2008.
Critical edition of the Sanskrit Text of the ‘Kāyabhāvanā Sūtra’ of the Gilgit Sanskrit Manuscripts, with comparison of parallel versions in Pāli and Sanskrit. German translation and notes.

DĀs 21, Bodha Sūtra (Gilgit Sanskrit Manuscripts)
(biographical part with abbreviation referring to DĀs 20 up to awakening)

DĀs 22, Śaṃkaraka Sūtra (Gilgit Sanskrit Manuscripts)
(biographical part with abbreviation referring to DĀs 20 up to awakening)

Second Part of the Biography (from awakening to conversion of first disciples):

Catuṣpariṣat Sūtra (SHT, Sanskrit text edited by E. Waldschmidt, 1957)

Comparative study of content in ‘Vergleichende Analyse des Catuṣpariṣat Sūtra’,
E. Waldschmidt, Hamburg 1951

EĀc 19.1, T II 593a24
English translation by A. Bareau in BSR 16.1 (1999), p. 21-22

EĀc 24.5, T II 618a27
English translation by A. Bareau in BSR 16.1 (1999), p. 22-26

Middle Portion of the Biography (jhāna-meditation up to awakening):

MN 4, Bhayabherava Sutta MN I 16 = EĀc 31.1, T II 665b17

MN 19, Dvedhāvitakka Sutta MN I 114 = MĀc 102, T I 589a11

Vin III, Mahāvibhaṅga, Verañjakaṇḍa 1 = AN 8.11, Verañja Sutta AN IV 172 = MĀc 157, T I 679b04


I’m just curious, on what is your understanding based that MN 85 contains the ‘original’ version of Buddha’s bio? Any assumption is difficult to prove, I’m just interested in your reasoning. My tendency for example is to generally accredit higher authenticity to fragments and pericopes (of SN and AN) rather than longer texts.

I can rather imagine bits and pieces to be arranged to longer texts, adding a narrative structure than long texts with setting, narrative and end to be broken up into pieces and scattered throughout the Sutta Nikaya.

Also I would find it hard to imagine why verbatim pericopes are there in the first place if individual suttas of the MN and DN represent a coherent poetic vision. The simple solution that would come to mind is that the Buddha spoke actually in pericopes - which is hard to imagine since it would have been a peculiarity that would have been mentioned in the texts themselves as a comment of followers and especially non-followers.

Anyway, I would be interested to see your thoughts on that. In general I agree that the omissions of repetitions in Suttas (apart from the benefit of readability and printability) have the grave disadvantage that one oversees content - or as in the examples of the ‘repetition series’ in SN and AN one underestimates the importance that this content had in the original compilation of the Pitaka.

1 Like

Yikes, that’s indeed an error, and a bad one! Thanks for pointing it out.

Just to let you know, we don’t necessarily read all the posts here on D&D, so if you want our attention, use @sujato and/or @Vimala.

@Vimala, can you take that out. I haven’t checked in detail, but there might be some other parallels in the OP that we should note.

1 Like

This is bizarre and I have no idea how this can occur. The parallel is only listed once in the parallels file. It must be a problem in the backend somewhere.

The other parallels I will look at in due time. Thanks for your thorough study.

1 Like

I think I found the error. The parallel is listed exactly 100 times, for each of the Sekhiya rules it expects. But the file itself is only one file that contains several Sekhiya rules and this file has not yet been uploaded to the new site, so this confuses the system.

It would be easier to mention the number of the rule rather than the hash-tag. @crizna could you tell me what rules in this file the hashtag refers to and if these are indeed parallels?:

You mention Mahīśāsaka Vinaya, T 1421, 102c14 -104b22, but this would be a completely different file, namely in the first part of the Khandaka

I can trick the system in the frontend by checking if there are multiple entries and removing them, but that’s a hack I’d rather not take because that takes a lot more loading time again.

We do not have the English translation yet. @Sujato, any idea where to find this and if it is for free distribution?

1 Like

@stu was working on this, but we haven’t heard from him in a long time! Let’s see where he’s at.

Indeed, it’s hard to see how it could be a parallel.

1 Like

@sujato - I hope this is a mistake. Should this comment be directed at someone else?

Oops, sorry, wrong handle, I meant @stuindhamma


Thanks for your thoughtful reply. I understand better now where you are coming from.

What I currently do is basically as fragmented as the texts are. When I’m interested in a concept I trace it in the whole Sutta Pitaka, and then see for example if it appears in pericopes and ‘free text’ in consistent connotations. If it only appears in AN --> MN --> DN, or if it’s AN+SN --> MN --> DN, or even just MN+DN.

It’s also significant if there seems to be a misunderstanding of terms that are from older Indian texts. Or when there are even terms correctly used linguistically in some suttas, but not correctly in others.

It doesn’t lead to an easy stratification (so the SN is generally older than the AN, but not in totality) but more certainly to a stratification of terms and meanings.

So it’s kinda opposite to your approach to take a text as a unit, but I think we both come to interesting results. Thanks also for the Freschi-reference!

1 Like

I’ve added / corrected a few of the parallels based on your detailed analysis above. (not visible on the main site yet)

The main difficulty I have is deciding in which level of detail to go with these things and how to adapt it to our technical limitations.

The parallels that are there already are divided into 3 groups. Group 3 = what you call Part 2 and was not very wel expounded in our current list. Groups 1-2 = Part 1 was divided into two large sections and 6 sets of parallels for the verses therein. I have tried to match the texts that you indicated into these two larger sections as far as possible and have identified several of the verse-parallels.

However, it is always difficult to say which exactly is a full parallel or a resembling parallel and how far “resembling” a resembling parallel really is. Especially with the Chinese texts this is more difficult for me. I hope I have managed to come up with a reasonable medium but I hope that in the future somebody can dedicate themselves to the task of detailing these parallels further and adding them to our system as I myself have very limited time for these things given the other tasks I have on SuttaCentral as well as the building of Tilorien Monastery.

Thank you again for your detailed analysis above. The forum articles will be linked to the various suttas in the future as long as the acronym or uid is mentioned so than this analysis will be part of the “commentary” to mn85.

1 Like