Composed entirely of texts from the Pali canon, this unique biography presents the oldest authentic record of the Buddha’s life and revolutionary philosophy. The ancient texts are rendered here in a language marked by lucidity and dignity, and a framework of narrators and voices connect the canonical texts. Vivid recollections of his personal attendant Ananda and other disciples bring the reader into the Buddha’s presence, where his example offers profound inspiration and guidance on the path to freedom.
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About the Author
Bhikkhu Ñanamoli was ordained as a monk in Sri Lanka, where he spent 11 years living in a monastery and translating the texts of Theravada Buddhism into English. He is the author of The Discourse on Right View, Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, and The Path of Purification.
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The Life of the Buddha
According to the Pali Canon
By Bhikkhu Ñanamoli
Buddhist Publication SocietyCopyright © 1992 Buddhist Publication Society
All rights reserved.
THE BIRTH AND THE EARLY YEARS
Narrator One. Indian history actually begins with the story of the Buddha Gotama's life: or to put it perhaps more exactly, that is the point where history as record replaces archaeology and legend; for the documents of the Buddha's life and teaching — the earliest Indian documents to be accorded historical standing — reveal a civilization already stable and highly developed which can only have matured after a very long period indeed. Now the Buddha attained his complete enlightenment at Uruvela in the Ganges plain, which is called the "Middle Country." As distances are reckoned in India, it was not very far from the immemorial holy city of Benares. His struggle to attain enlightenment had lasted six years, and he was then thirty-five years old. From that time onward he wandered from place to place in central India for the space of forty-five years, constantly explaining the Four Noble Truths that he had discovered. The final Parinibbana took place as it is now calculated in Europe, in the year 483 B.C. (traditionally on the full-moon day of the month of May). The period through which he lived seems to have been outstandingly quiet with governments well organized and a stable society, in marked contrast with what must have gone before and came after.
Narrator Two. Three months from the time of the Buddha's Parinibbana his senior disciples who survived him summoned a council of five hundred senior monks in order to agree upon the form in which the Master's teaching should be handed down to posterity. Among these five hundred, all of whom had realized enlightenment, the Elder Upali was the acknowledged authority on the rules of conduct for the Sangha or monastic order, which are called the "Vinaya" or "Discipline." In lay life a barber, he had gone forth into the life of homelessness along with the Buddha's cousin, Ananda, and others. He was appointed to recite before the council the rules of conduct together with the circumstances that caused them to be laid down. The main part of the "Coffer of the Discipline" (the Vinaya Pitaka) was composed there from his recitation.
When he had finished, the Elder Ananda was invited to recite the Discourses. During the last twenty-four years of the Buddha's life he had been the Buddha's personal attendant, and he was gifted with an extraordinary memory. Almost the whole of the collections of discourses in the "Coffer of Discourses" (the Sutta Pitaka) was composed from his recitation of them with their settings. The Elder Upali began each account with the words tena samayena "the occasion was this," but the Elder Ananda prefaced each discourse with an account of where and to whom it was spoken, beginning with the words evam me sutam, "thus I heard."
Narrator One. This narrative of the Buddha's life is taken from those two "Coffers." How they survived to this day is a story to be given later on; but here, to begin with, is the account of the Buddha's last birth, told by himself and related afterwards at the Council by the Elder Ananda. The words were actually spoken in the Buddha's own language now known as Pali.
First Voice. Thus I heard. On one occasion the Blessed One was living at Savatthi in Jeta's Grove, Anathapindika's Park. Then a number of bhikkhus were waiting in an assembly hall where they had met together on return from their alms-round after their meal was over. Meanwhile it was being said among them: "It is wonderful, friends, it is marvellous how the Perfect One's power and might enable him to know of past Buddhas who attained the complete extinction of defilement, cut the tangle, broke the circle, ended the round, and surmounted all suffering: such were those Blessed Ones' births, such their names, such their clans, such their virtue, such their concentration, such their understanding, such their abiding, such the manner of their deliverance."
When this was said, the venerable Ananda told the bhikkhus: "Perfect Ones are wonderful, friends, and have wonderful qualities; Perfect Ones are marvellous and have marvellous qualities."
However, their talk meanwhile was left unfinished; for now it was already evening and the Blessed One, who had risen from retreat, came to the assembly hall and sat down on the seat made ready. Then he asked the bhikkhus: "Bhikkhus, for what talk are you gathered together here now? And what was your talk meanwhile that was left unfinished?"
What the bhikkhus and the venerable Ananda had said was related, and they added: "Lord, this was our talk meanwhile that was left unfinished; for the Blessed One arrived." Then the Blessed One turned to the venerable Ananda: "That being so, Ananda, explain the Perfect One's wonderful and marvellous qualities more fully."
"I heard and learned this, Lord, from the Blessed One's own lips: Mindful and fully aware the Bodhisatta, the Being Dedicated to Enlightenment, appeared in the Heaven of the Contented. And I remember that as a wonderful and marvellous quality of the Blessed One.
"I heard and learned this, Lord, from the Blessed One's own lips: Mindful and fully aware the Bodhisatta remained in the Heaven of the Contented.
"For the whole of that life-span the Bodhisatta remained in the Heaven of the Contented.
"Mindful and fully aware the Bodhisatta passed away from the Heaven of the Contented and descended into his mother's womb.
"When the Bodhisatta had passed away from the Heaven of the Contented and entered his mother's womb, a great measureless light surpassing the splendour of the gods appeared in the world with its deities, its Maras and its Brahma divinities, in this generation with its monks and brahmans, with its princes and men. And even in those abysmal world interspaces of vacancy, gloom and utter darkness, where the moon and sun, powerful and mighty as they are, cannot make their light prevail — there too a great measureless light surpassing the splendour of the gods appeared; and the creatures born there perceived each other by that light: 'So it seems that other creatures have appeared here!' And this ten-thousandfold world-system shook and quaked and trembled; and there too a great measureless light surpassing the splendour of the gods appeared.
"When the Bodhisatta had descended into his mother's womb, four deities came to guard him from the four quarters, so that no human or non-human beings or anyone at all should harm him or his mother.
"When the Bodhisatta had descended into his mother's womb, she became intrinsically pure, refraining by necessity from killing living beings, from taking what is not given, from unchastity, from false speech, and from indulgence in wine, liquour and fermented brews.
"When the Bodhisatta had descended into his mother's womb, no thought of man associated with the five strands of sensual desires came to her at all, and she was inaccessible to any man with lustful mind.
"When the Bodhisatta had descended into his mother's womb, she at the same time possessed the five strands of sensual desires; and being endowed and furnished with them, she was gratified in them.
"When the Bodhisatta had descended into his mother's womb, no kind of affliction arose in her: she was blissful in the absence of all bodily fatigue. As though a blue, yellow, red, white, or brown thread were strung through a fine beryl gem of purest water, eight-faceted and well cut, so that a man with sound eyes, taking it in his hand, might review it thus — 'This is a fine beryl gem of purest water, eight-faceted and well cut, and through it is strung a blue, yellow, red, white, or brown thread' — so too the Bodhisatta's mother saw him within her womb with all his limbs, lacking no faculty.
"Seven days after the Bodhisatta was born, his mother died and was reborn in the Heaven of the Contented.
"Other women give birth after carrying the child in the womb for nine or ten months; but not so the Bodhisatta's mother. She gave birth to him after carrying him in her womb for exactly ten months.
"Other women give birth seated or lying down; but not so the Bodhisatta's mother. She gave birth to him standing up.
"When the Bodhisatta came forth from his mother's womb, first deities received him, then human beings.
"When the Bodhisatta came forth from his mother's womb, he did not touch the earth. The four deities received him and set him before his mother, saying: 'Rejoice, O queen, a son of great power has been born to you.'
"When the Bodhisatta came forth from his mother's womb, just as if a gem were placed on Benares cloth, the gem would not smear the cloth or the cloth the gem — why not? — because both are pure, so too the Bodhisatta came forth from his mother's womb unsullied, unsmeared by water or humours or blood or any sort of impurity, clean and unsullied.
"When the Bodhisatta came forth from his mother's womb, two jets of water appeared to pour from the sky, one cool and one warm, for bathing the Bodhisatta and his mother.
"As soon as the Bodhisatta was born, he stood firmly with his feet on the ground; then he took seven steps to the north, and, with a white sunshade held over him, he surveyed each quarter. He uttered the words of the Leader of the Herd: 'I am the Highest in the world, I am the Best in the world, I am the Foremost in the world; this is the last birth; now there is no more renewal of being in future lives.'
"When the Bodhisatta came forth from his mother's womb, a great measureless light surpassing the splendour of the gods appeared in the world with its deities, its Maras, and its Brahma divinities, in this generation with its monks and brahmans, with its princes and men. And even in those abysmal world interspaces of vacancy, gloom and utter darkness, where the moon and sun, powerful and mighty as they are, cannot make their light prevail — there too a great measureless light surpassing the splendour of the gods appeared; and the creatures born there perceived each other by that light: 'So it seems that other creatures have appeared here!' And this ten-thousandfold world-system shook and quaked and trembled; and there too a great measureless light surpassing the splendour of the gods appeared.
"All these things I heard and learned from the Blessed One's own lips. And I remember them as wonderful and marvellous qualities of the Blessed One."
"That being so, Ananda, remember also this as a wonderful and marvellous quality of a Perfect One: A Perfect One's feelings of pleasure, pain or equanimity are known to him as they arise, known to him as they are present, and known to him as they subside; his perceptions are known to him as they arise, known to him as they are present, and known to him as they subside; his thoughts are known to him as they arise, known to him as they are present, and known to him as they subside."
"And that also I remember, Lord, as a wonderful and marvellous quality of the Blessed One."
That is what the venerable Ananda said. The Master approved. The bhikkhus were satisfied, and they delighted in the venerable Ananda's words.
M. 123; cf. D. 14
Narrator One. How a brahman seer — a seer of the "divine" or priestly caste — foretold the coming enlightenment is told in a song.
The Sage Asita, in his daytime meditation,
Saw that the gods, those of the Company of Thirty,
Were happy and gay, all brightly clad, waving flags
The while their ruler Sakka they were wildly cheering.
Now when he saw the gods so happy and elated,
Respectfully he greeted them and asked them this:
"Why is the Company of Gods so joyful?
Why have they brought out flags to brandish thus?
There was no celebration such as this
Even after the battle with the demons
Wherein the gods won and the demons lost;
What marvel have they heard that so delights them?
See how they sing and shout and strum guitars,
Clapping their hands and dancing all about.
O you that dwell on Meru's airy peaks,
I beg you, leave me not in doubt, good sirs."
"At a Sakyan city in the Land of Lumbini
A Being To Be Enlightened, a Priceless Jewel,
Is born in the world of men for welfare and weal;
Because of that we are extravagantly gay.
The Unique Being, the Personality Sublime,
The Lord of all men and Foremost among mankind,
Will turn the Wheel in the Grove of the Ancient Seers
With the roar of the lion, the monarch of all beasts."
On hearing this, the Sage in haste
Went to Suddhodana's abode.
There he sat down: "Where is the boy?"
He asked the Sakyans, "Show him to me."
Now when the Sakyans showed the child to Asita, His colour was as pure
As beams of brilliant gold wrought in a crucible, Shining and clear.
The joy of rapture flooded Asita's heart
On seeing the boy bright as a flame and pure
As the Lord of the stars' herd riding in the sky,
Dazzling as the cloudless autumn sun;
While gods in the heavenly vault held over him
A many-ribbed sunshade with a thousand circles,
Brandishing gold-sticked chowries, though none saw
The holders of the sunshade and the chowries.
The sage with matted hair, called Kanhasiri,
Seeing the boy, like a gold jewel upon brocade,
With the white sunshade held above his head,
Received him full of joy and happiness.
As soon as he received the Sakyans' Lord
The adept in construing marks and signs
Exclaimed with ready confidence of heart:
"Among the biped race he is unique."
Then he remembered: seeing his own lot,
In very sadness tears came to his eyes.
The Sakyans saw him weeping, and they asked:
"Will some misfortune then befall our prince?"
But to the anxious Sakyans he replied:
"As I foresee, no harm will touch the boy,
Nor is there any danger that awaits him.
Be sure he is not of the second rank;
For he will reach the summit of true knowledge.
A seer of the peerless purity,
Through pity for the many he will set
The Dhamma Wheel turning and spread his life of holiness.
But little of my life-span now remains,
And I shall die meanwhile. I shall not hear
The matchless Hero teaching the Good Dhamma.
That saddens me; that loss distresses me."
He that lived the holy life left the inner palace chamber
After he had filled the Sakyans with an all-abounding joy.
To his sister's son he went, moved by feelings of compassion,
Telling him the Peerless Hero's future finding of the Dhamma.
"When news shall reach you that he is enlightened
And living out the Dhamma he has found,
Then go to him and ask about his teaching
And live with that Blessed One the holy life."
So Nalaka, who had laid up a store of merit,
Forewarned by one who wished him well, who had foreseen
The Being to come, attained to utter purity,
Waited with guarded senses, expecting the Victor.
On hearing that the Noble Victor
Had rolled the Wheel, he went to him;
He saw the Lord of all the Seers,
And trusted in him when he saw.
Fulfilling Asita's behest,
He questioned then the Perfect Sage
About the Silentness Supreme.
Narrator One. Though literature of a later date supplies many details of the early years, the Tipitaka itself has very little to say about them. There is, in fact, only reference to two incidents: firstly, the reminiscence of the meditation under the rose-apple tree while the Bodhisatta's father was working — doing the ceremonial ploughing at the opening of the sowing season, the Commentary says —, which we shall come to later; and secondly there is the account of the "three considerations," which correspond to three of the "messengers" (the old, the sick and the dead) seen by the former Buddha Vipassi (D.14).
First Voice. "I was delicate, most delicate, supremely delicate. Lily pools were made for me at my father's house solely for my benefit. Blue lilies flowered in one, white lilies in another, red lilies in a third. I used no sandalwood that was not from Benares. My turban, tunic, lower garments and cloak were all made of Benares cloth. A white sunshade was held over me day and night so that no cold or heat or dust or grit or dew might inconvenience me.
"I had three palaces; one for the winter, one for the summer and one for the rains. In the rains palace I was entertained by minstrels with no men among them. For the four months of the rains I never went down to the lower palace. Though meals of broken rice with lentil soup are given to the servants and retainers in other people's houses, in my father's house white rice and meat was given to them.
"Whilst I had such power and good fortune, yet I thought: 'When an untaught ordinary man, who is subject to ageing, not safe from ageing, sees another who is aged, he is shocked, humiliated and disgusted; for he forgets that he himself is no exception. But I too am subject to ageing, not safe from ageing, and so it cannot befit me to be shocked, humiliated and disgusted on seeing another who is aged.' When I considered this, the vanity of youth entirely left me.
Excerpted from The Life of the Buddha by Bhikkhu Ñanamoli. Copyright © 1992 Buddhist Publication Society. Excerpted by permission of Buddhist Publication Society.
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Table of Contents
|Map of Central and Eastern India||xvi|
|1.||The Birth and the Early Years||1|
|2.||The Struggle for Enlightenment||10|
|3.||After the Enlightenment||30|
|4.||The Spreading of the Dhamma||48|
|5.||The Two Chief Disciples||70|
|6.||Anathapindika, The Feeder of the Poor||87|
|7.||The Formation of the Order of Nuns||102|
|8.||The Quarrel at Kosambi||109|
|9.||The End of the First Twenty Years||120|
|10.||The Middle Period||151|
|15.||The Last Year||286|
|16.||The First Council||333|
|List of Sources||360|
|Table of Principal Dates||375|
|About the Author||376|
|Bhikkhu Nanamoli: A Bibliography||377|
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The Buddha's life taken from the pages of the Pali canon!