The Living Buddha: An Interpretive Biography

The Living Buddha: An Interpretive Biography

by Daisaku Ikeda, Burton Watson

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The Living Buddha: An Interpretive Biography by Daisaku Ikeda

The Living Buddha is a biography with a double focus. It is a vivid historical narrative based on what is known or can resonably be surmised concerning the Buddha's life and times. It is also an inspiring account of a heroic life dedicated to helping all people free themselves from suffering and futility and attain true peace of mind.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781938252136
Publisher: Middleway Press
Publication date: 03/01/2012
Series: Soka Gakkai History of Buddhism
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 176
Sales rank: 1,169,086
File size: 844 KB

About the Author

Daisaku Ikeda is the author and coauthor of more than 60 books on Buddhism and the founding president and leader of the Soka Gakkai International, one of the largest lay Buddhist organizations in the world. He is the recipient of the United Nations Peace Award, the Rosa Parks Humanitarian Award, and the International Tolerance Award of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. Burton Watson is a translator of Chinese and Japanese literature. His translations include Chuang Tzu, The Lotus Sutra, Ryokan, Saigyo, and The Vimalakirti Sutra. He received the PEN Translation Prize in 1981.

Read an Excerpt

The Living Buddha

An Interpretive Biography

By Daisaku Ikeda, Burton Watson

Middleway Press

Copyright © 2008 Soka Gakkai
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-938252-13-6




Any Asian person hearing this name will invariably think of Buddhism, for Shakyamuni was the founder of that great world religion. But who was this remarkable man, when and where did he live, and what were the circumstances under which he began the preaching of a new faith? These are some of the questions that I want to pursue in the pages that follow.

I have in my mind an image of what sort of person he must have been — a man who, no matter how pressed to choose between one philosophical proposition or another, never forgot how to smile; a sage who, at times with an air of aloofness, at times with an air of pride, and at other times silently and serenely, pursued his own way unperturbed, a way founded upon principles that were engraved on his heart. It is this image of Shakyamuni that I hope to present here.

He was a man who taught neither in terms of any strict or compelling logic nor impassioned dogma, a man who commanded no vast system of philosophy capable of overturning mountains. Rather he was a man who, in almost astonishingly plain and unaffected language, employing anecdotes and analogies that could be comprehended by anyone, sought to awaken in each individual the spirit that dwells in the inner being of all people. By this I do not wish to suggest, however, that Shakyamuni possessed no philosophy at all. When he speaks in his unassuming way to humankind, one catches within the clear and simple words echoes from another realm, that of the truly enlightened man who has contended with and overcome darkness in himself and attained the final resolution of truth.

This is my personal view of Shakyamuni. It is this Shakyamuni, one among many who have searched for the Way, whom I have so long admired and to whom I have felt myself drawn. It is this Shakyamuni, rather than some vainly elevated and apotheosized founder of a religion, whom I want to describe.

Here I have tried to sketch in a few words my image of Shakyamuni as a man. But when we attempt to move beyond this bare outline and ascertain the concrete facts of his life and teachings, we find ourselves confronted by a lamentable dearth of accurate biographical and historical information. In fact, on the basis of the sources that have been handed down, it is all but impossible to reconstruct with certainty the life and personality of this man who lived more than two thousand years ago. In addition, because he was a great religious leader, his disciples and followers in later ages have tended, in their zeal, to exalt and deify him, and a mass of legendary material has accrued about his name that serves only to obscure further the few facts that are known about him.

To begin with, it is difficult even to establish the exact period of his lifetime. The people of ancient India, where Shakyamuni lived, were far less interested in keeping records of historical events or the mundane shifts and changes in human society than they were in seeking to discover the eternal truths that lay behind these daily happenings in the phenomenal world. Even in the case of a figure of such prime interest and importance as Shakyamuni, although they took care to preserve and hand down his thought and religious teachings, they left no precise biographical record concerning the man himself. The typical Indian attitude toward time has been described as casual.

But in another sense, it is this cultural attitude of indifference to time and refusal to be bound by it, this temperament that seeks some stationary point from which to probe into the essence behind the endlessly changing cycles of one's environment, that has given rise to the kind of profound philosophy and religion represented by Buddhism.

The Indian people, it would appear, are by nature markedly philosophical and meditative. Both Buddhism and the philosophy of Brahmanism that preceded it excel in speculative thought and have attained a strikingly high level of philosophical development, probably the highest in the world at the time of their inception. Thus, although India may be an exasperation to anyone in search of historical or biographical data, it is a country that holds endless fascination for the student of philosophy and religious thought. It is most important at this point to understand this fundamental temperament of the Indian people, for it will help to throw light upon some of the problems that will be encountered when we come to an examination of the teachings of Buddhism.

I have stressed at the outset the paucity of reliable data on the life of Shakyamuni, but this does not mean that no sources whatsoever exist. There are, in fact, several biographies of him, notably Praising the Buddha's Deeds by Ashvaghosha, the famous Indian poet of the first or second century. But these works were not composed or committed to writing until centuries after Shakyamuni's death, and they appear to contain a fairly large admixture of pure legend.

The proper approach, I believe, is not to attempt to sort out and discard the legendary elements but to consider how and why such legends may have come into being. In this way, I feel, we can arrive at something approaching the truth. In addition, the sutras, or sacred scriptures, that preserve the teachings of Shakyamuni often contain descriptive passages that permit us to determine at least in outline what sort of person he was.

Because of the lack of accurate historical information, there is no agreement among scholars today concerning the exact dates when Shakyamuni lived, though they are generally of the opinion that he lived sometime in the sixth or fifth century BCE. Let us leave this problem of dating aside and focus our attention upon what can be known about the life and personality of the founder of the Buddhist religion.

* * *

Shakyamuni's Names

We may begin with a consideration of his various names. It is generally accepted that Shakyamuni was the son of the ruler of a small kingdom headed by members of the Shakya tribe or clan. Shakuson, the name by which he is customarily known in Japan, is abbreviated from the Japanese form of the Chinese version of the Sanskrit title Shakyamuni Bhagavat, which means literally "Sage of the Shakyas, the World-Honored One," an appropriately respectful designation for the founder of a great religion.

In addition, from early times in India he was called the Buddha, from which the term Buddhism derives, and he is customarily known by this name in South and Southeast Asia and the countries of the West. The word Buddha in Sanskrit means "enlightened one" or "one enlightened to the eternal and ultimate truth." There is a strong tendency in Buddhist writings, however, to employ the term Buddha to refer not only to Shakyamuni but to any being who embodies the ultimate ideals of the Buddhist faith. Some scholars claim that it was never intended as a proper name.

In early scriptures, as well as in Sri Lanka, Thailand, Indonesia, and other countries where the Theravada school of Buddhism is prevalent, he is also known as Gautama Buddha. It is now generally agreed that Gautama was his family name, the designation given to the particular branch of the Shakya tribe to which he belonged.

Finally, in historical accounts, one often comes across the name Siddhartha, which appears to have been the childhood or given name of Shakyamuni. Like the term Buddha, this too has a special significance in Sanskrit and may be translated "a goal achieved" or "justice done." According to Praising the Buddha's Deeds, Shakyamuni was given this name because upon his birth the kingdom of the Shakyas became rich and prosperous, and all the wishes of his father, Shuddhodana, were fulfilled. Some scholars claim, however, that Siddhartha was not actually a name of Shakyamuni but a term of respect applied to him by his followers in later ages in honor of his enlightenment.

* * *

The Shakya Tribe

The tribe into which Shakyamuni was born is said to have had its headquarters in a walled town or city called Kapilavastu. Its exact geographical location has long been a matter of dispute, though it is reported to have been in the southern foothills of the Himalayas, north of the area where the Ganges River spreads out to form a delta. The most recent archaeological studies indicate that it was in the Terai region of the present country of Nepal. According to traditional accounts, however, Shakyamuni was born not in the city itself but in the Lumbini Gardens, which were situated some fifteen miles from Kapilavastu.

By the time of Shakyamuni's birth, a number of cities had grown up in this region of India, and it is probable that Kapilavastu was not very large as cities at that time went, especially in comparison to such major centers as Rajagriha, the capital of the state of Magadha. The Chinese monk and pilgrim Xuanzang (600-664) in Da Tangxiyu ji [The Record of the Western Regions of the Great Tang Dynasty], his account of his travels to India, remarks that the climate of the land of the Shakyas was warm and the land quite fertile. The early Buddhist scriptures contain frequent mention of rice, an indication that the people of the time relied mainly upon farming for their subsistence. We will do best, perhaps, to imagine Kapilavastu as a rather quiet country town.

As to the population of the area, we are told that the Shakya and Koliya tribes together numbered, surprisingly, some one million people. This figure, of course, is no indication of the size of the population of the city of Kapilavastu itself, nor can we suppose that it is based upon any kind of accurate census. In any event, it seems an excessively large number for tribes of rather minor importance, such as the Shakyas and Koliyas, and it is probably safe to assume that, as so often is done in early literature, the figure of a million is intended to mean merely "numerous."

There has been considerable discussion as to what racial stock the Shakyas belonged. The British historian Vincent Smith has put forth the theory that Shakyamuni belonged to a Gurkha-like hill tribe with racial characteristics close to those of the Tibetans, which would make him a member of the Mongol race. This supposition is based upon recent surveys that indicate that the foothills of the Himalayas were at one time inhabited by people of Tibeto-Burman stock.

More common, however, is the view that Shakyamuni and his fellow tribesmen were of Indo-Aryan descent. Support for this view, it is claimed, is found in the fact that the Shakyas spoke proudly of themselves as "descendants of the sun," and that this custom of claiming descent from the sun was widespread among peoples of Indo-Aryan stock. The ancient Vedic hymns of India, in fact, indicate that the god of the sun was among the earliest deities worshiped by the Indo-Aryan peoples. Moreover, texts in Chinese often refer to the Shakyas as the "sun seed people," a further indication that they claimed a special relationship with the sun and hence were Indo-Aryan.

It seems to me rather far-fetched, however, to infer Indo-Aryan ancestry from the fact of sun worship alone, since this is a form of religion common to almost all peoples of ancient times. One has only to think of the worship of the sun goddess Amaterasu in Japan. Moreover, there are numerous instances of ruling families in ancient times that claimed to be actual descendants of the sun. The sun was the most universally recognized object of worship among the peoples of antiquity, and for Shakyamuni to claim that he was a "descendant of the sun" might simply have been a way of paying respect and honor to his ancestors.

A further complication is introduced by the fact that the scriptures speak of Shakyamuni as being descended from a mythical ancestor named Ikshvaku, or Sugar Cane King, the founder of the royal family of the Puru tribe. In the Vedas, the earliest scriptures of the Indo-Aryan settlers of India, the Puru people are described as the enemies of the Indo-Aryans. Some scholars claim, therefore, that if in fact the Sugar Cane King was recognized as the ancestor of Shakyamuni and his people, they could not have been members of the Indo-Aryan race.

Finally, I do not think that it is possible to determine for certain the racial origin of Shakyamuni, who lived so many centuries ago. It cannot be denied, however, that in the ways of thinking associated with Buddhism, there are characteristics that strongly suggest some connection with the Indo-Aryan peoples and their culture. Whatever the racial origin of its founder, there is no doubt that Buddhism grew up within the Indo-Aryan cultural sphere.

* * *

The Historical Setting

What can be known about the political situation in India around the time Shakyamuni is said to have lived? The Buddhist scriptures and other writings speak of the sixteen great kingdoms, apparently tribal states that were struggling with one another for domination. Among these, the most prominent were the states of Magadha, Kosala, Vriji, Vatsa, and Avanti. In addition to these larger states, we find mention of various tribes, such as the Baggas, Bulis, Moriyas, Mallas, and the Koliyas and Shakyas already mentioned above.

Of these great kingdoms, that of Kosala, ruled by King Prasenajit, and Magadha, ruled by King Bimbisara, were the most important. The latter in particular, profiting from King Bimbisara's political wisdom and resourcefulness, in time absorbed Kosala and Vriji and founded the imperial dynasty known as the Maurya. The third ruler of that dynasty was the famous emperor Ashoka, who in the third century BCE succeeded in uniting all except the southern tip of the Indian continent under his rule.

During the time when Shakyamuni taught, Magadha was still a newcomer among the contenders for power. Only after King Bimbisara came to the throne did it expand rapidly, extending its power outward from its base along the middle reaches of the Ganges until it controlled much of the region of present-day Bihar, south of the Ganges.

During the so-called period of the sixteen great kingdoms, the Shakyas appear to have been in a relatively weak position. Their base in Kapilavastu was not, as we have seen, a center of great importance or power. In fact, the Shakyas were probably politically dependent upon Kosala, the powerful state to the west that controlled most of the eastern part of what is today Uttar Pradesh. This is indicated by a passage in the early scriptures that describes how Shakyamuni journeyed south along the Ganges and had an interview with King Bimbisara, the ruler of Magadha. In response to questions by the king, Shakyamuni replied that he was a member of a tribe "that from ancient times has been dependent upon Kosala."

We may conclude, then, that the Shakyas were the rulers of a small semiautonomous state that had its capital at Kapilavastu and was dependent upon the kingdom of Kosala to the west. Scholars disagree as to the exact political structure of such small tribal states. Some view them as aristocratic republics ruled by a council of tribal elders who deliberated on policies of state. To support this view, they point out that the ruler of the Shakyas is said to have been elected by a ten-man group of leaders from among their midst. Other scholars, however, see the tribal states of India during this time as moving in the direction of a single powerful and highly centralized state, and surmise that, if they were not actual autocracies, they were at least oligarchies ruled by a select few.

Whatever the internal political structure of the Shakya state may have been, it is certain that it was small and weak and was almost inevitably destined to be annexed by one or another of the great kingdoms that surrounded it on all sides. Shakyamuni was the son of the ruler of this small tribal state whose fortunes were clearly on the decline. On his shoulders would someday fall the task of guiding it through its dark and precarious future, and for this very reason the expectations placed on him were undoubtedly great. What he himself thought of his position and the possibility of fulfilling such expectations had, we may be sure, a very important bearing upon his later decision to renounce the city of Kapilavastu and his role as heir to its throne and embark upon a life of religious austerity.

* * *

Shakyamuni's Family

Before considering the motives that led Shakyamuni to renounce the princely life, let us see if we can form a clearer picture of him as a person by examining what can be known about the immediate members of his family.

His father, as mentioned earlier, was Shuddhodana, a name that in the early Chinese translations of the Buddhist scriptures was rendered as Jing-fan-wang, or Pure Rice King. How, one may ask, did he come to have such a curious name? The Sanskrit actually means "pure milk gruel" and refers to a food made by boiling rice in milk with beans and butter added. This was looked upon as the greatest delicacy of the time, and the name was apparently given to Shakyamuni's father because, as leader of the Shakya tribe, it was appropriate to imagine that he dined upon this finest of foods. The title gives further evidence that the Shakyas were primarily an agricultural and pastoral people. In addition, it is important to note, as pointed out by the noted Buddhist scholar Hajime Nakamura, that Shakyamuni's father was styled merely "king" rather than "great king" as was customary with the rulers of the more powerful states of the time, another indication of the relative weakness of the Shakya tribe.

Shakyamuni's mother is commonly referred to as Queen Maya. The scriptures honor her with the epithet "Great Maya" and employ various complimentary phrases to describe her, but they give very little indication of her identity. Presumably she was the daughter of an influential family of the Shakya tribe, and legend adds that she was related on her mother's side to the Koliya tribe, which evidently lived in close proximity to the Shakyas. The early scriptures preserve an account of a dispute over water rights between the Shakyas and the Koliyas, and some scholars have inferred from this that the two tribes lived on either side of the Rohini River.

According to traditional accounts, Queen Maya gave birth to Shakyamuni in the Lumbini Gardens when she was on her way from Kapilavastu to visit her family and died a week later. The child was brought up by his maternal aunt Mahaprajapati.


Excerpted from The Living Buddha by Daisaku Ikeda, Burton Watson. Copyright © 2008 Soka Gakkai. Excerpted by permission of Middleway Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents


Preface to the English edition, by Daisaku Ikeda,
Translator's Note,
1. The Young Shakyamuni,
2. The Great Departure,
3. The Years of Austerity,
4. The Enlightenment,
5. Shakyamuni the Teacher,
6. The Company of Disciples,
7. The Growth of the Order,
8. The Entry into Nirvana,

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The Living Buddha: An Interpretive Biography 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Buddhism is one of the world's major religions. What is the secret of its vigor some three thousand years after the death of its founder, Shakyamuni? This book, 'The Living Buddha, An Interpretive Biography' seeks to answer that question. Surely essential to a full understanding of the continuing impact of this teaching is a knowledge and appreciation of the life and personality of Shakyamuni himself. Unlike most major religions, Buddhism depends neither on divine revelation nor an incarnation of God for its authenticity. Shakyamuni, the Buddha or 'Enlightened One' was a man who through his own efforts attained enlightenment as to the essential nature of life itself. And for this very reason, his life story is meaningful to us today. 'The Living Buddha' is a biography with a double focus. On the one hand, it is a vivid historical narrative based on what is known of Shakyamuni's life and times. One the other hand, it is the inspiring account of a heroic life dedicated to helping all people free themselves from suffering and futility and attain true peace of mind. In this book, exquisitely written by world-renowned author Daisaku Ikeda, Shakyamuni Buddha emerges as the amazing man he was. Yet, he was only a man; not some superhuman deity, just a man who attained a state of life that, according to his own teachings, is inherent in every one of us. Therein lies his true greatness. Through this book, we see that Shakyamuni Buddha lived in a turbulent period and was confronted with the same kinds of social conflicts and personal problems that we all face. The description of how he conquered these obstacles is what makes for an engrossing and inspiring account, and one that is highly relevant to our lives in these modern times. The author, Daisaku Ikeda, as leader of the world's largest Buddhist organization, Soka Gakkai International, brings unique qualifications to this portrait of Buddha. With this book, as with all of his writings, Mr. Ikeda has once again contributed a profoundly useful tool to those in pursuit of greater Buddhist knowledge.
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