The life of the Buddha is more than an account of one man's quest for and realisation of the truth; it is also about the people who encountered that man during his forty-five year career and how their encounter transformed them. If the Buddha's quest and his encounters with others is set against the backdrop of the world in which these events were acted out, a world with its unique customs, its political intrigue and its religious ferment, it becomes one of the most fascinating stories ever told. One will meet with proud kings and humble outcastes, with saffron-robed monks (some saintly, others all too human), with generous patrons and jealous rivals. Some of the events in the Buddha's life are described by scholars as being 'legendary', but if we look at them objectively, few of them could be considered implausible. One might be tempted to dismiss Angulimala's practice of cutting a finger from each of his victims as unbelievable, but the criminal history of mankind furnishes us with ample evidence of behaviour far more bizarre and gruesome than that. Samavati's rapid rise from destitution to royalty is certainly unusual but it is well within the realm of possibility. Devadatta's plots might be slightly exaggerated, and certainly as they have been recorded in the Vinaya they are in the wrong sequence, but they are just the sort of thing we could expect from a highly talented and at the same time highly jealous and ambitious person. And moving like a cool breeze through all this drama is the Buddha, patient, smiling and unmistakably real.
The oldest and most authentic information we have about the Buddha's life is to be found in the Pali Tipitaka, not in any chronological order, but scattered here and there, like specks of gold in the bed of a sandy river. Less reliable but nonetheless sometimes helpful is the information in the Pali commentaries, especially the Dharmapada Atthakta and the Jataka Nidanakatha. After that, we have the Mahayana sutras in which the historical Buddha begins to recede from view behind a veil of legends and romance, becoming less and less accessible as he does. We are human, imperfectly human, and if we are to transcend this state we will need a guide and an ideal that is both human and perfect. The Buddha is such a guide and ideal and in the Pali Tipitaka he is portrayed as such. Thus the story of the Buddha and his disciples as told in Pali sources is not just an authentic and fascinating one, it is also one that has a spiritual significance.
Dozens of books on the Buddha's life have been published, two of the best only recently. They are The Historical Buddha by H W Schumann and The Buddha by Michael Carrithers. Both of these books admirably avoid the extremes of including too much of what is obviously mythological on one hand and on the other taking the dry-as-dust academic approach which, being conceived without faith, is unable to inspire faith in the reader. Unfortunately, neither of these books is widely available in local bookshops. The only locally written life of the Buddha that likewise avoids these extremes is The Life of Gotama The Buddha by Venerable B. Dharmaratana and Senarath Vijayasundara. However, as this well-written little book is out of print, a new and more complete account of the Buddha's life is justified.
The Buddha and His Disciples is the second in what will eventually be a series of three textbooks to be used by the Buddha Dharma Mandala Society's Introductory Dharma Course. The Course has so far proved to be popular amongst Singaporeans and this book will, I hope, add to its value. I would like to thank Doris Teo and Donna Pang for all the help they gave in preparing this book. Thanks are due also to the many people who have assisted in innumerable ways.
Ven. S. Dhammika
The Land of the Rose Apple
1. Although the Dharma is a direct outcome of the Buddha's own understanding, the form in which it was proclaimed to the world was, of course, very much influenced by the culture in which the Buddha lived. Therefore, some understanding of this culture will help to give a better understanding of the Dharma.
2. India is a huge, wedge-shaped subcontinent with the Arabian Sea to its west, the Andaman Sea to its east and the snowy peaks of the Himalayas to its north. In ancient times it was known as the land of the Rose Apple (Jambudipa). The Buddha was born and lived all his life in north-central India in the area known then as the Middle Land (Majjhima Desa), so called because it was believed to be, by the people who lived there, the centre of the earth. The whole area consists of a vast, flat, fertile plain through which flow two great rivers, the Ganges and the Yamuna, and many smaller rivers. There are three seasons - summer, when the temperature can reach as high as 40°; the rainy season, when the rivers flood and travel becomes difficult; and the winter, when the days can be pleasant but the nights can be freezing. In the Buddha's time, large areas of northern India were covered by jungle and the people who lived in the many villages that bordered the jungles often encountered lions, elephants, deer, rhinoceros and other wild animals.
The population of this northern part of India was much smaller than it is today; there was plenty of arable land for farming and most people had more than enough to eat. Even very poor farmers could supplement their diet or income by hunting wild animals and collecting the abundant fruits that the forests provided.
3. The India the Buddha knew was not a single political unit but rather a collection of independent countries, often vying with each other for supremacy. The largest and most powerful of these countries was the kingdom of Magadha, which during most of the Buddha's life was ruled by King Bimbasara, a strong and effective ruler who took a great interest in religion. The capital of Magadha was Rajagaha (The King's Abode) which nestled amongst rugged hills and was protected by massive stone walls, the remains of which can still be seen today. A short time after the Buddha's final Nirvana, Magadha shifted its capital from Rajagaha to Pataligama, later to be called Pataliputta and today called Patna, and within a hundred and fifty years had conquered nearly all of India. Directly north of Magadha and separated from it by the Ganges River was the Vajjian Confederacy. The Vajjian Confederacy was made up of several tribes, two of which were called the Licchavies and the Videhas, who had united to protect themselves from their powerful neighbour in the south. The Licchavies were the most important tribe in the Confederacy and their chief city Vesali was the de facto capital of the Confederacy.
Along the western border of the Vajjian Confederacy was Malla, a small tribal republic divided into two parts, one with its capital at Kusinara and the other with its capital at Pava.
North of Malla were the two small semi-independent republics of the Sakyans and the Koliyans with their capitals at Kapilavatthu and Devadaha respectively. These and the other tribal states were not ruled by kings but by councils made up of the leading citizens, not unlike those that ruled the ancient Greek city-states. The councils would meet regularly and everyone was free to speak their mind.
North-west of Magadha was Kosala, the second largest and most powerful country of the time. During most of the Buddha's life Kosala was ruled by King Pasenadi from his capital at Savatthi. Kosala exercised a great deal of influence over the Sakyans. South-east of Kosala was Vamsa with its capital at Kosambi on the Yamuna River. During much of the Buddha's time Vamsa was ruled by King Udena.
4. The 5th century B.C.E. was a period of transition. Old tribal republics were breaking up under the impact of predatory and autocratic kingdoms like Kosala and Magadha. Cities were becoming larger and more sophisticated, and people were leaving their villages and farms and flocking to Kosambi, Savatthi, Rajagaha and other urban centres.
5. Indian society was divided very sharply by the caste system (catuvana). The caste that people were born into determined what work they did, their status in society, who they married, where they lived and who they ate with, in fact almost every aspect of their lives. The highest caste were the Brahmins, who were the hereditary priests of Brahminism, the educators and the scholars. Below them were the Khattiyas, the warrior caste, who were rulers, administrators and soldiers. The next caste were the Vessa, the merchants, traders and artisans. At the bottom of the caste system were the Sudas, who worked as farmers, labourers and menial workers. Outside the caste system were the Candalas, the outcastes, who were considered beyond the pale of civilised society and whose touch was considered to be polluting. They lived on the outskirts of towns and villages, and were compelled to do degrading jobs like collecting rubbish, removing dead bodies, tanning and sweeping the streets. The caste system gave society a great deal of stability but it made social change and mobility almost impossible and it also engendered a great deal of cruelty towards lower castes and outcastes.
Originally the caste system was only a social institution but later it was integrated into Brahminism and given religious sanction, and most Brahminical and Hindu literature accepts the caste system as having been ordained by God.
6. Writing was known at the Buddha's time but it was not widely used. The reason for this was that India had long before perfected ways of committing literature to memory and passing it on with such accuracy that writing was simply not necessary. The Vedas, the sacred hymns of Brahminism, had been composed nearly a millennium before the Buddha, and indeed were not written down for many centuries after his final Nirvana, and yet they were faithfully preserved. Songs, legends, histories, sacred texts and large amounts of other literature that formed a part of the culture of the day were all preserved orally.
7. The prevailing religion in India during the Buddha's time was Brahminism, not Hinduism as is commonly supposed - Hinduism being an amalgamation of Brahminism, Buddhism and various folk cults which developed only many centuries after the Buddha. Brahminism believed in a supreme creator god named Brahma and many lesser gods like Aggi, the god of fire, Indra, the king of gods, Yama, the king of the underworld, Suriya, the god of the sun, and so on. These gods were propitiated with sacrifices (yaga) which were thrown into the ritual fire and were then believed to be taken to heaven in the smoke. Ordinary folk might make small sacrifices of grain or ghee, but the wealthy or royalty would sometimes sacrifice large numbers of animals, usually cows but occasionally even human beings. Sacrifices were very complex affairs and it was believed that they would bring down the blessings from the gods only if they were performed absolutely correctly. Only the Brahmins, the hereditary priests knew how to perform the sacrificial rituals correctly, a knowledge that they jealously guarded, and they expected to be well paid for their services. As a result of this, Brahmins had a well-earned reputation for greed and avarice. Another important practice in Brahminism was ritual bathing. It was believed that if a person did evil it could be cleansed or washed away by bathing in certain sacred rivers, the most popular of which was the Ganges.
8. By the Buddha's time, there was widespread dissatisfaction with Brahminism and many people, including many Brahmin intellectuals, were becoming interested in new religious ideas. Parallel to Brahminism and much older was the tradition of unorthodox ascetic teachers (samana) who were beginning to attract increasing interest. The most famous of these ascetics was Nataputta, known to his disciples by the title Mahavira Jain (the Victorious Great Hero). His followers were known as the Bond-Free Ones (Nigantha) and the religion he founded came to be known as Jainism. Nataputta was an older contemporary of the Buddha and already had many disciples by the time Buddhism began. Another important group of ascetics were the Ajivikas, founded by Makkhali Gossala. Ajivika ascetics went naked and taught that being good by refraining from evil was useless because everyone would eventually find salvation through the process of transmigration just as a ball of twine rolling along the ground will eventually unwind. The Ajivikas had many influential followers and supporters but the Buddha criticised them as the worst of all ascetics. Some of the other well known teachers of the time were Ajita of the hair blanket, Purana Kassapa, Pakudha Kaccayana and Sanjaya Belatthiputta, all of whose religions lasted only a few centuries and then petered out.
9. The Ganges River flows through a broad flat plain bordered on its northern side by the Mahabharat Hills, beyond which lie the Himalayas. Just where the plain meets the hills was the homeland of the Sakyans, the tribe into which the Buddha was born. The Sakyans belonged to the warrior caste (khattiya) and had a reputation for hot-headedness and pride. Compared with the other states, the Sakyans were rather unsophisticated, on the outer edge, as it were, of the civilisation that was rapidly developing in northern India at that time. The Sakyans had no cities as such but rather large towns and villages, the main ones being Kapilavatthu, the capital, Catuma, Komadussa and Silavati.
10. Like all peoples of the time, the Sakyans had legends about their origins, a mixture of fact and fiction, meant to emphasise their prowess and nobility. They traced their origins back to the mythical King Okkaka. According to the legend, Okkaka had five queens and numerous children but only the offspring of the chief queen, Bhatta, were in line for the throne. These princes were Okkamukha, Karakanda, Hatthinika and Sinipura. When the chief queen died, Okkaka married a much younger woman and made her chief queen, passing over his other wives and creating much jealousy.[ N1 ] When the new chief queen delivered a son, Okkaka was so pleased he offered to give her anything she wished. Immediately she replied, "I want my son to inherit the throne." The king couldn't do this because his four other sons were legally entitled to the throne, but the queen insisted that he keep his promise. Not being able to back down, he regretfully made his new son Jantu crown prince and expelled his other four sons. Their sisters were disgusted with this decision and as a protest they joined their brothers in exile. The princes and princesses wandered through the jungle looking for a suitable place to stay. Eventually, they came to the hermitage of the sage Kapila who welcomed them and invited them to live nearby, which they did, calling their small settlement Kapilavatthu in honour of the sage. There were isolated villages in the area but the young princes were too proud to marry outside their own tribe and so they made the oldest sister Piya, mother, and married the other sisters, something for which the Sakyans were, in later centuries, often teased. Later Piya married Rama, the king of Benares, and their offspring were the ancestors of the Koliyans, the Sakyans' relations to the east. It was the learning of this story and others related to the history of the tribe that probably formed a part of the young Prince Siddhartha's education.
11. The Sakyans had a council (sabha) that was made up of warriors of the tribe respected for their military prowess or wisdom. The council met regularly in Kapilavatthu's assembly hall (sala) to discuss the running of the state [ N2 ] The council would have also settled disputes and acted as a law court. A man who had proven himself in battle, who was rich in land and cattle, and who was known for his wisdom, tact and conciliatory skills would be elected as the president of the council and act as ruler of the Sakyans.
12. Suddhodana, whose name means 'pure rice', fulfilled all these requirements and had ruled the Sakyans for many years, as had probably many members of his family before him. He was the son of Sihanu and his wife Kaccana, and was one of five brothers, the others being Dhotodana, Sakkodana, Sukkodana and Amitodana. The Sakyans practised endogamy, marriage between cousins, and polygamy, so Suddhodana married two sisters, Maha Maya and Maha Pajapati Gotami, both of whom were his close cousins. This type of arrangement was encouraged because the Sakyans, being very proud, felt it was beneath their dignity to marry non-Sakyans and also because it kept property within the family.
13. The Buddha was not attached to his tribe but he did have an affectionate regard for them. Once, the young Brahmin Ambattha abused the Sakyans in the presence of the Buddha. When the Buddha asked him why he was so angry with the Sakyans, he said: "Once, I went to Kapilavatthu on some business for my teacher, the Brahmin Pakkharasati, and I came to the Sakyans' assembly hall. At that time, a crowd of Sakyans was sitting on high seats in their assembly hall, poking each other with their fingers, laughing and playing about together, and I am certain that they were making fun of me. No one even offered me a seat. It is not proper that they do not respect Brahmins." The Buddha defended the Sakyans saying: "But, Ambattha, even the quail, that little bird, can say what she likes in her own nest."
Kapilavatthu is the Sakyans' home. They do not deserve censure for such a minor slight."[ N3 ] Many members of the Buddha's family and other Sakyans became prominent in the Sangha, and it was likely that in some ways the Buddha favoured them, although not when it came to spiritual matters. He made his foster mother, Maha Pajapati Gotami, head of the Sangha of nuns. Of the nine different attendants that the Buddha had during his life, one, Ananda, was a cousin and two others, Nagasamala and Meghiya, were Sakyans.
14. After nearly seven years of having heard nothing of his son, Suddhodana came to know that he was staying at Rajagaha, and that he was claiming to be enlightened. Overjoyed to know that his son was still alive, Suddhodana sent a messenger to ask him to return home. The messenger met the Buddha at the Bamboo Grove in Rajagaha and was so enthralled on hearing the Dharma that there and then he decided to become a monk, completely forgetting to pass Suddhodana's message on to the Buddha. More messengers were sent and the same thing happened. Finally, in exasperation, Suddhodana commissioned Kaludayi to take the message, but told him that he had permission to become a monk only on condition that he passed the message to the Buddha. And so the Buddha came to know of his father's desire to see him. Shortly after, he set out for Kapilavatthu, accompanied by a large number of monks. When the party arrived, they stayed outside the town in a park and in the morning entered the town to beg for alms. Only then did Suddhodana learn that the Buddha had arrived and was shocked that his son would sleep under a tree rather than in the palace, and beg in the streets rather than feast at the banquet table. "You are degrading your family's dignity," Suddhodana said, hardly able to contain his anger. The Buddha replied: "Suddhodana, on becoming enlightened one becomes a member of the family of the Noble Ones and their dignity does not depend upon outward trappings but on wisdom and compassion." The Buddha did much teaching in Kapilavatthu and other towns, and many Sakyans became monks while others became enthusiastic followers of the Dharma while remaining in the lay life. After initial resistance, Suddhodana listened to what his son had to say and became a
15. The Sakyans' clannishness and pride eventually led to their downfall. Although the Sakyans were free to run their own affairs, they were controlled to some degree by their powerful neighbour to the west, Kosala. By the Buddha's time, Kosala had so much say in Sakyans' affairs that once he actually described his homeland as being a part of Kosala. "Now the Sakyans are vassals of the king of Kosala. They offer him service and salute him, stand for him, do him honour and give him deference."[ N4 ] The Buddha's love of personal freedom and independence was probably influenced by his Sakyan upbringing and there is no doubt that he sympathised with the small tribal republics in their struggles to keep their independence from the authoritarian monarchies that were emerging at the time. When he heard that King Ajatasattu was preparing to invade the Vajjian republic, he asked Ananda: "Have you heard that the Vajjians hold regular and frequent assemblies, that they meet in harmony, conduct business in harmony, and adjure in harmony, that they abide by the decisions they have made in accordance with tradition, that they honour, respect, revere and salute their elders and listen to their advice, that they do not abduct others' wives or daughters and compel them to live with them, that they honour, respect, revere, and salute the Vajjian shrines at home and abroad, and do not withdraw the support given to them and that proper provisions and protection are given to holy men so that they can dwell there in comfort and more will come in the future?" Ananda replied that the Vajjians did do all these things and the Buddha said: "For as long as they do these things, the Vajjians may be expected to prosper and not decline."[ N5 ]
16. It seems that King Pasenadi of Kosala wished to extend his influence amongst the Sakyans, which he chose to do by demanding a Sakyan noblewoman as a wife for his son. No Sakyans wanted a daughter of theirs to marry outside the tribe, but at the same time they could not ignore the wishes of their powerful neighbour. Mahanama, one of the Buddha's cousins, came up with a solution. He had fathered a daughter named Vasabhakhattiya by one of his female slaves and he suggested that this girl be passed off as a Sakyan noblewoman and given to King Pasenadi's son in marriage. The trick worked; Vasabhakhattiya was taken to Kosala, married and accepted into the Kosalan royal family. Eventually she gave birth to a son who was named Vidudabha and who became crown prince. When Vidudabha grew up he wished to visit what he believed to be his Sakyan relatives at Kapilavatthu but his mother persuaded him not to go, knowing that the Sakyans would treat him with contempt. Eventually he did go and was bewildered by the cool reception he received. Not wanting to receive more disrespect he soon left, but just after leaving Kapilavatthu, one of his attendants had to return to get a sword which he had forgotten. When he arrived at the assembly hall he saw a slave woman washing with milk the seat on which Vidudabha had sat - an accepted way of purifying something that had become ritually impure. The warrior asked the slave why she was doing this. "Because the son of a slave has sat there," she replied. He asked her what she meant and she told him the whole story. When Vidudabha heard the truth, that his mother was not a noblewoman but a common slave, his humiliation and fury knew no bounds and he vowed that one day he would punish the Sakyans for their deception. "Let them pour milk over my seat to purify it. When I am king, I will wash the place with the blood of their hearts."
17. Towards the end of the Buddha's life, Vidudabha did become king and on several occasions he marched with his army towards Kapilavatthu, although on each occasion the Buddha was able to persuade him to turn back. Eventually though, Kapilavatthu and several other Sakyan towns were attacked and Vidudabha had the personal satisfaction of having many Sakyans massacred. After the campaign, he marched back to Kosala loaded with loot. On their way back, the army camped for one evening beside the bank of a river and during the night, a heavy rainstorm further upstream sent a huge torrent down the river, drowning most of Vidudabha's army. The Sakyans who survived the terrible massacre rebuilt a few small towns and tried to continue their lives, but with their numbers decimated and their independence lost, they declined and are remembered today only because of one of their number, the Buddha. Next Page