Searching for the real Buddha

Of the major religions, Buddhism carries with it the least amount of supernatural baggage (though not entirely devoid of it) and is perceived as a religion that values contemplation and introspection. (Of course, I am referring to Buddhism in its more philosophical form, not the actual practice in places like Sri Lanka and Myanmar where it has become commandeered by chauvinists who think nothing of using murderous violence against those who are not Buddhists to the extent of going on ethnic cleansing rampages.) As a result, it has gained popularity among those who find it hard to accept the idea of gods and like to think of themselves as ‘spiritual but not religious’, and Buddhism-inspired practices like meditation and mindfulness have gained a lot of traction in the West.

But what do we really know about the Buddha? Was he a real person? How much of what we learn about him is supported by the evidence? Alexander Wynne, who as a practicing Buddhist living in Thailand, writes that much of what we think of as his story are just myths

Buddhist scholars, bewildered by layers of legend as thick as clouds of incense, have mostly given up trying to understand the historical person.

The legendary version of the Buddha’s life states that the Siddhattha Gotama was born as a prince of the Sakya tribe, and raised in the town of Kapilavatthu, several centuries before the Christian era. Living in luxurious seclusion, Siddhattha remained unaware of the difficulties of life, until a visit beyond the palace walls revealed four shocking sights: a sick man, an old man, a dead man and a holy man. The existential crisis this sparked led Siddhattha to renounce the world, in order to seek a spiritual solution to life. After six years of trying out various practices, including extreme asceticism, at the age of 35 Siddhattha attained spiritual realisation. Henceforth known as the ‘Buddha’ – which simply means ‘awakened’ – Siddhattha spent the rest of his life travelling around northern India and establishing a new religious order. He died at the age of 80.

Only the bare details of this account stand up to historical scrutiny.

Since Siddhattha lived in a wooden house, he would not have spent his youth sequestered in a palace, unable to experience the painful facts of life. Indeed, in the Pali Mahāpadāna Sutta, one of the most important sources for early Buddhist myth, the story of the Buddha’s youth is attributed to the entirely mythical figure of the former Buddha Vipassī, said to have lived 91 aeons ago (an inconceivably long time). This text is not a reliable source for the life of Siddhattha Gotama; to build up a more reliable picture, we must consider older parts of the Pali canon. In none of these is the Buddha ever called Siddhattha.

Bringing the reliable historical fragments together, and discarding mythic elaborations, a humbler picture of the Buddha emerges. Gotama was born into a small tribe, in a remote and unimportant town on the periphery of pre-imperial India.

Sleeping out in the open, eating once a day, and frequently on the road, Gotama cuts a more austere figure than expected. His silent wisdom comes from somewhere else. We learn about his early failures, and then the strange story of his success: how he created an ancient cult of meditation, through enigmatic silence, radical ideas, and a simple insistence on being mindfully aware of the moment.

Growing up in the majority Buddhist country of Sri Lanka, these myths were what one learned. I suspect that too many people are captivated by the riches-to-rags myth to be willing to let it go and accept the alternative picture that Wynne paints.


  1. Matt G says

    I saw an infographic a few years back showing the second most-practiced religion in each US state (Christianity being first, naturally). It was Buddhism for many west coast states.

  2. Mobius says

    Stories that are mostly myth? Imagine that. Just like with Jesus.

    And remember,

    “If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

    Actually, I have no idea where that saying comes from. It just strikes me as ironic considering the topic of this post. Perhaps it has something to do with fake Buddha’s? Though, considering the peaceful origins of Buddhism, the “kill him” part seems out of place. Perhaps “ignore him” would be better?

  3. file thirteen says

    @Mano #3

    My understanding is that it isn’t literal. The point is meant to be that once you’ve learned something, don’t hold on to it but move beyond it. So if you “meet the Buddha on the road”, ie you learned all that the Buddha has to teach, figuratively “kill him”, ie don’t dogmatically hold on to that learning but move on. (I think at that point they sometimes say you’ve become the Buddha, but face it, Buddhists, and Zen Buddhists in particular, are masters of woo)

  4. flex says

    If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.

    Ignore him would be just as good. The phrase doesn’t refer to false Buddha’s, only that the enlightenment of Buddha cannot be learned from studying. The Buddha on the road cannot show you enlightenment, but because they are Buddha you would be tempted to try to learn from them. So it’s better to kill the Buddha, pursue your own path, and find your own Buddha nature within, than to indulge the temptation to study with Buddha. There is no shortcut to enlightenment.

    The underlying meaning is similar to Euclid’s quote, “There is no royal road to geometry.”

  5. flex says

    And it appears file thirteen had a slightly different understanding of the message. Not that these are mutually exclusive.

  6. file thirteen says

    Your interpretation seems much closer to the truth flex. I have a habit of wilfully forgetting that the Buddhist search is for enlightenment rather than education.

  7. Matt G says

    I have a book of koans called “Pointing at the Moon”. The message from this particular koan is to look at the moon, not the finger pointing at it. The Buddha showed the way to enlightenment, but is otherwise unimportant. I wonder what percentage of Christians think Buddhists worship the Buddha the way they worship Jesus, God, Mary, etc.

  8. Mano Singham says

    Matt G.

    If Sri Lanka is any indication, most Buddhists do worship Buddha as some kind of a god. They go to temple and worship statues of the Buddha and any disrespect shown to the Buddha causes outrage and is treated as similar to blasphemy.

    This drives Buddhist philosophers crazy. I remember a long time ago a speech given by a professor of Buddhist philosophy which was pretty much an extended rant at the Buddhist clergy for promoting the cult of Buddha as a god because it served their own interests.

  9. Mobius says

    #3 Mano

    I suspect that is the case. But then, I have never really understood the purpose of Zen koans.

  10. Owlmirror says

    Speaking of Buddhist philosophy, an interesting idea I heard about a while back was: Could David Hume Have Known about Buddhism?


    Philosophers and Buddhist scholars have noted the affinities between David Hume’s empiricism and the Buddhist philosophical tradition. I show that it was possible for Hume to have had contact with Buddhist philosophical views. The link to Buddhism comes through the Jesuit scholars at the Royal College of La Flèche. Charles Francois Dolu was a Jesuit missionary who lived at the Royal College from 1723–1740, overlapping with Hume’s stay. He had extensive knowledge both of other religions and cultures and of scientific ideas. Dolu had had first-hand experience with Theravada Buddhism as part of the second French embassy to Siam in 1687–1688. In 1727, Dolu also had talked with Ippolito Desideri, a Jesuit missionary who visited Tibet and made an extensive study of Tibetan Buddhism from 1716–1721. It is at least possible that Hume heard about Buddhist ideas through Dolu.

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