Life of the Buddha- the Pali tradition

03 Sep

The life and teachings of the Buddha have come down to us in two main streams: The Pali Canon-the older tradition prevalent in Sri Lanka and Burma; and the Sanskrit tradition followed in Tibetan and Chinese Buddhism.

It is said; three months after the Buddha’s parinibbana – his death and final entry into Nibbana – five  hundred of his Arhats and disciples, led by Maha_Kassapa, met in a council at Saptaparni cave (Pali : or Seven leave-cave)  near Rajagriha ( Rajagaha), during a rainy season. That council held under the patronage of the King of Magadha, Ajatashatru (Ajatasattu – ruled 491 to 461 BCE) later came to be known as the First Council. 

With the Teacher no longer among them, the monks addressed themselves to the task of preserving the teachings of the Master and handing them down to the subsequent generations, as purely and as faithfully as possible. The First Council arrived at a consensus on what the Buddha’s teachings actually were after deliberations lasting for about seven months. It is said; Upaali a leading disciple of the Master compiled and edited the Vinaya portions of the Canon, dealing with rules of right conduct. The doctrinal, Dhamma, portions were similarly rendered by Ananda a close disciple and a cousin of the Master. Maha_Kassapa who presided over the council directed the compilation and editing tasks.

The fact that the followers of the Buddha could put together his teachings in such a highly developed form is a miracle. Having no written texts to rely on, they, as their forebears did earlier, prepared their discourses “for recitation”. The basic themes were rendered into verses arranged in cyclic order, with variations, in order to implant them firmly in memory of the monk – reciters (bhanaka) and the listeners as well. They were then committed to memory and passed down orally from generation to generation. The Pali Canon could survive the rigors of centuries, in oral form, because the followers of the Dhamma regarded the Master’s message as a priceless jewel that had to be preserved in its entirety and purity. It was an act of intense devotion. An amazing feat.

It was not until the first century BCE that the Pali canon was rendered into writing. According to the Sinhalese sources, the canon was written down at the instance of the King Vattagamini (29-17 B.C.E) of Sri Lanka at the fourth Buddhist Council. The Pali Canon falls into three general categories, called pitaka (basket). Because of this, the Canon is traditionally known as the Tipitaka (three baskets). The term ‘basket’ might have been used figuratively to indicate a collection or a carrier of an oral tradition. The Pali Canon or Tipitaka is made up of three separate sections: the regulations governing monastic life (Vinaya), the sermons of the Buddha (Sutta), and Buddhist philosophy (Abhidhamma). The three-fold pitaka division replaced a simpler, two-part division into Sutta (prose) and Vinaya (disciplinary rules).


The Buddhist tradition claims that the Tipitaka is composed in the language the Buddha spoke. The dialect of Kosala, of which the Buddha’s birth-kingdom Maghada was a part, was Magadhi also known as Magadhanirutti and Magadhikabhasa. The Buddha must have spoken to his listeners in Magadhi the popular language of the region in which he took birth and where he lived for most part of his life. For this reason, Magadhi is called Mulabhasa, the language in which the words of the Buddha emerged. The language of the Buddhavacana (words of the Buddha) is thus Magadhi and sometimes called Suddha-Magadhi, in order to distinguish it from Ardha Magadhi, the language of Jaina Canons. The   Buddha’s teachings were transmitted orally through this language for more than three centuries until they were written down.

The term Pali originally did not refer to a language. Pali was defined as that which preserves or protects (pa paleti, rakkhati ‘ ti Pali). Since the text Tipitaka preserved the Buddhavacana, it was initially called Pali. The word Pali thus signified “text” “sacred text”. With the passage of time, the language of the Tipitakas acquired the name Pali .

The well known scholar Bimal Churn Law in his History of Pali Literature states that the earliest use of the term Pali as the name of a language can be traced Buddhaghosa (3rd or 4th century BCE) and not to any earlier text. Dr. Law states that until then Pali was used to signify the original Canon as distinguished from the commentaries. And, after Buddhaghosa, the transition from Pali the text to Pali the language came about by popular usage.

The Buddha encouraged his disciples to preach in the language of the people so that they could understand the message. The Buddha preferred the natural language to the classical Sanskrit. He rejected proposals from his senior disciples to translate his teachings into Sanskrit verses. The Buddha discouraged spreading his teachings in any language other than the languages that people ordinarily spoke such as Magadhi and other local languages and dialects.

However, after the Buddha’s death, the forms considered more ‘learned’ and apt for philosophical exposition gradually took to Sanskrit, despite the fact that it gave a less faithful rendition   of the Buddha’s speech. Slowly the effort to represent the Master’s teachings in the spoken language of the people gave way to another effort, the expression through learned phraseology. By about 300 AD, classical Sanskrit became language of Buddhist texts.


[ As mentioned earlier; after his death, a council of 500 Buddhist monks was convened at Rajagriha in order to edit the corpus of his sermons so that his authentic teachings could be preserved.

A second council was convened at Vaishali, approximately one hundred years after the Buddha’s Parinirvāa.

The Second Council resulted in a schism in the Sangha: the ‘old ones’ (Theravadins) insisted on the ascetic ideal of the community of monks (Sangha), whereas a new movement stood for a greater accommodation of the lay members and a broadening of the concept of the Sangha to include followers other than monks. In keeping with this aim, the new trend was called Maha-sanghika. This was the origin of the ‘Great Vehicle’ (Mahayana) as the new movement liked to call itself while looking down upon the ‘Small Vehicle’ (Hinayana) of the orthodox monks. This schism was undoubtedly of great importance for the later development of Buddhist and Hindu philosophy; but, it also predetermined the decline of Buddhism in India itself.]


The authenticity of the Pali Canon is firmly established. The original gospel that survived in oral form and that served as the nucleus for the Canon must have been a collection of the words as spoken by the Teacher(suttno _pavachanam), as heard , grasped and remembered by his immediate disciples. The earliest accounts, which we may take as historical, must have been extremely plain accounts. They must have consisted of long series of discourses in direct speech of the Teacher, each with brief contextual information.

However, over a period, additional passages were written into to the Canon. These introduced the wonder and mystery of supernatural, elements of exaltation, religious romance and divine fervor. The plain accounts of the original gospel now strangely coexist with miracles and wonder.

There is a method to separate the original Canon from the injected passages. This method is more or less reliable. It is guided by the fact the original gospels follow a certain narrative pattern. Usually each recitation is prefaced with the words “Evam me sutam” (thus have I heard).This is followed by a couple of sentences indicating where the Teacher was when he gave the discourse and to whom it was addressed. Then the recitation is presented in direct speech in the Buddha’s own words (Buddha vachana). At the end of the recitation occurs another short sentence “idam avocha bhagava” (Thus spake the Blessed One) to mark the conclusion of the recitation.

The passages that fall outside this format are taken to be later additions. In order to obtain the message of the Canon we have to relay on the Buddha’s own words, ignoring the additions.

During these discourses, the Buddha gives glimpses of his life. These obviously are not long autobiographical narrations but they do contain revealing bits of information clothed in the Buddha’s own words. The information gleaned from the Canon presents a very interesting and a demystified view of the Buddha’s life events.

The Buddha (the Awaken) was certainly not the personal name of the Teacher and there is no evidence to suggest that our Teacher assumed that name at any stage in his life. He was not addressed as the Buddha  during his lifetime; nor did the Canon referred to him as the Buddha. A Buddha is anyone who is enlightened. A number of persons both before and after our Teacher were known by that title. For instance the sage Kashyapa, the progenitor, was often addressed the Adi-Buddha.

In the Canon, his acquaintances call him Samana Gotama (the ascetic Gotama) or simply Gotama. It may have been his Gotra or family name. In the later works, Siddhartha is his personal name. In the Canon, the Teacher is sometimes referred to by his clan name: “Sakya muni”, “Sakya putta”, or “Sakya kulamaha pabbajito”. To his disciples, he is Bhagava (The Blessed One). 

The Pitakas at several places describe our teacher as Angirasa, meaning that he belonged to the linage of the sage Angirasa.  (e.g. Vin.i.25; D.iii.196; S.i.196; A.iii.239; Thag.v.536; J.i.116). For instance Vinaya Pitaka while describing Gautama after he attained awakening , says “The Angirasa passes the night in tapas, his body radiating lustrous light.”He is at times addressed as Angirasa Kumara.

 Vinaya Pitaka names Suddhodana as the father of the Buddha. He is a Sakyan who resides in a Bhavana (a residential house). In the Pabbajja Sutta , the Buddha informs Bimbasara the king of Magadha,   that Sakiyas were a republican community, strong and prosperous, belonging to Kosala Kingdom at the foot of the Himalayan ranges.Suddhodana might have been a Sakyan Chieftain.  As per The Mahapadana Sutta, Maya is the Buddha’s mother. 

As regards the circumstances surrounding the birth of the Buddha, the Canon is entirely silent. The dream of Maya, entrance of the Bodhisattva into her womb, delivery at the Lumbini garden and the attendant miracles look like later additions.

In the later legends the messengers of gods enact scenes of old age, disease and death to remind the Bodhisattva of his great mission. However, the cause for his disillusionment with Samsara comes out in a subdued form in the Buddha’s own words. In the 38th Sutta of Anguttara- Nikaya the Buddha recounts :

” (living in excessive luxury) it occurred to me : an ordinary , uninstructed man , himself subject to old age , to disease , to death and not having passed beyond them , when he sees an old man , a diseased man and a dead man , is alarmed , abashed and repelled , being alarmed for himself…As I thought thus , all intoxication with life utterly left me.”

The Buddha uses the term “mayhem etad ahosi” meaning “it occurred to me” indicating that he reflected upon the problems of old age, disease and death . These were his thoughts.

The great renunciation mahabhi_nikkhamana is a subject of many literary compositions and artistic creations. In the Ariya-pariyesana Sutta of Majjahima Nikaya, the Buddha in a reminiscent mood recalls leaving his home and becoming a homeless. He explains the events in exceedingly simple words.

While still young , with glossy black hair , in vigorous youth and in prime , though my mother and father were unwilling and tears poured from their eyes, I caused my hair and beard to be cut off, and donned the ochre robe, and went forth from home to homelessness , and having thus renounced , pursuing the highest good , seeking the supreme path of peace , I came to Alara Kalama.”

His young wife, infant son, favorite horse Kanthaka , the devoted charioteer Channa, the still of the night , the river Anoma and sympathetic gods were perhaps brought into the later texts to heighten the dramatic effect of the great event.

Another account in the pubbajja – sutta of sutta-nipata, mentions that  king Bimbisara attempted  to dissuade Gotama from the path of renunciation, saying Gotama was too young to go along that path. The Ariya-pariyesana Sutta too suggests the great departure was a deliberate and well considered move with the knowledge of all. It was not a slip out in the dead of the night.

Mara is personification of desire, the force that circumscribes the man as ego and subjects him to the wretchedness of samsara. In the Mahavagga of Vinaya Pitaka there is only a single reference to Mara:  “He the strenuous, meditative sage, Gotama stands and scatters the army of Mara, even as the sun lighting the heavens.” It signifies the Buddha’s victory over temptations. The elaborate Mara legend and the fight is absent in the Canon.

The ancient accounts enlightenment are charmingly simple, plain, lucid and shorn of supernatural. In Ariya_pari_yesana Sutta, the Buddha recounts those momentous events:

Being myself subjected to earthly existence, I perceived the wretchedness of what is subject to earthly existence and seeking the supreme peace of Nibbana , which is not affected by earthly existence , I attained the supreme peace of Nibbana not affected by earthly existence.. and the insight now as the thing seen arose in me. My emancipation is won, this is my last birth and there is no more becoming for me.”

The Buddha further says “Lived is the holy living, done is what was to be done, there is nothing beyond this.”(Katam karaniyam, na param itthattaya)

 We then have the celebrated Dhamma_parivattana_Sutta the first discourse of the Buddha at the deer park in Isipatna near Varanasi. This Sutta perhaps carries the very words the Buddha uttered.

From this point onwards until his death, there is general agreement among all the versions on the various accounts in the life of the Buddha.

The Buddha, according to Madhurattha_vilasini, was a wandering monk, continuously on move from place to place (paribbajaka) for twenty years starting from his enlightenment. He then settled down at Savasthi living on alms, for about twenty years. He left Savasthi in his 79th year and spent rainy season (vassa) at Rajagraha from where he moved northward. While on move, at the age of 80, he passed away quietly at Kusinara in Malla country.

The Lakkana Sutta of Dhiga Nikaya gives description of the Buddha’s physical appearance. The Buddha was perhaps one of the few good-looking spiritual teachers. He was at least six feet tall. His hair was fine, dark with soft long curls. He had an elongated face, protruding and well-formed nose. He had military training in his upbringing. He had a strong body and was once invited by a king to join his army, as a general.

His death is the theme of a long SuttaMaha_pari_nibbana Sutta, included in Dhiga Nikaya. His last words: “I beseech you, mendicants, all composite things are liable to decay; strive with diligence” appear in all the versions. Some versions carry the Buddha’s conversation with gods, the earthquakes and other marvels attending his death.

A verse attributed to Anurudda that gives a remarkably intimate eyewitness account of the Master’s death.

His mind was settled; there was no hard breathing in or out. The sage died without a quiver; his goal was tranquility. He endured the pain with bold mind; even as a flame goes out; his conscious was freed.”


The Buddha is the precious jewel of humanity. No matter how you look at him, he must have been a wonderful person of majesty, tenderness, compassion and one who was free from prejudices. He always carried himself with dignity. You cannot fail to wonder at the brilliance, greatness, compassion and the nobility of the person and his teachings. Though twenty-five centuries have gone since the passing away of the Buddha, his message of love and wisdom continue to influence and guide us.


Please see The First Discourse Of The Buddha

for Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta,

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Posted by on September 3, 2012 in Buddha


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