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The Life of the Buddha
As Seen From China


Buddhism in Chinese

The Buddha was an historical person. Therefore the story of his life involves a great many names of people and places that were part of his world. Unfortunately, most sound extremely remote and difficult to us and create a linguistic barrier to learning about him. The same has always been true in China. For an appendix with more information and examples of the problems, click here.

In this text, all proper names are given in Chinese. The same is true of Buddhist technical terms. I have made an exception for the words buddha (fótuó 佛陀 or fó ) and nirvana (nièpán 涅槃), which are already widely known in English.

I have broken long names with arbitrarily placed hyphens. These don't correspond with the meaningful parts of the underlying Indian terms or their Chinese-character transliterations. They simply break up long strings of letters to ease the burden on the English reader. (I have referred to the buddha's wife as Lady Yéshū-tuóluó rather than Yéshūtuóluó, for example.) The Chinese character is pronounced ē in modern Chinese, although it was traditionally used to transcribe Sanskrit a in many names, and most western writers therefore prefer that spelling in transcribed Chinese. I have used the modern pronunciation.

Chinese characters are included only at first occurrence of new terms. They are continuously available through the alphabetical listing in the right-hand window, which also includes the Indian terms when I have been able to find them, although sources seem to conflict about spellings, and I have reluctantly dispensed with the dots placed over or under some letters, since few computer type fonts can accommodate them adequately. For a printable PDF file (135K — 10 pages) of the glossary window, click here.

This Retelling

As I have told the story itself, I have tried to incorporate much of what is "common knowledge" among Chinese Buddhists about the life of the historical Buddha, including some prophecies and miracles which it is difficult to regard as history rather than folklore. The telling deliberately reflects casualness about differentiations that are unclear to most Chinese Buddhists (such as terms for different levels of meditation or names of different kinds of Indian holy men or Buddhist followers).

I should like to express my gratitude and acknowledge my debt to my gracious hosts at the Kāiyuán Zen Monastery 开元禅寺 in Táinán 台南, Táiwān 台湾, where I lived for most of 1976 while doing fieldwork on a range of projects, and where, in countless informal conversations, I received much of my initiation into how Buddhism is lived by modern clergy and laity.

Although I have consulted many works, most of which are included in the source list, my underlying source for both the general flow of the story and the Chinese transcriptions given preference is Shì Jìnghǎi.

The Pictures

The delightful drawings that accompany the text were produced by students in my Spring, 2009, anthropology class, "Chinese Popular Religion," as one option for a brief class project. Each picture was accompanied by a thoughtful essay about the logic underlying the way the scene was represented. Although not originally intended for web use, some of the pictures are shared here, with the permission of the student artists. I am delighted to acknowledge their generosity, and apologize for the compromises made to represent in a small size what were originally much larger drawings.

This web site also contains some other materials relating to Chinese Buddhism. (Link)

David K. Jordan

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