“The Buddha” was an historical person, and this is the story of his life. Around his life, countless legends and mythical elaborations have arisen, and this account includes some of them. A buddha is also a category of being. Buddhists differ in just how they describe buddhas, but most agree that there have been many buddhas in the past and will be more in the future. One view is that a great many buddhas have been dispatched to the human world to teach us how to be saved from suffering.
Therefore there are accounts of earlier buddhas —the one before “our buddha,” the historical Buddha, was called the “Lamplighter” (Dīpaṃkara) Buddha. There is also an important religious tradition focused on the buddha who will be coming next: the Maitreya Buddha. In much of Asia it is held that in a recent incarnation (a “pre-incarnation”) the Maitreya Buddha was a tenth-century Chinese monk with an enormous belly, and that is how he is represented in Chinese temples and popular art. (In America, Maitreya’s pre-incarnation is the one whose great belly you are supposed to rub for good luck, or whose tiny ceramic statues are sold to go in bonsai gardens and fish tanks.) A separate page on this web site describes some of the most important buddhas and their common representations (link.)
Because buddhas are people, they have prior incarnations as non-buddhas. Furthermore, they do not start life as buddhas, but rather become “enlightened” at some point in their lives, only then fulfilling and manifesting their “buddha nature.” (Most Buddhists describe all humans as having a “buddha-nature” which could or will eventually be realized by all of us, although usually many incarnations in the future. A baby born to be a buddha has already achieved great spiritual attainment in prior incarnations and hence is born already a bodhisattva or “enlightenment being,” although, being a baby, s/he doesn’t know it, of course, except in legends.)
There are very ancient accounts of earlier incarnations of the historical Buddha. His last life before the one we know as historical makes up the so-called jātaka tales. Jātaka is Sanskrit for “birth,” but it is used to refer to accounts of the Buddha’s earlier incarnations, his earlier births. These stories have been hugely popular almost since the birth of Buddhism, and have been the stock-in-trade of storytellers, poets, puppet masters, mural artists, and other popular culture workers for well over two thousand years. On the temple walls of southeast Asia, jātaka tales vie for mural space with tales elaborated from the life of the Buddha himself. (More information with a brief retelling of the most popular of these tales is available on this web site. Link)
The present text covers only the historical Buddha, but it includes at least a nod to the more fantastical elements that are commonly incorporated into his story, such as the miracles normally associated with him throughout his life. To the extent that there are different understandings of the story in different regions, this version tends to be Chinese in its perspective. It 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).
A great many long names of people and places that were part of the Buddha’s world are necessarily involved in telling his story. Most are in fact compounds, and to someone familiar with Indian languages, they are easily remembered. But the convention is to transliterate them into English as undifferentiated mouthfuls, and to write them without concern about their jaw-breaking length. (A similar effect might result from writing “Thepresidentoftheunitedstatesofamerica” in an Indian alphabet and calling it a Hindi or Tamil word.) I have occasionally defied scholarly tradition by inserting hyphens into long words to make them a little more digestible to English readers.
If it is any comfort, the problem has always been just as bad in China, Thailand, and other countries where Buddhism took hold. The original draft of this retelling of the Buddha’s life used Chinese transcriptions for all of the proper names in hopes of making it easier for students in a course on Chinese religion, but little simplification was gained. (Link) I have retained here the appendix on Indian-Chinese translation challenges from that version.
Two Indian languages are most centrally involved in discussing Buddhism. One is Sanskrit, the literary language of ancient India. It was probably not widely spoken by the time the Buddha was born (if ever!). The Buddha is believed to have spoken one or more of the languages collectively referred to as “Prakrit” (from Sanskrit Prākṛta, “natural”), a slightly disparaging term contrasting with “Sanskrit” (from Sanskrit saṃskṛta, “refined”). He almost certainly also spoke (or at least knew) the Prakrit of Maghada, the kingdom slightly to the south of his home in which he spent most of his teaching career (Buswell & Lopez 659f).
The other major Buddhist language is Pali, a language closely similar to Sanskrit in which most Buddhist scriptures were originally composed. Earliest Pali texts date from long after the Buddha's life, and Pali itself may even represent an attempt to create a cross-dialectical language for Buddhist texts. (Pali has no script of its own, and has been recorded in a range of borrowed scripts over the centuries.) Over time, Buddhist terms have been borrowed into English from both languages.
In this write-up I have preferred spellings based on Sanskrit forms. In order to show vowel length and a larger set of consonants, properly romanized transcriptions of Indian languages make use of an extended character set to include subscripted and superscripted diacritical marks. Because these are sometimes replaced by boxes or question marks on smart phones and tablet readers or even, sometimes, laptop computers, simplified spellings have been used. The full spellings, complete with diacritics, are added in the dramatis personae lists that head each "Part" or at first occurrence. (A separate page elsewhere on this web site provides more detail about the pronunciation of Sanskrit and other South Asian languages. Link)
I should like to express my gratitude and acknowledge my debt to my gracious hosts at the Kāiyuán Zen Monastery 開元禪寺 in Táinán 臺南, Táiwān 臺灣, 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 Chinese clergy and laity.
Although I have consulted many works, many of which are included in the source list, my underlying source for the general flow of the story is Shì Jìnghǎi.
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. That year we used a version of the story with Chinese rather than Indian names, and it was in any case a course on Chinese religion. Accordingly, some students opted to dress the figures in Chinese clothing, stressing the Sinification of the dharma as it moved into China. (One even features queues, clearly an anachronism, but one that would have been at home in late Imperial representations of the story in China.)
Although not originally intended for web use, some of the pictures are shared here, with the permission of the individual 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 a summary of one of the interesting Jataka tales (concerning lives of the Buddha before his historical incarnation) (link), as well as some other materials relating to Chinese Buddhism. (Link)
Use of this text by teachers for educational purposes is explicitly permitted. That permission does not extend to the pictures, since the students gave their permission for their use only on this web site.
Go to Table of Contents, Chapter 1