Wednesday, August 12, 2009


The story of Buddhism is a distinctively modern and, until recently, non-Buddhist thing to tell. Even the term Buddhism is of recent vintage. In seventeenth-century Europe, only four religions were identified in the world: Christianity, Judaism, Mohammedism, and Paganism (also known as Idolatry). The history of the academic study of religion is in one sense a process of replacing Paganism with a larger list of isms: Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism, Shintoism, Sikhism, and, of course, Buddhism. Hinduism is a term derived from hind, a Persian word for the Indus River Valley, an area now located in Pakistan and populated by Muslims. Hinduism has no correlate in Sanskrit, its sacred language. Buddhism is a somewhat more complicated case. We really cannot say with certainty what the Buddha himself called what it was he said. None of what are regarded by the faithful as his words were written down until some four centuries after his death. However, when they were written down, we find him referring to what he taught as the dharma vinaya. Dharma is famously untranslatable; nineteenth-century translators used to render dharma as “law.” More recently it is often translated as teachings or doctrine. Vinaya refers to the rules of monastic discipline. Thus, the Buddha divided what he taught into, perhaps, a set of doctrines and a set of rules. The corpus of his teachings came to be referred to in Sanskrit as buddhadharma, the teaching or doctrine of the Buddha, and his followers as bauddha, Buddhists. Thus, an adjective, bauddha, that may be accurately rendered as “Buddhist,” existed in Sanskrit, even if there was little consensus over precisely what it encompassed.

But the term Buddhism has only recently been adopted by Buddhists. In Sri Lanka, what we might call Buddhism is simply refered to as the sasana, the teaching. In Tibet, it is most commonly referred to as nang pa'i chos, the religion of the insiders. In China, it is fo jiao, the teaching of the Buddha (fo used to be pronounced as budh in Chinese). In Japan, it is butsudo, the way of the Buddha. Over the history of these traditions, apart from a general recognition of India as the birthplace of the Buddha, there is little sense of the referents of these various names being a single entity that we might call Buddhism. They were, instead, like a variety of dialects, not always mutually comprehensible.

It is only with the invention of the category of religion, with its obligatory constituents of a founder, sacred scriptures, and fixed body of doctrine, that Buddhism comes to be counted as a world religion. Even then, it was judged by many Europeans as a rival to Christianity. During the nineteenth century, monks from a variety of traditions came to speak of a single pan-Asian Buddhism in an attempt to counter the attacks of Christian missionaries and colonial officials. One of the early attempts to unite Buddhism under a single creed (and a single flag) was made not by an Asian Buddhist but by a Theosophist, Colonel Henry Steel Olcott. In 1891 he formulated a set of fourteen rather bland principles that, with some effort, he persuaded a variety of Sri Lankan, Burmese, and Japanese Buddhist leaders to endorse.

Also during the nineteenth century, Buddhism became a subject of academic inquiry in Europe and America, focused primarily on the study of texts. Since that time, scholarly knowledge of Buddhism has expanded and changed and continues to change. The date of the Buddha’s birth remains a topic of active scholarly debate; the circumstances led to the rise of the movement (or movements) known as Mahayana, the “Great Vehicle,” continue to be explored, as does the degree of its importance in India; cases of the direct plagiarism of Hindu tantric texts by Buddhists (simply substituting the word Siva with the word Buddha are being discovered; birch bark scrolls inscribed with the Buddhist texts continue to be unearthed; previously unknown works (at least in Europe and America) are being translated into English; meditation is being reconsidered, both in terms of the extent of its practice historically as well as its function as a form of private and motionless ritual; the events of the first centuries after the death of the Buddha and prior to the writing down of his teachings remain a source of active speculation and study, considering, for example, what prompted the act of writing. And scholars continue to speculate about the reasons why, apart from the obvious factors such as Muslim invasions, Buddhism seemed to disappear from India, the land of its birth, around the twelfth century. It if did not entirely disappear, what remained and why?
[Adapted from The Story of Buddhism by Donald S. Lopez, Jr.]

We get a glimmering of what Thai people knew about the Buddha, before westerners made a study of Buddhism, from books written by European visitors to Siam in the 19th century and earlier. The following is adapted from Description of the Thai Kingdom or Siam: Thailand under King Mongkut by Monsignor Jean-Baptiste Pallegoix (1805-1862), a French bishop who visited Siam in the 19th century.

(For a 17th century account of Thai Buddhism and monks, whom he calls Talapoins, by Simon de la Loubère, French ambassador to Ayuttaya, see my other blog here.)

From this we can see that believers were not interested in the historical Buddha; they knew that he was born in India, they knew the names of certain places connected with his life without knowing where these were exactly. In fact, many Buddhists today say it doesn't matter whether there ever was a historical Buddha, it's the teachings which are important. What the pre-buddhologist Buddhists were interested in were the legends and stories of Buddha's past lives, the jatakas. In fact, the story of his last incarnation (as Prince Vessantara) before being born as the Buddha was probably just as significant to them as his supposedly historical life.

Mural painting from a Thai temple showing Vessantara, a previous incarnation of Buddha.

The last generation of Buddhas is contained in a book called Pra Patom Som Potijan. Pra Khodom (Gautama Buddha) was born in a city of India called Ka-billa-pat, (Kapillavastu) in about the year 543 BCE. Potisat, (Boddhisatva), the august being who was to become the Buddha, was then in the heavens called Dusit. Potisat examined the circumstances accompanying his transmigration. First, he chose the place among the sixteen kingdoms of India and the city of Ka-billa-pat was judged more convenient than any other, because it was in the center. After having determined the place, he chose the royal condition and Prince Siri Su-tot, (Sud-dho-dana) of the family of the Sakhaya, (Sakyas) was designated to be his father. Then he chose Princess Maha Maya to be his mother. The moment having come, Potisat went away, accompanied by all the angels of Dusit (Tusita) to a delightful garden where the transmigration took place.

Later the young queen had the following dream. She appeared to be transported into an enchanted region of the Himalaya Mountains. In front of her rose up a silver mountain at the top of which there was a white elephant of an extraordinary beauty. Soon she saw it come down from the mountain playing with its trunk and making the air ring out with its majestic roaring. Finally, it arrived near the queen and entered her womb in a fantastic way. The next day when she was woken up Maha Maya told her dream to her husband who called the astrologers to know its meaning. They told him: “Prince, don’t worry. This dream announces that the queen is pregnant with a boy who will reach the supreme dignity of Buddhahood.”

When the time for the delivery of the child approached, the queen wanted to spend a few days in a park where she bore the Buddha supporting herself on the branches of a tree called mai rang, (sal tree). The same day more than five hundred children destined for the service of the Buddha were also born. That day also 100,000 worlds quivered with joy and trembled to celebrate the birth of the young prince. But seven days later, his mother met the fate common to all mothers of Buddhas and died, to be reborn in one of the heavens.
It is said that not being more than a weak child, known by the name Sitat Raja Kumarn, (Prince Siddhartha), the young Buddha raised his hand toward heaven and spoke these words: “Of all beings who are on earth and in heaven, I am the most august and precious.” It is also said that his governesses, having placed him near a tree, its shade did not leave the child all day long. When this was known to the father, he came to be witness of this prodigious phenomenon, prostrated himself in front of his son and sang his praise.

When the prince reached the age of sixteen, his father married him to a princess called Pimpa, from whom he had a son called Rahun, (Rahul). Nevertheless, Indra, the King of the Angels, exposed the prince to various extraordinary visions in order to put him off the pleasures of the world. During his strolls in the royal gardens, he appeared to see decrepit elders with hideous faces, lepers, people covered with wounds, lamenting children, dying people struggling with death and a thousand other similar imaginary things. His father, seeing him sad and dreamy, tried to distract him by feasts and games and, confirmed in his suspicion in a dream, posted guards at all the palace gates and the city to prevent his son from going outside. But this was in vain, for the prince had decided to flee to the forests and completely renounce his wife, palace, and crown. Thus, one night, he woke up his horseman and both, having left the palace, went towards a gate of the city, where they found the guards asleep. At this moment Indra came to his help; four of his angels grabbed the legs of the horse and lifted it into the air and over the gate. As soon as Prince Sithat had reached the forest, he sent the horseman with the horse back to the city and entering the forest, he sat under a great sacred tree called maha po (maha bodhi, the pipal tree). There, Indra shaved his hair, dressed him in yellow dress and ordained him monk or somana, from which derives the name Somana Khodom, (Khodom was the name of the family or dynasty of this prince, Gotama in Pali). They also called him Sakkaya Muni because he descended from the Sakkaya dynasty.
He passed six years in this solitude, leading an austere life and applying himself solely to contemplation, after which he went to see and listen to famous scholars. But, seeing that he knew more than they, he abandoned them one after the other. However, the austere life he led had made him thin to the point that he no longer felt his strength. After deep reflection, he saw that this was not the voice of wisdom. He then renounced his austerity, bathed, ate and soon recovered his strength. His mind became perfectly brilliant; he recalled all his past knowledge and reached the perfect sanctity of Buddhahood. While he was still seated at the foot of the maha po tree King Pajaman, jealous of the glory to which he saw Somana Khodom elevated, sent him his three daughters to tempt him and divert him from his meditation. These three princesses used all kinds of ruses to get to their target. They painted the most seductive renderings of the world and its pleasures for Pra Khodom. They tried to capture his attention by gentle and tender words, by melodious chants and even by lascivious gestures, but they could not break his concentration. Somana Khodom remained unshakable. When Pajaman learned about the lack of success of his daughters, he became very angry and called the hundred thousand giants under his orders, came himself with his army to attack Pra Khodom. He let it rain clouds of darts and arrows on him, which, changing into flowers, made some kind of rampart around the saint. However, the angel, goddess of the earth, could not allow such an iniquity. She opened the earth and wringing her hair made come out water so abundant that they caused an inundation capable of drowning Pajaman and his giants, who could not escape except by hurried flight. It appears that Somana Khodom traveled the main cities of India accompanied by his five hundred disciples, the four famous of whom were: Prince Tevatat, (Devadhatta), his brother-in-law, who became his rival; Saribut, Mokhala and Anon, (Ananda) with whom he was closest. The kings built him several famous monasteries; he stayed quite long in the surrounding of Para-nasi, now Benares.

The Brahmins, who saw that the Buddha was glorified, became very jealous. Every time people came to listen to the sermons of Pra Khodom, he was offered so many flowers that they formed a great pile beside the hall of preaching. The Brahmins having killed a young girl, hid her secretly under these flowers. After a year or two, while there was an afflux of listeners, people were wondering where a certain deadly stench came from. Inquiries were made and when they had discovered the body, Brahmins standing around cried out that it was a young girl that Pra Khodom had abused. Most people lent credence to this calumny and deserted the side of the saint, while others, attributing the thing to the malice of his enemies, remained loyal to him. The Brahmins, seeing that their success had not been complete, thought up another trick. They engaged a young and beautiful woman of their sect to feign that she was converted to Buddhism. For several months she was very unremitting in her attention to the sermons of Pra Khodom and made gifts to him every day. Finally, it was noticed that she was pregnant and, since this woman pretended to show her pregnancy day after day, the rumor went around quickly that the saint had had intercourse with her. One day, when there was a great crowd, she herself had the shamelessness to say this before the whole assembly. But Indra, metamorphosed into a rat, crept into the dress of this woman, cut all the ropes which kept in place a pile of cloths which fell to the ground and by which everybody saw that it was a fake pregnancy and the shameless woman was chased away with hoots amidst universal indignation.
Tevatat, (Devadhattha), the brother-in-law of Somana Khodom, was his disciple together with several other princes. Now, it happened that having gone with his master to a certain city, the inhabitants who all brought presents, never gave any to him making him extremely indignant. Thus he decided on the spot to leave Pra Khodom and to attract disciples himself. In the city of Pimpisarn (Bimbisara) there was a pious King whose son was still young. Tevatat planned to entice this young prince to use him in his evil designs. He went to see him, received expensive gifts and, swollen with pride, went to propose to Pra Khodom to establish him as teacher and chief of all his disciples. Somana Khodom rejected the impertinent request of Tevatat. The latter, outraged with pique, went to see the young Prince Ajatra Sattru, (Ajatasattru) and persuaded him to get rid of his father and usurp the throne. The prince followed this iniquitous advice, usurped the throne and gave Tevatat five hundred men armed with arrows to kill Somana Khodom. He found Buddha walking at the foot of a mountain, but the mere sight of him instilled them with so much respect that nobody dared launch an arrow and they went back home. Tevatat, furious, went himself to the mountain and started to roll down rocks in order to crush Pra Khodom. However, the saint said to himself: “What crime did I commit then to be persecuted like this?” Examining his past he recalled one day in one of his generations, when drunk he had struck a monk with a small stone causing a drop of blood to appear. Consequently, he wanted to be hit at the foot by a burst of rocks that would spill as much blood as a mosquito can suck.

Tevatat aped all the manners of Pra Khodom; he managed to assemble 500 disciples around him. One day Pra Khodom sent Mokala and Saribut to take them away. Tevatat, seeing them come, imagined that they had left their master. Satisfied, he told them: “I know that when you were with Pra Khodom he treated you as his two favorites and made one of you sit on his right side and the other on his left. Come, friends, I will treat you with the same distinction.” To better cover up their plans the two envoys sat down on his side, but Tevatat having gone to sleep, Saribut started to preach and after his sermon these five hundred monks reached the sainthood of angels, were lifted into the air and disappeared with the two envoys of Pra Khodom.

After this Somana Khodom went into the city of Savati and Tevatat, having fallen ill, wanted to get back into the favor of his old master. His disciples, having put him on a stretcher, set off on the road to carry him to the monastery of Savati. When they approached, the disciples of Somana Khodom ran to inform him that Tevatat had come to see him. “I know what he wants,” he told them, “but he will not see me.” This happened several times as Tevatat got closer to the Buddha. When Tevatat had come very near the place where Somana Khodom was, the monks once more told him that he was very near: “However close he may be,” he said, “he will not see me.” The disciples of Tevatat having put him down on the ground when he wanted to walk, his feet sunk into the ground gradually absorbed him up to his neck. Seeing himself in this state, he began to pray to Somana Khodom; he humiliated himself, accepted his wrongs and begged for forgiveness, exalting and glorifying the merits and virtues of Pra Khodom. The earth thus swallowed Tevatat who descended to the great hell Aichi, where his body, 8,000 toises high, is impaled on three great iron spits and burns surrounded by flames. He is standing upright without being able to lie down or even move, and he will suffer these horrible tortures for 100,000 karb, (kalpa) after which he will return to earth and become a Buddha.

Somana Khodom, having reached the age of eighty years, ate pork that had been poisoned by Pajaman. He felt a flow of blood because of it and having gone with his disciples up to the royal garden, in the surroundings of the city of Kosinarai, (Kusinara), laid himself down on a marble table and asked for drinking water. But before they could bring it, he expired on Wednesday the fifteenth moon of the sixth month of the Year of the Small Dragon.

When the various small kingdoms of India learned about the death of the Buddha, a very great crowd gathered. The funeral ceremonies were celebrated with an unheard-of splendor and, after the cremation of his body, the Indian kings divided his relics among themselves which they took away in golden urns.

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