What can we say of a supposed historical figure whose life story conforms virtually in every detail to the Mythic Hero Archetype, with nothing, no "secular" or mundane information, left over?... Thus it seems to me that Jesus must be categorized with other legendary founder figures including the Buddha, Krishna, and Lao-tzu. There may have been a real figure there, but there is simply no longer any way of being sure."
Robert. M. Price.
The story of the Buddha’s renunciation, the homeless life, and enlightenment, is the standard path of the mythological adventure of the hero and represents an embellishment of the formula represented in the rites of passage: separation—initiation—return.
According to Joseph Campbell, this may be named the nuclear unit of the monomyth, or the hero’s journey, and takes the following form: A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder; fabulous forces are here encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.
At heart, despite its infinite variety, the hero's story is always a journey. A hero leaves his comfortable, ordinary surroundings to venture into a challenging, unfamiliar world. It may be an outward journey to an actual place: a labyrinth, forest or cave, a strange city or country, a new locale that becomes the arena for his conflict with antagonistic, challenging forces.
But there are as many stories that take the hero on an inward journey, one of the mind, the heart, the spirit. In any good story the hero grows and changes, making a journey from one way of being to the next: from despair to hope, weakness to strength, folly to wisdom, love to hate, and back again.
The stages of the Hero's Journey can be traced in all kinds of stories, not just those that feature "heroic" physical action and adventure. The protagonist of every story is the hero of a journey, even if the path leads only into his own mind or into the realm of relationships.
Consider these twelve stages as a map of the Hero's Journey, one of many ways to get from here to there, but one of the most flexible, durable and dependable:
THE STAGES OF THE HERO'S JOURNEY as exemplified by the story of the Buddha.
- Ordinary World; for the first 29 years of his life Buddha lived in his father’s palace. (Jesus lived in obscurity for 29 years of his life before he began his ministry. See Christian-Buddhist link.)
- Call to Adventure; he meets a sick man, an old man, and a corpse which cause him to be dissatisfied with the Ordinary World and determines to go in search of salvation.
- Refusal of the Call; Buddha of course is too great a person to be deterred once his mind is made up, even though he has to give up his wife and child.
- Meeting with the Mentor; he meets a mendicant and decides he wants to follow his example in leading an ascetic mendicant life.
- Crossing the First Threshold; the young prince sets forth secretly from his father’s palace.
- Tests, Allies, Enemies; for years he wanders through the forest meeting and learning from other ascetics, studying meditation, practicing austerities, searching for salvation.
- Approach to the Inmost Cave; he fasts almost to the point of death but decides that extreme asceticism is not the correct way to salvation. He is given a sign telling him that he will soon achieve enlightenment.
- Ordeal; Buddha is approached by the god of love and death who tempts him to give up his quest. The god brings his daughters to tempt the Buddha with lascivious thoughts and gestures. But the Buddha cannot be diverted from his aim.
- Reward (Seizing the Sword); Having won that preliminary victory before sunset, the Buddha acquired in the first watch of the night knowledge of his previous existences, in the second watch the divine eye of omniscient vision, and in the last watch understanding of the chain of causation.
- Resurrection; achieves enlightenment.
- The Road Back; Buddha decides not to remain in the Special World but to return to the Ordinary World to teach others how to achieve enlightenment.
- Return with the Elixir; the dhamma preached by the Buddha is the elixir which will benefit all mankind.
Sakyamuni Buddha Beneath the Bodhi Tree. Bowornnivet Temple, Bangkok.The Buddha’s enlightenment is the most important single moment in Oriental mythology, a counterpart of the Crucifixion of the West. The Buddha beneath the Tree of Enlightenment (the Bo Tree) and Christ on the Holy Rood (the Tree of Redemption) are analogous figures, incorporating an archetypal World Savior, World Tree motif, which is of immemorial antiquity. Many other variants of the theme will be found… The Immovable Spot and Mount Calvary are images of the World Navel, or the World Axis. The calling of the Earth to witness is represented in traditional Buddhist art by images of the Buddha, sitting in the classic Buddha posture, with the right hand resting on the right knee and its fingers lightly touching the ground.
The point is that Buddhahood, Enlightenment, cannot be communicated, but only the way to Enlightenment. This doctrine of the incommunicability of the Truth which is beyond names and forms is basic to the great Oriental, as well as to the Platonic, traditions. Whereas the truths of science are communicable, being demonstrable hypotheses rationally founded on observable facts, ritual, mythology, and metaphysics are but guides to the brink of a transcendent illumination, the final step to which must be taken by each in his own silent experience. Hence one of the Sanskrit terms for sage is muni, “the silent one.” Sakyamuni (one of the titles of Gautama Buddha) means “the silent one or sage (muni) of the Sakya clan.” Though he is the founder of a widely taught world religion, the ultimate core of his doctrine remains concealed, necessarily, in silence. (The Hero With a Thousand Faces, Joseph Campbell.)
Below is one version of the Buddha's legend, adapted from The Hero With a Thousand Faces by Joseph Campbell. Little of it can be taken to be historical and before the modern period Buddhists were content to read it quite literally. For a Thai version, see here.
The traditional legend of the great renunciation of the Buddha is a representation of the difficulties of the hero-task, and of its sublime import when it is profoundly conceived and solemnly undertaken. The young prince Siddhartha Gautama set forth secretly from his father’s palace on his steed Kanthaka, passed miraculously through the guarded gate, rode through the night attended by the torches of four times sixty thousand divinities, lightly hurdled a majestic river eleven hundred and twenty-eight cubits wide, and then with a single sword-stroke sheared his own royal locks—whereupon the remaining hair, two finger-breadths in length, curled to the right and lay close to his head. Assuming the garments of a monk, he moved as a mendicant through the world, and during these years of apparently aimless wandering acquired and transcended the eight stages of meditation. He retired to a hermitage, bent his powers six more years to the great struggle, carried austerity to the uttermost, and collapsed in seeming death, but presently recovered. Then he returned to the less rigorous life of the ascetic wanderer.
One day he sat beneath a tree, contemplating the eastern quarter of the world, and the tree was illuminated with his radiance. A young girl named Sujata came and presented milk-rice to him in a golden bowl, and when he tossed the empty bowl into a river it floated upstream. This was the signal that the moment of his triumph was at hand. He arose and proceeded along a road which the gods had decked and which was eleven hundred and twenty-eight cubits wide. The snakes and birds and the divinities of the woods and fields did him homage with flowers and celestial perfumes, heavenly choirs poured forth music, the ten thousand worlds were filled with perfumes, garlands, harmonies, and shouts of acclaim; for he was on his way to the great Tree of Enlightenment, the Bodhi Tree, under which he was to redeem the universe. He placed himself, with a firm resolve, beneath the Bodhi Tree, on the Immovable Spot, and straightway was approached by Kama-Mara, the god of love and death.
The dangerous god appeared mounted on an elephant and carrying weapons in his thousand hands. He was surrounded by his army, which extended twelve leagues before him, twelve to the right, twelve to the left, and in the rear as far as to the confines of the world; it was nine leagues high. The protecting deities of the universe took flight, but the Future Buddha remained unmoved beneath the Tree. And the god then assailed him, seeking to break his concentration.
Whirlwind, rocks, thunder and flame, smoking weapons with keen edges, burning coals, hot ashes, boiling mud, blistering sands and fourfold darkness, the Antagonist hurled against the Savior, but the missiles were all transformed into celestial flowers and ointments by the power of Gautama’s ten perfections. Kama-Mara then deployed his daughters, Desire, Pining, and Lust, surrounded by voluptuous attendants, but the mind of the Great Being was not distracted. The god finally challenged his right to be sitting on the Immovable Spot, flung his razor-sharp discus angrily, and bid the towering host of the army to let fly at him with mountain crags. But the Future Buddha only moved his hand to touch the ground with his fingertips, and thus bid the goddess Earth bear witness to his right to be sitting where he was. She did so with a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand roars, so that the elephant of the Antagonist fell upon its knees in obeisance to the Future Buddha. The army was immediately dispersed, and the gods of all the worlds scattered garlands.
Having won that preliminary victory before sunset, the conqueror acquired in the first watch of the night knowledge of his previous existences, in the second watch the divine eye of omniscient vision, and in the last watch understanding of the chain of causation. He experienced perfect enlightenment at the break of day.
Then for seven days Gautama—now the Buddha, the Enlightened—sat motionless in bliss; for seven days he stood apart and regarded the spot on which he had received enlightenment; for seven days he paced between the place of the sitting and the place of the standing; for seven days he abode in a pavilion furnished by the gods and reviewed the whole doctrine of causality and release; for seven days he sat beneath the tree where the girl Sujata had brought him the sweetness of nirvana; he removed to another tree and a great storm raged for seven days, but the King of Serpents emerged from the roots and protected the Buddha with his expanded hood; finally, the Buddha sat for seven days beneath a fourth tree enjoying still the sweetness of liberation. Then he doubted whether his message could be communicated, and he thought to retain the wisdom for himself; but the god Brahma descended from the zenith to implore that he should become the teacher of gods and men. The Buddha was thus persuaded to proclaim the path. And he went back into the cities of men where he moved among the citizens of the world, bestowing the inestimable boon of the knowledge of the Way.