Here’s Part 1 of an email interview with Will Buckingham of the ThinkBuddha blog about my book, Gautama Buddha: the Life & Teachings of the Awakened One. It explores why I wrote the book and how I approached the distinction between legend and history in the Buddha’s life
WB: Gautama Buddha is a handsome, beautifully written and beautifully produced book: it feels very much like a labour of love. However, there are a lot of books about the Buddha’s life out there. What was it that made you decide to write another one — and why now?
It surprised me when I embarked on this project to realise that, for all the books about the Buddha, no one else had written a full-length biography comparable to the biographies we read of other major figures in world history. Many of the other books repeat the legendary version of Gautama’s life that developed in classical Buddhist literature without asking whether the stories are true. Then there are books like Nyanamoli’s wonderful Life of the Buddha that base themselves on early sources but don’t place them in an historical context. Books like Thich Nhat Hanh’s Old Path, White Clouds embellish the material, leaving us with fiction rather than biography or history. There are popular histories that aren’t properly founded in knowledge of the texts or recent scholarships, and there are scholarly books that are so weighed down by detail that only specialists read them. So I set our to write a full-length biography that presents the Buddha of the Discourses (our main source material) and learns from the work of historians and textual scholars.
The nature of these sources makes it well-nigh impossible to know anything for sure about the Buddha, so I set out to write a credible life, not a definitive one. I mean one that’s plausible and credible to people like me who have grown up in a materialist culture and naturally ask if something ‘actually’ happened or if a later writer made it up. I found that, notwithstanding what sceptical scholars say, this is quite possible. The Discourses present a recognisable historical society; their portrait of the Buddha is detailed, vivid and quirky; and the teachings they ascribe to him are remarkably coherent – as if they express the apprehensions of a singe mind. I wanted to present that real-seeming person who had some kind of overwhelming insight into existence and wrestled it into concepts and practices that addressed people’s questions and dismantled their biases.
I think the time is right for this sort of book because over the last twenty years for the first time we’ve had access to great bulk of the Pali Discourses in reliable translations written in readable contemporary English. I was able to approach the material with a literary sensibility (which may be hard for a scholar, who has to worry about the details) and end up with something that is firmly based on a wide reading of the sources but offers a compelling story. I’ve been pleased when scholars have liked the book, but just as pleased when ordinary readers have called it a ‘page turner’.
WB. At the beginning of the book, you discuss how legend and fact are tangled together in the traditional accounts. I’m intrigued to hear how you navigated between legend, storytelling, myth and the findings of recent scholarship.
Mostly the book focuses on ‘historical’ elements in the Discourses in the light of recent scholarship. I started from a conviction that Gautama really lived and really did become the Buddha, and that at least some of the texts record accounts of his words and actions. That’s not quite the whole story, though, and some things you might call legendary find their way in. One kind of legendary material is stories that were clearly composed much later than the earlier accounts and which sometimes contradict it in tenor or details. Generally speaking, I leave this material aside, and some familiar stories about the Buddha don’t appear in this book. Occasionally I use these legends as images that draw out the meaning of an incident historical incident, making sure to indicate what kind of material this is. For example I introduce the image of the Buddha shortly after his Enlightenment wrapped in the coils of the giant serpent god, Mucalinda. This appears in a very early source, but I don’t suggest that it’s something that literally occurred. Nonetheless, it’s a vivid image for the Buddha’s connection with nature and whatever psychic forces the serpent represents.
Then there are many stories that appear in the Discourses themselves describing gods, spirits, demons miracles and supernormal powers. On the face of it, these contradict the effort to produce a credible historical account, and at one stage I tried leaving them out altogether. But I quickly hit problems. Those elements are so densely woven into the early texts that you can only exclude them by doing violence to the sources. So I’ve included some, placing them in parentheses, as it were, by saying ‘this is what the text says happened’ and leaving it to the reader to decide what to make of them.
Engaging with this material forced me to rethink my understanding of ancient history. Our sources tell us that Gautama spoke with divine beings (devas). For example, we are told that following Gautama’s Enlightenment he pondered keeping his insights to himself, but the god Brahma appeared and requested him to teach. If we leave that out we have a hole in our narrative. What’s more, for most of human history gods, miracles and supernormal powers have been an accepted part of reality and holy men and women like the Buddha have had an important role in relation to them. From everything we find in the sources it seems that Gautama experienced gods appearing before him and experienced himself speaking with them. So if Gautama believed that he had encountered Brahma on the level of visionary experience, what would it mean for us to call this a legend? To dismiss it we must asserting that gods don’t exist and belief in them is a delusion. If we don’t we are left with the story and our interpretations of it, some sceptical and others sympathetic to how both experience and meaning can unfold through images.
I came to wonder if it’s possible to write a detailed account of a culture like that of Ancient India without to some degree entering into its worldview and doing so let me see the Buddha’s distinctive contribution to the place of the gods in his culture. He didn’t challenge his contemporaries’ belief in them, but he did challenge their attitudes, counseling them acknowledge the gods when they appeared and give them due respect without responding with fear or craving. This aspect of Gautama may seem to contradict the view of him as a pragmatic realist, but we need to understand that his concern was not whether gods – or anything else we can experience ‘really exists’. He lived in a world where gods and magic were part of the pragmatic daily reality people experienced, so he included them in his general advice about responding to anything at all without fear or craving. In other words, if we set aside our own ideas about what is real we find that the Buddha’s teachings are relevant and accessible. Only if we realise the Buddha’s distance from us can we see his proximity, and that’s the value of an historicizing approach.
WB: You talk about tracking the Buddha like an elephant-tracker. But what is the profoundly strange, even paradoxical beast you are tracking?
The key to Gautama’s character in all the sources we have, right back to the very earliest, is that he is Enlightened. He has experienced a revelatory insight into the nature of the mind and existence that has transformed him in a profound way that concepts and descriptions cannot capture. So even if you place Gautama in an historical context, seek out the words that are likeliest to be his and strip away anything that smacks of magical thinking, you are left with something other than an ordinary person. What you make of that person depends on what you bring to the encounter. You can’t prove whether or not Gautama was Enlightened and the point of the elephant tracker image is that, while you may not be able to see the beast, you can infer its bulk from the footprints it leaves.
Getting from the footprint to the elephant means imagining it, and writing my book meant imagining the Buddha. There’s a degree of faith in that, and as a Buddhist myself I allowed myself to be guided by an intuitive response, accepting his Enlightenment as real and sensing its meaning by drawing on my experience of Buddhists and Buddhism. It’s historical in the sense that I tried to ensure that the evidence shaped my imaginings without confining it unduly.