The Sacred Narratives of Buddhism Illustrating Dharma

Article of the Month - Oct 2021

This article by Manisha Sarade

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The Sacred Narratives of Buddhism Illustrating Dharma

The most recognized of sacred narratives in Buddhism is the life story of Gautama Siddhartha, who became the Buddha. Many of the teachings of Buddhism are implicit within the story of his life, and carvings and paintings of scenes from his life story were often placed in or around temples and on stupas. Equally recognized in the Buddhist world are the Jataka Tales, which tell of the Buddha's past lives. Another type of sacred narrative that has been vitally important to Buddhism is stories from the Buddha's sermons. Both the early sutras and the later Mahayana sutras are often presented as long narratives. They often begin with the words, "This is what I heard," and they include descriptions of scenes, a cast of characters, and dialogue. Within these long narratives, there are many specific stories said to have been told by the Buddha to illustrate the dharma, or Buddhist teachings.

67" Dharmachakra Pravartana buddha | Handmade | Brass Statue | Made In India

Today, a few of these sutras have become so popular that sects of Buddhism are devoted entirely to them. One of these is the Lotus Sutra. Within the Lotus Sutra, which in English translation runs to over three hundred pages, there are many stories that convey a "message" to the listener. The most famous of these is a story that illustrates the doctrine of skillful means (expedient means). The story tells of a rich man and his young sons who lived in a huge old crumbling house with only one exit. One day the house caught fire. The man's sons were inside playing, oblivious to the danger. The man warned them, but they were enjoying their games and did not heed his warning. He knew he did not have much time to save them, and that he needed skillful means to get them to leave the burning house. Thus the man told them of rare and desirable toys waiting for them outside the gate — goat-carts, deer-carts, and ox-carts — and his sons left the house to get their new toys. The man had to use "skillful means" to get them to leave, lying to them to save their lives. When they got outside and wondered aloud where the new carts were, the man made for each of them a large carriage even more resplendent than the carts he had promised. After telling this story, the Buddha compared himself to that rich man, saying that he was like a father to the entire world, and that he had come to earth to rescue all living beings from the fires of birth, sickness, old age, death, stupidity, misunderstanding, suffering, and the three poisons of greed, anger, and delusion. Because people were unaware of the danger that surrounded them, like the rich man's sons, the Buddha offered them special powers, awareness, freedom, and spiritual pleasures. Like the boys in the story, people left the world of samsara seeking these gifts, and when they did, the Buddha gave them these gifts and more. He gave them the Great Vehicle, the Mahayana. Another popular sutra is one that buttressed the growing lay movement within Mahayana Buddhism, the Vimalakirti Sutra. In this sutra, Vimalakirti is critical of the non-Mahayana schools, using the pejorative term Hinayana (small vehicle), because, he says, they are not interested in assisting others, but think only of their own enlightenment. Vimalakirti is then revealed as a bodhisattva who has incarnated to assist the Buddha in expounding the true ideals of the Mahayana.

Large Size Crowned Buddha

For many lay people, the polemics in this sutra are less interesting than the fact that Vimalakirti was not a renunciant, but a wealthy lay follower of the Buddha. Many Buddhists had understood the Buddha's teachings to mean that one must renounce possessions and social connections to follow his teachings. Vimalakirti, however, was enlightened, like the Buddha, despite his wealth and lay status. The sutra thus validated the lay approach to Buddhism that became increasingly popular as Buddhism spread from India into other parts of Asia. The Amitabha and Longer Amitabha Sutras tell the story of Dharmakara, who devoted millions of lifetimes to become Amitabha, the Buddha of the Pure Land. He was once a great king who gave up his throne to become a monk and began to practice the way of the bodhisattva. He went to the Buddha Lokesvararaja and expressed the wish that someday he could become a teacher to all living beings, and liberate all from suffering and rebirth.

Tibetan Buddhist Bodhisattva Deity Chenrezig (Large Size Shadakshari Lokeshvara)

Dharmakara then devoted five eons to cultivation and one hundred billion years of study to build up the required merit and design a Pure Land for living beings to go to after death. When his task was finally complete, he became the Buddha of this Pure Land, Amitabha. Now one has only to call the name Amitabha with sincerity at the moment of death, and one will be transported to this Pure Land, and will be exempt from rebirth. The Pure Land is beautiful and peaceful, but it also a place where one can continue to study Buddhism with the eventual goal of enlightenment and the dissolution of self. There are many other popular sutras, including the Heart Sutra, the Diamond Sutra, and the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, just to name a few. Some of these have, like the Lotus Sutra, become the focal points for particular sects of Buddhism, and adherents will copy and recite them to gain merit. These sutras and others contain stories that are learned by children and repeated by elders because of the wisdom of the lessons they contain.

बौद्ध धम्म दर्शन: The Philosophy of Buddha Dharma

The primary Pali account of the Buddha’s ‘awakening’, where we are told that Gautama considered not bothering with teaching, since nobody would understand him. After Gautama did decide to teach, the first person to encounter him, an ascetic called Upaka, was not impressed. Upaka asks who Gautama’s teacher is. When Gautama replies that he is fully awakened, and so has no teacher, Upaka simply shakes his head and walks off, saying ‘maybe’. A critical study of the textual record suggests a surprising story: Gautama doubted his own teaching ability, was not taken seriously by the first person to witness him (as the Buddha), and did not achieve notable success with his first audience. How, then, did he succeed? That the Buddha had a major effect on Indian culture and society cannot be doubted; no comparable attempt was made to preserve a record of any other figure in ancient Indian history. A good idea of Gautama’s personal impact can be seen in the testimony of an old spiritual seeker called Pingiya:

“I see him in my mind, as if with my eyes,

diligently, day and night,

I spend the night honouring him,

and think there is no separation from him.

My faith, joy and mindfulness

do not deviate from Gautama’s dispensation,

Wherever the one abounding in wisdom goes,

I bow down in that direction.”

11" Gautam Buddha Preaching His Dharma | Inlay Work | Brass Statue | Handmade | Made In India

What inspired such commitment? Although Pingiya’s declaration does not tell us very much, its position in the Sutta-nipāta (‘A Collection of Discourses’) – an old corpus of wisdom literature – is more revealing. Gautama here emerges as a lone voice from the wilderness, inspiring others with a call to join an austere cult of meditation. An important text in the collection is the Muni Sutta (‘Discourse on the Silent Sage’), almost certainly known to the Indian emperor Asoka as the Muni-gatha (‘Verses on the Silent Sage’), and so in its extant form dating to the 4th century BCE, not very long after Alexander the Great’s Indian campaign. In this text, the Buddha describes the sage as a radical outsider: Danger is born from intimacy, dust arises from the home. Without home, without acquaintance: just this is the vision of a sage.

The Golden Book of Buddhism (Humanity's Oldest Religion of Peace): Selected Suttas of both Hinayana and Mahayana, with Ashvaghosa's Buddhacharit

Avoiding the enveloping ‘dust’ of society, the sage remains aloof from worldly values, ‘not trembling amid blame or praise, like a lion not shaking at sounds … like a lotus not smeared by water’. Focusing his attention instead on the quest to cultivate deep states of meditation in the forest, the sage is likened to a swiftly flying swan, whereas a householder is imagined as a blue-crested peacock, beautiful but slow. A comparable image is found in the Khagga-visana Sutta (‘The Rhinoceros Discourse’), another old text of the Sutta-nipata, which points out that even two gold bracelets will clash when worn on the same wrist. The message is clear: it is better to wander alone, in the wilderness, like the single-horned Indian rhino.

The History of the Buddha's Religion - Sasanavamsa

otama’s otherworldliness can also be seen in many stories about his quietism. The account of his visit to Prince Bodhi’s ‘Kokanada’ mansion says that he remains silent and ignores the invitation to ascend to the upper terrace. But after casting a telling glance at his assistant, Ananda, the Prince is told to roll up the cloth covering the stairs: Gautama is so removed from civilised norms that he will not walk on covered ground, and will not even break his silence to explain himself. Elsewhere, Gautama accepts invitations by staying silent, and expresses his appreciation of being alone in the forest or on the road. He also advises his followers to maintain a ‘noble silence’, so that when Ajatasattu, king of Magadha, comes to visit, the intense quietude he encounters is so overwhelming that he worries about being lured into a trap.

Gautama’s quietism also finds enigmatic expression in his teaching. Most striking is what could be called the ‘dialectic of silence’: when asked abstract metaphysical questions, such as whether the world is eternal, whether the soul is different from the body, or what happens to a liberated person (tathagata) after death and so on, Gautama stays silent, or points out that he has set these subjects aside. The reason for this was partly pragmatic: such questions are said to serve no spiritual purpose. But there is a subtler reason too.

गौतम बुद्ध (जीवन और धर्म दर्शन): Gautama Buddha - Life and Philosophy of Religion (Set of 2 Volumes)

In the early Pali texts, the Buddha’s philosophical reticence is sometimes explained as a form of skepticism: Gautama does not accept the presuppositions of the questions. The term buddha (‘awakened’) indicates that normal experience is a dream from which Gautama has awoken. One old refrain tells us that Buddhas draw back ‘the veil’ from reality. Gautama thus sees things as they actually are and, from this awakened perspective, realises that ideas such as ‘world’, ‘self’ or ‘soul’ are not ultimately real. And if these aspects of experience belong to the unawakened perspective, the questions are unanswerable. The ultimate truth to which Gautama has awakened is that our world of experience belongs in the mind:

I declare that the world, its arising, cessation and the way there to occurs in this very fathom-long ‘cadaver’ (kalevare), endowed with perception and mind.

Large Tibetan Buddha Teaching of Dharma

This peculiar teaching suggests that the world in which we live is a state of experience, not an objectively real entity. This explains Gautama’s focus on the painful nature of human experience, and especially the means of deconstructing it. This analysis is not without logical problems, however. For if individual existence in the world is a conceptual or cognitive construction, what is the point of the spiritual life? Without an essential subject or ‘soul’ to realise an essential reality, how can spiritual discipline be worthwhile and meaningful?

Tibetan Buddhist Folding Buddha Temple

It is not just Buddhist temples in which the Buddha exists in an entirely mythic form. Buddhist scholars, bewildered by layers of legend as thick as clouds of incense, have mostly given up trying to understand the historical person. This might seem strange, given the ongoing relevance of the Buddha’s ideas and practices, most lately seen in the growing popularity of mindfulness meditation. As Western versions of Buddhism emerge, might space be made for the actual Buddha, a lost sage from ancient India? Might it be possible to separate myth from reality, and so bring the Buddha back into the contemporary conversation? His silent wisdom comes from somewhere else. We learn about his early failures, and then the strange story of his success: how he created an ancient cult of meditation, through enigmatic silence, radical ideas, and a simple insistence on being mindfully aware of the moment.

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