Without the “historical” Buddha, Buddhism wouldn’t exist. This may seem like stating the obvious, but is it really? If the Buddha hadn’t existed, perhaps he would have been invented anyway. Indeed, whatever the facts might be, the life of the Buddha as it comes down to us is largely fabrication. Yet today, the historicity of the Buddha is rarely questioned, though we continue to question the historical basis of various events that happened during his long lifetime.

It is certainly easy to accept the notion that the legend of the Buddha is simply derived from an embellished image of a historical person. Pali texts in particular seem to be based on certain historical facts, and the Vinaya monastic codes contain clear attempts to present the Buddha as an eminently pragmatic individual. Supporters of this historicist interpretation rightly stress that it is easier to mythologize a biography than to demythologize a legend.

So what do we actually know about the Buddha? It is fair to say that he was born, he lived, and he died. The rest remains lost in the mists of myth and legend: his miraculous conception and birth, the extraordinary events and circumstances of his life, and the like. The fact that similar events are also said to have occurred during the life of the founder of Jainism, Mahavira (another allegedly historical figure), indicates that a degree of caution must be exercised in accepting their factual basis.

Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha, is said to have been born during the 5th century BCE as the son of a king of northern India. It is said that his mother, Queen Maya, dreamed that a white elephant pierced the right side of her body; the next morning she found herself to be pregnant, and nine months later, in a grove in Lumbini, she gave birth to a child. The child, having come painlessly from her right side, immediately took seven steps toward the north, a lotus flower blossoming with each step he took; then he turned toward the four directions, and sang a “song of victory,” declaring “I alone am the honored one above earth and under heaven.”

The auspicious birth of the Buddha was followed, seven days later, by the death of his mother. The child was then raised by his aunt Mahaprajapati. Following predictions that he would become either a universal monarch or a universal spiritual guide, his father decided to lock him away in the palace to protect him against harsh realities, thereby preventing him from taking up any kind of spiritual pursuit.

Related: Three Forgotten Stories About the Buddha’s Mother 

At the age of 16, Prince Siddhartha married Yashodhara and they later had a child, Rahula (the name means “obstacle” and speaks volumes about the paternal feelings attributed to the prince). Other sources claim that he had three spouses and followed a traditional career path as a future monarch. At any rate, destiny had other plans for him in the form of four encounters that took place during one or several excursions outside the palace: he met an elderly man, a sick man, a corpse, and an ascetic. The first three encounters made him aware of the transitory nature of existence, while the fourth brought him a sense of the possibility of deliverance. As a result, at the age of 29, Siddhartha fled from the palace and abandoned his princely duties and prerogatives. For six years, he practiced all kinds of austerities, which almost got the better of him. Having finally realized the futility of these practices, he discovered the “middle way,” a path between hedonistic pleasure and asceticism. He then came up against the Buddhist devil, Mara, and his enticing daughters, but successfully resisted fear and temptation, and there was nothing more to block his path to awakening. During this ultimate stage, he gradually passed through the four stages of meditative absorption (dhyana), contemplated the links of dependent origination through his previous lives, and eventually realized the four noble truths.

This story of the Buddha’s life, culminating first in awakening and later, upon death, with final nirvana (parinirvana), is first and foremost a digest of doctrine and a paradigm of Buddhist practice. When it comes to awakening, through which the Buddha is able to gain knowledge of ultimate reality, it is this same life—the same psychodrama or cosmodrama of awakening—that is repeated by all past and future buddhas. This explains the extreme monotony of accounts of these lives, all based on the same model. The same can be said, in part, of the lives of the saints, which are also “imitations” of the life of the Buddha. All past and future Buddhas are said to have passed through the same stages as Shakyamuni Buddha: a spiritual crisis followed by a renouncement of the world, an ascetic existence leading to awakening, the acquisition of extraordinary powers, preaching and gathering disciples, being targeted by jealousy because of his success and criticism of a corrupt society, his death being foretold, and a funeral that gives rise to the worship of relics.

Early Buddhism centered largely on the worship of stupas, memorials that focus on the main episodes of Siddhartha’s life—in particular the four stupas in Kedarnath, Dvarka, Puri, and Rameshvaram that commemorate his birth, his awakening, his first sermon, and his final nirvana. These became oft-visited sites of pilgrimage. As a result, the life of the Buddha took a monumental turn, in every sense of the word.

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Dipamkara Buddha, the Buddha of the previous age prior to the time of Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha. Dipamkara Buddha, Nepal, 1700–1799. Ground mineral pigment on cotton. Courtesy the Rubin Museum of Art, NYC.

By visiting these sites, followers were able to relive each and every glorious episode of the life of their master and have these environments fill their imaginations. However, these stupas were more than simple commemorative monuments; they were also primarily mausoleums or reliquaries containing parts of the body of Buddha. Contact with or proximity to these relics was said to have magical efficacy, increasing the chances of happiness in this world and of salvation in future lives. One of these builders of stupas, the 3rd-century Mauryan emperor Ashoka, would have an immense impact upon the development of the Buddhist religion. Ashoka, whose empire extended across India, went on a pilgrimage to the birthplace of the Buddha in Lumbini, where he erected a commemorative pillar. However, tradition has it that he also ordered the construction of 84,000 stupas, where relics of Buddha would be deposited. His role as a Buddhist sovereign played a significant role in the relationship between Buddhism and sovereignty in all the cultures of Asia. Without Ashoka, Buddhism would most likely have remained a minority religion, like Jainism, with which it shares many features. The history of early Buddhism is essentially one of a community of followers and pilgrims, and the constant developments of the legend of the Buddha’s life have had a far greater influence upon Buddhism’s rapid expansion than the actual historical individual—that is, the Buddha himself.

Related: Beneath the Eyes of the Buddha 

The early community expanded the narrative of the Buddha’s life; then, having increased the number of episodes relating to that life, legend then turned to his past lives. According to the Buddhist doctrine of karma, the Buddha’s present life was simply the result of a long series of previous lives, in which the Buddha-to-be was reincarnated as various different beings, both animals and humans. These past lives form the focus of texts known as Jatakas. This same model is applied to the existence of other past buddhas. There is also mention of the future buddha, Maitreya, who it is said will appear in several million years, although his “biography” remains somewhat vague. The Mahayana tradition in particular speaks of numerous cosmic buddhas, who are already present—although invisible to the human eye.

Initially presented as some kind of superhuman being, the Buddha was therefore gradually transformed into some kind of god. This development is documented in some scriptures of the Mahayana. In the Lotus Sutra, for instance, the Buddha himself calls his own historical authenticity into question. This coup de théâtre takes place in a text with wide-ranging influence across East Asia. During a sermon, the Buddha declares to his disciples that he has already guided numerous beings toward salvation. Faced with their skepticism, he calls upon these beings to show themselves, and a multitude of bodhisattvas suddenly spring up from the ground. While his disciples wonder how he has been able to carry out this task during his existence as a human, he reveals that his life is, in fact, eternal. He states that he employed “skillful means” (upaya)—claiming to have been born in the form of Prince Siddhartha, to have left his family, and to have spent six years of austerity to finally achieve awakening—in order to convince those of weak capacity. He states that the time has come to reveal the real truth, namely that he has essentially always been the Awakened One. The weak-spirited (which refers to what were then called the followers of the Hinayana—the lesser, or inferior, vehicle—but which we now prefer to call Nikaya Buddhism) will, he says, continue to believe in the conventional truth of the biography of the Buddha, whereas his most advanced disciples will know the ultimate truth—the transcendent nature of the Buddha.

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Maitreya Buddha, the coming Buddha of the future aeon. Together, Dipamkara, Shakyamuni, and Maitreya are known as the Buddhas of the three times (past, present, and future). Maitreya Buddha, Tibet, 1600–1699. Fine gold line, red background on cotton, 85.09 x 60.96 cm. Courtesy the Rubin Museum of Art, NYC.

Given that the life of the Buddha has been soaked in legend from earliest times, where does the belief in a “historical” Buddha come from? What does this belief signify? Is there any way to reconcile it with the proliferation of cosmic buddhas associated with the Mahayana tradition? Westerners (as well as certain “Westernized” Asians) first developed a firm belief in the historical authenticity of the Buddha during the 19th century, at a time when triumphant rationalism was seeking an alternative to Christianity. The Orientalist scholars of Buddhism wanted to see it as a religion that would tie in with their own views: rather than being a religion revealed by a transcendent God, their Buddhism was seen to be a human, moral, and rational religion founded by an extremely wise individual. According to Michel-Jean-François Ozeray’s Recherches sur Buddou ou Bouddhou (1817): “Descended from the altar where he was placed through blind faith and superstition, Buddou is a distinguished philosopher, a sage born for the happiness of his fellow men and the goodness of humanity.” The Buddha, remodeled to suit the cause, was henceforth considered to be a freethinker who opposed the superstitions and prejudices of his time.

Attempts were then made to apply to the “biography” of the Buddha the same methods of critical historical analysis that were applied to Jesus—a process that continues even today. As a result, the “historical” Buddha began to overshadow all the “metaphysical” buddhas of the Mahayana tradition, thus relegating this tradition to the realm of fantasy while Theravada, which was said to be alone in preserving the memory of its founder, found itself promoted to the rank of “authentic” Buddhism.

Related: What the Buddha Taught? 

My purpose here is not to deny the authenticity of a man who once was known as the Buddha. Rather, I want to highlight the fact that the question itself is irrelevant, except for a historicist—that is, Western—approach. The question is certainly of little consequence for traditional Buddhists, who see the life of the Buddha above all as a model and an ideal to be followed. The imitation of this timeless paradigm is a fundamental fact of monastic life. It is not just about achieving awakening for oneself by identifying with the Buddha individually; it also involves recreating the Buddhist community ideal of the early days: bringing the Buddha back to life, not just as a detached individual but rather in close symbiosis with his disciples.

So why is establishing the historical authenticity of the Buddha of such great importance to us modern folk? Because for us the authenticity of the life of the founder is the only guarantee of the originality of the religion he founded. Without a concrete biography, the Buddha disappears into the mists of time, and without the Buddha, Buddhism itself seems to become dangerously plural. But plural is what Buddhism has actually always been.

Indeed, the conservative Nikaya Buddhism—that is, those schools based on the earliest strata of scriptures, nowadays represented by Theravada—in many ways stands in stark contrast to the abundance of images and mystical fervor of Mahayana Buddhism, as well as to Tantric Buddhism, with its emphasis on magic, sexuality, and transgression. In fact these two movements, while initially opposed, ended up complementing one another. While a religion based on orthodoxy (such as the monotheisms of the West) would most often have anathemized contradiction, Buddhism embraces more or less all of these competing or apparently irreconcilable trends. In this sense, it is perhaps preferable to talk of a Buddhist nebula rather than a unified religion.

The image of the Buddha, which is constantly being renewed, is one of the elements that have enabled Buddhists of all denominations to identify with the same tradition. In this sense, the “historical” Buddha is simply another work of fiction, the most recent in a long line of a tradition marked by constant reinvention, not least that of the Buddha himself.

From Unmasking Buddhism, © 2009 by Bernard Faure. Reprinted with permission of the publisher, Wiley-Blackwell.

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