The popular Western understanding of a purely humanistic Buddha is a modern invention. Depending on whom you ask, much of the world views him as both a powerful superhuman being and a man.
Several canonical versions of the Buddha’s birth have survived, and some are quite fantastical. Dated to the 3rd or 4th century CE and attributed to the Sarvastivada school, the incredibly influential Arya lalitavistara nama mahayana sutra, or the Noble Mahayana Sutra “The Play in Full,” covers the Buddha’s last lifetime as a god in Tushita heaven, his final birth in this world, his journey to awakening, and his first turning of the wheel of the dharma. With parts being traced to the earliest days of the textual tradition, this time-and-space-bending Mahayana Buddhist narrative continues to inspire sincere renunciation and faith and to stimulate philosophical and doctrinal inquiry. Most likely not meant as a traditional biography, the Lalitavistara focuses on the transcendent qualities of complete awakening itself, and the reader is repeatedly reminded that other fully awakened beings have also traveled this long and laborious path.
This passage on the birth of the Bodhisattva (how the Buddha is addressed before his enlightenment) illustrates his supernatural presence and abilities, reminding us of the cosmic and mythical figure that followers the world over continue to trust for guidance in their liberation from the suffering of samsara.
–Frederick M. Ranallo-Higgins, associate editor
The Lalitavistara Sutra
As soon as he was born, the Bodhisattva stepped onto the ground. Wherever his feet touched the ground, a large lotus immediately sprung from the earth. Then the great naga kings Nanda and Upananda revealed their upper bodies in the sky and produced two streams of cool and warm water to rinse the Bodhisattva’s body. Sakra, Brahma, the guardians of the world, and many hundreds of thousands of divine sons then bathed the Bodhisattva in perfumed water and scattered flower petals over him. A parasol of precious gems and two yak-tail whisks also appeared from midair.
The Bodhisattva stood on a large lotus and surveyed the four directions with his lion’s gaze, the gaze of a great being. At that time the Bodhisattva, with unhindered higher knowledge, which he manifested due to the ripening of previous roots of virtue, saw the entire great trichiliocosm [universe]. He saw all the cities, towns, estates, kingdoms, royal cities, and lands, as well as all gods and humans. He perfectly knew the minds of all sentient beings and carefully surveyed them, looking to see if there was anyone similar to himself in terms of virtuous conduct, discipline, meditative absorption, or knowledge. However, in the entire great trichiliocosm, the Bodhisattva did not see anyone like himself.
At that point the Bodhisattva felt a lion-like fearlessness, free from anxiety or apprehension. Without any hesitation or wavering, he reminded himself of his good motivations. Because he had examined the minds of all sentient beings, he now knew their thoughts. Unsupported, he took seven steps toward the East and declared, “I will be the cause of all virtuous practices.”
Wherever the Bodhisattva took a step, a lotus sprouted forth. He then took seven steps toward the South and said, “I am worthy of the offerings of gods and humans.” Next, he took seven steps toward the West and, pausing on the seventh step, he proclaimed these satisfying words in lion-like fashion: “I am the Supreme Being on this earth. This is my last birth, where I shall uproot birth, old age, sickness, and death!” He then took seven steps toward the North and said, “I will be supreme among all sentient beings!” Next, he took seven steps downhill, saying, “I will subjugate Mara and his army! I will cause great rain clouds of the dharma to shower down on all hell beings, extinguishing the fires of hell and filling the beings there with happiness.” Finally, he took seven steps uphill, lifted his gaze, and said, “All sentient beings will look up to me.”
As the Bodhisattva spoke in this way, his words were immediately heard throughout the entire great trichiliocosm. Such was the nature of the foreknowledge that sprang from the ripening of the Bodhisattva’s previous actions. Whenever a bodhisattva takes birth into his final existence, and as he awakens to perfect and complete buddhahood, various miracles unfold.
At that time all beings were so delighted that the hairs on their bodies shivered. There was also a terrifying quaking of the earth, which caused the hairs on their bodies to stand on end. The cymbals and musical instruments of gods and humans sounded without being played by anyone. At that time all the trees in the great trichiliocosm—whether in season or not—blossomed and bore fruit. From the expanse of pure space, the sound of thunder rang out, and from the cloudless sky, a fine mist of rain showered down ever so gently, mixed with divinely colored flowers, cloths, ornaments, and powdered incense. Deliciously scented breezes blew, delightful and cooling. In all directions, there was no darkness, dust, smoke, or mist to be seen, and everything appeared bright and beautiful.
Also, from the empty space above, the great melodious and profound sounds of the realm of Brahma were heard. All the light of the sun, the moon, Brahma, Sakra, and the guardians of the world was eclipsed by an otherworldly light of a hundred thousand colors, which filled the entire great trichiliocosm and brought pleasure and happiness, both physical and mental, to everyone that it touched. At the very moment when the Bodhisattva was born, all beings became filled with bliss. All types of attachment, anger, delusion, pride, dislike, dejection, fear, greed, jealousy, and stinginess subsided, and everyone abandoned all forms of unwholesome conduct.
The illnesses of the sick were cured. The hungry and the thirsty were relieved of their hunger and thirst. The drunk and intoxicated were freed from their intoxication. The mad had their sanity restored. The blind could see. The deaf could hear. The crippled had their capacities restored. The destitute gained wealth. The imprisoned were freed. All ailments and sufferings of those in the hell realms, starting with the Hell of Ultimate Torment, ceased at that moment. The suffering of those born into the animal realm, such as the fear of being eaten by one another, was also pacified. Likewise, the sufferings experienced by beings in the realm of the Lord of Death, such as hunger and thirst, were also pacified.
The newborn bodhisattva had already practiced good conduct for countless trillions of eons, and he possessed great diligence and strength. As such, when he took his first seven steps, he had already attained the state of reality. Therefore all the buddhas, the blessed ones, in all the realms in the ten directions blessed the earth at that spot of vajra nature so that it would not be destroyed by his steps. Such was the awesome strength of the newborn bodhisattva’s first seven steps.
At that time the entire world was filled with a bright light, and the sounds of singing and dancing were heard. A rain of flowers, powders, incense, garlands, jewels, ornaments, and cloths showered down from innumerable clouds. All beings were filled with perfect joy. In short, when the Bodhisattva, who is more exalted than anyone in all the worlds, came into this world, many inconceivable events took place.
Dharmachakra Translation Committee (tr.). The Play in Full (Lalitavistara, Toh 95). 84000: Translating the Words of the Buddha, 2022.