Book: The Life of the Buddha

Bhikkhu Nanamoli’s The Life of the Buddha is a telling of the Buddha’s life using excerpts from the Pali canon.

In the Pali canon, the world is an abundantly supernatural one, a cosmos with many worlds and many deities. The Buddha’s birth is foretold to sages by deities, and he himself converses with various supernatural beings. He also does miracles, like reading minds, turning people invisible, vanishing into one of the many heavens, and so on. You get the impression that the miracles aren’t unique to him: it seems there were lots of ascetics and teachers around at the time, each with their own disciples, and this sort of stuff is par for the course. The Buddha describes Devadatta, the villain of the piece, as “stopping halfway with … the mere earthly distinction of supernormal powers”, and seems to see them as tricks that are well known.

In the book, there’s little mention of the Buddha’s early life, although some passages about living in a palace are quoted. After his birth, we’re straight into his quest for enlightenment. He tries asceticism for a while but decides it’s not helping, and disgusts the small number of followers he’s acquired by taking food and drink. He goes off and thinks about stuff, and has a series of insights about how one thing leads to another thing, Star Wars style (a process known as dependent arising), and with that, realises how to stop it. He thinks about keeping the knowledge to himself, as most people won’t be able to get it, but a brahma persuades him not to. He begins to teach people the dharma.

The book then follows the growth of the sangha, the community of monks. The community grows, and sometimes finds favour with merchants and royalty, who give the monks land. It seems they live by receiving alms from the lay people, to who receive talks on the dharma in return. We don’t see much of the lay people in the book, as it mostly concerns the teachings given to the monks. We do see the community undergo growth, dissension and outright mutiny (Devadatta again).

The chapter on the dharma itself was pretty hard going. The translation could probably have helped there, but Nanamoli writes in the preface that he’s attempting to provide as true a translation as possible, without interpreting too much. I found contemporary paraphrases easier to understand. If one can sum up a large body of teaching in a few sentences, the Buddha thinks that dukkha (usually translated as “suffering”) is real; suffering is caused by our inability to get what we want or keep it, or prevent what we don’t want; suffering can be prevented by giving up the desire for these things, which can be achieved by following the mental and ethical teachings summarised as the Noble Eightfold Path.

The scriptures bear the signs of being passed on orally: there’s a lot of repetition (one of Nanamoli’s few concessions to the reader is that he elides some of this), speech is often stylised, and teachings often use numbered groups of things (four noble truths, noble eightfold path). According to Wikipedia, there are a number of schools of thought about how much of the canon represents the Buddha’s words. Manuscript evidence isn’t helpful, as the earliest ones are apparently 8th century.

There’s a sense in which this doesn’t matter as much as it does to, say, Christianity, because the point seems to be the teaching, which is said to be something people can experience for themselves. In orthodox Christianity, at least, the scriptures recording important miraculous events which are to be believed in, so that the evidence for them is important, and the teaching of Jesus rest on his personal authority. I don’t think one can eliminate questions of authority from any religion, though: there are so many religions that ask you to “try it and see” that there’s not enough time to try them all.

More problematic to me was the way much of the Buddha’s teachings are phrased as ways to avoid rebirth, since (a) it’s not clear what rebirth means when one of your other doctrines is that there’s no fixed self, and (b) it’s not clear how anything of us survives after death, such the the results of our actions (known as karma), in a way which could be passed on to another person.

It also wasn’t clear from the book how detachment was meant to be practiced by people who weren’t monks. The monks need the lay people, or they’ll starve, but the householder’s life seems second class when it comes to attaining enlightenment. Apparently there are Buddhist scriptures which do address the lay people, so it’d be interesting to read those.

In summary, the book was interesting, but hard to get into. I got bogged down in places and ended up skipping bits. A more dynamic translation might have been easier to read, even if such a translation did end up reflecting the biases of the translator more than Nanamoli’s did.

2 thoughts on “Book: The Life of the Buddha

  1. A couple of comments on Karma and Dukkha.

    Karma (intentional actions) either reinforce or weaken existing habit patterns. If you consider rebirth metaphorically, from moment to moment or day to day, it’s easy to see how my habit patterns today are the consequence of actions I’ve chosen in the past.

    For example, if I’ve smoked 20 cigarettes a day for the last 5 years, that’s formed a strong habit. I’m pretty likely to do the same today. Or if I’ve always been kind to animals, I’m unlikely to hit my dog today.

    Traditionally, Buddhists have understood rebirth both literally (long time-scale) and metaphorically (short time-scale). It’s actually easier to see how to put the teaching into practice on a short time-scale, so not believing in literal rebirth (I don’t) is not a problem.

    Dukkha (suffering) is another kind of habit, and even according to the Buddha, it can’t be completely prevented.

    “Now this … is the noble truth of suffering: birth is suffering, aging is suffering, illness is suffering, death is suffering; sorrow, lamentation, pain, grief and despair are suffering; union with what is displeasing is suffering; separation from what is pleasing is suffering; not to get what one wants is suffering; in brief, the five aggregates subject to clinging are suffering.”

    It’s not so much desire that is the problem as clinging. If I cling to impermanent things, or to the idea that everything should be the way I want it, the result is lots of mental suffering because the world doesn’t meet my expectations. Some physical suffering is inevitable, but it’s much more bearable if I don’t get upset about it.

  2. A second comment, on lay people.

    Most of the teachings in the Pali canon are addressed to monks, and possibly reflect the biases of monks. But it’s made clear that men and women, both lay and monk, can reach enlightenment. The lay people have less ideal conditions because they have to spend long hours working rather than meditating, and because they are exposed to a wider range of distractions.

    Traditionally, the path consists of three parts: ethics, meditation and wisdom. Most teachings to lay people were about ethics. Some were about wisdom, i.e. the basics of the dharma. But as far as I know, teaching on meditation was directed to the monks.

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