༈ ཐབས་མཁས་ཐུགས་རྗེས་ཤཱཀྱའི་རིགས་སུ་འཁྲུངས། །
With skilful means and compassion, you were born in the Śākya clan,
Unconquerable by others, you vanquished Māra’s hordes,
Your physical form resplendent, like a mountain of gold.
I pay homage to you, King of the Śākyas!
~ Drikung Kyobpa Jikten Sumgön
Modified: August 15, 2023
Table of Contents
- Who was the Buddha?
- Course Materials
- The Course
- Further Reading
- Advanced Courses
Who was the Buddha?
“Buddha” (properly speaking) refers, not to a single individual, but rather to a category of beings: those who have, through their own effort, attained complete enlightenment.
But, more typically, “the Buddha” refers to the Sakyan prince who, in the 5th century BCE Gangetic Plain, first rediscovered nibbāna and taught the way for attaining it.
Over 500 million people now worship the Buddha as their teacher, but the Buddha was no God. Indeed, it’s even said that a Buddha can only arise as a human—never as a deity (deva)— because only the human realm balances the misfortunes and mistakes of life which are necessary to motivate the practice, with the ease and discernment which allow it to ripen.
But while the Buddha was born a man, a man he did not remain. Through his superior striving and wisdom (over countless eons) he was able to transcend gender, caste, creed, identities, views, suffering and even death itself and to teach others how to transcend themselves too. We call such a teacher, “Buddha.”
If you’re looking for a quick and inspiring biography of the Buddha, I recommend The Biography of Shakyamuni Buddha by Master Hsing Yun. This course goes beyond the basics to reading the primary sources themselves, and therefore requires some comfort reading the Early Buddhist Texts.
This syllabus has no associated lectures. It weaves together several, free books, mostly on the Pāli texts.
- This classic, quirky anthology gives a good presentation of the Canonical account of the Buddha’s life. It will be the primary biography used in this course, and we will follow the book’s ordering of events.
To supplement Ñanamoli’s judicious selections from the Pāli Canon, we will use these anthologies to underline a couple themes I think worth dwelling on:
- To understand the Buddhist cosmology requires seeing the way the Gods and the Buddha related with one another.
- While it is important to mine the Pāli literature for historical and mythological details, it is also important to not lose sight of the Buddha’s extraordinary personal qualities, explained in this anthology through the nine characteristics of the Buddha.
There’s one significant primary text in this course, but it isn’t an early text.
- This traditional Pāli commentary contains one of the first systematic biographies of the Buddha and formed the basis for many of the later hagiographies. While not necessarily a reliable source of information about the historical Buddha himself, it is of critical importance for understanding the myths and stories about the Buddha which persist today.
A number of articles and essays will be weaved in throughout the course. We’ll also be reading these two, free books:
A collection of Encyclopedia articles introducing the Buddha from one of the English language’s best authors of rigorous introductions.
In this monograph, the renowned scholar of early Buddhism explores what the early literature can tell us about how the Buddha became the Buddha: a topic of extraordinary importance in later centuries.
I’ve sequenced the above books into an inter-woven, narrative arc which I (at least!) find compelling.
If I were to actually teach this course, I’d perhaps meet twice per week for 13 weeks. The readings below have been bunched together according to this hypothetical schedule, but for individual study you’re of course welcome to work through the readings as you like.
- [Entries - Peter Harvey] The Early Buddhist Concept of the Buddha
[Entries] Past and Future Buddhas
- [E] Dates of the Buddha
- [Nidanakatha: The Introduction to the Jatakas] The Introduction by T. W. Rhys Davids
- [E] The Buddha’s Historical Context
Part 1: Becoming the Buddha
- [Life of the Buddha] Birth and Childhood
This mythic text gives the 32 characteristics of Gotama’s body, which,legend has it, marked him for greatness at an early age. Note that some of the Suttas are not as early as others!
- [E] The Buddha’s Family
This mythic sutta gives the story of the Buddha we may be familiar with… but attributes it to the Buddha Vipassī! It wasn’t until later that this story came to be normalized as true of all Buddhas: our own included.
(Bhante Sujato’s translation here is preferred to Ñanamoli’s below)
- [Life] The Struggle for Enlightenment
[Bodhisattva Ideal - Analayo] Chapter 1: Gautama as a Bodhisattva
- [Nidanakatha] The Middle Epoch
Note especially any contrasts to the earlier texts.
- [E] The Bodhisattva Career in the Theravada
- [Bodhisattva] Chapter 2: Meeting the Previous Buddha
[Nidanakatha] The Distant Epoch
- [Buddha, My Refuge] Introduction
- [Life] After the Enlightenment
Epithets of the Buddha
The Weary Buddha: Why the Buddha Nearly Couldn’t Be Bothered – David Webster
- [Entries] Pratyeka-buddhas
- [Entries] Optional: The Four Ennobling Truths
- [Life] Spreading the Dhamma
- [L] The Two Chief Disciples
[L] Anathapindika: Feeder of the Poor
- [Nidanakatha] The Last Epoch
- [Refuge] sammā-sambuddho
- DN 28: Inspiring Confidence
Part 2: Establishing the Religion
- [Entries] Review: The Story of the Buddha
[Teacher of the Devas] Introduction: The Devas
- [Life] Formation of the Order of Nuns
A Whisper in the Silence: Nuns Before Mahāpajāpatī – Liz Williams
- [Refuge] Vijjā-caraṇa-sampanno
- [L] The Quarrel at Kosambi
- [L] End of the First Twenty Years
- [Teacher] Teaching the Devas
- [L] The Middle Period
[E] The Buddha’s Style of Teaching
- [R] Anuttaro purisa-damma-sārathi
- [L] The Person
- [L] The Doctrine
- [R] Satthā deva-manussānaṁ
- [T] Devas Honor the Buddha
- [R] Buddho
- [L] Old Age
- [E] The Buddha and Cakravartins
Review: [T] Devas in the Buddha’s Career
- [L] The Last Year
- (Optionally) For a short lecture series on the Maha Parinibbana Sutta by Bhante Sujato, see parts one, two, three, and four on YouTube
Sūkaramaddava: The Buddha’s Last Meal – John D. Ireland
- [E] Relics of the Buddha
- [E] Early Symbols of the Buddha
- [L] The First Council
- [T] Liberation and Conclusion
Epilogue: The Far Future
- [Bodhisattva] Maitreya
Congratulations on finishing the course!
Please take a moment to take the end of class survey. Your feedback is vital to making these courses good. Thank you!
I did not delight in the contemplative Gotama’s speech; I condemned it, rose from my seat, and left!
It is painful to dwell without reverence and deference. Now what ascetic or brahmin can I honor, respect, and dwell in dependence on?
I shall keep reciting the Way to the Beyond
“Why, exactly, do you teach some people thoroughly and others less thoroughly?”
Remember me, brahmin, as a Buddha.
Given the fact that the praiseworthy qualities of the Buddha are the main theme of the Mahāsakuludāyi-sutta and its parallel, it is not surprising if the tendency to elevate the Buddha’s status would to some degree also have influenced the reciters responsible for transmitting the discourse. A comparison of the two versions in fact reveals several instances where this tendency is at work
… a fair number of occurrences in the Buddha’s life would be difficult to explain if he had been omniscient
The Buddha’s bad karma refers to ten problematic incidents that happened in the life of the historical Buddha. […] The texts related to the bad karma of the Buddha can be divided into two groups: those texts accepting the bad karma and those rejecting the whole matter.