Table of Contents
- Who was the Buddha?
- Course Materials
- Course Outline
- 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
- [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 Meaning of the Word Tathāgata According to the Pāli Commentaries: Text and Introduction – Bhikkhu Bodhi
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
- [N] The Last Epoch
- [Refuge] sammā-sambuddho
- DN 28: Inspiring Confidence
Part 2: Establishing the Religion
- [E] 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
- [T] 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
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
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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.
And even those disciples of his who fall out with their companions in the holy life and abandon the training to return to the low life–even they praise the Master and the Dhamma and the Sangha; they blame themselves instead of others, saying: “We were unlucky, we have little merit”
I did not delight in the contemplative Gotama’s speech; I condemned it, rose from my seat, and left!
The canonical account of the Buddha’s first days and the story of how the religion was founded.