A Historical Buddha?



today we're going to talk about the historical Buddha why it's important to have a historical Buddha if it's important I'm gonna raise some problems and try to give at the end a solution coming right up I'm Doug Smith of the online Dharma Institute that's online Dharma org if you're new to this channel and interested in living a wiser and a kinder and a calmer life consider subscribing to the channel and if you're interested in courses about early Buddhism and related topics check out online Dharma org and we'll get around a little bit more to that at the end of this video so the historical Buddha or we might say the Buddha of history now there's a lot of questions around whether it's important and to what extent it's important that the woulda might really have existed now the Buddhism isn't like Christianity in the sense that whereas in Christianity it's really necessary that that Jesus existed and that the actual things happen to him as occurred in the Bible at least as discussed in the Bible in order for Christian faith to be to be reasonable on the other hand in Buddhism it's not quite the same as so long as the path is is effective it doesn't really matter to many of us whether the Buddha actually existed whether he was an actual historical figure nevertheless the question as to the historicity of the Buddha the question that might arise around let's say whether the Buddha was real isn't just a question a sort of a Western conceit kind of thing it isn't just a question that arose in the modern context and I'm going to try to argue some of the background to that coming up but you at least need the the path to be effective to some to some degree in order to have confidence in the path you need to have some confidence in the effectiveness and in the success of the path and the success of the practice and one of the ways that we gain confidence or knowledge about the effectiveness of these practices is to see how they've worked for other people before and of course one of the people that they seem to have worked for was the hood of himself Gautama being somebody who began as as somebody who was not awakened and became awakened and seems to have changed through that time and of course other people as well after his time who've also a claim to become awakened or at least to have gained some kind of advantages along the path it seems we've got become their lives have become easier now things have changed for them so one way that we can gain confidence in this path is by looking at history by looking at the stories of real people either historically or contemporary are contemporaneously however it's also true and I think we have to keep this in mind that a lot of people gain confidence in in their in a path or in a certain feature of their lives through stories that are not historical through legends through myths indeed this is part of the way that religions have worked throughout history is by providing stories around which we model our own lives not whether that be let's say the story of Jesus of his virgin birth of the legends around his birth and his youth the weather have to have weather has to be the legend surrounding his death and supposed resurrection these are things that we have many of us many Christians of course will model their own lives after in certain respects and of course the ancients also the Greeks and Romans modeled their lives in certain respects around the Greek and Roman deities they saw them as exemplars around whom they could model themselves as as successful people and also within Buddhism we have a legendary stories say around other Buddha's the four sites that the Buddha had that revealed to him the the nature of the world that the world is full of of pain of suffering of illness of old age and these are stories that many of us again find compelling even though to some degree or another they are pretty clearly legends they're pretty clearly mythic in certain respects now why do I say that these stories are our mythic or or legendary in certain respects and it's pretty clearly the pretty clear that they are because they're they involve certain kinds of inconsistencies either in interior with the way that they they tell the story or inconsistencies with the way that we believe the world to be they may involve miracles of various kinds that is the breaking of our ordinary conceptions of cause effect and and in stories of that kind make it difficult for us to accept them at least as historical at least for some of us now we may say that this concern with historicity as it's called with with coming up with consistent stories like this is some kind of a modern concede or even a modern Western conceit that that somehow people in the past didn't have the same interest in in in historical accuracy but I don't think this is the case and one way we can look at this is by looking at indeed the way the ancients looked at the world and not all of them but some exceptional ones one example being Socrates Socrates is one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived he's sort of one of the founders of ancient Greek philosophical thinking he was a Plato's teacher and Plato then eventually taught Aristotle so he's really in many ways that the father of Western philosophy and Socrates in a dialogue called the Euthyphro which is a dialogue written by Plato Plato you may know wrote about Socrates Socrates never wrote anything himself and so Plato was sort of his if you like his mouthpiece Plato was the person who put him into into writing so in the Euthyphro Socrates is having a discussion and the discussion revolves around the fact that he Socrates has been accused of impiety by the Greeks some of us also will know that that Socrates was was involved in a very great controversy he was actually taken to port in ancient Greece by the people of of Athens and was event was condemned to death and was convicted indeed of impiety and was eventually forced to commit suicide because of this and he did this apparently willingly because he did not feel that he had done anything wrong but in any event in this dialogue he's discussing this charge of impiety and Socrates says that he is charged with making up his own gods and with denying the gods of ancient Greece and that is of course that what is the chart with the charge of impiety is about what Socrates says is I have no particular liking for anything but the truth in other words it's not that he likes one sort of opinion or another what he likes is the truth and this leads him to the opinion in this dialogue keep that he discusses this opinion his opinion that the the Greek gods are not actually quarrelsome but that the Greek gods don't actually quarrel with one another that they're not actually vain and quarrelsome and difficult and and constantly fighting because he says if that were the case then what would be pious for one God might be impious for another and that simply doesn't make sense it doesn't make sense that you could be sort of pious you know pious for the wrong in the wrong way for for one godness of in other words pious for one God but that another another God would consider impious that that doesn't make sense that's that notion of piety doesn't seem to compute for him or leased it within the context of ancient Greece Greek understandings of piety indeed this leads him to the view that what is good or bad is independent of the opinions of the gods piety and indeed is that is the attitude we should have for someone who is always good who is always upholding the right who's always upholding ethics who's always we might say behaving skilfully and the only way for us are their only reason for us to be Piatt them to be pious towards the gods is if that they themselves are upholding this kind of purity and for that to be the case this purity must be independent of the God's own opinions because otherwise they could fight over them but in other words if if piety or if goodness only had to do with the opinions of the gods then one God might have one opinion another God might have another opinion and that would put us in a situation where we literally could never be pious in the correct way we could never follow correct ethics because ethics would be contradictory it would depend which God you were after so what Socrates is arguing is that the traditional histories of agha with in ancient Greece these historical stories of gods are incorrect they're not historical what's what's true is something else the truth is different from the supposed histories all of these supposed histories of the gods quarreling over things and being vain and doing bad things these are just legends and we should really dispense with the legends or at least we should dispense with the legends insofar as we wanted to understand the truth which is really what drove Socrates now the Buddha himself had similar kinds of opinions in several texts the Buddha says things about the gods of ancient India which resonate with the kinds of views that Socrates had the buddha in particular argues against the position that the gods are omniscient or that they are immortal the got the picture of the gods we get in in the Buddhist view are our beings who were of course extremely powerful but who are not immortal they eventually will die and who were in fact quite ignorant about things that they they're they are vain and ignorant and indeed I did a video of an earlier video about this I'll put a link up here on the screen you can see it if you're interested about where he says these things and what he says so basically the Buddha is arguing that in various respects the traditional history of the gods the traditional understanding of the gods as being these omniscient beings who are not only omniscient but but who never die who are immortal he's saying these traditional histories don't compute they don't they don't hang with the way we understand the world to be which is a world in which all things are always changing and a world in which a world which is based around ignorant basically and so as a result the budet rejects the traditional histories of the gods now we will some of us will say that in both of these situations both the Buddha and Socrates accepted the existence of gods and so to that extent they maybe at least out of touch with some modern views some atheistic views let's say or secular views about the world but that's not really the point that's not the point I'm trying to get at the point that I'm trying to get at here is that both in both the cases of the Buddha and Socrates they understood a difference they saw a difference between traditional legendary histories and something more accurate that was more in conformity with the truth the way things really were so that this is not this distinction between a history and legend was not something let's say modern or Western conceit that sort of come up recently it's something that's always been with us so the question that we began with was the question about whether there's a difference between the Buddha of history and the Buddha of legend and whether that difference makes a difference to us that is to say is there such a thing as a historical Buddha a historical Buddha is sort of the the way it's understood that's the sort of phrase that we use the way we might talk about a historical Jesus the within the history the history of early Christianity they're people talking about the historical Jesus a way of uncovering what Jesus might actually have been like as a person as opposed to let's say the Jesus of faith which is quite a different kind of character who is more in line with let's say that the legends and if we look at the early Buddhist texts a group of texts from the Pali Canon and other related material what we find there is a good a figure a character who was really quite different from the Buddha that we would find in legend we find a more historically compelling Buddha that is to say we find we find histories we find stories that don't conflict with our understanding of the way the world works we don't necessarily don't find stories that are all built around let's say legend and myth that are all built around various kinds of miracles now this is not to say that there are not miraculous occurrences within the early Buddhist texts indeed there are many of them that may be for various reasons the first reason we might say is that of course not all of these early Buddhist texts are quite as early as others some of them may stem from the period after the Buddha's life they may have been constructed as as the hagiographic stories making the Buddha out to be a little bit more than he might have actually been other stories may have been told indeed during the Buddha's lifetime and indeed even in the buddha's presence and may have been told for other reasons than let's say historical accuracy because while I think we've established that the the ancients just as well as we understood the difference between legend and history nevertheless I think in every culture it's understood that sometimes a story may be told for another reason than historical accuracy it can be told simply as we've discussed before to inspire to provide a framework for our lives to to make us think of greater things and so we can't assume that in every case of the absolute necessity was to be historically accurate that kind of nitpicking accuracy about every last case that goes into every story that's something that's really only of interest to a very small number of people most people do enjoy some legend in their lives I mean that's one of the reasons why let's say books such as Tolkien's middle-earth other kinds of of Legends that we see now in the in the movies and in television and on books these are very popular they're popular for a reason because we do find a lot of truth in them even if they're not not even claiming to be historically accurate they provide truth around which we can construct a life so while these early Buddhist texts contain a lot of different kinds of material that's not really the point the point is among that material or within that material we find a very historically compelling kind of story of a real person of a person meeting struggles making meeting difficulties overcoming these difficulties in various ways but you know what in ways that are not obviously Hagee a great in the ways that are not obviously constructed out of whole cloth by later people trying to make somebody look perfect because there are many respects in which the the buddha of the early buddhist texts does not look perfect he suffers pains he has back pain he suffers the pains towards the end of his life he claims to have been talking with Mara who was this let's say he but as a demon of that wants to keep us locked in samsara now he's never tempted by Mara so much but he does have Mara within his life he he talks about difficulties and controversies in the in the early Sangha people disagreeing with him even people trying to kill him these are these are many stories that I think reveal something historical that might have been might have been contained in a real life back then so while these stories don't need to have been true in order for us to follow the path they could all have been constructed and still the path might be might be effective and worth worth undertaking but nevertheless having historically credible information about someone who followed this path indeed somebody who originated the path can provide us I think with a source of real inspiration and guidance in our own lives as we look forward we might want to say when looking at looking at somebody like the Buddha how did he do it how did he get from point A to point B in this in this journey what was he like what was it like for him to do this I think this can give us insights into our own journey so one way to strive towards awakening or to to practice in the direction of awakening is to consider what an awakened being might really be like and if the Buddha wasn't an awakened being it's hard to believe who would be he's sort of the paradigmatic case or if we're let's say a stoic we might say Socrates is a paradigmatic case of an awakened being so we look at these lives and ask you know we ask I think reasonably what would they have really been like and not just what the legends about them the legends were you know perhaps constructed later and and anyway are exaggerations in certain respects we want to know what it was really like or what it would have really been like now as I said we can find these stories in the early Buddhist texts but they're buried in various places the problem with the early Buddhist texts indeed the reason why the abbe Dharma was later created out of them is because they're voluminous it's thousands and thousands of pages of material it's scattered in various ways over multiple different dialogues and discussions and arguments and statements by the Buddha and statements by the Buddha's attendants and and other monastics and other laypeople it's a huge amount of information for us to take on so it's difficult for us to approach it through that through the early Buddhist texts alone what we need is some kind of guidance unfortunately there's really very little guidance to be had in respect of finding a historical account of the Buddha's life there was a book written in the early 80s by HW Schumann it was written in German and then translated into English and that is at least one option but the book can be somewhat difficult to find it's I believe it's on Amazon but it can be expensive sometimes I don't know that it's even in print anymore other than that you know there's really not very much years ago I mean I one of the things I loved doing was watching the the great courses I don't know if you if any of you have have heard of the great courses it's a video series of lectures of classes of courses on various topics and they have very very few about Buddhism and I I once wrote them asking if they would do a course something like this on early Buddhism on the Buddha of course they haven't done that and most histories of the Buddha will be really histories of the later legends rather than of this early material so we won't get a historical litter from most histories of the Buddha that you'll see not out there for sale so one option which is I think very exciting at least for me and I hope for you is that I'm decided to make a history of the Buddha and so this is going to be coming out as my new course over on the online downer Institute it's going to be called the Buddha's life it's a life of the Buddha from a historical perspective using the material from the early texts in particular the texts of the Pali Canon selected texts of the Pali Canon to illustrate that life to illustrate its background where it came from not only in the Pali Canon but in texts in in Brahman romantic romantic texts in the Upanishads and other source material but then coming forward into the life of the Buddha before he was awakened what that was like then what it was like just after his awakening what was it his awakening like and and how was his early teaching like because his teaching seems to have developed over time and what were the early teachings like what were the mature teachings like what were some of the difficulties that he had along the way and what happened during the end of his life during the the death of some of his closest companions during his own death and after his death it's a long story because it is there's a lot of material actually about the Buddha most of the the material in the Pali Canon is regards the Buddha's teachings that is the Dharma more than the Buddha himself as a figure but I think there's an enormous amount to be had there anyway so if that's of interest to you I would check it out I've got a link down below if you're interested in seeing what that's all about I hope that this has been useful to you and I hope we'll catch you on the next one of these videos meanwhile all of you be well

11 Replies to “A Historical Buddha?”

  1. On a historicity scale of 1-10, I'd say Buddha 8, Achilles 7, Jesus 1. That's for some non-supernatural person whose life was later embellished. Chances for the supernatural versions of each are zero.

  2. Doug, you can find how the Buddha life started from point one to the end from the Pâli Canon. Pay attention to his teachings and practices rather than finding is he real, how did he live in definitely details, it will be based on hearsay. The Buddha outlined his teachings into three baskets or parts, His personal life, His teaching, and Abhidamma. But of course to practice Buddhism, people or practitioners should have a goal, what they really want in life. The Buddha taught life is suffering and try to end the sufferings by way of nipanna (no rebirth). The Buddha also suggested the ways how to get there.
    Your discussions here are also very interesting and need to discuss in depth further to get a better understanding of the Buddha ‘s taught. Thank you for sharing.

  3. Thanks a lot. For sure I'll study this lesson several times more in order to understand step by step. Lots of hugs. Evangelina Cortes.

  4. Hey Doug, I think you made a little mistake, Socrates is said to be punished for preaching against democracy and certain rebellians ended up being associated with his students, and taught them that wise philosophers should rule society.

    Also, can you do a video on the nature of aversion and infatuation according to Buddhism.

  5. Hello Doug, Have you read
    “After Buddhism— Rethinking the Dharma for a Secular Age” by
    Stephen Batchelor?
    I have it on Audiobook and have listened to it twice. Very impressive work.

  6. If you could make a video on how followers of Buddha dharma declined in the Indian sub-continent….as we know that up until the 4th century C.E almost 30% of the population in the subcontinent lived a monastic life some way or the other i.e., practiced under various schools of thought and tradition that existed but within the principle idea of “sangha”. This completely changed by the 10th century where in the Buddhist population reduced to just about 5 to 10 percent. The notion that the arrival of muslim “invaders” was the reason behind Buddhism’s decline in the sub-continent doesn’t really add up…! 4th to 10 century period, Buddha dharma was flourishing in almost the entire eastern world but was shrinking in its land of origin and there was no successful invasion that took place during the mentioned time period…..

  7. Per one of your earlier videos, I am in the middle of reading The Buddha & His Dhamma by B. N. Ambedkar and am fascinated by his alternative “origin story” for the Buddha. Would love to get your comments on that sometime, comparing and contrasting it with the more widely told version.

  8. Our historial Buddha would be Gautama Shakyamuni, right? the second Buddha of our/this current era would be Guru Rinpoche/Padmasambhava if you're into tantric practices and tibetan buddhism

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *