The myth of the historical Buddha
Is Shakyamuni more fiction than fact?
Without the "historical" Buddha, Buddhism would not exist. It may sound obvious, but is it really? If the Buddha hadn't existed, he might have been invented anyway. Indeed, whatever the facts, the life of the Buddha as it comes down to us is largely fabricated. Yet today the historicity of the Buddha is rarely questioned , although we continue to question the historical basis of the various events that occurred during his long life. p>
It is certainly easy to accept the idea that the legend of the Buddha is simply derived from an embellished image of a historical figure. The Pali texts in particular seem to be based on certain historical facts, and the monastic codes of Vinaya contain clear attempts to present the Buddha as a eminently pragmatic individual. Proponents of this historicist interpretation rightly point out that it is easier to mythologize a biography than to demystify a legend.
What do we really know about the Buddha? It is fair to say that he was born, that he lived and that he died. The rest remain lost in the mists of myth and legend: his miraculous conception and birth, the extraordinary events and circumstances of his life, and so on. The fact that similar events also allegedly occurred during the lifetime of the founder of Jainism, Mahavira (another supposedly historical figure), indicates that exercise some caution in accepting their factual basis.
Siddhartha Gautama, the future Buddha, would have been born in the 5th century before our era, son of a king of North India. It is said that his mother, Queen Maya , dreamed of a white elephant piercing the right side of her body; the next morning she became pregnant, and nine months later, in a grove in Lumbini, she gave birth to a child.
The child, coming painlessly from his right side, immediately took seven steps north, a lotus flower blooming with each step he took; then he turned to the four directions, and sang a "victory song", declaring "I alone am the honorable above the earth and under the sky".
The favorable birth of the Buddha was followed, seven days later, by the death of his mother . The child was then brought up by his aunt Mahaprajapati. After predicting that he would become either a universal monarch or a universal spiritual guide, his father decided to lock him up in the palace to protect him from harsh realities, thus preventing him from embarking on any spiritual pursuit. p>
At the age of 16, Prince Siddhartha married Yashodhara and they later had a child, Rahula (the name means "obstacle" and speaks volumes about the fatherly feelings attributed to the Prince) . Other sources claim he had three wives and followed a traditional career as a future monarch.
In any case, fate had other plans for him in the form of four encounters that took place during one or more excursions outside the palace: he met an old man, a sick person, a corpse, an ascetic. The first three encounters made him aware of the transitory nature of existence, while the fourth made him aware of the possibility of deliverance.
As a result, at the age of 29, Siddhartha fled the palace and relinquished his princely duties and prerogatives. For six years, he practiced all kinds of austerities, which almost won out. Having finally understood the futility of these practices, he discovered the "middle way", a path between hedonistic pleasure and asceticism.
He then bumped into the Buddhist devil Mara and his attractive daughters, but successfully resisted fear and temptation, and there was nothing left to block his path to revival.
This story of the life of the Buddha, which culminates first with awakening and then, at death, with final nirvana (parinirvana), is above all a digest of the doctrine and a paradigm of Buddhist practice.
When it comes to enlightenment, whereby the Buddha is able to acquire knowledge of ultimate reality, it is this same life - the same psychodrama or cosmodrama of awakening - that is repeated by all past and future Buddhas. This explains the similarity of the accounts of these lives, all based on the same model. The same can be said, in part, of the lives of the saints, who are also "imitations" of the life of the Buddha.
All past and future Buddhas would have gone through the same stages as the Shakyamuni Buddha : a spiritual crisis followed by renunciation of the world, an ascetic existence leading to awakening, the acquisition of extraordinary powers, the preaching and the gathering of disciples, jealousy for his success and his criticism of a corrupt society, death foretold and a funeral which give rise to relics for the cult of relics.
Early Buddhism was largely centered on the worship of stupas, memorials that focus on major episodes in Siddhartha's life - in particular the four stupas of Kedarnath, Dvarka, Puri and Rameshvaram which commemorate his birth, his awakening, his first sermon and his last nirvana. These places have become very popular places of pilgrimage. As a result, the life of the Buddha took a monumental turn, in every sense of the word.
By visiting these sites, devotees were able to relive every glorious episode in their master's life and see these environments fill their imaginations. However, these stupas were more than mere memorials; they were also mainly mausoleums or reliquaries containing parts of the Buddha's body.
Contact or proximity to these relics was believed to have magical effectiveness , increasing the chances of happiness in this world and salvation in future lives. One of these stupa builders, the 3rd century Mauryan Emperor Ashoka , is said to have had an immense impact on the development of the Buddhist religion. < / p>
Ashoka, whose empire stretched across India, made a pilgrimage to the Buddha's birthplace in Lumbini, where he erected a commemorative pillar. However, the tradition has it that he also ordered the construction of 84,000 stupas, where relics of Buddha would be placed. His role as a Buddhist ruler has played an important role in the relationship between Buddhism and sovereignty in all cultures of Asia.
Without Ashoka, Buddhism would most likely have remained a minority religion, like Jainism , with which it shares many characteristics.The history of early Buddhism is essentially that of a community of disciples and pilgrims, and the constant developments of the legend of the life of the Buddha had a much greater influence on the rapid expansion of Buddhism than the historical individual. real - that is, the Buddha himself
The first community expanded the account of the life of the Buddha; then, having increased the number of episodes relating to this life, the legend then turned to his past lives. According to the Buddhist doctrine of karma, the present life of the Buddha was simply the result of a long series of past lives, during which the future Buddha reincarnated into various different beings, animals and humans.
These past lives are central to the texts known as Jatakas. This same pattern applies to the existence of other past Buddhas. Mention is also made of the future Buddha, Maitreya, who is said to appear in several million years s, although his "biography" remains rather vague.
The Mahayana tradition, in particular, speaks of many cosmic Buddhas, who are already present, although invisible to the human eye.
Initially presented as a kind of superhuman being, the Buddha therefore gradually transformed into a kind of god. This development is documented in some Mahayana scriptures. In the Lotus Sutra, for example, the Buddha himself questions its historical authenticity.
This twist takes place in a text whose influence extends to all of East Asia. In a sermon, the Buddha declares to his disciples that he has already guided many sentient beings to salvation. Faced with their skepticism, he calls on these beings to show themselves, and a multitude of bodhisattvas suddenly appear from the ground.
As his disciples wonder how he was able to accomplish this task during his human existence, he reveals that his life is, in fact, eternal. He claims that he employed "clever means" (upaya) - claiming to have been born in the form of Prince Siddhartha, to have left his family and to have gone through six years of austerity only to finally achieve revival - in order to convince those who have weak capacities.
He says the time has come to reveal the real truth, which is that he has always been essentially the Awakened One. The weak-mind (which refers to what were then called the disciples of Hinayana - the smaller, or inferior, vehicle, but which we now prefer to call Nikaya Buddhism ) will continue, he says, to believe in the conventional truth of the Buddha's biography, while his most advanced disciples will know the ultimate truth, the transcendent nature of the Buddha. t1>
Since the life of the Buddha has been steeped in legends since ancient times, where does the belief in a "historical" Buddha come from? What does this belief mean? Is there a way to reconcile it with the proliferation of cosmic Buddhas associated with the Mahayana tradition?
Westerners (as well as some "westernized" Asians) first believed strongly in the historical authenticity of the Buddha in the 19th century, at a time when triumphant rationalism sought an alternative to Christianity. Orientalist scholars of Buddhism wanted to see it as a religion that would be linked to their own views: rather than being a religion revealed by a transcendent God, their Buddhism was seen as a human, moral and rational religion, founded by an extremely individual. wise.
According to research on Buddou or Bouddhou (1817) by Michel-Jean-François Ozeray: "Descending from the altar where he was placed by blind faith and superstition, Buddou is a distinguished philosopher , a sage born for the happiness of his fellows and the goodness of mankind " The Buddha, remodeled according to the cause, is now considered a free thinker who opposes superstitions and prejudices of his time.
An attempt was then made to apply to the Buddha's "biography" the same methods of critical historical analysis as those applied to Jesus - a process which continues today. As a result, the "historical" Buddha began to eclipse all the "metaphysical" Buddhas of the Mahayana tradition, thus relegating this tradition to the realm of fantasy while the Theravada, said to be the only one to preserve the memory of its founder, found himself promoted. to the rank of "authentic" Buddhism.
Did the Buddha really exist?
The question is certainly not of much importance to traditional Buddhists, who see the life of the Buddha above all as a model and an ideal to be followed . The imitation of this timeless paradigm is a fundamental fact of monastic life. It is not only a matter of awakening by individually identifying with the Buddha, it is also a matter of recreating the ideal of the early Buddhist community: to bring the Buddha back to life, not only as an isolated individual, but in close symbiosis with his disciples.
So why is the historical authenticity of the Buddha of such great importance to us modern people? Because for us the authenticity of the life of the founder is the only guarantee of the originality of the religion he founded. Without a concrete biography, the Buddha disappears in the mists of time, and without the Buddha, Buddhism itself seems to become dangerously plural . But the plural is what Buddhism has always been.
Indeed, conservative Nikaya Buddhism - that is, the schools based on the earliest strata of scripture, today represented by the Theravada - contrasts in many ways with the abundance of images and mystical fervor of Mahayana Buddhism, as well as with Tantric Buddhism, which favors magic, sexuality, transgression.
In fact, these two movements, although initially opposed, ended up complementing each other . While a religion based on orthodoxy (like the monotheisms of the West) would most often have an anathemized contradiction, Buddhism more or less embraces all of these competing or seemingly irreconcilable currents. In this sense, it may be better to speak of a Buddhist nebula rather than a unified religion.
The image of the Buddha, constantly renewed, is one of the elements that allowed Buddhists of all faiths to identify with the same tradition. In this sense, the "historical" Buddha is just another work of fiction, the most recent in a long tradition marked by constant reinvention, notably that of the Buddha himself..