Friday, July 2, 2010

Life of the Buddha Depicted in Art

Death of the Historical Buddha (Nehan), Kamakura period (1185–1333), 14th century
Unidentified artist
Kyoto, Japan
Hanging scroll; ink, gold, and color on silk

79 x 74 1/4 in. (200.7 x 188.6 cm)
Rogers Fund, 1912 (12.134.10)

In paintings of the Buddha's nirvana, his passing from earthly life to the ultimate goal of an enlightened being, essential tenets of Buddhism are explicit: release from the bonds of existence through negation of desires that cause intrinsic suffering. The large, golden body of Shaka (Shakyamuni) faces west in a final trance after a long life of teaching. Those witnessing the Buddha's passing from earthly life reveal their own imperfect level of understanding in the extent of their grief. Bodhisattvas, who have achieved the spiritual enlightenment of Buddhahood, show a solemn serenity not shared by the lesser beings. Except for the Bodhisattva Jizo, who appears as a monk holding a jewel near the center of the bier, these deities are depicted in princely raiment, with jeweled crowns, flowing scarves, and necklaces covering their golden bodies. Disciples with shaved heads who wear patched robes like the Buddha's weep bitterly, as do the multilimbed Hindu deities and guardians who have been converted to his teaching. Men and women of every class, joined by about thirty animals, grieve in their imperfect understanding of the Buddhist ideal. Even the blossoms of the sala trees change hue. From the upper right, Queen Maya, mother of the dying prince, descends, weeping.

Lotus Sutra, Heian period (794–1185), 12th century
Gold on indigo-dyed paper

11 3/4 x 339 3/4 in. (29.8 x 863 cm)
Seymour Fund, 1965 (65.216.1)

The Lotus Sutra, promulgated in India around the early part of the third century A.D., is believed to be the final teaching of Shakyamuni at Vulture Peak. It was part of Buddhist worship in Japan as early as the sixth century and became the most popular sutra. The Lotus Sutra emphasizes the ultimate Mahayana belief that Buddha's compassion is open to all, regardless of gender or station in life. In the late Heian period, lavishly produced copies of this text accounted for most of the thousands of such devotional offerings commissioned by the aristocracy to gain religious merit. Following Chinese precedent, they were often painted in gold and silver on paper or silk dyed deep indigo or purple.

This illustration is painted on the frontispiece that precedes the written scripture. It combines depictions of three episodes from chapters 12 to 15 of the Lotus Sutra. Its composition skillfully combines iconic images of the Buddha with narrative vignettes. Here, the daughter of the Dragon King of the Sea offers the radiant jewel to Buddha preaching on Vulture Peak (rendered in the shape of a bird's head). The episode contains the essence of the scripture: the girl's offering is accepted and she is immediately changed into a man, with many features of a bodhisattva, seated on a jeweled lotus. Thus, the compassion of the Buddha offered salvation to women, whose bodies were regarded as unclean and preclusive of attaining enlightenment. Balancing this scene is an illustration of an episode from the Buddha's former life: as a king, Buddha so desired true knowledge that he promised all his wealth and power and lifelong servitude to whoever could reveal it. Here, he is seen twice, once kneeling before the sage who taught him and again bearing firewood in fulfillment of his vow.

Birth of the Buddha
, Kushan period
Pakistan (ancient region of Gandhara, probably Takht-i-Bahi)

6 x 7 in. (16 x 19.7 cm)
Gift of The Kronos Collections, 1987 (1987.417.1)

The Buddha's mother, Maya, delivered him miraculously in a garden in Lumbini, located in present-day southern Nepal. She stood beneath a tree and, with her right arm, clung to a branch for support. This pose mirrors one given to ancient Indian female nature spirits whose touch, it was believed, caused a tree to bloom and fruit. The figure of the Buddha-to-be, although somewhat damaged, can be seen emerging from Maya's side, his head surrounded by a halo. The child was received and bathed by attending gods, who stand to Maya's right. The woman to Maya's left is probably her sister, who raised the Buddha after Maya's death a week after his birth. The attendant on the farthest right holds a pitcher filled with water for the ritual bath.

The Dream of Queen Maya, Kushan period, 1st century a.d.
Pakistan (ancient region of Gandhara, probably Takht-i-Bahi)

6 1/2 x 7 5/8 in. (16.5 x 19.4 cm)
Gift of Marie-Hélène and Guy Weil, 1976 (1976.402)

This scene depicts the Buddha's miraculous conception. The Buddha's mother, Maya, lies sleeping on her right side. Female attendants surround her, including a guard who stands at the head of her bed holding a large sword. Above her is a circle that once contained an image of the Buddha-to-be in the form of a divine white elephant, descending from a heavenly abode to enter her womb. Maya is dreaming that this is taking place.

This relief comes from an area of ancient Pakistan known as Gandhara, which was reached by Alexander the Great in 329–326 B.C. and later ruled by the Kushans in the first through third centuries. The Kushans had extensive trade contact with Rome and the artistic influence that came with these contacts can be seen in the Mediterranean-inspired robes worn by Maya and her attendants.

The Great Departure and the Temptation of the Buddha, Ikshvaku period, ca. first half of 3rd century
India (Andra Pradesh, Nagarjunakonda)

56 3/4 x 36 1/4 x 6 in. (144.2 x 92.1 x 15.2 cm)
Fletcher Fund, 1928 (28.105)

This large limestone panel depicts two scenes from the life of the Buddha. The lower scene shows the moment when Siddhartha, the Buddha-to-be, secretly leaves his father's palace in the middle of the night. Four dwarfs hold up his horse's hooves so that he can depart silently. The upper scene represents the temptation of Siddhartha by Mara's daughters (seen to Siddhartha's right) and the assault by Mara's armies on the night in which he became a buddha.

This panel once clad a large stupa, a hemispherical burial mound that held important relics, at the site of Nagarjunakonda in southeastern India. Patronized by the ruling Ikshvakus, Nagarjunakonda housed both Hindu establishments that were supported by male members of the family and Buddhist ones sustained by their wives and daughters. The animated imagery and the elegantly corpulent bodies are typical of the art of Nagarjunakonda. The spatially intricate scenes from this region were probably inspired by influences from Rome, with which the region had contact via coastal ports.

The Death of the Buddha, Kushan period, 3rd century
Pakistan (ancient region of Gandhara)
Gray schist

26 x 26 in. (66 x 66 cm)
Lent by Florence and Herbert Irving (L.1993.69.4)

This expressive relief depicts the Buddha's death. His recumbent body is shown surrounded by grieving monks and disciples. At the age of eighty, after eating some tainted food, he became very sick and laid down between two trees to die. Images of his death, after which he passed into nirvana (the extinction of desire), symbolize his complete freedom from the endless cycle of rebirth. In addition to small representations such as this one, colossal images commemorating the moment can be found in many countries in which Buddhism is or was practiced, including India, Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, and Japan.

Fasting Siddhartha, Kushan period, ca. 3rd century
Pakistan (ancient region of Gandhara)

10 15/16 in. (27.8 cm)
Samuel Eilenberg Collection, Purchase, Rogers, Dodge, Harris Brisbane Dick and Fletcher Funds, Joseph Pulitzer Bequest, and Lila Acheson Wallace Gift, 1987 (1987.218.5)

After renouncing his luxurious existence in search of an end to the suffering caused by infinite rebirths, Siddhartha went through six years of profound austerity. At one point, he is said to have eaten only a few grains of rice a day. This subject originated with the artists of ancient Gandhara (an area encompassing parts of present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan), who clearly emphasized Siddhartha's emaciated body; his visible ribs and veins are poignant testimony to years of spiritual trials. The theme was common in Gandhara and though it is not found in later Indian Buddhist sculpture, it reappears in Chinese and Japanese art of the Chan/Zen tradition.

Buddha's First Sermon at Sarnath, Kushan Period, ca. 3rd century
Pakistan (ancient region of Gandhara)
Gray schist

11 1/4 x 12 3/4 in. (28.6 x 32.4 cm)
Gift of Daniel Slott, 1980 (1980.527.4)

The Buddha's first sermon took place in a deer park in Sarnath, four miles outside the city of Benares. In art, this setting is symbolized by the two small deer at the base of the Buddha's seat. The Buddha has his right hand on a wheel, which is the symbol of the Buddha's doctrine (dharma). By turning the wheel with his hand, he figuratively sets the doctrine in motion and disseminates Buddhism through the world. The Buddha is surrounded by six figures. The five robed figures with shaved heads represent the five ascetics who originally abandoned Siddhartha when he ended his six years of stringent yogic practice and fasting and accepted a bowl of rice. They became his first audience and then his first disciples. It is unclear who is represented by the bare-chested sixth figure.

Buddha's Descent from the Trayastrimsha Heaven, Ikshvaku period (3rd–4th century), second half of 3rd century
India, Andhra Pradesh, Nagarjunakonda

48 x 29 3/4 in. (121.9 x 75.6 cm)
Rogers Fund, 1928 (28.31)

This large limestone panel was originally designed to decorate the lower part of an apsidal stupa from the site of Nagarjunakonda in the southeastern province of Andhra Pradesh. Patronized by the ruling Ikshvakus, Nagarjunakonda houses both Hindu establishments supported by male members of the family and Buddhist ones sustained by their wives and daughters. The detailed imagery of the slab, the somewhat elongated proportions of the people and animals, and the corpulence of the Buddha in the center are typical of the art of Nagarjunakonda.

According to several texts, after his enlightenment, the Buddha Shakyamuni visited the Heaven of the Thirty-three Gods (Trayastrimsha) to preach to his mother—who had passed away without benefit of hearing the doctrine—and the other inhabitants. After living there for three months, he descended to earth at Samkashya. Located in Uttar Pradesh in the north, Samkashya is one of the eight traditional sites of Buddhist pilgrimage. Here, the Buddha is shown flying at the upper right of the panel and preaching to the gods at the upper left. The large central image, shown standing on a lotus, depicts the moment of Shakyamuni's descent at Samkashya. He is attended at his right by a standing figure holding a vajra (thunderbolt scepter) who most likely represents Indra, ruler of the Trayastrimsha Heaven; two women kneeling at the front; and two larger figures placed to the right and left of the central scene.

Model of a stupa (Buddhist shrine), ca. 4th century
Pakistan, ancient region of Gandhara

H. 22 3/4 in. (57.8 cm), W. 7 1/2 in. (19.1 cm)
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Donald J. Bruckmann, 1985 (1985.387ab)

Stupas, the earliest Buddhist monuments preserved in India, began as solid hemispherical domes that marked the remains of a great leader or teacher. They were incorporated into early Buddhist art as symbols of the continuing presence of Shakyamuni Buddha after his parinirvana (final transcendence), and as reminders of the path he defined for his followers. Buddhism carried the stupa throughout Asia, where it was interpreted in many forms, including the domed chortens of Tibet and the spired pagodas of China, Korea, and Japan. The square base and ovoid dome derive from monuments built in northwest India, Pakistan, and Afghanistan during the height of Kushan rule, from the late first to the third century. In this somewhat fanciful reliquary, the dome of the stupa is separated from its square base by a lotus pedestal and four rampant griffins. It is further elaborated by four columns—capped by miniature stupas—that encircle the dome, and four somewhat enigmatic columnlike forms on top of the base.

Lunette with Buddha surrounded by adorants, 5th–6th century
Hadda, Afghanistan

H. 16 1/2 in. (42 cm)
Purchase, Walter Burke Gift, and Anonymous Gift, Rogers Fund, and Gift of George D. Pratt, by exchange, 2005 (2005.314)

This lunette, one of only two complete examples known, is a rare survival from the once extensive Buddhist complex at Hadda, which was destroyed in the late 1980s during fighting between the Russians and the Mujahideen. Probably one of a series of lunettes that embellished the high base of a Buddhist stupa, or relic mound, it would have been viewed during ritual circumambulation.

Shakyamuni, the historic Buddha born as Prince Siddhartha, is shown as a bodhisattva wearing the jeweled turban and ornaments of a royal. The elephant and the adjacent bowed figure may refer to an episode from his youth, but his halo, meditating posture, and hierarchic relationship with the surrounding devotees all anticipate his enlightenment—the sculptor's answer to the problem of presenting an icon as an object of veneration and also in the temporal context of a sacred biography. Given that the relief was sculpted in the fifth or sixth century, when classical traditions in the West had become formulaic, the naturalistic anatomy and complex treatment of the interacting devotees seem remarkable. But renewed Western influence would not have been necessary in this period of artistic renaissance, as classical motifs had been part of the Afghan heritage since Alexander the Great's campaign in the fourth century B.C.

Head of a Buddha, second half of 6th century
Angkor Borei, Cambodia

H. 24 in. (61 cm)
Gift of Doris Wiener, 2005 (2005.512)

This monumental Buddha head is a superb testament to the earliest phase of Buddhism in the lower Mekong Delta. A few heads like this one are all that survive of the large-scale sacred images that must have existed in the region. They give us an indication of the grandeur and spirituality such sculptures must have achieved, as well as a sense of the importance imparted to Buddhist ideology. Typical of Buddha images from the early site of Angkor Borei are the ovoid face, prominent arching eyebrows, outlined eyes and mouth, mouth with upturned corners, and large, close-cropped, snail-shaped curls. With its impressive scale and superb modeling, this head represents the zenith of that great sculptural tradition.

Seated Buddha, Tang dynasty (618–907), early 8th century
Gilt bronze

H. 8 in. (20.3 cm)
Rogers Fund, 1943 (43.24.3)

This striking example of a seated Buddha has the broad shoulders, narrow waist, full and slightly pursed lips, and arched eyebrows characteristic of Chinese Buddhist figures made during the later Tang dynasty. The quality of workmanship, furthermore, suggests that it was probably produced in an urban area, possibly the capital city of Chang'an.

This seated figure performs a graceful variation of the dharmachakra mudra or hand gesture indicating teaching (literally, turning or setting in motion the Wheel [of Buddhist law]). Because Shakyamuni spent more than forty years traveling and lecturing after his enlightenment, this figure could be a representation of the Historical Buddha. He also bears other corporeal markings of enlightened beings: the cranial protuberance (ushnisha) indicating wisdom, elongated earlobes referring to Shakyamuni's royal heritage but without the earrings that he put aside when he chose a spiritual path, and the three neck rings signifying auspiciousness. These physical signs, as well as the flowing monastic robes, derive from Indian prototypes but spread throughout the Buddhist world.

Seated Buddha, 8th–early 9th century
Burma; Pyu kingdom

H. 7 7/8 in. (20 cm)
Lindemann Fund, 2006 (2006.53)

The Pyu kingdom flourished in central and northern Burma from the early years of the first millennium A.D. to about 832, when Halin, the capital, was sacked by forces of the Nanchao kingdom of southern China. Pyu sculpture is extremely rare. Characteristic of the finest early Southeast Asian sculpture, the fluid modeling of this Buddha image emphasizes soft, flowing volumes rather than linear form. The large ovoid head topped by a wiglike coiffure with a tall, beehive-shaped ushnisha (cranial protuberance) is typical of Pyu bronze Buddhas, as are the full, sensual lips and the long, fleshy nose with a slight hook at the end, perhaps a vestige of Indian influence. (Ritual handling has partially effaced the modeling of the eyes.) The authoritative chest, with its exaggeratedly low pectoral muscles, forms a plane that sweeps down from the broad shoulders to the subtle transition to the soft belly below, where a deep indentation indicates the waist of the Buddha's garment. The thighs are naturalistically proportioned, but the lower legs and feet are somewhat stunted; emphasis is given instead to the large surviving hand, one of the distinguishing characteristics of a Buddha.

This Buddha originally may have held both of his hands in vitarkamudra, the teaching gesture (the small metal tenon that supported his now broken hand can be seen on his right thigh). This two-handed gesture is an iconography that originated with Buddhas produced by the contemporary Mon Dvaravati culture in neighboring Thailand.

Reliquary (?) with scenes from the life of the Buddha, ca. 10th century
India (Jammu and Kashmir, ancient kingdom of Kashmir) or Pakistan
Bone with traces of color and gold paint

H. 5 3/8 in. (13.7 cm)
Gift of The Kronos Collections, 1985 (1985.392.1)

Clearly the product of extraordinarily sophisticated and technically skilled workshops, eighth-century carved ivories from Kashmir are rare. Created from an approximately triangular section of bone, believed to be from an elephant, this remarkable piece testifies to the continuation of skills extending the tradition by at least a century. The object, with three scenes depicted on its sides, was probably part of a reliquary. The first two scenes show the miraculous birth of Siddhartha, later to become the Buddha, and his temptation as he meditated at Bodh Gaya immediately prior to becoming the Buddha. The third scene, clearly the focus of the carving, shows a rare representation of a crowned and jeweled Buddha seated cross-legged on a lion throne.

Bookcover with scenes from the life of the Buddha, ca. first half of 10th century
India or Nepal
Ink and color on wood, with metal insets

2 1/2 x 22 3/8 in. (6.4 x 56.8 cm)
Gift of The Kronos Collections and Mr. and Mrs. Peter Findlay, 1979 (1979.511)

Detail: The miracle at Shravasti

This scene is one of four episodes from the life of the Buddha that are painted on the interior surface of a ninth-century cover for a palm-leaf manuscript. It depicts an event that took place in the town of Shravasti, in northeastern India. Here the Buddha was challenged by a group of Brahmanic ascetics who suggested that he could not perform miracles equal to those performed by members of their group. However, the Buddha converted the skeptics by performing a number of miracles, including multiplying his image in all directions, depicted in this representation. He also walked in the air while simultaneously emitting flames from the upper part of his body and waves from the lower part of his body.

Detail: The taming of the elephant Nalagiri

The rogue elephant Nalagiri had been released by Devadatta, Buddha's evil cousin, with the intention that it would kill the Buddha. But as soon as Nalagiri saw Shakyamuni, the elephant became calm and kneeled before him. In this depiction, Ananda, the Buddha's disciple who did not desert him as Nalagiri drew near, stands beside him. This scene is one of four events from the life of the Buddha that were painted on the interior surface of a ninth-century wooden cover for a palm-leaf manuscript. The outer surface of the cover is encrusted with saffron, vermillion, and other organic matter that was ritually applied when the manuscript was in use.

Plaque with scenes from the life of the Buddha, Pala or Pagan period, 12th century
India or Burma

3 15/16 in. (10 cm)
Anonymous Gift, 1982 (1982.233)

The central scene of this devotional plaque depicts Siddhartha's victory over the demon Mara and his subsequent enlightenment. Siddhartha, the Buddha-to-be, sat under a tree in meditation and when it became clear that his enlightenment was near at hand, Mara tried everything in his power to prevent it. He sent his daughters to tempt Siddhartha as well as his armies to disrupt his meditation. The Buddha-to-be responded by touching the earth with his right hand (bhumisparshamudra), a gesture that called the earth goddess to witness his right to achieve enlightenment. She responded positively, Mara and his armies were dispersed, and Siddhartha became the Buddha Shakyamuni.

In Indian art, the Buddha's life was often condensed and codified into a series of eight events. Surrounding the central image on this plaque are depictions of these events (clockwise from lower left): the miraculous birth of the Buddha from the side of his mother Maya; his first sermon at the Deer Park in Sarnath; his taming of the elephant Nalagiri, as indicated by the presence of a kneeling elephant to the right; and at the top, his death. The missing scenes running down the right side would have illustrated his descent from Trayastrimsha Heaven, the miracles he performed at Shravasti, and his acceptance of the monkey's offering of honey. Depicted across the base are the seven jewels of the universal king, flanked on either end by devotees, possibly patrons.

The small size of this plaque suggests that it was a personal devotional object. Many such shrines were found in Burma, and they have been associated with that country until recently. Scholars are now suggesting that many are actually of Indian manufacture, and may have been brought to Burma, by pilgrims who had visited Indian Buddhist sites. A large group of like sculptures has been discovered in Tibet, and were also likely devotional souvenirs.

Buddha sheltered by a naga, Angkor period, 12th century

6 1/2 in. (16.5 cm)
Gift of Cynthia Hazen Polsky, 1987 (1987.424.19ab)

This sculpture depicts the serpent king Muchilinda protecting the Buddha Shakyamuni from heavy rains. There are numerous extant Cambodian images of this configuration because it was the focus of a cult during the reign of the Cambodian king Jayavarman VII, who ruled the Khmer empire from about 1181 to 1218. Although this scene had been depicted earlier in South and Southeast Asian art, it was the Khmer who popularized it. The reasons that Jayavarman chose to stress the Muchilinda Buddha remain speculative. Snakes were associated with healing, and perhaps because Jayavarman may have been lame, he emphasized healing, as indicated by his construction of hospitals throughout the kingdom.

The Buddha and His Message, Past, Present and Future

Lecture on Vesak Day
by Ven. Bhikkhu Bodhi
United Nations, 15 May 2000.


To begin, I would like to express my pleasure to be here today, on this auspicious occasion of the first international recognition and celebration of Vesak at the United Nations. Though I wear the robe of a Theravada Buddhist monk, I am not an Asian Buddhist but a native of New York City, born and raised in Brooklyn. I knew nothing about Buddhism during the first twenty years of my life. In my early twenties I developed an interest in Buddhism as a meaningful alternative to modern materialism, an interest which grew over the following years. After finishing my graduate studies in Western philosophy, I traveled to Sri Lanka, where I entered the Buddhist monastic order. I have lived in Sri Lanka for most of my adult life, and thus I feel particularly happy to return to my home city to address this august assembly.

Vesak is the day marking the birth, enlightenment, and passing away of the Buddha, which according to traditional accounts all occurred on the full-moon day of May. Ever since the fifth century B.C., the Buddha has been the Light of Asia, a spiritual teacher whose teaching has shed its radiance over an area that once extended from the Kabul Valley in the west to Japan in the east, from Sri Lanka in the south to Siberia in the north. The Buddha's sublime personality has given birth to a whole civilization guided by lofty ethical and humanitarian ideals, to a vibrant spiritual tradition that has ennobled the lives of millions with a vision of man's highest potentials. His graceful figure is the centerpiece of magnificent achievements in all the arts -- in literature, painting, sculpture, and architecture. His gentle, inscrutable smile has blossomed into vast libraries of scriptures and treatises attempting to fathom his profound wisdom. Today, as Buddhism becomes better known all over the globe, it is attracting an ever-expanding circle of followers and has already started to make an impact on Western culture. Hence it is most fitting that the United Nations should reserve one day each year to pay tribute to this man of mighty intellect and boundless heart, whom millions of people in many countries look upon as their master and guide.

The Birth of the Buddha

The first event in the life of the Buddha commemorated by Vesak is his birth. In this part of my talk I want to consider the birth of the Buddha, not in bare historical terms, but through the lens of Buddhist tradition -- an approach that will reveal more clearly what this event means for Buddhists themselves. To view the Buddha's birth through the lens of Buddhist tradition, we must first consider the question, "What is a Buddha?" As is widely known, the word "Buddha" is not a proper name but an honorific title meaning "the Enlightened One" or "the Awakened One." The title is bestowed on the Indian sage Siddhartha Gautama, who lived and taught in northeast India in the fifth century B.C. From the historical point of view, Gautama is the Buddha, the founder of the spiritual tradition known as Buddhism.

However, from the standpoint of classical Buddhist doctrine, the word "Buddha" has a wider significance than the title of one historical figure. The word denotes, not just a single religious teacher who lived in a particular epoch, but a type of person -- an exemplar -- of which there have been many instances in the course of cosmic time. Just as the title "American President" refers not just to Bill Clinton, but to everyone who has ever held the office of the American presidency, so the title "Buddha" is in a sense a "spiritual office," applying to all who have attained the state of Buddhahood. The Buddha Gautama, then, is simply the latest member in the spiritual lineage of Buddhas, which stretches back into the dim recesses of the past and forward into the distant horizons of the future.

To understand this point more clearly requires a short excursion into Buddhist cosmology. The Buddha teaches that the universe is without any discoverable beginning in time: there is no first point, no initial moment of creation. Through beginningless time, world systems arise, evolve, and then disintegrate, followed by new world systems subject to the same law of growth and decline. Each world system consists of numerous planes of existence inhabited by sentient beings similar in most respects to ourselves. Besides the familiar human and animal realms, it contains heavenly planes ranged above our own, realms of celestial bliss, and infernal planes below our own, dark realms of pain and misery. The beings dwelling in these realms pass from life to life in an unbroken process of rebirth called samsara, a word which means "the wandering on." This aimless wandering from birth to birth is driven by our own ignorance and craving, and the particular form any rebirth takes is determined by our karma, our good and bad deeds, our volitional actions of body, speech, and thought. An impersonal moral law governs this process, ensuring that good deeds bring a pleasant rebirth, and bad deeds a painful one.

In all planes of existence life is impermanent, subject to aging, decay, and death. Even life in the heavens, though long and blissful, does not last forever. Every existence eventually comes to an end, to be followed by a rebirth elsewhere. Therefore, when closely examined, all modes of existence within samsara reveal themselves as flawed, stamped with the mark of imperfection. They are unable to offer a stable, secure happiness and peace, and thus cannot deliver a final solution to the problem of suffering.

However, beyond the conditioned spheres of rebirth, there is also a realm or state of perfect bliss and peace, of complete spiritual freedom, a state that can be realized right here and now even in the midst of this imperfect world. This state is called Nirvana (in Pali, Nibbana), the "going out" of the flames of greed, hatred, and delusion. There is also a path, a way of practice, that leads from the suffering of samsara to the bliss of Nirvana; from the round of ignorance, craving, and bondage, to unconditioned peace and freedom.

For long ages this path will be lost to the world, utterly unknown, and thus the way to Nirvana will be inaccessible. From time to time, however, there arises within the world men who, by his own unaided effort and keen intelligence, finds the lost path to deliverance. Having found it, he follows it through and fully comprehends the ultimate truth about the world. Then he returns to humanity and teaches this truth to others, making known once again the path to the highest bliss. The person who exercises this function is a Buddha.

A Buddha is thus not merely an Enlightened One, but is above all an Enlightener, a World Teacher. His function is to rediscover, in an age of spiritual darkness, the lost path to Nirvana, to perfect spiritual freedom, and teach this path to the world at large. Thereby others can follow in his steps and arrive at the same experience of emancipation that he himself achieved. A Buddha is not unique in attaining Nirvana. All those who follow the path to its end realize the same goal. Such people are called arahants, "worthy ones," because they have destroyed all ignorance and craving. The unique role of a Buddha is to rediscover the Dharma, the ultimate principle of truth, and to establish a "dispensation" or spiritual heritage to preserve the teaching for future generations. So long as the teaching is available, those who encounter it and enter the path can arrive at the goal pointed to by the Buddha as the supreme good.

To qualify as a Buddha, a World Teacher, an aspirant must prepare himself over an inconceivably long period of time spanning countless lives. During these past lives, the future Buddha is referred to as a bodhisattva, an aspirant to the full enlightenment of Buddhahood. In each life the bodhisattva must train himself, through altruistic deeds and meditative effort, to acquire the qualities essential to a Buddha. According to the teaching of rebirth, at birth our mind is not a blank slate but brings along all the qualities and tendencies we have fashioned in our previous lives. Thus to become a Buddha requires the fulfillment, to the ultimate degree, of all the moral and spiritual qualities that reach their climax in Buddhahood. These qualities are called påramis or påramitås, transcendent virtues or perfections. Different Buddhist traditions offer slightly different lists of the påramis. In the Theravada tradition they are said to be tenfold: generosity, moral conduct, renunciation, wisdom, energy, patience, truthfulness, determination, loving-kindness, and equanimity. In each existence, life after life through countless cosmic aeons, a bodhisattva must cultivate these sublime virtues in all their manifold aspects.

What motivates the bodhisattva to cultivate the påramis to such extraordinary heights is the compassionate wish to bestow upon the world the teaching that leads to the Deathless, to the perfect peace of Nirvana. This aspiration, nurtured by boundless love and compassion for all living beings caught in the net of suffering, is the force that sustains the bodhisattva in his many lives of striving to perfect the påramis. And it is only when all the påramis have reached the peak of perfection that he is qualified to attain supreme enlightenment as a Buddha. Thus the personality of the Buddha is the culmination of the ten qualities represented by the ten påramis. Like a well-cut gem, his personality exhibits all excellent qualities in perfect balance. In him, these ten qualities have reached their consummation, blended into a harmonious whole.

This explains why the birth of the future Buddha has such a profound and joyful significance for Buddhists. The birth marks not merely the arising of a great sage and ethical preceptor, but the arising of a future World Teacher. Thus at Vesak we celebrate the Buddha as one who has striven through countless past lives to perfect all the sublime virtues that will entitle him to teach the world the path to the highest happiness and peace.

The Quest for Enlightenment

From the heights of classical Buddhology, I will now descend to the plain of human history and briefly review the life of the Buddha up to his attainment of enlightenment. This will allow me to give a short summary of the main points of his teaching, emphasizing those that are especially relevant today.

At the outset I must stress that the Buddha was not born as an Enlightened One. Though he had qualified himself for Buddhahood through his past lives, he first had to undergo a long and painful struggle to find the truth for himself. The future Buddha was born as Siddhartha Gautama in the small Sakyan republic close to the Himalayan foothills, a region that at present lies in southern Nepal. While we do not know the exact dates of his life, many scholars believe he lived from approximately 563 to 483 B.C.; a smaller number place the dates about a century later. Legend holds he was the son of a powerful monarch, but the Sakyan state was actually a tribal republic, and thus his father was probably the chief of the ruling council of elders.

As a royal youth, Prince Siddhartha was raised in luxury. At the age of sixteen he married a beautiful princess named Yasodhara and lived a contented life in the capital, Kapilavastu. Over time, however, the prince became increasingly pensive. What troubled him were the great burning issues we ordinarily take for granted, the questions concerning the purpose and meaning of our lives. Do we live merely for the enjoyment of sense pleasures, the achievement of wealth and status, the exercise of power? Or is there something beyond these, more real and fulfilling? At the age of 29, stirred by deep reflection on the hard realities of life, he decided that the quest for illumination had a higher priority than the promise of power or the call of worldly duty. Thus, while still in the prime of life, he cut off his hair and beard, put on the saffron robe, and entered upon the homeless life of renunciation, seeking a way to release from the round of repeated birth, old age, and death.

The princely ascetic first sought out the most eminent spiritual teachers of his day. He mastered their doctrines and systems of meditation, but soon enough realized that these teachings did not lead to the goal he was seeking. He next adopted the path of extreme asceticism, of self-mortification, which he pursued almost to the door of death. Just then, when his prospects looked bleak, he thought of another path to enlightenment, one that balanced proper care of the body with sustained contemplation and deep investigation. He would later call this path "the middle way" because it avoids the extremes of sensual indulgence and self-mortification.

Having regained his strength by taking nutritious food, one day he approached a lovely spot by the bank of the Nerañjara River, near the town of Gaya. He sat down cross-legged beneath a tree (later called the Bodhi Tree), making a firm resolution that he would never rise up from his seat until he had won his goal. As night descended he entered into deeper and deeper stages of meditation. Then, the records tell us, when his mind was perfectly composed, in the first watch of the night he recollected his past births, even during many cosmic aeons; in the middle watch, he developed the "divine eye" by which he could see beings passing away and taking rebirth in accordance with their karma; and in the last watch, he penetrated the deepest truths of existence, the most basic laws of reality. When dawn broke, the figure sitting beneath the tree was no longer a bodhisattva, a seeker of enlightenment, but a Buddha, a Perfectly Enlightened One, who had stripped away the subtlest veils of ignorance and attained the Deathless in this very life. According to Buddhist tradition, this event occurred in May of his thirty-fifth year, on the Vesak full moon. This is the second great occasion in the Buddha's life that Vesak celebrates: his attainment of enlightenment.

For several weeks the newly enlightened Buddha remained in the vicinity of the Bodhi Tree contemplating from different angles the truth he had discovered. Then, as he gazed out upon the world, his heart was moved by deep compassion for those still mired in ignorance, and he decided to go forth and teach the liberating Dharma. In the months ahead his following grew by leaps and bounds as both ascetics and householders heard the new gospel and went for refuge to the Enlightened One. Each year, even into old age, the Buddha wandered among the villages, towns, and cities of northeast India, patiently teaching all who would lend an ear. He established an order of monks and nuns, the Sangha, to carry on his message. This order still remains alive today, perhaps (along with the Jain order) the world's oldest continuous institution. He also attracted many lay followers who became devout supporters of the Blessed One and the order.

The Buddha's Teaching: Its Aim

To ask why the Buddha's teaching spread so rapidly among all sectors of northeast Indian society is to raise a question that is not of merely historical interest but is also relevant to us today. For we live at a time when Buddhism is exerting a strong appeal upon an increasing number of people, both East and West. I believe the remarkable success of Buddhism, as well as its contemporary appeal, can be understood principally in terms of two factors: one, the aim of the teaching; and the other, its methodology.

As to the aim, the Buddha formulated his teaching in a way that directly addresses the critical problem at the heart of human existence -- the problem of suffering -- and does so without reliance upon the myths and mysteries so typical of religion. He further promises that those who follow his teaching to its end will realize here and now the highest happiness and peace. All other concerns apart from this, such as theological dogmas, metaphysical subtleties, rituals and rules of worship, the Buddha waves aside as irrelevant to the task at hand, the mind's liberation from its bonds and fetters.

This pragmatic thrust of the Dharma is clearly illustrated by the main formula into which the Buddha compressed his program of deliverance, namely, the Four Noble Truths:

(1) the noble truth that life involves suffering
(2) the noble truth that suffering arises from craving
(3) the noble truth that suffering ends with the removal of craving
(4) the noble truth that there is a way to the end of suffering.

The Buddha not only makes suffering and release from suffering the focus of his teaching, but he deals with the problem of suffering in a way that reveals extraordinary psychological insight. He traces suffering to its roots within our minds, first to our craving and clinging, and then a step further back to ignorance, a primordial unawareness of the true nature of things. Since suffering arises from our own minds, the cure must be achieved within our minds, by dispelling our defilements and delusions with insight into reality. The beginning point of the Buddha's teaching is the unenlightened mind, in the grip of its afflictions, cares, and sorrows; the end point is the enlightened mind, blissful, radiant, and free.

To bridge the gap between the beginning and end points of his teaching, the Buddha offers a clear, precise, practicable path made up of eight factors. This of course is the Noble Eightfold Path. The path begins with (1) right view of the basic truths of existence, and (2) right intention to undertake the training. It then proceeds through the three ethical factors of (3) right speech, (4) right action, and (5) right livelihood, to the three factors pertaining to meditation and mental development: (6) right effort, (7) right mindfulness, and (8) right concentration. When all eight factors of the path are brought to maturity, the disciple penetrates with insight the true nature of existence and reaps the fruits of the path: perfect wisdom and unshakable liberation of mind.

The Methodology of the Teaching

The methodological characteristics of the Buddha's teaching follow closely from its aim. One of its most attractive features, closely related to its psychological orientation, is its emphasis on self-reliance. For the Buddha, the key to liberation is mental purity and correct understanding, and thus he rejects the idea that we can gain salvation by leaning on anyone else. The Buddha does not claim any divine status for himself, nor does he profess to be a personal savior. He calls himself, rather, a guide and teacher, who points out the path the disciple must follow.

Since wisdom or insight is the chief instrument of emancipation, the Buddha always asked his disciples to follow him on the basis of their own understanding, not from blind obedience or unquestioning trust. He invites inquirers to investigate his teaching, to examine it in the light of their own reason and intelligence. The Dharma or Teaching is experiential, something to be practiced and seen, not a verbal creed to be merely believed. As one takes up the practice of the path, one experiences a growing sense of joy and peace, which expands and deepens as one advances along its clearly marked steps.

What is most impressive about the original teaching is its crystal clarity. The Dharma is open and lucid, simple but deep. It combines ethical purity with logical rigor, lofty vision with fidelity to the facts of lived experience. Though full penetration of the truth proceeds in stages, the teaching begins with principles that are immediately evident as soon as we use them as guidelines for reflection. Each step, successfully mastered, naturally leads on to deeper levels of understanding, culminating in the realization of the supreme truth, Nirvana.

Because the Buddha deals with the most universal of all human problems, the problem of suffering, he made his teaching a universal message, addressed to all human beings solely by reason of their humanity. He opened the doors of liberation to people of all social classes in ancient Indian society, to brahmins, princes, merchants, and farmers, even humble outcasts. As part of his universalist project, the Buddha also threw open the doors of his teaching to women. It is this universal dimension of the Dharma that enabled it to spread beyond the bounds of India and make Buddhism a world religion.

Some scholars have depicted the Buddha as an otherworldly mystic totally indifferent to the problems of mundane life. However, an unbiased reading of the early Buddhist canon would show that this charge is untenable. The Buddha taught not only a path of contemplation for monks and nuns, but also a code of noble ideals to guide men and women living in the world. In fact, the Buddha's success in the wider Indian religious scene can be partly explained by the new model he provided for his householder disciples, the model of the man or woman of the world who combines a busy life of family and social responsibilities with an unwavering commitment to the values embedded in the Dharma.

The moral code the Buddha prescribed for the laity consists of the Five Precepts, which require abstinence from killing, stealing, sexual misconduct, false speech, and the use of intoxicating substances. The positive side of ethics is represented by the inner qualities of heart corresponding to these rules of restraint: love and compassion for all living beings; honesty in one's dealings with others; faithfulness to one's marital vows; truthful speech; and sobriety of mind. Beyond individual ethics, the Buddha laid down guidelines for parents and children, husbands and wives, employers and workers, intended to promote a society marked by harmony, peace, and good will at all levels. He also explained to kings their duties towards their citizens. These discourses show the Buddha as an astute political thinker who understood well that government and the economy can flourish only when those in power prefer the welfare of the people to their own private interests.

The Parinirvana and Afterwards

The third great event in the Master's life commemorated at Vesak is his parinirvana or passing away. The story of the Buddha's last days is told in vivid and moving detail in the Mahaparinibbana Sutta. After an active ministry of forty-five years, at the age of eighty the Buddha realized his end was at hand. Lying on his deathbed, he refused to appoint a personal successor, but told the monks that after his death the Dharma itself should be their guide. To those overcome by grief he repeated the hard truth that impermanence holds sway over all conditioned things, including the physical body of an Enlightened One. He invited his disciples to question him about the doctrine and the path, and urged them to strive with diligence for the goal. Then, perfectly poised, he calmly passed away into the "Nirvana element with no remainder of conditioned existence."

Three months after the Buddha's death, five hundred of his enlightened disciples held a conference at Rajagaha to collect his teachings and preserve them for posterity. This compilation of texts gave future generations a codified version of the doctrine to rely on for guidance. During the first two centuries after the Buddha's parinirvana, his dispensation slowly continued to spread, though its influence remained confined largely to northeast India. Then in the third century B.C., an event took place that transformed the fortunes of Buddhism and set it on the road to becoming a world religion. After a bloody military campaign that left thousands of people dead, King Asoka, the third emperor of the Mauryan dynasty, avidly turned to Buddhism to ease his pained conscience. He saw in the Dharma the inspiration for a social policy built on righteousness rather than force and oppression, and he proclaimed his new policy in edicts inscribed on rocks and pillars throughout his empire. While following Buddhism in his private life, Asoka did not try to impose his personal faith on others but promoted the shared Indian conception of Dharma as the law of righteousness that brings happiness and harmony in daily life and a good rebirth after death.

Under Asoka's patronage, the monks held a council in the royal capital at which they decided to dispatch Buddhist missions throughout the Indian subcontinent and beyond to the outlying regions. The most fruitful of these, in terms of later Buddhist history, was the mission to Sri Lanka, led by Asoka's own son, the monk Mahinda, who was soon followed by Asoka's daughter, the nun Sanghamitta. This royal pair brought to Sri Lanka the Theravada form of Buddhism, which prevails there even to this day.

Within India itself Buddhism evolved through three major stages, which have become its three main historical forms. The first stage saw the diffusion of the original teaching and the splintering of the monastic order into some eighteen schools divided on minor points of doctrine. Of these, the only school to survive is the Theravada, which early on had sent down roots in Sri Lanka and perhaps elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Here it could thrive in relative insulation from the changes affecting Buddhism on the subcontinent. Today the Theravada, the descendent of early Buddhism, prevails in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos.

Beginning in about the first century B.C., a new form of Buddhism gradually emerged, which its advocates called the Mahayana, the Great Vehicle, in contrast with the earlier schools, which they called the Hinayana or Lesser Vehicle. The Mahayanists elaborated upon the career of the bodhisattva, now held up as the universal Buddhist ideal, and proposed a radical interpretation of wisdom as insight into emptiness, or shunyata, the ultimate nature of all phenomena. The Mahayana scriptures inspired bold systems of philosophy, formulated by such brilliant thinkers as Nagarjuna, Asanga, Vasubandhu, and Dharmakirti. For the common devotees the Mahayana texts spoke of celestial Buddhas and bodhisattvas who could come to the aid of the faithful. In its early phase, during the first six centuries of the Common Era, the Mahayana spread to China, and from there to Vietnam, Korea, and Japan. In these lands Buddhism gave birth to new schools more congenial to the Far Eastern mind than the Indian originals. The best known of these is Zen Buddhism, now widely represented in the West.

In India, perhaps by the eighth century, Buddhism evolved into its third historical form, called the Vajrayana, the Diamond Vehicle, based on esoteric texts called Tantras. Vajrayana Buddhism accepted the doctrinal perspectives of the Mahayana, but supplemented these with magic rituals, mystical symbolism, and intricate yogic practices intended to speed up the way to enlightenment. The Vajrayana spread from northern India to Nepal, Tibet, and other Himalayan lands, and today dominates Tibetan Buddhism.

What is remarkable about the dissemination of Buddhism throughout its long history is its ability to win the allegiance of entire populations solely by peaceful means. Buddhism has always spread by precept and example, never by force. The purpose in propagating the Dharma has not been to make converts, but to show others the way to true happiness and peace. Whenever the peoples of any nation or region adopted Buddhism, it became for them, far more than just a religion, the fountainhead of a complete way of life. It has inspired great works of philosophy, literature, painting, and sculpture comparable to those of any other culture. It has molded social, political, and educational institutions; given guidance to rulers and citizens; shaped the morals, customs, and etiquette that order the lives of its followers. While the particular modalities of Buddhist civilization differ widely, from Sri Lanka to Mongolia to Japan, they are all pervaded by a subtle but unmistakable flavor that makes them distinctly Buddhist.

Throughout the centuries, following the disappearance of Buddhism in India, the adherents of the different schools of Buddhism lived in nearly total isolation from one another, hardly aware of each other's existence. Since the middle of the twentieth century, however, Buddhists of the different traditions have begun to interact and have learnt to recognize their common Buddhist identity. In the West now, for the first time since the decline of Indian Buddhism, followers of the three main Buddhist "vehicles" coexist within the same geographical region. This close affiliation is bound to result in hybrids and perhaps in still new styles of Buddhism distinct from all traditional forms. Buddhism in the West is still too young to permit long-range predictions, but we can be sure the Dharma is here to stay and will interact with Western culture, hopefully for their mutual enrichment.

The Buddha's Message for Today

In this last part of my lecture I wish to discuss, very briefly, the relevance of the Buddha's teachings to our own era, as we stand on the threshold of a new century and a new millennium. What I find particularly interesting to note is that Buddhism can provide helpful insights and practices across a wide spectrum of disciplines -- from philosophy and psychology to medical care and ecology -- without requiring those who use its resources to adopt Buddhism as a full-fledged religion. Here I want to focus only on the implications of Buddhist principles for the formation of public policy.

Despite the tremendous advances humankind has made in science and technology, advances that have dramatically improved living conditions in so many ways, we still find ourselves confronted with global problems that mock our most determined attempts to solve them within established frameworks. These problems include: explosive regional tensions of ethnic and religious character; the continuing spread of nuclear weapons; disregard for human rights; the widening gap between the rich and the poor; international trafficking in drugs, women, and children; the depletion of the earth's natural resources; and the despoliation of the environment. From a Buddhist perspective, what is most striking when we reflect upon these problems as a whole is their essentially symptomatic character. Beneath their outward diversity they appear to be so many manifestations of a common root, of a deep and hidden spiritual malignancy infecting our social organism. This common root might be briefly characterized as a stubborn insistence on placing narrow, short-term self-interests (including the interests of the social or ethnic groups to which we happen to belong) above the long-range good of the broader human community. The multitude of social ills that afflict us cannot be adequately accounted for without bringing into view the powerful human drives that lie behind them. Too often, these drives send us in pursuit of divisive, limited ends even when such pursuits are ultimately self-destructive.

The Buddha's teaching offers us two valuable tools to help us extricate ourselves from this tangle. One is its hardheaded analysis of the psychological springs of human suffering. The other is the precisely articulated path of moral and mental training it holds out as a solution. The Buddha explains that the hidden springs of human suffering, in both the personal and social arenas of our lives, are three mental factors called the unwholesome roots, namely, greed, hatred, and delusion. Traditional Buddhist teaching depicts these unwholesome roots as the causes of personal suffering, but by taking a wider view we can see them as equally the source of social, economic, and political suffering. Through the prevalence of greed the world is being transformed into a global marketplace where people are reduced to the status of consumers, even commodities, and our planet's vital resources are being pillaged without concern for future generations. Through the prevalence of hatred, national and ethnic differences become the breeding ground of suspicion and enmity, exploding in violence and endless cycles of revenge. Delusion bolsters the other two unwholesome roots with false beliefs and political ideologies put forward to justify policies motivated by greed and hatred.

While changes in social structures and policies are surely necessary to counteract the many forms of violence and injustice so widespread in today's world, such changes alone will not be enough to usher in an era of true peace and social stability. Speaking from a Buddhist perspective, I would say that what is needed above all else is a new mode of perception, a universal consciousness that can enable us to regard others as not essentially different from oneself. As difficult as it may be, we must learn to detach ourselves from the insistent voice of self-interest and rise up to a universal perspective from which the welfare of all appears as important as one's own good. That is, we must outgrow the egocentric and ethnocentric attitudes to which we are presently committed, and instead embrace a "worldcentric ethic" which gives priority to the well-being of all.

Such a worldcentric ethic should be molded upon three guidelines, the antidotes to the three unwholesome roots:

(1) We must overcome exploitative greed with global generosity, helpfulness, and cooperation.
(2) We must replace hatred and revenge with a policy of kindness, tolerance, and forgiveness.
(3) We must recognize that our world is an interdependent, interwoven whole such that irresponsible behavior anywhere has potentially harmful repercussions everywhere.

These guidelines, drawn from the Buddha's teaching, can constitute the nucleus of a global ethic to which all the world's great spiritual traditions could easily subscribe.

Underlying the specific content of a global ethic are certain attitudes of heart that we must try to embody both in our personal lives and in social policy. The chiefs of these are loving-kindness and compassion (maitri and karuna). Through loving-kindness we recognize that just as we each wish to live happily and peacefully, so all our fellow beings wish to live happily and peacefully. Through compassion we realize that just as we are each averse to pain and suffering, so all others are averse to pain and suffering. When we have understood this common core of feeling that we share with everyone else, we will treat others with the same kindness and care that we would wish them to treat us. This must apply at a communal level as much as in our personal relations. We must learn to see other communities as essentially similar to our own, entitled to the same benefits as we wish for the group to which we belong.

This call for a worldcentric ethic does not spring from ethical idealism or wishful thinking, but rests upon a solid pragmatic foundation. In the long run, to pursue our narrow self-interest in ever widening circles is to undermine our real long-term interest; for by adopting such an approach we contribute to social disintegration and ecological devastation, thus sawing away the branch on which we sit. To subordinate narrow self-interest to the common good is, in the end, to further our own real good, which depends so much upon social harmony, economic justice, and a sustainable environment.

The Buddha states that of all things in the world, the one with the most powerful influence for both good and bad is the mind. Genuine peace between peoples and nations grows out of peace and good will in the hearts of human beings. Such peace cannot be won merely by material progress, by economic development and technological innovation, but demands moral and mental development. It is only by transforming ourselves that we can transform our world in the direction of peace and amity. This means that for the human race to live together peacefully on this shrinking planet, the inescapable challenge facing us is to understand and master ourselves.

It is here that the Buddha's teaching becomes especially timely, even for those not prepared to embrace the full range of Buddhist religious faith and doctrine. In its diagnosis of the mental defilements as the underlying causes of human suffering, the teaching shows us the hidden roots of our personal and collective problems. By proposing a practical path of moral and mental training, the teaching offers us an effective remedy for tackling the problems of the world in the one place where they are directly accessible to us: in our own minds. As we enter the new millennium, the Buddha's teaching provides us all, regardless of our religious convictions, with the guidelines we need to make our world a more peaceful and congenial place to live.

About the Speaker

Bhikkhu Bodhi was born in New York City in 1944. He received a B.A. in philosophy from Brooklyn College (1966) and a Ph.D. in philosophy from Claremont Graduate School (1972). In late 1972 he went to Sri Lanka, where he was ordained as a Buddhist monk under the late Ven. Balangoda Ananda Maitreya Mahanayaka Thera. Since 1984 he has been editor of the Buddhist Publication Society in Kandy, and since 1988 its president. He is the author, translator, and editor of many books on Theravada Buddhism. The most important of these are The Discourse on the All-Embracing Net of Views (1978), A Comprehensive Manual of Abhidhamma (1993), The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha (1995), and The Connected Discourses of the Buddha (due for publication in October 2000). He is also a member of the World Academy of Art and Science.

The Laughing Buddha

How Buddha Came to Be Fat and Jolly
When westerners think of "Buddha," usually they don't visualize the Buddha of history, meditating or teaching. Instead, they visualize a fat, bald, jolly character called "The Laughing Buddha." Where did he come from?

The Laughing Buddha emerged from Chinese folktales of the 10th century. The original stories of the Laughing Buddha centered on a Ch'an monk named Ch'i-t'zu, or Qieci, from Fenghua, in what is now the province of Zhejiang. Ch'i-t'zu was an eccentric but much-loved character who worked small wonders such as predicting the weather.

Maitreya Buddha
According to tradition, just before Ch'i-t'zu died he revealed himself to be an incarnation of Maitreya Buddha. Maitreya is named in the Tripitaka as the Buddha of a future age. Ch'i-t'zu's last words --

Maitreya, true Maitreya
Reborn innumerable times
From time to time manifested among men
The men of the age do not recognize him.

Pu-tai, Protector of Children

The tales of Ch'i-t'zu spread throughout China, and he came to be called Pu-tai (Budai), which means "hempen sack." He carries a sack with him full of good things, such as sweets for children, and he is often pictured with children. Pu-tai represents happiness, generosity and wealth, and he is a protector of children as well as of the poor and the weak.

Today a statue of Pu-tai often can be found near the entrance of Chinese Buddhist temples. The tradition of rubbing Pu-tai's belly for good luck is a folk practice, however, not a Buddhist teaching.

An Ideal Enlightened Master

Pu-tai also is associated with the last panel of the Ten Ox-herding Pictures. These are ten images that represent stages of enlightenment in Ch'an (Zen) Buddhism. The last panel shows an enlightened master who enters towns and marketplaces to give to ordinary people the blessings of enlightenment.

Pu-tai followed the spread of Buddhism into other parts of Asia. In Japan he became one of the Seven Lucky Gods of Shinto and is called Hotei. He also was incorporated into Chinese Taoism as a deity of abundance.

Parinirvana: How the Historical Buddha Entered Nirvana

This abridged account of the historical Buddha's passing and entry into Nirvana is taken primarily from the Maha-parinibbana Sutta, translated from the Pali by Sister Vajira & Francis Story. Other sources consulted are Buddha by Karen Armstrong (Penguin, 2001) and Old Path White Clouds by Thich Nhat Hanh (Parallax Press, 1991).
Forty-five years had passed since the Lord Buddha's enlightenment, and the Blessed One was 80 years old. He and his monks were staying in the village of Beluvagamaka (or Beluva), which was near the present-day city of Basrah, Bihar state, northeast India. It was the time of the monsoon rains retreat, when the Buddha and his disciples stopped traveling.

Like an Old Cart
One day the Buddha asked the monks to leave and find other places to stay during the monsoon. He would remain in Beluvagamaka with only his cousin and companion, Ananda. After the monks had left, Ananda could see that his master was ill. The Blessed One, in great pain, found comfort only in deep meditation. But with strength of will he overcame his illness.
Ananda was relieved, but shaken. When I saw the Blessed One's sickness my own body became weak, he said.Everything became dim to me, and my senses failed. Ye I still had some comfort in the thought that the Blessed One would not come to his final passing away until he had given some last instructions to his monks.

The Lord Buddha responded, What more does the community of monks expect from me, Ananda? I have taught the dharma openly and completely. I have held nothing back, and have nothing more to add to the teachings. A person who thought the sangha depended on him for leadership might have something to say. But, Ananda, the Tathagata has no such idea, that the sangha depends on him. So what instructions should he give?

Now I am frail, Ananda, old, aged, far gone in years. This is my eightieth year, and my life is spent. My body is like an old cart, barely held together.

Therefore, Ananda, be islands unto yourselves, refuges unto yourselves, seeking no other refuge; with the Dharma as your island, the Dharma as your refuge, seeking no other refuge.

At the Capala Shrine

Soon after he had recovered from his illness, the Lord Buddha suggested he and Ananda spend the day at a shrine, called the Capala Shrine. As the two elderly men sat together, the Buddha remarked upon the beauty of the scenery all around. The Blessed One continued, Whosoever, Ananda, has prefected psychic power could, if he so desired, remain in this place throughout a world-period or until the end of it. The Tathagata, Ananda, has done so. Therefore the Tathagata could remain throughout a world-period or until the end of it.

The Buddha repeated this suggestion three times. Ananda, possibly not understanding, said nothing.

Then came Mara, the evil one, who 45 years earlier had tried to tempt the Buddha away from enlightenment. You have accomplished what you set out to do, Mara said. Give up this life and enter Parinirvana [complete Nirvana] now.

The Buddha Relinquishes His Will to Live

Do not trouble yourself, Evil One, the Buddha replied. In three months I will pass away and enter Nirvana.

Then the Blessed One, clearly and mindfully, renounced his will to live on. The earth itself responded with an earthquake. The Buddha told the shaken Ananda about his decision to make his final entry into Nirvana in three months. Ananda objected, and the Buddha replied that Ananda should have made his objections known earlier, and requested the Tathagata remain throughout a world-period or until the end of it.

To Kushinagar

For the next three months, the Buddha and Ananda traveled and spoke to groups of monks. One evening he and several of the monks stayed in the home of Cunda, the son of a goldsmith. Cunda invited the Blessed One to dine in his home, and he gave the Buddha a dish called sukaramaddava. This means "pigs' soft food." No one today is certain what this means. It may have been a pork dish, or it may have been a dish of something pigs like to eat, like truffle mushrooms.

Whatever was in the sukaramaddava, the Buddha insisted that he would be the only one to eat from that dish. When he had finished, the Buddha told Cunda to bury what was left so that no one else would eat it.

That night, the Buddha suffered terrible pain and dysentery. But the next day he insisted in traveling on to Kushinagar, located in what is now the state of Uttar Pradesh in northern India. On the way, he told Ananda not to blame Cunda for his death.

Ananda's Sorrow

The Buddha and his monks came to a grove of sal trees in Kushinagar. The Buddha asked Ananda to prepare a couch between to trees, with its head to the north. I am weary and want to lie down, he said. When the couch was ready, the Buddha lay down on his right side, one foot upon the other, with his head supported by his right hand. Then the sal trees bloomed, although it was not their season, pale yellow petals rained down on the Buddha.

The Buddha spoke for a time to his monks. At one point Ananda left the grove to lean against a door post and weep. The Buddha sent a monk to find Ananda and bring him back. Then the Blessed One said to Ananda, Enough, Ananda! Do not grieve! Have I not taught from the very beginning that with all that is dear and beloved there must be change and separation? All that is born, comes into being, is compounded, and is subject to decay. How can one say: "May it not come to dissolution"? This cannot be.

Ananda, you have served the Tathagata with loving-kindness in deed, word, and thought; graciously, pleasantly, wholeheartedly. Now you should strive to liberate yourself. The Blessed One then praised Ananda in front of the other assembled monks.


The Buddha spoke further, advising the monks to keep the rules of the order of monks. Then he asked three times if any among them had any questions. Do not be given to remorse later on with the thought: "The Master was with us face to face, yet face to face we failed to ask him." But no one spoke. The Buddha assured all of the monks they would realize enlightenment.

Then he said, All compounded things are subject to decay. Strive with diligence. Then, serenely, he passed into Parinirvana.

The Birth of the Buddha

The story of the Buddha’s birth is rich with myth and symbolism.

Twenty-five centuries ago, King Suddhodana ruled a land near the Himalaya Mountains.

One day during a midsummer festival, his wife Queen Maya retired to her quarters to rest, and she fell asleep and dreamed a vivid dream. Four angels carried her high into white mountain peaks and clothed her in flowers. A magnificent white bull elephant bearing a white lotus in its trunk approached Maya and walked around her three times. Then the elephant struck her on the right side with its trunk and vanished into her.

When Maya awoke, she told her husband about the dream. The King summoned 64 Brahmans to come and interpret it. Queen Maya would give birth to a son, the Brahmans said, and if the son did not leave the household he would become a world conqueror. However, if he were to leave the household he would become a Buddha.

When the time for the birth grew near, Queen Maya wished to travel from Kapilavatthu, the King’s capital, to her childhood home, Devadaha, to give birth. With the King’s blessings she left Kapilavatthu on a palanquin carried by a thousand courtiers.

On the way to Devadaha, the procession passed Lumbini Grove, which was full of blossoming trees. Entranced, the Queen asked her courtiers to stop, and she left the palanquin and entered the grove. As she reached up to touch the blossoms, her son was born.

Then the Queen and her son were showered with perfumed blossoms, and two streams of sparkling water poured from the sky to bathe them. And the infant stood, and took seven steps, and proclaimed “I alone am the World-Honored One!”

Then Queen Maya and her son returned to Kapilavatthu. The Queen died seven days later, and the infant prince was nursed and raised by the Queen’s sister Pajapati, also married to King Suddhodana.

Aspects of this story may have been borrowed from Hindu texts, such as the account of the birth of Indra from the Rig Veda. The story may also have Hellenic influences. For a time after Alexander the Great conquered central Asia in 334 BCE, there was considerable intermingling of Buddhism with Hellenic art and ideas. There also is speculation that the story of the Buddha’s birth was “improved” after Buddhist traders returned from the Middle East with stories of the birth of Jesus.

There is a jumble of symbols presented in this story. The white elephant was a sacred animal representing fertility and wisdom. The lotus is a common symbol for enlightenment in Buddhist art. A white lotus in particular represents mental and spiritual purity. The baby Buddha’s seven steps evoke seven directions – north, south, east, west, up, down, and here.

In Asia, Buddha’s Birthday is a festive celebration featuring parades with many flowers and floats of white elephants. Figures of the baby Buddha pointing up and down are placed in bowls, and sweet tea is poured over the figures to “wash” the baby.

Newcomers to Buddhism tend to dismiss the Buddha birth myth as so much froth. It sounds like a story about the birth of a god, and the Buddha was not a god. In particular, the declaration “I alone am the World-Honored One” is a bit hard to square with Buddhist teachings on nontheism and anatman.

However, in Mahayana Buddhism it is said the baby Buddha was speaking of the Buddha-nature that is the immutable and eternal nature of all beings. On Buddha’s birthday, some Mahayana Buddhists wish each other happy birthday, because the Buddha’s birthday is everyone’s birthday.