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A stone carving of Buddha to illustrate the blog post "The Buddha's never-ending story" by Vanessa R. Sasson and Kristin Scheible on the OUP blog

The Buddha’s never-ending story

Those of us who teach in the field of Religious Studies invariably find ourselves introducing students to the Buddha’s life story. It is a predictable routine for most: he is a prince, born in the lap of luxury. His father receives a prophecy that his son might abandon the throne for a life of religious homelessness, so he barricades the palace, hoping this will ensure his son does not look elsewhere. But then the prince sees the four sights (an old man, diseased man, corpse, and mendicant), realizes the problem of suffering, and charges out of the palace gates with thunderous glory. He reaches the forest, cuts off his hair, and after exploring many different practices, finally becomes the Buddha sitting quietly beneath a tree.

This seems straight-forward, but as a vast amount of literature quickly reveals, the story is in fact much more complicated. Buddhism does not have one primary text around which the tradition pivots, one essential version of his narrative that serves as focal point. Instead, Buddhism can boast of thousands of sources—all of them primary, and most of them dedicated to telling the Buddha’s story—so that the tradition functions more like a library than any one particular book. The Buddha’s life story has a narrative arc that is familiar, but each telling of his narrative is told, performed, even structured differently. Scenes are included in this version, that are nowhere to be found in that one. Scenes get expanded, transformed, edited, reshaped, and reimagined over and over again. The Buddha life story is really a never-ending story, because the story is still being told, still being reimagined after all this time.  The story keeps changing, almost as though it is a living breathing thing. It is, in other words, a real-life story.

The Buddha’s life story is also a never-ending story because the Buddha himself never quite reaches a definite end, nor is he unique. Buddhas multiply throughout the literature with a lineage that stretches aeons into the past and deep into the incomprehensible future. In this way, the Buddha’s life story is not an individual narrative, but a much more cosmic one, brimming with previous and future buddhas. The story itself emerges out of and reflects the concept of saṃsāra, the “wandering on” cycle of births, lives, deaths, and rebirths in a seemingly endless loop. One universe begins, trends for a bit, and then collapses, only for the next to begin. Every era in this almost interminable cycle produces a buddha who achieves awakening and subsequently shares his insight with surrounding community members. That buddha eventually dies, and the community eventually disappears too (because everything is impermanent), but soon enough, another buddha materializes, (re-)articulates those very same teachings, galvanizes another community, and infuses that tradition we recognize as Buddhism with life all over again. 

“The Buddha life story is really a never-ending story, because the story is still being told, still being reimagined after all this time.”

Each recurring buddha in this endless cycle has a virtually identical life story. Consider, for example, the Mahāpadāna Sutta: this text focuses on the story of a previous buddha named Buddha Vipassī whose life experiences parallel those of “our” buddha, Gautama’s. The Mahāpadāna Sutta tells us when Buddha Vipassī lived, who his chief disciples were, and who were his parents. In introducing Vipassī, we are likewise provided with the outlines of many other buddha life stories: who their parents were, who their chief disciples were, and under what kinds of tree they were awakened. What we quickly discover is that each of these previous buddhas had a similar narrative, that their biographies followed a set pattern, that buddhas always follow the same trail. The various texts do not always agree on the details, but the broader tradition repeatedly affirms the vibrating blueprint lying beneath the surface. 

This Buddha-life blueprint, as John Strong has termed it, is evident throughout a buddha’s life, even before he achieves awakening, when he is a Buddha-to be. Many texts provide a list of events that a bodhisattva must experience on the way to becoming a buddha, such as the extraordinary circumstances of his birth, his particular relationship to others, the incitement to renounce and retreat to the forest, even a specific way to find a seat beneath a tree for meditation and awakening. The blueprint also details the miracles that all buddhas must perform, such as teaching the dharma to his mother in heaven and performing the “Twin Miracle” at Śrāvastī. The blueprint even directs the Buddha towards his final resting place in Kuśinagarī, where previous buddhas likewise died. 

The significance of this shared biographical pattern was long overlooked by scholars in the field. The Buddha was imagined as an individual, standing alone and somehow separated from this larger cosmic narrative. The Buddha’s life story was often told as something contained, predictable, and consistently agreed upon. But the Buddha biography is a vast expansive narrative. It is never-ending in its iterations, never-ending in its details, and it is never-ending because there is no end to the lineage of buddhas that are promised in the future. The Buddha-biography is neither fixed, nor is it individual. It is a cosmic, majestic, breath-taking biographical adventure. Once you start exploring it, you will discover its enduring vitality. You will appreciate all the ways in which it has no end.

Featured image in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.

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