Monthly Archives: July 2014

The Life and Legacy of Mrs C.A.F. Rhys Davids

This talk was presented to the members of the Buddha Center on Saturday, July 26, 2014.

Mrs C.A.F. Rhys Davids


In this talk, I will be departing from my usual custom of discussing dharma directly according to the Pali Canon to discuss the contribution to modern Western Buddhism of one particular person. This is someone whose name you may or may not know as one of the great early translators of the Pali Canon. She was also an original Western Buddhist author in her own right. I refer to Mrs Caroline Augusta Foley Rhys Davids, the wife of Thomas William Rhys Davids, a British scholar in his own right and the founder of the Pali Text Society, which still exists and is headquartered in London, England.


Mrs Rhys Davids was born in 1857 in Wadhurst, East Sussex, England to John and Caroline Foley. The Foleys had a long history of involvement with the Church. Caroline studied economics, philosophy, and psychology at University College, London, as well as Sanskrit. Even as a student, she wrote prolifically and was an outspoken advocate of poverty relief, children’s rights, and women’s suffrage. She completed a B.A. in 1886 and an M.A. in 1889.

Caroline and her husband, Thomas, were drawn together by a common interest in Indian studies. They married in 1894. Thomas encouraged her to study Buddhist psychology and the status of women in Buddhist countries. One of her first publications was a translation of the Dhamma Sangani, the first book of the third Pitaka of the Pali Canon, the Abhidhamma, under the title A Buddhist Manual of Psychological Ethics. This was published in 1900. Another early publication was her translation of the Therigatha, a collection of poems of realization written by early Buddhist nuns (Psalms of the Sisters, 1909). She lectured in Indian Philosophy at Manchester University from 1910 to 1913, and in the history of Buddhism at the School of Oriental Studies from 1918 to 1933.

She held the position of Honourary Secretary of the Pali Text Society from 1907 until her husband’s death in 1922, after 28 years of marriage, and as President of the Pali Text Society from 1923 to 1942. She translated large tracts of the Sutta Pitaka and was one of the first scholars to translate portions of the Abhidhamma. She also edited and supervised other translations of the Society. She also wrote many articles and several popular books on Buddhism, including Buddhism: A Study of the Buddhist Norm (1912), Buddhist Psychology (1914), Gotama the Man (1928), Sakya or Buddhist Origins (1928), A Manual of Buddhism (1932), Outlines of Buddhism (1934), Indian Religion and Survival (1934), Birth of Indian Psychology and Its Development in Buddhism (1936), and What Was the Original Gospel in Buddhism (1938). In all, she wrote 34 books.

During the first half of her career, she followed the mainstream view of Buddhist teachings, but over time, she became increasingly critical of the orthodox view of Buddhism. She developed her own perspective on presectarian historical Buddhism based on a critical reading of the Pali Canon. In particular, she developed the view that after the Buddha’s death monasticism, and in particular the Sri Lankan monastic redactors of the Pali Canon, comprehensively edited and reedited the original texts in order to emphasize the more anti-worldly and anti-self aspects of dharma. William Peiris writes, “she believed that the monks who inherited the Buddha’s teaching handed in [sic] a ‘defective and mutilated form.’” She explains this attitude and her methodology in the introduction to her translation of the popular Buddhist text, the Dhammapada, published towards the end of her life, which we will examine in detail.

In addition, Mrs Rhys Davids was influenced by Spiritualism and possibly by Theosophy, as well as her own education in psychology at University College. Towards the end of her life, she became something of an experimental occultist and engaged in experiments in automatic writing and psychic communication. She claimed to have developed the psychic powers of clairaudience and the projection of the mental body in the dream state. She kept extensive notebooks of these experiments, which are now archived at the University of London. The Buddhist scriptures, of course, attest to the reality of these powers, or iddis, but in these judgmental days of rationalist scientism and ideological skepticism these interests have led to her being marginalized and ignored by professional academics. This is unfortunate because her arguments are powerful and persuasive and clearly based on a deep knowledge of Pali.

This lack of academic interest is complemented by the widespread anti-intellectualism of many Western students of Buddhism, Many people, fascinated by the glamour of Asian teachers, fail to realize that there was an indigenous Western Buddhist tradition that preceded the Asian immigration by many decades. I have discussed this topic in my book, Buddhist Self-Ordination: A Dharma Strategy for the West (2011). Another contemporary of Mrs Rhys Davids that is also nearly unknown is Allan Bennett, whose Buddhist name was Bhikkhu Ananda Metteyya, who led the first Buddhist mission to the West in 1908 and is similarly forgotten today.

Caroline and Thomas had three children, Vivien, Nesta, and Arthur. Arthur became a fighter ace during World War I and was killed in action in 1917. Caroline died suddenly in Chipstead, Surrey on June 26, 1942, at the age of 84.

The Search for the Historical Buddha

Mrs Rhys Davids was not the only one to ask the question: “What was the original message of Buddhism?” The same question introduces Govind Chandra Pande’s book, Studies in the Origins of Buddhism (first edition: 1957). Pande designates this critical position as “the New Approach.” I cite Pande’s book principally because of the impeccability of his scholarship. Pande’s research counters the accusation of idiosyncrasy that continues to follow Mrs Rhys Davids, as I mentioned. Indeed, Pande’s erudition is breathtaking. The insights in Studies in the Origins of Buddhism are profound and provocative and introduce Mrs Rhys Davids’ own work, which is the principal subject of our study today. Pande states the essential problem succinctly: “The ‘original gospel’ assumed various forms in the course of its development and was soon grown over by them to the point of obscurity. It appears that unless the ancient Buddhist ideas are analysed clearly with reference to their historical or genetic relationship it will hardly be possible to trace firmly their original foundations.”

This, briefly, is the problem presented by the Pali Canon. It is rather like the problem faced by the archaeologist who is presented with layers of rubble, all mashed up with the jungle that both preserves and exposes the layers beneath. First the jungle growth itself must be separated from the actual remains. Then the rubble must be excavated and related to other associated rubble, first, in relation to the topmost layer, and, then, in relation to the layers beneath, until the original structure is exposed and understood both in relation to itself and in relation to other structures, both before and after, both near and far. It is a four-dimensional puzzle, and with many missing pieces! It is the work of a lifetime and perhaps even many lifetimes. In Mrs Rhys Davids’ case, it was the work of 50 years and she was a pioneer.

All too commonly, for many professional academics, the work is too hard and they content themselves with superficial questions and superficial answers. Only a few scholars ever ask the truly essential questions, and in that asking, they achieve greatness. Many Buddhist scholars content themselves with questions of institutional organization and belief, social studies, and documented history. Pande specifically avoids this approach. Instead, he addresses the essential questions of doctrine that also concern Mrs Rhys Davids. He writes, “the subject-matter [of this book] is for the greater part of a literary and of a religio-philosophic character, but the treatment is intended to be primarily historical.” There are even deeper questions, chiefly of a theological character, which we will touch on at the end, especially the relationship between the historical method and the intrinsically a-historical character of dharma itself. Pande’s book was developed out of his Ph.D. thesis, which was accepted by the University of Allahabad (Uttar Pradesh, India) in 1947.

Pande’s opinion that the “major portion” of the Nikayas, constituting the second part of the Pali Canon, the Suttapitaka – the word simply means “group” or “collection” – existed during the 4th century BCE appears to be based on the assumption, not shared by Mrs Rhys Davids and now doubted by the majority of scholars, that the Buddha was born in 563 BCE. To adapt this statement to current scholarship we need to subtract about 83 years. We may say that the Nikayas existed no earlier than the late 4th century BCE and no later than the early 3rd century BCE, about a hundred years after the death of the Buddha (AB). He also agrees, with most scholars, that the Nikayas are substantially pre-sectarian, a characteristic that both Pande and Mrs Rhys Davids emphatically deny to the Abhidhamma. However, Pande agrees with Mrs Rhys Davids that “particular versions of the Nikayas may be expected to contain much editorial retouching, addition, and even expurgation.” Finally, the whole matter was written down in Sri Lanka during the first century BCE, about 300 to 400 years after the death of the Buddha.

A detailed analysis of the stratification of the Nikayas and the ideological implications of such a development goes far beyond the scope of the present talk. However, Pande agrees with Mrs Rhys Davids’ rejection of the idea that the rote lists and stock formulas that one finds throughout the Pali Canon, such as the Four Noble Truths, Twelve Nidanas, Eightfold Path, Three Characteristics, Three Refuges, etc., constitute the oldest stratum of Buddhist doctrine. The accounts of the Buddha’s ad hoc teaching in the Pali Canon itself argue against such a dogmatic and simplistic view. Unfortunately, this is mostly how professional academics especially and religionists, who prefer an explicit formula to the ambiguity of authentic spiritual expression, teach Buddhism today. Pande writes, “Formulae, technicalities and system appear relatively later with the growth of the ‘School’, of controversies, change in linguistic habits under the new impact, and, very often with the failing of inspiration.”

Of particular interest to us in the context of the present discussion is the test from vocabulary, in which, quoting T.W. Rhys Davids, “words used in one sense in the older strata of the literature [are used] in another sense in the later strata.”  Rather, quoting Mrs Rhys Davids this time, “it is a discerning of … ‘fragments’ as it were left-in [sic] a surrounding structure of ‘doctrine.’”  In particular, both Pande and Mrs Rhys Davids reject “increased ‘negativist’ emphasis and scholastic analysis and classification” as late characteristics. This is really the nub of Mrs Rhys Davids’ rejection of the Theravadin self-identification with the original teachings of the Buddha. Both Thomas and Caroline relate this to “the growing mode of the coenobitic monk and his peculiar ideals.” Pande refers to this as “dry-as-dust abstract scholastic formulae” and “a dry-as-dust catechistical style.” This change is also seen in the language of the Pali Canon.

Pande compares this developmental process to Gospel-criticism in Christianity, but there is one crucial difference. Whereas the Gospels occupy perhaps 300 pages at best, the Pali Canon in its entirety is 40 volumes in English translation. Any radical reconstruction of the philosophy of the Buddha based on a progressive process of reduction is still going to be far more complete than a similar reduction of the original teachngs of Jesus, which leaves us with a mere residue of obscure sayings. As an aside, the hypothesis that I have submitted in previous talks to this one, that the beginnings of Tantric literature are to be found in the Pali Canon, is referred to by Pande as the view of one Professor Bapat, and therefore has a scholarly precedent.

The views rejected as late by Pande include:

  • The number and classes of gods;
  • New mystic states or trances communicating with divine worlds;
  • Cosmological mythology;
  • The attitude towards the miraculous, including the birth miracles;
  • The apotheosis of the Buddha as non- or trans-human;
  • The degradation of the concept of Arhant;
  • The fanciful histories of previous and future Buddhas;
  • The concepts of the Bodhisatta and Paccekabuddha;
  • The change in the concepts of saddha (faith) and omniscience;
  • The extension of the practice of stupa worship; and
  • The “physiognomical dogma” of the 32 marks of a great man.

On the other hand, the “older style” is characterized by simplicity, spontaneity, and earnestness, and is more concerned with spiritual experience than philosophical hair-splitting. As in Christianity, many of the similes and parables are likely to have originated with the Buddha. The doctrines implicit in these carry particular weight. Clearly there is a book to be written here.

Theravadins should take little encouragement from the fact that this critique also extends to the Mahayana when they consider that it implies a strong criticism of ascetic monasticism and dogmatic scholasticism, the obsessive preoccupation with the Vinaya rules, oppositional sectarianism, and the familiar doctrines of anatta (no-self) and nirvana (extinction), the latter conceived as the goal of the Way. The Buddha refers to nirvana as the door of the Deathless. The Eightfold Path also comes in for criticism.  Mrs Rhys Davids suggests the original doctrine was simpler, alluding perhaps to the formulation of the path as higher thought, higher morality, and higher concentration, which is also preferred in the Mahayana. Even in the Pali Canon, the Buddha states that this threefold formulation supersedes the Noble Eightfold Path, as I have discussed in another talk.

Having summarized the conclusions of the first two chapters of Pande’s book, rather than continue in that vein, I would now like to go on to the subject proper of this talk, the thought of Mrs Rhys Davids herself on these and related topics. To this end, I would refer to her translation of the Dhammapada, specifically, to the introduction, in which she summarizes her own view, built up, as she says, over the course of 50 years of scholarly work.

The Dhammapada

Mrs Rhys Davids’ translation of and introduction to the Dhammapada was first published in 1931, when she was already 74 years of age, and therefore approaching the end of her life. I would like to begin with a consideration of this text as representative of her final mature point of view. It comes across almost as a kind of manifesto. The Dhammapada is the second book in the last section of the Suttapitaka, the Khuddaka Nikaya, meaning “small collection,” and is itself a summative work of Pali Buddhism. It is the most widely read and best-known Buddhist scripture. Its roots go back to the third century BCE, roughly 150 years after the death of the Buddha. It consists of 423 stanzas divided into 26 chapters on a wide variety of topics, including Earnestness, Thought, Evil, Punishment, Old Age, Self, The World,  The Buddha, Happiness, Pleasure, Anger, Impurity, The Just, The Way, The Downward Course, Thirst, The Mendicant, and The Brahmana. It is a valuable text for those who are interested in learning Pali. The edition of The Minor Anthologies of the Pali Canon, published by the Pali Text Society in 1996, includes the original Pali text as well as Rhys Davids’ translation.

Mrs Rhys Davids refers to her translation as being “on a new method” and declares that “I am mainly concerned with the historical importance of reconstructing original Buddhism – that is, Sakya, or the gospel of Shakyamuni – as a mission with a New Word to the Many, to the Man, and not to the monk as such, and the Dhammapada, for the most part, is a work of lay values.” Here Rhys Davids has already broken the ground by reorienting the Buddhist mission to the householder and not the monkish obsession that characterizes religious Buddhism today, which I have also demonstrated in my talks by referring to the persistent references, otherwise inexplicable, that pervade the Pali Canon of married householders, often with wives and children, achieving arhantship in  a relatively short time, without the necessity of formal ordination, as well as favourable references by the Buddha to marriage and love and his open tolerance of women.

The title of the Dhammapada, which Rhys Davids simply translates as “Verses on Dhamma,” might also be more poetically translated as “Footprints of Righteousness,” suggestive also of Laozi’s Tao Te Ching.

Mrs Rhys Davids’ central thesis concerning the Dhammapada is that “in most cases some portions of the book may take us back to the days of the first men of Sakya, or nearly so, while the rest is a collection of accretions, with evidence of much gloss and much editing, of a later date and dates.” She says, “in this main concern my object was primarily to point out, as far as might be, where this monastical editing was betrayed.” Note her use of the term Sakya, properly the name of the ancient Vedic clan (1500–500 BCE) to which the Buddha belonged, which she uses as a synonym for the original teachings of the Buddha himself.

In other talks, I have alluded to how the Buddha appeared initially as a reformer who sought to restore to a Brahman caste, corrupted by power and privilege, an original understanding of the spiritual quest that had been lost and replaced by empty rules, rituals, and beliefs. The Buddha compares his philosophy, which arose out of Upanishadic and ‘samanic’ understandings, to an overgrown path leading through a dense forest to a forgotten city. However, after the Buddha’s death this essentially positive philosophy, which Rhys Davids denominated by Sakya, was overcome by a monastic institution that became increasingly oppositional, leading to the recasting of the Buddha’s essentially positive spiritual philosophy in negative terms.

The original doctrine of Becoming, i.e., the “becoming” of the True Self through life, i.e., action (karma) and harmlessness or ethical conduct, rather than ritual, became transmogrified into the becoming of matter, the doctrine of anicca or Impermanence, which was to be rejected through the practice of asceticism (which the Buddha originally rejected) and selflessness (anatta). After shifting the emphasis of the spiritual path from Being to Becoming, the early monastics shifted it back to Being again. One can see this, as I have discussed in previous talks, in the First Buddhist Council, when the camp of Mahakassapa, the elder foremost in ascetic practices, prevailed against the camp of Ananda, the personal attendant of the Buddha, and was declared to be the leader of the sangha, contrary to the Buddha’s will that the sangha should have no leader other than the dharma. Under Mahakassapa, the sangha enforced all of the rules of the Vinaya, against the Buddha’s will that the minor and lesser rules should be abolished, and put the Vinaya in the first place vis-a-vis the suttas. He also rebuked Ananda for “persuading” the Buddha to allow the ordination of women. A rule for the nuns was then put in place that essentially subordinated the nuns to the monks, and ultimately led to the disappearance of the bhikkunisangha in most Buddhist countries – a situation that persists to this day and continues to be controversial, especially in Thailand.

With respect to “becoming,” Mrs Rhys Davids is of course alluding to bhava, the tenth nidana in the chain of conditioned arising (paticcasamuppada), which connects attachment (a.k.a. craving) and birth, in relation to bhavana. In the former sense, bhava is often also translated as “feeling, emotion, mood, devotional state of mind,” referring to the continuity of life and death, including transmigration. In the latter sense, bhava may also refer to the ecstasy, self-surrender, and channeling of emotional energies of bhakti, often translated in Buddhist texts, as Mrs Rhys Davids points out, by the bloodless term, “meditation.” Mrs Rhys Davids rejects the latter translation as a vapid obfuscation of the central significance of the original term, preferring terms such as “developing, cultivating, growth,” etc. Interestingly, she relates it to tillage, which was of course the original design of the Buddhist robe! It refers to access to jhana, achievement in iddhi, radiating amity (metta), and “making the Way to become.” For Mrs Rhys Davids, the latter is the original sense of the word, whereas the paticcasamuppada itself is another monkish confabulation.

Religious Buddhists may be surprised to learn that Mrs Rhys Davids also rejects the doctrine of anatta, no-self, as a late monastic recasting of the original dharma, but I have alluded in previous talks to the fact that the Buddha refers to the Self throughout the Pali Canon as often as he rejects it, a fact that in conjunction with common sense and the Buddha’s repeated reference to “deathlessness” led me to affirm the doctrine of the ‘mind stream’ (samtana). Mrs Rhys Davids clearly states that in the Dhammapada there is a higher and a lower self, the latter corresponding more or less to the ego, the former to the kinetic or dynamic selfhood that is referenced by the term ‘mind stream.’ I am constantly amused in gatherings of Western Buddhist converts, all excitedly vying to convince each other that they do not exist!

What is really being rejected here is the Atman, the classical Indian notion of a static self, the size of the thumb, lodged in the heart, which is “plucked out” by Yama, the Lord of Death, as in the story of Savitri and Satyavan, in favour of a conscious continuum or process – a ‘becoming,’ as Mrs Rhys Davids says. The asceticism, world-weariness, selflessness, and preoccupation with the world as “disease” (dukkha), with which Buddhism is broadly associated today, is, according to Mrs Rhys Davids, a later monastic aberration that came to overshadow the original teachings of the Buddha. “This great change in values will have come about gradually,” she states, “but it is a change we should look out for in every Pitaka document, betrayed more or less as going on, or as having gone on.” Mrs Rhys Davids’ hypothesis is a scientifically verifiable thesis that can be proved or disproved by a critical evaluation of the texts themselves. This was the purpose of her translation of the Dhammapada, published at the end of her life, perhaps as a kind of final testament, as it were, to do.

Inspired by Richard Garbe’s translation of the Bhagavadgita, in which he prints in smaller type those verses that are judged to have been compiled under later influences, Mrs Rhys Davids does the same for her translation of the Dhammapada, as evidence of her thesis. In the context of the Dhammapada, this devolves into two vogues: the vogue of the professional monastic and the vogue of the psychological trend of thought referred to as Samkhya, which together Mrs Rhys Davids sees as “more potent and sinister even than the Brahman.” I have mentioned Samkhya in another talk as the teaching of Kapila, the founder of Kapilavastu, the capital city of the Shakyans, where Gotama was raised. In other words, the process of devolution to which Mrs Rhys Davids alludes constitutes a re-Brahmanization of the dharma that began almost immediately after the Buddha’s death.

Similarly, in his Ph.D. thesis, published as Divine Revelation in the Pali Canon (1986), Dr. Peter Masefield declares that the Buddhadharma persisted for barely a hundred years before the lineage was lost, although for different reasons. Mrs Rhys Davids states that “there are unemphasized terms, phrases, sentences, surviving in [the Pitakas], left in as it were, which are on a different ‘plane,’ a plane which is in line with the immanent theism or Atmanism of Brahman teaching.” These passages have also been noticed by B.M. Barua and S. Mitra and compared with the Chandogya Upanishad, one of the oldest Upanishads, dating to before the 8th century BCE. Theravadins and Tibetan Buddhists alike will note with interest that Mrs Rhys Davids finds the Tibetan Dhammapada to adhere to an older tradition than the Pali version, based on the primacy that it gives to the chapter on The Way. Mrs Rhys David’s Pali training in no way prejudices her against the Mahayana, and in some ways accords with it, paradoxically, given her “return to origins” orientation. Mrs Rhys Davids finds the original teachings of the Buddha in the very passages which a neo-Theravadin Sri Lankan pedant such as Suwanda H.J. Sugunasiri rejects as “Hinduization,” based on a theory of Buddhism that is frankly racist.

Mrs Rhys Davids has identified sixteen characteristics according to which she has identified 123 poems, in whole or in part, out of 423 – about 29% of the whole, as being late additions to the original teachings. These criteria constitute a summary of the monastic pseudo-dharma, if I may use that term, according to Mrs Rhys Davids, which I propose to quote in full. It is not that they are actually false – an important point to note – but rather negative attestations to a truth that was originally expressed in more dynamic, positive terms – which Mrs Rhys Davids refers to as “the loyal echoes of a greater day.” It is, therefore, less a matter of substance than of tone.

Verses of a monastic outlook are such as –

  1. Deal disparagingly with the body, with the mind, with beauty; direct attention to the ugly; look on the mind (manas) as the ‘man,’ in the later Abhidhamma way.

  2. Are warnings against any love-relations (save that of friend).

  3. Speak disparagingly of the ‘masses,’ the many-folk.

  4. Hold up ‘the world’ and life in it as ‘ill,’ as, without exception, to be feared.

  5. Hold up life in any world as ‘ill.’

  6. Praise solitude as having value in itself.

  7. Abuse the concept of ‘becoming’ (bhava, as being merely material renewed with following decay).

  8. Show preoccupation with monkish interests, both in the cloister and in relation with the laity (gifts, merit, etc.).

  9. Hold up shrunken sceptical notions about the nature of the man.

  10. Conceive the Final Attainment as a waning and a passing out.

  11. See salvation in negative ideas, such as release, the void, ending, etc.

  12. Conceive evil influences as a person (Mara).

  13. Reveal an external, ‘scriptural’ meaning in ‘Dhamma.’

  14. Show a developed ecclesiastical trinity for worship: ‘Buddha, Dhamma, Sangha.’

  15. See a high worth in Buddhas and arahans as static, finished.

  16. Use (and frequently) a term of thought concentrated on evil: asava.

Interestingly, many of these are characteristics that the majority progenitors of the Mahayana, the-called Mahasamghikas, rejected in the minority Sthaviras, who became the progenitors of the Vibhajyavada sect, from which the original Theravadins split off in the first century BCE, especially the preoccupation with asceticism and suffering; monastic anti-worldliness and exclusive sense of superiority; misogyny; lack of compassion and interest in human affairs; submissiveness; fear of change, innovation, and creativity; negativity; pessimism; evil-mindedness; etc. – in short, all of the stereotypes commonly associated with “Buddhism” today. It is striking that we find the alternative, positive, life-engaging dharma pre-eminently in one person since the Buddha, and that is Padmasambhava, the Tantric adept who is credited with the Buddhist conversion of Tibet, whose books were so controversial that they were sealed by the Tibetan government, and are so still.


Richard Gombrich has suggested that the search for the historical Buddha through the application of Pali linguistics has “shot its bolt.” Instead, Gombrich’s approach is to study the Pali Canon in its entirety on rational principles, and to work out any issues that arise on first principles, including but not limited to Pali linguistics. I applied this methodology, for example, in my talk on “The Status of Women in Ancient India and the Pali Tradition,” in which I documented two entirely contradictory sets of statements concerning women. However, there is an even more significant theological issue relating to the historicist approach to dharma. First, the primary meaning of dharma – and this is also clear in the Pali Canon – is the truth or nature of reality itself, natural law, comparable to the old Vedic notion of ‘rta’ or cosmic order. The latter concept came to be replaced by the twin concepts of dharma and karma.

Only because dharma has this absolute character does it become the arbiter of human conduct, the “ought to be” in Mrs Rhys Davids terminology. Therefore, dharma in itself is a-historical. The Pali Canon also implies this in its account of the lineage of Buddhas that preceded Gotama the Buddha. All discovered essentially the same set of truths, the abandoned city in the forest referred to earlier, but the refrain of the Chronicle of Buddhas, the Buddhavamsa, that “all constructions are void,” reminds us that all expositions of dharma are themselves relative and contingent, mere skilful means (upaya), the utility of which depend on the environment. This is as true of the teachings of Gotama the Buddha as anything else.

The search for the teachings of the historical Buddha both does and does not have utility. The dharma is also continuously shaping itself to the contingencies of the time. The great task is not to “confuse the planes,” not to confuse the essential and the accidental. Ultimately, the dharma is cosmic. It is not limited to any particular time or place. There are infinite numbers and kinds of Buddhas, all different, all the same, on this plane and others, and on this planet and others. This is fundamental. The search for the historical Buddha is only a means to an end. It is not the end itself. This is why academic historicism, while a worthy and reputable exercise, is not in itself dharma, and why the Theravadin rejection of the Mahayana sutras, because they are a-historical, is not a dharmically valid argument. To put it another way, as I have in previous talks, non-historical and even mythological documents may also contain true and valid doctrines and insights.

Another reason why historicism must be rejected ultimately is the failure to recognize the relationship between axioms and implications, which relates to my statement about the dharma adapting itself to the time and place in which it manifests. Historicism and sectarianism both imply that the dharma is set in stone for all time, but a finite set of principles cannot possibly encompass all of the implications that can be developed out of them, any more than the seed contains the tree or the fruit that it becomes, except in potential. Axioms are, by definition, a subset of implications, the latter representing a potentially incalculable “set” of possibilities. Only the latter corresponds to dharma in its essence, and it transcends rational analysis and articulation precisely because it is infinite.

Therefore, true dharma cannot be reduced to an historical phenomenon, and to attempt to do so is itself a-dharmic and erroneous and therefore futile. This is the essential error of every religious, sectarian, nationalist, and rationalist system. Reality itself is not a system. Only dharma is coterminous with reality itself. Therefore, dharma can only ever be approximated. It can never be exhausted. It can never be “pinned down.” Just as a butterfly, chloroformed, killed, and pinned to a board on a wall by a collector, is no longer a living organism, so no exposition of principles is ever-living dharma. And yet the paradox is that without the exposition, there is no living dharma either, but only a chaotic cloud of confusion.

We will leave the last word to Mrs Rhys Davids herself: “In any corpus of ancient scripture we are in the presence of a corpse which, while it lived, came to take its shape as a changing, a growing thing.”


Havens, Teresina Rowell (1964). “Mrs. Rhys Davids Dialogue with Psychology (1893-1924).” Philosophy East and West. V.14, 51-58.

James, Jeanette (accessed 2014, Dec. 2). Papers of Caroline Rhys-Davids. MS 1082.

Neal, Dawn (2014). “The Life and Contributions of CAF Rhys Davids.” The SATI Journal: The Journal of the Sati Center for Buddhist Studies. 2, 15-31.

Pande, Govind Chandra (1997). Studies in the Origins of Buddhism. 4th rev. edition. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass. (Originally published 1995)

Peiris, William (1973). “Britain.” The Western Contribution to Buddhism, Chap. 2. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass.

Snodgrass, Judith (2007). “Defining Modern Buddhism: Mr. and Mrs. Rhys Davids and the Pali Text Society.” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East. 27:1, 186-202.


Gotama’s Quest: The Life of the Buddha

Presented to the members of the Buddha Center, Second Life on Saturday, July 5, 2014.



Part 1

Conception to Enlightenment

The Shakyan Republic

Gotama the BuddhaGotama, as he is consistently called all through the Pali Canon, referring to his family or clan name, was born in Lumbini, in what is now Nepal, about 25 km from the Indian border, in the traditional territory of the Shakyan tribe. “Shakya” means “capable, able.” The Shakyan region was an independent tribal confederacy, with its capital in Kapilavastu, but it was politically subject to Kosala, its powerful neighbour to the west, and some Buddhist texts refer to the Buddha as Kosalan. The Shakyans were notorious for their pride and love of independence. Kosala waged a war of genocide against the Shakyans towards the end of the Buddha’s life. Chinese pilgrims visiting the site centuries later described it as desolate. Kosala itself was subsequently annexed by the Magadha Empire. The language of the Pali Canon is sometimes described as Magadhan.

Gotama’s family were members of the prestigious Ikshsvaku dynasty, a.k.a. as the Suryavamsa or Solar Dynasty.

Manu, the first human being and legislator of mankind, was an ancestor of the Solar Dynasty, much as Moses was an ancestor to the Jews. In the Buddhist view, this dynasty was founded in prehistoric times by Maha Sammata. The texts say that the original government of the world was democratic (since there were no rulers yet), and Gotama’s father was an elected chieftain in a sort of aristocratic proto-democracy, not dissimilar from Socratic Greece, who was a contemporary of the Buddha. After regarding Suddhodhana as a monarch or an oligarch, scholars now see him as an elected chieftain. At the time of the Buddha, the fragile values of quasi-democracy coexisted with a world of aggressive hereditary monarchs and military dictators hungry to tax the new wealth of mercantilism, frequent wars of annexation, widespread lawlessness and brigandage, and terrible punishments for crimes, including mutilation, blinding, impaling, strangling, and beheading. Trade was extensive but travel was dangerous. At the time of Gotama, Brahmanism, which came from the west, had still not deeply penetrated north-east India, and the samana counterculture was widespread. Shakya itself did not have a caste system, although in countries where the caste system was established the Buddha is always identified as a member of the Kshatriya (Pali khattiya) or military caste that also constituted the political class.

The father of Gotama was Suddhodana. Suddodhana’s father was Sihahanu. Sihahanu’s father was Jayasena. Suddhodhana was known for his prowess in warfare and sword play. He was also known to be a just and righteous ruler.

The mother of Suddhodhana was Kaccana. She was a member of the Koliyan clan. The Koliyans ruled the region to the east of the Rohini River, whereas the Shakyas governed the west side.

The mother of Gotama was Maya. Her father, Suppabuddha, was the king of Devadaha (modern Butwal), located approx. 40 km northeast of Kapilvastu “as the crow flies.” Maya was Suddhodhana’s cousin. Suddhodhana had another wife, Pajapati, Maya’s younger sister, who raised Gotama after Maya’s death. Both Maya and Pajapati were the daughters of Suppabuddha.

The Shakyans and the Koliyans were both vassal states of the Kosala kingdom to the west. The Shakyans and Koliyans had intermarried between themselves since ancient times in order to maintain the purity of their blood lines, and were the two most prominent families in the region.

According to the dominant tradition, Suddhodhana and Maya lived together chastely for 20 years, at which time Maya became pregnant and gave birth to Gotama.

The Conception of the Buddha

Maya was the daughter of Suddhodana’s uncle, and therefore his cousin. Kapilavastu (probably present-day Tiraulakot), Lumbini (present-day Rumindei), where the Buddha was born, and Devadaha, are all located in the Rupandehi district of Nepal. Lumbini is 24 km southeast from the site of Kapilavastu (about 19 miles or 30 km by road) and 32 km southwest from Devadaha.

The third-century (BCE) brick-palace complex located at Tiraulakot is believed to be based on an original wood structure, and is 1,300 x 1,700 m square (about 546 acres). This accords well with the statement of the Chinese pilgrim Xuangang, who stated that the royal precinct of the city was 14 or 15 li in circumference (about 400 or 500 acres). An alternative site is Piprahwa, across the border in India, which seems to be less favoured by scholars.

Interestingly, Kapilavastu is named after its founder, the philosopher Kapila who lived 200 years earlier and is regarded as the founder of Samkhya. Like Kapila, the Buddha emphasized meditation as a technique for removing suffering, regarded the Vedic gods as subject to limitations and conditions, and disliked Brahmanic ritual and doctrines.

In accordance with the custom of the time, still practised in Nepal, Maya left her husband’s house late in her pregnancy to deliver at the house of her parents in Devadata. Although Maya was travelling by carriage, she was accompanied by an entourage, so it seems unlikely that she made better time than average walking speed. Assuming she covered 20 km per day, the trip would have taken roughly five days, or the better part of a week, but she never got to Devadaha.

Stopping in Lumbini, merely two days into her trip according to our estimate, it appears that Maya was overcome by the exertion, and in the heat of the afternoon she went into labour in a park of sal trees. Gotama was therefore born prematurely, despite the claim of the texts that Maya’s gestation period was exactly ten lunar months. Alternatively, Hajime Nakamura has suggested that Maya travelled back to Lumbini for a ritual purification in the baths there, but the texts clearly imply that Maya stopped at Lumbini en route to Devadaha. The texts also state that the sal trees came into bloom about this time, which suggests the month of March or April, not mid-May as popularly believed. Exhausted, Maya returned to Kapilavastu with her newborn son, Siddhartha. Assuming a due date in March, Gotama’s conception may be placed in June (the Indian month of Jyestha, associated with high summer– the time of traditional midsummer, a solar holiday that places his conception about the time of the summer solstice).

It is said that when she conceived, Queen Maya experienced a dream in which four spiritual beings (representing the four elements?) transported her to Lake Anotta, a mythical Himalayan lake, where she was ritually bathed and then impregnated through her side by a great white elephant.

This lake is now associated with Lake Manasarovar at the foot of Mount Kailash, located in mid-western Tibet just over the border from Nepal, north-west of Kapilavastu. This dream was held to portend the birth of a great being.

The Birth of the Buddha

When Gotama was born, Asita, a wandering hermit ascetic, predicted that Gotama would become a Buddha. Five days after the birth, at Gotama’s naming ceremony, seven Brahmans predicted that Gotama would become either a universal ruler or a universal teacher. However, Kondanna, the youngest Brahman there, alone predicted that Gotama would become a Buddha. These predictions appear to have been based on a combination of physiognomy and astrology. According to later tradition, Gotama was then given the name Siddatha, “wish-fulfilled” or “he who accomplishes the goal.” Two days later, Maya died.

A great man is supposed to manifest 32 significant bodily signs. Although some authors emphasize the supernatural character of these signs, most of them are not difficult to visualize. The bodily signs include flat feet; long-slender fingers; pliant hands and feet; fine webs on the toes and fingers (which in extreme cases exists as a medical condition known as syndactyly); large heels; arched insteps; athletic thighs; long arms; a small penis; dark, curly hair; soft, smooth, golden skin; rounded soles, palms, shoulders, and crown; a large, ample, muscular torso; erect and upright posture; full, round shoulders; white, even, close teeth; a large jaw; ample saliva; a long and broad tongue; a deep and resonant voice; deep blue eyes; long, thick eyelashes; a tuft of white hair between the eyebrows; and a large cranium.

Clairvoyants may also discern wheels on the soles of the feet, a ten-foot aura, and forty teeth – 8 more than what is usual for humans, but the maximum number for mammals. Despite these unusual characteristics, Gotama is described as not exceptional, though handsome, in appearance. There is a story in which a wandering ascetic met the Buddha in a barn one night. They spent the night talking together, but only in the morning did the ascetic realize with whom he was speaking. Although this is widely interpreted to mean that the physical appearance of the Buddha was not exceptional, it was night. Of course, the redactors of the Pali Canon in their enthusiasm generally exaggerate the wealth and power of the Buddha’s family, the beauty of the Buddha and his male monastics, and the size of the sangha. The Buddha was probably refined, slightly androgynous, and thoughtful in appearance. Given his military upbringing and later self-mortifications, he was probably physically fit and strong.

The Buddha’s Youth and Marriage

Suddhodhana wanted his son to become a world ruler and not a spiritual man, so from birth Gotama was raised in an atmosphere of opulence, as well as receiving the education proper to a member of the military caste. Gotama’s education appears in his interest in politics and his broad knowledge of social history and international matters.

As a young child, Gotama experienced a taste of realization while he was sitting under a rose-apple tree beside a field where his father was performing a ceremonial plowing. This early experience of meditation was crucial in his realization of enlightenment two decades later, as we shall see.

Gotama was extremely hedonistic, and lived for the four months of the rainy season in the female quarters, entertained by female musicians. This behavior was somewhat contrary to Indian norms, which valued chastity and manliness, leading to the accusation of effeminacy later on.

Subsequently he was married at the age of 16 (some sources say 19) to his cousin, Yasodhara (a.k.a. Bimba, Bimbadevi, Bhaddakacca, Bhaddakaccana, or Rahulamata), the daughter of Suppabuddha and Pamita, the sister of the Buddha’ s father. Yasodhara was the same age as Gotama. Gotama may have had two other wives too. The Tibetan Vinaya mentions Gopa and Mrigaja.[1]

Although the popular view is that Gotama abandoned his station, family, wife, and child spontaneously shortly after the birth of his son, Rahula (“fetter”), in disgust for a night of carousing, Rahula’s name itself suggests that Gotama’s decision was the result of a process of reflection. The Sarvastivadins have an alternative explanation of the meaning of the name Rahula, which is “eclipse,” but since Rahu, the eclipse deity, is also an ill omen, the implication is similar. The texts also refer to the bodhisattva’s progressive realization of the principles of interconnectedness (paticcasamuppada), including the five aggregates of the self; impermanence (anicca); and suffering (dukkha) before his renunciation. Gotama must have informed his parents about these feelings, because a sutta says that they wept and tried to convince him to stay. Therefore, he left home against his parent’s wishes, a violation of Vedic norms, which frowned upon renunciation by the young in any case.[2]

The Renunciation

Pandava CaveThe mainstream tradition has it that Gotama left his home at the age of 29, after 13 years of marriage, but there is some support in the suttas for the view that he was still a youth, “a boy in the first phase of life,” which would make him about 19 years of age according to the Vedic theory of the four stages of life. This tradition is preserved by the Nichiren tradition. According to this view, he attained enlightenment at the age of 30. However, most texts state that he attained enlightenment at the age of 35. Asians, however, count life as beginning at conception, not birth, and give their age accordingly, so allowance must also be made for this difference.

The immediate cause of Gotama’s renunciation was his realization of the universality of sickness and death. The Buddha says that this realization destroyed the vanity of his youth. Inquiring into the causes of this condition, the Buddha realized that we are all born into a dangerous and violent world. We compete to survive, and in the process we cause suffering and we suffer ourselves. This suffering is inherent in life itself and cannot be escaped. “Life eats life” is the original Vedic insight. Even if we succeed in realizing a life of relative happiness, we all grow old, suffer, and die. Nothing is permanent. Consequently, Gotama formulated the desire to attain “the unborn, unaging, unfailing, deathless, sorrowless, undefined cessation of bondage,” and became increasingly dissatisfied with the household life so that he named his only son, Rahula, “fetter.”

When Gotama left home, he abandoned his station, family, wife, and young child for a life of homeless wandering. He gave up his patrimony and possessions, shaved his hair, and exchanged his royal clothes for the ochre rags of a samana.

At first he lived in a cave on the eastern slope of the hill of Pandava, near Rajagaha in Magadha, and begged for his food on the streets of the city. This was the life of a samana, a homeless ascetic. By this time – roughly 450 BCE – the samana counterculture was already a century old. In a time of social fragmentation and spiritual and philosophical inquiry, the samanas were an established institution of northeast India. While not universally embraced, they were tolerated and often sought out for their insight, even in matters of secular policy such as war, much as they are today in India and Nepal.

Gotama’s Search

Gotama’s quest, traditionally stated to have taken six years, passed through three distinct stages before resulting in the enlightenment that he sought. He meditated alone in the forest, overcoming the emotion of fear. He studied meditation with two meditation masters, Alara Kalama and Udaka Ramaputta.

Finally, he spent an extended period with the Group of Five, practicing austerities. When that almost killed him, he was abandoned by his companions and settled down in the forest to meditate, once more alone.

Alara Kalama

Alara (Arada) Kalama was a Brahman hermit-saint who lived and taught a kind of proto-Samkhya yogic meditation near Rajagaha. After mastering the doctrine he proceeded to practice, and attained the plane of nothingness, the second highest plane of samsara. This was the highest state of consciousness that Alara had attained. Alara offered to accept Gotama as an equal partner, but Gotama was dissatisfied with this state and left Alara.

Udaka Ramaputta

Next Gotama studied under Udaka Ramaputta, a Jain hermit, saint, and yogic meditation teacher. Udaka was the son or disciple of Ramaputta. Under Udaka, Gotama attained the plane of neither perception nor non-perception, which Udaka himself had not yet attained. Udaka offered to make Gotama the head of his sangha, but Gotama was dissatisfied with this attainment and left Udaka.

Note that by moving from a Brahman to a Jain teacher Gotama was clearly moving away from Brahmanism, from astika (orthodox) to a nastika (heterodox) philosophical orientation.

The Group of Five

When Gotama left his home at Kapilavastu, Kondanna, the youngest Brahman who alone had predicted that Gotama would become a Buddha, also renounced the household life, accompanied by four others – Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahanama, and Assaji.

After he left Udaka, Gotama travelled to Uruvela (now known as Bodh Gaya) where he joined the group of five in the practices of extreme asceticism, including living and sleeping in charnel grounds, exposing the body to the elements, intense meditation, controlling and holding the breath, and near-starvation. A stock description of the practices of ascetics found frequently throughout the Pali Canon includes nakedness or rough clothing; rejecting conventions; licking one’s hands; not coming or stopping when asked; not accepting gifts or invitations; avoiding “pollution,” especially anything associated with the householder life, especially women and sex; eating next to no food; no meat; no alcohol; eating grass and dung; living only on windfalls; pulling out the hairs of one’s head and beard; standing or squatting continuously; sleeping on spikes; and frequent bathing [sic].

After several years of these practices, Gotama was on the verge of dying.

My body reached a state of extreme emaciation. Because of eating so little my limbs became like the jointed stems of creepers or bamboo; my backside became like a buffalo’s hoof; my backbone, bent or straight, was like corded beads; my jutting and broken rafters of an old house; the gleam of my eyes sunk deep in their sockets was like the gleam of water seen deep down at the bottom of a deep well.

One day, while sitting beneath a pipal (some sources say banyan) tree by the river Neranjara, near Uruvela, a girl, named Sujata, from Senani, the village across the river, came to offer some rice gruel to the tree spirit as thanks for answering her prayers for a husband and a son. Gotama accepted her offering, followed by a bath in the river. When his companions saw him thus eating, drinking, and consorting with a girl, they abandoned him, declaring that he had returned to the effeminate life of his youth.

Part 2

Enlightenment to Parinirvana


Having now rejected the meditations on nothingness and neither perception nor non-perception and the painful and self-destructive austerities of the Group of Five, Gotama cast his mind about for what to do. He recalled an experience that he had had as a child sitting under a rose-apple tree watching his father engage in a ceremonial ploughing. He recalled the sensation of bliss that he experienced then, and asked himself whether this pleasure might be the key to enlightenment? It appears from the texts that Gotama had previously rejected this experience because it was pleasurable, but now, he reasoned, the pleasure of meditation is not unwholesome. Then he realized that the pursuit of bliss is incompatible with bodily torment and emaciation, and resolved to regain his health.

Ironically, Gotama has come full circle – from a life of hedonism through a life of pain he now reconsiders his attitude to pleasure in a new light. So he took some boiled rice and bread. The texts present this process as virtually instantaneous, but after years of deprivation and abstinence it is clear that this must have taken some time. So he lived alone for some period of time beside the river Neranjara, meditating and begging for alms in Senani.

The night before he attained enlightenment, Gotama had five dreams: in which the earth was his couch and the Himalayas his pillow; a creeper grew out of his navel and stood touching the clouds; white grubs with black heads crawled up his legs from his feet to his knees and covered them; four birds of different colours flew to him from the four quarters and, landing at his feet, became white; finally, arising, he walked upon a huge mountain of dirt without being defiled. According to the texts, these dreams implied that he would become a World Teacher, teaching the Noble Eightfold Path, with many lay disciples [sic], that all the castes would become as one, and that he would live in the world but would not be defiled by it.

The next day, Gotama meditated as usual and attained the fourth jhana state, characterized by perfect equanimity with neither pleasure nor pain. Then, during the first third of the night, Gotama realized the truth of past lives. During the second third of the night, he experienced the “divine eye” and realized the truth of karmic cause and effect. Finally, during the third third of the night – for this night he did not sleep – Gotama realized perfect freedom from the three taints – sensual desire, being, and ignorance. At dawn, traditionally about 5 a.m., Gotama realized his enlightenment, and became a Buddha. According to tradition, this occurred during the night of the Full Moon in late April or May (Indian month of Vaisakha). Most modern scholars now think this occurred about 445 BCE.

According to the texts, the Buddha, as we will now call him, remained in a state of transcendent ecstasy for a full week, insentient to the world, seated cross-legged and motionless under the Bodhi tree. During the final night of the seven, the Buddha meditated on the doctrine of interconnectedness (paticcasamuppada) in forward, reverse, and forward and reverse order, and thus emerged from his trance. He remained in the vicinity of the Bodhi tree for another six weeks, for a total of seven weeks or 49 days.

First Sermons

After attaining enlightenment, the Buddha hesitated to teach, fearing that he would not be understood. But Sahampati, a Great Brahma, appeared to the Buddha and entreated him to teach for the salvation of the world and so that Sahampati himself could earn merit. The Buddha reflected that the dust of worldliness obscured the sight of some people less than others, and that he would teach for their benefit, knowing that the dharma would be lost on most people and, once articulated, fall into degeneration like all things.

The Buddha’s first thought was to teach Alara Kalama and Udaka Ramaputta, his first teachers, but when he learned of their death he resolved to travel to the Deer Park in Isipatana, outside Benares. En route he met a wandering ascetic in the road, named Upaka. Upaka was an ajivika, a heterodox philosophy characterized by a strict fatalism in which past karma could not be destroyed. Future karma was also fixed, but could be accelerated by ascetic practices similar to those practiced by the Jains, and thus could be used to achieve a state of emancipation. Like the Jains, some Ajivikas went about naked. They were also anti-caste and “a-theistic,” but some worshipped Shiva and Vishnu. Voluntary suicide was also practiced. The ajivikas reached the height of their popularity during the second century CE, but went into decline and by the 13th century had almost completely disappeared. Upaka, impressed by the Buddha’s physical appearance, asked the Buddha which teacher or teaching he followed. When the Buddha told him that he was self-enlightened, Upaka replied, “Would that it were so,” and passed on. So the Buddha’s first attempt at conversion had failed.

When the Buddha arrived at Benares, the Group of Five looked at him askance, but there was something about him that caused them to think twice, and they allowed him to sit with them. At first they were suspicious, but as he spoke the dawn of realization arose in their minds and they were converted. Kondanna was the first to attain arhantship, after meditating for five days – two days less than the seven days that is usually prescribed as the minimum requirement.

The first sermons of the Buddha included “Setting Rolling the Wheel of Dharma” and “The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic.” In “Setting Rolling the Wheel of Dharma,” the Buddha declares the doctrine of the Middle Way, which he identifies with the Noble Eightfold Path. He then declares the Four Noble Truths and the three phases of penetration – knowing, abandoning, and realizing, including maintaining the realization of them.

In “The Discourse on the Not-self Characteristic,” the Buddha declares the doctrines of non-self-identity (anatta), impermanence (anicca), and dispassion or detachment, which arises spontaneously as a result of the realization of the first two principles. As a result of the last discourse, all of the members of the Group of Five became liberated arhants.

The Creation of the Sangha

The first person outside the Group of Five to accept the new teaching was an ordinary merchant’s son named Yasa. Yasa experienced a spiritual awakening in the middle of the night and, overcome by disgust for the householder life, left his home near Isipatana. He came upon the Buddha in Deer Park, who, having awoken early (insomniacal?), appears to have been practising walking meditation in the open. Yasa was distraught. The Buddha taught him dharma. Although he had a wife, Yasa must have been young, as his father the merchant came looking for him. Yasa became the first person outside the Group of Five to join the sangha. In addition, he became the personal attendant of the Buddha, and his father became the first householder to accept the dharma. Subsequently, both the merchant’s and Yasa’s wife also converted, becoming the first female adherents of the Buddha. This story appears in the Vinaya, and contradicts the story in the suttas, now regarded as invented by many scholars, in which Ananda persuades the Buddha to ordain his mother’s sister and his step mother, Prajapati, against his better judgment. I discussed this issue in my talk on “The Status of Women in Ancient India and the Pali Tradition.” The dharma spread, starting with four prominent merchant families in Benares, friends of Yasa. At that time there was no ordination formula. The Buddha simply said to the candidate, “Come, the dharma is well proclaimed. Lead the holy life for the complete ending of suffering.” Also through Yasa, fifty more joined the sangha, until the number of monastics totalled 61. Interestingly, the Vinaya seems to regard everyone who joined the sangha at that time as an arhant. Having taught them the dharma, the Buddha sent them out to wander and bring the good news of the dharma to all those able to receive it. The Buddha himself went to a place called Senanigama in Uruvela.

Soon so many were seeking ordination that it became burdensome for the Buddha to receive the candidates himself, and he authorized the monastics to admit applicants to the sangha by the simple formula of Taking Refuge in the Dharma (later elaborated into the Triple Jewel, consisting of Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, or, in the Tibetan tradition, Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, and Lama). Thus, the Buddha established the sangha as a decentralized order of monastics, quite unlike the hierarchical system that we find in most Buddhist organizations today.

The Fire Sermon

Fire SermonSome time after his enlightenment, the Buddha travelled to Gayasisa (near Gaya), where he addressed the monastics in the famous “Fire Sermon.” The Buddha famously declares that “all is burning” with the cravings of desirous attachment. This is a disease for which he prescribes “delivery from the taints by not clinging” as the cure. Thence he travelled to Rajagaha, the capital city of Magadha, where the First Buddhist Council would be held 40-odd years later.

Here King Bimbisara honoured the Buddha and presented the sangha with the gift of the Bamboo Grove, a place described as close to the city and accessible, but lonely, quiet, and hard to find, for the Buddha and his monks to spend the rainy season together. But the Buddha was not popular everywhere. Some people complained that the Buddha was promoting childlessness and widowhood and obliterating the clans. Most of the time the monastics lived in woods, at the foot of trees, under overhanging rocks, in ravines, hillside caves, charnel grounds, jungle thickets, in the open, or on heaps of straw.

Seven years after Gotama’s renunciation, so about a year after the enlightenment, the Buddha’s father, Suddodhana, heard of his son’s success and sent messengers inviting him to return to Kapilavastu. Many of these messengers joined the sangha. According to tradition, he converted his father to the dharma, who died an arhant some four years later. Therefore, it appears that his father was about 60 when he died (20 + 29 + 7 + 4). The Buddha also converted his half-brother, Nanda, on the same day he was to be married. The texts say that the Buddha lured him away and that Nanda joined the sangha more out of regard for the Buddha than personal inclination, and continued to cling to luxury even as a monastic.

This was also the famous occasion on which Pajapati sent Rahula to the Buddha to ask him for his patrimony. This is often misinterpreted to refer to the crown of kingship, but this interpretation is not feasible since the Shakyans elected their chief (and the chief elected subsequent to Suddhodhana does not appear to have been related to the Gotamas). The Buddha, however, directed Sariputta to ordain Rahula as a novice monk. Presumably Rahula’s ordination preceded the rule that a novice must be 15 years old.

The Buddha returned to Kapilavastu four years later, on the occasion of his father’s death. It was also at this time that the Buddha formally established the order of nuns, the bhikkunisangha, although it is clear from other texts, already cited, that female monastics were admitted to the sangha since the beginning. This has led most scholars to doubt that story that the Buddha did not want to establish a female monastic order and had to be persuaded to do so by Ananda, responding to the entreaty of Pajapati, who made the Buddha admit that women were equally capable of attaining nirvana as men. Scholars also doubt the misogynistic diatribes that mar the texts of the Pali Canon as the inventors of anonymous male redactors, as I have discussed in my talk, “The Status of Women in Ancient India and the Pali Tradition.”

The Life of the Sangha

The sangha expanded, including monastics who never knew the Buddha, as monastics ordained new monastics in an ever-expanding circle. Of course, such expansion also meant that not all monastics were worthy. There were many reasons that one might want to join the sangha. But through the practices of dharma talk, uposatha, and the rains retreat, the sangha retained its coherence for at least a hundred years after the Buddha’s passing on. The Majjhima Nikaya preserves a nice description of the daily life of the sangha:

Lord, as to that, whichever of us returns first from the village with alms food gets the seats ready, sets out the water for drinking and for washing and puts the refuge bucket in its place. Whichever of us returns last eats any food left over if he wishes; otherwise he throws it away where there is no grass or drops it into water where there is no life. He puts away the seats and the water for drinking and for washing. He puts away the refuse bucket after washing it, and he sweeps out the refectory. Whoever notices that the pots of drinking water or washing water or water for the privy are low or empty sees to them. If any are too heavy for him, he beckons someone else by a sign of the hand and they move it by joining hands. We do not speak for that purpose. But every five days we sit out the night together in talk on the Dhamma. It is in this way that we dwell diligent, ardent and self-controlled.

In a society being wrecked by war, it is easy to understand how such simple austerity may have been attractive to many, not so dissimilar from our own time.

Nevertheless, the sangha was not universally popular; many people accused the Buddha of being against the Vedic norms of procreation, marriage, and family. The rule of chastity was especially hard to bear for many, as witnessed by numerous offences and subsequent rules for various sexual infractions recorded in the Vinaya. The Buddha’s popularity with the political warlords of the time varied constantly, requiring the Buddha to move from place to place. At least two schisms broke out, the more serious one led by Devadatta, the brother of Buddha’s wife, Yasodhara, and a cousin of the Buddha. The “schisming” and scheming became so intolerable that the Buddha withdrew into seclusion on more than one occasion, preferring to live alone in the jungle with a tusker elephant.


Devadatta was a Buddhist monk, cousin, and brother-in-law of the Buddha, and brother of Ananda. Devadatta was a Koliyan. He parted from the Buddha’s following with five hundred other monks to form their own sangha. Most of these are said to have been Shakya clan relatives of both Devadatta and Siddattha. Devadatta became obsessed with his own worth. He began to have thoughts that he should lead the Sangha, not the Buddha. Shortly thereafter, Devadatta asked the Buddha to retire and let him take over running the sangha. The Buddha retorted that he would not even let his trusted disciples Sāriputta or Moggallāna run the sangha, much less one like him, “who should be vomited like spittle.”[3] The Buddha gave a special act of publicity about him. He warned the monks that Devadatta had changed for the worse. Seeing the danger in this, Devadatta approached Prince Ajatasattu and encouraged him to kill his father, the good King Bimbisara; meanwhile, Devadatta would kill the Buddha. Devadatta then tried to kill the Buddha himself by throwing a rock at him from above, while the Buddha was walking on the slopes of a mountain. As this also failed, he decided to get the elephant Nalagiri drunk and sic the enraged elephant on the Buddha while the Buddha was on alms round. However, the power of the Buddha’s loving-kindness (metta) was so great that it overcame the elephant’s anger. Devadatta then decided to create a schism in the order. He collected a few monastic friends and demanded that the Buddha accede to the following rules for the monks: that they should dwell all their lives in the forest, live entirely on alms obtained by begging, wear only robes made of discarded rags, dwell at the foot of a tree, and abstain completely from fish and flesh. The Buddha allowed the monastics to follow all of these except the last if they so wished. The Buddha refused to make any of these rules compulsory, however, and Devadatta went around blaming him, saying that he was living in abundance and luxury – similar to the accusation made by the Group of Five before the Buddha’s enlightenment. Devadatta then decided to create a schism and recite the training rules (patimokkha) apart from the Buddha and his followers, with five hundred newly ordained monks. The Buddha sent his two chief disciples, Sariputta and Moggallana, to bring back the erring young monks. Devadatta thought they had come to join his sangha. He asked Sariputta to give a dharma talk, then fell asleep. When he awoke, he discovered that the chief disciples had persuaded the young monks to return to the Buddha.

The Last Years and Parinibbana

ParinirvanaAs the Buddha approached the age of 80, his health began to decline. He describes his complexion as no more clear and bright, and his body as flaccid, wrinkled, and bent forward, with changed senses. He complains of back aches. The Buddha’s former personal attendant, Sunakkhatta, was going about attacking the Buddha’s dharma as mere rationalism and deriding his spiritual attainments. To make matters worse, his old friend, King Pasenadi of Kosala, had died after visiting the Buddha. Pasenadi’s son, Vidudabha, used this visit as a pretext for staging a coup. Also, his own people, the Shakyans, were slaughtered by King Vidudabha of Kosala after Vidudabha learned that his mother was a Shakyan slave. This wiped out most of the Buddha’s own people.

In his 80th year, the Buddha felt that his death was imminent. He set out the rules whereby the sangha should be governed following his death – to hold large and frequent meetings; to assemble and disperse in concord; to do their duty as members of the sangha in concord; to keep the rules of the sangha without adding or subtracting anything, subject to the proviso that the minor and lesser rules may be abolished; to honour seniority; to avoid craving; to live in the forest; and to maintain mindfulness, each one for himself or herself.

The Buddha proclaimed a sermon, entitled “The Mirror of the Dhamma,” in which he declares that perfect confidence in the Buddha, the Dhamma, and the Sangha, combined with perfect virtue, guarantees immortality.

It was during the rainy season at a place called Beluvagamaka that a severe sickness came upon the Buddha with violent and deadly pains. After recovering, he begins to prepare Ananda for his inevitable death. During this time the Buddha’s two foremost disciples, Sariputta and Moggallana, the arhants foremost in wisdom and spiritual powers respectively, also died. Finally the Buddha came to the Capala Shrine in Vesali, where he informed Ananda of his intention to die in three months. For the next three months the Buddha continued to wander, visiting the sangha in various places and giving final dharma teachings. Finally he came to Pava, to the park of Cunna the goldsmith’s son, who invited him to the Buddha’s infamous last meal. This was a meal of sukara-maddava. Some say that this was a dish of fatty pork, translated by such phrases as “pig’s delight” or “hog’s mincemeat” (literally it may be translated as “soft” or “mild pig”). Others say it was a rice dish prepared with a special kind of mushroom, truffle, or bamboo shoots. Other’s believe it was a medical preparation, designed to cure the Buddha of his illness. Still others suggest that it was poison, perhaps an assassination attempt. No one has suggested the possibility that it was suicide, so far as I know, but in view of the Buddha”s prediction that he would die in three months, that he was already suffering, and that he told Ananda that he could live longer if he chose, this also seems to be possible. Whatever it was, it disagreed violently with the Buddha, who directed that it be buried.

Departing from the meal, the Buddha collapsed and, overcome by thirst, drank questionable water from a stream nearby. Refreshed, the Buddha was able to make it to the River Kakuttha, in which he bathed and from which he drank, and went to a mango grove. Here he lay down on a robe spread on the ground, on his right side. After some time he got up and continued on to the Mallians’ sal tree grove on the turn into Kusinara, on the further bank of the Hirannavati River. Here he lay down on his right side between two sal trees. The Buddha gave Ananda advice about the disposition of his remains and places of pilgrimage. The texts portray the Buddha engaging in dharma talk right up to the end. Finally, he instructs the monastics to take the dharma and the discipline as their teacher in the Buddha’s absence. The Buddha declared that after his death, the sangha should be based on seniority. He states that the sangha may abolish the lesser and minor rules of the Patimokkha. His last words were: “Indeed, bhikkhus, I declare this to you. It is in the nature of all formations to dissolve. Attain perfection through diligence.” Then the Buddha fell into a coma and died. The texts say that the sal tree flowered prematurely. This suggests late winter, i.e., late February, contrary to the unlikely tradition that puts the birth, enlightenment, and parinibbana of the Buddha all in May.

Dr. Mettanando Bhikkhu, a medical doctor, has argued at some length in his paper, “Did Buddha die of mesenteric infarction,” that the account of the Pali texts is consistent with this diagnosis, a common disease of the elderly in which blood supply to the bowel is restricted.

The First Council

MahakassapaThe First Buddhist Council was called together shortly after the Buddha’s death by Mahakassapa, who was regarded as foremost in asceticism, despite the fact that Buddha said that the sangha should have no leader other than the dharma. Presumably, Mahakassapa also brought an ascetic orientation to the council and, as with all organizations, had both supporters and detractors. Indeed, it is clear from the Cullavagga that the council was sponsored by Mahakassapa’s group, and that others were excluded (see I.B. Horner, trans., The Book of Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka) (London: Luzac, 1952; rpt. 1963), Vol. 5, p. 395, n.1). The First Buddhist Council was held during the rainy season three months after the Buddha’s death.

Since the rainy season retreat begins in June-July, it seems likely that the Buddha died in February or March, which is consistent with the statement that the sal trees between which the Buddha died bloomed prematurely. I have already talked about how the arhants at this council castigated Ananda for convincing the Buddha to ordain women and for failing to clarify which were the major and which were the minor rules of the Vinaya. Indeed, so deep was the misogyny of the arhants of this council that Ananda was castigated for allowing women to view the Buddha’s body after his death, which (they claimed) was defiled by their tears (op. cit., pp. 400f.). Presumably, Ananda too had his supporters and detractors, so we see here how the politics of the First Buddhist Council may have played out. It is an open question whether all the monastics present at the First Council were men. Dr. Chatsumarn Kabilsingh, in her article, “The History of the Bhikkuni Sangha,” argues that female monastics were also present.

If you are interested in learning more about the First Buddhist Council in the primary sources, you can read the 11th chapter of the Cullavagga in the Vinaya section of the Pali Canon here:


1. The Buddhacarita (see n. 2) mentions “wives” (5:41).

2. The Buddhacarita (Acts of the Buddha), the first full biography of the Buddha, a post-canonical Sanskrit poem written in the early 2nd century, about 150 years after the Pali Canon was committed to writing (its author, the Mahasanghiika ascetic Asvaghosa, lived from 80 to 150 CE), but clearly incorporating earlier traditions, states explicitly that Gotama did not renounce the home life for some time after the birth of Rahula (2:54) and asked his father for permission to leave the home life, which he refused (5:28).

3. If the Buddha stated that he would not allow his foremost disciples to lead the sangha, it seems unlikely that he would have allowed Mahakassapa, the third most trusted disciple, to do so either. This refutes the claim that the Buddha implicitly appointed Mahakassapa to be the future leader of the sangha by exchanging robes with him, especially since the Buddha said the sangha should have no leader other than the dharma itself.


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Horner, I.B.., trans. (1963). “Cullavagga.” The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-Pitaka). London: Luzac. Vol. 5. (Originally published 1952)
Kabilsingh, Chatsumarn (accessed 2014, Oct. 28). “The History of the Bhikkhuni Sangha.”
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