The birth of the historical Buddha and the Four Sights


For AO1 you need to know:

  • Buddhists approaches to understanding the birth of the historical Buddha
  • The biographical impact of the Four Sights and their relation to the three marks of existence.

For AO2 you need to be able to debate:

  • What is the importance of the biography of the historical Buddha for Buddhists today.
  • The relative significance of the different ways of interpreting/understanding the biography of the Buddha.

Buddhists approaches to understanding the birth of the historical Buddha

A thousand years after the world has lost the Dhamma, the Buddha decides to re-enter the world. The Buddha selected queen Maya because of her purity. Maya, Siddhartha’s mother, had a dream that a white elephant entered her womb through her side, indicting pregnancy.

As was standard practice, she set off for her parents’ house to give birth. Her husband Suddhodana sent soldiers ahead to clear the road and set others to guard her as she was carried in a decorated palanquin. She left Kapilavatthu. The procession passed a garden called Lumbini Park, and Maya asked to stop. She rested, leaning on one of the Sala trees, and gave birth to the baby from her side.

That the Buddha was born from her side indicates karmic purity. His being born under a tree resonates with the imagery of the tree under which the Buddha discovered enlightenment and the trees between which he one day died. This implies his harmony with all forms of life.

The birth took place on a full moon (which is now celebrated as Vesak, the festival of the Buddha’s birth, awakening and death).

According to the textual traditions, the baby walked seven steps forward and at each step a lotus flower appeared on the ground. He turned to all corners of the universe and announced: “I am chief of the world, this is the last birth. There is now no more coming to be.”

Asita (holy man) recognized that he was the Buddha and cried from happiness. A prophecy was made that he would be a wheel turner, meaning someone who brought great change to the world, either through becoming a military leader or a holy man. His father Suddhodana preferred the military option and as a result, tried to make sure that his son would never be tempted to leave the palace, by giving his son everything he could ever want within the palace walls.

Hagiography and myth

Hagiography means a religious biography which is not historical fact but an idealised story designed to bring out the significance of what the person represents to the religion. Paul Williams claims that the life-story of the Buddha is not a historical narrative but a hagiography, which is how it should be read. Myths are events which are of questionable accuracy, often because they involve the supernatural. The presence of myth adds to the validity of reading a story as a hagiography.

The Buddha said “who sees the Dhamma, sees me, and who sees me, sees the Dhamma”. This suggests that the Buddha should not be understood as a historical figure but as an exemplification of his teachings.

Hagiographic/mythic elaborations on the story show the way in which this figure was perceived by the people that remembered him.

The story is archetypal and patterned on other stories of the birth of great leaders.

The biographical impact of the Four Sights and their relation to the three marks of existence

Raised in a life of luxury, Siddhartha had never experienced or witnessed suffering. One day he became curious about the world outside the palace.

Why did the Buddha get a curiosity to see the outside world? He had every conceivable pleasure available to him. Some think this symbolises the fact that hedonism is ultimately unsatisfying after a while.

Siddhartha asked his charioteer Channa to take him outside and this was when he saw the four passing sights. He saw an old man, and asked his Channa whether this would happen to him, to which he was told yes. The same happened again with sickness and death. Finally Siddhartha saw a holy man who had no luxury whatsoever yet seemed to be in a state of peace and detachment.

The four signs as a whole symbolise the Buddha’s awakening to the problem of dukkha, and are thus an important way of indicating the beginning of the Buddha’s journey to enlightenment.

These four signs demonstrate the three marks of existence and so demonstrate the key factors the Buddha was addressing in his later teachings. The old man represented Anicca (impermanence), the sick person represented suffering (Dukkha) and the dead person represented Anatman (no-permanent-self).

The sight of the renouncer raised the Buddha’s awareness that there might be an answer to the problems demonstrated by the other three sights.

The importance & relative significance of different ways of understanding the life of the Buddha

Ehipassiko (come and try). The Buddha did not instantly figure out enlightenment and the Dharma, he made mistakes and only discovered the path through experiments, first with luxury and then with asceticism, before finding the middle way. Buddhism is therefore not based on faith, but personal testing. His life was a series of experiments which he tested by his personal experience. This suggests that the historical interpretation of the Buddha’s life means that Buddhists should not just accept his teachings on faith, but test and try them out for themselves to see if they work.

The Buddha likened his teaching a raft. To cross a turbulent river, we may need a raft. When built, we single-mindedly and with great energy make our way across. Once across we don’t need to carry the raft around with us. The teachings are tools not dogma. This suggests the most important thing is getting to the other shore; nirvana.

This suggests that the Dharma is a useful tool but if it is seen as more than that, there is a danger of ‘grasping/craving’ it. The Buddha’s seems to be recommending the same path of personal experimentation he took, even for his teachings. This suggests that the Dhamma is of equal value to the life of the Buddha in that neither have any intrinsic value. It is only insofar as something leads one along the path to awakening that it has value.

The Buddhist approach to the human experience is therefore arguably scientific and should be approached historically because it’s based on observation, trial and error.

In the Kalama Sutra the Buddha claims we should not believe a teaching just because we have repeatedly heard it, nor because it is traditionally believed, nor because it is in scripture, but only when we have observed ourselves that it leads to benefit and happiness: “then and only then enter into and abide in them”.

However – that a teaching brings benefit and happiness is not a scientifically valid reason for thinking it is actually true. Science is concerned with what is true about reality, but the Buddha seems only concerned with which beliefs about reality cause happiness. Maybe this is the only ‘truth’ the Buddha was interested in though. The truth about what teachings bring benefit and happiness and reduction of suffering. The parable of the poison arrow suggests this. However, scientifically speaking that is only part of the truth, not the full scientific truth. Perhaps the mythological interpretation is more valid, therefore.

Walpola Rahula wrote a book called “What the Buddha taught” in which he spends only one page describing the Buddha’s life. He claims that the Buddha attributed all of his spiritual realisations and achievements to human effort and intelligence. This suggests that the importance of the Buddha was that he was a human being whose achievements are thus within the boundary of human ability. Rahula was a Theravada Buddhist, which is a school that focuses more on the teachings the Buddha made while alive.

Mahayana Buddhists see the Buddha as having three bodies. His earthly body was one, but he also had a heavenly or celestial body, transcendent and made of pure light, and a truth body which indicates his embodiment of nirvana. For Mahayana Buddhists, the story of the Buddha’s birth and its supernatural imagery might therefore be taken more literally because it fits with their metaphysical views which extended beyond the Theravada view of reality.

However, few Buddhists would insist on a fundamentalist/literalist interpretation. It is more that ‘questioning’ the story would not be seen as skilful or useful on the path to enlightenment. For many, the story does not have historical importance. It does not matter whether the Buddha actually lived or not, let alone whether the stories about him are ‘true’ or not. The important thing is that the dharma exists and even that only has importance for helping you along the path to enlightenment.

Paul Williams points out that to never see old age, sickness or death is “impossible”, which shows that the story of the Buddha’s life should not be seen as historical. However, it shows the value of viewing it as hagiography, because it portrays the idea of the Buddha being raised to “radically misperceive things”, which is the general human condition Buddhism seeks to address.

The Caste system gives specific roles to the lowest castes for dealing with pollution so that higher castes did not see it and are polluted by it which may be why the Buddha (as a member of a higher caste) may not have witnessed illness and death. He was also raised in an extremely particular circumstance within a palace of a King. It’s not impossible that he was never allowed to see sickness, old age or death.

Paul Williams argues that Buddhism begins with the Dhamma, and the life of the Buddha is only a useful teaching aid of the Dhamma. It is following the Dhamma which brings about enlightenment, not the Buddha.

Without such teaching aids as the Buddha’s life, the Dhamma might never be properly understood however. Enlightenment is indeed the most important goal, but without the life of the Buddha as a role model of a human who achieved enlightenment to inspire people, that goal might not be reached. So, the life of the Buddha is equally important.

The story of the Buddha is just one useful way of communicating aspects of the dharma, the meaning is more important than whether the content is historically factual. This is because Buddhism does not depend on the historical truth of the Buddha’s life. It only depends on the efficacy of the teachings.

Some elements of the life story of the Buddha might be taken more literally than others however, for instance for some (but not all) Buddhists the Awakening of the Buddha is a historical fact. While it’s true that Buddhism does not depend on the historical truth of the Buddha’s life, the fact that a mere human was able to achieve enlightenment does seem important because it shows that it is a path anyone can take.