Buddhism for the Beginner - Part 3

20 November 2020

Buddhism for the Beginner - Part 3

If Buddhists believe in rebirth, does that mean the Buddha had past lives, too?

Yes of course! They function as core teaching stories in the Buddhist scriptures.

According to Buddhist teaching, all beings cycle continually through one lifetime after another before developing to the point where they can reach enlightenment. The Buddha was no different, although the stories of his past lives, known as the Jataka tales, indicate a pretty remarkable being.

In the 547 story-poems about his past lives that are collected in the Pali canon, which includes some of the earliest Buddhist scriptures we know, the Buddha takes birth as various kinds of humans (ranging from murderers to sages to a princess), a myriad of animals (elephants, deer, monkeys, birds etc.) and numerous deities and metaphysical beings (a tree sprite and the lord of gods, for starters). The tales are full of crafty criminals, evil seducers, and benevolent kings.

Each story functions as a teaching about selflessness, compassion, determination, wisdom, or some other virtue that the Buddha had to perfect on the path to his enlightenment. In many of the tales in which he is born as an animal, he offers up his own body as food to a human in need or in order to save the life of another animal. In one of the most famous, he gives his body to a starving tigress about to eat her cubs. In another, he is a rabbit who throws his body on a fire in order to feed a hungry mendicant in the forest. The beggar turns out to be the god Sakka, who then marks the moon with the image of a rabbit to commemorate its generosity.

Over the centuries, the Jataka tales melded with folk stories from various cultures where Buddhism took hold, begetting more tales about the Buddha’s past lives. Some tales even overlap with stories known from the Hindu Panchatantra or with Aesop’s fables. The Jataka tales have been illustrated in paintings and sculpture from all across the Buddhist world.

Why are there so many different kinds of images of the Buddha?

Because early representations in wood could not be preserved and many later works have been destroyed over time, we have no way of knowing how many images have been created of the Buddha. The ones we do know - created in stone or wood, on paper or cloth - range from countless depictions of a serene, meditating Buddha, eyes shut, lips gently curved in a smile - to the emaciated Buddha-to-be practicing austerities.

The Buddha is believed to have told his followers that they should not rely on images or iconography to inspire their spiritual practice - a grass mat and the shade of a tree were all that was needed to pay homage to his example and meditate. But soon after his death, disciples began incorporating symbols of his teaching into Buddhist religious life, as objects of inspiration and veneration.

The stupa (a structure or building in the abstract shape of the meditating Buddha); a dharma wheel symbolizing the Buddha’s teaching and the eightfold path; and a lotus flower signifying a purified mind were among some of the earliest symbols used by the Buddha’s followers. Representations of the Buddha’s footprint carved in stone became a prominent representation of the Buddha’s impact and teaching and were considered to be like relics of his body.

It wasn’t until about the first century that overt images of the Buddha were created—many inspired by the Hellenistic sculptural tradition in parts of India and present-day Pakistan and Afghanistan that were under Greek political influence. As Buddhism spread north and south from India, images of the Buddha, his enlightened disciples, and his life stories were increasingly incorporated into the art and cultural forms of the host regions.

In Tibetan Buddhist art, religious scrolls, or thangkas, were painted with images of buddhas, bodhisattvas, and sages, as well as deities and beings that may represent guides or helpers or symbolize aspects of the Buddha’s and the follower’s spiritual journey.

And in Thailand, Burma (Myanmar) and other parts of Southeast Asia, sculptural Buddha images proliferated. Temple altars in the region are packed with donated Buddha figures, because contributing a Buddha to the monastic community is considered a meritorious act that will improve the giver’s karma.

Was the Buddha a god?

In a famous story from early Buddhist scripture, a man asked the Buddha if he was a god. No, he said. “Then what are you?” the questioner asked. “I am awake,” he replied.

Today, Buddhists often point to this story to explain that, they don’t worship the Buddha as a god or some kind of divine messenger. Instead, they say, he was a human being who awakened and attained enlightenment through his own efforts. The Buddha images on altars are symbols of the enlightened state and the Buddha’s teachings. When Buddhists bow to the Buddha they are not worshipping a god but paying respect to the Buddha’s example and teachings.

There is much in early scripture to support this view. The last words of the Buddha recorded in the Pali canon have been translated many ways, but in all translations the Buddha advises the monks attending him to work hard for their own liberation. He does not say, “Pray to me when I’m gone, and I will save you.” He says, “All conditioned phenomena are impermanent, strive on diligently.”

On the other hand, early scripture does attribute certain godlike powers to the Buddha, suggesting that many early Buddhists did not want to see him as just another human. Though there is no all-powerful creator god in Buddhism, the Buddha lived in a polytheistic culture, and some of this polytheism is reflected in early texts in stories of the Buddha interacting with gods. However, the gods are trapped in samsara themselves and play no role in helping individuals attain enlightenment. The stories of gods and other mythical creatures in the Pali canon can be appreciated as fables.

Mahayana and Vajrayana teachings include many celestial buddhas and bodhisattvas - godlike beings that represent aspects of our enlightened nature.

In the famous story in which the Buddha denied he was a god he also denied he was a human being. He explained that he was no longer limited to an identity as any type of being. He compared himself to a lotus that is rooted in water and mud but blossoms in clear air, unsullied by the muddy water in which it grew. In the same way, he said, he was born in the world and grew up in the world, but he had risen above the conditioned world and was untouched by it. “Remember me as awakened,” he told his inquirer. In other words, as an enlightened being, the Buddha was liberated from clinging to an illusory sense of self and the suffering that clinging causes.