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What made you start on a search for the real Buddha?
My interest was triggered by a project which took me for the first time to the places where the Buddha lived and taught--Shravasti, Kusinagar, Gaya, Vaishali, Rajgir, Boddhgaya. For the first time, I gained a clear geographical sense of the Buddha's world. It created a sort of framework within which I started to read the early Pali texts. I started to look at the texts in a different light. Until then, like many Buddhists, I had a very vague idea of how the Buddha's life actually unfolded. The Pali canon is like a window into 80 years of early Indian history, the first real historical text. In some ways it represents a human world, one where the gods are not really significant and its human beings struggling to control their own destiny. I also began to see the Buddha's world in terms of the political and economic developments at that time. The more I read and the more I tried to piece the story together, particularly from the enlightenment to his death, I began to be more aware of the people occurring in these fragments of history. And slowly I was able to piece together a story.
If all the details you discovered about the Buddha's life and times are in the Pali canon, how come it's not well known?
One of the reasons his story was not well known was because the original compilers of the texts were not interested in the details. They were only interested in preserving the dhamma--the teachings of the Buddha. They organised the canon not according to the chronology but according to the length of the discourses. So you get little length discourses, long discourses, discourses connected thematically, discourses unified by using numericals to identify them. By dividing the canon that way, they destroyed inadvertently any sense of historical chronology. It's only in very few texts where you actually have a sustained piece of narrative, an actual story. But when you put together all the little fragments of history, pulled out of the great resource of texts, you find that the little fragments are not arbitrary--not just there for decoration--but constitute a coherent whole. They all make sense one to the other, even the minor historical characters are consistently portrayed. There appears to be buried in the Pali canon, roughly five or six thousand pages long when translated, lots of little pieces of a jigsaw puzzle. You carefully put them together and you get a picture. Not entirely complete, but complete enough.
And what is the picture?
The standard picture that people have of him is this prince who grows up in a palace, renounces it all and becomes a Buddha, roaming around giving wonderful talks and hundreds of monks following him around. He teaches and teaches and one day he lies down and dies. They don't think much about the enlightenment, but he had a task to achieve after that: to establish his teachings and his Sangha, the community. He says this on a number of occasions. These were his mission in life. In order to do that, he can't just wander off with his monks somewhere in the Himalayas. He has to be able to find situations where he would have sufficient access to wealth, and where he would also have the guarantee of security. The only places where this could be provided on any scale were the emerging cities: Rajgir, Shravasti and to a lesser extent, Vaishali. He also had to deal with a very conflicted, troubled, violent and vicious world with kings and newly emergent monarchies and growing armies.
We know from the text that he lived to quite an old age--he died at the age of 80. And we also know that he was enlightened at the age of 35 or 36. This means that for 45 years he was actively involved in teaching. And his teachings were not restricted to a handful of monks and nuns living in monasteries but addressed all levels of society, top to the bottom, in a period of Indian history where there was a transformation from very small republics that dominated the Gangetic plains to the emergence of the first monarchy which set the scene for the eventual unification of India under Chandragupta Maurya about a 100 years after.
The other thing the Buddha was continuously engaged throughout his life was the care he had for his own community in Sakiya. It is sometimes talked about that after he left home, he somehow abandoned his responsibilities to his family and clan and just wandered off and became a monk. This is not entirely correct. After the enlightenment, he came back to Kapilavastu, reconciled himself to his family, and some of his most important followers were in fact his cousins: Devadatta, who subsequently tried to overthrow him, his son, Rahula, who was accepted into the order as a young boy, his stepmother, Mahapajapati, the first nun, his cousin Ananda, who memorised all the texts, another cousin, Aniruddha who was a close follower of his and present at his death, and importantly, his cousin, Mahanama, brother of Anirudha and Ananda, who succeeded him as the head of the Sakiyas on the death of the Buddha's father, Suddhodana. So one of the aspects of the Buddha's renunciation, when he leaves Sakiya at the age of 29, is essentially renouncing his role as the future leader of the Sakiyan people.
But Sakiya wasn't really a kingdom?
Sakiya was one of the original ancient republics of India. It was not very big, a few hundred square miles at the most. By the time of the Buddha's birth, it had ceased to be an independent republic governed by a council of elders and had become a province of the kingdom of Kosala with its capital in Shravasti. It was a community that was governed by representatives of the leading families, with one of them as a nominal head. At the time of the Buddha's birth, his father Suddhodana was the head of the council that governed the internal affairs of the Sakiya, but they were the vassals of the king of Kosambi.
Does that mean the Buddha became far more powerful politically than his father was?
In some ways, yes. He moved in very powerful political circles. He had the support of some of the most powerful political figures of that time: King Bimbisara in Rajgir and King Prasenajit in Shravasti. He must have been a very, very good organiser, a very powerful leader of men and women, someone who really had a clear vision of what he was going to do and he set out to do it. This is not someone who just sits down and meditates and gives a talk occasionally. He's deeply implicated in his world, not a renunciant, detached from the world like Mahavira.
How did he win the support of the powerful kings of the time?
The reason the kings supported him--I don't think this was necessarily because they had a clear understanding of his philosophy -- but because they saw him as some sort of genius, an inspirational figure, someone who had a lot of charisma--a visionary, as what we'd call such a person today--and they wanted to be associated with him. But it was also a period of enormous change: the first cities in India were only just emerging and the old ways of life which the Brahmins and those who followed the Vedas represented, essentially the agrarian lifestyle, was changing primarily because of economic development. There was now sufficient surplus through the immensely fertile production in the Gangetic area. The surplus production not only created a merchant class--very wealthy, including bankers - but also provided rulers with enough wealth to establish standing armies and enabled young men and women to leave home and survive off begging, to pursue religious, philosophical and other ideas. There is a movement to an unknown future. They would have seen their own emergent towns and cities as the beginnings of a new social order, somewhat overshadowed by the power of the Persians to the West. So I think these kings were supporting these armies and monks because they had civilising ambitions. And of course, in the end, a hundred years after the Buddha's death, this did in fact happen: the emergence of the Mauryan empire. The first king, Chandragupta Maurya was a Jain, and Ashoka was a Buddhist, so they were clearly following, as it were, a movement in which Jainism and Buddhism were seen as alternatives to the Brahmanical religion, and there was a constant struggle between the different tendencies.
Did the conflict with Brahminism exist in the Budhha's time?
No, that started after Ashoka's time. During the Buddha's lifetime, there was not these clearly defined camps, they had not really emerged. Clearly, the Buddha was very critical of Brahmanical thought. He was critical of the social system it legitimised, its metaphorical and religious ideas which he dismissed very directly. He had no time at all for any notions similar to that about God--he completely wiped that out of the picture. He is very suspicious of any kind of eternal soul. And when you start to look at some of the Buddha's key ideas, they are clearly framed in opposition to the orthodoxy of the Upanishads or Vedanta. I think he saw his critique of the mainstream ideology of his time as an integral part of his attempt to create a new order, a new kind of world, as it were.
Is there any physical description of the Buddha in the early texts?
None at all. The only passage I found which has a physical description of him only says that he didn't look any different from anybody else. He would have been fairly anonymous, like any Buddhist monk. The picture you have of the Buddha with this rather funny hairdo, the long earlobes and all of this, it's an image that comes from a much later date, although it's prefigured in the Pali canon because there must have been during the Buddha's time a legend within the Brahmanical literature that spoke of a Mahapurusha--a great person--who will come at some point in history and he will bear these 32 characteristic physical marks, and there are two references in the Pali canon where a Brahmin hears that such a Buddha has appeared in the world and he goes to the Buddha in order to ascertain whether in fact he has these 32 marks, which he then proceeds to do and identify each one. Now that is clearly a piece of legend. So the images of Buddha don't refer to his actual physical appearance but the fact that certain people believe he was a Mahapurusha who would therefore have to have these distinguishing traits.
You say the Buddha was in exile towards the end of his life?
In Rajgir, the king now was not Bimbisara, but Ajatasattu, who had not only overthrown his father, but had plotted with his teacher Devadatta to overthrow the Buddha. It appears that in Vaishali too he had lost his support. During the last rain retreat in Vaishali, he doesn't stay in his usual place, which is a house with gabled roof in the great forest, but he stays in a little village outside the city walls by himself and he tells his monks to go and find lodging in the city for their support. Now this is strange--why does he do that? One possible reason for this is because he had recently been denounced to the Vaishali parliament by a man called Sunagatha, who was formerly a monk in the Buddhist community who then disrobed, left the community and went to the Vaishali parliament and said, "The monk Siddhartha Gautama is a fake." So we know that he's probably lost favour in Vaishali, he's lost favour in Shravasti, his homeland is under attack, the Magadhans were treating him just as a sounding board for their next war. What you see in fact is that the Buddha falling out of favour essentially corresponds to the loss of his main benefactors. During the last nine or 10 months of his life, he's constantly on the move, which again suggests this fact of exile.
You also conclude that the Buddha may have been deliberately poisoned?
He had no shortage of enemies. Pava, where he had his last meal, was one of the two principal towns of Malla, the Kosalan province adjoining Sakiya. Karayana, the general of the Kosalan army now laying waste to Sakiya, came from Malla, possibly from Pava itself. Pava was also where Mahavira, the ascetic founder of Jainism is said to have died a few years earlier, and when the Buddha arrived there was already a shrine to his principal rival. The text only says that the Buddha is invited to a meal along with his attendant monks at the house of a man called Cunda the smith. Cunda prepared a meal of sukaramadhava, tenderised pork, something like ham or bacon. From the moment it was offered to him, it seems that the Buddha suspected something was amiss with the food. "Serve the pork to me," he told his host, "and the remaining food to the other monks." When the meal was over, he said to Cunda:" You should now bury any leftover pork in a pit." Then he "was attacked by a severe sickness with bloody diarrhoea, which he endured mindfully without any complaint." His only response was to say to Ananda: "Let us go to Kusinara", which under the circumstances, sounds like "Let's get out of this place."
Why do you think he ate the pork if he knew it would make him sick?
It makes perfect sense to me--he hastened his own death in order that his teaching would survive. Why would they kill an old man who was already dying? No point surely. We know the Buddha is very, very ill. What would be the point of poisoning an 80-year-old man who was already probably extremely ill. Doesn't make sense. Why did the Buddha say, "Give me that food, and don't give it to any of the others." I don't think the food was intended for the Buddha, it was intended for the others, particularly the monk Ananda, his cousin, who was the one who held in his memory everything that would exist. If you killed Ananda, you killed Buddhism. I think Ananda was the target. This is a somewhat original way of reading the text. But once you put the incidents into a chronological sequence, it's very difficult not to draw that conclusion.
He could have had it buried without anyone having to eat it?
Perhaps he didn't know for sure, but didn't want to take chances. It's true, you could explain it in another way, but all we have to go on are these few lines in these texts, it's not a huge amount, we'll never know.
You say there was a power struggle after the Buddha's death?
Well, fortunately, the canon does not end with his death. It ends with the first council, held nine months after his death. And it describes quite clearly a power struggle: a struggle between Ananda, the Buddha's cousin and a monk called Mahakassapa, who became a monk later in his life and is described as a former Brahmin. He claims to have received a kind of direct transmission from the Buddha. He wasn't there when the Buddha died but arrived with a number of monks a week after his death, just before the cremation pyre is to be lit. Mahakassapa paid his last respects to the Buddha, the pyre was lit, and then the power struggle began. Mahakassapa does not consider Ananda to be fully enlightened, and therefore not qualified to have any leadership role in the community. Mahakassapa claims he's fully enlightened and that he is the successor of the Buddha, even though the Buddha has explicitly declared that he will have no successor. Funnily enough, the Buddhist community now described him as the father of the Sangha. Now father in Latin is Papa, or Pope, the very thing the Buddha didn't want happened within months of his death. Mahakassapa then organised the first council in Rajgir. He basically took over. And there are two sutras in the Pali canon where Mahakassapa is very dismissive, almost abusive, in his dealings with Ananda. He dismisses Ananda by saying he's just a boy. "You don't know your measure, boy." And Ananda replies: "But are these not grey hair?" It's very odd--why are those passages there, why haven't they been edited out? There are a number of little passages, quite detailed, that tell us about the conflict before the first council.
Was Mahakassapa's take-over a bad thing for Buddhism?
Mahakassapa took over at a time of great uncertainty. A war is about to break out. In some ways, if there hadn't been a figure like that, a strongman or patriarchal authority, then perhaps Buddhism wouldn't have survived. I think that has to be acknowledged as well--you sort of need people like that to take control, and to get a job done. Ananda would have perhaps been too gentle, he would have wanted consensus, he would have wanted to do things in a more accountable sort of way.
Has unravelling his story reduced your admiration for the Buddha?
I think I admire him even more now because I know him as a person rather than a mythic figure. I think the admiration I had for the Buddha until I started doing this work was for a rather idealised figure, but now you have a picture of a person who you can imagine very vividly, living on this earth, in this country, dealing with these characters--these ambitious relatives and kings--and in the midst of all these struggles, establishing his dharma sufficiently well so that we are talking about it now, I find this extraordinary.
A shorter version of this appears in print