Gautama Buddha: The Life and Teachings of the Awakened One weaves ancient sources and modern understanding into an insightful and thought-provoking biography. In an interview with Hannah Atkinson, author Vishvapani discusses how his research into the Discourses provided him with a strong sense of the Buddha.
Gautama Buddha is an incredibly full and rich account of the Buddha’s life and teachings. I think you wrote it over a period of three years?
Yes, and it was by far the hardest piece of writing I’ve ever done, intellectually speaking. It was a huge task and so it did take a long time. I came to it primarily with an interest in the historical Buddha; I was neither a scholar who was versed in the academic literature nor someone with a comprehensive knowledge of the Discourses, so I had to learn a lot during the process and navigate my way through a really vast amount of material. I won’t pretend to have mastered the whole world of Buddhist scholarship, but I think I’ve looked at it sufficiently in order to get a sense of the Buddha as he is presented in the Discourses, and how that relates to the Buddha of the Buddhist tradition. We’re lucky enough, now to have access to good translations of a huge number of Buddhist texts, but it can still seem a very daunting body of literature. My aim in writing the book was to provide people with an accessible way in to that.
From a personal standpoint, how did your relationship with the Buddha change over that time?
Part of the challenge of organizing the material was working out how to present the Buddha’s teachings in a way that was integrated with the Buddha’s life, and then that led me to ask: ‘Who really was this person?’ Reflecting on this question, the Buddha of the Discourses started to come more alive for me. By the time I’d finished writing, I felt that I had much more of a personal relationship with him, as a human being with a voice, a character, a personality, someone I knew almost as a friend. This is obviously an illusion. In fact, even the people who knew the Buddha said they didn’t really know him. But I did find myself listening for a certain tone of authenticity which I felt I could resonate with, and then balancing that subjective sense of the Buddha with the perspective I gained from the scholarly material.
You refer to the Buddha as ‘Gautama’ throughout the book, whereas most of us know him as ‘the Buddha’. Why did you decide to call him ‘Gautama’?
One reason I called him ‘Gautama’ rather than ‘the Buddha’ was because otherwise you have the issue that up to his enlightenment he isn’t the Buddha. You can call him Siddhartha, but actually that name never appears in the early discourses; the tradition calls him ‘the Bodhisattva’ – the being who is en route to enlightenment – and then after his enlightenment, ‘the Buddha’. But once you start to refer to someone through an honorific title, it’s rather distancing; it already places them on a pedestal. The one thing we know for sure about the Buddha is that he was a person, and ‘Gautama’ or ‘Master Gautama’ is how the people who knew Buddha but who weren’t his disciples refer to him in the Discourses.
You have said that ‘there is a distinctive value in focusing on the Buddha as a figure of history rather than a transcendent figure, or a figure of legend’. Why do you think that is the case?
On a cultural level, I think it is important for us to have a sense of the Buddha as a human being because that is the way that our collective psychology has been constructed since the Renaissance. If you go somewhere like the National Gallery, you can see the iconic religious figures of medieval art turn into representations of flesh and blood beings in the Renaissance – that’s the story of how we’ve come to relate to the ‘transcendental’ in Western culture. People who are influenced in that way will prefer to see the Buddha not as someone sitting on a lotus in the void but as a real, historical person who had to navigate the world just as we do.
Then, for those of us who practise the Buddhist path, I think we can relate to the Buddha more strongly if we see his enlightened qualities as being rooted in his humanity. The threefold puja reminds us that ‘the Buddha was born as we are born; what Buddha overcame, we too can overcome’. Enlightenment is possible for all of us because of the very fact that we share the Buddha’s humanity.
The Buddha said that the Dharma holds ‘whether or not there is the arising of the Tathagata to understand it’ and Gautama venerated the Dharma very deeply. Is everything that we need to know about the Dharma there in Gautama’s life story?
Sangharakshita has said that ‘There are no higher teachings; only deeper realisations’, and in this sense I do believe that if you go deeply enough into the Buddha’s understanding of the nature of reality as represented in the early Buddhist texts, you will encounter the whole of the Dharma. However – and I say this again as a student of Sangharakshita’s – I don’t think we need to see an absolute dichotomy between early and later Buddhist teachings. Although there is certainly great value in having an understanding of the historical Buddha’s life, later Buddhist teachings might speak to our heart, imagination and even intellect in ways that the earlier teachings do not.
You explain that ‘for Gautama, the mind and the world weren’t separate spheres’, and this comes across perhaps most strongly during Gautama’s encounter with Māra, just before he gains Enlightenment. Was the Buddha at all concerned with what is historically, literally, ‘true’?
The Buddha said that ‘What I teach is suffering and the end of suffering’. More than what was literally true, the Buddha wanted people to realize the Dharma, which is a truth beyond the categories of ‘fact’, ‘myth’ or ‘fiction’. What the Buddha was interested in was helping people understand their own minds, and then showing them how their minds can be reshaped so they work in accordance with the Dharma. Primarily, the Buddha was a pragmatist – he wanted to help people.
If the Buddha was writing his biography, do you think it would be similar to the one that you wrote?
I’m sure it would be quite different! For one thing, I tried to use historical sources to contextualize the Buddha’s life and reconstruct his world so that we could understand the cultural forces operating on him. But the Buddha didn’t stand apart from his life and contextualize it – he said that there is no ātman; he didn’t say ‘I’ve grown up in a culture which teaches ātman and I feel the need to critique it and to offer an alternative’.
At the same time, if we follow the traditional understanding, every one of the early Buddhist discourses is related by Ananda who was passing on the teachings that he heard first-hand. In that way, the Buddha did tell his life story, and by studying the Discourses we can bring all the threads of that story together. That’s what I tried to do in the book.
The ‘four sights’ are often taught as the key turning point in the Buddha’s life, but you confirm that the account is legend, rather than fact. Would you therefore recommend leaving out the ‘four sights’ when introducing newcomers to the Buddha’s life story?
I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with telling the story of the four sights, but I do think that it’s worth reflecting on the nature of the stories we tell about the Buddha so that when we’re recounting legends we are at least aware that they’re legends, rather than historical accounts. The issue with the story of the four sights is that, right from the start, you have to imagine that the Buddha had never seen any suffering in the world. So already we’re into a kind of fairy tale environment. And that’s fine if that is the message you want to put across, but I’ve become interested in another way of telling the story of the Buddha’s life before leaving home. He speaks about the terror and anguish that he feels when he looks at the world and sees everyone around him thrashing about like fish in shallow water. He sees that we’re all suffering, as if we have thorns pierced right into our hearts. These are metaphors, but they have the stamp of real personal distress, and that’s the story I’m more interested in telling.
You also suggest in the book that although tradition states that Gautama was 29 when he left the palace, he might have been quite a lot younger.
This was Sangharakshita’s theory – that if you take the usual account at face value, Gautama has to master the highest forms of meditation, become the world’s greatest self-mortifier and then go off on his own and attain enlightenment, all in the space of six years. Meanwhile, he reached the age of 29 with basically nothing happening. So the story becomes quite awkward. The other thing that Bhante points out is that the Gautama of the Ariyapariyesana Sutta who feels the need to leave home, who quarrels with his parents and cuts off his hair, really seems like a young man. And I agree. We don’t have any historical evidence to prove this theory, so I offer it as a suggestion in the book. I indicate that it could be another way of thinking about the Buddha’s life story.
You say that Gautama ‘was beyond samsara entirely’, yet he ‘remained deeply involved in society’. To what extent was the Buddha influenced and shaped by his cultural context?
That’s a very good question. Certainly, reading the Discourses, it became clearer and clearer to me that there is something about the Buddha’s character that is really quite other; it seems that many of those who met him experienced that. Yet, at the same time, the Buddha is responding to the concerns of those around him, and one thing that his contemporaries were concerned about was negotiating their relationship with the spirit world. So how do we interpret this? Was the Buddha a shaman? Did he see the world in shamanic terms? Or was he entering into the mental world of those around him and operating skilfully within that world? We can’t begin to answer these questions without first understanding that the society in which the Buddha lived was very different from ours. Today, we might ask the Buddha for advice on tackling global issues such as climate change, but two thousand years ago people were more interested in ensuring that their children’s brains weren’t being sucked out by yakshas!
Taking into account the fact that Gautama realized ‘the true nature of reality’ and often communicated that realization in language tailored precisely to his audience’s concerns, what do you see as Gautama’s lasting message to us in the West today?
The Buddha’s core message is just as relevant to us today as it was two thousand years ago. He’s telling us that the root of suffering is in our own minds, and that if we can learn to pay attention to the way that our minds work, we can re-shape them in accordance with reality. Living in a culture that is in the midst of a serious mental crisis, this message is extremely pertinent to us today. We’ve been forced to ask questions such as ‘What makes for inner wellbeing?’, and the answer that many people are putting forward is mindfulness: exploring our direct capacity to observe our mental states and access states of calm. However, the Buddha went further than this: he asked us to examine our ethics – our core beliefs and views about the world – and to develop compassion. My hope is that the current interest in mindfulness and meditation will broaden out to include these other important elements of the Buddha’s message so that more and more people can benefit from his teaching.