Decoding the multitudes: Bernard Faure’s journey through the many lives of the Buddha

What if we set aside the fact-versus-fiction debate and examined the Buddha’s life as myth, legend, and supranarrative?

Published : May 31, 2024 21:35 IST - 7 MINS READ

Buddha statues at a temple in Colombo, Sri Lanka.

Buddha statues at a temple in Colombo, Sri Lanka. | Photo Credit: Buddhika Weerasinghe/Bloomberg

One of the primary hurdles of confronting historical figures in India is decoding fact from fiction, discerning legitimate milestones from hagiographic mark-ups. Even with a non-religious figure as recent as Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar, a sociopolitical icon within less than a century of his passing, a burden of sentiment prevents any parsing of accepted narratives. Truths are set by the collective memory.

In the consideration of followers of the Buddha’s doctrine, there is the additional sheen of divinity ascribed to him. The Buddha Shakyamuni may have acted as a man, but that was to show humanity that enlightenment is accessible. The primary differences between the Shravakayana and the Mahayana schools, comprising Vaibhashika, Swatantrika, Chittamatra, and Madhyamika, are on points of philosophical treatise. Does the mind and its objects truly exist? What is the nature of self, emptiness, duality? Are there three marks of existence, or four?

There is a broad acceptance of who the Buddha was, how he lived and taught. In works like that of Hajime Nakamura’s Gotama, there is a sifting of anecdote from the original narrative, but still with a sense of an advent. In the East, the man Gautama is not separable from the legend; in the West, they have had to come to terms with the fact that he existed.

The Thousand and One Lives of the Buddha
Bernard Faure
University of Hawaii Press
Price: $28

Thus, it is the Western lens that grapples with purity of fact. Bernard Faure, historian and scholar of Japanese Buddhism, has had to dance a delicate balance between de-establishing the need for historicity without veering off like Emile Senart, a provocative mythologist.

The historical Buddha

In the first part of the book, Faure goes into the works of the various histographers and their methodologies to establish the difficulty of arriving at the “historical Buddha”, layered as he is in oral narrative, miracles, hagiography, religiosity, and myth. Facts, such as date and location, are discernible by pinging off multiple historical accounts, such as the reign of Ashoka. Faure writes: “Louis de la Vallee Poussin called it the method of subtraction, of arriving at historical truth by subtracting the legend, thus conceiving of historical truth as a sort of zero degree of the narrative”. He points out that such a method is not tenable as it would leave us with almost nothing to go on.

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If all we have are place names and historical contexts, it impoverishes the story by what Roland Barthes called a “reality effect”. It brings to the forefront anecdotes that had little value to tradition while ignoring episodes that inspired generations of Buddhists. There is a necessary intertwining of the mythologised and the factualised.

Whether Siddhartha was born exiting the womb of his mother as he entered it, riding on an elephant through her right flank, and its obstetric and gynaecological possibilities, cannot be the crux of the debate. Did he die eating pork, or was he a vegetarian, eating mushrooms? Historians like Andre Bareau, one of the first scholars to attempt a cohesive narrative of the Buddha’s life, reject both, as neither food would likely have been offered to an ascetic in those times.

“Small narrative streams make large biographical rivers,” Faure notes. “The Life of the Buddha as it has come down to us—like a long, meandering river fed by numerous tributaries, periodically overflowing from its deep bed—reflects the cultural abundance of twenty-five centuries of history.” Fragments and cycles (stories involving the relics, stupas or images) overwhelm the original. It is virtually impossible to tell one from the other and in this book, Faure gently moves us away from the effort.

In pointing out that neo-Buddhist biographies “are sometimes almost empty of substance and reduced to a kind of narrative skeleton that no longer has much to do with the traditional Buddha and Buddhism…” or that two Buddhas emerge, the man and the legend, that the three gems—Buddha, dharma, sangha—may be inverted as sangha deriving the dharma from which we comprehend the Buddha, Faure releases us from linear comprehension.

He achieves this by skilfully applying the Mahayana lens of duality i.e. the Buddha’s perspective to the Buddha himself: chronology is a construct. Nothing then is historical fact. All fact is devoid of substantial truth, arises dependently and is empty of causation. And all we are left with are stories of a man with great meaning that are both, at once, plausible and wholly conceptualised. This leaves one free to revel in the lives of the Buddha, the multitude of narrative forms the Buddha’s existence is projected into, without knocking it futilely. And yet Faure does not attempt this without awareness of structure, the great integrity in the story.

“The Life of the Buddha as it has come down to us—like a long, meandering river fed by numerous tributaries, periodically overflowing from its deep bed—reflects the cultural abundance of twenty-five centuries of history.”Bernard Faure

In Part 2, he splices “Narrative and Paradigm”, exploring the original four acts (Kapilavastu or Lumbini, birth; Bodh Gaya, the awakening; Sarnath, the first sermon; Kusinagara, the final extinction or parinirvana), the additional four (Samkasya, his descent from trayastrimsa heaven; Sravasti, the miracle of multiplied bodies; Rajgriha, the subjugation of the elephant Nalagiri; Vaisali, the monkey offering honey), as aggregators around which sub-narratives cluster. The four encounters that caused him to renounce the world, the great departure, the six years of austerities, the victory over Mara thereby gain importance. Using the Buddha’s life as an epic drama, Faure examines the dramatis personae, the interruption by metaphysical conceptualisations and the casting of the villain, Mara.

In Part 3, “The Unending Buddhas”, just as dhyana in Sanskrit becomes the Jhanas in Pali, moves into Ch’an Buddhism of China, and flows as Zen in Japan, Faure follows the flow of the iconography and narratives under regional influences. He moves from sutra and metaphysics into medieval tapestry and into anime, Tezuka Osamu’s graphic novel with its immense influence on popular Buddhist culture in Japan; Bernardo Bertolucci’s Little Buddha, starring Keanu Reeves; Lord of Light, science fiction by Roger Zelazny; or indeed the enchanting implications of the media melee over Ram Bahadur, a Nepali teenager who was presumed to have gained enlightenment in 2008.

An idea of Buddhahood

For historians in the West, Faure admits early on, the life of the Buddha has been a pretext to get into the doctrine. The life in itself has only been studied within the Buddhist-held context. He believes he has expanded it beyond the subdomain of the mid-Indus valley and the banks of the Ganga to an idea of Buddhahood as it evolved across South-east Asia. He observes Vajrayana Buddhism with its tantra influences, Chinese translators who were influenced by the conservative prudishness of the Confucian tradition and often watered down texts that were seemingly too explicit for them, and the family sagas in Japan’s view. The flow cannot be verified; that it flows is the mark of its existence.

Faure likens the reality of the man to a stone in the pond, the ripples spreading out long after he has sunk to the bottom. Even the mark of the 2,500 years since the Buddha’s birth was arrived at politically. Lumbini is not mentioned in traditional texts and was more a discovery of King Ashoka, consecrated as a heritage site by the United Nations to much media fanfare, thus raising a proto-Buddhist theme park on a birthplace fixed by politico-religious consensus rather than precision.

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What academia misses that a practitioner would not, is that the idea that the Buddha contains multitudes and is thus, one across its many manifestations. Therefore, there is no discordance in the evolutions of the Buddha. Faure has remarkably extricated the life from the Buddhist chronology and restored it to a circularity that is a signature of the Buddha’s relative truth. The Western instruments wave their white flag here.

The Thousand and One Lives of the Buddha is an absolute must-read and one of the most scholarly, comprehensive, and engaging histories of the Buddha available today.

Gayatri is a therapist, author, and student of the Nalanda master’s course in Buddhist philosophy.

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