Spalding Symposium (Again)

Over the next few blog entries, I will present selected materials from my recent paper at the Spalding Symposium. In my research, I have started to compare mytho-historical schemata across the three traditions. This sounds rather grandiose, but what I am really considering is the overarching approach to the significant past (and often the anticipated future) – such as we find it – in each of the three traditions. This is more of a macro-analytic approach to our subject matter, which is intended to compliment some of our more micro-analytic character and genre comparisons (for example, Naomi’s recent work on the ‘Janakas’ and my work on king-sage dialogues). It will become apparent, however, by the end of this sequence of blogs, that this in no way reduces the necessity for close engagement with individual texts. It just requires that I ‘step back’ from the material to consider recurrent features in the approach to the past in Brahminical, Jain and Buddhist sources. This is something that I sought to do, if only for the Mahābhārata tradition, in my monograph, Religion, Narrative and Public Imagination in South Asia (Routledge 2012).

It is a Buddhist text that I wish to focus on presently: the Buddhavaṃsa. This is an important text, if one is interested in, what the Buddhologist Steven Collin’s has termed, the ‘Pāli imaginaire’, or, as Naomi and I are, the relationship between competing narrative accounts of the nature and purpose of the human subject, the universe and preferred religious ideology in Sanskrit, Pāli and the Prākrits.

The Buddhavaṃsa, or  ‘the chronicle of buddhas’, tells of the spiritual progress of Gotama Buddha, and specifically his progress towards ‘bodhisattahood’,  in his various lives under the dispensations of various previous buddhas. It is thus a history of the Buddha and of buddhas . The Buddhavaṃsa is considered to be a ‘late’ addition to the Pāli canon and forms part of the Khuddaka Nikāya, which itself, of course, forms part of the Suttapiṭaka of the Tipiṭaka.

The Buddhavaṃsa recounts, in a formulaic and truncated fashion, the lives of 25 buddhas: from Dīpaṅkara to Gotama. To this, it adds a justificatory prologue, as well as an introductory account of the birth of a brahmin by the name of Sumedha,  the future Śākyamuni, who resolves to become a Buddha, and two final sections: one a brief summary of the succession of buddhas (including some that come before Dīpaṅkara and one that comes after Gotama) and the other a brief disquisition on the distribution of Gotama’s relics. Sumedha means ‘nourishing’, which nicely reflects the concern of the Bodhisatta-to-be for the enlightenment of all beings, but it also means – and this is – one suspects – because Buddhist sources are unable to resist a dig at the Vedic yajña –  ‘good sacrifice’ and ‘good offering’, thereby underscoring – none too subtly – the superiority of the bodhisatta path to that of the Vedic ritual system.

The text opens with an extraordinary image: that of a jewelled footbridge across the ten thousand worlds. Its supporting pillars are sunk into the summit of each of the Mt. Sumeru’s of the many worlds: Jayawickrama translates the description of this footbridge as follows:

1.13. The Conqueror created a Walk spanning the ten-thousand; all golden were the sides of that Walk which was made of jewels.

1.14. The junction of (each pair of) beams was symmetrical, the floor-boards covered with gold; all golden were the railings, well-fashioned on both sides.

This golden footbridge was created at the behest of Brahmā and is the subject of much approbation by all classes of beings, from the devas to the nāgas and kiṇṇaras. It is difficult to imagine a more perfect evocation of Buddhist omniscience: a vantage point from which all may be observed, but only by fixing one’s attention upon something in particular (a thought that occurred to me on the basis of the characterisation of Buddhist omniscience in chapter six of Naomi’s new book, Narrating Karma and Rebirth, where she states, ‘The Buddha claims to know everything, but only one thing at a time.’ p.181). It is equally a powerful image of  the cosmic reach of a transcendent ideology (a bridge spanning ten thousand Mt. Sumerus is hardly what one could call understated). Notwithstanding all this cosmic bluster and fanfare, even as the Buddha is described as travelling along his golden-walkway, the narrative is brought firmly down to earth. Jayawickrama translates (as he will throughout the analyses that follow):

1.74. Sāriputta, of great wisdom proficient in concentration and meditation, attained to the perfection of wisdom, asked the leader of the world:

1.75. “Of what kind, great hero, supreme among men, was your resolve? At what time, wise one, was supreme Awakening aspired by you?

The text is thus committed to a double opening; the first is that of  the bejewelled walkway, surrounded by a panoply of divine beings, the second is that of Vulture peak, in which the Buddha is surrounded by his chief disciples. The two contexts are upheld simultaneously; on the one hand, it is Brahmā’s request for the Buddha to teach that is the stimulus for the Buddhavaṃsa, on the other hand, it is the request of Sāriputta for specific instruction. Indeed, the divine walkway itself finds a mundane reflection in the walk constructed by Sumedha in his hermitage (the word for both being caṅkama). This simultaneity of worlds, and of scales, reflects a commitment to divine and human contexts of explanation, which is not such a prominent feature of, for example, the Dīghanikāya, even though it also tells of former buddhas,  for example in the Mahāpadāna Sutta. It is a prominent feature of the Mahābhārata, however, as I shall show in blogs to come. The opening of the Buddhavamṣa makes it distinctive; in it, sutta-style discourse maintains a vestigial grip on an emergent epic of transmigratory progress toward ‘bodhisattahood’.

Just as there is an initial movement between divine and human realms, so too is there an opening vacillation between third and first person narrative in the Buddhavaṃsa. Sarah Shaw has commented on the movement between third and first person verbal constructions in accounts of the life of the Buddha ( in her ‘And that was I: How the Buddha Himself Creates a Path between Biography and Autobiography’ in Linda Covill et al eds. Lives Lived, Lives Imagined: Biography in the Buddhist Tradition). The situation in the Buddhavaṃsa  is complicated:  the opening of the Buddhavaṃsa, as well as much of its basic narrative content,  is told in the third person (e.g. 1.17. All the devas, gathered together, showering down (the verb is okiranti) on the walk deva-like Mandārava flowers, lotuses and flowers of the Coral tree’). However, the resolve to build the golden walkway, is expressed in the first person:

1.5. Come, I will display (dassayissāmi) the unsurpassed power of a Buddha; in the zenith I will create (māpayissāmi) a walk adorned with jewels.

First person constructions, which express the agency of he-who-will-be Gotama Buddha, dominate the Buddhavaṃsa at critical moments, namely at moments of cosmic insight, spiritual resolution and transmigratory selfidentification. Thus the bejewelled walkway, as a structure of ‘actualised’ cosmic insight must be anchored directly to the agency of the Buddha, even if the shift is somewhat grammatically abrupt. Similarly, when the Brahmin Sumedha is introduced, as a (and please excuse my Sanskritisation) mahāmantrin, a vedavid and an aitihasika, amongst other things, he is described in the third person (I note, in passing – at least in this paper –  the eternality of the Vedas and the Brahmin in the Pāli imaginaire). In the verse that immediately follows this characterisation, however, which is a moment of cosmic insight, there is, again, a shift to the first person. The Buddha says:

2.7. Sitting in seclusion I thought thus then: “Again-becoming is anguish, also the breaking up of the physical frame.

This is immediately followed by a spiritual resolution, which is, once again, in the first person. The Buddha says:

2.8 Liable to birth, liable to ageing, liable to disease am I then; I will seek the peace that is unageing, undying and secure.”

This is again the case when the Gotama Buddha identifies himself in a former birth. The following example is drawn from the period of Koṇḍañña Buddha. He says:

3.9. I at that time was a warrior-noble named Vijitāvin. I held sway from end to end of the sea.

The first person is also used for moments when , the Buddha-to-be, makes offerings to the Buddhas of the past. The following example is drawn from the period of Piyadassin Buddha. He says:

14.9. When I heard his dhamma I conceived belief. With a hundred thousand crores I constructed a park for the Order.

The Buddha thus personally engages in exemplary acts of idealised giving, which are rendered in what we might refer to as the ’emphatic first person’. On reading this sort of account one feels vertiginous; as people gave to the Buddha so the Buddha gave to other Buddhas, who – presumably – gave to other Buddhas. History, as presented in the Buddhavaṃsa is thus fractal. There are intervals of time that are without Buddhas, of course, but even here the Buddhavaṃsa has words of solace (which share a trope or two with the Jains). It states:

2.74. As men crossing a river but, failing of the ford to the bank opposite, taking a ford  lower down, cross the great river.

2.75. Even so, all of us, if we miss (the words of) this conqueror, in the distant future we will be face to face with this one.

However, while these may be words of comfort for those seeking merit. The dizzying repetition of elements in the Buddhavaṃsa’s highly schematic account of the Buddhas that were (and will be) might also be an implicit teaching on taṇhā, or thirst – something I will return to shortly. The pattern of alternation between third and first persons constructions is altered when we come to the life of Gotama Buddha, which is narrated entirely in the first person. This reflects the fact that (a) he is the narrator of the lives of the previous Buddhas and (b) the transmigratory journey of the Buddhavaṃsa is complete: we have travelled with the Buddha-to-be, from his birth as Sumedha to that as Gotama Buddha. The other 24 buddhas are integrated with, but finally external to, the multi-life history of the ‘karmic continuity’ that would become Gotama Buddha.

The text thus establishes a longue durée of Buddhist cosmo-history, which centres both on the presence and authority of the buddhas of the past and the spiritual progress of the most recent buddha,  Lord Gotama. The closing two chapters of the work emphasise both the chronology so established (including its extension into the future) and the lingering presence of Gotama Buddha in his relics, which are distributed across India. Even as this history is established as important (for anyone from a future bodhisatta to someone of more limited spiritual ambition) a kenotic refrain runs through the text: nanu rittā sabbasaṅkhārā, which Jayawikrama translates – in decidedly non-Buddhist-hybrid-English – as, ‘Are not all constructions void?’, but which one might translate, less elegantly, but perhaps more dogmatically as, ‘Are not all conditioned things empty?’ In this way, the ‘shaggy dog’ story of the lives of former and future buddhas is offset by the recurrent achievement of a definitive end to the personal story of a dedicated minority (who thirst no longer).  Genealogy plays only a minor role in all this; John Strong has shown that, across Buddhist literature, although the Buddha’s okkhaka (Ikṣvāku) lineage is acknowledged, the Buddha terminates his own lineage, by ordaining his son, and, indeed the Śākyas are eventually exterminated.

As Naomi has persuasively argued in her Jātaka Stories in Theravāda Buddhism: Narrating the Bodhisatta Path  (2010), the Buddhavaṃsa  forms part of a – what she terms – ‘biographical web’, in which – and here she builds on the work of John Strong and Steven Collins – the longitudinal expansion of biography over many lifetimes is combined with a latitudinal expansion of a vast number of, potentially and actually, interrelated lives (as for example is the case for Sumedha in the Buddhavaṃsa, as he benefits from association with successive buddhas on his journey to buddhahood, as Gotama Buddha). This web is established in a variety of Buddhist narrative texts. Alice Collett and Jonathan Walters have explored the phenomenon of co-transmigration, which further complicates this notional ‘web’.  It is important to bear in mind that the Buddhavaṃsa nonetheless also presents a teaching lineage of Buddhas that are not explicitly connected to one another other than in their authoritative status. The  bright thread of Sumedha’s journey to Buddhahood runs right through the text, of course, and the Jātaka offer us hundreds of further tales, but the Buddhavaṃsa is, it should not be forgotten, a teaching pedigree as well as something of a multi-life Bildungsroman.

Jonathan Walters in his ‘Stūpa, Story and Empire: Constructions of the Buddha Biography in Early Post-Aśokan India’ (1997) speaks of a ‘cosmic society’ that emerges in these sources, which he associates with the consolidation of the stūpa cult in the period. Certainly, in the Buddhavaṃsa , as we have heard, what Naomi terms the ‘full stop’ of Nirvāṇa for Gotama Buddha is followed by a summary chronology of the buddhas from Dīpaṅkara to Metteyya (Skt. Maitreya) and a short account of the distribution of the relics of Gotama Buddha. The relics are thus placed in a position of emphasis in the text; they are – along with the buddhavācana itself (another ‘relic’ of sorts) –  the current point of  (ritual) access to the exemplary power of the Buddha, which is historically located in an overarching chronology that reaches from the eon-distant past to the end of the current age – the bhaddakappa (Skt. bhadra-kalpa) – and, presumably, beyond. However, it is not the specifics of relic-cult that interest me at present (though the development of, and anxiety surrounding, tangible representations of empowered beings is common to all three traditions around the commencement of the common era, it seems), it is the establishment of religious authority, a community of followers and a cohesive chronology, which the Buddhavaṃsa does compellingly well. We might characterise the mytho-history (and future) so constructed as karmic, biographical and interventionist.    In my next post, I will compare this approach to that of the Brahminical Sanskrit epics.


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