From the traditional point of view Buddhism begins with the believer going for refuge to the Three Jewels (triratna), the Buddha, the Doctrine (Dharma) and the Community of monks (Sangha). As the first of these, the Buddha himself, although there is no longer any doubt about his historical existence, the exact dates of his birth and Parinirvana (his physical death) are still the subject of controversy.
In all probability those given by the Ceylon chronicles, the Dipavamsa and the Mahavamsa (excluding its continuation the Culavamsa, the dates of which are sixty years out), equivalent to 563-483 B.C., are not too far wrong.
The events of his life are too well known to be recounted in detail. Born at LumbinI, in the territory of the Sakya republic, of wealthy patrician stock, he went forth ‘from home into the homeless life’ at the age of twenty-nine, attained Supreme Enlightenment at Bodh Gaya at the age of thirty-five, and passed away at Kusinagara at the age of eighty.
During his lifetime his teaching spread throughout the kingdoms of Magadha and Kosala (corresponding to the modern south Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh), as well as in the circumjacent principalities and republics. His disciples were recruited from all classes of society, and included both men and women.
Besides instructing an extensive circle of lay adherents, he trained a smaller, more select band of monks and nuns who constituted the Sangha proper and upon whom, after the Parinirvana, the responsibility for carrying on his mission mainly devolved.
His personality, as it emerges from the ancient records, was a unique combination of dignity and affability, wisdom and kindliness. Together with majesty that awed and daunted kings he appears to have possessed a tenderness that could stoop to comfort the bereaved and console the afflicted. His serenity was unshakable, his self-confidence unfailing.
Ever mindful and self- possessed, he faced opposition and hostility, even personal danger, with the calm and compassionate smile that has lingered down the ages. In debate he was urbane and courteous, though not without a vein of irony, and almost invariably succeeded in winning over his opponent. Such was his success in this direction, that he was accused of enticing people by means of spells.
In addition to the ‘historical facts’ of the Buddha’s career, notice must be taken of the myths and legends from which, in the traditional biographies, these facts are inseparable. When Buddhism first came within the purview of Western learning it was generally assumed that myth and legend were synonymous with fiction and that, except as illustrations of primitive mentality, they were valueless. Since then we have begun to know better.
Some incidents in the Buddha’s biography, such as those in which he exercises supernormal powers, may be based on actual occurrences recorded with legendary accretions. Others apparently relate to a different order of reality and a different type of truth altogether, being poetic rather than scientific statements of psychological processes and spiritual experiences.
Yet others are in the nature of illuminations caused by the tremendous impact of the Buddha’s personality on the minds of his disciples, and express the greatness of that personality subjectively in terms of the feelings of rapturous adoration which it evoked.
This introduces the great question of the alleged ‘deification’ of the Buddha. According to some modern scholars the Buddha was a human teacher whom the devotion of his followers turned into a god, or God. Based as it is on assumptions quite different from those of Buddhism, such an interpretation of an important doctrinal development must be rejected outright.
Within the context of a non-theistic religion the concept of deification has no meaning. The Buddha claimed to be a fully enlightened human being, superior even to the gods, and as such he has invariably been regarded. Since he was already the highest being in the universe there remained no higher position to which he could subsequently be exalted.
What really happened was that, since Buddhists believed that the Buddha had realized the Truth, thereby becoming its embodiment and symbol, absolute Reality came to be interpreted concretely in terms of Buddhahood and its attributes, as well as abstractly in terms of sunyata, tathata, etc. At the same time the devotion with which the Buddha was worshipped was analogous to that which, in the theistic religions, is the prerogative of the Creator.
Thus there is no question of the deification of a teacher whom his contemporary followers looked on as ‘merely human’; hence we must also dismiss the several theories according to which the Buddha was in reality an ethical teacher like Socrates or Confucius, a rationalist, a humanist, a social reformer, and so on.