Rediscovering the Buddha: Legends of the Buddha and Their Interpretation

Rediscovering the Buddha: Legends of the Buddha and Their Interpretation

Rediscovering the Buddha: Legends of the Buddha and Their Interpretation

Rediscovering the Buddha: Legends of the Buddha and Their Interpretation

Synopsis

Hans Penner takes a new look at the classic stories of the life of the Buddha. In the first part of the book, he presents a full account of these stories, drawn from various texts of Theravada Buddhism, the Buddhism of South and Southeast Asia. Penner allots one chapter to each of the major milestones in Buddha's life, with titles such as: Birth and Early Life, Flight from the Palace, Enlightenment and Liberation, Last Watch and Funeral. In the process, he brings to the fore dimensions of the myth that have been largely ignored by western scholarship. In Part II, Penner offers his own original interpretations of the legends. He takes issue with Max Weber's assertion that "Buddhism is an other-worldly ascetic religion," a point of view that remains dominant in the received tradition and in most contemporary studies of Buddhism. His central thesis is that the "householder" is a necessary element in Buddhism and that the giving of gifts, which creates merit and presupposes the doctrine of karma, mediates the relation between the householder and the monk. Penner argues that the omission of the householder - in his view one-half of what constitutes Buddhism as a religion - is fatal for any understanding of Buddha's life or of the Buddhist tradition. This boldly revisionist and deeply learned work will be of interest to a wide range of scholarly and lay readers.

Excerpt

Books on the Buddha are becoming shorter. As a result, we do not read about his previous lives hundreds of millions of years ago. We remain ignorant of the conditions of his birth, his boyhood, or his contest with Mara at the time of his awakening. We remain uninformed about his former lives, his travels to the abode of the gods, and his conferences with them. His trials and tribulations during his life as a teacher, his dinner with a courtesan, the miracles he performs, and the grand episode of his birth and funeral also remain unknown to us. What we find is a short “outline” of the life of the Buddha. Such abridgments are often presented as if his story is fully preserved without sacrifice of sense, and in some cases we are led to believe that a shortened version, an outline, shorn of myth, is a more genuine representation, a more rational picture, of the actual historical facts; after all, the Buddha was “just a man.” I believe it is time to correct this situation.

The history of Buddhist scholarship teaches us that the legends of the Buddha are the result of a slow degeneration from an authentic, elitist, rational, otherworldly ascetic movement into a nonrational, popular religion, an evolution from history into myth. The stress in scholarship on Buddhism, therefore, is on discovering what might be the oldest, “authentic,” and thus the “original” material in the stories that reflect actual episodes in the life of a historical person and a doctrine that is rational as well as ethical. An example of the influence of this prevailing approach to . . .

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