Rediscovering the Buddha: Legends of the Buddha and Their Interpretation

By Hans H. Penner | Go to book overview

Preface

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

-vii-

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