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The Buddha and his Relation to the Vedas (The Buddha-Mimamsa)
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Essays in Zen Buddhism Second Series
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Buddha Biographies
The earliest sources for the biography of the Buddha are the fragments in the sutra and Vinaya texts, which are unconcerned with chronology or continuity. The Sutra literature emphasizes stories of the Buddha's previous births (jataka), episodes leading up to the Enlightenment, the Enlightenment itself, and an account of his last journey, death, and funeral.

The Vinaya texts, on the other hand, focus on the Buddha as teacher and incorporate - in addition to account of the events associated with his Enlightenment - narratives that describe the early days of his ministry, including an account of the conversion of his first disciples.

The oldest of the surviving autonomous biographies is the Mahavastu, an anthology written in Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit. Other more tightly constructed biographies were produced soon after the Mahavastu-notably, the Lalitavistara, which played an important role in various Mahayana traditions; the Abhiniskramana Sutra, which was especially popular in China, where at least five Chinese works were, nominally at least, translations of it; and the very famous and popular Buddhacarita, by Asvaghosa. Much later, still another biography, known as the Vinaya of the Mulasarvastivadins, was given its final form. This voluminous compendium of biographical traditions provided later Mahayana schools with a major source for stories about the Buddha.

These new biographies continued to incorporate stories that had developed at the pilgrimage sites associated with the Buddha's birth and great renunciation, his Enlightenment, and his first sermon. For example, in the Lalitavistara an episode is recounted that is clearly related to a specific shrine at the Buddhist pilgrimage site at Kapilavastu-namely, the story in which the Buddha's charioteer leaves him and returns to the palace in Kapilavastu.

The important change exhibited by these new autonomous biographies was the ubiquitous inclusion of stories about the Buddha's previous lives (jataka) as a device for explicating details of his final life as Gautama. This is particularly evident in the Mahavastu and in certain versions of the Abhiniskramana Sutra, in which the Jatakas become the prime mover of the narration: each episode in the life of the Buddha is given as the result and reproduction of an event from previous lives.

With the emergence and development of Mahayana, new narratives began to appear that portrayed the Buddha preaching a highly exalted doctrine, sometimes on a mountain peak, sometimes in a celestial realm, sometimes to his most receptive disciples, sometimes to a great assembly of bodhisattvas and gods.

Theravada Biographies of the Buddha:

Two types of Buddha biographies have had an important impact and role in the later history of the Theravada tradition. The model for the classical type is the Nidanakatha, a text that serves as an introduction to the Jataka Commentary and thus continues the pattern of using biography to provide a narrative context that authenticates the teaching. It traces the Buddha's career from the time of his previous birth as Sumedha (when he made his original vow to become a buddha) to the year following Gautama's Enlightenment, when he took up residence in the Jetavana Monastery. Subsequent Theravada biographies, based on the Nidanakatha continued the narration through the rest of Gautama's ministry and beyond.

The second type of Theravada biography-the chronicle (vamsa) biography-illustrates a distinctive Theravada understanding of the Buddha. From very early in their history the Theravadins had distinguished between two bodies of the Buddha, his physical body (rupakaya) and his both: truth (dharmakaya). After the Buddha's death, or parinirvana, the rupakaya continued to be present to the community in his relics, and his dharmakaya continued be present in his teachings. The Theravadins composed biographical chronicles that focused on these continuing legacies. These begin with previous lives of the Buddha, then provide an abbreviated account of his "final" life as Gautama. They go on to narrate the history of the tradition by interweaving accounts of kings who maintain the physical legacy (in the form of relics, stupas, and the like) with accounts of the monastic order, which maintains his legacy (in the form of proper teaching and discipline). Examples of this type of biographical chronicle are numerous, beginning with the Dipavamsa and Mahavamsa and continuing through many other vamsa texts written in Sri Lanka and Southeast Asia.

In the modern period, a new genre of Buddha biographies has been introduced. This new type of biography has been influenced by Western scholarship on Buddhism and by Western attempts to recover the historical Buddha, who had-from the modernist perspective-been hidden from view by the accretions of tradition. New, largely urban- red elites throughout the Buddhist world have sought to 'demythologize" the Buddha biography, deleting miraculous elements of the Buddha's life and replacing them with an image of the founder as a teacher of a rationalistic ethical system or a "scientific" system of meditation or as a social reformer committed to the cause of egalitarianism.

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