The Birth of the Buddha

The Birth of the Buddha April 7, 2024

Birth of the Buddha
Sister Nivedita (1867-1911)






The actual date when the person Gautama Siddhartha who became the Buddha was born is not known.

In the major schools of Buddhism, using lunar calendars although by somewhat different calculations, come up each year with dates that float mostly in the area of April or May. The Japanese, however, have adopted the Gregorian calendar and have set an annual celebration on the 8th of April.

And that’s the one I count.

The truth is that as far as the history of it, not only do we not know what day the Buddha was born, we aren’t even clear on which century.

Most scholars who study the matter are confident the Buddha was a historical figure. Real, like you and me. And beyond that there are agreements about a few details marking his life. What we know of these things about his life are what we can glean from the suttas or sutras, texts written in Pali or Sanskrit some three, maybe four, possibly five hundred years after he died. Incidentally these were composed in languages he himself didn’t speak.

But there are reasons to believe much of what the texts convey traces back to him or close enough for that sense of an actual human being.

Of course many Buddhists find it very important that the Buddha actually lived. But, for many really, all that matters is whether the teachings are true. And by true we mean do they work? I notice what we mean by works is different for many different people within the Buddhist family. For some the release of our human hurt comes with the cessation of an otherwise endless cycle of suffering. For others its rebirth in a place where the healing comes like a flower opening. And for others yet, it comes as a discovery of what has always been.

I write from the standpoint of the Mahayana, the great way. If of a more spare sort. And more specifically as a Zen person. I’m concerned with the questions of our human hurt and the discoveries of who we really are from before the creation of the stars and planets. And I’ve found truth and workable in one of the schools that descend from the Buddha’s teachings.

What we are offered is a path. Well, yes, in fact several paths, as I’ve suggested. Although they all share a family resemblance. But for all of them the path is clearly marked out, and the invitation is for us to find the particular one most resonant, and then to put our own feet on it, and to make our own way. Each of us.

And within this way stories matter.

They reflect how human beings think. They are a mirror held up for us. They ground the teachings, give us an opportunity to see them as stories about us, who we are, and what we might be. So, of course. We very much have a story of the life of the Buddha. Okay, a couple. Or, perhaps more accurately several variations on a theme.

According to one of these stories the queen Maya dreamed how four angels came to her and carried her away to the highest mountains, where a white elephant holding a lotus in its trunk, circled around her three times, and then walked into her right side.

In one version her husband the king Suddhodana consulted sixty-four sages to interpret what had happened, in another it was the ascetic Asita cast an astrological chart. Whether the sixty-four or the one it was prophesied that the queen would give birth to a remarkable child, one who would given circumstances either be the greatest emperor history had ever seen, or the savior of the world.

Not long after the baby was born.

And with that the real story begins.

(And here’s a cartoon of the story with its own variations….)

(And, how about a clip from the movie “Little Buddha?)

And so of course we celebrate the moment.

The wisdom of Gautama Siddhartha is a healing balm for the world, in all its variations. The wisdom of the Elders counts a clear path, step by step, the wild and lovely stories of the Great Way tell of endless incarnations of compassion, and the rationalist schools emerging today see a practical path for human beings living in the midst of so much terror and joy.

All trace back to the world honored one.

I, for one, am grateful beyond words.

And so endless bows, offerings of incense, flowers, and songs…

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