What was the Buddha Like?

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18. So extraordinary was the Buddha, so unerringly kind and wise and so positive was an encounter with him, that is would change people's lives. Even while he was alive legends were told about him. In the centuries after his final Nirvana it sometimes got to the stage that the legends and myths obscured the very real human being behind them and the Buddha came to be looked upon as a god. Actually the Buddha was a human being, not a 'mere human being' as is sometimes said, but a special class of human being called a complete person (mahapurisa). Such complete persons are born no different from others and indeed physically they always remain quite ordinary. But through their own efforts they bring to completion every human potential and their mental purity and understanding develop to the stage where they far exceed those of ordinary human beings. A Buddha, a complete person, is even higher than a god because he or she is even free from the jealousy, anger and favouritism that we are told a god is still capable of feeling.

19. So what was the Buddha like? What would it have been like to meet him? The Buddha was about six feet tall with coal black hair and a golden brown complexion. When he was still a layman he wore his hair and beard long but, on renouncing the world, shaved them both like every other monk.[ N1 ] All sources agree that the Buddha was strikingly handsome. The Brahmin Sonadanda described him as "handsome, good-looking, and pleasing to the eye, with a most beautiful complexion. He has a godlike form and countenance, he is by no means unattractive."[ N2 ] Vacchagotta said this of him:

"It is wonderful, truly marvellous, how serene is the good Gotama's appearance, how clear and radiant his complexion, just as the golden jujube in autumn is clear and radiant, just as a palm-tree fruit just loosened from the stalk is clear and radiant, just as an adornment of red gold wrought in a crucible by a skilled goldsmith, deftly beaten and laid on a yellow-cloth shines, blazes and glitters, even so, the good Gotama's senses are calmed, his complexion is clear and radiant."[ N3 ]

But of course as he got older his body succumbed to impermanence as do all compounded things. Ananda described him in his old age like this:

"It is strange, Lord, it is a wonder how the Exalted One's skin is no longer clear and radiant, how all his limbs are slack and wrinkled, how stooped his body is and how a change is to be seen in eye, ear, nose, tongue and body."[ N4 ]

In the last year before his final Nirvana the Buddha said this of himself:

"I am now old, worn out, venerable, one who has walked life's path, and I have reached the end of my life, being now eighty. Just as an old cart can only be kept going by being held together with straps, so too the Tathagata's body can only be kept going by being held together with bandages."[ N5 ]

However, in his prime people were attracted by the Buddha's physical good looks as much as they were by his pleasant personality and his Dharma. Just to be in his presence could have a noticeable effect upon people. Once Sariputta met Nakulapita and noticing his peaceful demeanour said to him: "Householder, your senses are calmed, your complexion is clear and radiant, I suppose today you have had a talk face to face with the Exalted One?" Nakulapita replied: "How could it be otherwise, master? I have just now been sprinkled with the nectar […]"[ N6 ]

20. The Buddha was a masterful public speaker. With a pleasant voice, good looks and poise combined with the appeal of what he said, he was able to enthral his audience. Uttara described what he saw at a gathering where the Buddha was speaking like this:

"When he is teaching Dharma to an assembly in a park he does not exalt them or disparage them but rather he delights, uplifts, inspires and gladdens them with talk on Dharma. The sound that comes from the good Gotama's mouth has eight characteristics: It is distinct and intelligible, sweet and audible, fluent and clear, deep and resonant. Therefore, when the good Gotama instructs an assembly, his voice does not go beyond that assembly. After being delighted, uplifted, inspired and gladdened, that assembly, rising from their seats, depart reluctantly, keeping their eyes upon him."[ N7 ]

King Pasenadi once expressed his amazement at how silent and attentive people were when listening to the Buddha's talk.

"I am a noble anointed king, able to execute those deserving execution, fine those deserving a fine or exile those deserving exile. But when I am deciding a case sometimes people interrupt even me. Sometimes I don't even get a chance to say: 'While I am speaking, sir, don't interrupt me.' But when the Lord is teaching the Dharma to various assemblies, at that time not even the sound of coughing is to be heard from the Lord's disciples. Once, when the Lord was teaching the Dharma a monk did cough; one of his fellows in the holy life tapped him on the knee and said: 'Quiet, make no noise, the Lord, our teacher, is teaching Dharma.' When I saw this I thought: 'It is wonderful, truly marvellous, how well-trained, without stick or sword this assembly is.'"[N8]

21. Although the Buddha never gave cause for people to dislike him, there were people who did, sometimes out of jealousy, sometimes because they disagreed with his Dharma and sometimes because he held up their beliefs to the cold light of reason. Once, when he was staying at Kapilavatthu, Dandapani the Sakyan asked him what he taught and when the Buddha told him, Dandapani was not impressed, "shaking his head, wagging his tongue he departed leaning on his stick, his brow furrowed into three wrinkles".[ N9 ] The Buddha did not chase after him trying to convince him of the truth of his message. The Buddha responded to all criticism by calmly and clearly explaining why he did what he did and where necessary correcting misunderstanding that gave rise to the criticism. He was always unflustered, polite and smiling in the face of criticism and he urged his disciples to be the same.

"If anyone should criticise me, the Dharma or the Sangha, you should not on that account be angry, resentful or upset. For if you were, that would hinder you, and you would be unable to know whether they said right or wrong, would you?"

"No, Lord."

"So, if others criticise me, the Dharma or the Sangha, then simply explain what is incorrect, saying: 'That is incorrect, that is not right, that is not our way, and we do not do that.'"[ N10 ]

Sometimes the Buddha was not criticised but rather abused 'with rude, harsh words'. At such times, he usually maintained a dignified silence.

22. The Buddha is often seen as a gentle and loving person and indeed he was, but that didn't mean that he would not himself be critical when he thought it was necessary. He was very critical of some of the other ascetic groups of the time, believing that their false doctrines misled people. About the Jains he said: "The Jains are unbelievers, immoral, shameless and reckless. They are not companions of good men and they exalt themselves and disparage others. The Jains cling to material things and refuse to let go of them. They are rogues, of evil desires and perverse views."[ N11 ] When, through misunderstanding, Buddhist monks taught distorted versions of the Dharma, the Buddha would reprimand them, saying: "You foolish man, how could you think that I would teach Dharma like that!"[ N12 ] But his reprimands and rebukes were never to hurt but to spur people to make more efforts or to re-examine their actions or beliefs.

23. The Buddha's daily routine was a very full one. He would sleep at night for only one hour, wake up and spend the early morning in meditation, often doing loving-kindness meditation. At dawn he would often walk up and down for exercise and later talk to people who came to visit him. Just before noon, he would take his robe and bowl and go into the nearest city, town or village to beg for alms. He would stand silently at each door and gratefully receive in his bowl whatever food people cared to offer. When he got enough, he would return to the place he was staying at or perhaps go to a nearby woodland area to eat. He used to eat only once a day. After he had become famous, he would often be invited to people's homes for a meal and, being an honoured guest, he would be given sumptuous food, something other ascetics criticised him for. On such occasions he would eat, wash his own hands and bowl after the meal and then give a short Dharma talk. Straight after his meal he would usually lie down to rest or sometimes to have a short sleep. As at night, it was the Buddha's habit to lie in the lion posture (sihasana) on his right side, with one hand under his head and the feet placed on each other. In the afternoon he would talk to people who had come to see him, give instruction to monks or, where appropriate, go to visit people in order to talk to them about the Dharma. Late at night when everyone was asleep, the Buddha would sit in silence and sometimes devas would appear and ask him questions. Like other monks, the Buddha would usually wander from place to place for nine months of the year, which gave him many opportunities to meet people, and then settle down for the three months of the rainy season (vassa). During the rains he would usually stay in one of the huts (kuti) that had been built for him at various locations like the Vultures Peak, the Jetavana or the Bamboo Grove. Ananda would tell visitors approaching the Buddha's abode to cough or knock and that the Buddha would open the door. Sometimes the Buddha would instruct Ananda not to let people disturb him. We read of one man who, on being told that the Buddha did not wish to see anyone, sat down in front of the Buddha's residence saying: "I am not going until I see him." When he was wandering the Buddha would sleep anywhere - under a tree, in a roadside rest house, in a potter's shed. Once Hatthaka saw the Buddha sleeping out in the open and asked him: "Are you happy?" The Buddha answered that he was. Then Hatthaka said: "But sir, the winter nights are cold, the dark half of the moon is the time of frost. The ground has been trampled hard by the hooves of the cattle, the carpet of fallen leaves is thin, there are few leaves on the trees, your yellow robes are thin and the wind is cold." The Buddha reaffirmed that despite his simple and austere lifestyle he was still happy.[ N13 ]

24. Because he had such a busy teaching schedule and because he was so often approached for advice on different matters, sometimes he felt the need to be completely alone. On several occasions, he told Ananda he was going into solitude and that only those who were bringing him his food were to come and see him.[ N14 ]The Buddha's critics claimed that he only went into solitude because he found it difficult to answer people's questions and because he wanted to avoid public debates. The ascetic Nigrodha said of him: "The ascetic Gotama's wisdom is destroyed by the solitary life, he is not used to assemblies, he is not good at debates, and he has got out of touch."[ N15 ] But usually, the Buddha made himself available for anyone who needed him - for comfort, for inspiration, for guidance in walking the path. Indeed, the most attractive and noticeable thing about the Buddha's personality was the love and compassion that he showered towards everybody, it seemed that these qualities were the motive of everything he did. The Buddha himself said: "When the Tathagata or the Tathagata's disciples live in the world, it is done for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world."[ N16 ]

The Teacher of Gods and Men
25. A message, no matter how logical or true, is useless if it cannot be communicated to others. In the Dharma we have a perfect teaching, and in the Buddha we have a perfect teacher, and the combination of these two meant that within a short time of being first proclaimed, the Dharma became remarkably widespread. The Buddha was the first religious teacher who meant his message to be proclaimed to all humankind and who made a concrete effort to do this. The Buddha was the first religious Universalist. He told his first disciples to spread the Dharma far and wide.

Go forth for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the welfare, the good and the happiness of gods and men. Let no two of you go in the same direction. Teach the Dharma which is beautiful in the beginning, beautiful in the middle and beautiful at the end. Proclaim both the letter and the spirit of the holy life completely fulfilled and perfectly pure.[ N1 ]

He also hoped that after his final Nirvana the teachings would continue to spread and he instructed his disciples, both ordained and lay, accordingly.

I shall not die until the monks, the nuns, the laymen and the laywomen have become deeply learned, wise and well-trained, remembering the teachings, proficient in the lesser and greater doctrines and virtuous; until, having learned the teachings themselves, they are able to tell it to others, teach it, make it known, establish it, open it up, explain it and make it clear; until they are able to refute false doctrines taught by others and are able to spread the convincing and liberating truth abroad. I shall not die until the holy life has become successful, prosperous, undespised and popular; until it has become well proclaimed among both gods and men.[ N2 ]

26. The Buddha's motive in proclaiming the Dharma was compassion. He said: "Whatever has had to be done by a teacher out of compassion, for the welfare of his disciples, I have done for you."[ N3 ]

He saw humans as being limited by their greed, tormented by their hatred and misled by their delusion and he knew that if they could hear the Dharma and practise it they could become happy, virtuous and free. This compassion turned the Buddha into a tireless and skilful teacher and studying his techniques of teaching can not only help us in our efforts to proclaim the Dharma to others but also deepen our appreciation for this most compassionate and wise of men.

27. The Buddha would approach people according to their needs and dispositions. Generally, good people would come to see him while he would go out to meet bad people or those in distress. In both cases, he would first give what was called a talk on preliminaries (anupubbikatha), that is, "about generosity, virtue, heaven, about the dangers of desires and the advantages of giving them up."[ N4 ] This allowed the Buddha to know the listeners' level of intelligence and receptivity. If the response was good, he would then, "teach that Dharma which is unique to the enlightened ones - suffering, its cause, its overcoming and the way leading to its overcoming."

28. Often the Buddha would talk to groups or individuals giving what we would call a sermon or engaging in dialogue, asking and answering questions. The people he talked with always found him "welcoming, speaking kindly, courteous, genial, clear and ready to speak."[ N5 ] When he met people strongly attached to their views and whom he knew he could not change, he would suggest discussing points of agreement so as to avoid fruitless arguments. At such times he would say: "About these things there is no agreement, therefore, let us put them aside. About the things on which we agree let us take up and talk about."[ N6 ] Sometimes rather than talk about his own Dharma he would invite his opponents to explain their teachings first. At a time when there was great competition and jealousy among different religions, the Buddha's fairness often caused surprise. Once a group of ascetics met the Buddha and their leader asked him to explain his Dharma. The Buddha said: "Better still, tell me about your teachings." The ascetics were astonished and said to each other: "It is wonderful, truly marvellous, how great is the ascetic Gotama in that he will hold back his own views and invite others to explain theirs."[ N7 ] When people asked a particularly appropriate or relevant question he would praise them, thereby encouraging discussion, questioning and inquiry. When Bhadda asked such a question, the Buddha replied, "Well said! Well said, friend Bhadda! Your understanding is welcome. Your wisdom is welcome."[ N8 ]

29. Debates were a very common feature of religious life in ancient India and large crowds would gather to hear speakers defend their own doctrines against the attacks of their opponents or critics. Sometimes passions became quite heated during these debates with one party trying to shout down or ridicule the other. Because a speaker's pride and reputation was at stake, those who participated in these debates were sometimes prepared to engage in trickery in order to win or at least give the impression of winning. A monk called Hatthaka used to enjoy debating but eventually he suffered several defeats. After that he would arrange to meet his opponents at a particular time, show up several hours earlier and then boast to his admirers that his opponents were too frightened to confront him.[ N9 ] It was probably for these reasons that during the early part of his career the Buddha avoided such debates.[ N10 ]

But gradually as his Dharma became more popular and began to be challenged or misrepresented by ascetics of other sects, he began to frequent debates. In fact, he was soon recognised as the most persuasive debater of his time. Certain rules governed the conduct of debates and the Buddha always abided by these rules and expected others to follow them also. When a young man named Canki kept interjecting while the Buddha was debating with some learned Brahmins, he turned to him and said firmly: "Quiet, Canki! Do not interrupt while we are speaking."[ N11 ] If on being asked a question for the third time a person could still not answer, the Buddha would insist that they admit defeat as was the rule.[ N12 ] Once he asked an ascetic if he readily believed in the view he held, the ascetic said, "I believe it and so do all these people," as he pointed at the large audience. The Buddha said, "What they believe is not the point. Is that your view?"[ N13 ]But of course the Buddha's purpose was not to defeat his opponents but to lead them to a clearer understanding. To this end he would often use what is called the Socratic method, so called because in the West it was first used by the Greek philosopher Socrates, asking clearer questions as a means of leading people to an insight or to prove a point. For example, once during a discussion, a Brahmin named Sonadanda proclaimed: "A true Brahmin has pure ancestry, he is well-versed in the sacred scriptures, he is fair in colour, he is virtuous, he is wise and he is an expert in the rituals." The Buddha asked: "Could a person lack one of these qualities and still be considered a Brahmin?" Sonadanda thought for a moment and then admitted that one could have a dark complexion and still be a Brahmin. Continuing to ask the same question, Sonadanda was led to the same view as the Buddha's, that it is not ancestry, knowledge, colour or social status that makes one superior but virtue and wisdom.[ N14 ]

30. Humour plays an important part in mental health as it does in effective communication. Consequently, it is not surprising to find the Buddha sometimes including humour in his teaching. His discourses contain clever puns, amusing stories and a good deal of irony. After King Ajatasattu had killed his father and started to become suspicious that his own son might be plotting to kill him, he began to realise that the fruits of worldly ambition could be bitter and went to seek guidance from the Buddha. He asked: "Sir, can you show me any benefits of the monk's life that can be seen here and now?" The Buddha replied by asking him a question: "If you had a slave who ran away and became a monk and later, on finding out where he was, would you have him arrested and brought back?" "Certainly not," replied the king, "on the contrary, I would stand up for him, respect him and offer to provide him with his needs." "Well there," said the Buddha, "that is one of the benefits of being a monk that can be seen here and now."[ N15 ] The humorous vein of this answer was clearly meant to put Ajatasattu at his ease, lift him out of his gloom and make him receptive to the fuller and more serious answer that the Buddha then proceeded to give. The Buddha often poked good-natured fun at the pretensions of the Brahmins and the absurdity of some of their beliefs. When they claimed to be superior to others because they were born from God's mouth, the Buddha would comment: "But you were born from the womb of your mother just like everyone else."[ N16 ] He told stories in which he portrayed the all-knowing God of the Brahmins as being embarrassed and not a little annoyed at being asked a question he could not answer.[ N17 ] When Brahmins said that they could wash away their sins by bathing in sacred rivers, he joked that the water might wash away their good deeds also.

31. Another characteristic of the Buddha's method of teaching was his use of similes and metaphors. Drawing upon his wide interest in and knowledge of the world in which he lived, he used a rich variety of similes and metaphors to clarify his teachings and make them more memorable. For example, he compared a person who fails to practise the teachings he proclaimed to a beautiful flower without fragrance.[ N18 ] We should replace negative thoughts, the Buddha said, with positive ones, just as a carpenter knocks a peg out of a hole with a second peg.[ N19 ] He was also skilled at using whatever was at hand to make a point or dramatise or make clear his meaning. Prince Abhaya once asked the Buddha if he had ever said anything that made people feel unhappy. At the time the prince was holding his baby son on his knee. The Buddha looked at the child and said: "If your son put a stone in his mouth, what would you do?" Prince Abhaya replied: "I would get it out straight away even if I had to hurt the child. And why? Because it could be a danger to the child and I have compassion for him." Then the Buddha explained that sometimes he would say things that people needed to be told but did not like to hear, but that his motive was always compassion for that person.[ N20 ]

32. Another characteristic of the Buddha's skilful way of teaching was his ability to give a new or practical meaning to old ideas or practices and to reinterpret things in order to make them relevant. When someone asked him what the most powerful blessing was, rather than mention various charms or mantras, as they expected, the Buddha said that to act with honesty, kindness and integrity would bless one. When he was accused of teaching annihilation he agreed that he did, but then qualified his agreement by explaining that he taught the annihilation of greed, hatred and delusion.[ N21 ] The Buddha used terms like Brahmin and outcaste (vasala) not in the way they were used by the supporters of the caste system but to indicate a person's virtue or lack of it.[ N22 ]

33. In some religions, it is only necessary to believe in order to be saved, while in Buddhism, Nirvana can only be attained through understanding. As such, those who came to hear the Buddha teach and who became his disciples tended to be the better educated lay men and women, and the intellectuals of the time. The Dharma, the Buddha said, had "to be understood by the wise each for himself (paccattam veditabho vinnuhi)."[ N23 ]But this did not mean that the Buddha had nothing to say to the unsophisticated. On the contrary, with his skill and creativity, he was able to make his message intelligible to people of all levels of understanding, even to children, and as a result people of all types became his disciples. So successful was he in fact, that some of the other teachers of his time accused him of using magic to lure their disciples away.[ N24 ]

34. Because the Buddha's motive in teaching the Dharma was compassion and because his compassion was infinite, he never tired in his efforts to proclaim it or explain it to others. Only a few months before his final Nirvana he said:

"There are some who say that as long as a man is young, he possesses lucidity of wisdom, but as he ages that wisdom begins to fade. But this is not so. I am now worn, old, aged, I have lived my life and am now towards the end of my life, being about eighty. Now if I had four disciples who were to live for a hundred years and if, during that time, they were to ask me questions about the four foundations of mindfulness, except when they were eating, drinking, answering the call of nature or sleeping, I would still not finish explaining Dharma. Even if you have to carry me about on a stretcher there will be no change in the lucidity of wisdom. If anyone were to speak rightly of me they could say: 'A being not liable to delusion has arisen in the world, for the good of the many, for the happiness of the many, out of compassion for the world, for the good and the happiness of gods and men.'"[ N25 ]

35. And he was true to his words in this respect. As he lay dying, a man approached him to ask a question. Ananda and the other disciples held him back saying that the Buddha was tired and ill, but when the Buddha saw this, he beckoned the man forward and answered his questions.[ N26 ]The Buddha's great gift to humankind was the truth and his compassion motivated him to give it to all who were willing to receive it. Next page