“The Life of the Buddha” by Bhikkhu Nānamoli
October 13, 2018; revised November 15, 2020
“The Life of the Buddha” Is a Good Resouce
1. “The Life of the Buddha” by Bhikkhu Nānamoli is good to read and even to keep as a reference (page numbers quoted are for the 2001 First BPS Pariyatti edition). It is a good book for two reasons:
- A chronological record of the Buddha’s life (after the Buddhahood),
- Detailed accounts of events that are not in the suttā (taken from the Vinaya Piṭaka).
Need to Consult All Three pitaka
2. The Buddha said that if there is any doubt or a concept that is not clear, one should check with Sutta, Vinaya, and Abhidhamma. These basically refer to the Tipiṭaka (three baskets) of Sutta Piṭaka, Vinaya Piṭaka, and Abhidhamma Piṭaka.
- Most people refer to the Sutta Piṭaka and forget about the other two. Abhidhamma Piṭaka is a bit hard to understand, and without a firm grasp of basics, it is harder.
- Most people think that the Vinaya Piṭaka is just for the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis. But there are sections in the Vinaya Piṭaka that have details that are not in the suttā. Furthermore, those sections in the Vinaya Piṭaka are easy to understand, as we see below.
3. I will provide the following as an example of what is in this book that is not available in any sutta. It describes how the five ascetics attained the Sōtapanna stage over several days with the delivery of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta.
Here is a direct quote from p. 45 of the book (starting from the point where the Buddha had just finished the first delivery of the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta):
“Then Aññata Koṇḍañña, who had seen and reached and found and penetrated the Dhamma, whose uncertainties were left behind, whose doubts had vanished, who had gained perfect confidence and became independent of others in the Teacher’s Dispensation (My Comment: i.e., became a Sōtapanna), said to the Blessed One: “Blessed One, I wish to go forth under the Blessed One and to receive the full admission?”
“Come, bhikkhu,” the Blessed One said, “The Dhamma is well proclaimed. Live the holy life for the complete ending of suffering.” And that was his full admission.
Then the Blessed One taught and instructed the rest of the bhikkhus with a talk on the Dhamma. As he did so, there arose in the venerable Vappa and the venerable Bhaddiya, the spotless, immaculate vision of the Dhamma (My Comment: i.e., became Sotāpannas). All that is subjected to arising is subjected to cessation. They, too, asked for and received the full admission.
These, having seen dhamma, attained dhamma, knowing dhamma … having attained without another’s help to full confidence in the teacher’s instruction, spoke thus to the Blessed One: “May we, Blessed One, receive the going forth in the Blessed One’s presence, may we receive ordination?”
Then living on the food they brought to him, the Blessed One taught and instructed the rest of the bhikkhus with a talk on the Dhamma. All six lived on the food brought back by the three of them. Then there arose in the venerable Mahānāma and the venerable Assaji the spotless, immaculate vision of the Dhamma (My Comment: i.e., became Sotāpannas), and they too asked for and received the full admission”.
4. We can learn several important facts from the above account.
- Only Ven. Koṇḍañña attained the Sōtapanna stage in the first round in the first night of the delivery of the sutta. It actually took several days for all five ascetics to attain the Sōtapanna stage.
- Buddha actually did not just recite the sutta as it appears in the Tipiṭaka. That recital would have been finished within 15 minutes!
- So, we can see that what is in the Tipiṭaka are HIGHLY CONDENSED summaries of those discourses and possibly many discussions.
Many Suttā Provide Only Concise Summaries
5. What we see as the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta today is a highly condensed version of the material that was taught by the Buddha over several days, as is clear from #3 above.
- It appears that the Buddha himself summarized the material in each sutta in a short, concise way to a limited number of verses that were suitable for oral transmission (easy to remember). A sutta is supposed to be explained in detail; see, “Sutta – Introduction.”
- We must remember that all the suttā in the Tipiṭaka were transmitted down several generations over about 500 years before it was written down. It was not even remotely possible to include all that was discussed over those several days!
Word-by-Word Translation is a Terrible Practice
6. What happens these days is that even highly condensed suttā are translated word-by-word into English. This is a terrible practice. It is no different from just reciting a sutta!
- One can finish reading a sutta in 15 minutes, and ONE would not understand any of the deep concepts embedded in the sutta.
- Then how could one understand the sutta by just reading a word-by-word translation of a sutta?
7. In fact, this could be why many people believe that one can attain Nibbāna by just reciting a sutta or a set of verses. This practice is sometimes called “mantra chanting.” But there is no basis for that belief.
- Nibbāna can be attained ONLY by cleansing one’s mind.
- The MENTAL stress arises ONLY due to lobha, dosa, moha in one’s mind.
- As one cleanses one’s mind, the mental stress will decrease. This decrease is gradual in the beginning. It will have significant drops at the Sōtapanna Anugāmi stage and then more drops at Sōtapanna, Sakadāgāmi, Anāgāmi stages.
- An Arahant does not have any mental stress. He/she may have physical suffering, but that also will end at death. No more physical or mental suffering!
There is Value in Chanting Suttā
8. Of course, there is a value in even chanting a sutta. They have been formulated in a format to “calm down the mind,” even if one did not understand the meaning; see, “Buddhist Chanting.”
- It would be much better if one understood the basic message of the sutta.
- One could get to the Sōtapanna stage ONLY BY fully understanding the concepts discussed in a major sutta like the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta.
But Some verses Need Detailed Explanations
9. A related key point is that upon attaining the Buddhahood, the Buddha wondered whether the humans will ever be able to understand the deep Dhamma he had just uncovered.
- This is stated on p. 37 of this book. The Buddha was really doubtful whether humans will comprehend his Dhamma, and Brahma Sahampati made an invitation to the Buddha, saying that many beings in the world can understand Buddha Dhamma. He would know because he had become an Anāgāmi by listening to Dhamma by a previous Buddha.
- So, the point is that if one thinks one can make progress on the Path by just chanting suttā or even learning the word-by-word translations, one would be very much mistaken.
- In some cases, it can take a book to really do justice in explaining a single verse in some of the deep suttā!
- However, some long suttā, especially in the Digha Nikāya, can be translated word-by-word for the most part, since there may not be any deep concepts discussed there.
Other Good Aspects of the Book
10. Another good aspect of the book is that it provides the background for delivering some major suttā or verses.
- For example, there is a detailed account (pp. 55-60) of how the Buddha had to perform even a few miracles to convince Uruvela Kassapa, his two brothers, and 1000 of their followers before they agreed to listen to the Aditta Pariyaya Sutta or the Fire Sermon.
- So, we can see that it was not easy in those early days for the Buddha to convince some of the ascetics who had their own beliefs of what Nibbāna was about.
11. The subsequent chapters provide a good chronological account of what happened until the Parinibbāna. One can get a sense of which major suttā were delivered at around what time.
- There are accounts on the two chief disciples, and short accounts of other important personalities such as Anāthapiṇḍika, Angulimāla, Visākha, etc. Chapter 7 describes the formation of the order of bhikkhunis.
- Several encounters with the Māra Devaputta are scattered throughout the book.
- One paragraph on p. 109 is on how the Buddha visited the Tāvatimsa deva realm and delivered Abhidhamma. A summary was conveyed to Ven. Sariputta expanded it with the help of his students to the form that we have today.
- There is a chapter on Devadatta, which describes events that are not found in suttā, how he attained (anāriya) jhānās and iddhi (super-normal powers) powers, how he appeared on the lap of Prince Ajatasattu as a baby using his iddhi powers.
- It provides a good account of Devadatta’s efforts to take the life of the Buddha and how he lost all those super-normal powers and jhānās at the end.
12. There is a relatively long chapter on “The Doctrine,” including the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.
- Then, there is another relatively long chapter on the final year of the Buddha’s life, including Parinibbāna.
- The final chapter is on the First Buddhist Council (Sangāyanā) that took place 3 months after the Parinibbāna of the Buddha.