I have been pondering this question for a very specific reason: When entering a “character” in our jātaka database, we assign to it certain “character descriptors” such as male, monkey, merchant, and so on. This is partly to differentiate several characters with the same name but different characteristics, and partly to enable users to search not only for named characters but also for specific types of character.
However, as I was entering the stories from Avadānaśataka chapter 2 last week, I found myself in a muddle. The stories involve the Bodhisattva encountering various named buddhas of the past, each of whom therefore required a “character” entry. But after about the fourth or fifth buddha – tagging them “human”, “male”, “buddha” – I started feeling uncomfortable. Are they really “human”? Is that the right descriptor for a character who works miracles, teaches the gods, and inspires faith that can transform one’s karmic outcomes?
This is of course partly a question about the Avadānaśataka in particular. As I have written elsewhere (actually in a forthcoming book for Equinox, which also includes translations of stories 1-40), the text is clearly devotional, and inspires real awe in its audience. Repeated accounts, for example, of how, when a buddha smiles, rays of light enter the heavens and shout “impermanence!” to remind the gods they are mortal, and enter the hells projecting images of the Buddha that inspire such potent faith that the hell-beings are immediately reborn elsewhere, are hardly accounts of a “human” protagonist.
But the question also has a wider resonance, playing into long-standing debates about the ways in which scholarship has tended toward humanising the Buddha, portraying him as perfected but still “just a man”. Such portrayals seem far removed from many Buddhist sources, even those from Pāli scriptures, which arguably adopt the most human vision of what it is to be a buddha. What worried me, as I worked on putting these stories in the database, was that perhaps I too have internalised this idea of a buddha being essentially (bad word in Buddhism!) human, even though consciously I reject it. A buddha, especially but not only in the Avadānaśataka, is more than a human.
So, today I went back through, and took “human” out of the descriptors for all of the buddhas so far featuring in our list of jātaka characters!
They are all still tagged “male”, however, but that’s a different story of course…