I was doing a class with some secondary school students this morning, as part of the University’s Sutton Trust Summer School (a “widening participation” initiative), and we were talking about the lifestory of the Buddha, including – of course – his past lives in the form of jātaka stories. One of the pupils immediately put her finger on a paradox in this story that I often forget is there: How is it that the Buddha has been through multiple lifetimes aspiring to buddhahood and working towards that goal, and yet when he is a young man in his final life he doesn’t even know about sickness or death?
This question has also been posed in relation just to the Buddha’s final life: an omniscient and miraculous newborn turns into a clueless adolescent. This paradox prompted an article by Jonathan Silk (“The Fruits of Paradox: On the Religious Architecture of the Buddha’s Lifestory”, JAAR 2003) which I recall influencing me rather a lot as a doctoral student researching jātakas. Silk’s answer to this paradox is as follows (p.870):
With the intention of reconciling this apparent paradox, I would like to suggest that the life story of the Buddha be seen as having two levels or, to put it another way, as incorporating two models. First, there is a story of the result of an almost infinitely long career. In this present and final lifetime the miraculous results of a long course of spiritual development spanning multiple lifetimes finally come to full fruition. Second, and almost entirely disjunct from the first, is a story of discovery, of encounter with unpleasant facts of the reality of life in the world, the discovery of a means to cope with those facts, and the efforts at asceticism and mental cultivation which ultimately lead to liberation. Both of these levels to the story—and we must keep in mind that there is, nevertheless, one and only one story—provide elements of a model for the seeker, elements of a path that can be followed by every Buddhist, models to emulate.
Such an approach relies on reading the Buddha’s lifestory synchronically – as Silk points out, this is how audiences have always interacted with the story, a story they already know the ending of and never hear for the first time. It also relies on reading the story as literature, rather than as history that has been mythologised. As Silk goes on to argue, both the models he identifies are necessary to the message of early Buddhism, and thus the paradox is indeed a fruitful one.
I enjoyed seeing the Buddha’s lifestory through fresh eyes again this morning, and revisiting Silk’s article as a result. Trying to balance literary readings with historically grounded context is a constant challenge in my scholarship, and it is always good to be reminded that biographies are literature, even when they purport to tell the truth about actual historical figures.