The Buddha as Religious Genius

by Vanessa Sasson

The Buddha’s lifestory is one of the defining features of the Buddhist tradition. It has been told and retold using every conceivable media: it has been painted on walls, carved into stone, and preserved using materials ranging from birch bark to digital software. It has been turned into poetry and music, and is at the source of many rituals performed in Buddhist ceremonies around the world.

This paper will consider the Buddha’s story as an example of religious genius. Given the extraordinary volume of hagiographical materials available on the Buddha’s life, a comprehensive analysis is impossible. This paper will therefore focus on the Pali Canon and some of its representations of the Buddha’s person therein. The Pali Canon includes some of the earliest materials we have about the Buddha and thus serves as a productive starting point for this discussion.

An Obvious Question

Before going any further, however, one question requires our attention. Within the list of personalities this project on religious genius is considering, the Buddha stands out as an unusual addition. The founders of most religious traditions have elements of what we are calling religious genius, but they are not included in this project. Moses, Muhammad, and Jesus are not here. Rather, the cast of characters have much more recent portfolios and emerge out of an already existing tradition. The obvious question to arise then, is why was the Buddha invited into the mix? His story is the story of Buddhism, making it virtually impossible to separate it from the rest of the religion. One might even say that he is not an example of the kind of genius that emerges out of Buddhism, but is the genius itself. He is the story, the spirit, and the source of all that comes afterward. In that sense, and within the framework of this study, he seems sorely out of place.

One answer to the question of why he was included in this study may therefore be that he should not have been. Depending on how one reads his narrative and which texts one highlights, the Buddha may in fact not qualify for inclusion here at all. In some instances, particularly when considering certain Mahayana texts, the Buddha does not even seem to function as a human being, let alone as a founder of a religion. He is presented in some contexts, rather, as a manifestation of awakened mind, with his life narrative functioning as a performance, a play (lila) put on for the benefit of his audience.[1]

For other narrators, however, the Buddha was not simply a reflection of awakened mind. He was also a man, a human being, who worked for lifetimes to achieve awakening. Many passages in what has come to be known as the Pali Canon tend toward this picture of who the Buddha was, placing him squarely in the camp of human beings (rather than something else).[2] Although the Pali sources obviously represent the Buddha as an exceptional being in a variety of ways, they nevertheless sustain the general worldview that he was a man who worked toward awakening for countless lifetimes, eventually leading himself to this pinnacle of human achievement. It was something he accomplished by means of his own efforts and that he produced in the body of a human being. For this reason, the Buddha of the early Pali texts does not function as a divine entity in any way. He is presented as having been a man, and thus as a potential vehicle for religious genius to be realized.

There is one other reason why the Buddha may in fact belong in this study more than other major religious founders: because the Buddha was not unique in his achievement. He was not chosen by a divine being to play a particular role in history, but was, rather, simply participating in a process of realization that countless others have participated in before and that countless more will be participating in in the future. Buddhist cosmology imagines innumerable buddhas of the past who were just like this one and who had lifestories very similar to this one (see below for elaboration). The Buddha of 2500 years ago may therefore have been a founder in strictly historical terms, but from a Buddhist perspective he was not a founder at all. He was a religious genius who gained a profound insight as a result of his own efforts and achieved the highest of realizations, just as others had done before him and others would do thereafter. He is a model who was built on the mythical model of buddhas past.[3]

The Logic of Imitation

The Buddha’s role as a model brings us to the first point concerning religious genius: namely, that a religious genius is someone who lives their life inspired by an ideal model. By extension, I would add that the religious genius is someone who inspires others to imitate them as a model as well. Goshen-Gottstein argues that the religious genius is one who can embody two realities at once, who can see with eyes of great vision and yet live in a world that is entrenched in another. Buddhism articulates this view as the theory of the Two Truths. There is Absolute Truth which can only be seen through awakened eyes, and there is the Conventional Truth of samsara that un-awakened eyes are confined to. A religious genius is one who can see both truths at once, lives both truths at once, and thus becomes a bridge between one reality and the other. As such, I suggest that the religious genius is someone others will naturally gravitate towards and aspire to imitate. This idea is grounded in the logic of acting the part to become the part. The religious genius aspires to embody an ideal and inspires others to do the same by following their example.

On one level, the Buddha does not imitate an ideal; rather, he is the ideal and thus does not appear to imitate anything. As is so often declared in the literature, he is the Buddha, the Awakened One, the supreme, the greatest and most advanced being in the universe. The gods salute him, they beg him for teachings and sob in desperation at his death. Others imitate the Buddha, but the Buddha imitates no one.

A closer look at the hagiographical tradition, however, reveals more than this first level of interpretation. While the Buddha does command the post of most advanced being in the universe, his hagiography also describes him as consulting the lifestories of previous buddhas as his own narrative unfolds. This is what John Strong calls the “Buddha-life blueprint.”[4] Throughout the Buddha’s hagiography, the Buddha considers what other buddhas did in their lives and then chooses to do something similar. For example, when he contemplates where and when he should take his final rebirth, he considers the kind of home and family previous buddhas chose and he chooses along similar lines. He chooses a family with high-caste status the way previous buddhas did, and a mother who will die seven days after she gives birth because the mothers of all buddhas die seven days after they give birth to them. Indeed, many important events in his life are modeled on the events and decisions of buddhas past. Part of this emerges as a kind of conscious imitation – with the texts having him stop to literally ask himself what others did before making up his own mind – but some of these events take place as a natural manifestation – a kind of spontaneous arising. Either way, the Buddha is a carbon copy of previous buddhas, and the next Buddha in line will be just the same. In this sense, as mentioned above, the Buddha is neither unique nor original. Quite the opposite in fact. He is an almost identical replica of every Buddha. He imitates their life stories – consciously or spontaneously – just as the next buddhas will do of him.

This feature of the Buddhist story has a number of important effects. It reminds the audience that samsara is cyclical and that, to use a biblical expression, nothing is new under the sun. The continuous stream of buddhas coming and going also functions as a lesson about impermanence, and yet it paradoxically also provides the community with hope that, if the world appears broken, a brighter future may be just up ahead, with a new Buddha waiting around the corner. The fact, therefore, of a revolving door of identical buddhas is a key concept in the life of the tradition.

Equally important, however, and perhaps more readily recognizable, is the role the Buddha plays as a model for others to imitate – a feature of the religious genius that does not appear in Goshen-Gottstein’s discussion. Each element of the Buddha’s lifestory highlights the teachings of the tradition and therefore functions as a piece of the foundation out of which imitation grows. Consider, for example, the story of the Four Sights (in which the Buddha-to-be encounters the truth of suffering for the first time and the potential for liberation from it) along with the story of the Great Departure (in which he escapes palace life in order to pursue his quest for that liberation). These episodes function as examples of the kind of insight into suffering all Buddhists must eventually develop, along with the courage all serious practitioners must eventually harness if they are to pursue their freedom from it.

According to the hagiographies, the Buddha-To-Be was born into a royal family and was raised with a decadent lifestyle. His father, the king, was terrified that his son might not want to lead the kingdom when it was time. He therefore lavished his son with every kind of luxury and shielded him from every kind of pain in the hopes that he become addicted to the worldly life and never consider abandoning it. The young prince, however, was on the cusp of awakening, and thus no matter how hard the king tried to keep him entrenched in desire, he was destined to eventually walk away from it.

When the Buddha-To-Be was 29 years old, the hagiographies claim that he encountered four sights that transformed him: an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and a sage. Each sight affected him deeply. He saw for the first time the truth of suffering, the inevitability of old age, sickness and death, and he realized that he did not have the tools to overcome them. When he encountered the last of the four sights (the sage), he decided he would imitate him and follow a path of renunciation that would hopefully lead him to the answer he was looking for. It was then that he made his Great Departure from worldly life.

This scene of the Great Departure is undoubtedly the most widely imitated scene in Buddhist life. Saints and religious geniuses the Buddhist world over repeatedly articulate their own narratives (or their disciples do it for them) in such a way that their own Great Departures are modeled on his, just as his was modeled on the Buddhas that came before him. Buddhist hagiographies consistently include scenes in which the person encounters suffering in a piercing way along with a symbol of liberation from it (a re-enactment of the Four Sites), thereby finally providing the person with the necessary courage to “depart” just as he did.

The Great Departure is the not the only scene that serves as a model in Buddhist circles, but the example highlights the Buddha’s quality as a model, and therefore as a bridge between one truth and the other.


Another feature of the religious genius according to Goshen-Gottstein is love. The religious genius is an embodiment of expansive, undiscriminating, and compassionate love. This is in many ways an obvious point, but sometimes the most obvious points escape our attention and therefore merit emphasis. A religious genius must have love at the heart of their being – a kind of love that is in no way entrenched in a sense of the self.

This is a point that Buddhism pays tremendous attention to. All too often, love is confused with attachment, but Buddhist doctrine takes great care in parcelling out the kind of affection that emerges from one’s own needs versus the kind of love that transcends them. A number of stories illustrate this point, but one in particular comes to mind, precisely because it makes reference to this distinction.

A woman named Kisa Gotami lost her only son. She was driven mad with grief, running from house to house with her baby’s corpse in her arms begging for medicine to cure him. Eventually, someone brought her to see the Buddha. With her dead baby in her arms, she begged him for a cure. The Buddha replied with the following instructions: if she could bring a mustard seed from a home that had never known death, he would provide the medicine to cure her son.

Kisa Gotami was thrilled and immediately set off to find this magical seed. She knocked on one door after another, but each time discovered the same disappointing truth that death had already visited that home. After countless failed attempts, Kisa Gotami finally realized what the Buddha was trying to teach her. Death was not a personal attack on her son, nor was it a personal attack on her. Death was a simple inevitability, but so long as she viewed it as personal, so long as her attachment to the relationship and its loss consumed her vision, she was incapable of understanding. As she herself expresses,

“No village law is this, no city law,
No law for this clan or for that alone;
For the whole world – ay, and the gods in heaven –
This is the Law: All is impermanent!”[5]

Kisa Gotami became a nun and is said to have achieved awakening not long thereafter.

The death of Kisa Gotami’s son is not dismissed as an irrelevant event in the literature. The pain she experienced is one that any reader can sympathize with and she is not disparaged for having become lost in it. But the wisdom of the Buddha’s teaching requests that she transcend this particularistic understanding of love and the self-centered assumption that suffering is a personal event.

Kisa Gotami’s story has generated many responses. For modern readers, it has often been read as evidence of the tradition’s low regard for motherhood,[6] but this story must also be seen as a text that reminds its readers that the Buddha’s concept of love had nothing to do with attachment. Love that is entrenched in attachment, no matter how natural and understandable it may be, is not the kind of love Buddhism teaches. The love and compassion of a Buddha is the love that has nothing to do with a personal relationship. It is not dependent on a relationship or on the sympathy one might receive from it. It is a love that is “undiscriminating,” that makes no distinctions, that transcends details with boundless awareness. It is the kind of love that understands deep suffering and seeks to alleviate it, wherever one might encounter it, with whatever means may be at one’s disposal.

One of the most famous texts in the Pali Canon is the Karaniya Metta Sutta in which the audience is reminded that, no matter what kinds of beings there are in the universe, whether they are big or small, fat or thin, seen or unseen, all of them deserve kindness. One must develop love for them all, the way a mother loves her only child.[7] This message is undoubtedly the most consistent message to emerge from the Buddha’s life and teachings.


According to Goshen-Gottstein, purity is another essential component of religious genius. As he states, “religious genius thrives on, aspires to and is ultimately realized through the increase and assimilation of purity into the life of the religious genius.”

Purity is not often associated with Buddhism in Western scholarship. Hinduism tends to be described as the tradition that regularly appropriates the dichotomy of purity vs. pollution, and Buddhism is usually understood as a tradition that transcends such categories (despite the fact that concerns over purity manifest throughout the Buddhist world in various ways). There is consequently very little scholarship that explores the role purity plays in Buddhism with any seriousness.

There are likely many reasons for this, but one of them is certainly rooted in the Buddha’s response to the caste system. Buddhist sources repeatedly describe the Buddha as re-defining “true” high-caste status. In the Vasala Sutta of the Sutta Nipata, for example, while on his alms rounds, the Buddha is reviled as an outcaste by a Brahmin. Rather than take offense, the Buddha patiently asks the Brahmin if he knows what the real definition of an outcaste is. The Brahmin does not, so the Buddha provides the following answer: anyone who harbors hatred, who speaks ill of others, who does not support his parents, who deceives others, who exalts himself and debases others, etc… that one is the true outcaste. He concludes, “Not by birth does one become an outcaste; not by birth does one become a brahman. By [one’s] action one becomes an outcaste, by [one’s] action one becomes a brahman.”[8]

The Buddha’s response to the caste system is more complicated than can be properly unpacked here.[9] The fact that he dismissed the relevance of birth does not lead to the immediate conclusion that such hierarchies held no importance for him. He would have chosen rebirth as a low-caste if that were the case, which he certainly did not.[10] The point for this discussion, rather, is that with or without the complex issue of caste in Buddhist discourse, the question of purity in the Buddha’s life is more prominent than scholarship has generally recognized.

There are many ways that purity manifests in the Buddha’s narrative. First of all, the very fact that he is described as having redefined the nature of caste as having to do with moral purity is a case in point. The Buddha did not dismiss caste as philosophically irrelevant. He never argued against the concept of a spiritual hierarchy; on the contrary, he believed that some were more advanced on the Buddhist totem pole than others. He therefore preserved the notion of a caste system, but he internalized the criteria. Purity was not the result of one’s birth according to the Buddha. Purity was determined by the nature of one’s own mind.

Mental purity is a consistent feature of Buddhist discourse. In the literature, awakening is often described as having to do with the eradication of mental defilements. When the mind is purified, when greed, hatred and illusion are eliminated and full and perfect vision arises, awakening is the result. As he says in the Vatthupama Sutta, the mind is like a cloth. When it is stained and then dipped in dye, the color does not take well. But if a cloth is bright and clean and then dipped in color, it takes the dye well and will be pure in color. “And why is that? Because the cloth was clean. So too, monks, when the mind is undefiled, a happy destination may be expected.” The Buddha then goes even further and argues that dipping one’s body in a supposedly sacred lake or river will produce no effect. Rather,

It is here, brahmin, that you should bathe
To make yourself a refuge for all beings.
And if you speak no falsehood,
Nor work harm for living beings,
Nor take what is offered not,
With faith and free from avarice,
What need for you to go to Gaya?
For any well will be your Gaya![11]

Purity was unequivocally an internal affair for the Buddha. Purity begins and ends with the state of one’s mind.

That being said, however, when supreme mental purity is achieved, the result sometimes etches itself onto the physical body. The Buddha is often described as having been born with the 32 Marks of the Great Man.

A number of texts describe the Buddha’s 32 bodily marks and many of these are unusual in nature (to say the least!). Included in the list is golden-colored skin, hands that reach below his knees, a symbol of a thousand-spoked wheel imprinted under the heels, a long and broad tongue, webbed fingers and toes, and a head shaped like a turban. It is not clear what these marks mean, and there has been quite a bit of speculation over the years, but no matter what conclusion one comes to, it is obvious that these marks represent features of his awakened being. The Buddha’s status, his mental purity, and his heightened state are reflected on his very body, in every pore, in the shade of his skin, and with the height of his head.

The physical marks etched onto a Buddha’s body are accompanied by yet other marks that help identify his supreme status. As the Brahamayu Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya explains, when the Buddha manifests the physical marks of greatness on his body, he also manifests particular behaviors that identify him as a Buddha. For example, when he enters a house for food, he sits down with calm and ease. He accepts just enough rice for a meal, but is not greedy about it. He chews his food slowly, and when he is finished he washes his bowl quietly without making a sound. He wears his robe not too short and not too long, not too tight and not too loose. In other words, everything about the person of the Buddha, from the physical marks on his body that he was born with, to the behaviors he develops over time, all point to his extraordinary status which is the result of the eradication of any and all defilements of his mind.

The Buddha’s association with purity does not end here. As Goshen-Gottstein notes, purity is often associated with some form of ascetic practice and this too emerges from his lifestory, although asceticism was something that he eventually disapproved of.[12] It was not something he pursued aggressively according to traditional accounts.

As mentioned above, the Buddha was born as a prince and was raised in luxury. When he was 29 years old, he made his Great Departure, leaving behind the comforts of home, his family and his newborn son. He spent the next few years exploring different venues for achieving the state of absolute freedom he so longed to achieve. One of his last experiments on this journey was with extreme asceticism. He abandoned his body, eating (according to some versions of this tale) only one grain of rice a day, becoming utterly emaciated. The texts describe him as eventually becoming severely ill, his skin erupting in boils and his hair falling out. They say that he became so thin that he could feel his spine by touching his belly.

And then one day, a young girl named Sujata mistook him for a tree spirit and offered him a bowl of rice-milk. Realizing that the path to freedom was not to be found in such extreme ascetic techniques, the future Buddha accepted the offering and nursed himself back to health. He achieved awakening not long thereafter.

The fact that he achieved awakening in a nourished body, but one that was not immersed in a decadent lifestyle, has become known as a manifestation of his “middle-way” philosophy. Physical purity is achieved neither by means of self-affliction, nor through self-indulgence. It is the product of a simple life which embraces neither too much nor too little of anything.

By contemporary western standards, Buddhist monasticism – and the celibacy and homelessness it assumes – is often considered a form of ascetic practice, but when examined through the lens of the Buddha’s lifestory, it becomes clear that it was not initially meant as a radical life choice. The Buddha’s version of monasticism as represented in many Pali texts was the middle ground. It was a life of simplicity and moderation. Indeed, one might go so far as to suggest that it was not even ascetic as it is most often understood.


Goshen-Gottstein suggests that humility should serve as another marker of the religious genius. He cites Moses who is described in the Torah as having been the most humble person on earth as an example of this.

To my knowledge, the Buddha is not generally described in this way. He is said to have been many things, but humble is rarely one of them. On the contrary, he calls himself “the awakened one,” which is what “Buddha” means in Sanskrit. He also speaks of himself as the “Thatagata,” which is not as easily translated, but means something like, “he who has gone beyond,” along with many other epithets no less grandiose.

Early Indian literature almost never uses his personal name, but refers to him regularly using a title that speaks of extraordinary attainment. Although there may be a cultural habit behind this (of using status indicators rather than personal names), it is clear that the Buddha is portrayed as calling himself “Buddha” and nothing less.

The Buddha’s birth story provides a narrative example of this kind of self-declaration. According to many early texts, the Buddha is described as emerging from his mother’s womb and immediately taking seven steps in the northern direction. He scanned the universe and then declared, “I am the highest in the world; I am the best in the world; I am foremost in the world. This is my last birth; now there is no renewal of being for me.”[13]

This story requires some interpretive skill. Taken literally, we have a newborn who walks and speaks, never mind one who declares himself supreme. Some traditions have accepted this narrative literally, but many see in this passage a narrative device in which the future Buddha’s extraordinary abilities are rendered apparent from the moment he came into the world. Regardless of the interpretation adopted, however, it is clear that the texts do not depict a Buddha who was shy about his attainments. From the moment he was born, the future Buddha was confident about his status, declaring himself “the best in the world.” There is no performance of humility to be found.

Goshen-Gottstein, however, reminds us that real humility has little to do with performance. The etiquette our mothers have taught us functions on a very different level as compared with the humility Goshen-Gottstein associates with religious genius.

According to Goshen-Gottstein’s interpretation, real humility cannot be of the ego. It is not a performance, nor does it have to do with traditional social expectations and norms. Rather, humility in its more profound sense is the inevitable outcome of the decentering of the self. When the self has been dislodged and the ego uprooted, self-centeredness disappears and humility is the outcome – not because it is polite, but because there is no self left to call attention to.

But if there is no self to call attention to, why then does the Buddha make repeated claims about his own attainments? How do we integrate all of these ideas at once? The Buddha cannot have had a sense of a fixed self and have been the Buddha at the same time, so how do we make sense of his declarations and yet identify him with the kind of humility that is natural product of a decentered self?

The answer to these questions lies in another distinction that needs to be made. If humility has to do with the decentering of the self and arrogance has to do with the lodging of the self, then the declaration of an attainment can only be associated with arrogance if there is a sense of self. But if there is no self and if the declaration is true, then the Buddha’s declarations are not arrogant. They are simply true. The Buddha was the Buddha according to the tradition; he was awake. He did in fact “go beyond.” By making such declarations about himself, he was simply stating what was true.

There is every difference between stating a truth and acting with arrogance. The Buddha recognized his own awakening and called it as such. He declared it, according to the tradition, in order to provide an example, to be a model and a teacher that others could imitate and learn from. None of these desires came from a sense of self. They were the natural manifestations of the awakened mind that is a spring of compassion for those who have yet to see.

There is a wonderful, and even humorous, passage from the Samyutta Nikaya called the Ananda Sutta that speaks of the Buddha’s decentered, humble self – all the while addressing the subject of the self itself. The Buddha was asked by a wanderer if there was a self and the Buddha responded with silence. The wanderer then asked if there was no self, and the Buddha continued to sit in silence. The wandered eventually got up and left. Ananda, the Buddha’s disciple and chief attendant, asked for an explanation and the answer he received was as follows:

“If, Ananda, when I was asked by the wanderer Vacchagotta, ‘Is there a self?’ I had answered, ‘There is a self,’ this would have been siding with those ascetics and brahmins who are eternalists. And if, when I was asked by him, ‘Is there no self?’ I had answered, ‘There is no self,’ this would have been siding with those ascetics and brahmins who are annhilationists.

“If, Ananda, when I was asked by the wanderer Vacchagota, ‘Is there a self?’ I had answered, ‘There is a self,’ would this have been consistent on my part with the arising of the knowledge that all phenomena are nonself?”

“No, venerable sir.”

“And if, when I was asked by him, ‘Is there no self?’ I had answered, ‘There is no self,’ the wanderer Vacchagotta, already confused, would have fallen into even greater confusion, thinking, ‘It seems that the self I formerly had does not exist now.’”[14]

The issue of the self is an intellectual puzzle that cannot be easily negotiated by means of words alone. The important point for our purposes is that the Buddha is depicted as someone who went beyond the self. Any declaration he made about his non-self was not an act of self. It was a declaration of truth made for the benefit of others.

Concluding Questions

A religious genius is someone who has dislodged the idea of the self from the mind and who embodies unconditional love and humility. A religious genius imitates an ideal and embodies the qualities of that ideal, and as I have argued here, thereby becomes a model for others to imitate as well.

But is a religious genius expected to be perfect? Goshen-Gottstein wrestles with this question throughout his paper and seems to come to the conclusion that “true” religious genius does imply perfection.  True religious genius is the culmination of a long process of integration and the fulfillment of love. For the “true” religious genius, there is no imperfection left behind.

The Buddha’s hagiographers would have no argument with this view. The Buddha is promoted by the tradition as someone who attained all that can be attained, as someone with full and perfect vision, and thus as someone who has gone beyond every potential trap the mind is capable of devising. A Buddha is utterly and completely free.

While these claims can be made about a personality of the past, the obvious question that such claims of attainment raise is, how can it be true of anyone else? Or more appropriately, how can we ever know if it is true of someone else?

To expect complete perfection from a fellow human being is dangerous. Even if someone else has in fact achieved “full and perfect vision,” how are those of us who have not achieved it to know? What does such attainment look like? What can we expect of someone who has become awakened? Are flowers supposed to fall from the sky each time they speak? Are awakened beings always covered with the mysterious “32 Marks of the Great Man”? If they do not have the marks, if their skin is not golden-colored and their heads are not the shape of a turban, does that mean that they are not in fact awake?

Would an awakened being, a perfect being, always be polite? Would their views be politically correct? Would their behavior be? How, in other words, can an un-awakened community evaluate awakening in someone else? How can we know what perfection looks like when we ourselves are admittedly so far from it?

The issue of perfection is, to my mind at least, a dangerous one. I don’t think we can expect perfection from human beings, not because it is an unrealistic expectation in and of itself (although that is another problem worthy of our attention), but because we wouldn’t know what it looked like even if it was standing right before us.  As the old saying goes, we would lock up prophets and buddhas in mental wards if they appeared in the world today. They would probably seem insane to us. How do we know that the ones we consider to have some element of religious genius are not simply appealing to our own desires and projections?

A religious genius may in fact have to be thoroughly perfect to qualify for the title of “religious genius,” but if that is the case, a religious genius can be nothing more than a theory. In reality, I suspect that we would have a very hard knowing who they are.

[1] The most obvious example of a text of this sort is the magnificent hagiography, the Lalitavistara. For a translation see Gwendolyn Bays, The Lalitavistara Sutra: The Voice of the Buddha, The Beauty of Compassion, 2 vols. (Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, 1983).

[2] There are, of course, many exceptions to this rule, but for the purposes of this study, these general categories will suffice. To provide just one example, however, Asvaghosa’s classical poem, the Buddhacarita, does not really fit into any neat category of sectarian literature. It is a Sanskrit text that was written outside of the parameters of what has come to be known as the Pali Canon, but it provides a very moving, human narrative of the Buddha’s life in which he by no means “plays” the part of a man. Rather, the Buddha of this text is very much a man who has embarked upon a journey towards awakening. For a translation, see Patrick Olivelle’s recent translation, Life of the Buddha, Clay Sanskrit Library (New York: New York University Press, 2008).

[3] For comparative studies of religious founders, see especially The Rivers of Paradise: Moses, Buddha, Confucius, Jesus and Muhmmad as Religious Founders, ed. D. N. Freedman (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999); see also V. R. Sasson, The Birth of Moses and the Buddha: A Paradigm for the Comparative Study of Religions (Sheffield: Sheffield Phoenix Press, 2007).

[4] See his book, The Buddha: A Short Biography (Oxford: Oneworld, 2001).

[5] Therigatha 10:63; see Rhys-Davids, C. A. F. and K. R. Norman, trans. Poems of Early Buddhist Nuns (Therigatha) (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 1997).

[6] The argument is that Kisa Gotami seems incapable of wisdom so long as she remains entrenched in a relationship with her child. It is only once she is freed of her son that she can finally develop wisdom.  I have argued this point in a forthcoming chapter, “Maya’s Disappearing Act: Motherhood in Early Buddhist Literature” in Family in Buddhism: Buddhist Vows and Family Ties, ed. L. Wilson (NY: SUNY, forthcoming). See also, Reiko Ohnuma’s recent book, Ties that Bind: Maternal Imagery and Discourse in Indian Buddhism (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

[7] Sutta Nipata 1.8

[8] Sutta Nipata 1.7; incidentally, a very similar argument about the caste system emerges in Hindu literature as well. This is not a uniquely Buddhist perspective.

[9] For an excellent discussion of caste in Buddhism, see Jeffrey Samuels, “Buddhism and Caste in India and Sri Lanka,” Religion Compass 1.1 (2007), 120-130.

[10] As mentioned above in the section on imitation, the Buddhist narrative consistently makes the claim that the Buddha chose his rebirth very carefully and that the family’s caste was one of his considerations.

[11] Majjhima Nikaya 7; see Bhikkhu Nanamoli and Bhikkhu Bodhi, trans. The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Majjhima Nikaya (Boston: Wisdom, 1995).

[12] The Buddha’s relationship to ascetic practice is in fact much more complicated than I can describe here. There are a number of sources that explore this theme and that demonstrate the many ways in which the tradition wrestled with the question of asceticism and how far one must go to become free.

[13] This particular version is taken from the Acchariyabbhuta Sutta, from the Majjhima Nikaya 123.

[14] Ananda Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya 44:10. Translation from: Bhikkhu Bodhi, trans. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya, 2 vols (Boston: Wisdom, 2005).