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Buddhistdoor View: Celebrating the Many Lifetimes of the Bodhisattva in the Jatakas

Candles at Maha Bodhi Temple, Bodh Gaya, 21 May 2024. Image courtesy of the International Buddhist Confederation

The birth of Siddhartha Gautama was celebrated across the world in May. The exact date of the Buddha’s birthday is celebrated on different days due to varying lunisolar calendars across Asian cultures—for example, this year it is 15 May in China and 23 May in India. It seems fitting that so many regions and cultures have their own date, because the Buddha is one of the most profound and mysterious figures of human history. He is, according to both the tradition and critical history, a truly traceless personage. He is the tathagata beyond all coming and going.

Nevertheless, the Blessed One’s presence is most strongly felt this Vesak, and throughout the year, at Bodh Gaya in India, at the Mahabodhi Temple. If people want to draw close to the traceless One Who Is, they should draw their attention away from the reconstructed edifice and sit before the Bodhi tree beside it. This relatively humble, unextraordinary tree is the universal epicenter of the Buddhist world. The Bodhi tree stretches its branches over devotees and pilgrims, a silent, living witness to the traceless one.

The Buddha-era was from a period from before there was even writing in India, so in a way it is the most mysterious epoch of all, completely unreachable to us in a historical-critical sense. Buddhism emerges from this Buddha-era, without archaeology or written texts, as a tradition that appears in the Ashokan inscriptions from 268–232 BCE. This was some two or three centuries after the Buddha-era, which, according to Buddhist tradition, was 2,500–2,600 years ago.

A monk scatters flower offerings before the Bodhi tree on 21 May 2024. The flowers will then be poured at the foot of the tree, beneath the Diamond Throne. Image courtesy of the International Buddhist Confederation

Then, a little later, Buddhist beliefs appeared in illustrative form, in narrative artistic friezes in stupas and caves across the Indian subcontinent. The Bharhut Stupa conveys this art particularly beautifully. On Vesak, the energy of the Diamond Throne (vajrasana), is particularly strong. These murals tell the story of not only the life of Siddhartha Gautama, they also contain the extraordinary, originally orally transmitted Jataka tales. They comprise a genre of literature that really is quite heroic and epic—with the already-enlightened Buddha serving as narrator, the various Jataka texts describe the Buddha’s past lives and how he lived life after life as the Bodhisattva, as a monkey and other animals, as human figures such as a prince or an underprivileged person or as a heavenly being.

This is not history or even pre-history. This is primal history. He is a figure destined for enlightenment, yet his journey is a cosmic story where he “pre-enacts” the virtues that set him forth on the path of a buddha-to-be: wisdom, self-sacrifice, loving-kindness, compassion, and truthfulness—in some ways, the figure of Gautama cannot be seen without the context of the Jataka tales. He has appeared in the world again and again. One only needs to look for his presence.

There is one location that still holds his thus-gone presence in a most mysterious way. The Diamond Throne is an ancient stone slab directly below the Bodhi Tree, protected by an enclosure of stone and metal painted in gold. Also known as the Enlightenment Throne of the Buddha, the vajrasana is thought to have been placed here by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka the Great between the years of 250–33 BCE at the spot where the Buddha meditated on the eve of his Nirvana.   

The entire Buddhist diffusion and today’s Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana traditions radiate from this Bodhi tree, this location, like ripples from a stone dropped into a pond.

The Buddha of our world’s final rebirth was that of the form of Siddhartha. In some ways, to celebrate only this particular rebirth—important though it is—would seem to be like watching a movie or performance, but skipping the main bits and fast-forwarding to the climactic, satisfying ending. The ancient Greeks would have argued that for true catharsis, one should sit through the whole play to understand the full significance and emotion of the story.

Similarly, as Buddhists, we should see the Buddha’s life as a grand, trans-lifetime odyssey that goes far beyond the typical religious founder’s few decades or years preaching a new movement. There is not only one birth of the Buddha when we commemorate Vesak—there are endless births, with at least 547 that were included in the Theravada canonical collections long after they were visually told in caves and on stupas.

In this month of May, wherever we are in the world and whenever we celebrate the Buddha’s birth, enlightenment, and Mahaparinirvana, communities are enjoying a joyful ushering-in of the Buddha-era. The Buddhist flag is raised high for a cosmic epoch that goes far, far back, across many lifetimes, from the depths of primal history.

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