32 - The Practice of Not-Knowing: Relief, Intimacy, and Ground for Effective Action
October Break Message


This episode finishes up my story of Shakyamuni Buddha’s life. It continues with the development of the early Sangha, including the ordination of women and the establishment of a code of discipline for monastics. It also covers teachings given by the Buddha not already mentioned in earlier episodes, and some of the more dramatic and colorful stories about the Buddha and the early Buddhist community.

Read/listen to Life of Shakyamuni Buddha Part 3



Further Sangha Development: Establishment of Monasteries
Further Sangha Development: Foundation of the Nun’s Order
Further Sangha Development: A Code of Discipline for Monks
More on the Buddha’s Teachings
Paticca-Samuppada: Dependent Arising
The Fire Sermon
Other Subjects Covered in the Buddha’s Teachings
Disagreements and Conflicts in the Community
Devadatta Tries to Kill the Buddha
Supernatural Powers and Events – Pali Canon
A Supernatural Story from a Non-Canonical Source


This is the sixth episode in my more or less chronological description of Buddhism, starting from before the birth of Shakyamuni Buddha, but it’s actually the eighth episode on the Zen Studies Podcast that’s historical in nature. You can browse my history episodes here, under the category “Buddhist History,” or in chronological order in terms of their subject matter (there’s a link to the chronological list on the Buddhist History category page).

This is the last episode I’ll spend – at least for now – on the subject of the Buddha’s life. I’ve already covered his birth, childhood, spiritual search, and enlightenment (Episode 11 and Episode 12). In the interest of giving you a sense of the overall arc of his life, I’ve also summarized his teaching career, and talked about his final teachings and death – and then, in the last episode, I backtracked a little in order to go into more detail about the 45 years the Buddha spent teaching, and the development of the Buddhist community (Episode 17). There’s so much to cover in that 45 years, I had to continue that story in this episode.

I’ll cover a number of topics, and while they all occurred within the Buddha’s 45-year teaching career, they aren’t presented chronologically because we don’t actually know that much about the order in which all of this unfolded. First, I’ll continue my story about the growth and development of the early Buddhist Sangha, or practice community, focusing particularly on the ordination of women, and the creation of a code of discipline for both male and female monastics. Then I’ll try to give you a sense of content of the Buddha’s teaching over his lifetime – not an easy task, seeing as the canonical English translations of the Pali texts about the Buddha are over 12,000 pages long – that’s about 50 volumes![1] Third, I’ll share some of the more dramatic and interesting stories from Shakyamuni’s life, including tales of conflict within the Sangha, scandal, assassination attempts, and the Buddha’s performance of supernormal powers.

Further Sangha Development: Establishment of Monasteries

I mentioned in the last History episode (Episode 17) that the Buddha’s community of followers grew quickly after he started teaching. It wasn’t long before there were thousands of monks and lay followers, fully enlightened disciples who could teach in their own right, and a formal process of monastic ordination.

Another development was the creation of monasteries. Wealthy lay people eventually donated land and erected dwellings so the monks could stay together – particularly during the rainy season – in safety and relative comfort (although always in very austere and simple conditions). The ideal locations for these monasteries were out in the countryside, but not so far from the nearest town, so monks could go to the town and beg for food, and lay people could come to the monastery for teachings. Over the course of his life, the Buddha spent a great deal of time at one or another of these monastic compounds, which sprung up all over northern India – generally alternating where he stayed out of consideration for the lay people who appreciated it when he stayed on the property they had donated, or near where they lived so they could easily visit.

Further Sangha Development: Foundation of the Nun’s Order

Fairly early on in the development of the Sangha, women began asking Shakyamuni for ordination. This was called “going forth from the household life,” and according to the Pali Canon, the Buddha initially refused to ordain women. Eventually, his own aunt and step-mother, Mahapajapati (who had raised him since he was an infant), asked him for ordination three separate times, and he refused each time.[2] (It was traditional to have to ask three times for permission to do something that was a very serious matter.) She then cut her hair off anyway, put on yellow robes, and with a bunch of other women who had similar aspirations, walked a long distance to where the Buddha had traveled. She stood outside, dust-covered and weeping, until Shakyamuni’s attendant monk, Ananda, noticed her. When he asked what was wrong, she explained it was because the Buddha, or “Blessed One,” would not allow ordination for women.

Ananda asks her to wait, and then goes and tells the Buddha what’s happening. Ananda then says, “Lord, it would be good if women might obtain the going forth from the house life into homelessness in the Dhamma and Discipline declared by the Perfect One.”[3] Shakyamuni refuses, even after Ananda asks three times. Finally, Ananda asks the Buddha whether women are capable, if they go forth from the household life, of realizing all the levels of spiritual attainment, including arhatship. The Buddha replies, “They are, Ananda.” “If that is so, Lord,” Ananda replies, “then since Mahāpajāpatī Gotamī has been exceedingly helpful to the Blessed One when as his mother’s sister she was his nurse, his foster mother, his giver of milk—she suckled the Blessed One when his own mother died—since that is so, Lord, it would be good if women could obtain the going forth.”

This does the trick, and finally the Buddha says women can be admitted to the Sangha. However, he says that in order for this to happen, women have to accept eight special rules subordinating the bhikkhuni, or nun’s, Sangha, to the bhikkhu, or male monastic, Sangha. These include the rule that any bhikkhuni, no matter how long ordained, is considered junior to a male bhikkhu even if he has only been ordained a day. This rule has a huge impact on the bhikkhuni sangha, because monastic seniority is the main organizing principle within the ordained community. Other of the eight rules state that the bhikkhuni sangha must invite and accept oversight and censure from the bhikkhu sangha, but the ordained women must never admonish any male monastic, in any circumstances.

The women who wanted ordination readily agreed to the eight special rules largely without argument, the Buddha gave them the “going forth,” and the bhikkhuni sangha was formed. While the special rules may seem unfair and sexist, it’s important to remember that it was incredibly radical for Shakyamuni to ordain women at all. The path of ordination allowed women to leave behind their household lives, where they would have been subject to the will of their male relatives and to ceaseless childbirth, in order to live in a woman-led community dedicated to spiritual practice and study. The requirement that their community be subordinate to that of the male monastics would have probably seemed a very small, and even expected, price to pay – although apparently Mahapajati did ask her adopted son, the Buddha, whether he would at least allow monastics to pay respects based on seniority regardless of whether the senior was a bhikkhu or a bhikkhuni, but her son refused.[4]

Further Sangha Development: A Code of Discipline for Monks

Also early on the development of the Buddhist community, a code of discipline for monastics was developed. This code was built slowly, as needed, and eventually consisted of hundreds of rules governing the daily life and conduct of bhikkhus and bhikkhunis, as well as texts prescribing how to accept people into the sanghas, perform appropriate ceremonies, and conduct the daily affairs of the ordained community.

I cover the establishment of the code of discipline, or Pātimokkha, in Episode 22: Evolution of the Buddhist Precepts Part 1, so I won’t go into great detail about it here. In summary, the Buddha explained to his disciples that the “holy life” – meaning the life of practice being created by his followers – wouldn’t last very long unless it had a Pātimokkha to bind it together. His disciples requested him to establish one asap, but he said he would only establish rules as they became necessary (that is, when monastics misbehaved or there was conflict in the sangha).[5]

The first rule – against monastics engaging in sexual intercourse – was instituted when a bhikkhu named Sudinna gave in to pressure from his family to impregnate his former wife in order to produce an heir. The Buddha admonished Sudinna, saying his action was completely unfitting for a monk, and that, in the future, any monastic who had sexual intercourse would be expelled from the Sangha and no longer considered ordained. Many subsequent rules were added, one by one as the situation called for them, and each rule was associated with a particular repercussion. Expulsion – called parajika, or defeat – was the most drastic punishment, and only applied for a handful of rules.

As I explain in Episode 22, eventually there were approximately 227 rules for male monastics created within the Buddha’s lifetime, and these are categorized according their associated penalty. Penalties range all the way from expulsion to the simple requirement that a monastic confess his error to another monk and try to do better. In fact, about 75 of the Pātimokkha rules are simply guidelines for training and behavior and don’t actually have any penalty associated with them. The rules cover everything from when and how often a monastic may eat, where he may sleep, how many possessions he can have, and how he should walk and sit. (I give you a nice sampling of the many Pātimokkha rules in Episode 22.)

The Buddha stipulated that the bhikkhus and bhikkhunis should hold community meetings on new moon and full moon days, at which point they would recite the Pātimokkha rules and make any necessary confessions or decisions about the status of offending monastics.[6] These “holy days” were (and still are) called the “Uposatha” days. Shakyamuni also instructed that the ordained Sangha should be ready to exclude anyone who “who is unvirtuous, wicked, of suspect habits, secretive of his acts, no monk but claiming to be one, not leading the holy life but claiming to do so, rotten within, libidinous and full of corruption…”[7] Notably, this instruction for the monastics to essentially police one another was modified and restrained by a number of important rules governing exactly how the community should conduct inquiries and make decisions – including the requirement that the accused should be able to be present to hear the accusations made against him.[8]

More on the Buddha’s Teachings

In trying to give you a sense of the Buddha’s life, it’s essential, of course, to talk about what he taught. However, it is not an easy task to summarize or even adequately represent such teachings; as I mentioned earlier, the English translation of the Pali Canon is over 12,000 pages long, and much of the text covers teachings of the Buddha in one form or another.

In the last History episode, Episode 17 – Life of Shakyamuni Buddha Part 3: Buddha’s First Sermons and Students, and the Early Sangha, I covered some of the first, and most famous, of Shakyamuni’s early teachings, including his first sermon on the Four Noble Truths and Eightfold Noble Path, his second sermon on not identifying anything as self, or as belonging to self, and his sermon on the Four Foundations of Mindfulness. There are two other classic, foundational teachings the Buddha gave that should be mentioned.

Paticca-Samuppada: Dependent Arising

The first is the teaching of paticca-samuppada, which is translated in many ways, including “the 12-fold chain of dependent origination,” “interdependent emergence,” and “dependent arising.” Discourses on dependent arising can be found throughout the Canon, and they present some of the most challenging of Buddhist teachings, seeming to many of us to be rather complicated, analytical, and of limited application to one’s daily life (no offense intended to those who love the teaching of dependent arising). However, this is a foundational part of what the Buddha taught; I’ll go into detail about it in a future “Buddha’s Teachings” episode and hopefully make it more relatable; here, I’ll just summarize it for you so you can put it in the context of the Buddha’s life story.

According to Shakyamuni, during his enlightenment he saw how it was that the whole cycle of worldly suffering was perpetuated.[9] Remember, the way many people of his time saw it, beings were locked in a cycle of rebirth, which meant that after death they would be reborn in this world countless times, and consequently be subject to the pains of birth, old age, illness, death, loss, etc. over and over. It was something of a negative worldview, it’s true, which I discuss it at length in Episode 28, and in my series of episodes on the Six Realms. Suffice it to say, spiritual seekers of the Buddha’s time were looking for a way to liberate themselves from the repetitious pattern of rebirth and suffering.

The Buddha explains that he saw how aging and death depended, of course, on birth.[10] Without birth, there would be no aging and death. Pretty straightforward. But Shakyamuni traced the chain of causation all the back to its origins, identifying some subtle and existential aspects of the human experience.

[The 12 links are underlined in this paragraph:] In short, the Buddha saw that because of fundamental ignorance (that is, about the nature of reality – particularly impermanence, non-self, and the causes and cessation of suffering), basic karma-producing volitional activities arise. (You might even call this “self-interest.”) Around our volitional activities of body, speech, and mind, a sense of self-consciousness forms. This consciousness then animates and makes meaningful our nama-rupa, or name-and-form (that is, our physical body and associated mental phenomena). Dependent on a conscious nama-rupa are the six senses, and because of the six senses there ends up being contact between the senses and the world. This leads to feeling (that is, basic sensations we identify as pleasant, unpleasant, or neutral), and feeling leads to craving (desiring some experiences over others). Due to craving, clinging arises, or the will to grasp after certain things and push away others. Clinging leads to becoming, or more elaborate volitional, self-interested actions that develop into habits and tendencies. Becoming leads to birth, or perpetuation of the whole cycle, which inevitably leads to old age and death. Then, if you’re still ignorant when you die, the karmic momentum you’ve built up toward clinging and self-preservation continues and causes another rebirth.

Now, don’t worry if you weren’t able to follow all of that, or if doesn’t make any sense to you; as Buddhist teachings go, I personally don’t think this is one you need to fully grasp. However, the “take-home” message of dependent arising is essential to Buddhism, and it’s this: the chain of causation that keeps human beings trapped in suffering can be broken, and the critical weak links in the chain are ignorance and clinging. This was a radical aspect of the Buddha’s teaching. As I explained in Episode 6 – Arising of Buddhism Part 2, other spiritual teachers of Shakyamuni’s time suggested that, in order to liberate yourself from the cycle of transmigration, you needed to conduct ceremonies for the gods, or purify yourself through asceticism. In contrast, the Buddha taught that insight into the nature of reality – breaking the causal chain at ignorance – would itself be liberative. In addition, practitioners could gain insight into how clinging leads to dukkha, or suffering, and raise the aspiration to break the causal chain there – refusing to cling regardless of their preferences or cravings.

The Fire Sermon

The second of the classic teachings I feel I should mention is called the Fire Sermon. This teaching is traditionally presented as one of the three most foundational of the Buddha’s sermons, along with the Turning the Wheel of the Dharma Sutra (on the Four Noble Truths), and the Discourse on the Not-Self Characteristic. Among modern Buddhists, I suspect I’m not alone in finding the Fire Sermon fairly negative and life-denying; this probably isn’t the first sermon you’d want share with someone if you were introducing them to Buddhism. However, the Fire Sermon reflects the fairly ascetic and monastic core of Buddhist teachings and shouldn’t be ignored.

So, here it is: Early on in his teaching career, the Buddha explains to his monks that everything they experience or can conceive of is burning, or “aflame.”[11] All physical forms are aflame, as are the senses, consciousness, everything experienced by the senses, pleasant, unpleasant, and neutral feelings, the body, the intellect, ideas, and so on. (The Buddha proceeds through a list in the manner typical of orally transmitted texts, meant to basically imply “everything.”) He says all things are aflame with the fire of grasping, aversion, and delusion (the three poisons at the root of all harmful action), and with “birth, aging and death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses, and despairs.” What does the Buddha mean by this? Basically, that you can’t cling to anything without getting burned – that is, without getting sucked into the causal chain of dependent arising, eventually creating habits based on the three poisons and experiencing the grief and frustration that seems to be such an inevitable part of human existence, at least at certain times.

The Fire Sermon’s teaching about everything being “aflame” with negative and painful qualities and potential may seem extreme, but purpose of this teaching is very specific: to inspire practitioners to give up clinging, that critical step in the chain of dependent arising. The Fire Sermon explains how a disciple who sees how everything is aflame “grows disenchanted” with the things of the world, including his own body and life. Disenchanted, the sutra says, he grows dispassionate, and then is liberated through “no clinging.” I could go into the nature of this Buddhist teaching at length, and I’ll do so at some point in the future. Suffice to say, for now, that austere teachings about dispassion or detachment are used in Buddhism as an antidote to our incredibly strong attachment to life – particularly to the safety, survival, comfort, and happiness of ourselves and our loved ones. It can be extremely hard not to cling, even when we know it’s not helping anything. When we’re stuck in clinging, it can helpful to contemplate how clinging leads to getting burned, one way or another. (Note: I talk about how non-attachment can be positive in Episode 13 – What Zen “Acceptance” and “Non-Attachment” Really Are.)

Other Subjects Covered in the Buddha’s Teachings

As for the rest of the teachings the Buddha gave during his life, I wanted to give you a sense of their topics and variety, so I created a short list by spending a couple of hours browsing on the Access to Insight website (if you search the Tipitaka section of the site, you can get lists of major sutras along with short summaries of their content). The Buddha gave numerous teachings and sermons in each of these subject categories:

  • Outlines of the overall path of practice
  • How moral behavior, discipline, and diligent effort are essential for any progress on the Buddhist path
  • Instructions for mindfulness and meditation, particularly for cultivating insight and decreasing attachment
  • Practices to keep the mind clear and calm, including guarding the senses, restraining the mind, and contemplation of teachings to inspire disenchantment and dispassion
  • Methods for cultivating positive qualities that enable and support spiritual practice and insight (such as diligence, serenity, and concentration)
  • Methods for eliminating defilements (such as sensuality, views, or ignorance) from the mind and unskillful qualities from the heart
  • Methods for dealing with unskillful thoughts (such as those connected to grasping, aversion, or delusion)
  • How defilements are powerful not because of their own nature, but because of our attachment to them
  • Reminders that everything in the universe is impermanent and ungraspable, including the self, and that clinging leads to dukkha, or stress and suffering
  • How the goal of Buddhist practice should be freedom from all views, not the adoption of new ones, and instructions for how to identify and drop views
  • How the Buddha’s teaching rejects all doctrines of self, including the idea that there is no self
  • Descriptions of different levels of meditation and attainment, and how to work through them in order to attain full enlightenment
  • Descriptions of the characteristics and behavior of awakened beings and the nature of liberation, or nibbana, and of the “fruits of the contemplative life”

While most of the Buddha’s teachings, at least those recorded in the Pali Canon, were about foundational doctrine and practices, he gave a surprising number of other, more specific teachings as well, including:

  • Teachings specifically for householders, including descriptions of five kinds of wrong livelihood (dealing in weapons, human beings, meat, intoxicants, poison) and unvirtuous actions that lead to a loss of wealth and reputation
  • How all people, regardless of caste, race, past, health, or age, can attain liberation if they diligently practice
  • The role of teachers and how to choose one
  • The absolute importance of acting with great generosity if you are wealthy
  • Advice on how to free yourself from obsessive grieving
  • How to live in the world without succumbing to hostility, violence, rivalry, ill will
  • How to tell if something is good or right
  • The fruitlessness of war

Disagreements and Conflicts in the Community

While most of the stories in the Pali Canon cover the Buddha’s teachings and interactions with disciples, there are also a number of colorful stories about the Sangha of monks, lay Buddhists, and interactions with the wider community.

In one account, members of a competing religious sect resented the honor and support the Buddhists were getting, and schemed to ruin the Sangha’s reputation. In a drastic move, they killed a wandering Buddhist nun, Sundari, and somehow managed to bury her in the Jeta’s Grove, one of the Sangha’s properties where monks gathered to practice. Then the killers went to the local king, told him Sundari was missing, and encouraged him to search the Jeta’s Grove. When the body was found, the competing sect accused the Sangha of the murder. People started to abuse the monks and the Sangha’s reputation was ruined. Amazingly, the Buddha advised his monks to simply wait out the scandal, instructing them to calmly respond to abuse with a simple verse about how terrible it is to lie, and eventually the uproar passed.[12]

Another story describes a prolonged disagreement within the Sangha of monks, where two factions developed.[13] One rallied behind a monk who was accused of an offense against the monastic code of discipline but who claimed his innocence, and the other faction demanded that the monk confess and make amends. Quarrels and disputes spread through the community. The Buddha exhorted the monks to stop fighting, but they basically told him to mind his own business. At this point Shakyamuni said to himself, “When many voices shout at once, there is none thinks himself a fool.” Eventually, the Buddha goes off into private retreat, and reflects on how he had formerly been living in discomfort, “pestered by those… bhikkhus who quarrel, brawl, wrangle, harangue, and litigate in the midst of the Sangha,” but now he was living alone, at ease and in comfort.[14]

In the meantime, the lay followers of the Buddha rightly blamed the quarreling monks for the fact that they no longer got to hear Shakyamuni’s teaching or see him. The lay people decided they would no longer pay homage to the monks or give them any almsfood, hoping the bhikkhus will resolve their dispute and make amends to the Buddha, or just go away. Fortunately, this general strike by the lay Buddhists had the desired effect; the accused monk copped to his transgression, the Sangha forgave and reinstated him, and the matter was considered settled. The method by which this was done was then established as procedure for resolving Sangha disputes going forward, and the Buddha returned to the community.[15]

Devadatta Tries to Kill the Buddha

In one of the most dramatic stories from the Buddha’s life, his first cousin, Devadatta, tries to usurp Shakyamuni’s place as leader of the Sangha. Devadatta was an ordained Buddhist monk, but clearly hadn’t left behind his competitiveness, and greed for power and reputation.

First, Devadatta impresses some royalty with his supernatural powers – an established no-no for monks. When the Buddha hears about this, he says Devadatta’s own actions will be his undoing. Then Devadatta encourages his cousin to retire and leave the leadership of the Sangha of bhikkhus to him. Shakyamuni gives an uncharacteristically harsh response, saying that he wasn’t even ready to hand over the Sangha to his top disciples, let alone “a wastrel, a clot of spittle” like Devadatta. The fact that the Buddha makes this denigrating statement in public bothers his cousin to no end, and Devadatta starts compiling a list of grudges. Eventually, the ambitious monk’s behavior gets so outrageous that Shakyamuni has to ask the Sangha to denounce his cousin.[16]

Devadatta responds with all kinds of intrigue. He manipulates and tempts the prince he has impressed with his powers, telling the prince to kill his father and become king, and to help Devadatta to kill Shakyamuni so he can become the Buddha. The king abdicates to his son in order to prevent bloodshed, but Devadatta’s attempts to usurp the Buddha don’t go so smoothly. Every assassin sent to kill the enlightened one ends up not doing it, regretting their actions, and becoming one of Shakyamuni’s disciples. Frustrated, Devadatta takes on the task himself, and hurls a huge stone down on his cousin from the side of a mountain – but the mountain itself essentially reaches up to catch the rock before it can hit the Buddha. In his final assassination attempt, Devadatta lets a savage, man-killing elephant loose in his cousin’s path – but the Buddha simply pacifies the creature, who actually pays the Blessed One homage by picking up some dust in its trunk and then touching it to its forehead.

Devadatta still doesn’t give up making trouble, and later creates a schism in the Sangha by convincing 500 bhikkhus to follow him in committing to more stringent self-denial (which always impressed lay supporters). Shakyamuni sends his two top disciples to visit the schismatics, and after one calm Dharma talk from the Buddha’s disciples, all the bhikkhus head back to the Buddha. The Pali Canon doesn’t give an account of Devadatta’s end, although other sources say at some point the earth opened up and he fell straight into hell. However, in the Canon the Buddha does identify the three evil things that will lead his cousin to hell: evil wishes, evil friends, and stopping halfway on the spiritual path with the attainment of “the mere earthly distinction of supernatural powers.”[17]

Supernatural Powers and Events – Pali Canon

Speaking of supernatural powers, I’ll wrap up my account of the Buddha’s life with a few classic accounts of the Buddha demonstrating such powers, or being caught up in supernatural events. By “supernatural” I mean explicable only by forces beyond scientific understanding, or beyond the laws of nature as normally perceived by human beings. Of course, there have certainly been many such accounts in our story already, beginning before the Buddha’s birth and continuing all through his life. For example, he’s regularly described as interacting with devas, or gods, as well as demons and beings from other realms of existence.

To some modern Buddhists, the celestial and miraculous stories about the Buddha may seem incongruous, given how rational and down-to-earth most of the Buddha’s teachings are. However, I’ll remind you that for most of human history, and even today, most people find it normal to believe in at least some aspects of a supernatural reality. Note, however, that it’s not necessary to accept Buddhist accounts of the supernatural as true in order to study and practice Buddhism. If it helps you, go ahead and consider these stories either to be mythological – and therefore valuable as regards their underlying message – or cultural accretions that aren’t essential to Buddhism.

Anyway, in the Pali Canon, the Buddha is frequently asked to demonstrate marvels “of supernormal power higher than the human state” in order to increase the faith and confidence of his followers. The background assumption, of course, is that anyone of Shakyamuni’s spiritual caliber would possess supernatural powers. However, for the most part the Buddha refuses requests to perform marvels and miracles, explaining that there are three categories of such powers: 1) The miracle of psychic power, which allows one to perform miraculous feats like walking on water or visiting the realms of the gods; 2) the miracle of telepathy, consisting of the ability to read minds; and 3) the miracle of instruction, consisting of instructing people, effectively, what to do for their own good (that is, in a way they’ll understand and actually be willing to accept). Only this third kind of miracle has any merit, the Buddha says, and performance of the first two kinds of marvels makes him “feel horrified, humiliated, and disgusted.”[18]

Despite not emphasizing supernatural powers or showing them off, the Buddha relied on them at various times in order teach or make a point, even according to the Pali Canon. For example, in one sutra, the Buddha looks into the hell realm by means of his “divine eye, purified and surpassing the human,” and gives his monks a long, detailed description of how beings are judged in hell according to their past deeds. Shakyamuni then describes quite a number of the torments of hell, in graphic detail.[19] In another example, in order to convert the serial murderer Angulimala, the Buddha employs a feat of psychic power. Angulimala, so named because he wore of garland (mala) made of the fingers (anguli) of the many people he had killed, runs after Shakyamuni in order to murder him. However, the killer can’t catch up with the monk no matter how hard he runs – even though the Buddha is just walking calmly. Angulimala finally shouts, “Stop!” But the Buddha replies, “You stop.” After their ensuing conversation, Angulimala repents and becomes a monk.[20]

A Supernatural Story from a Non-Canonical Source

Of course, if you depart from using the Pali Canon as the source for stories about the Buddha’s life, the tales of supernatural happenings gets dramatically more colorful. According to the “Commentary on the Dhammapada” (Dhammapada-atthakatha), considered a “post-canonical source” but still written in Pali and very old, the Buddha made a one-time exception to his general principle of not demonstrating supernormal powers in order to impress people. A group of various non-Buddhist adepts challenges Shakyamuni to the equivalent of a magical power duel. The non-Buddhists don’t expect the Buddha to accept the challenge, and when he surprises them by doing so, they try their best to avoid the contest altogether because they know they’ll lose. When Shakyamuni says he has to perform his feat at the foot of a mango tree because that’s the only appropriate place for a Buddha to do so, the adepts uproot all the mango trees in the region.

The Buddha performing the miracle at Sravasti

However, the Buddha simply eats a ripe mango, plants the pit, and washes his hands over it. Instantly, the mango seed sprouts and grows into a giant tree. At the foot of the tree, Shakyamuni then performs a dazzling series of marvels, including the “miracle of double appearances,” where flames shoot out of his upper body and water pours from the lower part, and then he reverses the spectacle so water comes out the top and flames out the bottom. The flames and water shoot up to the heavens, while the Buddha walks up and down an elevated, jeweled walkway, preaching the Dharma. At one point, he creates a double of himself so he can both ask appropriate Dharma questions and answer them.

Again, nothing in Buddhism is dependent on belief in supernatural powers, celestial realms, or anything like that. Personally, I enjoy thinking about these kinds of supernatural accounts as evidence that early Buddhists wanted to build respect for their new religion, and establish the superiority of Buddhism over spiritual paths that promised flashier results, like psychic powers – by asserting that truly accomplished Buddhists did have supernatural powers, they were just above using them.


As I described in Episode 12 – Life of Shakyamuni Buddha Part 2, the Buddha taught and lived with his community right up until his death at age 80. He assured his followers that after he was gone, all they had to do was rely on the teachings he left, or the Dharma, and on their own ability to differentiate what causes suffering from what leads to liberation. Since Shakyamuni’s passing, Buddhists have done just that for over 2,500 years, and in some ways the whole character of the religion is marked by the fact that its founder never encouraged people’s dependence on him, but taught them to realize for themselves the path of practice and liberative insight he had discovered.

That concludes, at least for now, my account of the life of Shakyamuni Buddha. In my next chronological history episode, I’ll pick up the story from immediately after the Buddha’s death, beginning with his funeral, the distribution and treatment of his relics, and the first councils of the ordained Sangha.



Nanamoli, Bhikkhu. The Life of the Buddha: According to the Pali Canon. Seattle, Washington: Pariyatti Publishing, 1972.
Strong, John S. The Buddha: A Short Biography. Oxford, England: Oneworld Publications, 2001.


Photo Credit

Scuplture of the Buddha during the great miracle of Sravasti (Le grand miracle de Sravasti ou le double miracle de l’eau et du feu. Afghanistan, région du Kapiça, monastère de Paitava, IIIe siècle, schiste. Musée Guimet). By Ddalbiez (Own work) [GFDL or CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons.



[1] http://www.accesstoinsight.org/faq.html#tipitaka
[2] Nanamoli pg. 104 (Vin. Cv. 10:1; A. 8:51)
[3] Nanamoli, pg 104, Location 2239
[4] Nanamoli pg 107
[5] Nanamoli pg. 128 (Vin. Sv. Para. I)
[6] Nanamoli pg. 160 (Vin. Mv. 2:3)
[7] Nanamoli pg 160 (Vin. Cv. 9:1)
[8]Bhikkhu Pāṭimokkha: The Bhikkhus’ Code of Discipline”, translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 17 December 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/vin/sv/bhikkhu-pati.html.
[9] Nanamoli pg 25 (S. 12:65)
[10] “Paticca-samuppada-vibhanga Sutta: Analysis of Dependent Co-arising” (SN 12.2), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn12/sn12.002.than.html.
[11] “Adittapariyaya Sutta: The Fire Sermon” (SN 35.28), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn35/sn35.028.than.html.
[12] Nanamoli pg 140 (Ud. 4:8)
[13] Nanamoli pg 110 (Vin. Mv. 10:1)
[14] Nanamoli pg 115 (Vin. Mv. 10:4)
[15] Nanamoli pg 119 (Vin. Mv. 10:5)
[16] Nanamoli pg 258 (Vin. Cv. 7:2-3)
[17] Nanamoli pg 271 (Vin. Cv. 7:4)
[18] “Kevatta (Kevaddha) Sutta: To Kevatta” (DN 11), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/dn/dn.11.0.than.html.
[19] “Devaduta Sutta: The Deva Messengers” (MN 130), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.130.than.html.
[20] “Angulimala Sutta: About Angulimala” (MN 86), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (Legacy Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/mn/mn.086.than.html.


32 - The Practice of Not-Knowing: Relief, Intimacy, and Ground for Effective Action
October Break Message