Evidence: what are the verifiable facts about Gautama Shakyamuni Buddha? What do archaeologists, scholars and scientists agree are the validated, authentic events?

There can be no question that Buddha was a living, historical person, born in the sixth century B.C. in what is now Nepal — whose profound teachings influenced the thinking of philosophers for the last 2600 years. Buddha’s life and teachings are not a matter of faith. His practical, method-based teachings changed much of Asia, and ultimately permeated societies around the world.

Gautama Buddha is accepted by most scholars as a real person, even if there are obviously mythical overlays for the purposes of “teaching.” The most exciting recent evidence was archeological — a likely date for Buddha’s birth.

A 2013 archeological discovery helps date Buddha lived in the 6th century BCE.

This new evidence, together with previous substantial evidence, begs the question — which stories of Buddha’s life are verifiably factual, and which stories may be embellished for teaching-purposes? Many of the Sutra stories have been verified to various extents through correlation to historical events of the time. Some of the disciples of the Buddha have been verified credibly.

The National Geographic discovery (video):

November 25, 2013— At one of Buddhism’s most revered pilgrimage sites, a National Geographic archaeologist’s team has uncovered evidence that the Buddha lived in the sixth century B.C., much earlier than some scholars had believed. The excavation at Lumbini, Nepal, long identified as the birthplace of the Buddha, revealed a previously unknown timber shrine once stood there, it’s walls mirroring more recent brick temples.

A documentary on Coningham’s exploration of the Buddha’s life, “Buried Secrets of the Buddha,” will premiere on the National Geographic Channel.

 

Birth of Buddha — 6th Century BCE

In 2013, National Geographic reported on archaeologists in Nepal who discovered verifiable evidence of a structure at the birthplace of the Buddha — dating to the sixth century B.C. As quoted from the National Geographic Society (Nov 25, 2013):

“Pioneering excavations within the sacred Maya Devi Temple at Lumbini, Nepal, a UNESCO World Heritage site long identified as the birthplace of the Buddha, uncovered the remains of a previously unknown sixth-century B.C. timber structure under a series of brick temples. Laid out on the same design as those above it, the timber structure contains an open space in the center that links to the nativity story of the Buddha himself…”

Their peer-reviewed findings are reported in the December 2013 issue of the international journal Antiquity. The research is partly supported by the National Geographic Society.

“UNESCO is very proud to be associated with this important discovery at one of the most holy places for one of the world’s oldest religions,” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova, who urged “more archaeological research, intensified conservation work and strengthened site management” to ensure Lumbini’s protection.

 

Buddha’s wonderful birth is accepted as fact. Although elements of stories can be taken as literal truth (that Buddha was born), most modern Buddhists might understand that the sutra story is possibly embellished — with enriching symbolism — such as Buddha walking immediately after birth and lotus blossoms springing from the ground where he stepped. Is this a false story? No, it’s a spiritual truth wrapped in a story-telling metaphor (at worst) — and there’s absolutely no harm in taking it as literal truth.

Buddha’ Enlightenment

How verifiable is the most famous story of Buddha’s amazing life — his Enlightenment beneath the Bodhi tree? According to Biography.com:

“According to the most widely known story of his life, after experimenting with different teachings for years, and finding none of them acceptable, Siddhartha Gautama spent a fateful night in deep meditation beneath a tree. During his meditation, all of the answers he had been seeking became clear, and he achieved full awareness, thereby becoming Buddha.”

The majority of scholars accept this story as “nonmythical” — that Buddha did contemplate in this way. Clearly, he did become one of the greatest and most influential teachers, based on the realizations he attained in his meditations.

 

Accepted as fact: Buddha sat under the Bodhi Tree and meditated to atain realizations. Metaphorical truths: Buddha sits unperturbed under the Bodhi tree, assailed by the demon hoards of Mara. The demons can be seen as inner demons transformed by meditation or can be seen in a more literal sense.

 

Verifiable Facts

Buddha tending the sick. This story in sutra is almost certainly based on historical events.

Scholars agree on certain verifiable facts — verified not only by archaelogical evidence, but hisotorical documentations. The events of his life that are widely accepted as verifiableare:

 

  • Buddha was born (currently dated to 6th century B.C) in Lumbini, present-day Nepal.
  • Buddha taught Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.
  • Buddha’s “Middle Way” path not only grew into one of the most widely practiced spiritual paths — his teachings influenced other teachers and paths.
  • Buddha initially taught five ascetics — with whom he had practiced asceticism.
  • Buddha became a monk. He taught both monks and lay followers.
  • Buddha admitted women to the Sangha of practitioners — revolutionary for his time.
  • Buddha taught Buddha Dharma for many decades — to numerous disciples who later recorded his teachings (Suttas or Sutras.)
  • Buddha’s Dharma influenced culture all over India, and later many parts of Asia.
  • Buddha died in India around the age of 80. In most accounts he died from eating spoiled food.
  • Buddha’s name was Siddhartha Gautama

 

Verifiable Fact: Buddha’s first teaching was on the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What about the “nonverified facts”

Metaphorical Fact: Buddha descends from Tushita heaven, one of the Eight Great Deeds of the Buddha — celebrated on Lhabab Duchen. Although this is a key story, it is unlikely to be verifiable by archeology or science. It is not so much a matter of faith, as an expression of core truth in story-form.

Buddhists accept the word of the Buddha as profound and uncorrupted. Does that mean that sutras containing mystical and magical stories are considered “conventional provable reality?” That is for individuals to decide. Buddha famously taught with skillfull means. Jakata tales, which are tales of his “past lives” can be viewed as literal or metaphor. In Buddha Dharma, where Conventional Reality and Ultimate Reality overlap and interact, there is no difference. Does it matter if he preached on Vulture mountain before millions of Devas (gods) and arhats? Not really. Language and metaphor and symbolism are all part of skillful means.

Authenticity of sutras

Does that mean we should doubt the sutras? Buddha himself taught his followers to doubt everything, question everything, challenge everything.

 

Cover of a precious copy of the Heart Sutra. Heart Sutra contains brilliant philosophical truths that have been widely embraced worldwide. This teaching is not part of the original Pali Canon, which is widely accepted as mostly historically aligned. Yet, it contains such astonishing, undeniable truths, that this sutra transcends one spiritual path. The doctrine of Shunyata is timeless — and requires no scientific verification. It is also not a matter of faith.

 

The point is not to get trapped in arguments of “this was verifiable” and “this was a myth with a lesson.” The point is to embrace the teachings for its practical benefits in our lives today.

Lee-Clark-buddha-weekly-5

Lee Kane

Author | Buddha Weekly

Lee Kane is the editor of Buddha Weekly, since 2007. His main focuses as a writer are mindfulness techniques, meditation, Dharma and Sutra commentaries, Buddhist practices, international perspectives and traditions, Vajrayana, Mahayana, Zen. He also covers various events.
Lee also contributes as a writer to various other online magazines and blogs.

Other Popular Stories

Invalid Email

Leave a Comment





This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.