A couple of months ago I was surprised to come across the Buddha in the news. It was a piece about something that I had missed when reported in late 2013. Following a three year archaeology dig at the birthplace of the Buddha in Nepal, it was discovered that he lived much earlier than previously thought.
In a Guardian piece, I read about a three-year dig on the site of the Maya Devi temple at Lumbini in Nepal. During this, Professor Robin Coningham and his team of 40 archaeologists discovered a tree shrine that, using the marvels of carbon-dating, predates all known Buddhist sites by at least 300 years, placing the birth around the sixth century BCE.
I’m still not quite sure why, but this was exciting news and I’ve enjoyed telling school parties about it. Lumbini is the place where the first Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama was born. Many accounts of Gautama’s life are clearly mythological and historians and students of Buddhism don’t always agree that he was a historical figure. Yet, the discourses of the early Buddhist canon vividly describe a historical society that matches what archaeologists tell us of the time, as well as a portrait of a man who seems like an actual person. (See Gautama Buddha by Vishvapani Blomfield.)
At the same time, I’m familiar with the accounts, often from later Buddhist schools that describe the Buddha’s birth for example as a kind of a miracle where he walked immediately, his first steps being supported by magically appearing lotus flowers.
For me, the Buddha is an inspiring combination of a world-shaping historical man like Jesus or Mohammad and a legendary, archetypal figure. My Buddhist teacher has often spoken of two truths: the scientific/historical as well as the mythological/poetic. We need both. Archaeologists can provide evidence to satisfy rational scepticism and the myths can speak to our hearts and aspirations. We only need to look at the success and wide appeal of superheroes and heroines, whether in ancient myths, comics or block buster films.
I’m grateful to scientists like Professor Coningham who, with his colleagues, spent three years on a damp and cold dig in Nepal. Because of their more accurate timing, we gain a clearer idea of the political and economic context into which Gautama Buddha emerged:
It was a time of huge transition where traditional societies were being rocked by the emergence of cities, kings, coins and an emerging middle class. It was precisely at that time that Buddha was preaching renunciation – that wealth and belongings are not everything.
Either way you look at him, the Buddha was a revolutionary figure, one of many emerging in that significant period, often known as the Axial Age, including Confucius, Socrates, Zarathustra and the Hebrew prophets. Sharing this spiritual ‘superhero’ with young people can appeal to their imaginations as well as add to their sense of possibility in terms of key values and how to live a transformative life.