Roughly 2,500 years ago, the Buddha was born. There are various accounts of the events that took place, some that seem more realistic and historical in their presentation, some that seem more mythical and cosmic in scope. In section II.2 of In the Buddha’s Words (called ‘The Buddha’s Conception and Birth’), Ānanda recounts before the Buddha and a group of monks the wonderful and marvelous features of the Blessed One’s birth. Here is a brief retelling of what he said.
Ānanda, having heard and learned this from the Blessed One’s own lips, said that the Bodhisatta, mindful and clearly comprehending, appeared and remained for the whole of his lifespan in the Tusita heaven. Clearly comprehending and mindful, the Bodhisatta then passed away from the Tusita heaven into his mother’s womb. Upon descending into his mother’s womb, a great radiance surpassing the divine majesty of the devas appeared in the world. And in those abysmal world intervals of vacancy, gloom, and utter darkness, where the sun and moon cannot make their great light prevail, the beings reborn into this realm perceived each other by that great radiance and said, “So indeed, there are also other beings reborn here.”
Once descended into his mother’s womb, the Bodhisatta and his mother were protected from all harm by four young devas. His mother became intrinsically virtuous, refraining from killing, from taking what is not given, from sexual misconduct, from false speech, and from abusing wine, liquors, and intoxicants. After ten months, the Bodhisatta’s mother gave birth to him standing up and he was first received by devas, then human beings. Once born, the Bodhisatta did not touch the ground since the four devas that protected him and his mother received him, set him before his mother, and said, “Rejoice, O queen, a son of great power has been born to you.”
When the Bodhisatta came forth from his mother’s womb, he was unsullied and unsmeared by any kind of impurity. Two jets of water, one cool and one warm, came forth from the sky for bathing the Bodhisatta and his mother. Once born, the Bodhisatta stood firmly on the ground, took seven steps facing north, and with a white parasol over his head surveyed each quarter and said, “I am the highest in the world; I am the best in the world; I am the foremost in the world. This is my last birth; now there is no renewed existence for me.”
At this point in Ānanda’s recounting of the wonderful and marvelous features of the Blessed One’s birth, the Buddha added, “…remember this too as a wonderful and marvelous quality of the Tathāgata: Here, Ānanda, for the Tathāgata feelings are known as they arise, as they are present, as they disappear; perceptions are known as they arise, as they are present, as they disappear; thoughts are known as they arise, as they are present, as they disappear.”
This exchange between Ānanda and the Buddha is very touching. Ānanda’s devotion to the Buddha clearly shines through the way he expresses the wonderful and marvelous qualities of the Blessed One’s birth. And for us, today, Ānanda’s devotion included his memorizing the Buddha’s discourses, which were then repeated aloud and memorized by the other monks at the first council held after the Buddha’s Parinirvana.
Clearly, this recounting of the Blessed One’s birth pushes modern realist sensibilities like my own to a somewhat uncomfortable extreme. Read poetically, or as a myth, and this uncomfortableness subsides. But as Bhikkhu Bodhi reminds us both interpretations are necessary to see the Buddha. And, if I may add, watching our reactions to this story arise, hang around, and eventually disappear is also an integral part to our understanding the Buddha, his life, and the practice that he gave us.
(Note: The quotes and paraphrases of both Ānanda and the Buddha are taken from In the Buddha’s Words, ed. Bhikkhu Bodhi, section II.2, pp. 50 – 54. The original source is the Acchariya-abbhūta Sutta in the Majjhima Nikāya.)