This post is in response to James’ question about the notorious 32 Marks of a Great Man, especially as found in Digha Nikaya 30 Lakkhana Sutta. (James’ post referred to DN32, this is a mistake, also found in Wikipedia; I’ve corrected it there.)
D30 is clearly a late sutta. The verses prove this – they are in late metres, and the commentary says they were composed by Ananda – and even the prose sections have no Agama cognates.
The concept of the 32 marks, however, is widely found in the Suttas, although D30 is the only place that links the marks to specific kammas.
There is plenty of incidental detail in the Suttas and Vinaya that show that the Buddha was normal in appearance, so any freakish or supernatural interpretation of the marks must be wrong. Leaving a few of the bizarre elements aside, most of the marks are straightforward signs of physical beauty: black hair, white teeth, gold skin, and the like.
The Suttas themselves attribute the marks to ancient Brahmanical texts, although strangely enough they are not found in any extant Brahmanical works.
There is some suggestion that they may be Babylonian in origin: one of the early texts that features them (Parayanavagga) speaks of a Brahman called ‘Bavari’, which is just the Pali spelling of ‘Babylonian'; marks and omens of all kinds are rampant in Babylon and related cultures. In addition, the 32 marks are closely connected with the idea that the Buddha is a ‘Great man’, who has to choose between spiritual and royal dominion. This choice is first expressed in the myth of Gilgamesh, thousands of years before the Buddha, the most famous myth throughout the Babylonian region.
It is quite normal to have a child inspected for various auspicious marks, and so on, and so there is little reason to doubt that this happened to Siddhattha. It is also normal, indeed, essential, for the hero to fulfill ancient prophecies. While we can’t say what marks the Buddha actually had, we can be sure that if he did not fulfill an ancient prophecy, one would have been invented for him.
Myth evolves from facts plus imagination. When the baby Siddhattha was born, he would have been inspected, and since he was in fact healthy and physically excellent, he would have been pronounced as such by the soothsayers. It’s possible that other ‘auspicious’ events coincided with the birth – favorable stars or the like. As the child grew into a world-renowned spiritual teacher, the tales would have grown and been retold. They would have been shaped by, and in turn shaped, the prevailing mythos. The originally human details acquired a halo, polished and embellished by countless storytellers. When they have been sufficiently removed from their historical basis, they come to serve a universal, spiritual purpose – an expression of faith and awe; and in addition they can be leveraged for doctrinal purposes, as in D30.
What moderns fail to understand about myth – and I have spoken of this in Sects & Sectarianism – is that in the ancient world myth was widely accepted as an expression of universal truth. We are empiricists, at least in theory – we start with data and infer conclusions. But mythic truth tells of things that always have been and always will be. It is not subject to mundane inconveniences like facts. The mythos tells us that great spiritual beings have special physical signs that are an external manifestation of their inner perfection. Therefore, the Buddha must have had such marks. The only question would be the manner in which the marks were expressed, which would reflect the philosophy of those telling the story; hence the marks are interpreted as cosmic, not literal, in the Mahayana texts.
The compilers of the Buddhist texts sometimes invented passages to conform with prevailing patterns. We know this; there are explicit instructions in two Vinayas that the monks should do this, together with details as to how it should be done. So when we see a clearly mythic notion like the 32 marks, which contradicts the known facts that the Buddha had a normal physique, then we know it is an invention, whose basis is to be explained by the needs, wishes, and motivations of the redactors.
This does not mean that the marks should be dismissed: on the contrary it means that we have an invaluable method of understanding earlier generations of Buddhists, and how their beliefs influenced the form in which the Dhamma has been passed down to us. If we don’t understand those people, how can we hope to understand the texts that they formed as a vessel for the teaching of the Buddha?
We might scoff at the irrationality of the texts, but consider this: all ancient religious texts contain some material that we consider irrational. They survived against all odds, while countless other texts perished, because there was something in them that motivated people to devote incredible energy and dedication to their preservation. Would a purely rational, empirical Buddhism have survived? We have no examples to show that this is possible.
By all means, question the mythos: the insistence that myth is history is the seed of all fundamentalisms. But don’t throw them out: learn to understand myth as myth, and whole new vistas of meaning will open before you.