The Authenticity of the Tipitaka and the Buddha’s Travels


Bhante Dhammika of Australia

Recently an article appeared in Ravaya (11. 1. 2019) written by Nirmal Dewasiri of the University of Colombo. In it, the writer expresses doubts concerning the historical reliability of the Pali Tipitaka and as evidence in support of this position he said that it would have been impossible for the Buddha to have walked from Kapilavatthu to Varanasi. I found this claim surprising and would like to offer a different perspective on it.

There was a fairly good network of roads in India by the Buddha’s time. As continental trade in the 6th and 5th century grew so did the network of roads throughout northern India. Their quality improved too. What had been little more than footpaths and jungle tracks gradually became proper thoroughfares. Strong centralized governments like those of Magadha, Kosala and Vansa played a part in this transformation too. Rulers had a stake in encouraging movement because custom charges and tolls for the use of road and ferries helped fill their coffers, and troops could be dispatched quickly to troublesome outer provinces or to engage invaders. The Arthasastra says that the width of streets and roads should be in accordance to the traffic they are expected to take. Tolls for ferries and at fords were standardized and according to Manusastra wandering monks, pregnant women and brahmans were generally allowed to pass freely. The Buddha himself encouraged his disciples to visit at least once in their lives the places where the seminal events in his career occurs suggesting that long distance travel even for religious reasons had begun. However, despite all this it is almost certain that even the best thoroughfares were dusty, rutted, maintained only intermittently and perhaps hardily passable during the rainy season.

Many roads ran thought inhabited areas with villages and their cultivated fields but just as many passed through jungle or semi-desert wildernesses. A character in the Vinaya says: "These wilderness roads have little water, little food and it is not easy to go along them without taking provisions for the journey." But the perennial problem of travel in India has always been, not the state of the roads, but banditry. According to the Vinaya travellers on the road between Savatthi and Saketa were often robbed and at one time a fearsome robber named Angulimala, who murdered his victims operated in forested areas in Kosala. The Buddha observed that such outlaws would strike from and then disappear back into "impenetrable grass or trees, a gully or a great forest." According to a passage in the Jataka, some of these robbers would capture a party of travellers and release one of them to go and try to get a ransom for the others. The Udana records that once the Buddha and an attendant monk were travelling through Kosala when they came to a fork in the road. The Buddha said they should take one fork while the attendant insisted that they take the other. This back and forth continued for some time until in a huff, the attendant put down the Buddha’s bowl and walked off on the way he thought correct. He hadn’t gone far before he was attacked by bandits who "punched and kicked him and tore his robe."

More normally though long-distance travel was just uncomfortable, tedious and undertaken only when necessary. But it is clear from hundreds of direct and indirect references in the Tipitaka that the Buddha spent much of his time on the road in order to reach as many people as possible. In keeping with the rules laid down by himself and in accordance with a long established ascetic tradition, he would spent the three months of the rainy season in one location and the rest of the year on what were called ‘walking tours.’ And how did he do these tours? He could have gone by chariot as kings and government officials did, he could have had a rich dayaka lend him a bullock cart, he could have been carried in a palanquin (doli), but there is not a single reference in the Tipitaka of him travelling by such means. Like the majority of people at the time and until just recently in India and the rest of the world, most people undertook long journeys by foot, and so did the Buddha.

Where did he sleep during such tours it might be asked? The Tipitaka provides us with a perfectly credible answers; at a roadside rest house, a threshing floor, an old potter’s shed or, if nothing else were available, out in the open "on the leaf strewn ground". Once, when he was in the Kuru country, he stayed in a small hut, "its floor carpeted with grass." On a return visit to Kapilavatthu, his hometown, he could find no accommodation and had to make do in the simple hermitage of the ascetic Bharaṇḍu. How did he get his food? The Tipitaka says he begged for alms, again a quite credible explanation.

Almost the first thing the Buddha did after his Awakening was to set out on a long journey to find to find his five former companions in order to share with them what he has discovered. Equally significantly, his instruction to his first 60 disciples was that they should "wander forth" to teach others what he had taught them, "for the welfare of the many."

It is possible to get at least some idea about the extent of the area the Buddha travelled through during his teaching career. His movements northward were limited by the then trackless forests of the Himalayan foothills. Likewise there is no evidence that he ever went into the mountains of the southern edge of the Ganges Yamuna plain, the Mizrapur and the Rajmahal Hills and the Vindhyachal Range.

The furthest east the Buddha ever went which can still be identified was Kajangla and the furthest west he went was Madhura. Kajangla correspond to the modern towns of Kanjkol, 18 km. south of Rajmahal in Bhagalpur District, Bihar. Mathura is the modern Madhura, 160 km. south of Delhi. These two places are nearly 1,000 kilometres from each other as the crow flies. It is uncertain how thoroughly the Buddha covered this all this area but during his more than 40 years of wayfaring he could have easily visited much of it. The Tipitaka names over 500 places that he visited or passed through; cities, towns, villages, hills, caves, rivers, and forests and other landmarks. Thus, the Buddha may well have wandered over an area of at least 290,000 square kilometres although a good deal of his wanderings took place in the eastern part of this area, between the great cities of Savatthi, Rajagaha, Vesali and Kosambi.

While nearly all the Buddha’s journeys were undertaken on foot the numerous rivers in the northern India meant that he must have sometimes had to use boats or ferries despite being no specific mention of him doing this. The Tipitaka mentions the itinerary of many of the Buddha’s journeys giving us some idea of the distances he sometimes travelled. For example, we know that within the first 12 months after his Awaking he went from Uruvela to Isipatana via Gaya and Varanasi, spent the three months of the rainy season there and then travelled to Rajagaha (modern Rajgir) via Varanasi, Gaya, Uruvela (modern Bodh Gaya) and Lativana (modern Jetian). All these places can be identified with certainly and thus it can be calculated that the Buddha walked at least 300 kilometres from Uruvela to Rajagaha.

During another tour he went from Veranja to Varanasi via Soreyya, Sankassa, Kaṇṇakujja (modern Kannauj), crossing the Ganges at Payaga (modern Allahabad). Veranja cannot yet be identified but the other places can be so it can be calculated that this trip involved at least 700 kilometers. In the longest single journey recorded in the Tipitaka, the Buddha went from Rajagaha to Vesali to Savatthi and back to Rajagaha via Kitigiri and Alavi (modern Airwa of the main 235 highway between Etawah and Kannauj about 28 km. from Etawah), a round trip of at least 1,600 kilometres. Nowhere in the Tipitaka does it say that the Buddha ‘flew’ to or otherwise magically arrived to these places, it just says he walked. Thus I can see no good reason why these and the other itineraries in the Tipitaka should be considered fictitious.

How much time the Buddha’s journeys might have taken can only be guessed at. In the famous Mahaparinibbana Sutta we know that he went from Rajagaha to Kusinara via Nalanda, Pataligama (modern Patna) and Vesali, a total distance of about 300 kilometres. According to the sutta he left Vesali after the end of the rainy season (mid-October) and according to tradition is supposed to have died in Kusinara on the full moon of Vesak (May). This suggests that he took seven months to travel about 95 kilometres. Even allowing for the fact that he was old and in ill health this seems like a long time. However, nowhere in the Tipitaka does it mention that the Buddha passed away on Vesak; that is a later tradition. The sutta gives the impression that while his last journey was slow and with frequent stops it seems likely that the Buddha conducted his journeys at a leisurely pace.

I am now 68 years old but in the late 1970s and 1980s when I was a young and enthusiastic monk I undertook several journeys to retrace some of the Buddha’s footsteps. In the first such trip I walked from Bodh Gaya to Varanasi, bear-footed, going for pindapata the whole way and at roughly 20 km. a day, and it took me three weeks. On another occasion, I walked from Bodh Gaya to Rajagaha, which took me five days mainly because I spent some time, lingering in the beautiful hills on the way. The longest such trip I made was retracing the Buddha’s last journey from Rajagaha to Kusinara. This took just less than a month. All these trips were taken in the winter when the days are pleasantly cool, and I would usually start before sunrise and always finish at sunset. In many cases, I followed the roads but just as often I went cross country, saving a lot of time. Ancient roads usually went directly to a location, modern ones do not necessarily do this. Almost everywhere I went I attracted crowds of curious villages who often gave me alms (food), pointed me in the right direction and helped me in other ways. Several years ago a Western monk and a layman walked to all the main places associated with the Buddha in India, many more kilometres than I went. Their experiences are recounted in their book ‘Rude Awakening, Two Englishman on Foot in Buddhism’s Holy Land.’

So apart from the evidence in the Tipitaka, I can say from personal experience that there is nothing at all incredible or unbelievably in the idea that the Buddha walked long distances. I did it out of a desire to know something about how the Buddha lived and to some degree out of a sense of adventure. The Buddha did it, as he said; "For the good of the many, for the welfare of the many, out of compassion for the world."

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