For anyone interested in religion and spirituality in general, and Buddhism in particular, Alexander Wynne has a marvelous short essay in Aeon about recovering the historical figure behind all the myths of the Buddha.
That he had a princely background, unaware of life’s sufferings, until a particular event is easily dismissed by unravelling some of the earliest strands in the Pali canon.
“In none of these is the Buddha ever called Siddhattha. Indeed, since this word means ‘one who has fulfilled [siddha] his purpose [attha]’, it looks very much like a mythic title, and in fact is used in only late mythic texts such as the Pali Apadāna. The early texts instead refer to the Buddha as ‘the ascetic Gotama’. While the Mahāpadāna Sutta states that ‘Gotama’ was the name of the Buddha’s family lineage, other evidence tells a different story. Most texts say that the Buddha’s family belonged to the lineage of the ‘Sun’ (ādicca), which agrees with the Buddha’s oft-repeated epithet ‘kinsman of the Sun’ (ādicca-bandhu). Since there is no reliable evidence that the Buddha’s family belonged to the Gotama lineage, and a mass of textual evidence against it, how are we to explain this name? It is likely that ‘Gotama’ was the Buddha’s personal name, just as the Sanskrit equivalent (Gautama) is a common personal name in modern India.”
His early successes as a teacher are also in doubt:
“[A] critical study of the textual record suggests a surprising story: Gotama doubted his own teaching ability, was not taken seriously by the first person to witness him (as the Buddha), and did not achieve notable success with his first audience. How, then, did he succeed?
“[T]he Sutta-nipāta (‘A Collection of Discourses’) – an old corpus of wisdom literature – is more revealing. Gotama here emerges as a lone voice from the wilderness, inspiring others with a call to join an austere cult of meditation. [In the Muni-Sutta] the Buddha describes the sage as a radical outsider: “Danger is born from intimacy, dust arises from the home. Without home, without acquaintance: just this is the vision of a sage” … Most striking is what could be called the ‘dialectic of silence’: when asked abstract metaphysical questions, such as whether the world is eternal, whether the soul is different from the body, or what happens to a liberated person (tathāgata) after death and so on, Gotama stays silent.”
Modern western Buddhism (a la Watts, et al) has lost much of the original teachings, relying more on fairly modern interpretations:
“A feature of the modern mindfulness movement, inherited from fairly recent Burmese innovations, is its appeal to the laity, and hence its essentially therapeutic, rather than salvific, aim. Nothing could be further removed from the Buddha’s radical ideal of sagehood. By insisting on ascetic discipline and a life of homeless wandering, Gotama presented mindfulness as a total life commitment [rather than as a component of an engaged lifestyle].”
Wynne suggests it is of value to regain the original insights:
“Whether or not Gotama is correct, his voice is worth hearing. His antirealistic analysis – in which the world depends on the activity of our minds and sense faculties – could be a useful aid to modern cognitive science, and might broaden the focus of the mindfulness movement beyond therapy … Sleeping out in the open, eating once a day, and frequently on the road, Gotama cuts a more austere figure than expected. His silent wisdom comes from somewhere else. We learn about his early failures, and then the strange story of his success: how he created an ancient cult of meditation, through enigmatic silence, radical ideas, and a simple insistence on being mindfully aware of the moment.”