In an old Unitarian Universalist Sunday school curriculum called From Long Ago and Many Lands, religious educator Sophia Lyon Fahs wrote out three miracle birth stories for upper elementary children: the wonder stories of the birth of Buddha, Confucius, and Jesus. I like to present these stories during the worship services leading up to Christmas, during the “story for all ages” (or “children’s sermon” or whatever your church calls it). Each of these stories tells of miraculous events that happen before the birth of these three great religious teachers. Children pick up on the parallels between the stories — angels and prophecies and miraculous animals — and it helps them to better understand the wondrous aspects of the two familiar birth stories of Jesus from the books of Matthew and Luke.
Problem is that Sophia Fahs’s stories are really too long to tell in a worship service — as written, they can last a good ten minutes. Each year, I edit them down by sticking little bits of Post-It notes over the parts I don’t want to read, and then I take the bits of Post-It notes out and forget about it until next Advent season, until I have to do it all over again. This year, I got smart and decided to write out a condensed version of Fahs’s “Birth of Buddha” story and keep it in my files. Then I also took out my copy of The Story of Gotama Buddha: Jataka-nidana, and from that I pieced together a short and fairly coherent narrative of Buddha’s birth.
And as long as I had done all this work, I figured I’d post both stories here, in case someone else might find them useful. Both stories should last a little over five minutes when read aloud. You’ll find the condensed Fahs story at the very end of this post, and my own version immediately below….
Introduction to both stories
At Christmas we like to remember the old story of the miraculous birth of Jesus of Nazareth. But did you know that there are other miraculous birth stories of other great religious leaders? Today I’m going to tell you about the miraculous birth of Buddha, a story with angels and wonderful animals and wise men. See if you think this story is at all like the story of Jesus’s birth….
The Miracle Birth of Buddha
Here is the story of the miracle birth of Buddha:
The people of the city of Kapilavatthu were celebrating a spring festival, and the queen of the city, Queen Maya, celebrated with them. One day, she arose early, gave money to many beggars, ate a delicious meal, and then went back to the palace to sleep.
As she slept, she dreamed that the four Guardian Angels of the world lifted her up and took her to the highest mountains in the Himalayas. They set her down under a huge Sala tree. Four more angels came forth, clothed Queen Maya in heavenly garments, and led her to a silver mountain. Inside the silver mountain was a house of gold, and there the queen lay down to rest. It was not long before a great and gentle white elephant came into the silver mountain, carrying a white lotus flower in his trunk. The elephant trumpeted, walked around the bed where the queen lay, and gave her the lotus flower.
When the queen awakened the next morning, she told her dream to her husband, King Suddhodana. The king called sixty-four wise brahmins. After serving them food in gold and silver bowls, the king told them the dream and asked them what it meant. The brahmins told the king, “Do not worry, great king. This dream means that Queen Maya will soon give birth to a baby boy. If this child chooses life at home he will become the greatest king the world has seen; but if instead he chooses to forsake home life and become a hermit, then he will become a great religious teacher.”
When it came time for Queen Maya to give birth, she told King Suddhodana that she wanted to go to the city where her parents were the king and queen. King Suddhodana called a thousand officers to carry the queen and escort her on the journey. Along the way was a beautiful place called Lumbini Park, and at that time of year the trees were covered with blossoms, and flocks of singing birds flew among the flowers. The queen asked to stop to enjoy the beauty. She got down from the palanquin, and as she reached up to grasp a blossom of a Sala tree, she knew it was time for her to have her baby. The officers set up a curtain around her for privacy. As she stood there holding the branch of the Sala tree, the queen gave birth.
Immediately, the four great Brahmas appeared with a fine golden net, and they carefully laid the new baby into this net. Presenting the child to Queen Maya, they said, “Be joyful, O Queen, for a great son is born unto you.” The four Brahmas prepared a soft antelope skin, and placed the child on it. The baby stood up and looked towards the east. Voices were heard saying, “O Great One, there is no other like you!” The baby gazed in all directions, and then took seven steps towards the north, while the Great Brahma held a white umbrella over him. And when her baby was born thirty two miraculous things happened as signs that this baby was unique.
Queen Maya brought the baby home. The king rejoiced to see his new son, and they named their baby Siddhartha Gotama. Now a hermit who lived nearby, a man with great spiritual wisdom, heard about this new baby. He came down to the palace and said to King Suddhodana, “O King, I have heard that a child is born to you, and I would like to see him.” They brought the child out, and upon seeing him the hermit knew the baby would grow up to be a great man, and he stood and paid homage to the baby. Then the hermit smiled, and proclaimed that the baby would become the Buddha when he was 35 years old.
And that is exactly what happened. Although King Suddhodana tried to convince his son to become a king, when Siddhartha Gotama was old enough to decide what to do with his life, he left the palace and went out into the world. He got his food by begging, and he went to learn from the greatest spiritual teachers. At last, he sat down beneath a tree to meditate, and he achieved enlightenment, and became the Buddha, the Enlightened One, the one who awakened to the Truth of the ages. Buddha spent the rest of his life teaching others how they, too, could calm themselves and awaken to the truth. And even today, thousands of years after he lived, there are still millions of people who follow the Buddha’s teachings.
Adapted from The Story of Gotama Buddha: Jataka-nidana, translated from original Pali texts by N. A. Jayawickrama (Oxford: Pali Text Society, 2002 corrected edition), pp. 66-72.
Condensed version of Sophia Fahs’s “The Birth of Buddha”
This is the wonder tale about the birth of Buddha. It is an older story than the one about the birth of Jesus.
Buddha’s mother was a Queen who lived in a grand palace in the faraway country of India. Queen Maya was beautiful as a water lily, and as pure in her thoughts as a lotus flower.
One day the Queen lay down to rest. Soon she was fast asleep and dreaming. She dreamed that four beautiful and strong angels lifted her up and flew up into the air with her, higher and higher, until they were near the top of a very great mountain. The angels showed her a palace gleaming like gold. They showed many beautiful rooms. In her dream, she lay down in one of the rooms to rest. A pure white elephant quietly entered the room. Gently, he came and stood beside her. At the end of his trunk, he carried a large lotus flower, and he gave it to the Queen. The very moment when the Queen took the flower, the room was filled with a heavenly light. Trees at once began to bloom with new flowers. Lotus flowers of all colors burst into bloom everywhere.
In the morning when the Queen awoke from this dream, she found herself in her own bedroom in the palace as if nothing had happened. She told the King about her dream. They decided to ask the sixty-four royal counselors what the dream meant.
The chief counselor answered: “The dream is a good one, O King and Queen. The Queen is going to have a baby boy. When he grows up, this child will either become the King after you; or he will become a great teacher who will teach the people of many countries to know what they do not now understand.” When they heard this, the King and Queen were very pleased, for they both wanted a child who would rule over the land after them.
Months later, when Queen Maya realized that her baby was about to be born, she decided to go to the city of her parents. The royal procession stopped at a most beautiful park. Upon catching sight of the masses of flowers, Maya the Queen got down out of her royal chair and walked under the trees and through the flowers.
She had never seen a lovelier spot. As she walked, she began to feel that her baby was going to be born. When the baby was born, four angels appeared holding in their hand the four corners of a golden net. Into this net the baby was laid as if in a cradle. The angels spoke sweetly to the mother, and said: “Be joyful, O Lady. A mighty son is born to you.”
Then four kings stood beside the four angels, and the kings laid the baby down on a soft antelope’s skin. The mother thought she saw the babe lift himself up on his feet. He stood for a moment and looked around in all directions. He took seven steps, while one angel held a white umbrella over him and the other angels laid garlands of flowers before him. Then the child lay down and fell asleep just like any other baby.
When the King saw the baby, he was overjoyed. Now he had a son who would some day rule the kingdom after him! But the baby did not grow up to become king. When he was old enough to choose for himself, he decided to leave the palace. Walking from town to town, begging for his food in the streets, sleeping in the woods, he searched for people who could teach him wisdom.
And it came about that this young man became wiser than those who tried to teach him. Even today, after two thousand five hundred years, this man is honored by millions of people. He is called the Buddha, and name which means “the man with a light.” Buddha’s Light is no ordinary light, it is a Light for the heart and mind; it is the Light of Truth that you feel inside yourself when you know you are at peace with yourself.
Adapted from “The Birth of Buddha,” in Sophia Lyon Fahs, From Long Ago and Many Lands (Boston: Beacon, 1948), pp. 187-192.