Buddhism: Theravāda

Narratives and Myths

Primary Author
Chara Scroope,

The Buddha

One of the core narratives in the Theravāda tradition is the life narrative of the Buddha. According to the legend, the one referred to as ‘Buddha’ was originally named Siddhārtha Gautama and was the son of a king or local chieftain. Siddhārtha’s father shielded him from the harsh realities of life until the young prince ventured outside the palace and encountered various forms of physical and mental suffering. Troubled by these confrontations and the realisation of suffering, Siddhārtha renounced his life as a prince to embark on a spiritual journey.

Siddhārtha began his spiritual journey by taking instruction from various ascetics and practising extreme austerities. He eventually abandoned the ascetic life in favour of a more moderate spiritual path, which he characterised as the ‘Middle Way’ (majjhimā-paṭipadā). Eventually Siddhārtha reached a profound state of realisation (known as ‘enlightenment’; nibbāna in Pāli, or nirvāṇa in Sanskrit) while meditating under a particular tree (now known as the bodhi tree). Henceforth, Siddhārtha became known as the ‘Awakened One,' otherwise known as ‘Buddha’.

Many of the core teachings in Buddhism are implicit within the Buddha’s life story. Particular events and scenes within the Buddha’s life narrative are also highlighted in Buddhist rituals, symbolisms and events.

Buddha’s Sermons

An integral component of the life narrative of the Buddha is his extensive teaching. After his spiritual enlightenment, he attracted a band of followers and instituted a monastic order (known as the Saṅgha). The Buddha’s sermons were orally transmitted and eventually written down. The sermons often begin with the words, “Thus have I heard,” and include descriptions of scenes, characters and dialogue. Within these narratives, there are plenty of stories said to have been told by the Buddha to demonstrate and explain the Dhamma


One of the most formative narratives in the Buddhist tradition is the Buddha’s first sermon, known as “Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dhamma” (Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta). In this sermon, the Four Noble Truths were presented. This doctrine became a theme that the Buddha elaborated and refined in countless other teachings throughout his life.


According to Buddhist mythology, a new buddha will descend to earth and reteach the Dhamma when the teachings of the Buddha have been forgotten. This ‘future buddha’ is Maitreya, one of the most venerated figures in Buddhism. The future buddha Maitreya is said to be residing in a heavenly realm while he or she awaits their return to earth.

Realms of Rebirth

Much of Buddhist mythology occurs in the context of different realms of rebirth. Related to the concept of saṃsāra (endless wandering), rebirth is said to occur in six realms of existence: the realm of the gods, demi-gods, humans, animals, hungry ghosts, and hell. According to Buddhist mythology, the realm of rebirth one enters is dependent on their individual kamma. Buddhist mythology frequently features stories of humans, gods and various creatures. For example, in the Jātaka tales, the Buddha is represented as having had previous lives as various animals at some point prior to the life in which he became enlightened and known as the Buddha.

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