The shortest summary of the text is just to tell you that it’s about the life of the Buddha, in particular, his awakening. But to expand on that a little bit more, the sutra, the framework for the sutra is the Buddha is actually giving a discourse to a group of gods and bodhisattvas. And they asked him can you please tell this, can you please teach us these discourses, these sort of vast discourses called Lalitavistara, which recounts the story of the bodhisattva on his journey to awakening, the last bits of his journey to awakening. And the Buddha is silent, and by his silence, he agrees to, he indicates that he agrees to tell this account. So the most of the sutra is actually the Buddha recounting his own life story as the bodhisattva, and then his awakening.
So that story begins in the last bit of his previous life, actually, as a bodhisattva where he was born in the heavenly realms, and he was living in the heavenly realms, and he is reminded of the commitment that he has made towards perfect awakening, so he chooses to depart from the heavenly realms and to take birth in the world, and the story recounts his descent into the womb of his mother Queen Mayadevi, and he resides in her womb in a beautiful palace like a temple, and he remains in Samadhi in her womb.
And then the text describes his birth. Immediately upon his birth, he announces that this will be his last life as a non, not a perfectly awakened being, and he is going to be awakened. The story continues discussing his infancy, in which he is taken to a temple, and the gods of the temple actually, the stone images stand up to greet him.
It talks about his youth, he goes to school. He already knows more than the smartest of his teachers and his tutors. The text speaks about his great capacity in the arts, basically, of the day, in sport, archery and so on. He marries, he lives in great luxury in his father’s palace. He then as I’m sure many of us have heard this story, the bodhisattva at that time actually while he is living in luxury, he sees a sick person, he sees an old person, he sees a corpse and he sees a religious mendicant.
And these sights inspire him to renounce his life, his worldly life, so he actually leaves the palace and goes out to practice and to with the intent of awakening. And he studies with some teachers. He’s not satisfied with what they teach him. he practices extreme austerities actually, and finally realizes at a certain point that these austerities are really not going to get him there. So he finally takes a meal and goes to the seat of awakening.
The sutra is quite interesting, quite lovely, and all of these activities of the bodhisattva’s life, are framed within the context of this is what bodhisattvas do when they are about to awaken to Buddhahood. So he goes to the seat of awakening because that’s where all the buddhas have awakened in the past. So very much the whole story is perfumed with this Mahayana perspective on the world, it’s a Mahayana worldview. And so the bodhisattva goes finally to the seat of awakening. He sits to practice. Mara the demon comes and does his best to distract the bodhisattva to prevent him from awakening. He fails, and the bodhisattva awakens to perfect Buddhahood.
He awakens and all of the gods come to praise him. He spends seven weeks without teaching, wandering in the forest. Eventually, the gods Brahma and Indra come to him and ask him to teach, and he responds to this request, knowing that it would be best to teach to his, he had some companions, five companions previously when he was practicing austerities, and he goes and find these companions in Deer Park, at Sarnath, near Benares. And then he teaches, he preaches to them the first sermon, that’s his first teachings, on the Four Truths of the Noble Ones. That actually is the conclusion of the story.
Interestingly, the story does not encompass the entirety of his life, in the way that we might think of an account of someone’s life would go all the way until their death. This account begins in the previous life of a bodhisattva, his descent into the womb. It continues only until his first teaching, and then it breaks off, the narrative concludes with the Buddha having told this story himself to his disciples, the gods and his human disciples, and then he tells them that they should practice, basically, in this way.