The story of the Buddha is represented in several distinct types of literature within Tāranātha’s corpus, including ritual, inconometry, liturgy, poetry, painting instructions and, most importantly for LOTB, his extensive biography of the Buddha. Tāranātha wrote no less than ten works of varied length on the Buddha. A thorough analysis of these works in relationship to each other will no doubt reveal both complexity and depth in his portrayal of the founding figure. Even a quick survey shows that he utilized multiple genres of writing to evoke the Buddha. 

The Life of the Buddha website incorporates three textual sources: The Sun of Faith, the Painting Manual, and the mural inscriptions.

Biography: The Sun of Faith

Tāranātha’s narrative of the Buddha’s life, The Sun of Faith (Dad pa’i nyin byed), represents a major contribution to the seventeenth-century Tibetan literary imagination of Buddha Śākyamuni’s life. It includes a complete narrative account of the Buddha’s final life on Earth, beginning with his residence in Tuṣita Heaven and concluding with his death, the distribution of his relics, and brief accounts of the first two monastic councils. 

The complete title is The Sun of Faith That Shines in One Hundred Directions: A Brief Account of the Acts of the Blessed Lord and Glorious Victor Śākyamuni, Lion of the Śākyas, King of the Śākyas, that is Delightful and Meaningful to Behold (Bcom ldan ’das dpal rgyal ba shākya thub pa shākya seng ge’i rgyal po gang de’i mdzad pa mdo tsam brjod pa mthong bas don ldan rab tu dga’ ba dang bcas pas dad pa’i nyin byed phyogs brgyar ’char ba). The work appears to have been well-known in Tibet, with multiple versions in circulation, and citations in later literature.

It is likely that Tāranātha developed his Buddha narrative for a number of years prior to composing The Sun of Faith. He gave teachings on the life of the Buddha to his patron, Depa Phuntsok Namgyal (Sde pa Phun tshogs rnam rgyal, 1550–1620) in 1617. Tāranātha began writing The Sun of Faith in the summer of 1621, a bird year. By the winter of that year it was complete. The text is, in his words, “a biography of the completely perfect Buddha compiled from the [texts of the] First Turning of the Wheel, primarily the Vinaya, and written in just the right length.”

Although Tāranātha describes the work as a “brief account,” it is one of the most extensive autonomous treatments of the Buddha’s final life authored in Tibet at the time. It has been occasionally referred to by the abbreviated title The Hundred Acts (Mdzad brgya), although that seems not to have been the primary title by which it was known. Reference to the Buddha’s “hundred acts” seems to acknowledge the narrative’s extensive treatment of the Buddha’s teaching career, which is indeed a distinctive feature of Tāranātha’s work.

Schemes for Buddha Narrative in Tibet

Tibetan authors have traditionally structured accounts of the Buddha’s life story within a framework of twelve acts. While there is some variation among them, the general approach uses the following scheme: (1) descent from Tuṣita Heaven; (2) life in the womb; (3) birth; (4) education; (5) marriage; (6) renunciation; (7) austerities; (8) travel to Bodhgaya; (9) subduing Mārā; (10) enlightenment; (11) teaching; (12) death. 

Early examples of this structure include the extended account included in the History of Buddhism by Bu ston Rin chen grub (1290-1364), who may have been a target for Tāranātha’s criticism, as discussed below. Tāranātha foregoes this 12-act structure altogether and instead narrates the arc of the Buddha’s life over the course of 125 chapters.

The Structure of The Sun of Faith

The Sun of Faith is comprised of several distinct sections. The introduction (128-136) consists of several brief but important orientations to the work as a whole. It begins with verses of supplication (128-129), followed by a brief prose explanation of the author’s intentions (129-130). A verse summary of the Buddha narrative comes next (130-131), followed by a numbered list of chapter titles for the entire work, forming a table of contents to the text as a whole (131-136). Together the verses and the list form a useful mnemonic aid for readers venturing into the main text. The chapters themselves are, somewhat unusually, signaled with chapter number and title (or perhaps more accurately, topic) at the beginning rather than at the end of each (For example: “don lnga pa mu tig can bden pa la bkod pa ni/”).

The hundred and twenty-five chapters that constitute the main narrative (136-471) cover several distinct periods of the Buddha’s life. The Buddha’s birth and his activities through the enlightenment, or acts one through ten in the twelve-act system, constitute chapters 1-25 (131-183).

Painting Manual

Tāranātha composed a scene-by-scene painting manual (bris yig), presumably to be used by those responsible for executing Puntsokling's extended Buddha life murals. The complete title of this work is A Painting Manual to the Hundred Acts of theTeacher Śākyamuni Written by Jetsun Kunga Nyingpo (Ston pa shākya'i dbang po'i mdzad pa brgya pa'i bris yig rje btsun kun snying gis mdzad pa). Although the work's colophon is not dated, it informs us the text was composed Tāranātha at the request of his patron, the prince of Gtsang Phun tshogs rnam rgyal, at the Great Palace (Shigatse?). The work contains 57 chapters, covering the entire arc of the Buddha's life story as told in The Sun of Faith.

Other Buddha Literature

One of Tāranātha's earliest works on the Buddha is an ornate poem, Praise of the Bhagavan Lord of Sages, which he composed in 1600 at the age of 25 in the Jonang Temple in Lhasa. Tāranātha wrote a manual on iconometry of the Buddha, the Calculations for Proportions of the Victor's Body, the Source of Well Being, as well as Instructions for Combining Recollection of the Buddha and Guruyoga. Related to this is the Brief Explanation of the Sūtra Recollecting the Three Jewels. Finally, he dedicated Chapter Three of his massive, twenty-five chapter anthology of sādhanas, the Source of Precious Sādhanas (Sgrub thabs rin chen 'byung gnas), to various iconic representations of Śākyamuni Buddha.