Why I think Buddha Shakyamuni was on the Autism Spectrum

David Idell Buddha

Recently I told Debra Muzikar (editor of the Art of Autism blog) about the book I wrote on Buddha Shakyamuni’s life entitled “Symphony for India Buddha and Freedom.” In this book, Siddhartha behaves like a person on the autism spectrum since early childhood. Debra asked me to write an article on why I think Siddhartha was on the autism spectrum. So here it is.

Editor’s note: Buddha Shakyamuni is popularly known as “The Buddha.”

By David Goren

We all know how difficult it can be to live on the autism spectrum and how much suffering often results. What we need to remind ourselves is that being on the spectrum may also have advantages.

Biodiversity goes in many ways, and the lack of social skills or even some ability of social interaction may be compensated by unique gifts. These strengths may include independent, sharp, and deep thinking and an impressive ability to focus and concentrate. Independent and consistent, uninterrupted thinking that autistic people possess happens because of the lack of social stimulation and how we stimulate our mind from within. Today, we believe that Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and Charles Darwin, top names in science, were likely on the autism spectrum.

People on the spectrum often can connect deeply with animals. For example, Temple Grandin who can “think like a cow” is a famous example. When we find it hard to interact with human beings, we may turn to the less overwhelming interaction with animals.

However, the examples above are names from recent history. How can we tell if a person who lived 2500 years ago was on the autism spectrum? Buddha Shakyamuni’s life is richly documented in the Buddhist Sutras and many known stories. Together these stories give a reliable picture of a person with autistic qualities.

The Sutras tell the story of a child who does not play with children of his own age and prefers to be alone, mainly in the garden near trees. He keeps away from the noisy and light-headed life of young persons in the royal palace. He is unable to belong to the social life there. Even as a child, he sits to meditate alone under a tree, away from people. He has opinions that are very different. He had moral standards of his own since childhood. Even though he resides in a royal palace that has little physical suffering, he contemplates much about the meaning of life and suffering. He is very compassionate to the suffering of animals, such as swans. His thinking is very independent and sharp since childhood.

From his teenage years until later we learn that he avoided intimacy with women. As a result, he had only one child, Rahula, at the age of 28, which is 12 years after we are told he married princess Yasodhara. This may be a one-time event of intimacy in his life. He is clearly known in the Sutras and stories to avoid women later on throughout his life. We understand that he avoided any kind of intimacy.

After leaving the palace at age 29 to live in the forests of India, we are told that he studied with the best teachers, but each time he feels that he does not belong and departs. The reason he leaves is he was seeking a more profound truth.

Siddhartha is one of the best examples in history of an individual seeker.

Two great teachers accepted him as their equal, allowing him to teach with them or instead of them, and he decided instead to leave. His determinism, consistency, and concentration are exceptional.

Even after reaching enlightenment and becoming a teacher, he was remote from others. We find him either preaching to the whole community or talking with individuals one on one. We learn that he stayed away from noisy forums and people talking on daily life matters and gossip.

His original Sutras, as documented in the Pali Canon, are uniquely full of many repetitions. This unique repetitive style does not appear in the later Mahayana or Vajrayana Sutras written by later Buddhists, though they often try to imitate the early Sutras in other ways.

This unique repetition has objective advantages when talking to a large crowd on abstract and complex matters, but it also reminds us of the repetitive style of many persons on the spectrum. In some Sutras, the repetition increases the length of the Sutra by many orders of magnitude.

The teaching of the Buddha, the Dharma, is known to have the unique ability to soothe people living in loneliness or solitude. We find numerous examples of this in all Buddhist traditions.

Buddha talked about the suffering of the individual and the way to cease this suffering from within. When he discusses morality, for example, he often talks about its merits to the individual, not just society as a whole. His teachings stresses deep states of meditation, Samadhi, which are experienced individually. The Buddhist insight of non-self (Anatta), for example, is to be experienced alone by the individual.

Although Buddha did establish a spiritual community (Sangha), this community had the flavor of a collection of individuals. Most of the practice mentioned in the early Pali Sutras is an individual practice. Spiritual practices like chanting together appeared in Buddhist traditions only many hundred years later.

Another last thing we learn from the stories is that the city where Siddhartha was born, Kapilavastu, initiated from intermarriages between nine brothers of the same family, four sons and five daughters, that were princes condemned to exile from another kingdom. We also learn that the resulting Shakya clan and their Kapilavastu capital maintained their racial purity even later on. Close relative marriages increases genetic diversity and resulting neurodiversity.

When we combine all this data, I think we get a clear picture of a person on the autism spectrum.

For me, this makes Siddhartha and the later Buddha Shakyamuni an even greater noble warrior than we already know him to be.

This also makes him closer in spirit to me personally. I believe that being on the autistic spectrum helps me understand better the story and character of this great man I love and adore.

Header art work: David Idell “Buddha”

David Goren

Dr. David Goren (D.Sc.) is a keen research person in the widest sense; equally loves physics and far eastern philosophy ever since high school. Physics became a profession while India and the east went underground.

David earned the degree of Doctor of Science (Electrical engineering and Physics) from the Technion. He Worked 17 years at IBM research labs worldwide (Israel and the US) as a Research Staff Member. Won IBM “Outstanding Innovation Award” (outstanding research accomplishment). David Has been lecturing (graduate and undergraduate levels) in the Technion and technical colleges for 25 years. He has 43 scientific papers (IEEE and physics journals/conferences), and 20 patents.

Inheriting some money from his late father enabled him to return to his true love in 2015 by going to 90 days deep practice in a Zen Buddhist monastery. There he started writing this book which was continued while living and practicing for one year in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery. David regards himself JewBu, practicing both Buddhism and reform Judaism and advocates the path of practiced interfaith in general.

One reply on “Why I think Buddha Shakyamuni was on the Autism Spectrum”
  1. Thank you for this insightful article. I have thought many times since becoming a monk and yogi in the oldest way possible, by renouncing worldly life, living in mountains and forests and deserts. It’s mostly based on simple imitation of the traditional monastic life in Asia. It seems that the vast majority of people are able to hold the dichotomy of “believing in” things that they refuse to actually practise, and make many excuses and rationalisations. But I am as happy and contented living in this simple way as I was unhappy trying to live hypocritically in the modern way I hated.

    Does that make me holy? Righteous? Enlightened? Hahaha I don’t think so! I think it makes me neurodivergent. And I have suspected for years that the only difference between east and west, is the story we have about our neurodivergent people. In America, we are homeless and avoided and ignored because the story about us here is that we are mentally ill or deficient somehow. But the same type of people in Asia have a different story. There they are often considered to be close to Gods and to nature, to be sages and oracles and shamans and medicine people with very many unusual characteristics as people.

    So this adds a helpful dimension I think to discussions and understandings about neurodivergent possibilities. And it relieves some of the cultural pressure to conform to a single sort of role in society. Everyone cannot be an engineer, or a monk, or any other single thing. Nor should we be all alike. But we are all sacred beings.


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