What is a Buddha?

A stone image of the Buddha.Buddha is a word in ancient Indian languages including Pali and Sanskrit which means "one who has been awakened". It is derived from the verbal root "budh", meaning "to awaken" or "to be enlightened", and "to comprehend".

The word "Buddha" denotes not just a single religious teacher who lived in a particular epoch, but a type of person, of which there have been many millions, billions, and infinite ones throughout the course of cosmic time. (As an analogy, the term "American President" refers not just to one person, but to everyone who has ever held the office of American presidency.) The Buddha Siddhartha Gautama, then, is simply one member in the spiritual lineage of Buddhas, which stretches back into the dim recesses of the past and forward into the distant horizons of the future.

Gautama, who is referred to by Buddhists as Shakyamuni Buddha, did not claim any divine status for himself, nor did he assert that he was inspired by a god or gods. A Buddha is anyone who has fully awakened to the true nature of existence and who is liberated from the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Anyone can free themselves from suffering as Gautama did, regardless of age, sex, or caste.

The principles by which a person can be led to enlightenment are known as the Buddhadharma, or simply the Dharma, meaning (in this context) "law, doctrine, or truth".


Legend has it that the Buddha to be, Siddhartha Gautama (Sanskrit; in Pali, Siddhattha Gotama), was born around the 6th century BCE. His birthplace is said to be Lumbini in the Shakya state, one of a small group of old Hindu oligarchic republics, in what is now Nepal. His father was a Hindu king, and Siddhartha lived in luxury, being spared all hardship.

The legends say that a seer predicted that Siddhartha would become either a great king or a great holy man; because of this, the king tried to make sure that Siddhartha never had any cause for dissatisfaction with his life, as that might drive him toward a spiritual path. Nevertheless, at the age of 29, while being escorted by his charioteer Channa, he came across what has become known as the Four Passing Sights: an old crippled man, a sick man, a decaying corpse, and finally a wandering holy man. These four sights led him to the realization that birth, old age, sickness and death come to everyone, not only once but repeated for life after life in succession for uncounted aeons. He decided to abandon his worldly life, leaving behind his wife and child, his rank, etc. to take up the life of a wandering holy man in search of the answer to the problem of birth, old age, sickness, and death.

Indian holy men (sadhus), in those days just as today, engaged in a variety of ascetic practices designed to "mortify" the flesh. It was thought that by enduring pain and suffering, the atman (Sanskrit; Pali: atta) or "soul" became free from the round of rebirth into pain and sorrow. Siddhartha proved adept at these practices, and was able to surpass his teachers. However, he found no answer to his problem and, leaving behind his teachers, he and a small group of companions set out to take their austerities even further. After nearly starving himself to death with no success (some sources claim that he nearly drowned), Siddhartha began to reconsider his path. Then he remembered a moment in childhood in which he had been watching his father start the season's plowing, and he had fallen into a naturally concentrated and focused state in which time seemed to stand still, and which was blissful and refreshing.

The temple of the Tooth, in Kandy, Sri Lanka, which contain Buddha's tooth relicTaking a little buttermilk from a passing goatherd, he found a large tree (now called the Bodhi tree) and set to meditating. This new way of practicing began to bear fruit. His mind became concentrated and pure, and then, six years after he began his quest, he attained Enlightenment, and became a Buddha.

According to one of the stories in the Ayacana Sutta (Samyutta Nikaya VI.1), a scripture found in the Pali and other canons, immediately after his Enlightenment the Buddha was wondering whether or not he should teach the Dharma. He was concerned that, as human beings were overpowered by greed, hatred and delusion, they wouldn't be able to see the true Dharma which was subtle, deep and hard to understand. A god, Brahma Sahampati, however, interceded, and asked that he teach the Dharma to the world, as "There will be those who will understand the Dharma". With his great compassion, the Buddha agreed to become a teacher. At the Deer Park near Benares in northern India he set in motion the Wheel of Dharma by delivering his first sermon to the group of five companions with whom he sought for enlightenment before. They, together with Buddha, formed the first sangha, the company of Buddhist monks.

This story must be qualified as follows. First, there are other narrative versions of his life that do not exactly match - one has it that the Buddha leaves home in the "prime of his youth", his parents weeping and wailing all the while. Second, we know from other sources that the state of Shakya, where he was born, was an oligarchic republic at that time, so there was no royal family of which to speak. Therefore, it is believed that the Buddha's father was not a king in the sense of an absolute ruler, but rather an influential tribal figure. However, regardless of the details of his early life, the evidence strongly indicates that the Buddha was indeed a historical person living in approximately the same time and place in which he is traditionally placed.

It has also been advanced that the influence of Jain culture and philosophy in ancient Bihar gave rise to Buddhism. In fact the Jain culture, or religion as we may call it, was founded just prior to Buddhism, and both philosophies shared the same area in which they taught a Dharma that admits no Creator or an all-influencing Being.

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