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The Buddha

The term “Buddha” is derived from the Sanskrit word meaning “awakened one” or “enlightened one.” In Buddhism, it refers to an individual who has achieved complete awakening and has realized the ultimate truth about reality. The title “Buddha” is not exclusive to a single person but can be attained by any being who follows the path to enlightenment.

The Historical Buddha:
The most well-known and revered figure in Buddhism is Siddhartha Gautama, who lived in ancient India around the 5th century BCE. Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Shakyamuni Buddha, attained enlightenment under the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India. He discovered the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, which form the foundation of Buddhist teachings.

Attributes of a Buddha:
A Buddha is characterized by various qualities and attributes:

  1. Perfect Wisdom (Prajna): A Buddha has a deep understanding of the true nature of reality, often described as emptiness (shunyata) or the absence of inherent existence. They possess profound insight into the interdependent nature of all phenomena.
  2. Compassion (Karuna): Buddhas embody boundless compassion and have an unwavering commitment to alleviate the suffering of all sentient beings. They work tirelessly for the welfare and liberation of others.
  3. Moral Discipline (Sila): Buddhas uphold impeccable moral conduct, adhering to ethical principles that support the well-being of oneself and others.
  4. Fearlessness: A Buddha is free from all fears and anxieties, having transcended the cycle of birth and death. They are untouched by afflictive emotions and attachments.
  5. Skillful Means (Upaya): Buddhas possess skillful means to guide and teach beings according to their needs and capacities, employing various expedient methods to lead them towards liberation.

Buddhas and Bodhisattvas:
Buddhas are often depicted alongside bodhisattvas, enlightened beings who have chosen to postpone their own final liberation to continue working for the benefit of all sentient beings. Bodhisattvas embody the spirit of compassion and serve as inspirational figures for those on the path to awakening.

Buddha Nature:
Buddhism teaches that all beings have the potential to attain Buddhahood. This inherent nature of awakening is referred to as “buddha nature.” It is believed to be present within all individuals, regardless of their current level of spiritual development.

Sources:

  1. “Buddha” in The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism by Robert E. Buswell Jr. and Donald S. Lopez Jr.
  2. “Buddha” in The Encyclopedia of Buddhism edited by Robert E. Buswell Jr.

The figure of the Buddha represents the highest ideal in Buddhism, exemplifying the path to liberation and enlightenment. The teachings of the Buddha provide guidance and inspiration for followers to cultivate wisdom, compassion, and ethical conduct on their own journey toward awakening.

buddha (T. sangs rgyas སངས་རྒྱས་; C. fo 佛) is a epithet or title for one who has become fully “awake” or “enlightened.” Generally, a buddha is one who has completely awakened from the sleep of ignorance and completely realized the true nature of all knowable things.

Rupert Gethin states: In brief, the word buddha is not a name but a title; its meaning is ‘one who has woken up’. This title is generally applied by the Buddhist tradition to a class of beings who are, from the perspective of ordinary humanity, extremely rare and quite extraordinary. In contrast to these Buddhas or ‘awakened ones’ the mass of humanity, along with the other creatures and beings that constitute the world, are asleep—asleep in the sense that they pass through their lives never knowing and seeing the world ‘as it is’ (yathā-bhūtaṃ). As a consequence they suffer. A buddha on the other hand awakens to the knowledge of the world as it truly is and in so doing finds release from suffering. Moreover—and this is perhaps the greatest significance of a buddha for the rest of humanity, and indeed for all the beings who make up the universe—a buddha teaches. He teaches out of sympathy and compassion for the suffering of beings, for the benefit and welfare of all beings; he teaches in order to lead others to awaken to the understanding that brings final relief from suffering.[1]

The term buddha is used as an epithet for Gautama Buddha, the buddha of our present age, as well as for buddhas of past or future ages, and for buddhas of other “world systems.”

Contents

Etymology

Buddha is commonly translated as “awakened one,” “enlightened one,” “one who is awake,” etc.

The term buddha is derived from the Sanskrit root “budh”, meaning “to awaken” or “to open.” Thus the term is often understood as meaning “to awaken” from the sleep of ignorance, and “to open” one’s consciousness to encompass all objects of knowledge.[2]

The Tibetan term for buddha, sangyé (T. sangs rgyas སངས་རྒྱས་), is explained as follows:[3][4]

The “state” or “experience” of being a buddha is referred to as buddhahood (T. sangs rgyas kyi go ‘phang).[5]

Qualities

One who has actualized the dharma

A buddha is one who has actualized the Dharma and manifests its qualities.

One Teacher, Many Traditions states: A buddha is praised as one who actualized the Dhamma and taught it to others. A famous passage in the in the Pali canon describes the relationship of the Dhamma and the Buddha. When speaking to the monk Vakkali, who is gravely ill and regretted not having been able to see the Buddha sooner, the Buddha replied: Enough Vakkali! Why do you want to see this foul body? One who sees the Dhamma sees me; one who sees me sees the Dhamma. Seeing and knowing the Buddha is not done physically but through mental development. […] The extent to which our minds have been transformed into the Dhamma is the extent to which we see the Buddha.[6]

Peter Harvey states: This close link between the Buddha and Dhamma is reinforced by another Sutta passage, which says that a Tathāgata can be designated as ‘one having Dhamma as body’ (Dhamma-kāya)[7] and who is ‘Dhamma-become’ (Dhamma-bhūta; D.III.84). These terms indicate that a Buddha has fully exemplified the Dhamma, in the sense of the Path, in his personality or ‘body’. Moreover, he has fully realized Dhamma in the supreme sense by his experience of Nirvāṇa, the equivalent of the supreme Dhamma (A.I.156 and 158). The Arahat is no different in these respects, for he is described as ‘become the supreme’ (brahma-bhūta, S.III.83), a term which is used as an equivalent to ‘Dhamma-become’ in the above passage. Any awakened person is one who is ‘deep, immeasurable, hard-to-fathom as is the great ocean’ (M.I.487). Having ‘become Dhamma’, their awakened nature can only really be fathomed by one who has ‘seen’ Dhamma with the ‘Dhamma-eye’ of stream-entry. While Christians see Jesus as God-become-human, then, Buddhists see the Buddha (and Arahats) as human-become-Dhamma.[8]

This inseparability of a buddha and the “Dharma” is expressed through describing the Buddha as possessing two kāyas. Kāya is a Sanskrit word that literally translates as “body”; it can refer to a physical or material body, and also to a body as a collection or corpus of qualities that arise from his realization of the dharma. Hence it is said that a buddha possesses:

Rupert Gethin states: To say that the Buddha is dharma-kāya means that he is at once the embodiment of Dharma and the collection or sum of all those qualities—non-attachment, loving kindness, wisdom, etc.—that constitute Dharma. Thus the nature of a buddha does not inhere primarily in his visible human body—it is not that which makes him a buddha—but in his perfected spiritual qualities.[9]

Ability to perform extraordinary feats

Manuscript painting depicting the Buddha miraculously displaying emanations of himself; see “great miracle” (mahāprātihārya).

All buddhas have the ability to perform extraordinary feats that appear as “miracles” to ordinary beings. These abilities include a buddha’s ability to emanate multiple versions of himself and appear in multiple places at the same time (mahāprātihārya), and the ability to emanate fire and water from his body at the same time (yamakaprātihārya).[2][10][11]

Peter Harvey states: The Suttas contain some very ‘human’ information on the Buddha, such as getting backache after a long teaching session (D.III.209). In the Mahāparinibbāṇa Sutta, we find the eighty-year-old Buddha expressing ‘weariness’ at the prospect of being asked about the rebirth-destiny of every person who has died in a locality (D.II.93); saying he was old and worn out and only knowing comfort when in a deep meditation (D.II.100); in his final illness, being extremely thirsty, and insisting on immediately being given water (D.II.128–9). However, elsewhere in the same text the Buddha crosses the Ganges by means of his psychic power (D.II.89); he says that, if he asked, he could have lived on ‘for a kappa, or the remainder of one’ (D.II.103), with kappa (Skt kalpa) generally meaning ‘eon’, but possibly here the maximum human life-span of around 100 years; when he lies down between two Sāl trees, where he will die, these burst into unseasonal blossom in homage to him, and divine music is heard in the sky (D.II.137–8); gods from ten regions of the universe assemble to witness the great event of a Buddha’s passing into final Nirvana at death (parinibbāna, Skt. parinirvāṇa; D.II.138–9); gods prevent his funeral pyre from igniting until the senior disciple Mahākassapa (Skt. Mahākāśyapa) arrives at the site (D.II.163).[12]

The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism states: All Buddhist traditions relate stories of buddhas performing miraculous feats, such as the Śrāvastī Miracles described in mainstream materials. Among the many extraordinary powers of the buddhas are a list of “unshared factors” (āveṇika-buddha-dharma) that are unique to them, including their perfect mindfulness and their inability ever to make a mistake.[2]

Four types of fearlessness

Main article: vaiśāradya

All buddhas possess four types of fearlessness that enable them to “roar the lion’s roar in the assemblies,” i.e. to teach the dharma with confidence.[13]

These four qualities are understood as follows: The Buddha sees no ground on which any recluse, brahman, god, or anyone else could accuse him of (1) claiming to be fully awakened although he is not fully awakened to certain things, (2) claiming to have destroyed pollutants (āśrava) that he has not destroyed, (3) calling things obstructions that are not obstructions, and (4) teaching a Dharma that does not lead someone who practices it to complete destruction of duḥkha. These four enable [a buddha] to teach the Dhamma with perfect self-confidence free from all self-doubt because he is fully awakened regarding all aspects, has destroyed all pollutants, correctly identifies obstructions on the path, and gives teachings that lead those who practice them to nirvāṇa.[13]

Ten powers based on knowledge

Main article: Ten powers of a buddha

All buddhas possess ten powers that derive from their unique range of knowledge.[2]

The ten powers are:[14] (1) knowing what is possible and what is impossible (sthānāsthānajñāna­bala, gnas dang gnas ma yin pa mkhyen pa); (2) knowing the ripening of karma (karmavipāka­jñāna­bala, las kyi rnam smin mkhyen pa); (3) knowing the various inclinations (nānādhimukti­jñāna­bala, mos pa sna tshogs mkhyen pa); (4) knowing the various elements (nānādhātu­jñāna­bala, khams sna tshogs mkhyen pa); (5) knowing the supreme and lesser faculties (indriya­parāpara­jñāna­bala, dbang po mchog dang mchog ma yin pa mkhyen pa); (6) knowing the paths that lead to all destinations (sarvatra­gāminī­pratipaj­jñāna­bala, thams cad du ’gro ba’i lam mkhyen pa); (7) knowing the concentrations, liberations, absorptions, equilibriums, afflictions, purifications, and abidings (dhyāna­vimokṣa­samādhi­samāpatti­saṃkleśa­vyavadāna­vyutthāna­jñāna­bala, bsam gtan dang rnam thar dang ting ’dzin dang snyoms ’jug dang kun nas nyon mongs pa dang rnam par byang ba dang ldan ba thams cad mkhyen pa); (8) knowing the recollection of past existences (pūrvanivāsānusmṛtijñāna­bala); (9) knowing death and rebirth (cyutyupapatti­jñāna­bala, ’chi ’pho ba dang skye ba mkhyen pa); and (10) knowing the exhaustion of the defilements (āsravakṣayajñāna­bala).

Eighteen unshared qualities

Main article: āveṇika-buddha-dharma

All buddhas possess special qualities that are unique to the buddhas and not shared by other arhats.[15][13]

These unshared qualities are presented in One Teacher, Many Traditions as follows:[13] Six unshared behaviors 1. Due to mindfulness and conscientiousness, a buddha has no mistaken physical actions, whether he is walking, standing, sitting, or lying down. He acts in accordance with what he says, and his speech satisfies what each sentient being who is listening needs to understand in that moment. 2. Always speaking appropriately, truthfully, and kindly, he is free from mistaken speech and idle chatter. A buddha does not dispute with the world, nor does he complain about what others have done. 3. He is free from any kind of forgetfulness interfering with the jhānas and exalted wisdom, or with viewing all sentient beings and teaching them appropriately. 4. His mind always abides in meditative equipoise on emptiness, and simultaneously he teaches sentient beings the Dharma. 5. He does not perceive any discordant appearances of a self and of inherent existence and thus recognizes all phenomena as sharing the one taste of emptiness. He also does not treat sentient beings with bias. 6. He abides in perfect equanimity, knowing the individual characteristics of each phenomenon. Six unshared realizations 1. Due to his all-encompassing love and compassion, a buddha never experiences any decline of his aspiration and intention to benefit all sentient beings and to increase their virtuous qualities. 2. He never loses joyous effort to lead others to awakening. A buddha experiences no physical, verbal, or mental fatigue and continuously cares for the welfare of sentient beings without getting tired, lazy, or despondent. 3. A buddha’s mindfulness effortlessly remains constant and uninterrupted. He is mindful also of the situations each sentient being encounters in the past, present, and future and the methods to subdue and help them. 4. He continuously remains in samādhi, free from all obscurations and focused on the ultimate reality. 5. His wisdom is inexhaustible and never declines. He perfectly knows the 84,000 Dharma teachings and the doctrines of the three vehicles, as well as how and when to express them to sentient beings. 6. It is impossible for him to lose the state of full awakening free from all obscurations. He knows the mind to be naturally luminous, and he lacks any dualistic appearance or grasping at duality. Three unshared awakening activities 1. Imbued with exalted wisdom, a buddha’s physical actions are always done for the benefit of others. He emanates many bodies that appear wherever sentient beings have the karma to be led on the path to awakening. Whatever a buddha does has a positive effect on sentient beings, subduing their minds. 2. Knowing the dispositions and interests of each sentient being, he teaches the Dharma in a manner appropriate for that person. His speech flows smoothly, is accurate and lovely to listen to. It does not deceive or lead others astray but is clear, knowledgeable, and kind. 3. Filled with undeclining love and compassion, his mind encompasses all beings with the intention to do only what is of the highest benefit. He is effortlessly and continuously cognizant of all phenomena. Three unshared exalted wisdoms A buddha’s exalted wisdom knows everything in the three times—past, present, and future—without any obscuration or error. His knowledge of the future does not mean that things are predetermined. Rather, a buddha knows that if a sentient being does a particular action, this particular result will follow, and if another course of action is taken, a different result will come. He knows all buddhafields and realms of sentient beings as well as all the beings and their activities there.

Skillfulness in teaching

All buddhas possess special skillful means (upaya-kaushalya), which is an extraordinary skill in teaching the dharma according go to the needs of sentient beings.[2]

This skillfulness distinguishes a “complete and perfect buddha” (samyaksambuddha) from a solitary buddha (pratyekabuddha) who does not teach (or teaches only through gestures).[2]

Physical characteristics

Main article: Physical characteristics of a buddha

All buddhas have a physical body that is adorned with:

According to tradition, these physical marks are shared by both buddhas and chakravartins. However the marks are more clear and distinct on the body of a buddha. The Buddha also has a few marks that are not found on the chakravartin, such as the protuberance on the crown of the Buddha’s head.[16]

Special qualities of the Mahayana

In addition to the qualities described above, the Sanskrit Mahayana tradition identifies further qualities of the buddha

Three kayas

Main article: Trikaya

The “three kayas” (tri-kāya; literally “three bodies”) are three dimensions of buddhahood, or three ways in which a buddha manifests. These are:

  1. The dharma-kāya (dharma body) which embodies the very principle of enlightenment and knows no limits or boundaries;
  2. The sambhoga-kāya (enjoyment body) which is a body of bliss or clear light manifestation;
  3. The nirmāṇa-kāya (created body) which manifests in time and space.

Buddha fields

The Mahayana envisions a universe filled with infinite buddha fields, where each “buddha field” (buddhakṣetra) is a realm that constitutes the domain of a specific buddha.[17]

The most famous of these buddha fields is Sukhavati, the realm of Buddha Amitābha.

The acts of a buddha

See also: Twelve deeds of a buddha

All buddhas are said to perform certain “acts” during their lifetimes. There are different versions of the acts of a buddha, but the versions share many similarities. A set of twelve deeds is emphasized in Tibetan Buddhism. A similar list of “eight episodes” (baxiang) is common in East Asian Buddhism. The Pali tradition identifies thirty deeds that are common to all buddhas.[18]

The twelve deeds emphasized in Tibetan Buddhism are:

  1. descent from Tushita heaven (T. dga’ ldan gyi gnas nas ‘pho ba) for their final birth,
  2. entry into the womb (T. lhums su zhugs pa) of their mother,
  3. taking birth (T. sku bltams pa),
  4. becoming skilled in the arts (T. bzo yi gnas la mkhas pa),
  5. enjoying the company of consorts (T. btsun mo’i ‘khor dgyes rol ba),
  6. renouncing the world (T. rab tu byung ba),
  7. practicing austerities (T. dka’ ba spyad pa),
  8. going to the the “seat of enlightenment” (bodhimanda) (T. byang chub snying por gshegs pa),
  9. subjugating Māra (T. bdud btul ba),
  10. attaining buddhahood (T. mngon par rdzogs par sangs rgyas pa),
  11. turning the wheel of the dharma (dharmacakrapravartana; T. chos kyi ‘khor lo bskor ba), and
  12. passing into parinirvana (T. mya ngan las ‘das pa)

Path to buddhahood

The “state of enlightenment” of a buddha is called buddhahood (T. sangs rgyas kyi go ‘phang). This state is achieved by following the path of the bodhisattva.

According to tradition, the bodhisattva path (or path to buddhahood) begins when one makes a vow to become a buddha in a future lifetime in order to “reestablish the dispensation or teaching (śāsana) at a time when it was lost to the world.”[2]

This path entails mastering the six or ten perfections (paramitas) and can take incalculable eons.

According to tradition, this path of the bodhisattva was followed by Buddha Shakyamuni as well as all of the buddhas of the past. Thus the teaching of the Buddha is “not the innovation of an individual, but rather the rediscovery of a timeless truth…that had been discovered in precisely the same way” by all of the buddhas of the past who also followed this path.[2] The Buddha has referred to this path as “an ancient path” (Skt. purāṇamārga).[2]

Lists of named Buddhas

In addition to Buddha Shakyamuni, there are many other buddhas named in Buddhist literature. These include buddhas of the past, present, and future, as well as buddhas of different “world systems.”

In Buddhist cosmology, there can only be one buddha at a time in any world system. The “age” of a buddha is considered to last as long as their “dharma” is present in the world.

The seven buddhas

An engraving of “The Seven Buddhas” at Sanchi.

Main article: Saptatathāgata

A group of seven buddhas (saptatathāgata) is identified in the early texts of both the Sanskrit and Pali traditions.

The seven buddhas are:[19] The last three buddhas of the “glorious eon” (vyūhakalpa):

  1. Vipaśyin (P. Vipassī)
  2. Śikhin (P. Sikhī)
  3. Viśvabhū (P. Vessabhū)

The first four buddhas of the “fortunate eon” (bhadrakalpa):

  1. Krakucchanda (P. Kakusandha)
  2. Kanakamuni (P. Koṇāgamana)
  3. Kāśyapa (P. Kassapa)
  4. Gautama (P. Gotama)

According to tradition, these seven buddhas are a bridge between two great eons: the “glorious eon” (vyūhakalpa) which preceded the current great eon; and the current eon, known as the “fortunate eon” (bhadrakalpa). The first three buddhas in the list are the last buddhas of the “glorious eon,” and the next four buddhas are the first buddhas of the “fortunate eon”.[19]

Pali tradition

Main article: List of the named Buddhas in the Pali Canon

In the Pali tradition, twenty-nine buddhas are named in the Buddhavamsa. This list includes:

For the complete list, see:

Sanskrit tradition

In the Sanskrit tradition, in addition to seven buddhas (saptatathāgata) discussed previously, the following named buddhas are identified:

In addition, the following group is identified in the Vajrayana tradition:

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