Who Was the Buddha?


The word “Buddha” means “Awakened” or “Enlightened.” It does not mean a particular individual, but a state of human perfection. In the infinite past there have been many Fully Enlightened Ones, or Buddhas, and there will be more in the future too, but their appearance is extremely rare. The most recent Buddha was born Siddhattha Gotama, a prince of the Sakyan Clan in Northern India. His birthplace was at Lumbini, in modern Nepal, close to the Indian border. His father’s palace was at Kapilavatthu on the Indian side of the border.

As a young man he was deeply moved by the suffering of human existence. Though he was happily married with a new-born son, at the age of twenty-nine he renounced his luxurious life to search for liberation from suffering. He practised asceticism for six years before deciding that fasting and self-mortification were of no use. After taking normal meals to regain his strength, he attained enlightenment at the age of thirty-five by sitting the whole night with the resolute determination not to rise from his seat until enlightenment was reached. Thereby he became the Buddha — the Awakened One.

For the remaining forty-five years of his life he wandered throughout Northern India, teaching the Dhamma that he had realised, and gathering many disciples from all social classes. At the age of eighty he passed away and was not reborn again anywhere. The Buddha is not in heaven looking after his faithful followers, and he has not gone anywhere. A fire that ceases to burn has not gone anywhere, it has just gone out. The Buddha’s final passing away is called his parinibbāna. This expression can be applied only to Buddhas, Pacceka Buddhas, and Arahants, since it means the complete cessation of suffering without any remainder. An Arahant is a disciple of the Buddha who has attained enlightenment by following his teaching. A Pacceka Buddha also gains enlightenment by his own efforts and, like an Arahant, is fully liberated from suffering, but he lacks the total perfection of a Fully Enlightened One who has unique abilities to teach others.

The Enlightenment of a Buddha is always the same, no matter in which era he is born. Enlightenment is the realisation of the four noble truths: the truth that life is suffering, that the cause of suffering is craving, that the cessation of craving — nibbāna — is the cessation of suffering, and that the only way to nibbāna is the practice of the Noble Eightfold Path: right view, right thought, right action, right speech, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, and right concentration.

A Buddha is not a god, nor a messenger of God, but a human being. He has no power to save anyone from suffering, except by teaching them the Dhamma. Living beings can save themselves only if they follow the Buddha’s advice and gain insight knowledge by their own efforts. Though the Buddha had many supernatural powers, he relied mostly on instruction, and prohibited his disciples from exhibiting psychic powers. Psychic powers are a product of deep concentration, but for liberation from suffering only insight knowledge is essential. The Buddha’s psychic powers enabled him to know a person’s past lives, spiritual potential, and present thoughts, so he was extremely skilful in guiding and instructing others in the Dhamma. On some occasions he did not teach the Dhamma to certain individuals because he knew that they were not yet ready to understand it. On other occasions, when disciples were unable to make progress in meditation, the Buddha used his psychic powers in various ways to inspire them in their practice, but in every case they had to gain the realisation of Dhamma for themselves.

The Buddha was also subject to the law of kamma. On several occasions he had to endure illness, injury, hardship, and abuse as a result of previous bad kamma. However, his mind was unaffected and he bore such hardships with perfect equanimity. Though a Buddha can be injured by someone with a strong malicious intent, it is impossible for any living being to kill a Buddha. He will only die when his natural life-span comes to an end. If a disciple asks him to, a Buddha can extend his natural life-span to a certain extent by using his powers of concentration, but in the absence of such a request a Buddha will die at the end of his natural life-span, since he has no attachment to existence at all. When suffering from a disease, the Buddha could recover his health more quickly by the use of suitable medicine, or by listening to the recitation of the Dhamma by a disciple.
Nina writes:

He is the Buddha, the Perfected one, the Fully Enlightened one.

Dear friends,

This is a short meditation on the recollection of the Buddha’s excellent qualities, which is a subject suitable for daily life. But more than before, I realize that without satipatthana the understanding of his excellent qualities is only on the theoretical level. We may repeat words, but our understanding cannot be very profound.

The sotapanna has through insight, developed by means of satipatthana, eradicated all doubts as to the Triple Gem. He has an unshakable confidence in the Buddha and his teachings. As for us, beginners, panna is still weak, it is mostly theoretical understanding. We may well doubt about the Buddha, about his panna by which he was awakened and which could completely eradicate defilements. We cannot fathom the Buddha’s wisdom, compassion and purity. We cannot grasp what it means that the Buddha was completely without defilements, we may have doubts about this. We may doubt about his teaching of anatta, doubt about what is the Buddha’s word and what has been added later on. However, we can begin to prove to ourselves the truth of his teachings.

Like and dislike arise in our lives. We can prove that aversion and dislike are conditioned by clinging: things are not the way we would like them to be. Like and dislike are also conditioned by ignorance: not knowing realities as they are. Conceit arises: we cling to the importance of self, we find ourselves better than others. There can also be moments of generosity, these are completely different from akusala. We learn: kusala is kusala, it has its own characteristic that cannot be changed.

Akusala is akusala. We learn that different realities arise each because of their own conditions, that there is no person who can control their arising. As we go along studying and considering the teachings, confidence grows. How could we understand the realities of our life without the Buddha’s teachings? How could we ever have known about realities such as conceit?

We shall have less doubt about the scriptures and commentaries; what matters to us is how relevant are they to our life now. Do they help us to understand reality at this moment or not. We truly have to verify this. The Dhamma is subtle and deep, it takes endless patience to develop understanding, but this is the way to leave all doubts far behind, so that our confidence gradually grows.

I was reminded by A. Sujin: “Do not forget that there are realities appearing all the time.”

It truly impresses me to be reminded by a wise friend who has understanding of realities. It helps me to have more confidence. We can have confidence that the Buddha is the Perfected One, the Fully Enlightened One.


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