The Buddha

Bhikkhu Bodhi

Excerpted from the Ashoka online course The Buddha's Teaching As It Is


One avenue of approach to seeing the Dhamma, the truth proclaimed by the Buddha, is by investigating the one who makes known the truth. The deeper we understand the nature of the Buddha, the deeper we understand the Dhamma—the teaching. And, of course, the converse is also true — the deeper we understand the teaching—the Dhamma—the deeper we understand the Buddha.

The historical person we know as the Buddha was an Indian prince of the Sakya people living in North India. He renounced the right to the throne, became a religious seeker early in his life and then after reaching enlightenment he became a spiritual teacher. His given name was Siddhartha and his clan name was Gotama. He was not called the Buddha in his early years, but acquired this designation only in his 35th year after he attained enlightenment.

The Buddha, a buddha

The word Buddha is not a proper name but an honorific title. The word comes from the Pali/Sanskrit root bugh—meaning to understand, to know, or to awaken. The word Buddha thus means the one who has understood the truth, the enlightened one, the one who has awakened from the sleep of ignorance and who awakens others from the sleep of ignorance.

This raises a question: What is a Buddha? What are the distinguishing qualities of this type of person that receives the designation Buddha. We can answer this question from two standpoints – from the standpoint of function and from the standpoint of attributes or qualities.

The function of a Buddha

The special function of a Buddha is to rediscover the lost path to liberation from samsara and to make that path known to the world at large.

A Buddha discovers the path to awakening and makes this path known to the world at large.

To understand why the path must be rediscovered and shown we need to consider certain aspects of the Buddhist world-view. According to this view life is subject to impermanence; to arising and passing away; to birth, growth, ageing and death. It is impermanence that makes existence seem fundamentally unsatisfactory and subject to suffering.

The Buddhist world-view recognizes a state, outside the phenomenal universe of life isubject to impermanence, to arising and passing away, to birth, growth, ageing and death. — a state of perfect bliss and unfading peace. This state is called, in Pali, Nibbana (in Sanskrit Nirvana). And there is a path, a way which leads from the impermanence and suffering of the round of becoming to the bliss and peace of Nibbana. And it is this path that is taught by the Buddha.

A Buddha always comes as a human being, not as a deity or prophet or divinely-inspired messenger. He begins like us, caught up in the round of suffering and defilements in which all beings are caught up. But he is an extraordinary person, someone with immense potential of intelligence, energy, and compassion. And by making the path known to the world, this Buddha opens the road to deliverance for all humanity, so that others can follow the path and reach liberation.

The qualities of a Buddha

We can also understand a Buddha from the standpoint of his special qualities.

The elimination of all defects

A Buddha is someone who has eliminated all defilements—mental qualities, factors of mind that cause affliction, bondage and eventually suffering. The three basic defilements are greed, hatred and delusion. Out of these emerge many secondary defilements — conceit, jealousy, anger, hostility, laziness, presumption, obstinacy, vanity, wrong views. . . All of these a Buddha has eradicated.

The achievement of excellent qualities

We can also understood a Buddha through his excellent qualities (gunas):

The purity of the Buddha follows from his eradication of all defilements. Free of all defilements, his actions of body, speech and mind are totally pure.

The wisdom of the Buddha is signified by the term enlightenment. The wisdom of the Buddha has depth, precision and range.The Buddha understands things in their deepest nature, in their most profound nature. He understands things with precision – exactly, truly as they are.

The Buddha’s great compassion guides his wisdom. Through compassion the Buddha empathizes with sentient beings caught up in the cycle of suffering. And through compassion he works to alleviate the suffering of beings – by teaching the Dharma, by making known to them the Dharma that that will lead them to liberation.

Attaining enlightenment, becoming a Buddha

People reach enlightenment without becoming buddhas. Those who attain enlightenment through the instructions of a Buddha — the liberated, accomplished followers of a Buddha — are called arahants.

But the Buddha has special outstanding qualities — powers of knowledge and compassion which enable him to establish the Dharma in the world and to act as a world teacher.

At a single time or in a single historical period there is only one Buddha but there can be many arahants, many disciples who learn the teaching from the Buddha, follow it, and reach enlightenment through the path he makes known.


The Buddha Shakyamuni

Now that we've explored the nature of a Buddha, we can consider the specific person known to history as the Buddha.

The early years

The Buddha’s given name was Siddhartha; his family name was Gotama. Buddhists know him as the Buddha Gotama or Buddha Shakyamuni, the sage of the Sakya clan. The dates now recognized by scholars for the Buddha’s life are from 563 BC to 483 BC, although other dates are also recognized.

The future Buddha took birth as the son of King Soddhodana and Queen Maya among the Sakyan people in a small kingdom of northern India, in the foothills of the Himalayas and he grew up in the capital city, Kapalavatu.

Since the father, a ruler himself, wanted Siddhartha to become a ruler, the proper heir to his throne, he went to great length to shield him from the sufferings of the world. He built three palaces, one for each season – each with pleasure gardens, ponds flower beds, attended by musicians, dancers, singers. When he reached, manhood his father arranged marriage with beautiful princess Yosotera, and he lived with his wife in the palace

But when he reached his 29th year he became more and more reflective and thoughtful. He began to wonder if pleasure, power and fame, which were all transient and unreliable, were the ultimate goals of human life or if there was something more beyond this, something eternal and unchanging.

His first encounter with the hard facts of life is told in the texts in the form as a myth — a myth that expresses a real and powerful psychological awakening. According to this myth, up to his 29th year Siddhartha had lived in a totally illusory world in which the hard facts of life were completely hidden from him.

When he reached maturity curiosity burned in him and so he ordered his charioteer to take him out beyond the walls of the palace. There he saw four sites that determined his future destiny.

Old age
The first site was of an old man by the side of the road, bent over, leaning on a walking stick, his hair gray, his teeth falling out. “What is that?” he asked. “That is an old man” the driver responded. “What is an old man?” Siddhartha asked. "All of youth eventually leads to old age. No one remains young forever. As the years go by, eventually the hair turns gray, the skin wrinkles, one reaches such a state" he was told. When he asked if he too was subject again his driver responded, ”You and everybody else, we’re all subject to old age.”

Then he saw a sick man by the side of a road, his body covered by sores, trembling, shaking, vomiting. unable to control his limbs. Again the same kind of exchange took place. Now he saw for himself, for the first time, the fact of sickness.

Then he saw a funeral procession, pall bearers carrying a coffin. Inside the coffin he saw the corpse, the body lying still and lifeless, This was his encounter with the fact of death

These sights aroused in him an understanding that shattered all his illusions. He realized that, even though he now enjoyed he glory of youth, youth ends in old age. He saw that health becomes to sickness, that life ends in death, and as these thoughts bore into his mind, his satisfaction with the luxury of the palace life fell away, and he became inwardly very discontent, dissatisfied.

Then he saw a fourth sight — an aesthetic walking very peacefully and serenely carrying an alms bowl. He approached him and asked him who he was and how he was different from other men. “I am a recluse, I live in the forest. I lead a life of meditation, a way to enlightenment, a way to deliverance from suffering."

And when he heard these words, the prince now knew the direction he had to move. And so he decided to leave the palace and to follow the quest for spiritual truth, seeking a way out of the round out of suffering, of aging and death, by entering the life of an aesthetic.

The seeker

One night — as the myth goes, on the same day his wife had given birth to his first son — while everyone was asleep, he left the palace on his horse. Many miles from the city, he stopped at the edge of the forest and there he removed his princely garments, replaced them with the stitched robes of an aesthetic, cut his hair and his beard, and entered the forest seeking a way to deliverance.

At the times there were many systems of philosophy and their schools of meditation. The young seeker went to the best-known teachers. He mastered their philosophies, he practiced their forms of meditation to the highest point.

His teachers, recognizing his attainment, offered to place him on a level with themselves and share the leadership of their communities, but Siddhartha refused and left their orders.

What did he find deficient in these systems of meditation? He recognized that these forms focused exclusively on concentration, samadhi, rather than panna, wisdom. Yes, they led to higher states of consciousness, to rapturous bliss, to stillness and calm of the mind, to deep stages of absorption. But they did not lead to insight into truth, to awakening, to enlightenment, and therefore they were inadequate to bring about the state of liberation.

So Gotama, the bodhisattva, abandoned these teachers and their systems and threw himself deeper into the forest in order to enter upon a new path, the path of self-mortification.

However the bodhisattva found that all of these austerities only proved futile. They didn’t lead to any enlightenment, to any state of higher wisdom. They led only to the wasting of the body and the weakening of the mental faculties.


He understood that for the mind to function properly at full capacity, the body had to be strong and healthy, and therefore he decided to abandon this course of self-mortification and to resume taking food again. And so he went to gather alms, he began to eat until he had regained his strength and vigor. And when this happened the five ascetics became disillusioned with him. Thinking he had abandoned his spiritual exertions and was reverting to a life of luxury, they left him all alone.

Then, when he was alone, the approach of enlightenment drew near.

In the texts this struggle is depicted allegorically as a battle with Mara, the personification of all desire and attachment, the tempter, the evil one.

But the bodhisattva then reached down his hand and touched the ground saying “The earth shall be my witness.”

Then the bodhisattva entered into deeper and deeper states of meditation in which his mind became perfectly calm and still. Then with his mind calm and concentrated, the realizations of wisdom begin to unfold.

These took place over the three watches of the night.

In the first watch of the night, he recollected all the of his former lives. He saw himself again and again through the innumerable eons going through the stages of birth, growth, aging and death. He saw himself with different names, different forms, with different relations. He sees everything changing, transient, mutable. The dreamlike quality of all forms became evident to him, as he went through one life drama after another, seeing how all they all change and all fall away.

In the second watch of the night he developed the divine eye with which he was able to look out upon the world and see the rise and passing away of all sentient beings, He saw how beings take birth according to their karma, how they reap the fruits of their good and evil actions. He saw the world system evolve and dissolve, arise and pass away And he understood the universal laws at work beneath the surface manifestation of things.

And then in the third watch of the night he penetrated the deepest truths of the dhamma. He discovered the law of dependent arising – patticasamuppada. He developed vipassana, insight into the real characteristics of all things. And he arrived at the realization of the Four Noble Truths.

At the end of the night his mind was liberated from all the screens of ignorance, and he sat beneath the bodhi tree no longer a bodhisattva – a seeker of enlightenment – but now a finder of enlightenment, a Sammasambuddha, a perfectly enlightened one.

The teacher

For several weeks the newly enlightened Buddha remained in the vicinity of the bodhi tree, contemplating the truths he had discovered.

Then he faced the challenge of one more decision — whether to go out and try to teach or whether remain silent and stay the forest. When he first reflected on this question, he decided not to teach, to pass his days quietly in the forest, and to enter into nirvana silently by himself.

The Dhamma, he thought, is just too deep and people are too attached. If he tried to teach no one would be interested, no one would try to understand. But then his mind inclined in the other direction.

And in the same way, he saw, there are some people whose eyes are covered with only a little bit of dust, who need only to hear the Dhamma to open enlightenment and gain deliverance. And when he saw this he makes the decision to go forth to teach.

For his first hearers he chose the five ascetics who previously used to wait upon him but had left him. Seeing his bearing is so majestic, his faculties so pure, his expression so serene, they listened to his words

In his first discourse the Buddha explained to them the middle way. He said he has achieved the supreme goal, he has discovered the middle way, the noble eight-fold path which avoids the extremes of indulgence and luxury on one hand and the extreme of self-mortification on the other hand. He went on the proclaim the Four Noble Truths and to tell how his discovery of the four noble truth issued in his enlightenment.

The Buddha himself then commenced his long career of wandering which was to lead him from town to town, from village to village in northern India. And so the Buddha taught for 45 years.

As he approached his 80th year, the buddha knew that he had accomplished his mission. His doctrine had become widespread and fruitful, he had established the sangha, the order of monks and nuns. There were large numbers of people, monks and nuns, laymen and lay women, who had opened enlightenment could see to the transmission of the Dhamma. And so he set out on his last journey accompanied by Ananda, his personal attendant, and by the order of monks. He traveled to the town of ß and there he lay down between two trees. In his final discourse he exhorted them:

Oh, my disciples. All conditioned things are impermanent, subject to destruction. Work out your salvation with diligence.

We're still studying the Buddha's teaching

Two centuries after the Buddha's death, with the support of the Emperor Ashoka, Buddhism spread over the greater part of India and from there traveled the full breadth of the Asian continent. In several tidal waves it rose up from its Indian homeland and inundated other regions, offering the peoples among whom it took root a solid foundation of faith and wisdom upon which to build their lives and a source of inspiration towards which to direct their hopes.

At different points in history Buddhism has commanded followings in countries as diverse geographically, ethnically, and culturally as Afghanistan and Japan, Siberia and Cambodia, Korea and Sri Lanka;yet all have looked towards the same Indian sage as their master.

In our own time Indian thinkers as different as Swami Vivekananda,Tagore, Gandhi, and Nehru have looked upon the Buddha as a model, as have Western thinkers such as Thoreau and Emerson. In the twentieth century, Buddhism has begun to have a growing impact on an increasing number of people in the West, and in its own quiet way it is sending down firm roots in several countries of the Western hemisphere.

From the Ashoka online course The Buddha's Teaching As It Is, taught by Bhikkhu Bodhi.