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

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

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.

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.

But the Buddhist world-view also recognizes another state, outside this phenomenal universe — 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.

Why does the path need to be rediscovered? In the Buddhist cosmology there are times when this path is known and followed, when people practice the path and reach the attainment of Nibbana. But there also times when this path falls into neglect and eventually disappears. During these periods of spiritual darkness, emancipation becomes just a legend, or a vague dream of something from the distant past.

Eventually at some point during such a long spiritual darkness a person arises who by his own innate wisdom and striving, without any guide or teacher, rediscovers that lost path to deliverance. Having rediscovered the path, he follows it to the end, reaches the attainment of Nibbana, and then, out of compassion for others who are afflicted by suffering, he comes back to make it known again to the world.

A person who accomplishes this twofold task of rediscovering the path and making it known again to the world is called a 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 (kileshas in Pali — that which afflicts). The defilements are 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

1 of 5

Qualities of the Dharma
The Four Noble Truths
The Noble Eightfold Path
The True Nature of Existence
  The Five Aggregates of Clinging
  Anicca, Dukkha and Anatta
  Dependent Arising
  Kamma, Nibbana and Rebirth


The Sangha
The Buddhist Sangha