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
The function of a Buddha
A Buddha discovers the path to awakening and makes this
path known to the world at large.
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
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
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
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
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