Who was the Buddha? We see Buddhist images so often these days on everything from coffee mugs to bar signs. And we may know some quotes attributed to him, but what do we really know about the historical Buddha? Why might his own story be relevant for us? Here, in an audio clip from a teaching given in Cooperstown, New York, Phakchok Rinpoche gives a short introduction.

Who is the Buddha?

The Buddha wanted to gain realization. Moreover, he wanted to gain freedom from pain, the suffering that we all know in our lives. Because he had done so much accumulation of merit in his previous lives and had made so many aspirations, when he was born into this world over 2600 years ago, he naturally gave rise to great renunciation. He asked many questions about things that are often difficult for us to see.

Who Was the Buddha?

A Brave and Compassionate seeker

Shakyamuni Buddha was courageous. Yet, he was compassionate enough to let go of what was dear to him in order to search for the answers. Then, once he had realized the truths, he returned to his family to teach his wife, his son, and his family. There are many stories about the Buddha teaching his family members, and many of them followed him as monks or nuns. When we read or hear these stories, we can appreciate the kindness of the Buddha and not think that he neglected his responsibilities.

Who Was the Buddha?

How Does His Life Experience Resemble Our Own Situations?

Rinpoche explains that he likes to show the links between the Buddha’s situation and our own. For example, when we decide to attend a meditation retreat or teaching, we may have made a big effort to do that. We had the guts to do something unusual and important for our free time!

This connection to the teachings is not just random. Right now, we may think that it is completely random; we just happened upon the Dharma. And right now we may not believe that there are reasons. But it is very important to know, that just like the Buddha, we also created conditions for this to happen. In our own past lives, we also accumulated good deeds and made aspirations to connect with the teachings again. Everything is due to causes and conditions.

Who Was the Buddha and What Made His Search Uncommon?

When the Buddha examined things carefully he began teaching by posing four key questions:

  1. What is our difficulty or uneasiness: what is suffering?
  2. Then, what is the cause and condition that brings this about?
  3. Can anybody really be free of this situation?
  4. How do we get free?

Here, Rinpoche compares these questions to the types we would ask a pharmacist when we get a headache. The questions themselves seem common, but the Buddha differs from us because he asked them about bigger, more important issues. It took tremendous courage to ask these big questions. When we first hear these, we may not realize how uncommon they were, but the more we hear and reflect, the more we appreciate the unique quality of these questions.

Reflection Question

How do you understand the term “suffering”?  What would you include in this category? And what brings about suffering?