The Historical Buddha, or the Buddha of this Eon
Buddha1Stylistically when referring to the “Buddha”, the implication is that Buddha Shakyamuni is the subject. Other named buddhas are also capitalized. When the discussion broadens to buddhas in plural or general, no capitalization is used. Shakyamuni (Skt. Śākyamuni) was born Siddhārtha Gautama (Pali Gotama) in Lumbini near Kapilavastu in modern-day Nepal. The name Shakyamuni means “sage of the Shakyas” which was his clan name. Although his specific dates are still undetermined, most believe that he functioned as a spiritual teacher in central India around 450 BCE. He was born into a powerful family, the first son of a king or important clan. According to his life stories, he excelled at all learning, arts, and skills. He married and fathered a son.
Weary with the pointlessness of life, he renounced that life at the age of 29 and began a spiritual search as a wandering ascetic (śramana). According to the stories, he followed several different masters to test their teachings. Unsatisfied with the goal of their instructions, he struck out on his own and after six years of harsh, unfulfilling ascetic practices, he chose a “middle way”. Based on this principle, he claimed to have awakened beneath a Bodhi tree in what is now known as Bodhgaya, India. His teachings, preserved orally and written down centuries later, form the basis of the Buddhist tradition. 2Different dates for the Buddha vary according to the accounts of different schools of Buddhism. All agree that the Buddha lived for eighty years. Modern scholars had proposed dates of approximately 560–480 BCE, but many scholars now hold that he must have died around 405 BCE. Siderits, Mark, “Buddha”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Spring 2023 Edition), Edward N. Zalta & Uri Nodelman (eds.).
All accounts agree that he then taught for decades, predominately throughout the Gangetic plain of Magadha. Over the course of his teaching career, he attracted a number of disciples, including both those who entered the monastic path and those who chose to remain as householders. The Buddhist scriptures are full of accounts of his teaching and emphasize the diversity of his audiences and supporters.
He died at the age of 80 at Kushinagar, entering parinirvana (parinirvāṇa), the passing beyond suffering.
Traditional Sources for the Life of the Buddha
Foundational sutras provide little detail about the Buddha’s life, instead focusing on his teaching. Some episodic elements about the path taken to awakening are related by the Buddha in discourses such as the Ariyapariyesana Sutta and the Mahasaccaka Sutta of the Pali canon. The Pali Mahaparinibbana-sutta offers a detailed account of the episodes that occurred before his passage into nirvana. This sutta describes his final travels in India, his advice to followers, the cremation, and the distribution of his relics.
Beginning in the 2nd century CE, longer accounts were written to tell the story of his life from birth until death. Best known of these are the Lokottaravāda school’s Mahāvastu (“Great Event”), the Sanskrit epic poem, the Buddhacarita (“Acts of the Buddha”) by Aśvaghoṣa and the Mahāyāna Lalitavistara (“The Play in Full”). Monastic discipline texts such as the Mūlasarvāstivāda Vinaya also pull together many episodes from the Buddha’s life and present them chronologically.
Past and Future Buddhas
According to all existing Buddhist traditions, numerous buddhas have appeared in the past. In some traditions, according to the account in the Pali Mahāpadāna or Sanskrit Mahāvadāna, he is the seventh buddha of this eon. Physical evidence of the belief in these past buddhas is found at sacred sites dating back to the time of the Mauryan emperor Aśoka (third-century ʙᴄᴇ). Sculptural representations of seven previous buddhas dating from the first century ʙᴄᴇ appear at sites such as the Bharhut stupa in India.3Vincent Tournier, Buddhas of the Past: South Asia in Brill’s Encyclopedia of Buddhism, Volume II, Brill, 2019, pp 95-108.
In Theravāda Buddhism practitioners honor 25 Buddhas described in the Pali Buddhavaṃsa. That canonical text describes the life of Shakyamuni or Gotama (Gautama) Buddha and his predecessors, as well as the future Metteyya (Sanskrit Maitryea) Buddha. Other sources such as the Bahubuddhaka in the Mahāvastu refer to millions of awakened beings. Because of the inconceivable abundance of buddhas, traditional sources often refer to Buddha Shakyamuni as “our buddha”, or the buddha of this eon.
In the Mahāyāna tradition, teachings emphasize an expanded reality with innumerable buddhas inhabiting other universes at the same time. Moreover, Mahāyāna Buddhists refer to the current eon as the “good eon” because one thousand and four buddhas will appear in our world during this period. The most commonly cited source is the Bhadrakalpikasūtra, the Good Eon sutra. In that sutra, Buddha Shakyamuni pronounces a list of 1004 buddhas of this particular, “good”, or “fortunate” eon. This particular text is extremely popular in Tibet. Lamas often read this aloud on auspicious occasions to bring benefit, and many households in Tibet have copies of this text on their home shrine. Simply hearing the names of these buddhas is thought to bring about good fortune and excellent conditions.
Definition of Buddha
In the Mahāyāna Sūtra “The Perfection of Wisdom in Eighteen Thousand Lines”, one of the Prajñāpāramitā texts, the monk Subhūti asks the Buddha to explain the word ‘buddha’ which he has repeatedly used in his discourse. The Buddha replies:
“Subhūti, true reality (bhūtārtha) is called buddha. Also, Subhūti, there are those who have fully awakened to the true Dharma, therefore they are called buddha. Also, Subhūti, there are those who have a penetrating realization of true reality, therefore they are called buddha. Also, Subhūti, there are those who have fully awakened to all dharmas as they really are, therefore they are called buddha.”Āryāṣṭādaśasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitānāmamahāyānasūtra, The Noble Mahāyāna Sūtra “The Perfection of Wisdom in Eighteen Thousand Lines”
The term Buddha, means ‘awakened’. The word is derived from the past participle of the Pali word budh which means “to awake, expand, know, or perceive”. This relates to the Sanskrit word bodhati, meaning, “awake, observes, understands”.
Buddhist scriptures explain that a Buddha is one who awakes from ignorance and develops two wisdoms: the wisdom that knows the true nature of all phenomena and the wisdom that knows all things in their entirety (also known as omniscience). The title Buddha is applied to any individual who discovers the path to nirvana, the cessation of suffering, and teaches the way for others to attain that same accomplishment.
Etymology of the Tibetan Term Sangyé
Sangyé, the Tibetan word used to translate Buddha consists of two syllables:
In the first syllable, Sang means ‘awakening’. One wakes from the sleep of ignorance and purifies the darkness of both emotional and cognitive obscurations.
Gyé means ‘opened’, ‘expanded’, or ‘developed’ like a fully open lotus flower. One opens to all that is knowable, and ‘develops’ the wisdom of omniscience. A Buddha also has developed all perfect qualities.
The influential Mahāyāna Sūtra, the Samādhirājasūtra (King of Samadhis) expounds upon these qualities:
“The Bhagavān is thus: a tathāgata, an arhat, a fully enlightened buddha, one with perfect wisdom and conduct, a sugata, one who knows the world’s beings, an unsurpassable guide who tames beings, a teacher of devas and humans, a buddha, a bhagavān.
“The Tathāgata is the natural result of merit. He is the inevitable result of roots of merit. He is adorned by patience. He is the manifestation of a treasure of merit. He is beautified by the excellent primary signs of a great being. He has the blossomed flowers of the secondary signs of a great being. He is exemplary in his conduct. His appearance is never disagreeable. He brings joy to those motivated by faith. He is invincible in his wisdom. He has the invulnerability of the strengths. He is the teacher of all beings. He is the father of all bodhisattvas. He is the king of all noble individuals. He is the caravan leader for those beginning on their journey. He is immeasurable in his wisdom. He is inconceivable in his eloquence. He is pure in his voice. He is delightful in his speech. He is lovely in his physical form. He is unequaled in body. He is unstained by the desire realm. He is unsullied by the form realm. He is unadulterated by the formless realm. He is free from suffering. He is liberated from the skandhas. He is separated from the dhātus. He has restrained the āyatanas. He has cut through the knots. He is free from torment. He is released from craving. He has crossed over the great river. He is complete in his wisdom. He is established in the wisdom of the buddha bhagavāns of the past, future, and present. He does not remain in nirvāṇa. He resides at the summit of existence. He is on the level of seeing all beings. Young man, those are the buddha qualities of a tathāgata.
“If bodhisattva mahāsattvas who possess these buddha qualities and their praise, and who have continuous confidence of speech based upon this samādhi, teach correctly the buddha qualities and praises of the Tathāgata, the arhat, the perfectly enlightened Buddha, there will be no loss of meaning or words and all their words will come forth as those of the Buddha.”
Āryasarvadharmasvabhāvasamatāvipañcitasamādhirājanāmamahāyānasūtra, The Noble Mahāyāna Sūtra “The King of Samādhis, the Revealed Equality of the Nature of All Phenomena”