Buddhism A–Z
What Does Buddha Mean in Buddhism?
Buddha Shakyamuni, 12th century, Central Tibet, courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

What Does “Buddha” Mean?

A buddha is an individual who has reached enlightenment and broken free from the cycle of samsara. The term “buddha” directly translates to “the awakened one” or “enlightened one,” conveying a buddha’s profound understanding of the true nature of reality.

It‘s important to note that Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha we think of when we hear the term “buddha,” is not the only buddha. Different Buddhist traditions recognize various enlightened beings as buddhas. Some Buddhist scriptures name buddhas predating Siddhartha Gautama, and others also anticipate a future buddha, Maitreya.

Different buddhas, such as the Medicine Buddha, are also depicted in traditional Buddhist art. In any case, a buddha has attained liberation, transcending the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. Below, we explore Siddhartha Gautama and the pathway to buddhahood he taught.

Siddhartha Gautama (the Historical Buddha)

The historical Buddha (Sanskrit, Pali: “awakened one”), whose given name was Siddhartha (Sanskrit: “He Who Achieves His Goal”) Gautama, was a meditator and spiritual teacher whose teachings on enlightenment and the end of suffering became the basis of the world religion of Buddhism.

He was born in the 6th century BCE in Lumbini, a region that is now part of Nepal. His father, King Suddhodana, isolated Siddhartha within the palace’s opulent confines, raising him in a life of privilege and luxury as a prince.

Siddhartha’s life would take a profound turn when he finally ventured outside the palace and, for the first time, encountered the realities of human suffering, as well as the possibility of freedom from suffering. These discoveries came through what are known as the Four Sights.

Siddhartha’s first encounter, or sight, was with an elderly person, revealing the inevitability of aging. The second sight featured an individual suffering from illness. The third sight was of a corpse. These sights troubled Siddhartha’s mind, and he became sorrowful regarding the sufferings inherent in life.

He then came across a fourth highly influential sight: an ascetic who had devoted himself to understanding the source of human suffering. This instilled in Siddhartha the hope that he, too, could transcend the inherent suffering of existence. 

Siddhartha renounced his royal life and even familial bonds, to embark on a spiritual quest, seeking answers to the fundamental questions of existence and the nature of human suffering.

He first sought guidance from different yoga teachers, mastering their teachings, but found he was no closer to enlightenment. He then, along with five companions, embraced extreme asceticism, subjecting himself to severe hardships and fasting. However, these extreme practices also failed to yield the insights he sought. 

On the brink of starvation, Siddhartha accepted a bowl of milk rice from Sujata, a village girl who mistook him for a tree spirit. After nourishing himself, he realized extreme austerities wouldn’t bring spiritual awakening. He embraced the Middle Way—avoiding excess and extreme deprivation—ultimately achieving enlightenment in deep meditation under the Bodhi tree in Bodh Gaya, India. Accounts of this period of meditation vary, with some traditions saying it took one night, others three days and three nights, while still others mention forty-five days. 

His time under the Bodhi tree wasn’t without challenges, as the mythical demon Mara sought to thwart his path. But Mara’s seductive daughters, armies of demons, and claims of entitlement all failed to deter Siddhartha. In a moment of triumph, he touched the earth, calling upon the earth itself to bear witness to his realization. It is said that during this period of meditation, the Buddha gained an understanding of his past lives, those of all beings, the laws of karma, and how to be liberated from attachments and obstacles.

After his awakening, realizing the difficulty of conveying his understanding to others, the Buddha developed the teachings on the four noble truths and the eightfold path, offering a structured path for individuals to attain their own enlightenment. He set out on a mission to guide others toward peace and liberation from suffering. Over the next decades, his teachings spread across northern India, attracting followers.

The Buddha’s final year, said to be his eightieth, was marked by illness. He died in Kushinagar, instructing his followers to rely on the dharma, his teachings, after his passing. He would pass away during meditation, reaching parinirvana—freedom from the cycle of rebirth. His final words urged diligence in seeking the goal, emphasizing the impermanence of all things, and encouraging his followers’ mental independence, famously saying, “Be a lamp unto yourselves.”

The Buddha’s Teachings

The Buddha’s realizations and teachings can be summarized in the following key concepts.

The Four Noble Truths

After attaining enlightenment, the Buddha delivered a sermon to five monks at Deer Park, known as “The Setting in Motion of the Wheel of Teaching.” He began by advising the avoidance of extremes, advocating for a “middle way” that leads to insight, wisdom, calm, knowledge, enlightenment, and nirvana. This middle way encourages a life of moderation, steering clear of both self-indulgence and self-denial.

The core of this first sermon encompasses the four noble truths. These truths can be likened to a diagnosis and prescription for the human condition, just as a doctor identifies a problem and offers a solution.

  1. Suffering – Life always involves suffering, in obvious and subtle forms. Even when things seem good, we always feel an undercurrent of anxiety and uncertainty inside.
  2. The Cause of Suffering – The cause of suffering is craving and fundamental ignorance. We suffer because of our mistaken belief that we are a separate, independent, solid “I.” The painful and futile struggle to maintain this delusion of ego is known as samsara, or cyclic existence.
  3. The End of Suffering – The good news is that our obscurations are temporary. They are like passing clouds that obscure the sun of our enlightened nature, which is always present. Therefore, suffering can end because our obscurations can be purified, and awakened mind is always available to us.
  4. The Path – By living ethically, practicing meditation, and developing wisdom, we can take exactly the same journey to enlightenment and freedom from suffering that the buddhas do. We, too, can wake up.

The Buddha’s Eightfold Path builds upon these concepts, describing the actual path referred to in the Fourth Noble Truth.

The Eightfold Path

The Buddha laid out an eightfold path as the way to attain liberation:

  1. Right (or wise or skillful) understanding
  2. Right intention
  3. Right speech
  4. Right action
  5. Right livelihood
  6. Right effort
  7. Right mindfulness
  8. Right concentration

Traditionally, these principles are organized into three categories: wisdom (panna), ethics (sila), and mental discipline (samadhi). Each principle plays a pivotal role in achieving a state of enlightenment and liberation from suffering.

The eightfold path does not represent a belief system but a pragmatic process for ending suffering. It emphasizes the interconnection between ethical conduct, mental discipline, and wisdom, with each category reinforcing and supporting the others. This comprehensive approach ultimately leads individuals toward a life of ethical integrity, mental discipline, and wisdom, culminating in the potential for liberation from suffering and enlightenment.

The Three Marks of Existence

Like the four noble truths and the eightfold path, the Buddha’s teachings on the three marks of existence are essential to achieving enlightenment. They describe the essential characteristics of all phenomena and beings:

  1. Impermanence (anicca) – Illustrating that everything in existence undergoes ceaseless change.
  2. Suffering (dukkha) – Extending from the first noble truth, affirming that all sentient beings, humans and animals alike, are susceptible to dissatisfaction and suffering.
  3. No-self (anatta) – In the Buddhist perspective, there is no distinct and unchanging “self” that owns bodily processes, sensations, perceptions, and consciousness. The term “self” is used for linguistic convenience, referring to the aggregate of perceptions, thoughts, feelings, and the body.

While not presented as a distinct teaching, these characteristics are frequently referenced in various Buddhist teachings and are considered integral to the Buddha’s wisdom. They complement the four noble truths and the eightfold path, offering a deeper understanding of existence and the path to liberation from suffering.

Frequently Asked Questions

Was Buddha a Real Person?

While historical records of his life are not considered entirely reliable, scholars accept his historical existence. 

Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, is generally believed to have existed between 563 and 483 BCE, although some scholars propose the possibility of his life occurring about a century later. He was born into the ruling family of the Shakya clan, which led to his commonly known title, Shakyamuni, signifying the “sage of the Shakya clan.” Within Buddhist texts, he is commonly addressed as Bhagavat, often translated as “Lord,” and he identifies himself as the “Tathagata,” a term that can signify “one who has thus come” or “one who has thus gone.”

Early collections of sutras (Pali: suttas), traditionally attributed to the Buddha, contain narratives about individual events in his life from the time he renounced his princely life until he achieved enlightenment six years later. Some sutras also detail his enlightenment. 

His lifespan is traditionally stated as eighty years, yet uncertainty surrounds the date of his death.

Is Buddha a God?

The buddhas are not gods. They are revered as exceptional moral teachers, serving as exemplars of the ideals that every Buddhist strives to attain. But, they are not objects of worship.

Buddhism’s core doctrine asserts the impermanence of everything, precluding the concept of an eternal deity. Additionally, Buddhism’s foundational principle posits that all phenomena must have an origin. Consequently, there is no room in Buddhist philosophy for a supreme creator akin to those in Western religions, nor is there a pantheon of immortal deities as there are in some other Asian religions.

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