buddha (T. sangs rgyas སངས་རྒྱས་; C. fo 佛) is a epithet or title for one who has become fully "awake" or "enlightened." Generally, a buddha is one who has completely awakened from the sleep of ignorance and completely realized the true nature of all knowable things.
Rupert Gethin states:
- In brief, the word buddha is not a name but a title; its meaning is ‘one who has woken up’. This title is generally applied by the Buddhist tradition to a class of beings who are, from the perspective of ordinary humanity, extremely rare and quite extraordinary. In contrast to these Buddhas or ‘awakened ones’ the mass of humanity, along with the other creatures and beings that constitute the world, are asleep—asleep in the sense that they pass through their lives never knowing and seeing the world ‘as it is’ (yathā-bhūtaṃ). As a consequence they suffer. A buddha on the other hand awakens to the knowledge of the world as it truly is and in so doing finds release from suffering. Moreover—and this is perhaps the greatest significance of a buddha for the rest of humanity, and indeed for all the beings who make up the universe—a buddha teaches. He teaches out of sympathy and compassion for the suffering of beings, for the benefit and welfare of all beings; he teaches in order to lead others to awaken to the understanding that brings final relief from suffering.
The term buddha is used as an epithet for Gautama Buddha, the buddha of our present age, as well as for buddhas of past or future ages, and for buddhas of other "world systems."
Buddha is commonly translated as "awakened one," "enlightened one," "one who is awake," etc.
The term buddha is derived from the Sanskrit root "budh", meaning "to awaken" or "to open." Thus the term is often understood as meaning "to awaken" from the sleep of ignorance, and "to open" one's consciousness to encompass all objects of knowledge.
The Tibetan term for Buddha, Sangyé (T. sangs rgyas སངས་རྒྱས་), is explained as follows:
- Sang (སངས་) means ‘awakening’ from the sleep of ignorance, and ‘purifying’ the darkness of both emotional obscurations and cognitive obscurations.
- Gyé (རྒྱས་) means ‘opening’, like a blossoming lotus flower, to all that is knowable, and ‘developing’ the wisdom of omniscience—the knowledge of the true nature of things, just as they are, and the knowledge of all things in their multiplicity.
Path to buddhahood
The "state of enlightenment" of a buddha is called buddhahood (T. sangs rgyas kyi go 'phang). This state is achieved by following the path of the bodhisattva.
According to tradition, the bodhisattva path (or path to buddhahood) begins when one makes a vow to become a buddha in a future lifetime in order to "reestablish the dispensation or teaching (śāsana) at a time when it was lost to the world."
This path entails mastering the six or ten perfections (paramitas) and can take incalculable eons.
According to tradition, this path of the bodhisattva was following by Buddha Shakyamuni as well as all of the buddhas of the past. Thus the teaching of the Buddha is "not the innovation of an individual, but rather the rediscovery of a timeless truth...that had been discovered in precisely the same way" by all of the buddhas of the past who also followed this past. The Buddha has referred to this path as "an ancient path" (Skt. purāṇamārga).
One who has actualized the dharma
A buddha is one who has actualized the dharma and manifests its qualities.
One Teacher, Many Traditions states:
- A buddha is praised as one who actualized the Dhamma and taught it to others. A famous passage in the in the Pali canon describes the relationship of the Dhamma and the Buddha. When speaking to the monk Vakkali, who is gravely ill and regretted not having been able to see the Buddha sooner, the Buddha replied:
- Enough Vakkali! Why do you want to see this foul body? One who sees the Dhamma sees me; one who sees me sees the Dhamma.
- Seeing and knowing the Buddha is not done physically but through mental development. [...] The extent to which our minds have been transformed into the Dhamma is the extent to which we see the Buddha.
Peter Harvey states:
- This close link between the Buddha and Dhamma is reinforced by another Sutta passage, which says that a Tathāgata can be designated as ‘one having Dhamma as body’ (Dhamma-kāya) and who is ‘Dhamma-become’ (Dhamma-bhūta; D.III.84). These terms indicate that a Buddha has fully exemplified the Dhamma, in the sense of the Path, in his personality or ‘body’. Moreover, he has fully realized Dhamma in the supreme sense by his experience of Nirvāṇa, the equivalent of the supreme Dhamma (A.I.156 and 158). The Arahat is no different in these respects, for he is described as ‘become the supreme’ (brahma-bhūta, S.III.83), a term which is used as an equivalent to ‘Dhamma-become’ in the above passage. Any awakened person is one who is ‘deep, immeasurable, hard-to-fathom as is the great ocean’ (M.I.487). Having ‘become Dhamma’, their awakened nature can only really be fathomed by one who has ‘seen’ Dhamma with the ‘Dhamma-eye’ of stream-entry. While Christians see Jesus as God-become-human, then, Buddhists see the Buddha (and Arahats) as human-become-Dhamma.
This inseparability of a buddha and the "Dharma" is expressed through describing the Buddha as possessing two kāyas. Kāya is a Sanskrit word that literally translates as "body"; it can refer to a physical or material body, and also to a body as a collection or corpus of qualities that arise from his realization of the dharma. Hence it is said that a buddha possesses:
- a material or physical body (rūpakāya), and
- a dharma body (dharmakāya), the qualities that arise from realizing the "Dharma"
Rupert Gethin states:
- To say that the Buddha is dharma-kāya means that he is at once the embodiment of Dharma and the collection or sum of all those qualities—non-attachment, loving kindness, wisdom, etc.—that constitute Dharma. Thus the nature of a buddha does not inhere primarily in his visible human body—it is not that which makes him a buddha—but in his perfected spiritual qualities.
Ability to perform extraordinary feats
All buddhas have the ability to perform extraordinary feats that appear as "miracles" to ordinary beings. These abilities include a buddha's ability to emanate multiple versions of himself and appear in multiple places at the same time, and the ability to emanate fire and water from his body at the same time.
Peter Harvey states:
- The Suttas contain some very ‘human’ information on the Buddha, such as getting backache after a long teaching session (D.III.209). In the Mahāparinibbāṇa Sutta, we find the eighty-year-old Buddha expressing ‘weariness’ at the prospect of being asked about the rebirth-destiny of every person who has died in a locality (D.II.93); saying he was old and worn out and only knowing comfort when in a deep meditation (D.II.100); in his final illness, being extremely thirsty, and insisting on immediately being given water (D.II.128–9). However, elsewhere in the same text the Buddha crosses the Ganges by means of his psychic power (D.II.89); he says that, if he asked, he could have lived on ‘for a kappa, or the remainder of one’ (D.II.103), with kappa (Skt kalpa) generally meaning ‘eon’, but possibly here the maximum human life-span of around 100 years; when he lies down between two Sāl trees, where he will die, these burst into unseasonal blossom in homage to him, and divine music is heard in the sky (D.II.137–8); gods from ten regions of the universe assemble to witness the great event of a Buddha’s passing into final Nirvana at death (parinibbāna, Skt. parinirvāṇa; D.II.138–9); gods prevent his funeral pyre from igniting until the senior disciple Mahākassapa (Skt. Mahākāśyapa) arrives at the site (D.II.163).
The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism states:
- All Buddhist traditions relate stories of buddhas performing miraculous feats, such as the Śrāvastī Miracles described in mainstream materials. Among the many extraordinary powers of the buddhas are a list of “unshared factors” (āveṇika-buddha-dharma) that are unique to them, including their perfect mindfulness and their inability ever to make a mistake.
Ten powers based on knowledge
All buddhas possess ten powers that derive from their unique range of knowledge.
The ten powers are:
- (1) knowing what is possible and what is impossible (sthānāsthāna-jñānabala, gnas dang gnas ma yin pa mkhyen pa);
- (2) knowing the ripening of karma (karmavipākajñānabala, las kyi rnam smin mkhyen pa);
- (3) knowing the various inclinations (nānādhimuktijñānabala, mos pa sna tshogs mkhyen pa);
- (4) knowing the various elements (nānādhātujñānabala, khams sna tshogs mkhyen pa);
- (5) knowing the supreme and lesser faculties (indriyaparāparajñānabala, dbang po mchog dang mchog ma yin pa mkhyen pa);
- (6) knowing the paths that lead to all destinations (sarvatragāminīpratipajjñānabala, thams cad du ’gro ba’i lam mkhyen pa);
- (7) knowing the concentrations, liberations, absorptions, equilibriums, afflictions, purifications, and abidings (dhyānavimokṣasamādhisamāpattisaṃkleśavyavadānavyutthānajñānabala, bsam gtan dang rnam thar dang ting ’dzin dang snyoms ’jug dang kun nas nyon mongs pa dang rnam par byang ba dang ldan ba thams cad mkhyen pa);
- (8) knowing the recollection of past existences (pūrvanivāsānusmṛti-jñānabala);
- (9) knowing death and rebirth (cyutyupapattijñānabala, ’chi ’pho ba dang skye ba mkhyen pa); and
- (10) knowing the exhaustion of the defilements (āsravakṣaya-jñānabala).
Skillfulness in teaching
Special qualities of the Mahayana
In addition to the qualities described above, the Sanskrit Mahayana tradition identifies further qualities of the buddha
The "three bodies" (tri-kāya) are three aspects or dimensions of buddhahood, or three ways in which a buddha can manifest. These are:
- The Dharmakāya or dharma body which embodies the very principle of enlightenment and knows no limits or boundaries;
- The Sambhogakāya or enjoyment body which is a body of bliss or clear light manifestation;
- The Nirmāṇakāya or created body which manifests in time and space.
All buddhas have a physical body that is adorned with:
- Mahapurusalaksana - thirty-two major marks of a great man
- Minor marks of a great person - eighty minor marks
According to tradition, these physical marks are shared by both buddhas and chakravartins. However the marks are more clear and distinct on the body of a buddha. The Buddha also has a few marks that are not found on the chakravartin, such as the protuberance on the crown of the Buddha's head.
Twelve deeds of a buddha
All buddhas perform the following twelve deeds:
- descend from Tushita, the Joyous pure land (dga' ldan gyi gnas nas 'pho ba) for their final birth,
- enter their mother’s womb (lhums su zhugs pa),
- take birth (sku bltams pa),
- become skilled in various arts (bzo yi gnas la mkhas pa),
- delight in the company of royal consorts (btsun mo'i 'khor dgyes rol ba),
- renounce the world (rab tu byung ba) (meaning they develop renunciation and become ordained),
- practice austerities for six years (dka' ba spyad pa),
- proceed to the foot of the bodhi tree (byang chub snying por gshegs pa),
- subjugate Māra (bdud btul ba),
- attain buddhahood (mngon par rdzogs par sangs rgyas pa),
- turn the wheel of the dharma (chos kyi 'khor lo bskor ba), and
- pass into mahaparinirvana  (mya ngan las 'das pa)
Lists of named Buddhas
In addition to Buddha Shakyamuni, there are many other buddhas named in Buddhist literature. These include buddhas of the past, present, and future, as well as buddhas of different "world systems."
In Buddhist cosmology, there can only be one buddha at a time in any world system. The "age" of a buddha is considered to last as long as their "dharma" is present in the world.
Seven buddhas of the past
According to tradition, these seven buddhas are a bridge between two eons (kalpas): the "glorious eon" (vyūhakalpa) "fortunate eon" (bhadrakalpa). The first three buddhas in the list are the last buddhas of the "glorious eon," and the next four buddhas are the first buddhas of the "fortunate eon":
- Vipassī (the 998th buddha of the vyuhakalpa)
- Sikhī (the 999th buddha of the vyuhakalpa)
- Vessabhū (the 1000th and final buddha of the vyuhakalpa)
- Kakusandha (the first buddha of the bhadrakalpa)
- Koṇāgamana (the second buddha of the bhadrakalpa)
- Kassapa (the third buddha of the bhadrakalpa)
- Gautama (the fourth and present buddha of the bhadrakalpa)
- Dīpankara Buddha - the Buddha who gave the "prediction of future Buddhahood" (niyatha vivarana) to the Brahmin youth who would become Gautama Buddha.
- Twenty-three more buddhas who appeared after Dipanakara and before Gautama Buddha
- Gautama Buddha, the buddha of our age
- Metteyya Buddha, the future buddha
- three buddhas who lived before Dīpankara Buddha (Taṇhaṅkara, Medhaṅkara, and Saraṇaṅkara)
For the complete list, see:
In the Sanskrit tradition, the following named buddhas are identified:
- Seven buddhas of the past - see previous section
- 1002 buddhas of this Fortunate Aeon - a list of buddhas that will appear in the current eon
- Thirty-five buddhas of confession - identified in Tibetan Buddhism as a means of purifying transgressions of the bodhisattva vow
- Five tathagatas - emanations of the five qualities of the primordial buddha within Buddhist tantra, sometimes referred to as "buddhas"
- Gethin 1998, s.v. Chapter 1, section "The historical Buddha".
- Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. buddha.
- Dalai Lama & Thubten Chodron 2014, s.v. Chapter 2.
- Harrison, 1992: 50
- Harvey 2013, s.v. Chapter 1, section "The nature and role of the buddha".
- Gethin 1998, s.v. Chapter 1, section "The nature of a buddha".
- Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. mahāprātihārya.
- Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. yamakaprātihārya.
- Harvey 2013, s.v. Chatper 1, section "The nature and role of the Buddha".
- The Precious Discourse on the Blessed One’s Extensive Wisdom That Leads to Infinite Certainty, "Introduction"
- Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. buddhakṣetra.
- Mipham Rinpoche 2002, s.v. paragraphs 21.149-150.
- In the case of Buddha Shakyamuni, this was in the Lumbini garden.
- In the case of Buddha Shakyamuni, this was in the city of Kushinagara.
- Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. bhadrakalpa.
- Dalai Lama; Thubten Chodron (2014), Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions, Wisdom Publications
- Buswell, Robert E.; Lopez, Donald S. (2014), The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University
- Gethin, Rupert (1998), Foundations of Buddhism (Kindle ed.), Oxford University Press
- Harvey, Peter (2013), An Introduction to Buddhism (Second ed.), Cambridge University Press
- Mipham Rinpoche (2002), Gateway to Knowledge, vol. III, translated by Kunsang, Erik Pema, Rangjung Yeshe Publications