"Enlightenment, for a wave in the ocean,
is the moment the wave realises it is water."
Thich Nhat Hanh
WHAT IS A BUDDHA?
The word Buddha means "awakened one" or "enlightened one". The Buddha was an "ordinary"
human like you and me before he became enlightened. Enlightenment
is compared to waking up, because we suddenly experience a complete
transformation of body and mind when we wake up. A Buddha is a person who has developed all positive
qualities and eliminated all negative qualities. One
could say that a Buddha represents the very peak of evolution, as
he/she is omniscient or all-knowing. With his wisdom, a Buddha really understands the truth, whereas ordinary people live like in a dream, an illusion that prevents us from understanding reality properly.
"Our teacher, Sakyamuni Buddha, is one among
the thousand Buddhas of this aeon. These Buddhas were not Buddhas
from the beginning, but were once sentient beings like ourselves.
How they came to be Buddhas is this.
Of body and mind, mind is predominant, for body
and speech are under the influence of the mind. Afflictions such
as desire do not contaminate the nature of the mind, for the nature
of the mind is pure, uncontaminated by any taint. Afflictions
are peripheral factors of a mind, and through gradually transforming
all types of defects, such as these afflictions, the adventitious
taints can be completely removed. This state of complete purification
is Buddhahood; therefore, Buddhists do not assert that there is
any Buddha who has been enlightened from the beginning."
His Holiness the Dalai Lama from 'The
Buddhism of Tibet'
The historical Buddha, Shakyamuni or Gautama Buddha,
lived about 2,500 years ago in India. However, he was not the first
Buddha, and will not be the last either. He taught that during this
eon (very long time period, maybe comparable to the life-time of
the universe as we know it), there would be 1,000 fully enlightened
Buddhas who would introduce Buddhism (after it has been totally
forgotten). The numbers one to three in this eon are Krakucchanda,
Kanakamuni, Kashyapa, then comes Shakyamuni (the historical Buddha
some 2,500 years ago), and the next Buddha will be called Maitreya.
WHAT IS A BUDDHA NOT?
A Buddha is not the creator of the universe, like
"God" in the Christian-Judeo-Islamic sense. In fact, there is no
creator of the universe given in Buddhist philosophy apart from
the karma (actions) of sentient beings
(beings with a mind like huans and animals).
The Buddha is not omnipotent (all-powerful) like
the Christian-Judeo-Islamic "God". (The simple reason
is that if he were, out of compassion, he would have long released
all sentient beings from suffering.)
The state of a Buddha is not impossible to reach
(although it may take many lives and extensive effort).
A Buddha is not hindered by ignorance, but is omniscient
A Buddha is not a passive being; he will use his
wisdom to help to other living beings when they are open to his
SHAKYAMUNI BUDDHA'S LIFE STORY
Prince Siddharta Gautama was born some 2,500 years
ago as a prince in what is now called Lumbini in Nepal. At his birth,
many special signs appeared. His father asked a sage living in his
kingdom for advice on his son. The sage predicted that Gautama would
become either a great King or a great spiritual teacher.
The King wanted his son to be his successor and
tried to keep him far away from all matters of life that could incline
him to a spiritual life. Gautama usually spent his life in his father's
palace, surrounded by all the possible luxuries of the time. He
proved to be a special child, being quite intelligent as well as
an excellent sportsman. He married to a beautiful woman he loved,
and they had a son.
When Gautama was 29 years old, he discovered there
was much suffering in the world around him. Traditionally
it is explained that he suddenly recognised the problems of sickness,
old age and death when visiting the city. Being shocked by the suffering
of all living beings, he decided to search for way to end it. He
left his wife and child, the palace and even his royal clothes,
and started out on a spiritual quest.
Gautama studied under various teachers and followed
their practices until he mastered them all. His first teacher was
Alara Kalama who taught a form of meditation leading to an exalted
form of absorption called "the state of no-thingness", a state without
moral or cognitive dimension. Gautama saw this was not going to
solve suffering, and continued his search.
The next teacher was Udraka Ramaputra who taught him meditative
absorption leading to "the state of neither perception nor non-perception".
Again, Gautama realised this was not the state he was looking for.
(Both Alara and Udraka are by some scholars considered to be Jain
Next, he tried extreme ascetic practices at Uruvilva in North India,
with five other ascetics who turned into his followers. In the end,
Gautama nearly died of starvation.
After about six years of searching, he realised that just wearing
down his body did not generate new insights, but rather leads to
weakness and self-destruction. When he decided to give up extreme
asceticism, his five students left him.
The 'Bodhi' tree
The Sarnath stupa, location of the first teachings
He then sat down in a place now called Bodhgaya (North India) under
a Bodhi-tree and decided not to get up anymore until he discovered
the truth. Just a short time later, he became a fully enlightened
Buddha. This means that he actualised all positive potentials of
a sentient being and rid himself of all negative qualities.
With this, he realised the true nature of existence and suffering
(emptiness), and how suffering can be ended. (On the right
is a descendant of the original Bodhi tree in Bodhgaya.)
Seven weeks after enlightenment, the Buddha gave
his first discourse in Sarnath, near Varanasi (see image below right).
Here he taught the 4 Noble Truths.
The Buddha continued to teach during his life, until passing away
at the age of 81.
The Buddha once summarised his entire teachings in one sentence:
"I teach about suffering and the way to end it".
The main disciples of the Buddha are also known
as the Great Arhants: Shariputra, known for his understanding of
the Abidharma teachings; Maudgalyayana, known for his psychic powers;
Mahakashyapa, the great ascetic; and Ananda, the personal attendant
of the Buddha who recalled every word the Buddha spoke.
The Buddha's life is also sometimes summarized
in the so called 'Twelve Deeds of the Buddha'. See the Samye
website for a description of these.
People often wonder if it was not selfish from the Buddha to leave his wife and child, and the rest of his family on his spiritual quest. Of course, on the short-term it may have caused especially his wife much sorrow, however, as is nicely recounted at the Buddha Mind website, all his family members achieved enlightenment. One of the important annual Buddhist festival days celebrates the Buddha's returning from the 'Heaven of the 33'; he went there to teach the devas of that realm, including his mother, so that she achieved enlightenment. So, it is easy to see that whatever suffering the Buddha caused to his family members turned into more then a blessing in the end.
ZEN (CH'AN) STORY - LIKE A PILE
By Ven Master Hsing Yun, from Merit
"Su Dongpo of the Song Dynasty went to meditate
with Ch'an Master Foyin at Golden Mountain Temple. After Su Dongpo
had experienced a total relaxation of body and mind, he asked
Ch'an Master Foyin, "Master, what do you think of my
"Very magnificent. Like a Buddha!"
Su Dongpo was very delighted to hear that.
Master Foyin then asked him, "Scholar, what do you think
of my sitting posture then?"
Su Dongpo, never giving up any chance to tease and jeer at
Master Foyin, immediately replied, "Like a pile of bullsh**."
Master Foyin was very delighted to hear the answer and did
not utter another word.
Su Dongpo thought he had beaten Master Foyin
because the Master was wordless while being compared to a
pile of bullsh**. He was so proud of himself that he told everyone
he met, "Today I won."
This news soon reached Su's sister Su Xiaomei.
She asked him, "Brother, how was it that you beat Master
today?" Su repeated the whole story vividly to his sister.
Su Xiaomei, talented and smart as she was, told Su Dongpo straight
to his face, "Brother, you actually lost. It is because
Master's mind is actually that of a Buddha that he could see you
as a Buddha. As your mind is like a pile of bullsh**, you, of
course, saw him as a pile of bullsh**." Su Dongpo, realizing
his Chan practice was far inferior to Master Foyin's, was
Moral: Ch'an does not depend on knowledge but upon the capacity
to awake. Ch'an is not about eloquent debate but intuitive wisdom.
Don't think all Ch'an masters handle encounters with sharp words.
Sometimes, when they are silent and don't communicate via words
and language, they can still utter the same deafening Dharma sounds."
For an extensive life story of the Buddha on the web, visit
Now there's a man with an open mind - you can feel the breeze
One day a young Buddhist on his journey home, came
to the banks of a wide river. Staring hopelessly at the great obstacle
in front of him, he pondered for hours on just how to cross such
a wide barrier. Just as he was about to give up his pursuit to continue
his journey he saw a great teacher on the other side of the river.
The young Buddhist yells over to the teacher, "Oh wise one,
can you tell me how to get to the other side of this river?"
The teacher ponders for a moment looks up and down the river and
yells back, "My son, you are on the other side".
: See the Bhadrakalpika Sutra, translated
into English in 4 big volumes as: 'The Fortunate Aeon - How the
1000 Buddhas become enlightened'.
January 20, 2012