Basic Buddhism

The Buddha

The Buddha


The word Buddha is derived from the Pali word ‘budh’ meaning to wake up, perceive, become aware. The Buddha is one who has transcended attachment, ill will, and ignorance (sometimes referred to as greed, hatred and delusion), who has perceived impermanence, dukkha, and selflessness, and attained Enlightenment and realized Nibbana (Nirvana). It is a state of consciousness when the individual is aware of absolute reality. It is a generic name and applies to all persons who have reached this stage.

The Buddha is not a Creator God, and he is not a saviour of human beings. He cannot punish or forgive persons who act contrary to the teaching. The Buddhist teaching does not have the concept of sin. Acting contrary to the teaching generates bad kamma, and retards the person’s progress as a Buddhist pilgrim.

Buddhism is the law of nature. What the Buddha perceived and taught is the law of nature.

There are three types of individuals who attain Enlightenment:

  • Arahats
  • Pacceka Buddhas
  • Samma Sambuddhas, Universal Buddhas.

An Arahat attains Enlightenment at a time when the Buddhist teaching, Dhamma, is known in the world, and with the guidance and benefit of the teaching of a Samma Sambuddha. An Arahat teaches the Dhamma, but does not go on to establish a Buddha Sasana or Buddhist community.

A Pacceka Buddha attains Enlightenment by his own efforts, at a time when a Buddha’s teaching, Dhamma, is not known in the world. He teaches the Dhamma, but, again, does not go on to establish a Buddha Sasana or Community.

A Samma Sambuddha, or Universal Buddha, is the highest level of Buddhahood. He attains Enlightenment, by his own efforts, at a time when the teaching is not known in the world. He has the greatest and most extensive powers, teaches the Dhamma and goes on to establish a Buddha Sasana or Community.

According to the teaching of the Southern Asian tradition, this Buddhist Community carries on for a very long time. In the end it dies out and the teaching is not known in the world, though the teaching is active and applies in the world. Then another Samma Sambuddha is Enlightened, teaches the Dhamma and establishes a new Buddhist Community. In this way there is a series of Samma Sambuddhas.

The use of the word Buddha, by itself, refers to a self Enlightened Samma Sammabuddha or Universal Buddha. Some Eastern traditions consider the teaching to be a living permanent spiritual force, in the nature of a Buddha.

According to the teaching of the South Asian traditions there is a series of named Samma Sambuddhas. The current teaching is that of Gotama (Sakyamuni) Buddha. Immediately before him was Kassapa Buddha, and the next Buddha is Metteyya (Maitriya) Buddha, who lives now as Bodhisatta Maitriya in the Tusita world.

The Historical Buddha

This expression refers to Gotama (Sakyamuni) Buddha who lived about 600 BCE and whose teaching continues today. It is incorrect to refer to the Buddha as the founder of Buddhism. The Buddhist teaching is the law of nature or absolute reality and all Buddhas give the same teaching. This teaching applies to all living beings whether they know about it or not, and does not change by time or location. It applies in all the worlds and planes of existence known in Buddhism.

Gotama Buddha, during his life, established the Order of the Sangha, for monks first, and then for the nuns. The first two nuns were his stepmother Queen Maha Prajapati Gotami and his former wife Princess Yasodhara. He predicted that both these nuns will in time become excellent teachers, bodhisattvas and Buddhas.

The Qualities of Gotama Buddha

These are set out in the words of worship: a worthy person who has transcended the cycle of rebirths, realized the teaching of the Dhamma by his own efforts, perfect in knowledge and conduct, one who has progressed along the path of a bodhisatta, who knows the nature of different worlds, an incomparable teacher, a teacher of deities and human beings, who has become aware of absolute reality, and a fortunate one.

Further qualities are given in the texts such as having a memory of former births of himself and others, the knowledge how to eradicate unwholesome qualities of the mind, ability to read the minds of others, complete knowledge of the detailed rules of kamma and rebirth, the nature of beings, the intricacies of mindfulness and meditation, hindrances on the path to Enlightenment and so on.

The Development of the Buddha Concept

Gotama Buddha explained that his followers should focus on the Dhamma he taught, rather than him as a person. He explained that the followers who honour him best were those who follow and practise his teaching. At the end of his life he explained that when he was no more, the followers must accept the Dhamma he taught as the teacher.

The Mahayana Tradition:

The Mahayana tradition developed the concept of the Buddha much further. Although still regarded as a human being, this body was looked upon as the Nirmanakaya aspect – the Buddha purposefully manifesting as a human being in order to teach the Dharma and bring others to enlightenment. Two other bodies (or kayas) were envisioned. The Sambhogakaya, which only other highly realized beings could perceive and gain teachings from, and the Dharmakaya, the emptiness body of enlightenment, the ultimate nature of Buddhahood. Central to this idea was the concept of Buddha nature – that all beings have the potential to become enlightened.

The most important focus in the Mahayana is the bodhisattva ideal, the path of the bodhisattva – one who is altruistically dedicated to gaining enlightenment not just for one self, but for the sake of all other sentient beings. With this as the motivation, profound practices aimed at developing the mind of compassion were taught and expanded upon.

At the core of Mahayana philosophy is the concept of emptiness (Shunyata), based around the Buddha’s teachings on anatman (no self). It does not mean nothingness, however, but an emptiness, or lack of inherent existence. Buddhism is said to be free of the two extremes, nihilism and eternalism.

The development of Mahayana Buddhism also meant a new role of the laity, as this path made it more open to them. Another central concept of the Mahayana was the idea of Skillful Means, that the Buddha taught on many different levels according to the capacity of each person.

The commentaries developed the ideas of the Buddha nature, numerous Buddhas, simultaneous existence of the Buddhas, that he must be a divine and spiritual being whose physical form did not completely portray his nature, and that the real body was not a worldly but a cosmic body.

Eastern Buddhism

The Eastern Buddhist traditions reconciled these ideas in the concept of the Trikaya, the three bodies of the Buddha:

  • Dharmakaya – a Dharma body
  • Sambhogakaya – a manifestation of the Dharma body to teach bodhisattvas
  • Nirmanakaya – a manifestation of the Dhamma body to teach human beings

Dharmakaya is the emptiness body of the teaching. It is the living teaching which operates permanently and everywhere. It includes the other bodies.

Sambhogakaya is a manifestation of the Dharmakaya only perceivable by realized beings for the purpose of teaching bodhisattvas.

Nirmanakaya is a mortal manifestation of the Dharmakaya for the purpose of teaching human beings, for example Gotama Buddha.


There also developed, in all the traditions, the idea of the Buddha nature or bodhicitta (mind of enlightenment).This is the potential of all living beings to become Enlightened. This is an active force in the consciousness of all living beings which can be developed by transcending the various negative qualities of the mind, such as attachment and ignorance.

The Path

An Arahat is one who has transcended attachment, ill will and ignorance; perceived impermanence, dukkha and selflessness; and attained Enlightenment and realized Nibbana. The final aim of Buddhists in South Asia is to become an Arahat. This is understood to take many lifetimes. Most of these Buddhists have an intermediate aim of birth in good circumstances, meaning lives which will facilitate their progress on the Buddhist path.

A bodhisattva [Sanskrit] is one intent on full Enlightenment. In the South Asian traditions the bodhisatta [Pali] is one intent on becoming a Samma Sambuddha. In the Eastern and Northern (Mahayana) traditions a bodhisattva is one intent on becoming a Universal Buddha for the sake of all beings. These latter traditions have a wider view of a bodhisattva as one who has;
1. Taken the Bodhisattva vow, or
2. Progressed on the Bodhisattva path to be free from compulsive rebirth as a human being, but may voluntarily be born as a human being to help others on the path.

Arahat Path

Before entering the path of a Buddhist pilgrim the individual is known as a worldling, because his mind is focused on worldly matters. On entering the path he is known as a noble person.

There four stages on the path to become an Arahat.

The first is stream winner. The stream is the Noble Eightfold Path. The noble one has begun to practice the elements of the Noble Eightfold path. He has overcome some obstacles, perfected some qualities, and made some progress on the Buddhist path. He will be reborn at the most seven times in the human world.

When he has progressed further on the path and perfected more qualities, he becomes a once returner and will be reborn only once more in the human world.

At the next stage, when he has perfected more qualities he becomes a never returner. After his life he is reborn in heavenly worlds.

At the final stage of an Arahat he has perfected all the required qualities and achieved Enlightenment and realized Nibbana. He creates no further Kamma, but may have to live through the bad Kamma of his past lives.

Bodhisatta / Bodhisattva Path

According to the teaching of the Southern (Theravada) traditions the bodhisatta has to perfect the ten Paramis (perfections) required for full Enlightenment as a Sam Sambuddha. This is not a graduated path. The Jataka Stories illustrate how the bodhisatta perfected these qualities as he progressed to becoming Gotama Buddha.

According to the teaching of the Eastern and Northern (Mahayana) traditions the bodhisattva has to perfect the Paramitas (usually six perfections). These are the qualities required to be perfected to achieve full Buddhahood. The Paramitas are similar to the Paramis of the Southern traditions.

Since the aim in the Eastern and Northern traditions is to become a Buddha, the Bodhisattva Path has a special importance. In the ten graduated stages of the Bodhisattva Path along which the bodhisattva progresses, he develops and perfects qualities such as generosity, morality, patience, energy, meditation, wisdom and so on. These ten stages are related to the Paramitas.

The final aim in all the traditions is to become a Samma Sambuddha, a fully Enlightened Universal Buddha.


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