Buddhism A-Z: “Buddha”
The literal meaning of the word ‘Buddha’ is ‘awakened or enlightened one’. It refers to someone who has awakened from the sleep of ignorance and sees all things as they really are.
There are many people who have become Buddhas in the past, and many people will become Buddhas in the future. Buddha is a title describing a state you earn, not inherit, and anyone can earn it.
In real terms, it is easiest if you think of it akin to a concert musician. Anyone can potentially become that skilled in an instrument, few do, and even fewer have the spark that crosses over to fame and acclaim. Many factors determine the difference – of which dedication is only one.
Buddhists believe the same is true of ‘Buddhahood’. The potential for becoming an enlightened one (a Buddha) is present in all life.
However, most Buddhists are not seeking to become a Buddha themselves. Much as you may wish to learn the piano for all it’s benefits to you without wishing to make a career of it, or you may benefit from simply going to hear a concert pianist perform, you may very well wish to practise Buddhism or attend to the beliefs of Buddhism without in any way wishing to become a Buddha.
We do, though, talk of “The Buddha”. The Buddha is the man we believe first attained the state of enlightenment. Siddhārtha Gautama shared his realisations and newfound understanding about the nature of life with the people close to him so they might lead happier, more peaceful lives. In turn, these followers made this information available to local communities, and they onwards, until the story of Siddhārtha’s life and enlightenment became more widespread. Worth noting, the first written records of this oral tradition date some 450 years after The Buddha lived.
Though academic work has inevitably been done to try and verify the information we have on The Buddha’s life, it is generally regarded as somewhat unimportant. The teachings are here for us to read now, no matter where they came from. If they make sense to us we should act on them, if they don’t we shouldn’t.
Given that, most practising Buddhists do not concern themselves overmuch with the factual accuracy of Siddhārtha Gautama’s life; stories as to his awakening range from the ridiculous to the sublime.
5 Common beliefs about the life of The Buddha:
1) Most scholars believe Siddhārtha Gautama was born into a wealthy family in Kapilavastu (present-day Nepal) circa 563 BCE and that his mother didn’t survive long after his birth.
2) His grieving Father wanted to protect his new son from anything unpleasant. Siddhārtha had an exceptionally comfortable and sheltered youth, rarely leaving his Father’s estate; being served, entertained and educated by numerous servants and courtesans.
3) Despite these pleasures, Siddhārtha grew anxious to know what life was like outside the palace walls and, in an effort not to lose his son completely, his Father relented and allocated the teenage Siddhārtha an attendant called Channa with whom he could take trips outside the compound.
4) During these trips, Siddhārtha variously encountered an old man, a sick man and a corpse; learning of mortality for the first time. So disturbed was Sid* by what he learned that he no longer found any pleasure in the servants’ entertainment and grew withdrawn and unhappy
5) He left home looking for a way to escape suffering and death. He studied with many wise men until Siddhārtha realised, while meditating under a tree, that the only thing he hadn’t tried was a “middle way” between what he described as an addiction to self-mortification and an addiction to sense-pleasures. Taking this path he began to see the world as it really was and set in motion a “wheel of teaching” that became Buddhism.
*we’re on casual terms by now…