Who was the Buddha?

A wealthy family’s son. A warrior. A future king. A husband. A father. A wanderer. A teacher. A buddha. A bodhisattva. Siddhartha Gautama’s story, across its many forms and translations, is remarkably consistent in the details. Like all stories of great teachers, some details have become mythologized as they cross cultures. Stories change to fit cultures, times, and populations as quickly as they arrive. But when trying to weave together the historical and mythological elements of Siddhartha Gautama (more familiarly known as the Buddha)’s story, we quickly learn that truth (that which is historically verifiable) and reality (living and lived traditions) are different; yet at the same time, completely inseparable.

Acts 1-6: The “Prince”

Even the oldest versions of the Buddha’s story begin with that of a boy born into a ruler/warrior caste (ksatriya) family of the Sākya people under an astrologically auspicious full moon. Siddhartha’s mother, who had a vision of an elephant holding a white lotus in its trunk the night of his conception, died seven days after he was born and then, by most accounts, ascended into the heavenly realm (Tusita) from which her son had come. While Siddhartha was not a prince (as some accounts have anachronistically called him), his family was aristocratic. So, (as found in A Concise History of Buddhism by Andrew Skilton) when a seer told a father that his child was “destined for either political or spiritual empire,” he planned young Siddhartha’s life accordingly, vowing never to let him see the chaotic world outside the palace walls. This story of his birth constitutes the first three (or four, depending on the source) acts of the most twelve well-known acts of the life of a buddha: descent from the Heavenly realm, entrance into his mother's womb, and his birth.  

As a wealthy male child of the ruling class, he was given education, luxury, and a bride who eventually bore him a son. The time from Siddhartha’s birth to his eventual renunciation of the life of luxury mark the next three or four stages of the life of a Buddha; from youthful games, to fully indulging in the sensuality of life, up until the final renunciation and departure from home to wander and seek enlightenment. At age 29, after only one day witnessing the harshness of life outside the palace walls, Siddhartha Gautama left the world of his wealthy Sākya family behind, with no word to his family.

Historically, the Sākya clan lived in what is now south-central Nepal. This clan was just one of many in the area trying to keep a hold on their lands as other kingdoms (thus other cultures) to the south expanded. This is, according to a few theories, one reason why Siddhartha Gautama has so often been called a prince or a ruler. His travels would have required him to explain his background in terms more familiar to the people he encountered. But by most accounts, it can be inferred that, despite these titles being assigned to him, Siddhartha Gautama was not a ruler—just someone born into an ambitious and wealthy family culture.

There are many other followers who came after Siddhartha with similar kinds of stories, some of whom are said to have reached enlightenment, and some not. The first six “acts” or “deeds” of his life are not unique to many other enlightened figures in Buddhist traditions, nor do they constitute a particularly remarkable path to renunciation. But the retelling of these stages created one of the most important frameworks in Buddhist writing: one which is still used to create biographies of sages (particularly in the Tibetan tradition). This biographical framework has not only served to preserve the Buddha’s story, but to elevate the qualities required of all people known as buddhas to a status greater than that of normal humans.

Acts 7-10: The Wanderer

Siddhartha’s encounter with an old man, a sick man, a corpse, and an ascetic caused a massive paradigm shift within the young noble’s mind. The Pali tradition, the one which gave birth to Theravada Buddhism, and from which Siddhartha Gautama’s story first emerged in chronological format, says that he left his family and palace life behind under a full moon—the same one under which he was born 29 years before. Instead of becoming a king who would rule the earth with perfect justice, Siddhartha donned rags and embarked on his mahāpravrayjyā, or “great going out.” This is the seventh act of the Buddha.

The eighth act is said to have lasted six years, during which time Siddhartha studied with many teachers, none of whom could show him the truth he sought. According to the Mahasaccaka Sutta (a chapter in the Majjhima Nikaya, one of the main Pali texts), after some close encounters with voluntary starvation and oxygen deprivation, Siddhartha decided that this sort of willful endangerment of one’s life was impractical and useless in the search for enlightenment. His fellow students shunned him for this abandonment of “proper” ascetic behavior, and he set off once more. Siddhartha then met a young woman, who provided him with nourishment in the form of rice-milk.

Feeling strong again, this was the point when the young seeker sat beneath a rose-apple tree. There, Siddhartha began to meditate, and encountered the being Māra (“the bad one,” or “bringer of death”), who argued with him and tempted him to abandon his quest. When asked if any would vouch for the authenticity of his knowledge, Siddhartha is said to have touched the earth and caused Māra to fall off his elephant and flee. This moment marks his enlightenment, and his transformation into the Buddha.

The teachings that the ascetic learner Siddhartha Gautama rejected on his path to enlightenment mostly involved an idealized state of nothingness and deprivation, sought after by members of the brahmin classes in the Vedic traditions. Some of Gautama Buddha’s teachings after his time under the bodhi (“awakening”) tree do mirror, and sometimes even copy Vedic ideas. One example of this is the desire to escape the cycle of reincarnation, or samsara. While both ideas are present in Buddhism and Vedic Hinduism, there is a distinctly more straightforward, less mathematical approach to Gautama Buddha’s philosophy than that of the brahmin classes.

In Vedic philosophy, nearly every act a person does contributes to their karma “bank.” This means that it could take even the holiest of men trillions of lifetimes to escape the cycle and enter the liberation and nothingness of moksha. On the other hand, nirvana, the Buddhist parallel, is said (except in some Theravada traditions) to be attainable by any person who follows the eight-fold path. This comparative lack of a soteriological (regarding or pertaining to salvation) bent to his teachings suggests that Siddhartha Gautama was a just man who desired change. Even though nirvana is defined scripturally as being the end of suffering—which could be interpreted as a form of salvation—the connotations are much different, clearer, and perhaps, more hopeful. Calling Siddhartha Gautama a polemicist may be a bit extreme (and a bit too Western), but at the same time, the title fits his philosophy post-enlightenment, if not so much before.

Acts 11-12: The Buddha

Much like “god,” “buddha” is not a name, but a title which means “one who has awakened.” This is what Siddhartha Gautama became: a teacher, a founder, and perhaps something more than human. This is when the Buddha earned the capital letter and definite article. To set Siddhartha Gautama apart from all other great Buddhist sages, canonical writings make the distinction that, not only was he the first to reach enlightenment in the Buddhist tradition, but that he was and is the only one to achieve enlightenment “without the immediate help of an already awakened being and then gone on to show others the way."

During the next forty-five years (as the Pali tradition teaches), the Buddha wandered, taught, and formed the sangha, or order of ascetics. This period of teaching and creating disciples is considered his eleventh act.

The sangha, as spelled out in the Theravadin Vinayas, is a formal order of monks, who must be initiated by a quorum of no fewer than five experienced monks. Today, the word sangha can mean something slightly different, thanks to the Mahayana tradition, which came into being between seven to nine centuries after the Buddha’s death. Today, it can simply refer to the entire Buddhist community, whether that community be local, nationwide, or worldwide.

The community of followers grew slowly, but steadily. When Gautama Buddha and his followers went out to teach, many writings suggest that they did so in major population centers. It is said that they did not “evangelize,” as we would say in the West; rather, they made sure only to teach where it was clear they were wanted. This makes a great deal of sense, because according to some writings, the Buddha initially did not want to teach. In spite of his reluctance, their following grew, and in some cities, generous people donated land specifically for them to use.

The parinirvana, or “full going out,” is the twelfth and final act of all buddhas. But for the Buddha Gautama, this was regarded as his final incarnation; his final exit from the cycle of death and rebirth. This is because he was considered to be a being who had chosen to delay full enlightenment to come back and teach others, or a bodhisattva. Some of his followers, particularly a naïve apprentice named Ananda, were sad when their teacher fell ill. To this, the Buddha spoke his final words: that all things must separate and decay, but that the person who strives for perfection and enlightenment will keep going.  

Vayadhamma samkhara, appamadena sampadetha.

Gautama Buddha was human. He lived and died as we all do. But it can still be said that he has never been regarded as merely human.

On misperceptions of divinity

In 1912, Henry Steel Olcott, an American who helped found the Theosophical Society, converted to Buddhism, and helped revive it in Sri Lanka, wrote an essay entitled “The Life of Buddha and its Lessons.” This essay was one of several efforts he made to interpret Asian thought for a Western audience. The subject of the Buddha as being a god or godlike entity, figured heavily in this essay, particularly in the beginning when he noted that “there is an invariable tendency to deify whomsoever shows himself superior to the weakness of our common humanity.” While at the time this statement did not rule out the possibility of “godhood,” it still hinted that this may be altogether too Western a category.

Western scholars have since concluded that the Buddha was not someone/something that can be called a “god,” particularly because it is made clear in scriptures that Buddhists do not consider buddhas to be gods (devas). In Western thought, the major distinction that sets Gautama Buddha apart from gods is the fact that he claimed and wielded no power over his disciples, aside from the power of his teachings. Historically, gods in Western traditions are sacred beings whose realm is completely separate from that of humans, and they are often portrayed as having at least partial control over the realm of people. While buddhas are all regarded as sacred, none of them, not even Siddhartha Gautama, have any sort of control, nor did he or the heavenly realm exist fully separate from the mortal cycle.

“Demigod” (literally “half-god”) also does not fit the function a buddha serves in the universe. Demigods, as found in Greek, Roman, Norse, Egyptian, and other Western and Indo-European mythologies, are often at least partially human, and there is nearly always a profane element in their origin stories. Unlike some of the “dirtier” connotations in most of these stories, there is no such circumstance surrounding Siddhartha Gautama, even though there are many fantastical elements to his story.

But if Siddhartha Gautama was not a god, but not merely human, who/what was he?

On “counter-intuitive beings”

The question of godhood has occasionally raised the question of whether Buddhism, being in many forms an a-theistic tradition, as a “religion.” Likewise, the relative disinterest that Gautama Buddha showed in supernatural/eternal matters during his lifetime threw a wrench in things, as many definitions of religion include believing in some sort of otherworldly thing or other. However, University of Helsinki scholar Ilkka Pyysiäinen, in his study on the Buddha as he relates to the concept of godhood, proposed a theory which would create a new category; one which includes all beings such as gods and saints.

He calls this category “counter-intuitive agents.”

Pyysiäinen, like previous scholars, was not satisfied with the normal categories given to beings and figures in which religions believe, partly because they are mainly inclusive of Western religions and Orientalized/Romanticized ideas of what it means to be, in short, better than human, and overcome the dark chaos that is human nature. Pyysiäinen, in pointing out that it is “easy for us to consider our moral intuitions as [a god’s] viewpoint,” strikes a particularly salient chord in the minds of anyone whose life has been touched by stories of extraordinary people—that it is simple for us to bring those whom we consider paragons (e.g. Jesus, Moses, Mohammad, Zarathustra to name only a few) crashing back down to earth.

That it is easy to place our instincts in their minds, and create our own, personal, god.

Pyysiäinen proposes that placing gods, saints, and other more-than-merely-human figures in the category of “counter-intuitive agents,” creates a “precise, theoretically motivated and empirically testable concept.” As far as Gautama Buddha’s story is concerned, this category makes the idea of chaos, as it relates to the conflict between historical fact and potent legend, a completely acceptable guest at the conversation table. It is possible for the Buddha to exist both within and outside of human imagination.

And no longer does he have to be a god, a demigod, a saint, or spirit.

No longer does Siddhartha Gautama’s story, or even he as a teacher, have to make cognitive “sense,” because it can be assumed that they will not. By removing human intuition from the equation (perhaps becoming liberated from it?), Pyysiäinen’s category finally invites back the two things missing when studying the truth of who/what the Buddha was: how legend becomes reality, and why, many times, historical truth is less meaningful than the matters of the heart which live on in his followers.

Sources

Rupert Gethin. The Foundations of Buddhism (London: Cambridge University Press, 1998).

Stefan Larsson, Crazy for Wisdom: The Making of a Mad Yogin in Fifteenth-Century Tibet (Brill, 2014).

H.S. Olcott, “The Life of Buddha and Its Lessons,” Advar Pamphlets, May 1912, 1.

Ilkka Pyysiäinen, “Buddhism, Religion, and the Concept of "god"”. Numen 50, no. 2 (2003). http://www.jstor.org/stable/3270517.

Eviatar Shulman. Rethinking the Buddha: Early Buddhist Philosophy as Meditative Perception (London: Cambridge University Press, 2014), 88-89.

Andrew Skilton. A Concise History of Buddhism (Windhorse Publications, 2004).

Mara Sobotka

Mara Sobotka

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