The Historical Buddha

The term 'The Buddha' normally refers to the historical Buddha, who was known as Siddhartha Gotama whose teaching we follow today. Prince Siddhartha was born on a full moon day in May, 623 BCE at Lumbini Park, on the Indian borders of present-day Nepal. He was the heir to the throne of King Suddhodana of the aristocratic Sakya clan. He is said to have lived a life of luxury, shielded from the rigors and realities of life.

At the age of 29, while being driven in his chariot, he saw four sights that were to be the turning point in his life. On the first day he saw an old man, on the second day a sick person and on the third day a dead body. He asked his servant whether these things would happen to anyone. On hearing that everyone, including himself will be subject to old age, sickness and death, a deep sense of dissatisfaction began to trouble him. On the fourth day he saw a holy man clad in rags but with a radiant peaceful appearance which impressed him very much. These significant events in Siddhartha's life led him to reflect on the realities of life and the material world.

One night, Siddhartha decided to abandon his palace and the life of luxury in search of answers to the deep questions that troubled him. On reaching the banks of the river Anoma, he shaved his hair and dressed in rags. He then approached a famous teacher of the day, Alara Kalama and requested instructions on how to lead a holy life. He attained the highest state of meditation as taught by Alara Kalama, but was not satisfied. So he approached another teacher, Uddaka Ramaputta, who taught him an even higher state of meditation, but still he was not satisfied.

For six years, ascetic Gotama wandered the plain of Ganges subjecting himself to rigorous practices demanded by some teachers. These practices made him physically very weak, but he realised that the way ahead lies not in extreme religious practices or in sensual indulgence, but in his own inner experience. With great resolve, he sat under a tree (Bodhi tree) at Buddha-Gaya (in present day Bihar) and entered a deep state of meditation.
On full moon day in May, he attained the state of enlightenment. He saw with clear vision how all beings in the universe are trapped in samsara, the cycle of birth, death and rebirth. This unique achievement made him the Buddha, the awakened one.
After eight weeks he went in search of his former colleagues, the five ascetics, with whom he had practised austerities and expounded the Dhamma*, the Truth, which he had realised. This was the Buddha’s first sermon on the Four Noble Truths given in the deer park at Isipatana, in Benares, and is the core of his teachings. This important discourse is known as Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta*** - 'Setting in Motion the Wheel of Truth'.

After a very active life of teaching the Dhamma for 45 years, he passed away at Kusinara at the age of 80 years.

Buddha is a generic term, which literally means ‘The Awakened One’- One who has awakened, understood, perceived the Truth (The Dhamma*), regarding the Absolute Realities of life. That is, seeing the true nature of things, not the realities, concepts and experiences as we perceive through our senses, which are so limited.

A Buddha is an enlightened being who has attained Nibbana (Nirvana in Sanskrit), a state attained on complete release from dukkha, the state of suffering which permeates all life.

A Buddha is not a re-incarnation of a god, or a teacher sent from heaven to offer salvation to human kind, but a human being, an extraordinary being whose mind has reached the highest level of wisdom and realised Absolute Reality. A Buddha attains this state through a long period of spiritual and mental development, stretching over many thousands of lifetimes. A being that is on the path to attaining Buddhahood is known as a Bodhisatva.

The Dhamma exists in the universe at all times. A Buddha merely reveals the dhamma to the world for the benefit of all beings**. It is said that a Buddha appears in the world at long intervals, at an appropriate time when it is receptive to the teachings.

The Theravada tradition recognises three types of Buddhas:

Samma Sambuddha is a self-enlightened Buddha. That is, a Buddha who realises the Truth (Nibbana) by himself, without the assistance of a teacher. Furthermore, this Buddha can teach what he has discovered (the Dhamma) for the benefit of other beings. His teachings are known as the Buddha Sasana and last for several thousand years in the world, after which they fall into decline and are finally lost to human understanding. The last Buddha was of this category.

Pacceka Buddha also attains Nibbana without the assistance of a teacher, but unlike the Samma Sambuddha he cannot teach the Dhamma.

Savaka Buddha or Arahat attains Nibbana by following the teachings given by a Samma Sambuddha.

In terms of their Enlightenment, all three Buddhas are identical, but they reach this state by different means (with or without a teacher), and may or may not be able to teach.

The Mahayana tradition (which is a later development) also recognises the above three categories of Buddhas. In addition, Mahayana also developed the concept of an Eternal Buddha, the form that appears on earth being only a temporary manifestation of this Eternal Buddha. Some Mahayana traditions consider the Buddha to be an active, living, dynamic spiritual force who can assist a Buddhist pilgrim towards attaining Buddhahood.

The nine qualities of the Buddha are stated in the pali verse:
'iti piso bhagava, araham, samma- sambuddho, vijjacarana- sampanno, sugatho, lokavidu, anuttaro purisa- dhamma-sarathi, satta-deva-manussanam, buddho, bhagavati'

Bhagava: completely awakened one
Araham: one worthy of offering
Samma-sambuddho: completely awakened to the nature of reality
Vijja-carana-sampanno: endowned with (liberating) knowledge and conduct
Sugatho: well gone-gone in the way of perfecting the paramitas or perfections
Lokavidu: knower of worlds- human and other worlds of existance
Anuttaro purisa dhamma saratthi: an incomparable charioteer for guiding others
Satta-deva-manussanam: teacher of humans and devas (gods)
Buddho: awakened one-avakened to the true nature of reality
Bhagavati: blessed one-person endowed with special powers

The ancient Pali text describes further qualities of the Buddha as having:
The threefold knowledge (Te-vijja):
The memory of one’s former births
Knowledge of the appearance, disappearance and re-appearance of beings in the cycle of existence (samsara)
The knowledge to achieve the total eradication of desires.

The sixfold higher knowledge (Chalabinna):
The above three plus supernormal (psychic) powers:
Divine eye (ability to see things beyond the range of normal human vision),
Divine ear (ability to hear beyond the range of normal human hearing) and the ability to see into the mind of others.

Ten Intellectual powers (Dasa-bala):

The possible as possible
The result of past, present and future actions.
The path leading to the welfare of all.
The world with its many different elements.
The different inclinations in beings.
The lower and higher faculties in beings.
The defilement, purity and rising with regard to the Absorptions, Deliverances, Concentration and Attainments.
Remembering many former rebirths.
Seeing with the divine eye how beings vanish and reappear again according to their actions.

Gaining, through the extinction of all cankers, possession of "Deliverance of mind" and "Deliverance through wisdom".

It is clear from the texts that the Buddha was no ordinary human being. The Buddha continues to retain his human nature after enlightenment, the physical body undergoing inevitable changes due to age, until he finally passes away to a state of parinibbana (complete Nibbana).

As to the question what happens to an enlightened being after death, the Buddha remained silent. It is clear that it is a state transcending space and time, and cannot be described in terms of normal human experiences which are very limited.


The words shown in italics are in the Pali language in which the ancient teachings are written. It is similar to the language spoken during the time of the Buddha. Similar words also appear in ancient Sanskrit language, as such concepts were known before the Buddha's time.
Eg. Nibbana, Kamma, Dhamma (Pali)
      Nirvana, Karma, Dharma (Sanskrit)

* The pali word Dhamma (Dharma in Sanskrit) has many meanings. Most commonly it is the Truth as revealed by the Buddha (Buddha Dhamma), essentially the Four Noble Truths, Noble Eightfold Path etc.
In fact Dhamma has a very wide meaning, and includes factors such as all natural laws, processes and phenomena of the universe that govern mind and matter. Dhamma exists in the universe at all times and a Samma Sambuddha merely reveals it to the world.
** According to Buddhism, humans are not the only intelligent beings in the universe who are capable of comprehending the Dhamma. See Heaven & Hell

***Listen to the Dhammacakkappavattana sutta chanted by the resident monks at LBV