As Buddhism is based on the life and teachings of the Buddha, it seems prudent to ask the question, “Who was the Buddha?” Looking at the founders of some of the other great world religions, we might get some idea as to the nature of the Buddha: prophet, divine incarnation, or philosopher. But, unlike Moses or Mohammed (Judaism and Islam), the Buddha was not a prophet of some god, nor was he the manifestation of a god as with Jesus and Krishna (Christianity and Hinduism). Nor was the Buddha a philosopher as with Socrates, Confucius, or Descartes, who all pondered on the nature of existence and then came up with various man-made theories. So, if not a philosopher, nor inspired by a god, nor a god himself, what was the Buddha? Well, perhaps the best place to look for an answer to this crucial question is to listen to Buddhist monks themselves, and hear what they have to say on the subject. In the chanting to be heard in the monasteries of various Theravada Buddhist countries, including Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka, the nature of the Buddha is recited every evening in the form of the nine attributes of the Buddha (Buddhaguna). Let’s look at that chanting.
“Itipi so bhagava
He, the Blessed One,
is indeed the Pure One,
the Perfectly Enlightened One.
He is impeccable in conduct and understanding,
The Accomplished One,
the Knower of the Worlds.
He trains perfectly those wishing to be trained.
He is teacher of gods and humans.
He is Awakened
and the Blessed One.”
1) Looking at the above titles awarded the Buddha in turn, we’ll start with the first; araham. The Buddha, referred to as the ‘Blessed One’ is said to be the ‘Pure One’, or araham (often rendered as arahant). He is pure in the sense that he has let go of all defilements, and lives the perfected life of one that has completed the noble eightfold path of Buddhism (ariya atthangika magga). His mind is purified of any trace of selfishness or sensual desire, in a state of perfect balance and peace, or harmlessness.
2) The ‘Perfectly Enlightened One’ is the second attribute of the Buddha, and is peculiar to a buddha. Whereas anyone who achieves enlightenment is called an arahant, only the Buddha is given the title sammasambuddha. The reason for this can be ascertained if a slightly different translation is given: ‘Perfectly Self-Awakened One’. Here, there is an important difference with an arahant, who could also be said to be a buddha in fact, although the title is reserved for the Buddha in Theravada Buddhism. The Buddha was self-awakened, that is to say, he didn’t have a teacher or tradition to help him realize truth; he did it all by himself, and then shared this realization with others. All subsequent enlightened beings in the Buddhist tradition are so courtesy of the Blessed One’s initial awakening. Therefore, it is emphasized that the Buddha is self-awakened, or independently-awakened.
3) Vijjacarana-sampanno means roughly that the Buddha’s high level of moral behavior was without question in that he kept the Buddhist precepts perfectly, and that his knowledge of the way things are (Dharma) was supreme. There was no blemish on his character after he was enlightened, and everything that he did was done in the light of the Dharma.
4) Sugato emphasizes that he was accomplished in the task at hand, knowing the Dharma and putting its practical implications into practice. Being accomplished so, he was perfectly happy, with nothing left to achieve in his life. He was a truly sublime man.
5) By the word lokavidu it is indicated that the Buddha had complete insight into the universal nature of all things and processes in this life, knowing them to be impermanent, stressful, and without a self (anicca, dukkha, and anatta). Not only did he know this, but it is said that he could also perceive the different levels of existence; heavens, hells, and even different worlds to this one.
6) Next, the evening chant states that the Buddha was anuttaro purisadamma-sarathi, which indicates that he was well-grounded in the training techniques needed to help monks, nuns, and laity towards spiritual development and enlightenment. He knew the appropriate methods needed to train different people towards the same goal: enlightenment. Depending on a person’s character, the Lord Buddha would use the particular teaching style that would best suit that individual. Therefore, ‘he trains perfectly those wishing to be trained’.
7) It also states that he was sattha deva-manussanam, that is to say, he taught whoever approached him with equal compassion; not only his fellow humans but also deities and spirits wishing to learn the Truth. (Buddhism does not deny the existence of gods, demons, ghosts, and the like, but denies that any of them is eternal in nature, and therefore that the universe is a natural process, rather akin to the scientific view, and not the product of some divine will.)
8) Next, comes the eighth attribute of the Buddha, which declares that the Buddha is a buddha. This term indicates his awakened state, his enlightenment and realization of nirvana, the ‘snuffing out’ of the flame of delusion. As stated above, he is a special buddha, however, as he was the first in our era to become awakened, discovering the Path to liberation in the process. This makes the Buddha the perfect founder of the Buddha Dharma (or ‘Buddha-Teaching’), as he knows the way (magga) to the cessation of suffering (dukkha-nirodha).
9) Finally, the chant features the term Bhagava, as it does at its beginning, but this time as one of the nine attributes of the Buddha. It is a term of respect given to gods and gurus throughout the religious history of India, and can be translated as the ‘Lord’, the ‘Exalted One’, or the ‘Blessed One’. It is the single most common name used by his followers to address the Buddha in the Tipitaka, the Buddhist scriptures, often used in conjunction with Buddha. Together, they can be translated as the ‘Blessed Buddha’.
So, hopefully, we have a clearer picture of who the historical Buddha was; he was a man, not a god, nor the prophet of one, who discovered the Dharma (the way things are). He was a great teacher and trainer of those who wished to partake of the same enlightenment that he first discovered. And today, rather than being worshipped as such, he is venerated and respected as the man that founded the Buddhist Teachings and Training (Dharma-Vinaya). Recognizing the debt I owe the Blessed One as a Buddhist, I’ll finish this brief description of who the Buddha was with another Pali chant, usually recited thrice which gives it more impact and emphasis):
“Namo tassa bhagavato araham sammasambuddhassa
Homage to the blessed, noble, and perfectly Self-Awakened One!”