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Friday, May 8, 2009

Wesak 2009 Special : Who the Buddha is ..........

Who the Buddha is******


Worthier writers, eminent scholars and researchers throughout history have written numerous books and learned articles and presented erudite treatises on the subject of Buddha and his teachings from a variety of diverse perspectives.


In this article which I undertook to write with immense delight at the behest of the Indian Buddhist Society in Toronto my intention is to share with you, the country men and women of the Great Prince Siddhattha Gotama who became the Buddha, a few of my own perspectives on the subject in the light of what I had studied over the years taking but a glimpse at the rich and inexhaustible resource of the early Buddhist Sutta literature.

For the devout Buddhist, Buddha is the supremely enlightened teacher who showed the way to liberation from human suffering via release from the fetters of Samsara. That is, ending without remainder the cycle of repeated birth and deaths - ergo, gaining the immortality of Nibbana!

Life cycle of the Buddha as seen by ancient prophets

Etymologically, the word Buddha in Sanskrit and Pali means ‘the understood’ or ‘the awakened’. In the past participle form in either language the word means ‘the one who has understood’ or simply ‘the one who is awake’.

If so, what is it that Buddha understood or what did Buddha awake into?

As we read in the Dona Sutta of the Anguttara Nikaya a Brahmin by the name of Dona is amazed as he happens to observe some extraordinary footprints left upon the dusty path by someone who had walked the same path ahead of him. Versed as he was in the ancient science of bodily observations, these footprints trigger in Dona’s an irresistible curiosity that eventually leads him to the radiant and serene figure of Buddha who was sitting under a tree.

For the intelligent Brahmin Dona the sight was simply overpowering and stupendous. It had never happened before! Dona bursts out a spontaneous paean:

‘This being - the owner of these footprints -

Is confident and inspiring confidence

His senses calmed; his mind calmed;

Having attained the utmost control and tranquillity,

Tamed and guarded,


His senses are restrained! ‘ (pasadika? pasadaniya? santindriya? santamanasa? uttamadamathasamathamanuppatta?

danta? gutta? sa? yatindriya? naga?) - Dona Sutta.

While Dona’s exclamation portrays the excellent qualities of the Buddha he observes at the first glance the famous episode per se becomes pivotal in the understanding of ‘what Buddha is?’ and the entire gamut of Buddha’s own Teaching from doctrinal to cosmological to temporal and eschatological.

This unique exclamation being Dona’s spontaneous assessment, to the limits of his personal knowledge and learning, of the unusual person he sees Dona tarries enough around Buddha to ask a few casual questions in quick succession:

Are you a Deva (god) or a Yakkha (demon) or a Gandhabba (semi-divine being) or a Manussa (human being)? To all of these enquiries Dona receives a negative reply from the Buddha. Next was Brahmin Dona’s logical query ‘Who might you be then I pray, tell me?’ In a split second the Buddha’s reply resounds in Dona’s ears, ‘I am Awake!’ - I am Buddha! (tasma buddhosmi brahma ).

Obviously Dona would not have expected Buddha to say, ‘I am Siddhattha Gotama!’ Evidently, his curiosity was prompted by an overpowering sense he experienced - a certain overwhelming magnetism at work - at the mere sight of the footprints that belonged to some ‘super human being’.

Straight away Brahmin Dona’s mind goes to all known supra humans of the then society’s reckoning , Deva (gods), Yakkha (demons) Gandhabba (a semi-divine being) and then as Dona himself struggled to figure out, to some unheard kind of human species of Manussa (human).

Buddha reads his mind very precisely and in a nutshell Buddha expounds the core aspect of the meaning, significance and purpose of life in human existence by uttering the most exalted and categorical statement of Truth ever uttered by a human or divine being in the present Kalpa, ‘I am Awake!’; just as if he had said, ‘I have transcended humanity’ - a kind of metamorphosis a human being must necessarily go through if he or she is to achieve the goal of life - ‘I am the spotless One, the taintless One, utterly pure! Having gained the realm of Nibbana I am the Buddha Supreme!

I am the very Truth! The stuff which all Buddhas are made of! ‘ Buddhahood that is within the reach of all human beings should they follow his way, truth, life. Man - human being - experiencing a substantial change, a complete transformation! A mental evolution that sets him/her apart from the rest of his/her species! No human in human history has ever uttered anything with certitude! So lucidly! So clearly!

A Deva Buddha could not become! A Yakkha he could not! Nor a Gandhabba! Not a man either! For they are all beings, ergo, subject to repeated birth, sickness, decay and death; they are all riddled with asavas (in Pali) or taints that defile and rob purity! Being sentient beings, they are all conditioned constructs liable to deconstruction at the dissolution of elements.

They all are riddled also with identities that need to be ended! A Buddha on the other hand is a man who is no longer a man but a Buddha because he’s not subject to repeated births! Therefore, old age, sickness decay and death! Thus Buddha becomes a Supra- Human! The Conqueror of Death! And therefore, the supreme achiever of Immortality of Nibbana!

Dona, the Brahmin was evidently at a pivotal point in his Samsaric journey and in a state of mental readiness to comprehend the profound Truth Buddha uttered. he had no more questions! In Dona Sutta Buddha compares the making of a Buddha to the blossoming of a lotus with the lotus in full bloom to Buddha-hood.

Any lotus irrespective of its herbal family type springs from the lakebed mire to grow in the water to bloom, yet un-smeared by the surrounding muddy water! Similarly a Buddha is born into the world, grows up in the world to finally dwell - through the total evolution of consciousness-fully ‘Awakened’ in the world, yet untouched by the world. It’s this Enlightened Being, the Buddha that Brahmin Dona was drawn to as if to a magnet.

Buddha’s journey to Buddhahood comes alive in the Ariyapariyesana sutta, Mahasaccaka sutta , the Mahasihanada suta and in the Bhayabherava sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya. Accordingly, certain extraordinary characteristics or distinguished marks of identity by which a Buddha may be recognised are advanced in these suttas.

They are five in number:

1. Three-fold supernormal knowledges.

2. Realization of four noble truths.

3. Destruction of desire.

4. Omniscience.

5. Undying bliss.

Scholars could argue that Buddhahood means more than these five-fold marks still, none would gainsay these indeed are the essential key qualities of Buddhahood.

Threefold supernormal knowledge

Suttas record that prior to Siddhattha Gotama’s Enlightenment, he had gained the three-fold supernormal knowledge:

1. Recollection of his own past lives (pubbenivasanussatinana).

2. Recollection of births and deaths of all sentient beings in terms of their own karmic actions (cutupapatanana)

3. destruction of taints ( asavakkhayanana ).

As necessary conditions to these supernormal knowledge, Siddhattha Gotama had to develop and attain worldly absorptions (rupajjhana) and formless absorptions (arupajjhanas).

Development and attainment of these absorptions enabled him to gain supernormal knowledge which produced in turn experiential knowledge of the cycle of life.

First, supernormal knowledge gave Siddhattha Gotama an experience of his own life from the past immemorial.

Secondly, knowledge gave him right understanding of all sentient beings: how good karma produces good results and how bad karma produces bad consequences for all sentient beings.

In focused meditation he had literally experienced the brutal and changing vicissitudes and the sufferings of the humankind. Third supernormal knowledge gave him the insight that people are bound in this cycle of life due to the taints of sensual desire, existence and ignorance. These threefold supernormal knowledge gave him fundamental understanding that all sentient beings suffer. hence, Buddha becomes worthy eliminator of Dukkha!

Realisation of Four Noble Truths

In becoming a Buddha realisation of the truth of suffering is a sine qua non . Sentient beings are struggling to be permanent. This is what led Buddha to proclaim to his monks in the Ariyapariyesana Sutta:

“There is the case where a person himself being subject to birth seeks happiness in what is likewise subject to birth. Being himself subject to ageing... illness... death... sorrow... defilement, he seeks happiness in what is likewise subject to illness... death... sorrow... defilement.”

While beings are subject to these Samsaric realities, they still keep searching pleasure in such things replete with impermanence, pain and dejections.

This is mainly because of taints of sensual pleasure in continued existence and in ignorance.

These taints and thirsts cause repeated birth and death. Siddhartha Gotama realised that in order to get rid of suffering one has to uproot desire for sensual pleasure - that of existence and non-existence.

When one eradicates these causes, the healing, liberation from Samsaric suffering, Nibbana, is possible for him.

The way to liberation from suffering is Noble Eightfold Path; one has to purify ones mind by the practice of morality (sila), concentration (samadhi) and wisdom (panna).

In his first sermon, Dhammacakkapavattana sutta of the Samyutta Nikaya, the Buddha told his first five disciples what awakening really means:

“Vision arose, insight arose, discernment arose, knowledge arose, illumination arose within me.”

Vision, knowledge, wisdom and illumination arose in him of the Four Noble Truths, a unique concept the world had never heard before and no religious teacher in the world history had ever advanced! One is called Buddha when a person profoundly and precisely realises Four Noble Truths.


In depth analysis of the suttas suggests that Buddhahood also means all-knowing. Elsewhere in the sutta literature, Buddha claims to know all sciences and subjects.

However, he did not teach them to the world because he found them futile and not conducive to detachment and liberation from suffering.

In the Ariyapariyesana sutta an ascetic by the name of Upaka who encountered the Buddha on his way to Benares was amazed to see him radiating with inner-calm and bliss.

Buddha’s new blissful personality led Upaka to ask some questions about his teacher, his proclamation of Buddhahood, and his knowledge.

Buddha replied that he gained Buddhahood without a teacher and became omniscient and omnipotent through dint of self-exertion. As explained in numerous suttas, the attainment of sainthood (Arhathship) or Buddhahood is possible by eradicating taints (asavas; a+sava: inflow or influence). Before the eradication of taints, Siddhattha Gotama had total understanding of all sentient beings how they are bound to the cycle of life on account of these taints.

Taints of sensual pleasure, continued existence and ignorance are the causes and conditions for the attachment to the cycle of life. When the Buddha expounded the Four Noble Truths to his first five disciples, he pointed out the root cause of suffering: Craving/desire (Tanha in Pali, literally thirst.)

There are three types of thirst: thirst of sensual desire (kama-tanha), becoming (bhava-tanha) and non-becoming (vibhava-tanha). Eradication of thirst produces undying bliss not based on any conditioned or conditioning experiences.

According to sutta literature Buddhahood means undying bliss.

This is the end goal for all those who aspire to become Buddhas.

Such bliss arises from total letting go of thirst and from eradication of taints. In Buddhist terms this bliss is called ‘Nibbana’ which means extinction of thirst/desire. If a mind is conditioned by lust, anger and delusion, such a mind cannot produce bliss. The primary source of such bliss is mind. The mind has been tied up with taints and desires from time immemorial. It is through cleansing of the mind that this bliss arises.

The mind filled with Nibbanic Bliss remains unshakable and imperturbable. Some have termed this bliss as enlightenment and some as awakening.

When Buddhists celebrate Vesak around the globe what they are celebrating is not merely the physical birth of Siddhattha Gotama but also the birth of Nibbanic Bliss. Buddha means developing and cultivating aforesaid five characteristics.

Therefore, Vesak is a celebration of the Threefold Knowledge together with the realisation of Four Noble Truths, omniscience, destruction of taints and desires and undying happiness and bliss.

In conclusion, may we always remember if man is the zenith of evolution of living beings, Buddha indeed the highest achievement any human can aspire to simply because man can fulfill himself/herself only in the bliss of Buddha-hood - open to the entire human family!

May your spiritual riches be plentiful! May all beings be happy and free from fear!

The writer is a monk and meditation teacher - West End Buddhist Centre, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada Buddhist Chaplain - University of Toronto.

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