What is Buddha?

When I first began studying Buddhism, there were many concepts that confused me but this is very natural and to be expected. Learning something new can be difficult and sometimes words can be confusing because they are unknown. For me, Buddhism was one of those challenges. Many challenges in life are like this, especially the important ones.

Early on, one of the words I found most confusing was the term “Buddha”. Of course, it appears everywhere in Buddhist texts. But I often got turned around when “Buddha” was used in different ways. It seemed like “Buddha” referred to several different concepts. It took me quite a lot of reading before I began to decipher these different meanings and usages.

For example, is “Buddha” a person, a place or a thing? Is it a noun or is it an adjective? I think most would say it is a person who was born 2500 years ago in India. Who realized awakening and began to teach what was to become Buddhism.

But “Buddha” can also be used as an adjective. It means to be awakened to reality as it is, to the truth of impermanence. In other words, we normally sleepwalk through life; living in a self-created dream world. We suffer because our dreams do not match our experiences. As this tension grows, Buddhism provides us an opportunity to awaken.

The Buddha taught a truth that has always existed. It was a discovery, not an invention. From this perspective, the truth of Buddhism existed prior to the Buddha’s awakening. There were even awakened teachers prior to and after the historical Buddha. Anyone who has realized awakening may be referred to as a “Buddha.” The historical Buddha was a special teacher, but he was not a solitary Buddha. In this sense, his enlightenment experience under the Bodhi tree is not unique in human history.

Perhaps it would be more clear if we referred to the historical Buddha as “the” Buddha and others as “a” Buddha. Otherwise, it can be quite confusing since the adjective “Buddha” may be used to describe many different people throughout history. It could be referring to the historical Buddha or not depending on the context.

This may help explain the “Buddha” statue at many Chinese restaurants. He is “a” Buddha but he doesn’t look anything like “the” Buddha. The Buddha statue has a large belly and is always laughing. His name is Hotei. He is most likely an itinerant 10th-century Chinese Buddhist monk. He wandered China, giving treats to children from the knapsack he carries on his back. He is called the Laughing Buddha.

Hotei is also sometimes confused with Maitreya, the Future Buddha. Maitreya is a mythical Buddha much like Amida Buddha, the Infinite Buddha. Maitreya is also described as having a large belly, signaling that he is satiated. All his earthly wants have already been satisfied. He is at peace. He is without greed. Usually, Maitreya is portrayed as sitting. He is also very happy because his future enlightenment has been assured.

Amida Buddha is also a mythical Buddha. When Amida Buddha realized awakening, all beings realized this event as a possibility in their own lives. You might even think of it as the Big Bang Theory of Buddha Nature. Amida’s practice transferred merit to all beings past, present and future. All the requirements for enlightenment had been met; we now only need to realize it. Buddha Nature became our birthright. Thus we can realize awakening just as we are.

Notice that there are multiple living Buddhas in human history and multiple mythical Buddhas that transcend history. These mythical Buddhas represent awakening as something that transcends time. Something not constrained by history. But mythical does not mean false. In fact, they represent a truth that is much deeper than historical truth. These mythic Buddhas transmit a profound emotional truth. Their stories are our stories. They represent the human condition. They are archetypes that personify our deepest desires.

There is one last use of the term “Buddha”. It can be used to refer to infinite reality itself, a synonym for Suchness. This is a formless reality that is beyond words. In our Jodo Shinshu tradition, this formless reality manifests form through the medium of sound as Namuamidabutsu. You might say that Namuamidabutsu is the sound of Buddha. This is Buddha as an activity that is transforming our consciousness. This is a timeless gift, given to us by Amida Buddha. It is a sound that awakens all beings.

All of these different types of Buddhas are part of this awakening process – both outside of time and within time, each trying to wake us up in their own way.

In Gassho,
Rev Jon Turner