According to the Buddhist tradition, there several kinds of buddha. Surprised?
As a child, the sage [saint] we today think of as the founder of Buddhism was named “Siddhartha,” which means “he whose purpose is accomplished.” His name was “Siddhartha Gautama” [in Sanskrit] or “Siddhattha Gotama” [in Pali]. He was from a people known as the Sakyas [in Sanskrit] or the Sakya [in Pali]. Eventually he was known as “Sakya-muni,” which means “the sage of the Sakyas.”
As the son of a local chieftain near what is today the Indian-Nepalese border, he grew up in comfortable circumstances. Tradition has it that he married and had a son. He grew disillusioned when it really sunk in that what awaited him and everyone else was sickness, old age, and death.
He left home and adopted the life of a wandering ascetic. He became a student of various teachers and practiced extreme austerities. After six years at age 35 he sat in meditation under a tree on the banks of the Nairanjana and determined to find release or die. He had a profound experience called “bodhi” or “awakening.” He spent the last 45 years of his life teaching others the way to the cessation of suffering.
Siddhartha Gautama is the only example of the first of the kinds of buddha, the paradigm of an awakened one. He was a spiritual genius who many regard as the greatest human being who ever lived. He did not have the immediate help of someone who had already awakened and he spent the rest of his life showing others the way. He was “the perfectly, fully awakened one” [Sanskrit: samyak-sambudda; Pali: samma-sambuddha].
The second of the kinds of buddha is one who awakes with the help of someone who is already awakened. This kind of buddha is often referred to as an “arhat.” This is “one who has awakened as a disciple” [Sanskrit: srvaka-buddha; Pali: savaka-buddha]. It is not necessary to be a spiritual genius to become one of this kind of buddha. What is required is successful completion of the great Way of Buddha; what is required is following in the footsteps of The Buddha to do what he did. This includes spending the rest of life showing others the path, the way to living well.
The Buddhist tradition explicitly allows for a third kind of buddha. Think in terms of a solitary spiritual genius. Such a person might wake up by his or her own efforts just as the Buddha himself did and, for some reason, fail to help show others the way to living well. This kind of buddha is known, not surprisingly, as a “solitary Buddha” [Sanskrit: pratyeka-buddha; Pali: pacceka-buddha].
The greatest teacher and healer in the Buddhist tradition was the Buddha himself. For that reason he is held in higher esteem than the other kinds of buddhas.
Does this create a theoretical tension within the Buddhist tradition? Some have thought so.
All three kinds, however, take refuge in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. In other words, the important point is this: All three kinds have awakened.
As always, if you know someone who might benefit from reading this, please pass it along.
Recommended post: In the Buddha’s Footsteps.
Recommended reading: Rupert Gethin’s The Foundations of Buddhism.