What was the Buddha of the Buddhist elders like?
The form of Buddhism found in Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia and Thailand is Theravāda, the teaching of the elders, which claims to be the earliest school of Buddhism still extant. The teachings of this school are preserved in a large corpus of canonical literature in a language that has come to be known as Pali. There is a formula that occurs in many places in the Pali canon that states the attributes of the Buddha:
Itipi so bhagavā arahaṃ sammāsambuddho vijjācaraṇasampanno sugato lokavidū anuttaro purisadammasārathi satthā devamanussānaṃ buddho bhagavāti.1
That passage has been translated as follows by Piyadassi Thera:
Such Indeed is the Blessed One, arahant (Consummate One), supremely enlightened, endowed with knowledge and virtue, welcome being, knower of worlds, the peerless trainer of persons, teacher of gods and men, the Buddha, the Blessed One.
In the Theravāda tradition, the principal consideration seems to be that the Buddha was once an ordinary human being who was subject to rebirth and prone to all the difficulties that sentient beings have to endure. Then he became liberated from those difficulties by attaining nirvana and thus becoming an arahant knowing that there would be no more rebirths in any of the realms. That the Buddha was able to make the transition from ordinary sentient being to an arahant is something that should encourage all human beings; it is a transition that in principle any human being can make, although it is usually said that not many human beings are likely to embark on that journey and that even fewer will reach the goal in this lifetime.
The Buddha of the Pali canon is, however, more than an arahant. He is distinguished from other arahants by the fact that he, unlike them, made the journey without the guidance of a buddha. He rediscovered truths that previous buddhas who lived long ago had known but that had been lost through the collective negligence of human society. Moreover, the Buddha is different from others who have made the journey without guidance in that he made the difficult choice to be a teacher. The formula describes him as “the peerless trainer of persons,” as well as “teacher of gods and men.” Many of the narratives of the Pali canon make the point that all manner of Brahmans and ascetics, as well as kings and merchants and ordinary householders seek out the Buddha for advice. As a teacher he is said to be “anuttaro,” that is, unsurpassed. No one is better than the Buddha at being a trainer of the human beast (purisa-damma-sārathi).
That, then, is the basic depiction of the Buddha that one finds in the canonical literature of the Theravāda school. There were, however, other issues to be considered, such as: Was the Buddha omniscient?
- This one happens to come from Dhajaggasuttaṃ in volume one of the Saṃyuttanikāya. PTS edition, page 219. A complete translation of this section of the Pali canon is found in Bodhi 2000. ↩︎
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu, 2000. The connected discourses of the Buddha: a translation of the Saṃyutta Nikāya. Boston: Wisdom Publications.