Skt., Pali, lit., “awakened one.”
1. A person who has achieved the enlightenment that leads to release from the cycle of existence (samsāra) and has thereby attained complete liberation (nirvāna). The content of his teaching, which is based on the experience of enlightenment, is the four noble truths. A buddha has overcome every kind of craving (trishnā); although even he also has pleasant and unpleasant sensations, he is not ruled by them and remains innerly untouched by them. After his death he is not reborn again.
Two kinds of buddhas are distinguished: the pratyeka-buddha, who is completely enlightened but does not expound the teaching; and the samyak-sambuddha, who expounds for the welfare of all beings the teaching that he has discovered anew. A samyak-sambuddha is omniscient (sarvajñatā) and possesses the ten powers of a buddha (dashabala) and the four certainties. The buddha of our age is Shākyamuni. (See also Buddha 2.)
Shākyamuni Buddha, the historical Buddha, is not the first and only buddha. Already in the early Hīnayāna texts, six buddhas who preceded him in earlier epochs are mentioned: Vipashyin (Pali, Vipassi), Shikin (Sikhī), Vishvabhū (Vessabhū), Krakuchchanda (Kakusandha), Konagamana, and Kashyapa (Kassapa). The buddha who will follow Shākyamuni in a future age and renew the dharma is Maitreya. Beyond these, one finds indications in the literature of thirteen further buddhas, of which the most important is Dīpamkara, whose disciple Shākyamuni was in his previous existence as the ascetic Sumedha. The stories of these legendary buddhas are contained in the Buddhavamsa, a work from the Khuddakanikāya.
2. The historical Buddha. He was born in 563 BCE, the son of a prince of the Shākyas, whose small kingdom in the foothills of the Himalayas lies in present-day Nepal. His first name was Siddhārtha, his family name Gautama. Hence he is also called Gautama Buddha. (For the story of his life, see Siddhārtha Gautama.) During his life as a wandering ascetic, he was known as Shākyamuni, the “Silent Sage of the Shākyas.” In order to distinguish the historical Buddha from the transcendent buddhas (see buddha 3), he is generally called Shākyamuni Buddha or Buddha Shākyamuni.
3. The “buddha principle,” which manifests itself in the most various forms. Whereas in Hīnayāna only the existence of one buddha in every age is accepted (in which case the Buddha is considered an earthly being who teaches humans), for the Mahāyāna there are countless transcendent buddhas. According to the Mahāyāna teaching of the trikāya, the buddha principle manifests itself in three principal forms, the so-called three bodies (trikāya). In this sense the transcendent buddhas represent embodiments of various aspects of the buddha principle.
4. A synonym for the absolute, ultimate reality devoid of form, color, and all other properties—buddha-nature.