Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as Buddha, is one of the most iconic and revolutionary figures in the spiritual and philosophical history of mankind. But despite the spread of his teachings throughout the world, he remains a figure surrounded by myths, misinterpretations and, at times, deep prejudices. His image has been, on several occasions, simplified and reduced to simple ornamental statues or motivational phrases, stripping the Buddha of the complexity and depth of his teaching and life.
It is common to find Western visions that, without knowing in depth the essence of Buddhism or the life of Siddhartha, portray him from a perspective that mixes the exotic with a misunderstood mysticism. Such interpretations trigger a series of preconceived ideas that make it difficult for many to approach the true dimension of his figure and the rich traditions and practices that arose from his teachings.
This lack of knowledge stems not only from geographical or cultural distance, but also from the very nature of Buddha’s teachings, which invite an introspective journey and the questioning of reality itself. In a society eager for quick answers and immediate solutions, the path proposed by Siddhartha may seem complicated to follow. If we want to understand the Buddha’s teaching we must go beyond his actions or words; and enter into a journey that transcends the superficial to seek to unravel the true nature of being and existence.
In this article, we will attempt to clear the veil that has obscured the figure of Siddhartha Gautama, clarify doubts and prejudices, and demonstrate the transformative power of the teachings of the Buddha, one of the great knowers of the human mind whose wisdom is more important than ever.
Is Buddha a God?
Before continuing with the biography of Siddhartha Gautama, it is necessary to answer this question since one of the most common misunderstandings is the idea that Buddha was or is a god or deity. This conception is often encountered by people who are unfamiliar with Buddhist teachings, and can originate for a variety of reasons, including the way Buddhism is presented in popular culture and how some religious practices honor the Buddha image.
To answer clearly and concisely: No, Buddha is not a god. Not in the sense in which Abrahamic religions, for example, conceive of a supreme being creator of the universe. Buddha was a human being who, through a profound process of meditation and self-knowledge, attained nirvana, a state of liberation from suffering.
Buddhism, in its fundamental teachings, does not focus on deity worship or belief in an omnipotent creator. Instead, it is a practical and philosophical path that seeks to understand the nature of human suffering and how to be free from it. The Buddha’s teachings focus on the Four Noble Truths, which diagnose human suffering and propose a path for its cessation.
It is important to note that there are various schools and traditions within Buddhism, and some of them may have a more devotional approach to the Buddha and other enlightened beings. For example, in Tibetan Buddhism, there are devotional practices and meditative deities, but even in this context, these deities are not understood in the same sense as a creator god in other religions.
Confusion may also arise because of the way in which, in some cultures, the Buddha image is venerated. In many Buddhist temples, especially in Southeast Asia, it is common to find large statues of the Buddha to which devotees offer flowers, incense and other gifts. But this veneration is not worship of a god in the Western sense. It is more a gesture of respect and gratitude to the Buddha for having shown the way to enlightenment.
Another factor that could contribute to the misunderstanding is the adaptation of Buddhism to different cultures. As Buddhism spread from its place of origin in India to other parts of Asia and eventually to the whole world, it encountered and merged with various local traditions and beliefs. This led to the incorporation of deities and practices that may appear, at first glance, to be a form of theism. But regardless of the various cultural interpretations and practices, the core of Buddhist teaching remains the Dharma, the teaching of the Buddha, which invites each individual to embark on a journey of self-discovery and liberation. Buddha is seen as a teacher, a guide, the perfect example of what is possible to achieve, but not as an all-powerful being who dictates or intervenes in human affairs or has some kind of supernatural or divine power.
Brief Biography of Siddhartha Gautama
As with so many figures, historical accuracy around Siddhartha Gautama ‘s biography is elusive. Narratives about his life, teachings, and exploits have largely been transmitted through oral traditions and religious texts, such as the sutras, which do not necessarily have historical accuracy as their primary goal.
There are no contemporary records that document the Buddha’s life in detail. Instead, stories about him began to be recorded several centuries after his death. This has led to a mixture of myth, legend and historical fact that are intricately interwoven. Details such as his exact date of birth and death, the precise events of his life, and even his physical appearance, have been lost in time or have been subject to multiple interpretations.
While the essence of his teachings has endured and has been the basis for the formation of Buddhism as a religion and philosophy of life, the detailed picture of the Buddha as a historical individual remains shrouded in mystery and uncertainty. It is a reminder of how, at times, the most influential figures can be, paradoxically, the most elusive in terms of precise biographical details.
In this article we will opt for the version that includes mythological aspects, because of its symbolic character. Please do not make a literal interpretation of these facts.
Birth and Palace Life
Siddhartha Gautama was born around the 6th-5th century BC in Lumbini, a place that is now in Nepal. His birth was already shrouded in mystical signs and prophecies. According to tradition, his mother, Queen Maya, dreamed of a white elephant with six tusks entering her womb, foreshadowing the birth of an exceptional being. However, shortly after giving birth, Queen Maya passed away, leaving Siddhartha in the care of his aunt and stepmother, Queen Maha Pajapati Gotami (who later became the first Buddhist bikkhuni or nun).
Siddhartha’s kingdom belonged to the Shakya tribe, established in Kapilavastu. According to modern accounts, at his birth, a sage named Asita visited the palace and prophesied that the child would either become a universal monarch, if he chose to remain in the palace, or a perfect enlightened one, if he left his home and encountered human suffering. This prediction made a deep impression on King Suddhodana, Siddhartha’s father. Eager for his son to follow in his footsteps and become king, Suddhodana decided to protect him from any negative experiences that might push him towards the religious path.
The young prince grew up in an atmosphere of extreme luxury, isolated from the harsher realities of life. It is said that three palaces were built for him, one for each season (Winter, Summer and rainy season), and he was surrounded by young courtiers and servants, ensuring that his every wish was immediately satisfied. In addition to this, Siddhartha proved to be a brilliant student, excelling in both the academic arts and physical skills, such as archery and horsemanship.
Despite the comforts and luxuries, Siddhartha is said to have felt an inner restlessness, a sense that something greater and deeper was waiting to be discovered outside the palace walls. To ensure his tenure and cement his role in the kingdom, his father arranged his marriage to a beautiful princess named Yasodharā at a young age. Together they had a son, whom they named Rahula, which in Sanskrit means“obstacle, hindrance or impediment,” as King Suddhodana hoped that fatherhood would be an additional bond to keep Siddhartha anchored to his palace life.
But the young prince, driven by his curiosity and his feeling of discontent, managed to leave the palace on several occasions. During these outings, he encountered the realities of human suffering: an old man, a sick man, a corpse and, finally, an ascetic in search of spiritual truth. These encounters, known as the Four Visions, awakened in him a deep reflection on the ephemeral nature of life and the inevitability of suffering.
Siddhartha Gautama’s early life is emblematic not only of opulence and luxury, but also of the spiritual awakening that presaged his eventual renunciation and search for enlightenment. These early experiences laid the foundation for the profound transformation he would undergo and the revolutionary teachings he would eventually share with the world.
Renunciation and Spiritual Quest
Siddhartha Gautama’s journey from his life as a prince to becoming the Buddha is a story of profound introspection, determination and transformation. The Four Visions, which revealed to him the nature of human suffering, had a profound impact on him. He questioned the purpose of life, his destiny and the real reasons behind human suffering. This existential crisis led him to a bold conclusion: he had to abandon everything he knew in order to find answers.
Siddhartha’s renunciation was not impulsive. He had a family, a wife and a newborn son. But the pressing need to find the truth and discover a way to free humanity from suffering overcame every other commitment. One night, while everyone slept, he took one last look at his wife and child and, with regret in his heart , determined to seek the truth, he left his palace in Kapilavastu, giving up his family, wealth and future as king. Riding his horse Kanthaka, with his loyal chamberlain Channa, he crossed the rivers and borders of his kingdom and rode into the jungle, where he cut his hair and exchanged his royal robes for those of a beggar. This event is known as the “Great Renunciation” and marks the beginning of his spiritual quest.
Once out of the palace, Siddhartha plunged headlong into the realm of Indian spirituality, which at that time was already rich and diverse. Many seekers roamed the country, practicing austerities and meditating in search of enlightenment. Siddhartha, with his determined nature, immersed himself deeply in these practices. Initially, he became a disciple of two famous masters of the time, Alara Kalama and Uddaka Ramaputta. Under their tutelage, Siddhartha learned various forms of meditation and attained high states of consciousness. However, he realized that, although these practices offered him profound spiritual experiences, they did not provide him with the ultimate understanding of human suffering or a way to eradicate it. Dissatisfied, he decided to continue his search.
After leaving his teachers, Siddhartha continued with even more extreme ascetic practices. Together with a group of five companions, he undertook severe austerities, including extreme fasting, exposure to the elements and other forms of self-mortification. He believed that by subjugating the body, he could attain a state of purification that would lead to enlightenment. His determination was such that, according to the scriptures, he came to eat only one grain of rice a day, and his body became extremely frail and thin.
Despite his steadfast dedication and the intensity of his practices, enlightenment eluded Siddhartha. He reached a turning point when, on the verge of death due to his extreme austerities, he realized that self-punishment was not the way. In that moment of clarity, he recalled an experience he had in his youth, when, sitting under a tree, he had entered a state of deep and peaceful meditation. He understood that the middle path, between indulgence and self-mortification, might be the key.
Regaining his strength, Siddhartha accepted food from a villager named Sujata (rice pudding according to some legends). This caused his five companions to abandon him, disappointed that he had given up his quest. However, rejuvenated and with a new perspective, Siddhartha made his way to the city of Bodh Gaya, and sat down to meditate under a fig tree, later to be known as the bodhi tree, determined not to rise until he had found the truth.
Meditation on the Bodhi Tree and Enlightenment
The number of days the Buddha spent meditating varies, sometimes said to be 7, sometimes 49. As Siddhartha entered into deep levels of meditation, his mind began to explore different aspects of existence. It is said that, in the stillness of the night, his consciousness expanded beyond the individual self, recalling his past lives in detail, and understanding the cycle of birth, death and rebirth that traps all beings in samsara, the cycle of existence.
The scriptures describe that during the second part of the night, he gained the “divine eye,” a clear perception that allowed him to see how beings are born and die according to their karmas, the actions accumulated in past lives. This vision showed him the law of cause and effect that governs existence, giving him a deeper understanding of the impermanence and interconnectedness of all things.
But the search for enlightenment was not without its challenges. As the night progressed, Mara, the demon of desire and death, appeared to interrupt his meditation. Mara represents the temptations, attachments, fears and desires that chain human beings to suffering and ignorance. In an attempt to distract Siddhartha, Mara presented him with tempting visions, including images of beautiful maidens. When this did not work, he resorted to fear, summoning monsters and demons who hurled weapons and flames at him. But Siddhartha’s determination and deep concentration transformed each weapon into flowers before they could reach him. In a final attempt, Mara challenged his right to occupy that place under the tree, questioning its merit. In response, Siddhartha touched the earth, calling it as a witness to his past efforts and his deservingness. The earth, personified as a goddess, responded with a roar, validating his quest and dispelling Mara and his illusions.
With Mara defeated, Siddhartha continued his meditation. As dawn approached and the morning star shone in the sky, he reached a state of perfect clarity. He understood the Four Noble Truths: the truth of suffering, its origin in desire, its cessation, and the path to that cessation. With this realization, he broke the chains of samsara and attained Nirvana, a state of complete liberation and the end of rebirth.
The prince who had renounced his kingdom, after years of seeking, became the Buddha, the“Awakened” or“Enlightened One.” Under the Bodhi tree, he had not only found the answer to human suffering, but had discovered a way for all beings to reach the same realization. The first rays of the sun illuminated a transformed man. Siddhartha, now Buddha, remained in a state of serenity for several days, immersed in the bliss of awakening. He felt compassion for all beings and an urge to share what he had discovered. But he also knew that the truth he had understood was subtle and difficult to communicate.
After Siddhartha Gautama attained enlightenment and became the Buddha, he experienced a deep doubt about whether or not he should share the wisdom he had discovered. The reason behind this doubt was the deep, subtle and difficult to understand nature of the truths he had perceived. Buddha felt that people, entangled in desire and ignorance, might not understand or misunderstand his teachings, which could discourage him and them.
Traditional scriptures narrate that, at that moment of hesitation, the god Brahma Sahampati, recognizing the importance of the Buddha’s teachings for the welfare of all beings, descended from heaven to beg him to share his wisdom. Brahma expressed that while some people might not understand, there would be those with “little dust in their eyes” who would be able to understand and benefit from the teachings. Moved by compassion and recognizing that there would indeed be beings who could benefit, the Buddha decided to teach. His early discourses, such as the“Discourse on Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dharma“(Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta) in the Deer Park in Sarnath (Varanasi), marked the beginning of his teaching mission, which would continue for the next decades of his life.
This episode underscores two central aspects of Buddhism: the depth and subtlety of the Dharma teachings and the principle of compassion that motivates Buddhist teaching and practice. Buddha, despite his initial reluctance, chose to teach out of a deep sense of compassion for suffering beings and a genuine desire to help them find a path to liberation.
The First Discourse
As we have just mentioned, the place chosen by the Buddha for his first discourse was the Deer Park in Sarnath, near Varanasi, one of the oldest and holiest urban centers in India. His audience were the five ascetics who had previously been his companions in extreme practices and who, disappointed, had abandoned him. To them he decided to transmit his first teachings, sensing that their previous discipline and practice had prepared them to understand his message.
When Siddhartha, now the Buddha, approached them, the first reaction of his former companions was skepticism and disdain. They vowed not to greet him or offer him a seat, treating him as someone who had abandoned the true spiritual path. They thought he came in search of companionship or perhaps regretting his“return to sensory pleasures“. But as he approached, his transformed presence began to have an effect on them. His countenance, tranquility and aura radiated a serenity and authority they had not seen before. Without saying a word, his transformation was evident. Despite their earlier resolutions, the monks, almost involuntarily, found themselves welcoming the Buddha with respect, offering him water to wash his feet and a place to sit. As he developed his discourse, the initial reticence and skepticism of the five ascetics vanished, replaced by a deep attentiveness and receptivity to his words.
This discourse, known as the “Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta” or “Discourse of Setting in Motion the Wheel of Dharma,” laid the foundations of Buddhism. In it, the Buddha introduced the Four Noble Truths: the truth of suffering (dukkha), its origin in desire (tanha), its cessation (nirodha) and the path (magga) to that cessation, which is the Noble Eightfold Path. In addition, the Buddha emphasized the concept of the“Middle Way,” a practice that avoids extremes, both self-indulgence and self-mortification practices, based on his own experience and realization.
The impact of the discourse was immediate and profound. One of the ascetics, Kondanna, reached the first stage of enlightenment, and all of them became his first disciples, thus forming the first Sangha or Buddhist monastic community. This event not only solidified the Buddha’s decision to teach, but also established a model for his future teachings and discourses. From this point on, Siddhartha Gautama’s life would no longer be that of a seeker, but that of a teacher, one who would travel the length and breadth of India, sharing his vision and guiding countless beings to the path of liberation.
This first sermon is a testament to the Buddha’s commitment to humanity. Despite having attained enlightenment and liberation from the cycle of rebirth, he chose to remain in the world, facing challenges, criticism and misunderstanding, all for the welfare of others. His compassion, empathy and desire to alleviate the suffering of others make him an inspiring figure, not only as an enlightened being, but also as a human being dedicated to the service of others.
The Deer Park in Sarnath remains, to this day, a place of pilgrimage for Buddhists around the world. It is a tangible reminder of the beginning of the Buddha’s path as a teacher and the birth of the Dharma, his teachings, which would continue to be heard and transform lives for the next two and a half millennia.
The spread of the Dharma
After his enlightenment, the Buddha embarked on a lifelong mission: to share the truths he had discovered to help others free themselves from suffering. This phase of his life was marked by the founding of the Sangha, a monastic community, and his constant travels and sermons throughout India. The Sangha, in its beginnings, was composed of the five ascetics who were the Buddha’s first disciples after his first discourse at Sarnath. But over time, as the Buddha continued to teach, more and more people, both men and women, from various classes and backgrounds, were attracted to his teachings and decided to join this community.
The Sangha not only became a refuge for those who wished to devote themselves fully to spiritual practice, but also served as an effective vehicle for preserving and transmitting the Buddha’s teachings. The Buddha established rules and guidelines for the monastic community, compiled in the Vinaya Pitaka, one of the“three baskets” or collections of texts in the Buddhist canon. Sangha members lived according to principles of simplicity, celibacy and mendicancy. They traveled the country, relying on the generosity of the people for their livelihood, and in return, offered teachings and spiritual guidance. With their distinctive lifestyle and commitment to the Dharma, the Sangha became a beacon for many, helping to spread Buddhism throughout the Indian subcontinent.
The Buddha did not stay still in one place. For the next 45 years, he traveled throughout much of northern India, sometimes returning to places he had previously been and at other times venturing into new regions. Throughout his travels, he interacted with a wide range of people: from kings and nobles to villagers and outcasts.
These encounters are filled with rich stories and dialogues, many of which have been preserved in Buddhist scriptures. One of the most famous is his meeting with King Bimbisara of Magadha, who became a devoted follower and protector of the Buddha and his Sangha (as well as donating a temple in the Bamboo Forest).
On some occasions, Buddha found himself debating with leaders of other spiritual traditions, defending and clarifying their teachings. At other times, he adapted his discourses to suit the understanding and context of his audience. For example, while for intellectuals he may have presented detailed analyses of psychology and the nature of suffering, for ordinary people he offered parables and stories that illustrated ethical principles and practices for leading a virtuous life.
Regardless of the context, the Buddha’s central message always revolved around the Four Noble Truths, the Noble Eightfold Path, and the possibility of liberation from the cycle of birth and death. His ability to communicate these complex principles in a clear and accessible manner caused his follower base to grow exponentially. The impact of these journeys and sermons was monumental. During his lifetime, Buddhism became firmly established in India and began to attract followers from all walks of life. His direct, compassionate and pragmatic teaching touched the hearts of many, creating a solid foundation for the future expansion of Buddhism beyond the borders of India.
Although it may seem that everything was idyllic after his enlightenment, Buddha also had to face criticism, challenges, defamation attempts and even physical threats. These situations arose for a variety of reasons, including religious rivalries, misunderstandings and internal conflicts within the Buddhist monastic community itself. At the time of the Buddha, India was full of different spiritual traditions and philosophies. Buddha often entered into debates with leaders of these traditions. Although many of these exchanges were respectful, he sometimes faced criticism and challenges from those who saw his teachings as threatening or at odds with their own beliefs. The teachings and practices proposed by the Buddha often broke with the established traditions and norms of the society of the time. For example, by allowing the ordination of women into the Sangha, he challenged cultural norms, which provoked criticism and resistance.
One of the most well-known episodes took place within the Sangha itself. Devadatta, a cousin of the Buddha, became a monk and was initially a leading disciple. But eventually, motivated by ambition and a desire for power, Devadatta attempted to create a split in the Sangha. He planned to take control of the monastic community and, according to the scriptures, even attempted to assassinate the Buddha on several occasions, albeit unsuccessfully.
Death and Parinirvana
After decades of teaching, traveling and spreading his teachings throughout India, Buddha, at the age of eighty, made what was to be his last journey, to Kushinagar, a small town in the present-day state of Uttar Pradesh, India.
Despite his advanced age, Buddha continued to follow his daily routine of meditation, teaching and begging. According to the scriptures, shortly before his death, he consumed a meal offered by a blacksmith named Cunda. Some texts suggest that the food was spoiled, leading to severe dysentery. But Buddha showed no resentment towards Cunda; in fact, he consoled him and assured him that offering food to an enlightened being shortly before his Parinirvana is a great merit.
Aware of his state and the imminent end of his earthly life, Buddha arrived at a forest near Kushinagar and asked his disciples to prepare a bed between two twin trees. There, surrounded by his Sangha, he lay on his right side, with one hand supporting his head and the other resting on his body.
In his final moments, Buddha offered one last teaching, a summary of his life message:“All composite things are subject to disappearance. Strive diligently.” With these words, he urged his followers to continue with practice, not to lose themselves in ritual and dogma, and to always remember the impermanence of all things.
As the Buddha entered into deep meditation, he went through various levels of concentration, until he reached the state of Parinirvana, the final extinction. For the community of followers, this was a time of great sadness, but also of reflection. Although the Buddha had left the physical world, his teachings, the Dharma, would live on as a guide to liberation.
According to the “Mahaparinibbana Sutta” of the Digha Nikaya, which is part of the Pali canon, after the Buddha’s death, his body was treated with great respect and honor. The Buddha’s body was wrapped in new cloths and then in old cloths. It was placed in a coffin and cremated. During this process, the Mallas of Kusinara, the town where the Buddha attained Parinirvana, showed their respect by keeping a ceremonial guard around his body for a week and offering music, chanting and honoring.
After the cremation, the relics (remains of Buddha’s body that were not burned) were collected by the Mallas of Kusinara. These relics became objects of veneration. A dispute arose between various groups over who should possess the relics of the Buddha. To avoid a conflict, a wise man named Drona proposed that they be divided into eight equal parts, to be distributed among the eight main tribes that claimed them. Each group took their relics and buried them under monuments called cetiyas (stupas), which became centers of veneration. In time, the Buddha’s relics were further dispersed, either through further division or by being taken to different locations, and many more stūpas and monuments were built in his honor in various parts of Asia.
Stories and legends related to the Buddha’s relics and their distribution are an important part of Buddhist tradition, and these places are often pilgrimage sites for Buddhists around the world.
What did the Buddha teach?
In this section we are not going to go into detail on the Buddha’s teachings, as we have detailed articles on them for those who want to go deeper, rather, our intention is to highlight the essence of what the Buddha intended with his teaching, as this is fundamental to understand that more than a spiritual leader, Buddha was a psychologist, a great connoisseur of the human mind and its ills.
He himself stated on more than one occasion “What I teach is suffering and the path to liberation from suffering.” The Buddha is often described as a spiritual physician. Not because he treated physical illnesses, but because he diagnosed the existential condition of being human and offered a remedy for their suffering. Let us look at this medical parallel in more detail:
Diagnosis: The Truth of Suffering (Dukkha)
Just as a physician recognizes a disease by observing its symptoms, the Buddha identified suffering as an omnipresent condition in human life. This truth of suffering, known as Dukkha, refers not only to obvious suffering (such as pain or sadness), but also to dissatisfaction and impermanence. Everything is ephemeral and constantly changing, and clinging to something ephemeral inevitably generates suffering.
Aetiology: The Cause of Suffering (Samudaya)
Just as a physician looks for the underlying cause of a disease, the Buddha identified the cause of suffering in the“Three Roots of Evil“: ignorance, craving and aversion. Of these, ignorance is fundamental, for it keeps us blind to the real nature of things. Our attachment to desires and aversion to what we do not want, driven by this ignorance, chains us in a constant cycle of suffering.
Prognosis: Cessation of Suffering (Nirodha)
Buddha pointed out that suffering can cease. This is not a promise of a paradise or a utopian state, but a genuine cessation of craving and clinging. By facing and understanding the nature of the world, one can experience a state of peace and liberation.
Treatment: The Eightfold Path (Magga)
Finally, just as a doctor prescribes a treatment to cure an illness, Buddha offered a“prescription” for the cessation of suffering. This is the Noble Eightfold Path, a practical guide that includes:
- Right view
- Right Intention
- Right speech
- Right action
- Right way of life
- Right effort
- Right Attention
- Right concentration.
The Eightfold Path is a practical and ethical guide to living a life that leads to awakening and liberation from suffering. It is a path of self-discovery and transformation that goes beyond dogmas and rituals.
The Meaning of the “Buddha” Concept
When most people speak of Buddha, they refer to the figure of Siddhartha Gautama, who is considered the historical Buddha. But “Buddha” is a much broader and deeper concept than the simple historical reference to a person, it is a term that comes from Sanskrit and means “awakened” or “enlightened“. It is a quality, a state of consciousness that transcends ignorance and sees reality as it is. Beyond a historical figure, “Buddha” represents the enlightened nature inherent in all beings.
Within Buddhist teachings, we speak of the“Buddha nature” that resides in all beings. This nature is the pure, unchanging essence that is beyond impurities and suffering. It is a spark of enlightenment that, though often obscured by ignorance, aversion and desire, is never completely lost.“Buddha” is this intrinsic capacity to attain enlightenment, the potential of every being to awaken and become free from suffering.
The Buddhist tradition holds that there have been numerous Buddhas throughout time and that there will continue to be Buddhas in the future. These Buddhas, though different in origin and historical context, have all attained the same state of enlightenment and taught the Dharma, or universal truths, according to the needs and capacities of the beings of their time. Siddhartha Gautama is only one of these many Buddhas.
To speak of Buddha is to speak of the Dharma, the teaching, the universal truth revealed and transmitted by a Buddha. Thus, a Buddha is both the one who discovers the Dharma in a given age and the one who teaches it to others. In a sense, the Buddha and the Dharma are inseparable; the Buddha is the living manifestation of the Dharma and the Dharma is the verbal and conceptual expression of the Buddha’s enlightenment.
Did the Buddha found a religion?
To address this question, it is essential to first understand the intentions and context in which the Buddha imparted his teachings. Siddhartha Gautama lived in a period and place where diverse spiritual and philosophical traditions already existed. His quest did not stem from a desire to create a new religion, but to understand the nature of human suffering and find a path to liberation.
The Buddha’s teachings centered on the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path, which describe the nature of suffering and provide practical guidance for overcoming it. What the Buddha offered was a method, a “way” rather than a set of dogmatic beliefs. Rather than proposing rituals or worship practices, he emphasized the importance of meditation, mindfulness and ethics in daily life.
There is no evidence that the Buddha intended to establish an organized religion or institution. He did not create a fixed set of rituals or appoint specific leaders or successors. What he did do was share his understanding and experience, leaving a set of teachings that could be adopted and adapted by anyone, regardless of their background or previous beliefs.
As with many spiritual and philosophical leaders, the Buddha’s teachings were consolidated and organized after his death. Followers, seeking to preserve and spread his teachings, codified them, establishing monasteries, creating texts and forming a monastic community, the Sangha. As Buddhism spread, it found roots in diverse cultures and contexts, leading to the formation of different schools and traditions, each with its own interpretations and practices. It was this evolutionary and adaptive process that eventually led to the creation of what we know today as the “Buddhist religion”.
So, is it correct to say that the Buddha founded a religion? In a strict sense, no. Siddhartha Gautama taught a path, a philosophy of life, not a set of religious rituals or dogmas. But humanity, with its need for structure, community and continuity, transformed these teachings into a religious tradition over time.
Epithets of the Buddha
As a simple curiosity, we are going to show some of the names or epithets with which Siddhartha Gautama is usually referred to. These highlight the qualities of the Buddha, his achievements and the deep reverence and admiration he inspires:
- Tathagata: “He who has come thus” or “he who goes thus.” It refers to one who has attained the ultimate truth and understands reality as it is.
- Shakyamuni: Means “sage of the Shakya“, referring to the tribe or clan to which Siddhartha Gautama belonged. It is a way of identifying him as the Buddha who emerged from the Shakya family.
- Bhagavan: Although this term is used in various Indian traditions to refer to someone revered or divine, it is also used to refer to the Buddha as “The Blessed One” or “The Fortunate One“.
- Samma-sambuddha: This epithet highlights the self-enlightened nature of the Buddha. It means“perfectly self-awakened” or“perfectly enlightened by himself,” emphasizing that he attained enlightenment without the help of a teacher.
- Sugata: Means “one who goes well” or“the adventurous well,” referring to the harmonious and beneficial way in which the Buddha lived and taught.
- Arhat: Although this term refers to someone who has reached a certain level of enlightenment in early Buddhism and is free from rebirth, it also applies to the Buddha as the quintessential arhat. It means “worthy” or “without impurity”.