Buddha means “enlightened one.” The word is used in Buddhism to refer to either (a) a universal, enlightened soul without beginning or end; (b) a manifestation or aspect of this soul, known in Japan as nyorai; or (c) the historical founder of Buddhism, SiddhĀrtha Gautama, called ShĀka in Japan.
In MahĀyĀna Buddhism, the branch of Bud- dhism that dominated in early Japan, the historical Buddha is seen as only one of several manifestations or instances of the universal Buddha. Other Buddhas include Yakushi, the Buddha of healing; Amida, the Buddha of boundless light; and Dainichi, an all- powerful life force sometimes compared to (or said to be) Amaterasu.
Popularly and especially in the West, the word “Buddha” is often used to refer to the man who started the religion, Shāka or Siddhartha Gautama as he was known before attaining enlightenment.
The historical Buddha was born in India around 560 b.c. The following story is told of how he attained enlightenment. While the exact details may or may not be accurate, the story summarizes what many feel is the essence of the individual search for truth that led to one of the world’s greatest religions.
A wealthy prince, Siddhartha, had every possible luxury growing up. Yet he became concerned that he was missing something. One day, he left the palace with his servant Channa. They came across a sick man writhing in pain.
“Why does he suffer?” Siddhartha asked.
“Many do,” replied the servant. “It is the way of life.”
Siddhartha continued on his walk. He found an old man who was suffering great pain. “Why?” Siddhartha asked.
“He is dying,” said the servant. “That, too, is the way of life.”
Siddhartha went home and thought about all the suffering he had seen. He decided he must find a solution for his people. He left the palace and went to live with holy hermits. These people believed they could find great spiritual understanding by fasting and denying themselves pleasure.
Siddhartha joined them. He fasted and denied himself everything. But when he nearly fainted from hunger, he realized that he could no longer think clearly. He saw that this was not the way to understand suffering, let alone solve it. He left the others. After eating to regain his strength, Siddhartha sat under a tree and meditated.
At first, he felt and thought nothing but fear and doubts. All night long he meditated. And then in the morning, as the Sun lit the horizon, he found enlightenment. He understood the basic state of humankind and the world. The core of his understanding were the followings, as in the FOUR NOBLE TRUTH.
Four Noble Truths:
After achieving enlightenment, Siddhartha was named the Awakened [or Enlightened] One, or Buddha. He was called ŚĀkayamuni (or Shākayumi) Buddha. Śākayumi means “sage of Sakya,” the tribe or people Siddhartha belonged to. In Japanese, he is called Shāka, Shakuson, or Śākayumi, “the renowned one” or “the world-honored one.”
Shāka established monasteries and schools to share his ideas. His talks were recorded and organized as sutras or teachings, after his death. As a religion, Buddhism spread over several hundred years, first throughout India and then to China, Japan, other parts of Asia, and eventually the West.
Tradition holds that Buddha’s soul lived many lives before his birth as Siddhartha. Several traditions or legends are connected with his birth. It is said, for example, that his coming was announced by an earthquake. His wife, horse, elephant, and charioteer were all said to be born at the same time.