Buddhahood Controversies – Introduction

July 9, 2020


1. Buddhahood is a term that remains mired in controversy. In upcoming posts in this section, I will discuss three topics that have intrigued many people over the years. That will help cultivate faith in the Buddha, Dhamma, Saṅgha.

  1. The wisdom and capabilities of a Buddha. We will clarify the implications of the three types of knowledge of a Buddha mentioned in #8 below.
  2. Current scientific knowledge is compatible with most of the “supernormal capabilities” of a Buddha. Scientists have not taken the time to do an in-depth analysis. Of course, most scientists do not know enough about Buddha Dhamma (or physics) to do such an analysis.
  3. We will also discuss how the teachings of the previous Buddha (Buddha Kassapa) were transmitted as Vedic teachings in distorted form. That is why there are so many common terms in Buddhism and Hinduism, like kamma (karma), jhāna (dhyāna), and even Paṭicca Samuppāda (Pratītyasamutpāda.) Of course, Buddha’s Ānapānasati meditation was misinterpreted as “breath meditation.” All those concepts were there (just like now) at the time of the birth of Prince Siddhattha. We will discuss Tipiṭaka accounts where the Buddha pointed that out.

It is easier for an average human to grasp the mundane meanings (and difficult to grasp the deeper meanings.) That is why periodically those mundane explanations come up disguised as Buddhist teachings as well.

Buddha Is a Title

2. Buddha is a title. Buddha is a human who becomes “Enlightened” or attains the Buddhahood. However, It is necessary to understand his teachings to a higher level to figure out the meaning of the word “Buddha.”

  • A Buddha has the “perfect mind.” With a perfect mind, a Buddha knows everything about the world. Even though he lived more than 2500 years ago, he described the universe much of the same way that scientists have found out just within the past 100 years. And he provided many more details about our world (much more than the scientists) as we will discuss.
  • One is not born a Buddha. The Buddhahood is attained or achieved. There have been many Buddhā in the past, and there will be many in the future. For example, the Buddha we are discussing now is Buddha Gotama. There was Buddha Kassapa immediately before him (a long time ago) and the next Buddha will be Buddha Maitreya.
  • it is a rare occurrence to have a Buddha in the world. Sometimes, billions of years can go by without a Buddha. See #14 of “Pāramitā and Niyata Vivarana – Myths or Realities?”
  • Before we get into the knowledge of a Buddha, let us discuss some basic facts about Buddha Gotama.
Prince Siddhattha

3. Buddha Gotama was born with the name of Siddhattha (Siddhārtha in Sinhala or Sanskrit) and his parents were Suddhodana and Mahā Māyā. Suddhodana was a king, and Prince Siddhattha was brought up in luxury. For example, in the Mahā Parinibbāna Sutta (DN 10), the Buddha says that he had four palaces for the four seasons. An English translation at, “The Great Discourse on the Buddha’s Extinguishment.”

  • Scattered throughout many suttā in the Digha Nikāya and Majjhima Nikāya are accounts of various stages of the life of the Buddha (before and after Enlightenment.) I will refer to a few below. It is a good idea to read them. Most translations are good enough, especially regarding such life accounts. Only when deep Dhamma concepts are discussed one needs to be careful about the correctness of the translation.
  • A brief account of Prince Siddhattha’s life can be found, for example, at “Basic Buddhist Concepts.” More details — extracted from the Tipiṭaka –at, “A Sketch of the Buddha’s Life – Readings from the Pāli Canon.
  • At the age of sixteen, Prince Siddhattha married princess Yasodhara. They were happily married for thirteen years and had a son, Rāhula. Yet, Prince Siddhattha was not satisfied. He felt a sense of “discontent” or “dissatisfaction” lingering even while immersed in a luxurious life.
  • We will briefly go through a series of events that led to a drastic change in Prince Siddhattha. Those four events are the Four Great Omens.
Four Great Omens

4. On his rare visits outside the palaces, one day Prince Siddhattha saw an old person.  He had never seen an old person. His faithful companion, Channa, explained that everyone gets old.

  • On a subsequent visit, he saw a sick person and learned that everyone becomes sick. On the third visit, he saw a dead body and was told that one day he would die too. Those three encounters got him to think deeply about life and his discontent with life grew steadily.
  • On a subsequent fourth visit outside the palace, the prince saw a recluse, spiritual seeker, and his calm demeanor intrigued the prince. Channa explained to him that there were many recluses like that. They were discontent with life and were in search of a solution to the universal problems associated with life. Those are sicknesses, getting old, and dying.
  • As we note below, people at the time of the Buddha were familiar with the concepts of rebirth. Therefore, they knew about the “cycle of suffering in the rebirth process.”
  • With the sight of the recluse, prince Siddhattha realized that he would also need to give up the lay-life and pursue the path to end that suffering associated with the perpetual cycle of birth, old age, sicknesses, and death. One dies only to be reborn to go through the same cycle!
Influence of Teachings of Buddha Kassapa

5. Remnants of the teachings of the Buddha Kassapa from the deep past had come down through Vedic teachings. This is a critical point. As we will see later, the Buddha explained that only the mundane interpretations of Buddha Kassapa’s teachings had survived.

  • For example, people at that time were quite familiar with the laws of kamma, the rebirth process, five (or eight) precepts, and even Nibbāna. However, Vedic brahmins had used the Sanskrit language to transmit those teachings and used Sanskrit words karma and nirvāna for the Pāli words kamma and Nibbāna.
  • In another example, per Tipiṭaka, queen Mahā Māyā had regularly observed eight precepts.
  • That is also why there were so many recluses who were trying to figure out the way to Nibbāna (nirvāna), freedom from suffering in the rebirth process. Some of them thought that by cultivating jhāna and getting rebirth in a Brahma realm is nirvāna (or end of suffering.) We will discuss that in the next post.
Renunciation – Becoming a Recluse

6. Shortly after seeing the recluse, Prince Siddhattha left the palace in the middle of the night. Channa led him out on his horse Kanthaka. The prince cut his hair and put on robes suitable for an ascetic. Let us call him ascetic Siddhattha or the Bodhisatta.

  • First, the Bodhisatta went to two of the well-known yogis of the day, Āḷāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta. They taught him all they knew. He was able to get the highest jhāna (Neva­saññā ­nā­ sañ­ñāyata­na) in a short time. Those teachers thought that they had attained Nibbāna.
  • But the Bodhisatta realized that one could not get to Nibbāna merely by suppressing defilements (greed, anger, and ignorance) with breath meditation or mundane versions of kasina mediation. He realized attaining Nibbāna requires the removal of defilements for “complete purification.”
  • The Buddha has discussed those interactions with Āḷāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta in the “Mahāsaccaka Sutta (MN 36),” “Ariyapariyesana Sutta (MN 26)” and various other suttā.
  • You can access translations to English and several other languages by clicking the “down arrow” just above the name of the sutta at Sutta Central.
Six Years of Extreme Asceticism

7. After leaving Āḷāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta, the Bodhisatta tried various methods of subjecting his body to extreme hardships. Other than pursuing mundane jhāna/kasina, many yogis at that time thought one could remove defilements by inflicting such punishments to the body.

  • Shortly after leaving Āḷāra Kālāma and Uddaka Rāmaputta, the Bodhisatta met five companions, Kondañña, Bhaddiya, Vappa, Mahānāma, and Assajī. They were impressed with the Bodhisatta‘s determination and were convinced that one day he will become a Buddha.
  • By the way, the word Buddha (and Bhagavath) also came down in Vedic teachings. Bhagavad Gita (or “Recitals of Bhagavad”), for example, has many Vedic teachings that originally came from Buddha Kassapa. Of course, most concepts ended up with mundane interpretations.
  • For example, “Brahmāyu Sutta (MN 91)” provides a detailed account of brahmin Brahmāyu who was well-versed in the three Vedā (tiṇṇaṃ vedānaṃ pāragū). At the beginning of the sutta, brahmin Brahmāyu recites the qualities of a Buddha: ‘itipi so bhagavā arahaṃ sammāsambuddho vijjācaraṇasampanno sugato lokavidū anuttaro purisadammasārathi satthā devamanussānaṃ buddho bhagavā’ti. Then he sends his pupil to the Gotama Buddha to check whether he has the “thirty-two marks of a great man (dvattiṃsamahāpurisalakkhaṇāni).” How would brahmin Brahmāyu know about the qualities of a Buddha? It had come down in Vedic teachings! It is good to read the English translation: “With Brahmāyu.”
  • During most of those six years, the Bodhisatta subjected his body to various forms of hardship. The Buddha discussed those unimaginable sufferings in several suttā, including the “Mahāsaccaka Sutta (MN 36).”
Enlightenment (Attaining Buddhahood)

8. Finally, the Bodhisatta realized that subjecting the body to suffering is not the way to cleanse the mind of defilements. The Bodhisatta had to undergo six years of unnecessary suffering due to a hard-to-overcome bad kamma that he had committed against Buddha Kassapa. He had verbally abused Buddha Kassapa. I will just provide the link to the English translation of the sutta, MN 81: “With Ghaṭikāra.”

  • On a Full Moon day in May, the Bodhisatta sat at the foot of a Bodhi tree with a firm determination to attain the Buddhahood. The Buddha described the account of the events during that night in the “Bodhirājakumāra Sutta (MN 85)” among several others.

During the night the Buddha achieved three types of higher knowledge:

  1. Ability to recall one’s past lives (pubbe nivāsānussati ñāṇa),
  2. The ability to see any living being’s cuti (end of bhava) and patisandhi (grasping of a new bhava). This is the cutūpapāta ñāṇa.
  3. The attainment of the Buddhahood with āsavakkhaya ñāṇa. That involved grasping the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path to Nibbāna.
  • The Bodhisatta was now a fully-awakened Buddha or a Sammāsambuddha. He had gained knowledge about the wider world of 31 realms, how beings are born in those realms according to Paṭicca Samuppāda, etc. It was not mere speculation. He visited those realms and confirmed his findings, as we will discuss.
Events After the Enlightenment

9. The Vinaya Pitaka provides a detailed account of events following the Enlightenment. Here is the English translation, “1. Going forth (Pabbajjā).” Another resource is discussed in “The Life of the Buddha” by Bhikkhu Nānamoli.” I highly recommend reading those accounts. It provides a good idea of the initiation of the Buddha Sāsana, or the “ministry of the Buddha.”

  • Of course, the translations of some critical Pāli words are not correct there, especially anicca and anatta. That occurs in the account where the five ascetics attain Arahanthood over several days of the discussion of the first two suttā, the Dhammacakkappavattana Sutta (SN 56.11) and the Anattalakkhana Sutta (SN 22.59) as I have discussed in many posts.
  • Other than the description of deep Dhamma concepts, most English translations of suttā are good. Accounts on Buddha’s life in many suttā in the Digha Nikāya and Majjhima Nikāya fall into that category.
  • However, even then, most translators themselves have doubts about the various abilities of the Buddha. They openly express their doubts even about the validity of the rebirth process, or Buddha’s ability to visit various Deva and Brahma realms (even the existence of such realms), to go through walls, to “touch the Sun and the Moon,” etc. See, “Mystical Phenomena in Buddhism?

The Buddha stated that he never taught anything that he had not verified by himself. Buddha Dhamma is not philosophy. Most “experts” who express such opinions are not even true Buddhists (in the sense of comprehending deep concepts in Buddha Dhamma.) They are “secular Buddhists” who do not believe in rebirth, the FOUNDATION of Buddha Dhamma. Furthermore, they have no background in science (particularly in physics), and do not realize that many “mystical phenomena” are not contradictory to modern physics!

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