Charles Hallisey is John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Humanities in Sanskrit and Indian Studies at Harvard University.
Who was the Buddha? Much is assumed in what might seem to be a small choice about the tense of the verb in the question, in saying "who was the Buddha?" instead of "who is a Buddha?" or "who will be a Buddha?" To put the question as "who was the Buddha?" as most modern scholarship does, is to focus our attention on Gautama, the historical figure who lived approximately twenty-five hundred years ago and who founded and inspired the Buddhist religion.
Buddhists across Asia have had a loving interest in Gautama, but they have consistently denied that what he achieved--Buddhahood--is in any sense something that belongs only to the past. Buddhahood is in the present and the future, too. Thus, in the traditional Buddhist scheme of things, there have been many Buddhas and there will be many more. Gautama is thus just one Buddha among many, although he has a special significance because he is "our Buddha," the one who has made salvific truth available to us. In other words, that Buddha of the past assists us--through his teaching and his example--to become Buddhas ourselves, now or in the future.
The Sanskrit word Buddha means "someone who has woken up." It is, according to Buddhists, a name that "no mother ever gave," a name that is "a designation based on realization." In other words, Buddha designates a condition, not a person. It is a title given to someone who has perceived the true nature of reality in a transformative experience, an experience of absolute freedom that puts him beyond the ordinary constraints of life and death. The experience and teaching of every Buddha, including those today, address universal concerns, not the problems of a particular time and place. For Buddhists, the Buddha's experience is not a product of his historical context but a liberating insight into the conditions of existence itself.
Buddhists disagree about the transcendent truths that a Buddha awakens to, but they consistently hold to the relational implications of the metaphor in the notion of "Buddha": A Buddha is to us as we are to people who are asleep. Although during a dream we may feel that we are experiencing something real, when we awaken, we realize just how insubstantial the dream was. So, too, with a Buddha. His wisdom is based on his unique ability to distinguish between illusion and reality and to act on the basis of what is.
When a Buddha awakens, he sees clearly that ordinary people think that the world is other than it is. Trusting that the world is as they would like it to be, they inevitably act in ways that can only cause themselves and others suffering. It is also in the nature of a Buddha to feel compassion for others in the throes of such needless suffering, just as a parent feels sympathy for the toddler caught in the terrors of a nightmare, and the career of a Buddha is dedicated to helping others to end their suffering. If wisdom is the first mark of a Buddha, compassion is the second.
We shift gears significantly when we say that our primary interest is in Gautama as a great historical figure and not in Gautama as a Buddha. What can we know about him as a person, beyond the generic qualities of wisdom and compassion that define him as a Buddha? The historical figure is just barely discernable in the traditional biographies of the Buddha found throughout the Buddhist world. These accounts do often seem more like myth than history, but of course, the interests of a modern historian were not theirs. They portray Gautama as an extraordinary being, greater than the gods, and praise his awakening as a rare event that is precious for the well-being of humanity. He is a superhuman fige with miraculous powers to transform the world around him.
Naturally, in these premodern biographies, Gautama's life is depicted within the …