The Nature of the Buddha

by Ryuei Michael McCormick

The following essay is a chapter of a book on the life and teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha according to the Pali Canon and/or the Agamas that I have been writing since college. This particular part was begun in 1996 and finished in May 2002. I am restricting myself to the Pali Canon and the Agamas in an effort to present only what is likely to have been taught by the historical Shakyamuni Buddha. While this essay and the others which constitute this work in progress are informed by Mahayana and Theravada teachings, my main purpose was just to present what I perceive to be the most straightforward meaning of the canon. In the future, I hope to cover the Mahayana canon in the same way. Ultimately, I hope to take all this material and show how it does or does not relate to the faith, teaching, and practice of Nichiren Buddhism as a source of common sense and spiritual guidance.
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo, Ryuei > Pali Canon > Mahayana > Lotus Sutra > Blog


The Awakened One


From the very beginning there were questions aboutthe nature of the Buddha. Was he a god, a mere human teacher of morality orsomething else? Even today, many people mistakenly believe that the Buddha isthe God of Buddhism or that he was just a teacher of philosophy like Socratesor that he is a transcendent savior like Jesus Christ. Even many Buddhists whoare not familiar with the actual teachings of the Buddha as found in the sutrasare likely to hold these same misconceptions. However, as this first passagewill make clear, the Buddha did not see himself as definable in these or anyother terms. The Brahmin Dona tried to discover if the Buddha was destined tobecome a deva (god), gandharva (celestial musician), a yaksha (nature spirit)or a human being. This was a polite way of asking about the Buddha’s presentidentity. The Buddha, however, denies that he will become anything, andidentifies himself only as a buddha, an “Awakened One.”


On one occasion the Blessed One was walking on thehighway between Ukkattha and Setavya. And it happened that the brahmin Dona wasalso walking along that road. Dona the brahmin saw on the footprints of theBlessed One the wheel marks with their thousand spokes, with rim and hub,perfect in every respect. Seeing these marks, he thought to himself: “It istruly wonderful, it is astonishing! These certainly cannot be the footprints ofa human being.”


Meanwhile the Blessed One had left the highway andhad sat down under a tree not far off, with legs crossed, keeping his bodyerect, having set up mindfulness before him. Then Dona the brahmin, followingthe Blessed One’s footprints, saw him seated under a tree, of pleasingappearance, inspiring confidence, with calm features and calm mind, in perfectcomposure and equipoise, controlled and restrained (like) a well-trained bullelephant.


Seeing the Blessed One, Dona approached him and said:“Will your reverence become a deva?”


“No, brahmin, I shall not become a deva.”


“Then your reverence might become a gandharva.”


“No, brahmin, I shall not become a gandharva.”


“Then will your reverence become a yaksha?”


“No, brahmin, I shall not become a yaksha.”


“Then will your reverence become a human being?”


“No, brahmin, I shall not become a human being.”


“Now when I asked whether your reverence will becomea deva or a gandharva or a yaksha or a human being, you replied, ‘I shall not.’What, then, will your reverence become?”


“Brahmin, those outflows whereby, if they were notabandoned, I might become a deva - these outflows are abandoned by me, cut offat the root, made barren like palm-tree stumps, obliterated so that they are nomore subject to arise in the future.


“Just as, brahmin, a blue, red or white lotus, thoughborn and grown in the water, rises up and stands unsoiled by the water, so,brahmin, though born and grown in the world, I have overcome the world anddwell unsoiled by the world. Consider me, O brahmin, a Buddha.” (NumericalDiscourses of the Buddha, pp. 87 -88)


The title “Buddha”, as mentioned before, means “theawakened one” and that is the one essential quality that sets the Buddha apartfrom all other sentient beings. This story also refers to the thousand spokedwheels on the Buddha’s feet that were believed to be one of the thirty-twomarks of a wheel turning king or a buddha. A wheel turning king is a divineemperor who is able to bring peace and justice to the entire world. A buddha,however, is one who changes the world by awakening himself and others to its truenature. In either case, they are said to bear these thirty-two marks so thatthey can be identified by those who know what to look for, such as thebrahmins. Some of the thirty-two marks would strike people today as bizarremutations, such as webbed hands and feet or hands that extend past the knees orthe thousand spoked wheels on the soles of the feet. Others would perhapsinspire a sense of awe and wonder, such as a golden complexion that radiateslight. Finally, there are marks like the tuft of curly hair growing between theeyebrows and the protuberance at the crown of the head that can be seen in mostportraits or sculptures of the Buddha. In any case, these marks are a symbolicway of expressing the power and dignity of one who is able to change the entireworld, either politically or spiritually. These marks, however, are still mereappearances and do not reveal the true character of the one who bears them.That is why Shakyamuni calls himself “Buddha”, because it is his awakening andnot his physical appearance or form that really matters.


The Buddha also tells Dona that he has extinguishedand cut off the “outflows”. What did the Buddha mean by this? The word“outflows” is actually a technical term in the Buddhist science of mind thatrefers to the mental defilements that lead to suffering. On the one hand,“outflows” refers to the tendency of the mind to flow out of itself in searchof happiness and security. On the other hand, the deluded mind also allowsoutside influences to flow in and disturb the mind’s clarity and equilibrium.One of the most obvious forms of this occurs when someone craves some object,person or environment in the belief that satisfying their desires will bringlasting peace and happiness. Another form of outflow is when one seeks tobecome something that one is not, to realize some ideal image of oneself.Finally, there is the basic ignorance that does not recognize the contingentand impermanent nature of the self and all other phenomena and so makes thefalse assumption that there is a fixed, permanent and independent self in thefirst place. Sometimes the false views and beliefs that one clings to, in orderto support these mistaken desires, ideals, and assumptions, is also counted asa form of mental defilement. As we shall see when we go deeper into theBuddha’s teachings, the whole point of Buddhist teaching and practice is touncover and uproot these defilements which are the sources of suffering. Inthis passage, however, what is important is that the Buddha is saying that heno longer feels the need to seek his happiness outside of himself, nor does heneed to a seek out or assert a specific identity for himself. Though supremelyself-aware, the Buddha also realizes that there is no real self to be aware of,therefore he denies that he is or will become anything human or supernatural.In other words, because he has woken up to the fact that there is no static orindependent self to be defined, he now only refers to himself as one who isawake, a buddha.




Another time, the wanderer Vacchagotta who wanted toknow what happened to the Tathagata after death questioned the Buddha. Did hereappear in some other existence or not or both or neither? By asking thisquestion, Vacchagotta assumes that there is some fixed entity that correspondsto the label Tathagata. The Buddha however, uses the simile of a fire to showthat one should not think of the Tathagata as a fixed being that can be said toappear or disappear.


“What do you think, Vaccha? Suppose a fire were burningbefore you. Would you know: `This fire is burning before me’?”


“I would, Master Gautama.”


“If someone were to ask you, Vaccha: `What does thisfire burning before you burn in dependence on?’ - being asked thus, what wouldyou answer?”


“Being asked thus, Master Gautama, I would answer:`This fire burning before me burns in dependence on grass and sticks.’”


“If that fire before you were to be extinguished,would you know: `This fire before me has been extinguished’?”


“I would, Master Gautama.”


“If someone were to ask you, Vaccha: `When that firebefore you was extinguished, to which direction did it go: to the east, thewest, the north, or the south?’ - being asked thus, what would you answer?”


“That does not apply, Master Gautama. The fire burnedin dependence on its fuel of grass and sticks. When that is used up, if it doesnot get any more fuel, being without fuel, it is reckoned as extinguished.”


“So too, Vaccha, the Tathagata has abandoned thatmaterial form by which one describing the Tathagata might describe him; he has cut it off at the root, made it like a palm stump, done away with it so that itis no longer subject to future arising. The Tathagata is liberated fromreckoning in terms of material form, Vaccha, he is profound, immeasurable,unfathomable like the ocean. The terms `reappears’ does not apply, the term`does not reappear’ does not apply, the term `both reappears and does notreappear’ does not apply, the term `neither reappears nor does not reappear’does not apply. The Tathagata has abandoned that feeling by which onedescribing the Tathagata might describe him...has abandoned that perception bywhich one describing the Tathagata might describe him...has abandoned thoseformations by which one describing the Tathagata might describe him...hasabandoned that consciousness by which one describing the Tathagata mightdescribe him; he has cut it off at the root, made it like a palm stump, doneaway with it so that it is no longer subject to future arising. The Tathagatais liberated from reckoning in terms of consciousness, Vaccha; he is profound,immeasurable, unfathomable like the ocean. The term `reappears’ does not apply,the term `does not reappear’ does not apply, the term `both reappears and doesnot reappear’ does not apply, the term `neither reappears nor does notreappear’ does not apply.” (The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, pp. 593 - 594)


The Buddha makes this point again and againthroughout his teachings. The Buddha does not think of himself in terms of afixed identity that depends upon impermanent and contingent phenomena such asform, sensations, perceptions, volitions or even consciousness. The Buddha doesnot even try to identify a self apart from phenomena. It is not that the Buddhahas negated or extinguished his self-hood, it is that the Buddha has awakenedto the true selfless nature of reality which transcends the limitations of suchself-conscious views and the finite reference points upon which suchself-reference depends. One might say that before enlightenment, arbitraryboundaries between the self and the rest of reality have created a false viewof self and that after enlightenment these boundaries are recognized asarbitrary and not ultimately significant. The boundaries of the self do remaininsofar as they are needed to function in the world of conventional reality,but they no longer have any hold over those who have seen through them andrealize that these fixed boundaries between self and other, beginning and end,inside and outside have no real substance. Free of these boundaries, the Buddhasaw that there was no fixed, independent or definable self that can undergobirth or death in the first place. For this reason, the Buddha spoke of himselfas the Tathagata, the “Thus Come/Thus Gone One.” In other words, he was able tooperate both in the realm of conventional reality in order to teach and impartliberation as the “one who comes from the realm of Truth” and in the realm offreedom from the fixed, independent and finite self as the “one who goes to therealm of Truth.” The Tathagata, therefore, did not think of himself in terms ofexistence or non-existence, both, neither, or any other form of classification.Again and again, he pointed his disciples back to his pragmatic teachingsconcerning suffering and the end of suffering and away from idle speculation asto the nature of his existence as in the following passage:


“But Anuradha, when the Tathagata is not apprehendedby you as real and actual here in this very life, is it fitting for you todeclare: ‘Friends, when a Tathagata is describing a Tathagata - the highesttype of person, the supreme person, the attainer of the supreme attainment - hedescribes himself apart from these four cases: ‘The Tathagata exists afterdeath,’ or ‘The Tathagata does not exist after death,’ or ‘The Tathagata bothexists and does not exist after death,’ or ‘The Tathagata neither exists nordoes not exist after death’?”


“No, venerable sir.”


“Good, good, Anuradha! Formerly, Anuradha, and alsonow, I make known just suffering and the cessation of suffering.” (TheConnected Discourses of the Buddha,pp. 937 - 938)


It must be understood that the Buddha was not sayingthat people do not really exist, or that the Tathagata has escaped existence orthat birth and death are not actual events. What he realized for himself andtried to share with others was the insight into the selfless nature of allevents and phenomena. There are definitely people who are born and people whodie, people who undergo suffering and joy, and on rare occasions people whoawaken to the Truth and are able to teach the Truth to others. However, thosewho do know the Truth, the Dharma, no longer view or experience these thingsfrom the point-of-view of self-reference. For them, the very nature of self andother, suffering and joy, birth and death or even existence and non-existencehas changed. In fact, the viewpoint of the Buddha has changed so radically thatfor him, these terms have become wholly inadequate and misleading.


Body of Dharma


How, then, can one talk about the Buddha orTathagata? Was the Buddha completely void of any self-image aside fromawakening itself? In fact, the Buddha thought of his life in terms of theDharma itself. One might say that through his awakening he ceased to live as aprivate individual and became instead a living embodiment or personification ofthe Dharma. The corollary to this is that the Dharma, not simply hispersonality or physical presence, was the true nature of his life. According toone story, there was once an elder monk named Vakkali who was fatally ill andhis one regret was that he was not able to go and see the Buddha. When, out ofcompassion, the Buddha came to visit the sick elder, he made the followingremark:  


“Enough, Vakkali! Why do you want to see this foulbody? One who sees the Dharma sees me; one one who sees me sees the Dharma. Forin seeing the Dharma, Vakkali, one sees me; and in seeing me, one sees theDharma.” (Ibid, p. 939)


If seeing the Dharma is equivalent to seeing theBuddha, then one must ask: what exactly does it mean to see the Dharma? TheDharma, in this case, refers to the interdependent and dynamic life processthat is the true nature of reality. As the Buddha states in another discourse:“One who sees dependent origination sees the Dharma; one who sees the Dharmasees dependent origination.” (The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, p. 284) Therefore, while the Buddha cannot bedefined by any particular phenomena or as any particular being, the Buddha isthe true nature of reality itself which is characterized by dependentorigination. In the Agganna Suttaof the Long Discourses of the Buddha the terms Brahma-kaya, or Divine Body, and Dharma-kaya, or Body ofDharma, are used to indicate that the reality which the Buddha has awakened tois the true body of the Buddha which all his disciples will also realize forthemselves by following his teachings. In the sutta, the Buddha teaches asfollows:


Vasettha, all of you, though of different birth,name, clan and family, who have gone forth from the household life intohomelessness, if you are asked who you are, should reply: “We are ascetics,followers of the Shakyan.” He whose faith in the Tathagata is settled, rooted,established, solid, unshakeable by any ascetic or Brahmin, any deva or mara orBrahma or anyone in the world, can truly say: “I am a true son of the BlessedLord, born of his mouth, born of Dharma, created by Dharma, an heir of Dharma.”Why is that? Because, Vasettha, this designates the Tathagata: “The Body ofDharma”, that is, “The Body of Brahma”, or “Become Dharma”, that is, “BecomeBrahma”. (The Long Discourses of the Buddha, p. 409)


Teacher of Gods and Humans


While the true nature of the Buddha defied ordinaryunderstanding because it was not dependent on the phenomena by which we usuallyjudge and categorize, the Buddha did have certain characteristics and abilitiesthat set him apart. The thirty-two marks of a great man have already beenmentioned, now we should turn to the actual powers and qualities of the Buddhathat made him such a great teacher. The best place to begin is with theBuddha’s response to the criticisms of a former disciple named Sunakshatra.Because the Buddha would not answer his metaphysical inquiries or perform anymiracles for him, Sunakshatra left the Sangha and denounced the Buddha as amere rationalistic philosopher.


Now on that occasion Sunakshatra, son of theLicchavis, had recently left this Dharma and discipline. He was making thisstatement before the Vaishali assembly: “The recluse Gautama does not have anysuperhuman states, any distinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the nobleones. The recluse Gautama teaches a Dharma [merely] hammered out by reasoning,following his own line of inquiry as it occurs to him, and when he teaches theDharma to anyone, it leads him when he practices it to the complete destructionof suffering.” (The Middle Length Discourses of the Buddha, p. 164)


Upon hearing of this criticism from his chiefdisciple Shariputra, the Buddha stated that Sunakshatra’s denunciation wasactually a form of praise, because it is true that the Buddha Dharma leads tothe complete destruction of suffering. Sunakshatra, unfortunately, was lookingfor magical displays and occult secrets and was unable to realize that thesethings are of no real consequence compared to the resolution of the problem ofsuffering. Many others did realize the supreme value of the Buddha’s teachingsand had spread the following “good report” about the Buddha and his teachings.


“The Blessed One is accomplished, fully enlightened,perfect in true knowledge and conduct, sublime, knower of worlds, incomparableleader of persons to be tamed, teacher of gods and humans, enlightened,blessed. He declares this world with its gods, its Maras, and its Brahmas, thisgeneration with its recluses and brahmins, with its princes and its people,which he has himself realize with direct knowledge. He teaches the Dharma thatis good in the beginning, good in the middle, and good in the end, with the rightmeaning and phrasing, and he reveals a holy life that is utterly perfect andpure.”  (Ibid, p. 743)


The Buddha insists that Sunakshatra is unable toappreciate the Buddha in this way because he did not realize the value of theBuddha Dharma. Essentially, this “good report” is asserting that the Buddhafully understands and fully expresses the true nature of life. Furthermore,this knowledge is “direct knowledge” in that the Buddha has seen for himselfthe true nature of the world and does not need to rely upon mere inference orany kind of divine revelation. It is even asserted that the Buddha’s insightsurpasses the insight of all other beings, even divine beings. For this reason,the Buddha is qualified to be the teacher of both gods and men.


This claim that the Buddha’s insight surpasses eventhat of divine beings might seem very strange. One must remember, however, thataccording to the Buddha, even the gods are caught up in the cycle of birth anddeath. They may currently be enjoying a blissful and transcendent state as areward for their virtuous actions in the past, but ultimately they will exhausttheir store of merit and will have to relinquish their divine status and takebirth again as a human being or even some lesser creature. Divine status,therefore, does not necessarily entail any greater insight into the workings ofthe process of birth and death than any other state. In fact, life as a divinebeing is said to be so comfortable, long lasting, and rewarding that very fewof those who attain such a state even bother to worry about the problem ofsuffering and the cycle of birth and death. Also, as the Buddha, the AwakenedOne, the Buddha is no longer merely a human being. As we have seen above, theBuddha has transcended all categories and can no longer be assigned a place onthe scale that stretches from human to divine. Finally, though one mightimagine that the transcendent or cosmic vision that would be available to thegods would open up far profounder revelations than the mere “completedestruction of suffering,” the Buddha taught that on the contrary the problemof suffering is truly the most fundamental issue that needs to be resolved. Theproblem of suffering is the key issue that deserves the highest priority, andits resolution is attainable by any human being who is able to appreciate andthen apply the Buddha’s teachings.


Supernatural Powers


The Buddha then goes on to list the other abilitieswhich he possesses that Sunakshatra will not be able to realize due to hisdismissal of the Buddha and the Dharma. The first three are actually the firstthree of the six supernatural powers that are forms of direct knowledgeattained either through meditative concentration or spiritual insight. Thefinal three of the six are listed below as the last three of the ten powers ofthe Tathagata. Of these six supernatural powers or direct knowledges, the firstfive can be attained as a by-product of meditative concentration and areavailable even to those who are not spiritually mature are liberated. Thesixth, however, is attained only through spiritual insight and is possessedonly by arhats, advanced bodhisattvas, and buddhas.   


“And he will never infer of me according to Dharma:`That Blessed One enjoys the various kinds of supernormal power: having beenone, he becomes many; having been many, he becomes one; he appears andvanishes; he goes unhindered through a wall, through an enclosure, through amountain, as though through space; he dives in and out of the earth as thoughit were water; he walks on water without sinking as though it were earth;seated cross-legged, he travels in space like a bird; with his hand he touchesand strokes the moon and the sun so powerful and mighty; he wields bodilymastery even as far as the Brahma-world.’ (Ibid, p. 165)


This first power of supernatural mastery over thebody covers many of the standard miracles which holymen were thought to be capable of in ancient India and elsewhere. Many ofthese powers, such as walking on water or through walls, were also attributedto Jesusin the Gospels. One may or may not choose to believe in such miracles. Thoughthe Buddha claimed to have possessed such powers, he did not consider themimportant, and even refused to make a display of them. The Buddha even forbadehis disciples from using such powers for the sake of cheap displays to impressthe masses. Assuming for a moment that such powers are actually attainable andwere in fact possessed by the Buddha, it would seem as though the Buddhaconsidered these powers a distraction from the real work of attaining insightand did not wish to draw any undue attention to such things. On a more mundanelevel, these miraculous powers poetically describe the accomplished meditator’stotal self-mastery and ease in relation to their body and surroundings. 


“And he will never infer of me according to Dharma:`With the divine ear element, which is purified and surpasses the human, theBlessed One hears both kinds of sounds, the heavenly and the human, those thatare far as well as near.’ (Ibid, p.165)


This power corresponds to the psychic ability knownas clairaudience - the ability to hear things in remote locations beyond thepower of the unaided human ear. This ability may have a basis in fact, butagain it could also be an indication of the increased awareness of those whohave cultivated mindful awareness through meditation.


“And he will never infer of me according to Dharma:`That Blessed One encompasses with his own mind, the minds of other beings,other persons. He understands a mind affected by lust as affected by lust and amind unaffected by lust as unaffected by lust; he understands a mind affectedby hate as affected by hate and a mind unaffected by hate as unaffected byhate; he understands a mind affected by delusion as affected by delusion and amind unaffected by delusion as unaffected by delusion; he understands acontracted mind as contracted and a distracted mind as distracted; heunderstands an exalted mind as exalted and an unexalted mind as unexalted; heunderstands a surpassed mind as surpassed and an unsurpassed mind asunsurpassed; he understands a concentrated mind as concentrated and anunconcentrated mind as unconcentrated; he understands a liberated mind asliberated and an unliberated mind as unliberated.’ (Ibid, p. 165)


This ability is currently known as telepathy. As withthe first two, there have been and still are reports of people who claim to beable to read the minds of others. Whatever the factual basis, this power wouldalso describe the ability of someone whose awareness and empathy is so acutethat they are able to intuit the mental states of others. Needless to say, thiswould be an invaluable ability for a teacher to have.


Ten Powers of the Tathagata


After describing these three supernatural powers, theBuddha goes on to describe the ten powers of the Tathagata that allow him tounderstand and express the true nature of reality to all sentient beings. 


“Shariputra, the Tathagata has these ten Tathagata’spowers, possessing which he claims the herd-leader’s place, roars his lion’sroar in the assemblies, and sets rolling the Wheel of Brahma. What are the ten?


(1) “Here, the Tathagata understands as it actuallyis the possible as possible and the impossible as impossible. And that is a Tathagata’s power that the Tathagata has, by virtue of which he claims theherd-leader’s place, roars his lion’s roar in the assemblies, and sets rollingthe Wheel of Brahma. (Ibid, pp. 165 - 166)


According to the Bahudhatuka Sutta in the Middle Length Discourses, this means that the Buddha knows for certain thatit is not possible that the enlightened can mistakenly believe that contingentphenomena are permanent, ultimately pleasurable, and possessed of a fixedidentity; while it is possible that those who are unenlightened might do so.


The Buddha also knows that it is not possible forthose who are enlightened to commit such heinous acts as killing their mother,killing their father, killing an arhat, shedding the blood of a Tathagata, orcausing a schism in the Sangha; while it is possible for the unenlightened todo so.


The Buddha also knows that while it is possible for asingle buddha or wheel-turning king to appear on any given world, it is notpossible for there to be more than one on any given world. This point seems tobe based upon the idea that it would be redundant for there to be more than onebuddha; while a supreme ruler of a single world is by definition the only one.


The Buddha also knows that while it is impossible fora woman to become a buddha, or a wheel-turningking, or a Shakra (akaIndra), or a Brahma,or a Mara(these last being the thunder god, the creator god, and the devilrespectively), it is possible for a man to become one of these five types ofbeings. This point does not seem to square with the Buddha’s earlier positionthat buddhahood transcends such categorizing. It also introduces a malechauvinism that seems to go against the egalitarian nature of the rest of theBuddha’s teachings. These assertions may or may not have been the actual viewsof Shakyamuni Buddha, but they seem to have less to do with the Buddha’sinsight than with the biases of Vedic culture at the time of the Buddha.


Finally, the Buddha knows that it is possible forgood actions to lead to good results and even to the heavenly realms, while itis impossible that bad actions will do so; conversely, it is possible for badactions to lead to bad results and even to hell, while it is impossible forgood actions to do so. This last part is based upon the buddha’s directperception of the workings of the law of cause and effect.


(2) “Again, the Tathagata understands as it actuallyis the results of actions undertaken, past, future, and present, withpossibilities and with causes. That too is a Tathagata’s power that theTathagata has, by virtue of which he claims the herd-leader’s place, roars hislion’s roar in the assemblies, and sets rolling the Wheel of Brahma. (Ibid, p.166)


The gist of this power is that the Buddha has seenfor himself that people reap what they sow. According to the KukkuravatikaSutta in the Middle LengthDiscourses the Buddha taught thatthere are dark actions with dark results, bright actions with bright results,actions that are dark and bright with corresponding results, and finallyactions that are neither-dark-nor-bright with corresponding results.


Dark actions and their results refer to the bodilykarma of killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct; the verbal karma of lying,divisive speech, abusive speech, and irresponsible speech; and the mental karmaof greed, anger, and ignorance. Altogether these are the ten courses ofunwholesome action. Dark results refer to painful rebirths in the hell realm,as a hungry ghost, or as an animal.


Bright actions refer to those who perform the tencourses wholesome action that means refraining from killing, stealing, sexualmisconduct, lying, divisive speech, abusive speech, irresponsible speech,greed, anger, and ignorance. More positively, one could say that the tencourses of wholesome action consist of acts of loving-kindness, generosity,chastity, truthfulness, peace-making, kind words, responsible speech, living asimple life, showing compassion even to enemies, and cultivating wisdom. Brightresults refer to pleasant rebirths in the heavenly realms.


Actions that are mixed could refer to either theconglomeration of dark and bright actions, or to actions that are performedwith mixed motives. The result of such actions is rebirth in the realms of thefighting demons (asura), the human realm, and the lowest of the heavenlyrealms.


Finally, actions that are neither-dark-nor-brightrefer to those actions performed by one who no longer clings to results. Thisdescribes the actions of a Buddha and the actions of the arhats who are bothfreed from the chain of birth-and-death and are no longer bound to a futurebirth.


In the Culakammavibhanga Sutta of the Middle Length Discourses the Buddha describes certain specific acts and theirresults in terms of both the human realm and other possible rebirths. Those whoare violent and murderous will end up in a realm of suffering or at the veryleast be reborn as a person with a very short life. Those who like to harmothers will be reborn in a lower realm or as a person who must suffer from badhealth. Those who are angry easily provoked will be reborn in a realm ofsuffering or as an ugly person. Those who are envious will be reborn in a realmof suffering or as a person of no influence. Those who are stingy will bereborn in a realm of suffering or will be suffer from poverty in the humanrealm. Those who are arrogant will be reborn into a realm of suffering or as alow-born person. Those who do not seek out wisdom will be born into a realm ofsuffering or as a person with little intelligence.


On the contrary, those who do the opposite will bereborn into the more pleasant realms within the six worlds, such as the humanor heavenly realms, and their human rebirths will have the appropriatebenefits. Those who are kind and gentle and who do not kill others will havelong lives. Those who do not harm others will be blessed with good health.Those who are patient will be blessed with good looks. Those who are notenvious will receive opportunities to attain influence. Those who are generouswill be blessed with wealth. Those who are not arrogant will be born into anoble family. Finally, those who cultivate wisdom will be blessed withintelligence.


The constant refrain of this sutta is that people areresponsible for their actions and that they are the creators of their owndestiny. In fact, beings are composed of the fruits of their actions, but thiswill be taken up in another sections. The Buddha says:


“Beings are owners of their actions, student, heirsof their actions; they originate from their actions, are bound to theiractions, have their actions as their refuge. It is action that distinguishesbeings as inferior or superior.” (Ibid, p. 1053)


One last teaching in relation to the Buddha’s directknowledge of the results of actions that is important to cover is the MahakammavibhangaSutta of the Middle LengthDiscourses wherein the Buddhaexplains that the unfolding of actions and their results is not always a simpleand straightforward affair. Again, the Buddha explains the outcome of cause andeffect in terms of the ten wholesome and ten unwholesome courses of action asexplained above. According to the Buddha, some who perform the ten unwholesomeacts are reborn in the lower realms and some may be reborn in the higherrealms. Conversely, some who perform the ten wholesome acts are reborn in the higherrealms while some may be reborn in the lower realms. The Buddha states thatsome good and bad actions seem incapable of bringing about correspondingresults in the next lifetime while other good and bad actions do seem capableof bringing about such results as follows:


“Thus, Ananda, there is action that is incapable [ofgood result] and appears incapable; there is action that is incapable [of goodresult] and appears capable; there is action that is capable [of good result]and appears capable; and there is action that is capable [of good result] andappears incapable.” (Ibid, p. 1065)


The Buddha explains that this is because the fruitionof one’s actions do not always occur immediately or even in the next lifetime.One’s self-created destiny must be understood within the context of all ofone’s actions and not just a select few. In fact, even the causes of just onelifetime may be offset by the causal consequences from countless previouslifetimes that have yet to come to fruition. This is a very frighteningrevelation, because most of us do not have the power to remember our previouslifetimes, let alone the causes that we have set in motion which have yet tobear fruit. This means that a seemingly evil person may have good fortune or apleasant rebirth due to past good deeds, while a seemingly good person maysuffer great misfortune or even an painful rebirth due to bad actions done inthe past. Nevertheless, the Buddha does insist that wholesome actions will havepleasant results eventually. The same holds for unwholesome actions. Whether inthis lifetime, the next lifetime, or some future lifetime, one will always reapwhat one has sown.


Without the vast and comprehensive vision and insightof Buddhahood, the Buddha warns that those who have a limited ability to knowthe causal conditions of those who have died may jump to the wrong conclusionsabout the workings of cause and effect. They may think that wholesome actionsalways lead to a pleasant rebirth in the next lifetime whereas unwholesome actionsalways lead to a painful rebirth. Conversely, they might think that unwholesomeactions could lead to pleasant rebirths or that wholesome actions could lead topainful rebirths. Because they only see a little and do not realize that thecauses and consequences of countless lifetimes are involved, they totallymisunderstand the workings of the law of cause and effect, either oversimplifyit or negating it. This is why the direct knowledge and comprehensive insightof the Buddha is so important when it comes to properly understanding theworkings of cause and effect.


The one thing that can directly impact the nature ofone’s next rebirth regardless of one’s past actions, whether known or unknown,is whether one has right views or wrong views at the moment of death. This isimportant, because one who holds wrong views will negate even the good thatthey have done, whereas those who hold right views will be able to repent theirpast evil and renounce the clinging for results which keeps us trapped withinthe world of birth and death. Therefore, the Buddha knew that people should notrely on simply being good if they wish to have a pleasant rebirth, becausetheir underlying motives might be selfish and unwholesome, and the limited goodperformed in one lifetime may not be enough to offset the consequences ofunwholesome deeds from the past. Conversely, while one should not indulge inunwholesome acts, one need not despair of either past or present unwholesomeactivities if one is able to sincerely repent of them and cultivate rightviews.


This power is actually one of the most outstanding ofall the powers of the Buddha. The other powers could even be viewed asdifferent aspects of this power. While this power may seem to imply the simpleability to know that good causes have good effect while bad actions have badeffects over the course of many lifetimes, it is actually leads to some verycomplex and subtle insights into the nature of the human condition as the abovethree suttas reveal. Through this power, the Buddha is able to see theuniversal laws that bring about the self-creation of destiny, character,personality, and even physical features and social standing. Beyond that, theBuddha is able to see that mere ethics and morality are not enough to secureliberation from suffering. Far from merely envisioning a universe ofintractable moral laws, the Buddha actually sees where one must affirmwholesome courses of action and then transcend even the pleasant results ofthose actions. The Buddha saw that even more fundamental than our actions andtheir consequences are the views which motivate our actions and cause us toeither act without regard for consequences or to act with full awareness of thechains of cause and effect. Ultimately, the Buddha envisions a universe whereeven morality must be transcended for the sake of liberation from suffering. Inother words, even good results must not be renounced if one is to achieveliberation from suffering.


(3) “Again, the Tathagata understands as it actuallyis the ways leading to all destinations. That too is a Tathagata’s power thatthe Tathagata has, by virtue of which he claims the herd-leader’s place, roarshis lion’s roar in the assemblies, and sets rolling the Wheel of Brahma. (Ibid,p. 166)


This power specifically gives the Buddha the abilityto know which actions will lead to each of the six worlds that compose samsara.These are the realms of the hells, hungry ghosts, animals, fighting demons,human beings, and the heavens. The principle is that one will be reborn in therealm and among those beings with which one has an affinity due to the natureof one’s thoughts, words, and deeds. The Buddha also knows which actions willlead to the liberation of nirvana. The sixworlds and the nature of nirvana will all be discussed in greater detail inother chapters.


(4) “Again, the Tathagata understands as it actuallyis the world with its many and different elements. That too is a Tathagata’spower that the Tathagata has, by virtue of which he claims the herd-leader’splace, roars his lion’s roar in the assemblies, and sets rolling the Wheel ofBrahma. (Ibid, p. 166)


This power is the knowledge of the elements thatcompose the world that we live in and their implications regarding our freedomand liberation. These elements are also the basis for Abhidharma analysis andare the building blocks of the Buddhist worldview and cosmology. They areenumerated in the Bahudhatuka Suttaof the Middle Length Discourses.The first set of elements are the eighteen elements of the six sense bases ofeye, ear, nose, tongue, body, and mind; the six sense objects of forms, sounds,odors, flavors, tangibles, and mental objects; and the six senseconsciousnesses corresponding to each of the six senses. Awareness of theseeighteen elements enables one to realize that our experience of the world isactually a conglomeration of many factors coming together, with no one elementtaking precedence over the others. This will be discussed further in another chapter.


The Buddha is also aware of the six elements ofearth, water, fire, air, space and consciousness. The first four of these aresymbolic of the forces of solidity, cohesion, temperature, and movement. Again,awareness of these elements leads to the insight that this world is composed ofmany disparate elements that must come together interdependently in order toform the world of our experience.


The Buddha is also aware of the elements of oursubjective experience of the world which can be categorized as physicalpleasure and pain; mental joy and grief; and equanimity and ignorance.


The Buddha is also aware of the elements that composehuman motivation: sensual desire, renunciation, ill will, non-ill will,cruelty, and non-cruelty. Knowledge of these various motivations areindispensable in discerning the right intentions that one must cultivate inorder to escape from suffering and achieve liberation. Renunciation, non-illwill, and non-cruelty are, in fact, the intentions that compose the path ofright thought on the eightfold path.


The Buddha is also aware of the three realms ofdesire, form, and formlessness; and furthermore, is aware of the unsatisfactorynature of all three. These three realms are the three basic divisions of Buddhistcosmology and will be dealt with in more detail in another chapter.

Finally, the Buddha is aware of the conditioned andthe unconditioned. The conditioned refers to all contingent phenomena thatarise through causes and conditions and are therefore impermanent,unsatisfactory, and without a self. The unconditioned refers to nirvana.


(5) “Again, the Tathagata understands as it actuallyis how beings have different inclinations. That too is a Tathagata’s power thatthe Tathagata has, by virtue of which he claims the herd-leader’s place, roarshis lion’s roar in the assemblies, and sets rolling the Wheel of Brahma. (Ibid,p. 166)


The Buddha is also aware of the different levels ofspiritual maturity that different individuals may or may not have reached. Someare high-minded and some are low-minded. He knows what people are interested inand what they may or may not be ready to hear. With this in mind, the Buddha isable to tailor his teachings to match the inclinations of those he teaches.


(6) “Again, the Tathagata understands as it actuallyis the disposition of the faculties of other beings, other persons. That too isa Tathagata’s power that the Tathagata has, by virtue of which he claims theherd-leader’s place, roars his lion’s roar in the assemblies, and sets rollingthe Wheel of Brahma. (Ibid, p. 166)


This refers to the faculties of faith, energy,mindfulness, concentration, and wisdom that will be discussed in another chapter. Inshort, in order to attain liberation, individuals must cultivate these fivefaculties. This power is the Buddha’s ability to ascertain the abilities of anyparticular individual in regard to these faculties and their level ofdevelopment.


(7) “Again, the Tathagata understands as it actuallyis the defilement, the cleansing, and the emergence in regard to the dhyanas,liberations, concentrations, and attainments. That too is a Tathagata’s powerthat the Tathagata has, by virtue of which he claims the herd-leader’s place,roars his lion’s roar in the assemblies, and sets rolling the Wheel of Brahma.(Ibid, p. 166)


The dhyanas are the four increasingly refined statesof mind that are attained through concentration on one of forty differentsubjects for meditation as enumerated by Buddhaghosa in the Visuddhimagga. The first dhyana is a state free of sensuality andthe five hindrances of sensual desire, ill will, dullness and drowsiness,restlessness and remorse, and doubt. It is positively characterized by appliedand sustained thought in regard to the subject of meditation. Rapture andpleasure accompany this state as well. The second dhyana leaves behind appliedand sustained thought but retains rapture and pleasure. Self-confidence andsingleness of mind arise in this state. In the third dhyana, rapture fades awaybut pleasure remains and the meditator pleasantly abides in equanimity andmindfulness. In the fourth dhyana there is pure mindfulness. The attainmentsare nine states that include the first four dhyanas. After the attainment ofpure awareness in the fourth dhyana one can then leave behind all materialconsiderations and successively abide in the awareness of infinite space,infinite consciousness, nothingness, and then the state ofneither-perception-nor-non-perception. Beyond even that the meditator who hasdestroyed all taints (in other words an arhat) can attain the state wherein allfeeling and perception ceases. (Ibid, pp. 250-251) The eight liberationsconsist of seeing form internally, seeing form externally, resolving to seeonly the beautiful, and the last five of the nine attainments from theperception of infinite space to the total cessation of feeling and perception.(Ibid, pp. 638-639)


(8) “Again, the Tathagata recollects his manifoldpast lives, that is, one birth, two births, three births, four births, fivebirths, ten births, twenty births, thirty births, forty births, fifty births, ahundred births, a thousand births, a hundred thousand births, many eons ofworld-contraction, many eons of world-expansion: `There I was so named, of sucha clan, with such an appearance, such was my nutriment, such my experience ofpleasure and pain, such my life-term; and passing away from there, I reappearedelsewhere; and there too I was so named, of such a clan, with such anappearance, such was my nutriment, such my experience of pleasure and pain,such my life-term; and passing away from there, I reappeared here.’ Thus withtheir aspects and particulars he recollects his manifold past lives. That toois a Tathagata’s power that the Tathagata has, by virtue of which he claims theherd-leader’s place, roars his lion’s roar in the assemblies, and sets rollingthe Wheel of Brahma. (Ibid, p. 166)


This is also the fourth of the six supernaturalpowers gained through meditative concentration, so it is not exclusive to theBuddha. In modern times, the ability to recollect past lives has been claimedby psychics like Edgar Cayce, young children who claim to have memories oftheir previous lifetime who were studied by Dr. Ian Stevenson of the Universityof Virginia, and also the many patients of past life regression therapy whichuses hypnosis to recall past life memories. Shakyamuni Buddha’s power to recallpast lives is on a much different level however. The Buddha did not just havefaint recollections of one or two past lives in childhood or with the help ofhypnosis. The Buddha claimed to have consciously recalled the details ofcountless past lives going back to the beginningless past. In fact, this waspart of what enabled him to fully apprehend the law of cause and effect. Somehave doubted that the Buddha actually taught rebirth as anything other than ametaphor or a concession to folk religion. However, according to the Buddhahimself, not only did he recollect all his past lives, but he considered it oneof the powers possessed by all Buddhas, and it was through such an ability thathe was able to realize the law of cause and effect - the very cornerstone ofhis teachings.


(9) “Again, with the divine eye, which is purifiedand surpasses the human, the Tathagata sees beings passing away andreappearing, inferior and superior, fair and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate. Iunderstood how beings pass according to their actions thus: These worthy beingswho were ill-conducted in body, speech, and mind, revilers of noble ones, wrongin their views, giving effect to wrong view in their actions, on thedissolution of the body, after death, have reappeared in a state ofdeprivation, in perdition, even in hell; but these worthy beings who werewell-conducted in body, speech, and mind, not revilers of noble ones, right intheir views, giving effect to right view in their actions, on the dissolutionof the body, after death, have reappeared in a good destination, even in theheavenly world.’ Thus with the divine eye, which is purified and surpasses thehuman, I saw beings passing away and reappearing, inferior and superior, fairand ugly, fortunate and unfortunate, and I understood how beings pass onaccording to their actions. That too is a Tathagata’s power that the Tathagatahas, by virtue of which he claims the herd-leader’s place, roars his lion’sroar in the assemblies, and sets rolling the Wheel of Brahma. (Ibid, p. 166)


This is the fifth of the six supernatural powersattained through meditative concentration. In some ways, it corresponds to thepsychic ability known as clairvoyance. However, this power seems to be muchmore than simply the ability to see things that would normally be out of visualrange. This power enables the Buddha to see into all realms of becoming, and furthermoreto see where and how the various beings within those realms are being reborn.Through this power, the Buddha can actually observe the present workings of thelaw of cause and effect in the lives of all beings and not just in his ownlife.


(10) “Again, by realizing for himself with directknowledge, the Tathagata here and now enters upon and abides in the deliveranceof mind and deliverance by wisdom that are taintless with the destruction ofthe taints. That too is a Tathagata’s power that the Tathagata has, by virtueof which he claims the herd-leader’s place, roars his lion’s roar in theassemblies, and sets rolling the Wheel of Brahma.


“The Tathagata has these ten Tathagata’s powers,possessing which he claims the herd-leader’s place, roars his lion’s roar inthe assemblies, and sets rolling the Wheel of Brahma.  (Ibid, pp. 166-167)


This is the last of the six supernatural powers. Itis available only to those who have attained sufficient insight to breakthrough the taints which keep sentient beings trapped within the cycle of birthand death. This power is the one whereby the Buddha actually knows that he isfree and no longer bound by suffering or its causes. It is this power which theBuddha wishes to show others how to cultivate for themselves. All of the otherpowers and abilities are subordinate to this one.

Having expounded these various powers and abilitiesthe Buddha then strongly warns against the view that the Buddha is merely aspeculative philosopher. He even insists that one who holds such a view willend up in hell.


“Shariputra, when I know and see thus, should anyonesay of me: `The recluse Gautama does not have any superhuman states, anydistinction in knowledge and vision worthy of the noble ones. The recluseGautama teaches a Dharma [merely] hammered out by reasoning, following his ownline of inquiry as it occurs to him’ - unless he abandons that assertion andthat state of mind and relinquishes that view, then as [surely as if he hadbeen] carried off and put there he will wind up in hell. Just as a monkpossessed of virtue, concentration, and wisdom would here and now enjoy finalknowledge, so it will happen in this case, I say, that unless he abandons thatassertion and that state of mind and relinquishes that view, then as [surely asif he had been] carried off and put there he will wind up in hell. (Ibid, p.167)


Why should thinking that the Buddha’s teachings werethe result of mere reasoning be so serious an act that one will fall into hellfor it? It is because such an assertion is a slander against the Buddha, amisrepresentation and even a denial of the very nature of the Buddha. TheBuddha is one who is “awake” and who has seen the truth about life for himself.Rejecting the Buddha’s claim is therefore a rejection of the one person who isactually “telling it like it is.” Labeling the Buddha a speculative philosopherand his teachings as mere opinions, as Sunakshatra is doing, is to dismiss theone person who actually does know what he is talking about. It is therefore adenial of truth itself. This turning away from the truth is what leads todelusion, self-deception, and ultimately to hell.


Four Types of Fearlessness


Next, the Buddha begins his explanation of the fourtypes of fearlessness, here called the four kinds of intrepidity. These fourdescribe the confidence and competence with which the Buddha teaches theDharma.


“Shariputra, the Tathagata has these four kinds ofintrepidity, possessing which he claims the herd-leader’s place, roars hislion’s roar in the assemblies, and sets rolling the Wheel of Brahma. What arethese four?

“Here, I see no ground on which any recluse orbrahmin or god or Mara or Brahma or anyone else at all in the world could, inaccordance with the Dharma, accuse me thus: `While you claim fullenlightenment, you are not fully enlightened in regard to certain things.’ Andseeing no ground for that, I abide in safety, fearlessness, and intrepidity.(Ibid, p. 167)


Here the Buddha states that he is fully enlightenedand there is nothing more that he needs to realize. He has no fear that he hasoverlooked anything.


“I see no ground on which any recluse...or anyone atall could accuse me thus: `While you claim to have destroyed the taints, thesetaints are undestroyed by you.’ And seeing no ground for that, I abide insafety, fearlessness, and intrepidity. (Ibid, p. 167)


Here the Buddha states that he no longer has anytaints or defilements. In other words, the Buddha is confident that he istotally free of all negative tendencies. He has reached the pinnacle of humanperfection.


“I see no ground on which any recluse...or anyone atall could accuse me thus: `Those things called obstructions by you are not ableto obstruct one who engages in them.’ And seeing no ground for that, I abide insafety, fearlessness, and intrepidity. (Ibid, p. 167)


Here the Buddha states that what he has calledobstacles to practice are in fact obstacles. He is not merely guessing, relyingon conventional wisdom, tradition, or his own subjective feelings. He is claimingto know for a fact that certain actions and attitudes will hinder practice.


“I see no ground on which any recluse...or anyone atall could accuse me thus: `When you teach the Dharma to someone, it does notlead him when he practices it to the complete destruction of suffering.’ Andseeing no ground for that, I abide in safety, fearlessness, and intrepidity.(Ibid, p. 168)


Finally the Buddha states that his teaching willdefinitely lead those who practice it to liberation. He has no fear that what hehas taught will be ineffective. He is certain his teachings are the way toattain liberation.


“A Tathagata has these four kinds of intrepidity,possessing which he claims the herd-leader’s place, roars his lion’s roar inthe assemblies, and set rolling the Wheel of Brahma. (Ibid, p. 168)


The Buddha is supremely confident in his awakening,his freedom from impurity, his ability to point out obstacles to his disciples,and the efficaciousness of his teachings. Because he is without fear he canteach all people without hesitation or worry that someone might point out aflaw or mistake in what he teaches. He has no fear that someone else mightsurpass his own teaching and example. This confidence and it’s basis in theBuddha’s direct knowledge and many powers and abilities is what makes him aleader who is qualified to teach others the Dharma.


Three Foundations of Mindfulness


The next set of virtues which distinguish the Buddhaare the three foundations of mindfulness which make the Buddha an incomparableteacher. These three types of mindfulness are different from the fourfoundations of mindfulness that are the basis of Buddhist meditation practice.These three pertain to the Buddha’s state of mind when teaching others.


“‘There are three foundations of mindfulness that theNoble One cultivates, cultivating which the Noble One is a teacher fit toinstruct a group.’  So it wassaid.  And with reference to whatwas this said?


“Here, monks, compassionate and seeking theirwelfare, the Teacher teaches the Dharma to the disciples out of compassion:‘This is for your welfare; this is for your happiness.’  His disciples do not want to hear orgive ear or exert their minds to understand; they err and turn aside from theTeacher’s Dispensation.  With thatthe Tathagata is not satisfied and feels no satisfaction; yet he dwellsunmoved, mindful, and fully aware. This, monks, is called the first foundation of mindfulness that theNoble One cultivates, cultivating which the Noble One is a teacher fit toinstruct a group. (Ibid, p. 1071)


The first foundation of mindfulness is the Buddha’sability to remain undisturbed and fully aware even when his disciplesmisunderstand, ignore, or even reject his teachings. This does not please him,but neither does he allow it to bother him. It seems to be implied thatmotivated by compassion the Buddha will continue to teach until the disciplesbegin to understand him correctly or that at he will at least be available tothe disciples when they are ready to be taught.


“Furthermore, monks, compassionate and seeking theirwelfare, the Teacher teaches the Dharma to the disciples out ofcompassion:  ‘This is for yourwelfare; this is for your happiness.’ Some of his disciples will not hear or give ear or exert their minds tounderstand; they err and turn aside from the Teacher’s Dispensation.  Some of his disciples will hear andgive ear and exert their minds to understand; they do not err and turn asidefrom the Teacher’s Dispensation. With that the Tathagata is not satisfied andfeels no satisfaction, and he is not dissatisfied and feels no dissatisfaction;remaining free of both satisfaction and dissatisfaction, he dwells inequanimity, mindful and fully aware. This, monks, is called the second foundation of mindfulness that theNoble One cultivates, cultivating which the Noble One is a teacher fit toinstruct a group. (Ibid, p. 1071)


The second foundation of mindfulness is the Buddha’sability to remain undisturbed and fully aware even when only some of hisdisciples pay attention and follow his teachings while others do not payattention or follow his teachings. He is neither pleased nor displeased bythis, but remains calm and compassionate.


“Furthermore, monks, compassionate and seeking theirwelfare, the Teacher teaches the Dharma to the disciples out ofcompassion:  ‘This is for yourwelfare; this is for your happiness.’ His disciples will hear and give ear and exert their minds to understand;they do not err and turn aside from the Teacher’s Dispensation.  With that the Tathagata is satisfiedand feels satisfaction; yet he dwells unmoved, mindful, and fully aware.  This, monks, is called the thirdfoundation of mindfulness that the Noble One cultivates, cultivating which theNoble One is a teacher fit to instruct a group. (Ibid, p. 1072)


The third foundation of mindfulness is the Buddha’sability to remain undisturbed and fully aware even when all the disciples payattention and follow his teachings. Even though he is pleased that hisdisciples have begun to practice as he has taught them, the Buddha does notlose his composure or give in to pride. That the Buddha is indeed satisfiedshows that he is not indifferent to his disciples’ success or failure. Rather,the same calm displayed in the first two cases characterizes his satisfactionand compassion.


“So it was with reference to this that it wassaid:  ‘There are three foundationsof mindfulness that the Noble One cultivates, cultivating which the Noble Oneis a teacher fit to instruct a group.” (Ibid, p. 1072)


The three foundations of mindfulness in regard toteaching his disciples show that the Buddha had the ability to remain calm andcompassionate in all circumstances. He did not give in to frustration whenfaced with misunderstanding or rejection, nor impatience when only somedisciples progressed and other did not, nor did he become smug or showexcessive elation when his disciples did listen to him and understand histeachings. He also was not satisfied until all his disciples were able tounderstand and progress in their practice. As a teacher, the Buddha approachedevery teaching situation with the same even-minded calmness and clarity. Hiscompassionate wish to share his insight extended to all his disciples, whetherthey proved to be good or bad students. These qualities, in addition to hissupernatural insight and supreme confidence, are what made the Buddha such anunexcelled teacher of the path to liberation.


Great Compassion


Finally, we come to the great compassion that setsthe Buddha apart. While others may be good teachers or may have succeeded inattaining supernatural powers or even liberation itself, it is the Buddha alonewhose compassion is so great that he remains in the world of suffering beingsutilizing his powers and abilities so that they too may attain liberation. Thetemptation to leave the world behind and enjoy the peace of nirvana and hisfinal decision to stay in the world out of compassion has already been told in the story of theBuddha’s enlightenment and his subsequent encounter with Brahma. In onesutta, the Buddha, asks his disciples what they think the Buddha’s motivationfor teaching is.


“What do you think about me, monks? That the recluseGautama teaches the Dharma for the sake of robes? Or that the recluse Gautamateaches the Dharma for the sake of almsfood? Or that the recluse Gautamateaches the Dharma for the sake of a resting place? Or that the recluse Gautamateaches the Dharma for the sake of some better state of being?” (Ibid, p. 847)


The disciples respond that they do not think theBuddha teaches for any of those reasons. The Buddha then asks them what theythink his real motivation is. The disciples respond as follows:


“Venerable sir, we think thus about the Blessed One:‘The Blessed One is compassionate and seeks our welfare; he teaches the Dharmaout of compassion.’ “ (Ibid, p. 847)


The Buddha himself declares that a Buddha is the oneperson who appears in the world out of compassion in the following statement:


“Monks, there is one person whose arising in theworld is for the welfare of the multitude, for the happiness of the multitude,who comes out of compassion for the world, for the good, welfare and happinessof devas and humans. Who is that one person? It is the Tathagata, the Arahat,the Fully Enlightened One. This is that one person.” (Numerical Discoursesof the Buddha, p.  37)


The Buddha’s compassion, however, does not mean thathe can do his disciple’s work of reflecting upon, realizing, and living inaccord with the teachings for them. In many discourses, the Buddha ends bystating that he has done all that he can out of compassion for his disciples,and now it is up to them to follow his teachings and attain liberation forthemselves. The Buddha’s compassion, then, is to empower others through theDhamma.


“Thus, monks, I have taught you the unconditioned andthe path leading to the unconditioned. Whatever should be done, monks, by acompassionate teacher out of compassion for his disciples, desiring theirwelfare, that I have done for you. These are the feet of trees, monks, theseare empty huts. Meditate, monks, do not be negligent, lest you regret it later.This is our instruction to you.” (The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, p. 1378)


The Uniqueness of the Buddha


The ten powers, four types of fearlessness, threefoundations of mindfulness, and the Buddha’s great compassion are knowncollectively in many of the Abhidharma traditions as the eighteen uniquevirtues of a Buddha. While others may possess some of the virtues listed, onlythe Buddha possesses all eighteen virtues together. In addition, the Buddha isthe first one to have discovered the way to liberation in this world in thistime-period and no one can equal this initial accomplishment until the Dharmahas once again been forgotten and must be rediscovered. The followingconversation between a brahmin and Ananda after the Buddha’s passing into finalnirvana should illustrate this point.


“Master Ananda, is there any single monk whopossesses in each and every way all those qualities that were possessed byMaster Gautama, accomplished and fully enlightened?”


“There is no single monk, brahmin, who possesses ineach and every way all those qualities that were possessed by the Blessed One,accomplished and fully enlightened. For the Blessed One was the arouser of theunarisen path, the producer of the unproduced path, the declarer of theundeclared path; he was the knower of the path, the finder of the path, the oneskilled in the path. But his disciples now abide following that path and becomepossessed of it afterwards.” (The Middle Length Discourses, p. 880 - 881)


Ultimately it is not any metaphysical quality ordivine status or special powers that qualify a Buddha. The Buddha himselfclearly stated that awakening to the Four Noble Truths is the primary qualityof a Tathagata.


“Monks, there are these Four Noble Truths. What four?The noble truth of suffering, the noble truth of the origin of suffering, thenoble truth of the cessation of suffering, and the noble truth of the wayleading to the cessation of suffering. It is because he has fully awakened tothese Four Noble Truths as they really are that the Tathagata is called theArahant, the Perfectly Enlightened One.” (The Connected Discourses of theBuddha, p. 1854)


Taking all of these statements by the Buddha and hisclosest disciples together, the nature of the Buddha can be summarized in termsof his unassisted awakening, his compassion for the suffering of all beings,and the multitude of powers and abilities that made him the consummate teacher.In the living memory of humankind, the wisdom, compassion, and power of theBuddha has served as an inspiration to millions of people. Because of theBuddha’s teaching and personal example countless numbers of people through theages have awakened to the Dharma for themselves, thereby achieving liberationand realizing their own capacity for selfless compassion and their own abilityto relieve suffering and bring happiness to the world. The Buddha’s nature,while consisting of wisdom, compassion, and capability to an unprecedenteddegree, is not the sole property of a single man who lived 2,500 years ago. Itis the nature of anyone who awakens to the true nature of life. It is thenature of our own lives, and that nature is able to express itself whenever wehears the Dharma, confidently and joyfully put it into practice, and awakens tothe Truth for ourselves.




Bodhi, Bhikkhu, trans. The Connected Discourses ofthe Buddha: A New Translation of the Samyutta Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2000.


Nanamoli, Bhikkhu and Bodhi, Bhikkhu, trans. TheMiddle Length Discourses of the Buddha: A New Translation of the MajjhimaNikaya. Botson: Wisdom Publications,1995.


Nyanaponika, Thera and Bodhi, Bhikkhu trans. &ed., Numerical Discourses of the Buddha: An Anthology of Suttas from theAnguttara Nikaya. Walnut Creek:AltaMira Press, 1999.


Walshe, Maurice, trans. The Long Discourses of theBuddha: A Translation of the Digha Nikaya. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 1995.

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick, 1996, 2002, 2007. > Historical Buddha > Next Page > Questions?

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