There are many different religions in this world, but Buddhism is one of the major ones. Buddhism is the teachings of the Buddha; it is what the Buddha taught. In Japan, the word ‘Buddha’ is often used to mean ‘dead person’. For example, there was an instance when the ashes of a 90-year-old woman and a 70-year-old man were mixed up at a crematorium. A reporter on the news said of this, “Well, now these Buddhas won’t be able to be at peace.”
At funerals, people may also be heard saying, “So the old man finally became a Buddha…” or, “I’ve never seen a Buddha with such a beautiful death expression.” As these examples show, Japanese people tend to think that the word ‘Buddha’ means ‘dead person’.
However, if ‘Buddha’ really did mean ‘dead person’, then Buddhism would mean ‘the teachings of a dead person’. A dead person obviously cannot expound any teachings, so it’s clear that using ‘Buddha’ to mean ‘dead person’ is completely incorrect.
So what exactly is a Buddha? A Buddha is someone who has attained the highest level of enlightenment. From lowest to highest, there are 52 levels of enlightenment in all. This is similar to the ranks in karate, for example. A beginner starts with a white belt, and as they work their way up through the ranks, they earn belts of different colours. Finally, experts at the highest levels gain a black belt. Likewise, each level of enlightenment has its own name.
The 52nd level of enlightenment is the highest level of enlightenment, and is called the enlightenment of a Buddha. Since there is no higher level of enlightenment than this, it is also called ‘supreme enlightenment’.
Someone who has attained this very highest level of enlightenment is called a ‘Buddha’. So what is it that they become enlightened to? The answer is the universal truth. This does not mean mathematical truth or scientific truth. When Buddhism talks about truth, it is referring to the truth that concerns true happiness for all people.
Let us compare attaining enlightenment to climbing a mountain. At the bottom of the mountain, you can see the nearby surroundings. When you climb higher up, you become able to see further out than before. As you keep going higher and higher, your view of the surroundings grows wider and wider until finally, when you reach the top, you can see all around.
Therefore, only someone who has reached the enlightenment of a Buddha, which is the very highest level of enlightenment – or supreme enlightenment – can realise the truth of the universe in its entirety.
Since ‘Buddha’ is what we call someone who has attained the enlightenment of a Buddha, it is completely wrong to use the word ‘Buddha’ to mean a dead person.
The only person to have attained the enlightenment of a Buddha on this planet is Śākyamuni Buddha. This is what is meant by the saying, “There are no Buddhas before Śākyamuni, and no Buddhas after Śākyamuni.”
Śākyamuni Buddha, who appeared about 2600 years ago in India, attained the enlightenment of a Buddha at the age of 35 on the 8th of December, and died at the age of 80 on the 15th of February. He spent the 45 years between then expounding his teachings as a Buddha. These teachings are known today as Buddhism.
So just what did Śākyamuni Buddha teach during those 45 years? Let us learn about this in more detail.
Source: The Buddhist Village Times #55 | 2015, What is a Buddha?
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