Was the Buddha a Human Being?

If we review buddhist literature since the death of the historical Buddha Shakyamuni almost 2,500 years ago, then we find two basically different views of the nature of the Buddha; (a) that he was a human being who lived and died like us, or (b) that he was not a human being but was some kind of transcendental being or deity, capable of superhuman miracles and not subject to normal human constraints.

The earliest known record of this argument concerning the nature of the Buddha appeared in a work known as the Kathavatthu (Points of Controversy), written around 246 BCE by an elder monk known as Moggaliputta. This text, included in the Abhidhamma Pitaka of the Pali Canon, outlines several examples of the argument surrounding the nature of the Buddha.
In one example the view that the Buddha pervades all regions of space at all times and has the power to suspend the laws of nature, is contrasted with the view that the Buddha exists only where his physical, human body is located, and that he is bound by the same natural laws as are ordinary human beings.

In another example, the view is presented that the Buddha is an eternal entity and that the historical person of Shakyamuni was merely a manifestation or emanation in human form that appeared for the purpose of teaching and guiding human beings. Moreover this emanation had no real need for food and shelter or other material requirements of life, nor did the emanation ever experience any of the unpleasant physical or mental characteristics of a human being, such as physical pain or doubt or uncertainty. The Buddha as eternal entity was also omniscient, being in possession of universal knowledge. This view was contrasted in the Katavatthu with the perspective of the Buddha as a mortal human being just like other mortals, and who, like us, experienced hunger and pain, and was not omniscient. However, among the limited range of topics about which the Buddha did have knowledge, was the vital knowledge of how to overcome the root poisons of greed, hatred and delusion, and thereby end suffering, and achieve lasting peace and contentment.

The controversy outlined in the Katavatthu is reflected elsewhere in the Pali Canon, in the Nikayas, where we find the same two differing perspectives on the Buddha, sometimes even within a single text. In the Acchariya-abbhuta Sutta (Majjhima Nikaya 123) the Buddha is seen as one who had already made preparations for his enlightenment over countless previous lives and was destined from birth to become the Buddha. In this sutta the Buddha-to-be descends fully conscious from the Tusita heaven into his mother’s womb and as soon as he is born he walks seven steps and announces his future destiny. Yet in the last paragraph of the sutta the Buddha himself brings things back down to earth, and he makes clear that what he thinks to be truly wondrous is not the miracle of his birth but his mindfulness of feelings (vedana), thoughts and perceptions.

Bikkhu Bodhi in his compilation of the Pali Canon, „In the Buddha’s Words“, points out that the dominant perspective in the Pali Canon is the one that sees the Buddha as human being who, like other human beings, had to struggle with the common weaknesses of human nature to arrive at Enlightenment. Nevertheless, he says, the other perspective of the Buddha as supernatural being cannot be ignored or simply pushed away. This is particularly so because the view of the Buddha as a supernatural being forms the foundation for most of the popular Buddhist devotion and practice in the Budhist traditions of the east. This is true not just of the Pali Canon inspired Buddhism of the Nikayas or Theravadin tradition, but is also true of Mahayana inspired traditions.

But even amongst the Mahayana traditions, and amongst the Vajrayana, there are dissenting views.

Dharmakirti, the renowned 7th century Mahayana buddhist teacher, was particularly dismissive of the view that the Buddha knew every fact about the universe, seeing this as irrelevant to the real concerns of spiritual life:

„What is the use of his knowledge pertaining to the number of insects in the whole world? Rather, inquire into his knowledge of that which is to be practised by us.“

And whilst most buddhists in the Tibetan tradition certainly do not think of the Buddha as a human being, a modern day Vajrayana practitioner, the well-known writer and film-maker Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, writes that the „Buddha was not a celestial being. He was a simple human.“ (What makes you not a Buddhist)

How then are we, as modern day buddhists ourselves, to make sense of this controversy? What view should we take?

First of all, I think we should take seriously Bhikkhu Bodhi’s advice that we cannot simply ignore the supernatural elements in buddhist belief systems of the east. We cannot dismiss out-of-hand the inspiration and devotion found in buddhism that has its foundation in such supernatural beliefs, even if our own tendency is not to believe in such supernatural elements. As Sangharakshita, my own teacher, argues, if we simply write off the supernatural perspective and choose only to base our view on the purely rational elements of buddhism, then we diminish our capacity to be open to the inspiration of the world of myth and symbolism. We turn our backs on the truths that can be found in myth. We have to find a middle way that eschews both literalism (always insisting on the literal truth of whatever is written in the buddhist texts) and reductionism (ignoring all those elements in the buddhist texts that are not purely rational).

Secondly, I think we have to listen carefully to our own hearts. We need to respond to the perspective that personally inspires us. And, it goes without saying, we need to respect others if what inspires them is based on a different perspective.

But you might ask, what is your personal view, Vaddhaka?

Well, I think I can best relate my view by recounting the story of the encounter between the Brahmin Dona and the Buddha, contained in Anguttara Nikaya IV, 36. In this story the Buddha is walking along a road and encounters the Brahmin Dona. Dona sees that there is something different and extraordinary about the Buddha and he engages the Buddha in a conversation that went something like this:

Dona: Sir, are you a deva (god)?
Buddha: No, Brahmin, I am not a god.
D: Sir, are you a gandhabba (water spirit)?
B: No, Brahmin, I am not a water spirit.
D: Sir, are you a yakkha (powerful demon)?
B: No, Brahmin, I am not a powerful demon.
D: Sir, are you a human being?
B: No, Brahmin, I am not a human being.
Confused, Dona then asked the Buddha „ Sir, what then are you?“ To which the Buddha replied:
„I have eliminated all those corruptions that would make me a god, a water spirit, a yakka, or a human being. „
„Brahmin, just as a lotus, though born and grown in the water, rises up and stands unsoiled by the water, so, though born and grown in the world, I have overcome the world and dwell unsoiled by the world. Consider me a Buddha, an awakened one.“

In traditional Indian and buddhist cosmology there are many different beings like gods, water spirits, demons and humans, who occupy different realms of existence. All of these realms of existence are, however, contained within samsara, the everlasting round of deaths and rebirths. Though born and grown up in one of these realms, the human realm, the Buddha has transcended all the realms of samsara.

A straightforward or rational view of enlightenment is that it involves the overcoming of the negative poisons of greed, hatred and delusion; poisons that are the legacy of our evolution from animals to human beings. Enlightenment can be seen simply as the end of suffering (more correctly the ending of mental suffering since even a Buddha, so long as he occupies a human body, is prone to physical pain).

We might think that we can rationally know what comprises enlightenment but enlightenment is beyond words and concepts. There is something that is unknowable and mysterious about the nature of enlightenment . It involves the opening up of unknown powers of creativity in the mind.

So, I am inspired by the fact that, like you and me, the Buddha was a human being. I am inspired by the story of his overcoming of greed, hatred and delusion and of suffering. This story tells me that with appropriate effort I can be like the Buddha. And I am inspired by a sense of wonder and awe and not knowing what the mind of the Buddha truly became when he gained enlightenment.

Dharmachari Vaddhaka
Tallinn, December 2009