Prince Siddhattha was a human being. On the night that he realized supreme enlightenment he became a Buddha, and from that moment onwards was a human being in the normal meaning of that term—no longer. To uninitiated eyes, the Buddha would have appeared as an immensely charismatic and commanding religious leader, one who died a normal human death at the age of eighty. Those with more developed faculties, however, were aware that no external appearance, no words, concepts or categories could come anywhere near to expressing the marvellous and undying nature of his Buddhahood.
The word Buddha means “the awakened one”. The Buddha taught that the unenlightened human being lives in a state that may be compared to sleep or to a dream. Through the clear light of wisdom, and completely unaided, the Buddha is the one who has awakened from that dream to the true nature of existence. Guided by compassion, the Buddha is the one who has sought to share his understanding of the path to awakening with all beings who wish to follow in his footsteps.
Enlightenment refers to liberation from suffering and the mental toxins or “defilements” that are its cause. It is the realization of the true nature of “the way things are”. An enlightened being understands the conditioned nature of impermanent phenomena and experiences Nibbāna*, the unconditioned reality that lies behind it. The Buddha referred to this state as the “supreme happiness”. The enlightened mind is characterized by wisdom, compassion and purity. The Buddha taught that all human beings, male and female, are born with the potential for enlightenment.
The Buddha spoke of four stages of enlightenment, and thus four kinds of enlightened beings. The first of these beings is “the stream enterer”, the second is “the once returner”, the third is the “non-returner” and the final one is the fully enlightened “arahant”. Attainment of these stages is dependent on practice of the Buddha’s Eightfold Path. Their achievement is signalled by the complete and utter disappearance of certain toxic mental states from the mind. No regress is possible from such a state. One who reaches the first stage of enlightenment may be sure of reaching the final stage within seven lifetimes at most. He or she has entered the stream leading irrevocably to the ocean of Nibbāna.
*Pali: Nibbāna; Sanskrit: Nirvāna.
Some 2,600 years ago a child was born into the royal family of the Sakyan clan, a people living in a part of northeast India that now lies within the borders of Nepal. He was given the name of Siddhattha. At the age of 29, Prince Siddhattha renounced a life of ease and privilege to search for spiritual liberation. Six years later, after a momentous night of meditation sitting cross-legged under a bodhi tree, he realized “the unexcelled complete awakening”. By doing so he became “the Buddha”, “the Awakened One”.
Following his enlightenment, the Buddha devoted the remaining forty- five years of his life to revealing the Dhamma: the truth of “the way things are”, and the path leading to the realization of that truth. During this time the Buddha established a monastic order (Sangha) for those of his disciples, men and women, who wished to put aside all worldly tasks and devote themselves wholeheartedly to the study and practice of his teachings.