Etymologically, the Sanskrit/Pali word buddha means “one who has awakened”; in the context of Indian religions, it is used as an honorific title for an individual who is enlightened. This metaphor indicates the change in consciousness that, according to Buddhism, is always characteristic of enlightenment.
It suggests the otherness and splendor associated with those named by this epithet in various Buddhist traditions. Buddha is also related etymologically to the Sanskrit/Pali term buddhi, which signifies “intelligence” and “understanding.” A person who has awakened can thus be said to be “one who knows.”
Within the traditional Buddhist context, buddha is an appellative term or tide—that is, a term or title that is inclusive in character. As with all rides of office (e.g., king), the term buddha denotes not merely the individual incumbent but also a larger conceptual framework.
As an appellative, buddha describes a person by placing him or her within a class, instead of isolating and analyzing individual attributes. It emphasizes the paradigm that is exhibited, rather than distinctive qualities or characteristics.
The designation buddha has had wide circulation among various religious traditions of India. It has been applied, for example, by .1-aim to their founder, Mahavira. Definition of the inclusive category has varied, however, and buddha has been used to describe a broad spectrum of persons from those who are simply learned to those rare individuals who have had to transform and liberating insight into the nature of reality. Buddhists have, in general, employed the term in this second, stronger sense.
Buddhists adopted the term buddha from the religious discourse of ancient India and gave it a special imprint, just as they have done with much of their vocabulary. It seems, however, that the early Buddhists may not have immediately applied the term to the person—the historical Gautama—whom they recognized as the founder of their community.
In the accounts of the first two Buddhist councils (one held just after Gautama’s death, the other several decades later) Gautama is spoken of as Bhagavan (“lord,” a common title of respect) and sast? (“teacher”), not as the buddha. However, once the term buddha was adopted, it not only became the primary designation for Gautama but also assumed a central role within the basic structure of Buddhist thought and practice.
We will begin our discussion by focusing on the question of the historical Buddha and what—if anything—we know about him and his ministry. This issue has not been of particular importance for traditional Buddhists—at least not in the way that it is formulated…