Orthodox Chinese Buddhism

What Does the Word Buddha Mean?

The word buddha comes from Sanskrit, an ancient Indian language. It means enlightened or awakened: awakened not just oneself but also awakening others; awakening to the knowledge and truth of all things at all times. Thus, a Buddha is sometimes called an omniscient human being or a “fully enlightened one.”


The historical Buddha was born to this world as Prince Siddhārtha Gautama of Kapilavastu more than 2500 years ago in 623 bc. After he became enlightened, he was referred to by the epithet Śākyamuni. Śākya was his clan's name, and muni was a respectful term for a sage in ancient India. Śākyamuni was the founder of Buddhism. Śākyamuni is the only Buddha in historical records. But in his teachings, we see that there were other Buddhas long ago in the ancient past, that there will be Buddhas in the future, and that even now there are Buddhas in other worlds.

So Buddhists do not proclaim Śākyamuni Buddha to be the one and only Buddha; rather, they recognize the existence of infinite Buddhas in the past, present, and future. They even believe that all sentient beings (which include humans and animals), regardless of whether they believe in Buddhism or not, have the potential to become Buddhas. Buddhist teachings proclaim that “ a Buddha is an enlightened sentient being, and a sentient being is a Buddha who has not yet become enlightened.”

An ordinary person and a noble one differ in their levels of spiritual development, but both are equal in possessing buddha-nature, the potential to become a Buddha. Therefore, Buddhists do not worship the Buddha as the one and only God, nor do they believe in the existence of any creator-god. So [in this sense], a Buddhist is an atheist.


Orthodox Chinese Buddhism: A contemporary Chan Master's answers to common questions, p.21

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