Who is Shakyamuni Buddha?
Shakyamuni statues portray the real Buddha of our time. Unfortunately, to the mind of western civilization this concise definition leaves many questions unanswered. However, it is easy to explain who Shakyamuni Buddha really was by giving a brief overview.
What does Shakyamuni mean? Shakyamuni is two words in one. Shakya is the phonetic spelling of “Sakya” which is a civilization that existed in Northern India at the time of the Buddha. “Shakya” means “the one who is capable”. Additionally, the second half of the word is muni which is pali for “to know” and also “monk”. Therefore, the basic Shakyamuni meaning is “omniscient one”.
Furthermore, “Buddha” is the Pali term for “the Enlightened one”. As a result, the words “Shakyamuni” and “Buddha” could be considered synonyms. Although Shakyamuni Buddha is a better way to refer to him because it is doubtful any of us are on a first name basis with the Buddha. But the Shakyamuni meaning is actually much more extensive than this because he was a special kind of Buddha – Sammasambuddha. (see below)
Shakyamuni Statues Depict the “Buddha of our Time”
Although Buddhism has existed for many thousands of eons, it tends to ebb and flow. As a result, during different world cycles and eons, it can be forgotten and needs to be reintroduced to sentient life. This is what had happened in our world system, Buddhism had ceased to exist and it needed to be rediscovered.
For Shakyamuni Buddhism did not preexist and therefore it would be his invention, so to speak. Additionally, he would need to rediscover it completely on his own, without a teacher or any references. As such, Shakyamuni Buddha is the Buddha of our era who rediscovered the Dharma on his own accord and taught his followers how they could also obtain the ultimate wisdom.
Is Shakyamuni Superior to other Buddhas?
Willingness to teach the Dharma is very important because not all Buddhas choose to teach the Dharma after they discover it. In fact, according to a passage found in the Ayacana Sutta, even Shakyamuni Buddha had second thoughts about teaching the Dharma. Indeed, he was very skeptical that it would be possible for humans to follow the path.
Fortunately, he was convinced otherwise by someone named – Brahma Sahampati. As a result, he acquiesced and agreed to teach, although he lamented that most would probably not have the fortitude to successfully follow the path to enlightenment.
Therefore, Shakyamuni statues portray what is known as a Sammasambuddha. In Pali, Sammasambuddha means “perfectly enlightened one”. This is because Shakyamuni Buddha not only rediscovered the Dharma without any assistance, but he also reintroduced it in an era when it had disappeared.
As a result, there can be only one “original” Buddha for each era and Shakyamuni is the Buddha of our time. Although there are other forms of enlightened beings and even other Buddhas in our era, there is only one Sammasambuddha.
Successor and Predecessor of Shakyamuni Buddha
The predecessor of Shakyamuni was Dipankara Buddha who was the Buddha of the previous world system. Furthermore, it is prophesied that the successor of Shakyamuni Buddha will be Maitreya Buddha. He will come at a time when sentient life has forgotten the Dharma teachings of Shakyamuni and fallen into disarray. Maitreya will then redevelop the Dharma to become a fully enlightened being and share the Dharma with sentient life. Maitreya currently resides in Tusita Heaven which is where all Bodhisattvas reside who are destined to become Buddhas.
Where was Shakyamuni Buddha Born?
Shakyamuni statues portray the Buddha in his terrestrial or human form. In the 6th century B.C.E. Shakyamuni Buddha was reincarnated as as a real person named Prince Siddhartha Gautama. He was born in Northern India in the kingdom (or clan) of the Shakya. More specifically, the location of his birth was in present day Lumbini, Nepal.
The father of Shakyamuni was the King named Suddhodana and his mother was Queen Maya. After 20 years of marriage that had no children, however Prince Siddhartha was to be their first and only child. Indeed, Queen Maya would proclaim that it had been an immaculate conception (see below).
The Great Compassion of Shakyamuni Buddha
While he was still young Prince Siddhartha rarely left the palace grounds and he was shielded from many harsh realities of existence. However, as Prince Siddhartha grew older he began to venture off of the palace grounds. During these ventures he had encounters with beings suffering from old age, disease and hunger.
As a result of his great compassion for sentient life he was very disturbed by their suffering. Additionally, he was very perplexed as to why his rebirth had been so auspicious but others were much less fortunate. As a result, he vowed to end all suffering, including his own. To better pursue this great undertaking Prince Siddhartha renounced his kingdom when he was 29 years old and went to live in the forest as a renunciant.
How Did Shakyamuni Buddha Rediscover Buddhism?
Initially, he sought the counsel from two ascetics that had mastered “jhana” meditation practice. (also known as “tranquility or Samatha” meditation). Although he rapidly advanced in their teachings he realized it was not a means to an end. Therefore, he set out on his own once again to develop the true path to enlightenment.
During this time period in ancient India, it was common practice for those pursuing moral purity to engage in extreme asceticism. Although Siddhartha practiced in this manner for several years, he concluded that this was also not a means to an end. Indeed, self immolation was only a form of torture and did not yield permanent results.
Therefore, he began to take nourishment in moderation in order to maintain health and strength. This is what he called the “middle path”. Generally speaking, he also developed the “Eightfold Noble Path” and the “Four Noble Truths”.
He also encouraged contemplating or “noting” the moment to moment activity of the mind, known as Vipassana Meditation. This method is in contrast with the jhana practice that maintained a single point of concentration. A few years later, at the age of 35 he would become the first enlightened being of our time.
What is the difference between Shakyamuni and Siddhartha?
Shakyamuni statues portray Prince Siddhartha after he became a fully enlightened Buddha at the age of 35 years. In other words the difference between Shakyamuni and Siddhartha is the status of full enlightenment.
A Shakyamuni Buddha statue is of an fully enlightened being, while a Siddhartha Gautama statue is of the prince before he became a Buddha. A newcomer to Buddhism may think they are one in the same but the Shakyamuni meaning is much more complex. Indeed, Shakyamuni statues tend to be more embellished than Gautama statues which are very simplified.
The Divine Origins of Shakyamuni Statues
The Jataka Tales are a collection of the stories portraying the past lives of Shakyamuni Buddha. In one of his thousands of previous lives, he was a Bodhisattva who lived as a hermit named Sumedha. Sumedha had been a rich Brahmin who renounced his riches and power to live the humble life of a renunciant. Additionally, Sumedha made a vow that he would permanently end the suffering of all beings, including his own.
One day, Sumedha had an encounter with Dipankara Buddha who had visited our world system many thousands of years ago on the night of the Vesakha full moon. As depicted in frescoes on the walls of many Buddhist stupas and temples, Sumedha got on his knees before Dipankara and laid down his long hair so Dipankara would not get dirty by walking through a mud puddle.
Dipankara then approached Sumedha and prophesied that “in the ages of the future you will become the Buddha named Shakyamuni”. Sumedha replied “I am to become a Buddha, awakened to enlightenment, may you tread with your feet on my hair – on my birth, old age and death.” The important symbolism here is that Sumedha wished to transcend the cycle of endless rebirth which he refers to as “my birth, old age and death”.
The Birthday of Shakyamuni Buddha
Prior to being reborn as Prince Siddhartha, the Buddha of our time was a Bodhisattva residing in the Tusita Heaven. To initiate his final rebirth, he took the form of white elephant holding a white lotus flower in it’s trunk and then appeared to Queen Maya in a dream. After circling Queen Maya three times, the elephant entered her right side, into her womb. As a result, the she became pregnant soon afterwards.
Prince Siddhartha would be born 10 lunar months later on the day of the full Vesakha moon. Unfortunately, Queen Maya died 7 days after giving birth to Prince Siddhartha although she would ascend to the Tusita Heaven as a Deva.
Vesakha day is very significant in the life of Buddha and it is celebrated by Buddhists worldwide. However, Vesakha was not only the Buddha’s birthday. It was also the day he achieved enlightenment and the day of his parinirvana (Nirvana-after-death). Indeed, it was also the day of Dipankara’s prophecy and the day Sumedha took his vow to end all suffering.