Ep. 063: The BuddhaS

Yes, there's a plurality of Buddhas

Every time I change computers and get a new copy of Microsoft Word, I have to teach its dictionary lots of new words--arhat, Huineng, and so forth. But the funniest one to my mind is that it has no native plural of the word "Buddha"--I have to reteach it to accept "BuddhaS" every time!

Let's meet a whole bevy of Buddhas in this episode of--


Modern Buddhist temples are chock full of statuary. They're so important that most buildings in a Buddhist temple are named for the figures that stand in them.

These figures can generally be divided into five categories, though there may be some overlap:

  • Buddhas (and their attendants)

  • Bodhisattvas (and their attendants) (Episode 046 discussed the most important of these.)

  • Guardians (Kings and Generals) (See Episode 027 for an example.)

  • Arhats (We met 18 of these in Episodes 057 and 058.)

  • Patriarchs and other Historical Personages (See for example Episodes 014; 015; 032 and 047 together; 038, and others.)

The first four types of figures have their roots in Indian hagiography, and usually have Sanskrit names in addition to their Chinese ones; some of the earlier figures in the fifth category come from other lands, but in the end, most are Chinese.

By the way, astute readers may notice that Maitreya, the "Laughing Buddha," is not mentioned here at all. That's because, as related in Episode 003, he is not actually a Buddha--yet--but a Bodhisattva who is the next in line to become a Buddha. (You and I are a bit further down the list!)

What is a Buddha?

Vairochana Buddha; Longmen Grottoes, Henan

Pride of place in Buddhism is naturally held by the Buddhas. But what exactly is a Buddha anyway?

The kids these days are using the past tense of "wake"--woke--in a new way, as in "to be (or stay) woke." Essentially, it has to do with social awareness, and could be a synonym for "aware" or "conscious."

Fitting, that, because that is exactly what the Buddha did. He "woke" and became "woke."

Here's a well-known traditional story:

A Brahman, a member of India's priestly caste, once asked the Buddha, "Master, are you a god?"

"No, Brahman," the Buddha replied, "I am not a god."

"Are you an angel?" [actually, a gandharva, a heavenly musician]

"No, Brahman, I am not an angel."

"Are you a nature spirit?" [yaksha]

"No, Brahman, I am not a nature spirit."

"Are you a human being?"

"No, Brahman, I am not a human being."

Then, after some explanation, the Buddha concluded, "Brahman, remember me as awake."

The word "Buddha" comes from a Sanskrit (or Pali) verb that means "to awaken, notice, understand" along with a suffix making it a past participle--"awakened." So "Buddha" is not a name at all, but a title: "The Awakened One."

I should also add that a dear professor, Dr. Kottegoda Warnasuriya, insisted that the word buddha should not be translated in the story I've just related. What he said, according to Dr. Warnasuriya, was not "remember me as awake" but "remember me as THE BUDDHA," in a special class of being (Sri Lankans can be a bit fundamentalist.)

As I have given it, the story is meant to say that the Buddha was not in a special category, and we should probably introduce the word "merely" or "only" in the line about him being human; he is not merely a human, but one who has fulfilled his human potential.

As you may know, I'm not too big on the supernatural aspects of Buddhism (or anything else). As you will have seen, I love the stories of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas and magic powers, but I take them to be metaphors. That the Buddha was born from his mother's side, and took seven steps (and spoke!) immediately after his birth; that four Hindu gods helped muffle the sound of the horse's hooves during his escape from the palace at age 29; that a giant cobra sheltered him with its hood as he sat under the Bodhi Tree after his Enlightenment--all of these have something to teach, but none--to my way of thinking--are to be taken as literal.

So I deeply appreciate the idea that in this story, the Buddha affirmed he was not a supernatural being of any kind, but a human who was fully "woke."

Though history records only this one personage who attained the status of Buddha, the vox populi has brought about a proliferation of so-called "cosmic Buddhas." Some of these were allegedly predecessors of the historic Buddha, while others (in the Mahayana tradition--see Episode 028) are said to preside simultaneously over their own Buddha realms or "Pure Lands." And one, Maitreya (again, see Episode 003) is actually a Buddha-in-waiting (as the Mahayana says we all are).

Let's start our survey of the many Buddhas, then, with that historical Buddha.

Shakyamuni, the Historical Buddha

Earth-Touching Shakyamuni (just before his Enlightenment); Yunmen Temple, Ruyuan (Shaoguan), Guangdong

Needless to say, this introduction to the historical Buddha must necessarily be almost brutally brief. You probably already know much more about him than I can tell you here--even several episodes would not do the trick--so let me just make a few points.

He was born a "prince" (don't think medieval Europe, think ancient India) on what is now the India/Nepal border roughly 2500 years ago. His family name is Gautama (or Pali Gotama) and his given name Siddhartha. Devotees, though, call him Shakyamuni, "the Sage of the Shakya," that being his clan name. The Chinese have transliterated this Shijiamouni, and the Japanese call him Shaka Nyorai. (This last means "One Who Has Thus Gone" or "One Who Has Thus Come," depending on how one reads it. It is a title Shakyamuni used for himself, in Sanskrit Tathagatha--another topic for another time).

We'll be learning details of his story in bits and pieces as we encounter him along the Temple Trail, but the four essential moments in his life are these: (1) although born a prince, he was dissatisfied with his life and (2) left it all behind at the age of 29 to seek Enlightenment. After six years of practice, (3) he achieved his goal--Enlightenment--at age 35, seated under a banyan tree. For the remaining 45 years of his life, he walked the length and breadth of northern India, teaching what he had learned, (4) dying at the age of 80.

When seen in temples, Shakyamuni is often seated in meditation, perhaps holding a bowl that might contain sutras (scriptures) representing his teachings. He is preeminently the Buddha of instruction, the "original teacher" showing us the way.

The Sleeping Buddha

Jade Sleeping Buddha; Yufo Temple, Shanghai

Aside from temple reliefs and dioramas, Shakyamuni is often depicted in two other stages of his life (besides in seated meditation). One of these, the "Baby Buddha," we have already met (see Episode 029).

But more common is a "sleeping Buddha," found in his own hall in many temples, and commonly seen even in Southern Buddhism. Well, I hate to be the one to break it to you, but "He ain't sleepin'..." The Buddha's death is the fourth and last of the four main life transitions mentioned above. It is the moment at which he passes from an Enlightenment which is conditioned (as a result of being still in this world) to his complete Enlightenment, his Paranirvana. He is often surrounded in depictions by his Ten Great Disciples, Arhats all.


So much for the mostly-historical Buddha and the quasi-historical figures around him. Now we move on to more mythical personages.

Aside: Mahayana Buddhas

Southern Buddhism--often called Theravada--is somewhat austere compared to the Mahayana found in East Asia, mostly deriving from China. The Mahayana sports a proliferation of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. In Theravada tradition, Shakyamuni is regarded as the Bodhisattva, a sort of "Buddha-in-training," in his previous lives, and in his historical life before his Enlightenment. There are also a very limited number of especially diligent historical practitioners such as Nagarjuna who have been referred to, perhaps lightly, as Bodhisattvas.

But the plethora of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas requires a shift in cosmology. It is best represented as a parabola divided by a vertical line, like this:

To the right is time as we know it, historical time. To the left is the ancient and mythical past in which the Buddha lived his previous lives, other Buddhas lived before him, the Bodhisattvas worked on their karma and so on, as well as the future time in which the next Buddha will appear and, in the fullness of time, all sentient beings (including you and me) will become Buddhas.

I introduce this concept here because Shakyamuni is more-or-less historical. The Buddhas I'll tell you about now are all <ahem> "ahistorical," to put it nicely, "Cosmic Buddhas" from the left side of the diagram.

Amitabha Buddha

The Great Buddha at Kamakura is in fact Amitabha Buddha (Amida Butsu)

In Chinese, Amituo Fo; in Japanese, Amida Butsu. He is the Buddha of Infinite Light and Infinite Life, and by far the most popular Buddha in East Asia. I have met many Buddhists who chant "Namo Amituo Fo" in China or "Namu Amida Butsu" in Japan who can't tell you the first thing about Shakyamuni's life or teachings. Strange it was to sit under a Bodhi tree in a temple in Japan and explain the historic Buddha's Enlightenment and the Four Noble Truths--his foundational teaching--to a girl whose uncle owned a temple founded by her grandfather. (Yes, some monks can marry in Japan.)

When found on the altar of a Main (Buddha) Hall, Amitabha is usually seated, and often holding a lotus flower; he has the typical topknot (or "head bump"), the "third eye" dot, and the long ear lobes common to Buddha statues in general. He sits to Shakyamuni's right (our left)--that is, on the western side. This is appropriate, as he is the Buddha of the Western Pure Land, known as Sukhavati, and the sect that popularized his worship is called Pure Land Buddhism.

Regardless of sect, Chinese Buddhists frequently use "Amituo Fo" (sometimes transliterated "Omitofo") as a greeting, in farewell, for gratitude, and even occasionally as an exclamation akin to "Oh my god!" This may be because of the belief that, if one were to utter this Buddha's name even just once with complete sincerity, one would gain passage to the Western Pure Land at death.

There's much more to say; we'll definitely be giving him his own Episode (What an honor!) in due time.

Bhaishyajaguru, "The Medicine Buddha"

In Japan, the Medicine Buddha (Yakushi Nyorai) holds a medicine pot instead of a pagoda; Kiyotaki-ji, Tosa, Kochi

Chinese Yaoshi Fo, Japanese Yakushi Nyorai, all meaning "Medicine Buddha." He is an analog to Amitabha, with a Pure Land (but in the East), and holding a pagoda, which represents Shakyamuni's body (where his relics are stored), thus the association with the body and healing. He sits opposite Amitabha on many temple altars, creating a triad with him and the central Shakyamuni.


We have now discussed the three most popular Buddhas: Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha; Amitabha, the Buddha of the Western Pure Land; and Bhaishyajaguru, the Medicine Buddha. Now let's look at other Buddhas sometimes seen in Chinese and Japanese temples.

Vairochana Buddha

Chinese-style Vairochana; Xichan Temple, Fuzhou, Fujian

In Chinese, Piluzhena Fo, merely a transliteration; in Japanese, Dainichi Nyorai or "Great Sun Buddha," describing one of his primary attributes. According to some, he is the Primordial (or original) Buddha, and in some sects, he is considered to be the body of the universe, from which all things--including all Buddhas--arise. He is the "ground of being," and the source of all phenomena. Some call him the "Emptiness" (interdependence) that underlies all existence.

He is also my personal favorite Buddha. The first time I saw his statue--in a museum on Mount Koya in Japan (see Episode 032)--I was immediately captivated by the mudra (ritual gesture) used to identify him in Japan and Korea. He is usually seated, with the index finger of the left hand raised and encircled by the fingers of the right hand. This has been called the "Six Elements Mudra" (the five mundane elements--Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Ether--surrounding the sixth: Mind) or the more chop-socky-sounding "Fist of Wisdom." When I saw it, it struck me, and I got it right away: "Apprehend the One." Later I learned that in Japanese folk Buddhism, this was the Buddha dedicated both to my birth year (Sheep) and my birth month (July). That cinched it.

Vairochana's mudra in China is different from the one in Japan: his hands are clasped, with the two index fingers raised and touching. If you look carefully, though, the tips of the fingers are not quite even, leaving the impression that one finger is pointing at the other--again focusing on "the One."

Vairochana was once immensely popular in China, especially in the more esoteric sects: Huayan, Tiantai, and Zhenyan. This last, no longer common in China, was taken home by the Japanese monk Konghai (Jp. Kukai; see Episode 047) during the Tang Dynasty to become the Shingon sect, which is still popular in Japan today. With the modern revival of Buddhism in China, the Huayan School and virtually all others are on the rise; many temples are being renamed for it, and many halls are being built in other temples, all of them featuring Vairochana.

Dipankara Buddha

Dipankara (left) is usually seen as one of the Buddhas of the Three Times; Liurong Temple, Guangzhou, Guangdong

Chinese Randeng Fo; Japanese Nento Butsu. Though seldom seen, Dipankara Buddha is of some importance. He is one member of the triad of statues called the "Buddhas of the Three Times," representing the Buddha of the Past in a sort of Buddhist iconographic version of Dickens's A Christmas Carol. The Buddha we know from history, Shakyamuni, is of course the Buddha of the Present; and Maitreya (and again see Episode 003) is the Buddha of the Future.

For many years, I mistakenly believed that Dipankara was the Buddha just preceding Shakyamuni. But he was actually the 24th before Shakyamuni.

Tradition says that, among other requirements, a Buddha must always be "tagged" by one or more previous Buddhas. It's not that the previous holder(s) of the title choose that person to be a Buddha; it's that they recognize in him the development of the qualities that will cause him to become a Buddha. Dipankara was the first to recognize the person who, eons later, would become Gautama Buddha, or Shakyamuni.

Between the distant-to-the-point-of-nonexistent time of Dipankara and the more-or-less historical birth of the Buddha Shakyamuni, "our" Buddha had--according to a collection of Jataka or "birth" tales--around 550 subsequent lives. In each Jataka tale, a story is told with a moral, and then the Buddha reveals "the rest of the story," telling which character in the story was him, which was the monk who was having the problem that launched the story in the first place, and so on. Some of the stories are a little gruesome (in one, he's a prince who lets a mother tiger eat him so she'll have the strength to nurse her cubs), but mostly they're great for kids, kind of a Buddhist Aesop--in fact, some fables found in Aesop and some Jatakas are virtually identical.


This does it for stand-alone Buddhas. All we have left are two groups, Bands of Buddhas.

Buddhas of the Five Directions

Buddhas of the Five Directions; Shang Huayan Temple, Datong, Shanxi

Called in Chinese Wufang Fo or Wuzhi Rulai (Five Tathagatas); and in Japanese as Gochi (or Godai) Nyorai. Also known in English as the Five Dhyani Buddhas.

These Buddhas are found in esoteric Buddhism, where they are considered the five "Wisdom Buddhas.” When represented as such, the most common form is the mandala, a two-dimensional image built on a quartered circle. There, Vairochana is in the center, with the four other Buddhas presented as "emanations" around him.

But increasingly, the Five Buddhas are found in statuary form, sometimes ranged across the main altar of a temple. In this case they are more likely to be called the "Buddhas of the Five Directions," again with Vairochana in the center, and may have some folk attributes connected to them as well, and which Buddha connects with which direction may change with local tradition or with the sect involved.

This range of associations--an event in the historical Buddha's life, a mudra or gesture, a folk name, a color, a vehicle (or the animal he's seated on) and his attributes (wealth, etc.)--are also worth a complete Episode. Here are just a few basics.

  • The Buddha of the Center

Vairochana Buddha, whom we met above, gestures with a mudra reminding us of the historical Buddha's first sermon. His color is white, and his vehicle, the lion. He is associated with wealth, as well as understanding.

  • The Buddha of the North

Amoghasiddhi Buddha (Chinese Bukong Chengjiu; Japanese Fukujoju Butsu) gives the "Casting Out Fear Gesture." His color is green (or sometimes orange), and his vehicle, the garuda, a huge, semi-divine bird that we met briefly in Episode 062. He stands for achievement.

  • The Buddha of the West

Amitabha Buddha, again someone we've discussed before. He holds the "Meditation Gesture," and his color is red. He rides a peacock, and represents discernment.

  • The Buddha of the East

Akshobhya Buddha, meaning "The Immovable One" (Chinese Achu Fo, Japanese Ashuku Butsu) exhibits the "Earth-Touching Gesture." His color is blue (or sometimes black), and he sits astride an elephant. His immovability is said to cure anger, bringing peace and a lack of stress.

  • The Buddha of the South

Ratnasambhava Buddha (Chinese Baosheng Rulai, Japanese Hosho Nyorai) presents the "Boon Bestowing Gesture." His color is yellow, and he rides a horse. He inspires confidence.

The Seven Buddhas of Antiquity

The Seven Buddhas of Antiquity; Qingyun Temple, Zhaoqing, Guangdong

The Seven Buddhas of Antiquity are Buddhas that lived before the historic Buddha, "proving" the antiquity of his teachings. There are lists of 7, 24, 35, 53, 88, 1000, and more such Buddhas, and claims of thousands of unnamed Buddhas. Here's the idea, more or less: A Buddha comes, he teaches, and eventually his teachings become corrupted and are lost. Then a new Buddha comes, with essentially the same biography, differing only in some of the details. Information may also be given on which previous life the current Buddha (Shakyamuni) was in at the time that previous Buddha lived, and what he was doing, and how he interacted with that Buddha.

I'll give you the basics here, just for completeness's sake, but these Seven are really not a big part of Mahayana Buddhism. (When I posted the picture above on a forum, an "expert" argued that these couldn't be the Seven Buddhas of Antiquity because they're not part of Mahayana Buddhism! I had to show him the Chinese sign from the temple where I shot them.)

  1. Vipashyin Buddha (Chinese Piposhi Fo, Japanese Bibashi Butsu) He had over-sized eyes, giving him the ability to "see clearly"--inside and out (as in "insight," known today as "Vipassana").

  2. Shikhin Buddha (Chinese Shiqi Fo, Japanese Shiki Butsu) Like many a Thai statue, he has a flame atop his head, signifying spiritual power.

  3. Vishvabhu Buddha (Chinese Pishefu Fo, Japanese Bishabu Butsu) The name might mean something like "omnipresent." Like Shakyamuni, he is said moments after his birth to have uttered: "I am chief in the world, I am best in the world, I am eldest in the world. This is my last birth. There is now no more returning."

  4. Krakucchanda Buddha (Chinese Juliusun Fo, Japanese Kuruson Butsu) He is said to have subdued a divine ogre by means of teaching him about karma (cause and effect).

  5. Kanakamuni Buddha (Chinese Junahanmouni Fo, Japanese Kunagonmuni Butsu) At the time he was born, it is said that a "heavy shower of gold" fell all over the human world. Thus he was named something like "the boy for whom gold (kanaka) has come down."

  6. Kashyapa Buddha (Chinese Jia'ye Fo, Japanese Kasho Butsu) Not to be confused with the Buddha's disciple of the same name, he is said to have performed many miracles.

  7. Gautama Buddha--and we're back to the beginning!


That's it for this episode! I hope you've enjoyed encountering this pantheon!

And now, until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


  1. Can we accept the basic outlines of the story of the "historical Buddha," without going for all of these "cosmic Buddhas"? That is, does belief in one require belief in the others?

  2. Which of these Buddhas seems most interesting to you?

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In the next episode: Let's wander a bit in Tokyo, exploring a few of the short pilgrimages I undertook there.