The standard answer to the question “What is a Buddha?” is, “A Buddha is someone who has realized the enlightenment that ends the cycle of birth and death and which brings liberation from suffering.”
Buddha is a Sanskrit word that means “awakened one.” He or she is awakened to the true nature of reality, which is a short definition of what English-speaking Buddhists call “enlightenment.”
A Buddha is also someone who has been liberated from Samsara, the cycle of birth and death. He or she is not reborn, in other words. For this reason, anyone who advertises himself as a “reincarnated Buddha” is confused, to say the least.
However, the question “What is a Buddha?” could be answered many other ways.
There are two major schools of Buddhism, most often called Theravada and Mahayana. For purposes of this discussion, Tibetan and other schools of Vajrayana Buddhism are included in “Mahayana.” Theravada is the dominant school in southeast Asia (Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia) and Mahayana is the dominant school in the rest of Asia.
According to Theravada Buddhists, there is only one Buddha per age of the earth, and ages of the earth last a very long time.
The Buddha of the current age is the Buddha, the man who lived about 25 centuries ago and whose teachings are the foundation of Buddhism. He is sometimes called Gautama Buddha or (more often in Mahayana) Shakyamuni Buddha. We also often refer to him as ‘the historical Buddha.’
Early Buddhist scriptures also record names of the Buddhas of earlier ages. The Buddha of the next, future age is Maitreya.
Note that the Theravadins are not saying that only one person per age may be enlightened. Enlightened women and men who are not Buddhas are called arhats or arahants. The significant difference that makes a Buddha a Buddha is that a Buddha is the one who has discovered the dharma teachings and made them available in that age.
Mahayana Buddhists also recognize Shakyamuni, Maitreya, and the Buddhas of previous ages. Yet they don’t limit themselves to one Buddha per age. There could be infinite numbers of Buddhas. Indeed, according to the Mahayana teaching of Buddha Nature, “Buddha” is the fundamental nature of all beings. In a sense, all beings are Buddha.
Mahayana art and scriptures are populated by a number of particular Buddhas who represent various aspects of enlightenment or who carry out particular functions of enlightenment. However, it’s a mistake to consider these Buddhas as god-like beings separate from ourselves.
To complicate matters further, the Mahayana doctrine of the Trikaya says that each Buddha has three bodies. The three bodies are called dharmakaya, sambhogakaya, and nirmanakaya. Very simply, dharmakaya is the body of absolute truth, sambhogakaya is the body that experiences the bliss of enlightenment, and nirmanakaya is the body that manifests in the world.
In Mahayana literature, there is an elaborate schema of transcendent (dharmakaya and sambhogakaya) and earthly (nirmanakaya) Buddhas who correspond to each other and represent different aspects of the teachings. You will stumble upon them in the Mahayana sutras and other writings, so it’s good to be aware of who they are.
Amitabha, the Buddha of Boundless Light and the principal Buddha of the Pure Land school.
Bhaiṣajyaguru, the Medicine Buddha, who represents the power of healing.
Vairocana, the universal or primordial Buddha.
Oh, and about the fat, laughing Buddha — he emerged from Chinese folklore in the 10th century. He is called Pu-tai or Budai in China and Hotei in Japan. It is said that he is an incarnation of the future Buddha, Maitreya.
The most important thing to understand about the Trikaya is that the countless Buddhas are, ultimately, one Buddha, and the three bodies are also our own body. A person who has intimately experienced the three bodies and realized the truth of these teachings is called a Buddha.
- O’Brien, Barbara. “What Is a Buddha? Who Was the Buddha?” Learn Religions, Feb. 11, 2020, learnreligions.com/whats-a-buddha-450195.