Buddha Shakyamuni and the Earth-Touching Gesture

The Buddha – Many Buddhas

Did you know that “Buddha” is not a name, but an honorific title? 

You've probably heard of the Buddha, but there are other buddhas as well. One could say that becoming a buddha, an “awakened” one – and thus escaping the eternal cycle of rebirth – is the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice. 

In Mahayana Buddhism, every human has the potential to attain Buddhahood. According to this school of thought, there is a primordial Buddha, a being identical with ultimate wisdom. This Buddha principle can become manifest on earth in human form, as was the case with the Buddha, the one who is said to have founded Buddhism

By all accounts, manifestations of this principle existed before his time. It is believed that, at some point in the future, another buddha will emerge who will then reintroduce and renew the Buddhist principle.

According to Mahayana tradition, there are further embodiments of the Buddha principle that exist on a transcendental level. The five Transcendent Buddhas are believed to represent different aspects of this principle.

Stela Showing Scenes from the Life of the Buddha

Der Buddha

Who actually is or was the Buddha?

The expression “the Buddha” is often used to designate the historical Buddha, that is, the man who is believed to have founded the Buddhist teachings.

He is said to have lived in northern India sometime around the 5th century BCE. The narratives about his life and work evolved and grew over the course of centuries before being recorded in writing and represented in art.

To this day, the legend of the Indian prince Siddhartha, who became the Buddha, is still popular.

Mara’s Daughters Tempt the Buddha

As a young man, Prince Siddhartha renounced a life of wealth and ease. He left the palace of his parents and went in search of salvation through a life of asceticism and meditation in order to alleviate human suffering.

After many years of practice, he attained the state of “awakening” and so became the Buddha.

“Buddha” is an honorific title. The term comes from the ancient Indian language of Sanskrit and means “the one awakened [to ultimate wisdom]”.

Standing Buddha Shakyamuni

Many Designations

The historical Buddha is known under different names. Two of these are Prince Siddhartha and Gautama Buddha. “Siddhartha” is an honorific title in Sanskrit and means “he who has reached his goal”; Gautama is said to have been his family name.

Often, he is referred to as Buddha Shakyamuni. “Shakyamuni” means the “sage from the Shakya people”.

In Buddhist texts, the Buddha is also addressed by the honorific title “Tathagata”. Literally this means “the one who has thus come”, a reference to the Buddha’s nature as a perfect being.

The Prophecy of the Buddha Dipankara

Many Buddhas

According to the Mahayana school, the Buddha, whose teachings form the cornerstone of Buddhism, was preceded by other buddhas who are considered to be embodiments of absolute wisdom. In other words, Buddha Shakyamuni was neither the first nor the last buddha to appear on earth.

However, the appearance of a buddha on earth is a rarity. It is said that a buddha appears only once in an aeon, a cycle of many thousands of years.

Buddha Maitreya

The Buddha of the Future

Many Buddhists believe that, in a far distant future, Maitreya, the Buddha of the Future, will appear on earth. Translated from Sanskrit, his name means “the loving one”.

A buddha is said to appear on earth whenever people have completely forgotten the content of the Buddhist teachings. Through his appearance, the teachings are renewed and spread again throughout the world.

Vajradhara, the Primordial Buddha

The Primordial Buddha Vajradhara

The primordial buddha is an embodiment of the Buddha principle. This principle is identical with the ultimate wisdom, which stands above everything in the universe and is neither conceivable, graspable, nor imaginable.

Since the primordial buddha embodies nothing but an idea, he is formless and therefore cannot be depicted.

Relief of the Five Transcendent Buddhas

Transcendent Buddhas

The five Transcendent Buddhas are otherworldly manifestations of the all-encompassing Buddha principle.  Each represents a distinct quality or aspect.

For instance, each one commands a specific strength that can be used to overcome a hindrance on the Buddhist pathway.

These Buddhas are especially significant in Vajrayana Buddhism. People practising meditation learn to recognize the strengths of these Buddhas within themselves.

Buddha Shakyamuni and the Earth-Touching Gesture

Which is Which?

Buddha Shakyamuni is shown here at the moment of his awakening when he called upon the earth goddess to be his witness. Since this is a pivotal event in the Buddhist teachings, the Buddha is frequently depicted in this posture.

Akshobhya’s earth-witness gesture symbolizes steadfastness, his particular strength.

How does one distinguish the two?

The Transcendent Buddha Akshobhya

One of the main elements distinguishing these figures is their dress. Buddha Shakyamuni is wearing a simple monk’s robe, whereas Akshobhya is richly adorned. Transcendent Buddhas are often depicted with jewels.

In most cases, the historical Buddha is shown wearing a plain wraparound cloth. At the moment of his awakening, depicted here, the Buddha had already renounced all forms of wealth and was living a simple life in the forest.

Buddha Dipankara, the Buddha of the Past

The Three-body Doctrine

The three-body doctrine emerged in Mahayana Buddhism over the course of the 4th century. It explains why some buddhas appear on earth in human form while others are conceived of as other-worldly, that is, as transcendent beings.

The three-body doctrine assumes that each and every buddha embodies the all-encompassing Buddha principle.

At the highest level, a buddha’s “body” is formless (1).

In the body of mental imagination, a buddha can be pictured and visualized in meditation (2).

A buddha may appear in the world in a physical body (3).

Master Hakuin asked: What is the sound of one hand clapping?

The Buddha – Many Buddhas