The question of whether Shakyamuni Buddha is real or not is considered a wrong view by Buddhists and is seen as a form of blasphemy against Buddhism. The answer, according to them, is an unequivocal affirmation that Shakyamuni Buddha was a real person who was born, attained enlightenment, and passed away in India more than 2600 years ago.
Although this answer is widely accepted and hardly ever challenged, it is important to examine the question carefully and provide a reasonable and accurate response: Is Shakyamuni Buddha real, or is he just a legend?
To claim the truth of something, we must have sufficient and reasonable evidence to support it. Therefore, does Buddhism possess adequate and reasonable evidence (necessary and sufficient factors) to confirm the existence of Shakyamuni Buddha? Let’s delve into this matter together with Lotusbuddhas.com!
Archaeological evidence and scriptures.
If we rely on the scriptures to verify the existence of Shakyamuni Buddha, there are varying accounts between the two major schools of Buddhism, Theravada and Mahayana.
- Mahayana Buddhism recounts that at the age of 19, Prince Siddhartha left his home and spent 5 years searching for the path. After 6 years of asceticism in the jungle, he attained enlightenment at the age of 31, taught the Dharma for 49 years, and passed away at the age of 80. According to this tradition, he was born on April 8, attained enlightenment on December 8, and passed away on the full moon of February.
- On the other hand, Theravada Buddhism states that Prince Siddhartha left his home at the age of 29, and after a brief period of searching, spent 6 years in the jungle practicing asceticism. He attained enlightenment at the age of 35, taught the Dharma for 45 years, and passed away at the age of 80. According to this tradition, his date of birth, enlightenment, and death are all on April 15 of the lunar calendar.
Both Theravada and Mahayana Buddhists tend to uphold their own historical accounts while rejecting those of others. However, if they approach the matter objectively, they will realize that Mahayana data cannot be used to discredit Theravada data and vice versa.
So why does this contradiction exist? The reason is that there may not have been a person named Siddhartha living at that time. If Prince Siddhartha were real and he stated “I was born on xx year xx…” as a Buddha, then his followers, wise individuals, and many Indians would have remembered this information accurately and passed it down to the next generation.
Moreover, the archeological findings of stone steles of King Asoka that are said to record the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha or Buddhist sites are merely modern-day speculations. For instance, if in a thousand years, future humans unearth a statue of the Loch Ness monster erected in Scotland, it does not imply that there was actually a monster in that lake. Hence, such evidence is not a necessary and sufficient factor to confirm the existence of Prince Siddhartha Gautama.
The scriptures mention that when Buddha Shakyamuni attained enlightenment, he did not want to preach what he had realized and only taught the Dharma he had realized when a Brahma Sahampati asked him to.
“The Dharma that I have witnessed is profound, difficult to see, difficult to witness, and magical, surpassing all common sense and subtlety, only the wise can understand it, but ordinary people still crave sensuality (Tanha), who is dominated by craving, so very difficult to grasp this Dharma…”
It is not possible to take this detail to confirm that Prince Siddhartha was enlightened, became a Buddha, and thanks to Brahma, he invited him to preach the Dharma to mankind.
Because this is an absurd detail, because Brahma is just an ordinary person like so many others, who has never known what enlightenment is, how can he know that it is Buddha, knowing that he is an enlightened person?
In the sutras, it is mentioned that Sariputra, an Arahant who is said to be of great wisdom does not know the Buddha’s mind, let alone an ordinary person like Brahma.
At the time when Prince Siddhartha attained Perfect Enlightenment, all gods and humans were ordinary people, so no one could know that Prince Siddhartha was fully Enlightened and if he were to declare: I have become a Buddha”, will ordinary people believe and accept, and is there anyone who is qualified to recognize that he has become a Buddha?
Why are the scriptures inconsistent with each other? Did the ancients create a fictional character to serve as an author, a “reverential symbol” for personal inferences, or folk tales synthesized into a religion?
This is very easy to see in modern times, many people have written books that they think and attribute it to the words of the Buddha… but the words of this Buddha contradict the words of the other Buddha! If something is repeated over and over again, it can come true.
Therefore, the scriptures, the documents recorded by the historical department, the works excavated by archeology… are still not the necessary and sufficient factors to confirm that Shakyamuni Buddha is real.
Why do Buddhists Believe that Shakyamuni Buddha is Real?
For a practicing Buddhist, what is the logical answer to the question of is Shakyamuni Buddha real?
I believe Shakyamuni Buddha is real. Emphasize “I believe” not “I affirm yes”. The answer I believe in Buddha is divided into two cases: I believe with Right View and I believe with Wrong View (blind faith).
Those who believe in having a real Buddha with Right View are obtained after listening to lectures or studying the scriptures:
“Knowledge as it really is” of Dependent Origination from which “understanding as it really is” of all nama and rupa are impermanent, without possession (non-self), “understanding as it is” of Suffering, The Cause of Suffering, and The Path Without Suffering.
After having the correct understanding, that person continues to think about what he has learned and compares with the facts of life that are happening and finds that: Humans also have knowledge about nama and rupa, about suffering and the path to the end of suffering but is completely false to the truth, contrary to the Dhamma that Shakyamuni Buddha realized and preached.
He sees that the Dhamma is truly profound and wonderful. Only a wise person is able to understand and generate true Faith in the Dhamma. When he has had Right View about the Dharma he also reflects and concludes: “The person who speaks this Dharma must be a wonderful being, an enlightened human being.” Thus, Right View arose, believing that the Buddha was real, who preached this profound and wonderful Dharma.
So is Shakyamuni Buddha real or not? Buddha is real, not a myth. But affirming that Shakyamuni Buddha is real can only happen to an enlightened person and in Buddhist terms called an Arahant. Only the Arahant is qualified to affirm that the Buddha is real and that his teachings are the truth.
From believing in the real Buddha to knowing it as it is, affirming that there is a real Buddha is a process of practice and it is only for true monks, not everyone. It is only a person with sufficient wisdom and effort that can practice the Noble Eightfold Path.
Only for monks who have experienced the Buddha’s teachings in such a way can they affirm that enlightenment or nirvana is real, the Four Noble Truths are real and of course affirm: The person who preaches the wonderful Dharma.
The one who preaches the wonderful Dharma according to which I have practiced and applied the Four Noble Truths, freed from suffering, must be a Fully Enlightened One. And whether or not a prince named Siddhartha lived and became enlightened more than 2600 years ago in India, the truth is still the truth, and the one who preaches that truth is our Shakyamuni Buddha.