What does "buddha" mean?

Buddha is often misunderstood as the name of an historical figure from India; but this is not the case. Buddha is a principle, not a person. Buddha actually means "awake." When asked, "Are you a god?" Gautama, the person who became a buddha way back when in India replied, "No." "Then what are you?" the man asked again. Gautama's answer was, "I am awake."

Nowadays many statues of buddhas are common, and they can easily be mistaken as signs of polytheism. But all these images are not portraits of superheroes each with their own "superpersonality" that exist somewhere out of this atmosphere, deigning to involve themselves selectively in the affairs of this world. Rather, they are symbolic presentations of qualities of "awakeness."

But "awakeness" only means something in relation to its opposite: "asleepness." It seems Gautama was using this analogy as a way to touch upon the experience of knowing what a dream is. When we wake up in the same bed we remember laying down in hours before, we decide that everything previous was a kind of hallucination. This decision actually changes the context of everything that happened to us while we were dreaming, no matter how drastic, dramatic, horrific or beatific. All of a sudden, we somehow discover a kind of perspective.

Here's an example. A woman who has never been pregnant wakes from a dream of giving birth to a stillborn child, and the sorrow she felt all of a sudden changes from being so real to seeming so real. And her recognition is not something someone else decided for her, it is a conclusion based on her own recognizance. This also seems to be another fundamental aspect of what we could describe as "awakeness:" it is not manufactured through effort or through a formula, but through a completely personal and thorough deep inquiry.

If we were to really try and describe "awakeness," how would we start? We might start by describing it in three ways: clarity, luminosity and openness. But within these three aspects there also seems to be an endless flow of nuances to our experience; like a single light that hits a prism to refract into the spectrum of a rainbow. These nuances are the various qualities of our inner world and outer world, our thoughts and sensations as well as the sense objects that we encounter.

Like the rainbow and these nuances, the variety of buddhas appear to us like various reflections we might see in a true mirror, one that is completely clean with us gazing bright and wide eyed. Depending on who we think we are or what is going on with us at the time, we will probably recognize certain qualities in our reflection; we will notice different things about ourselves. After all, there are many to choose from no matter how often we decide to look. This is the principle involved in representations of buddhas: as the human experience is infinitely nuanced, there are numerous images, implements, colors, faces, heads and arms that appear in the iconography. But although the qualities might accentuate different aspects of awakeness, the images are all just that: a variety of expressions of the true nature of every sentient being.


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