In any case, when one has reached the supreme state of Nirvana, they have become a Buddha, a fully self-awakened one. The state of Buddhahood is the culmination of many lifetimes of effort, and thus the appearance of a Buddha is extremely rare. However, with the appearance of a Buddha, the wheel of the Dharma (the laws and principles of Buddhism) is turned once again, and many others are inspired to take up the Buddhist path and become Buddhas themselves in the future and attain liberation, while assisting others to do the same.
The Buddha of our era is Shakyamuni Buddha of the Sakya clan in India. He lived 2,500 years ago, when the Dharma was unknown, perceived the truth, and attained full clarity or enlightenment. Through awakening and clarity, residual desire and passions were immediately extinguished and Nirvana was also attained.
Buddhism as we know it today is all due to the accomplishments of this one man, and thus we revere him as our teacher, and the sage of our times. However, we also recognize that other Buddhas exist in the past and future and have made the same great accomplishment in some place and some time.
For example, Buddhism states that in the far future, when Buddhism itself fades and the Dharma is forgotten, another Buddha will arise named Maitreya. Another example is Amitabha (Amida) Buddha, who is said to have attained Enlightenment and become a Buddha 10 kalpas ago:
Ananda further asked the Buddha, “How much time has passed since he attained Buddhahood?”
The Buddha replied, “Since he attained Buddhahood, about ten kalpas have passed.”
But How to Get There?
Much of the Buddha’s teachings, the Dharma, pertain to either:
- Describing the state of things.
- How to eventually reach Buddhahood
The Buddha, like a doctor, prescribed “remedies” to people based on their background, their grasp of the Dharma, and so on. Thus, these teachings might pertain to more mundane matters for a layperson, or deeply philosophical teachings intended for bodhisattvas and the senior monastic disciples. Because Indian tradition felt that writing down sacred teachings was profane, thus they would memorize the teachings and pass them down to later generations as the Sutras.
Later generations also composed new sutras as a way of encapsulating disparate Buddhist teachings into a single, comprehensive school of thought, or rehash previous teachings for a newer generation and environment.
In any case, the Sutras provide a series of road-signs along the road to Enlightenment.
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