SO MANY DIFFERENT NAMES exist for the Buddha that one might, in the course of perusing ancient texts or contemporary literature, easily assume that Gotama and Gautama and Shakyamuni and Siddhartha were the best of friends .. In fact, among dozens of appellations, these are only the famiial names for the man who became the historical Buddha. Furthermore, questions such as when to use the Pali version or the Sanskrit, or what context is most appropriate or which name, are not confined to etymologIcal conslderations, but are part of a broader process of translating Buddhism into our own cultural alphabet.

Gautama was the Buddha’s family or tribe name: his gotra-name. Traditionally the gotra (which in Sanskrit means a cow-pen or enclosure) indicated a subdivision within a caste; each gotra was said to descend directly from a celebrated Vedic teacher; in this case, the legendary sage Gotama. While Gautama (Gotama is the Pali form) indicates a family of the brahmin or priestly castes, the Buddha is said to have been of the Kshatriya or warrior caste. Scholarly attempts to resolve the Buddha’s simultaneous identification with warrior and priestly castes are at best inconclusive. The gotra name was the usual form of address at the time of the Buddha, which is why, in the traditional texts, the Buddha is normally addressed as Gautama by those brahmanas who were not his followers. For those who did embrace the Buddha’s message, the common form of address was bhagavat: lord. Although the name does not appear in the Pali Canon, we are told that the Buddha’s given name was Siddhartha. This Sanskrit compound is formed by siddha and artha, both fairly common words. Siddha is an adjective meaning “accomplished” or “fulfilled,” while artha is usually translated as “goal” or “aim.” Siddhartha then indicates,”one who has accomplished his aim,” which presumably refers to the Buddha’s success in achieving his goal becoming buddha: awake. Westerners will sometimes use either Gautatna or Siddhartha when speaking of the years prior to the Buddha’s great enlightenment, or to introduce the American custom of informal intimacy. The latter is also used by American Buddhists to emphasize the Buddha’s humanity and counteract the historical tendency toward hagiography.

Siddhartha Gautama was also known as Shakyamuni, which is perhaps the Buddha’s most famous epithet. The Shakyas were the regional clan to which the Gautamas belonged, and which the Buddha would have ruled had he not become Shakyamuni: muni is an ancient honorific meaning “sage,” “saint,” or “ecstatic”; thus Buddha was “the sage of the Shakyas.”

But all of these names, epithets, and titles (the Pali canon provides eighty-one in a single section)—which are very suggestive and full of meaning—none is more mysterious than buddha. The literal meaning could not be simpler; it is the perfect passive participle of the Sanskrit root budh: to be awake or wakeful, hence the title Buddha means “awake” or “the awakened.” Although “Buddha” was not a form of address for “the Buddha” during his lifetime, we ate told that when people wanted to know who ‘or what he was, the Buddha simply and challengingly referred to himself as buddha, “awake.” Rarely does a human being dismiss name, family, age, sex, and career to identify wholly with any state of being, and in particular with being awake. When such a being is recognized, he or she is also called a buddha, an awakened one. Westerners commonly designate that rare breed—generic buddhas—with a lowercase “b” and reserve the capital letter for the historical Buddha. Yet the awakened state gains nothing by being named-behind, beneath, or beyond the labels, there is a singular experience for both path and aigI: to be buddha, awake.

Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.

This article is only for Subscribers!

Subscribe now to read this article and get immediate access to everything else.

Subscribe Now

Already a subscriber? .