Who is the Buddha?
by Thich Nhat Hanh
Some years ago, I visited a village in India called Uruvela. Two thousand six hundred years ago, a man named Siddhartha lived near the village. Siddhartha is the man who later became known as the Buddha.
The village of Uruvela remains very much the same as it was back then. There are no big buildings, no supermarkets, no freeways. It is very pleasant. The children have not changed either. When Siddhartha lived there, children from that village became his friends and brought him food and simple gifts.
There is a river that runs near the village. It is where Siddhartha used to bathe. A grass called “kusa grass” still grows on the banks of the river. It is the same kind of grass that one of the children gave Siddhartha to use as a cushion to sit on. I walked across the river and I cut some of the kusa grass and brought it home with me.
On the other side of the river, there is a forest. That is where Siddhartha sat in meditation under a tree called the “Bodhi tree”. It is under that tree that he became the “Buddha”.
A Buddha is anyone who is awake – who is aware of everything that happens inside and around him or her, and who understands and loves deeply.
Siddhartha became a fully awakened being – a Buddha. He is the Buddha that we have accepted as our teacher.
He has said that each one of us has a seed of awakening within us and that all of us are future Buddhas.
When he was very young, a student of mine struggled with the question of “Who is the Buddha?” The student’s name was Hu, and this is his story.
When Hu was six or seven years old, he asked his father and mother if he could become a monk. Hu loved going to the Buddhist temple. He used to go there with his parents on new moon and full moon days to offer flowers, bananas, mangos, and all kinds of exotic fruit to the Buddha.
In the temple, Hu was always treated with kindness. When people came to the temple, they seemed more relaxed and friendly. Hu was also aware that the head monk liked him. He would give Hu a banana or a mango every time he came. So that’s why Hu loved going to the temple.
One day he said, “Mommy, I want to become a monk and live in the temple.” I think he wanted to become a monk because he liked to eat bananas. I don’t blame him. In Vietnam, there are several kinds of bananas that are so good.
Even though he was young, his father and mother decided to let him go to the temple as a novice. The head monk gave Hu a tiny, brown robe to wear. In his nice new robe, he must have looked like a baby monk.
When he first became a monk, Hu believed that the Buddha loved bananas, mangos and tangerines because every time people came to the temple, they brought bananas, mangos, tangerines and other fruit, and placed them in front of the Buddha. In Hu’s little head that could only mean that Buddha loved fruit very much.
One evening, he waited in the temple until all the visitors had gone home. He stood very quietly outside the entrance of the Buddha Hall. He checked to make sure no one else was around. Then he peered into the Buddha Hall. The Buddha statue was as big as a real person. In Hu’s very young mind, the statue was the Buddha.
Hu imagined that Buddha sat very still all day long, and when the hall was empty, he reached out for a banana. Hu waited and watched, hoping to see the Buddha take one of the bananas piled in front of him. He waited for a long time, but he did not see the Buddha pick up a banana. He was baffled. He could not understand why the Buddha did not eat any of the bananas that people brought to him.
Hu did not dare ask the head monk, because he was afraid that the monk would think he was silly. Actually, we often feel like that. We do not dare ask questions because we are afraid we might be called silly. The same was true for Hu. And because he didn’t dare ask, he was confused. I think I would have gone to someone and asked. But Hu did not ask anyone.
As he grew older, one day it occurred to him that the Buddha statue was not the Buddha. What an achievement! This realisation made him so happy. But then a new question arose. “If the Buddha is not here, then where is he? If the Buddha is not in the temple, where is the Buddha?” Everyday he saw people come to the temple and bow to the statue of the Buddha. But where was the Buddha?
In Vietnam, people who practice Pure Land Buddhism believe that the Buddha stays in the Pure Land, in the direction of the West. One day, Hu overheard someone saying that the Pure Land was the home of the Buddhas. This made Hu believe that the Buddha was in the Pure Land, which made him very unhappy. Why, he wondered, did the Buddha choose to live so far away from people? So this created another question in his mind.
I met Hu when he was fourteen, and he was still wondering about this. I explained to him that the Buddha is not far away from us. I told him that the Buddha is inside each one of us. Being a Buddha is being aware of what is inside of us and around us at every moment. Buddha is the love and understanding that we each carry in our hearts. This made Hu very happy.
Anywhere you see love and understanding, there is the Buddha. Anyone can be a Buddha. Do not imagine that the Buddha is a statue or someone who has a fancy halo around his or her head or wears a yellow robe. A Buddha is a person who is aware of what is going on inside and around him or her and has a lot of understanding and compassion.
Whether a Buddha is a man or a woman, young or not so young, a Buddha is always very pleasant and fresh. In my experience, there are Buddhas and bodhisattvas present here, in our midst.
A bodhisattva is a compassionate person, someone who cares a lot about helping other beings – someone who vows to become a Buddha.
Statues or pictures of bodhisattvas sometimes show a being with many arms. They are shown this way because a bodhisattva is someone who can do a thousand things at one time. Also, the arms of a bodhisattva can be extremely long and reach very far, helping people in faraway lands. With only two arms, we can only do one or two things at a time. But when you are a bodhisattva, you have many arms, and you can do many things simultaneously. Most of the time, we do not see all the arms of a bodhisattva. One has to be very attentive in order to see the many arms of a bodhisattva.
You may already know someone who is a bodhisattva. It is possible! Your mom, for example, could be a bodhisattva. She needs an arm for cooking. Isn’t that true? But at the same time she takes care of you and your brothers and sisters – so she needs a second arm. And then at the same time, she has to run errands. So she needs a third arm. And she has many other things she does that require more arms – she may have a job or she may volunteer at your school. So your mom could be a bodhisattva. The same is true for your dad. Look more deeply at your mother and father and you will see that they have more than two arms.
Do not think that Buddhas and bodhisattvas are beings who exist in heaven! They are right here, all around us. You too can be a bodhisattva if you think of others and do things to bring happiness to them.
If you are awake, if you are present in the moment, here and now, you too are a Buddha. The only difference between you and the Buddha is that he is a full-time Buddha. You are only a part-time Buddha. So you have to live in a way that gives the baby Buddha inside you a chance to grow. Then the baby Buddha will radiate light in all the cells of your body, and you will begin to shine this light.