Who was the Buddha?

“Buddha” (properly speaking) refers, not to a single individual, but rather to a category of beings: those who have, through their own effort, attained complete enlightenment.

But, more typically, “the Buddha” refers to the Sakyan prince who, in the 5th century BCE Gangetic Plain, first rediscovered nibbāna and taught the way for attaining it.

Over 500 million people now worship the Buddha as their teacher, but the Buddha was no God. Indeed, it’s even said that a Buddha can only arise as a human—never as a deity (deva)— because only the human realm balances the misfortunes and mistakes of life which are necessary to motivate the practice, with the ease and discernment which allow it to ripen.

But while the Buddha was born a man, a man he did not remain. Through his superior striving and wisdom (over countless eons) he was able to transcend gender, caste, creed, identities, views, suffering and even death itself and to teach others how to transcend themselves too. We call such a teacher, “Buddha.”


If you’re looking for a quick and inspiring biography of the Buddha, I recommend The Biography of Shakyamuni Buddha by Master Hsing Yun. This course goes beyond the basics to reading the primary sources themselves, and therefore requires some comfort reading the Early Buddhist Texts.

Course Materials

This syllabus has no associated lectures. It weaves together several, free books, mostly on the Pāli texts.


Main Anthology

  • This classic, quirky anthology gives a good presentation of the Canonical account of the Buddha’s life. It will be the primary biography used in this course, and we will follow the book’s ordering of events.

Other Anthologies

To supplement Ñanamoli’s judicious selections from the Pāli Canon, we will use these anthologies to underline a couple themes I think worth dwelling on:

  • To understand the Buddhist cosmology requires seeing the way the Gods and the Buddha related with one another.
  • While it is important to mine the Pāli literature for historical and mythological details, it is also important to not lose sight of the Buddha’s extraordinary personal qualities, explained in this anthology through the nine characteristics of the Buddha.

Primary Texts

There’s one significant primary text in this course, but it isn’t an early text.

  • This traditional Pāli commentary contains one of the first systematic biographies of the Buddha and formed the basis for many of the later hagiographies. While not necessarily a reliable source of information about the historical Buddha himself, it is of critical importance for understanding the myths and stories about the Buddha which persist today.

Academic Works

A number of articles and essays will be weaved in throughout the course. We’ll also be reading these two, free books:

A collection of Encyclopedia articles introducing the Buddha from one of the English language’s best authors of rigorous introductions.

In this monograph, the renowned scholar of early Buddhism explores what the early literature can tell us about how the Buddha became the Buddha: a topic of extraordinary importance in later centuries.

The Course

I’ve sequenced the above books into an inter-woven, narrative arc which I (at least!) find compelling.

If I were to actually teach this course, I’d perhaps meet twice per week for 13 weeks. The readings below have been bunched together according to this hypothetical schedule, but for individual study you’re of course welcome to work through the readings as you like.


  1. [Entries - Peter Harvey] The Early Buddhist Concept of the Buddha
  2. [Entries] Past and Future Buddhas

  3. [E] Dates of the Buddha
  4. [Nidanakatha: The Introduction to the Jatakas] The Introduction by T. W. Rhys Davids
  5. [E] The Buddha’s Historical Context

Part 1: Becoming the Buddha

  1. [Life of the Buddha] Birth and Childhood
  2. This mythic text gives the 32 characteristics of Gotama’s body, which,legend has it, marked him for greatness at an early age. Note that some of the Suttas are not as early as others!

  3. [E] The Buddha’s Family
  4. Did the Buddha Really Have a Wife and Son? – Matthew Gindin (.pdf)

  5. This mythic sutta gives the story of the Buddha we may be familiar with… but attributes it to the Buddha Vipassī! It wasn’t until later that this story came to be normalized as true of all Buddhas: our own included.

  6. (Bhante Sujato’s translation here is preferred to Ñanamoli’s below)

  7. [Life] The Struggle for Enlightenment
  8. [Bodhisattva Ideal - Analayo] Chapter 1: Gautama as a Bodhisattva

  9. [Nidanakatha] The Middle Epoch
    • Note especially any contrasts to the earlier texts.

  10. [E] The Bodhisattva Career in the Theravada
  11. [Bodhisattva] Chapter 2: Meeting the Previous Buddha
  12. [Nidanakatha] The Distant Epoch

  13. [Buddha, My Refuge] Introduction
  14. [Life] After the Enlightenment
  15. Epithets of the Buddha (.jpeg) (.jpeg)
  16. Tathāgata – Bhikkhu Anālayo (.pdf)

  17. The Weary Buddha: Why the Buddha Nearly Couldn’t Be Bothered – David Webster (.pdf) (.pdf)
  18. [Entries] Pratyeka-buddhas
  19. [Entries] Optional: The Four Ennobling Truths
  20. [Refuge] Arahaṁ

  21. Lal 26 Dharmacakrapravartana Sūtra (.pdf)

  22. [Life] Spreading the Dhamma
  23. [L] The Two Chief Disciples
  24. [L] Anathapindika: Feeder of the Poor

  25. [Nidanakatha] The Last Epoch
  26. [Refuge] sammā-sambuddho
  27. DN 28 Sampasādanīya Sutta: Inspiring Confidence (.pdf)

Part 2: Establishing the Religion

  1. [Entries] Review: The Story of the Buddha
  2. [Teacher of the Devas] Introduction: The Devas

  3. [Life] Formation of the Order of Nuns
  4. A Whisper in the Silence: Nuns Before Mahāpajāpatī – Liz Williams (.pdf) (.pdf)
  5. Mahāpajāpatī’s Going Forth in the Madhyama-āgama – Bhikkhu Anālayo (.pdf)

  6. [Refuge] Vijjā-caraṇa-sampanno
  7. Tevijja-Vacchagotta Sutta – Bhikkhu Anālayo (.pdf)

  8. [L] The Quarrel at Kosambi
  9. [R] Sugato

  10. [L] End of the First Twenty Years
  11. [Teacher] Teaching the Devas
  12. [R] Locavidū

  13. [L] The Middle Period
  14. [E] The Buddha’s Style of Teaching

  15. [R] Anuttaro purisa-damma-sārathi
  16. [L] The Person
  17. MN 91 Brahmāyu Sutta: With Brahmāyu (.pdf)
  18. The Buddha Was Bald – Eisel Mazard (.pdf)

  19. AN 3.35 Hatthaka Sutta: With Hatthaka (.pdf)

  20. [L] The Doctrine
  21. [E] Anatman

  22. [R] Satthā deva-manussānaṁ
  23. [T] Devas Honor the Buddha
  24. [L] Devadatta

  25. [R] Buddho
  26. [L] Old Age
  27. [E] The Buddha and Cakravartins
  28. Review: [T] Devas in the Buddha’s Career

  29. [L] The Last Year
  30. (Optionally) For a short lecture series on the Maha Parinibbana Sutta by Bhante Sujato, see parts one, two, three, and four on YouTube
  31. Sūkaramaddava: The Buddha’s Last Meal – John D. Ireland (.pdf) (.pdf)
  32. [E] Relics of the Buddha
  33. [R] Bhagava

  34. [E] Early Symbols of the Buddha
  35. [L] The First Council
  36. [T] Liberation and Conclusion

Epilogue: The Far Future

  1. [Bodhisattva] Maitreya

Further Reading


Canonical Works

Good man, didn’t you see the third divine messenger that appeared among human beings?

I shall keep reciting the Way to the Beyond

“Why, exactly, do you teach some people thoroughly and others less thoroughly?”

When the Buddha was sick, Mahācunda recited for him the awakening factors.


Given the fact that the praiseworthy qualities of the Buddha are the main theme of the Mahāsakuludāyi-sutta and its parallel, it is not surprising if the tendency to elevate the Buddha’s status would to some degree also have influenced the reciters responsible for transmitting the discourse. A comparison of the two versions in fact reveals several instances where this tendency is at work

… a fair number of occurrences in the Buddha’s life would be difficult to explain if he had been omniscient

This article proposes to “decode” the twin miracle and the miracle to convert Aṅgulimāla as coded repudiations of rival karma theories, and to examine their relevance to the modern world.

The Buddha’s bad karma refers to ten problematic incidents that happened in the life of the historical Buddha. […] The texts related to the bad karma of the Buddha can be divided into two groups: those texts accepting the bad karma and those rejecting the whole matter.


Reference Shelf

Advanced Courses

The Majjhima Nikāya
Many stories from life in the early Sangha and the most complex teachings of the Canon, analyzed methodically by Bhikkhu Bodhi.
The Pāli Language: Level 1
An introduction to the language of the Buddha.
or feel free to check out any of our University's other fine offerings.