The Human Face of the Buddha

In a world rife with division, stress, strife and injustice, many of us rely on Buddhist teachings and practices to address the challenges we face. But the Buddha was not only a wise spiritual sage whose profound teachings help address individual suffering. He was also a human being. He was a son who turned away from his family. He was a husband and father who abandoned his wife and child. And he was a social revolutionary, who created a spiritual community that challenged the existing caste system.

There is as much to learn from what the Buddha did as from what he said. Exploring the actions of the person, Gautama Siddhartha who woke up, provides fresh insights for what it means to walk the path and what it means to awaken. Looking at the life of the Buddha through the lens of his behavior—and his willingness to learn from his mistakes—provides potent examples for how we, too, can learn to address systems of misogyny and oppression with wise action.

Holding an idealized vision of the Buddha can be inspiring. But it can also make the possibility of awakening feel remote; not something that feels possible for us, here and now. As we learn more about the historical person who became the Buddha, we discover a real human being who had a powerful experience of freedom that unfolded over time, and whose path and practice echo our own.

Please take some time to reflect on your ideas about who the Buddha was and what it means to awaken.

You can do this inquiry in a variety of ways: through writing; in conversation; or in meditative reflection. Whatever process you choose, the idea is to help unearth and reveal (often unseen, unexamined) opinions, beliefs and assumptions.

Things to consider:

  • Describe the mythic ideal of the Buddha as a perfectly enlightened being.
  • Describe what you know about the human being, Gautama Siddhartha, who woke up.
  • How do these different versions impact you, your practice, and your understanding of awakening?