What’s in a Name?

The Buddha was born ‘Siddhattha Gotama’. He is sometimes called ‘Sakyamuni’ (Sage of the Sakyas) to refer to his origins among the Sakyas. From the time of his birth he is referred to as ‘Bodhisatta’ (One Seeking Enlightenment). After his enlightenment, he is called ‘Buddha’ (Fully Awakened One) and ‘Tathāgata’ (One who has thus Gone/One who has thus Come). These are but a few of the names used to refer to the Buddha.

As Nakamura carefully explains, sometimes a name can influence the way we interpret our practice.  For example: the difference between a Bodhisatta and a Buddha is that between one seeking enlightenment and one who is enlightened.  This is why it is typical to call Siddhattha ‘Bodhisatta’ prior to his enlightenment and ‘Buddha’ afterwards.

But in the Suttanipāta, we find Māra referring to Siddhattha as ‘Sambuddha’ (Perfectly Enlightened One) before the enlightenment. Since this name supposedly refers to a fully enlightened being and Siddhattha was, at this time, still pursuing ascetic practices, how are we to interpret this remark?

Nakamura says the following:

Becoming a buddha entails overcoming temptation. Constant striving is in itself buddha action. In other words, attaining enlightenment does not mean becoming a different kind of being. If I may be permitted to quote a writer from a later period, “the aspiration to enlightenment is in itself the ultimate stage,” and “there is no distinction between practice and enlightenment.” Thus there is nothing strange about use of the title Buddha or Sambuddha to refer to Gotama before his enlightenment. The importance of practice and striving, emphasized in Mahāyāna and Zen, can be found here in embryonic form.

Now, there are other ways to interpret the use of ‘Sambuddha’ to refer to the pre-enlightened Siddhattha.  (For instance, perhaps this is just a mistake in the text.) And it is clear from Nakamura’s interpretation that he is strongly influenced by Zen and perhaps Dogen (although he does not name the writer from a later period). Finally, we want to be careful not to discredit the Buddha’s actions on the night he attained enlightenment, since something important seems to have happened that night.

But correctness of interpretation aside, I appreciate Nakamura’s sentiment and the encouragement it gives. Constant striving is in itself buddha action. When we strive to end suffering here and now (and now…and now…and now…), for all beings, through practicing the triple teachings of morality, meditation, and wisdom, we are engaged in Buddha action! As Haju Sunim often says to us: Just Here…, Just This…, Just Now….

Thank you for reading. May this post find you doing well, constantly striving with all that arises, hangs around, and passes away!

(Note: The quote is from Nakamura’s Gotama Buddha: A Biography Based on the Most Reliable Texts, Volume I, page 160. Some of this post is also a paraphrase of information found on pages 155 – 168 of that text.)


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