Who was the Buddha?

" Who was the Buddha? When we strip away the myths, such as his princely youth in a palace, a surprising picture of this enigmatic sage emerges "


Alexander Wynne is a Buddhist scholar, and founder of the Buddhacloud app. He is the author of The Origin of Buddhist Meditation (2007) and Buddhism: An Introduction (2015).

A feature of the modern mindfulness movement, inherited from fairly recent Burmese innovations, is its appeal to the laity, and hence its essentially therapeutic, rather than salvific, aim. Nothing could be further removed from the Buddha’s radical ideal of sagehood. By insisting on ascetic discipline and a life of homeless wandering, Gotama presented mindfulness as a total life commitment. Practised in this way, attending to the constituents of experience can be transformative: Gotama claimed it is a way of undoing one’s mentally constructed world, along with all its unsatisfactoriness and suffering.


This is incorrect culminating in its final sentence, and shows an incomplete knowledge of the teaching. There is a section of the suttas that is intentionally aimed at the level of the lay community, and describes how to live life to achieve a goal of more fortunate rebirth rather than nibbana, although it does leave the way open for further development. Bikkhu Bodhi numbers these suttas at 35 in total in his book, “In the Buddha’s Words: An Anthology of Discourses from the Pali Canon.”

The book is divided into a progressive sequence of chapters which are self-explanatory, all based around sutta references:

1.The Human Condition

  1. The Bringer of Light

  2. Approaching the Dhamma

  3. The Happiness Visible in This Present Life.

5.The Way to a Fortunate Rebirth.

  1. Deepening One’s Perspective on the World.

7.The Path to Liberation.

  1. Mastering the Mind.

  2. Shining the Light of Wisdom.

  3. The Planes of Realization.

Chapters 4 (18 suttas), 5 (17) and 6 cover the practice of the lay person, and 6 shows how they might expand their goal from a fortunate rebirth to nibbana.


This is an interesting essay that outlines a number of historically important points about the Buddha, though @paul1 does bring up a good point with respect to lay practice. I would also take issue with Alex’s antirealist understanding of the Buddha dhamma.

I published a paper awhile back explaining my reasoning, which was published in the JOCBS under Alex’s guidance, but in a nutshell I believe that an antirealist interpretation depends upon a small number of rather obscure passages and overlooks the broader context of the Buddha’s teaching which is not antirealist. FWIW.


One who sees Dhamma sees Buddha sees Paticca Samuppada.

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I’m sure Wynne knows his teachings quite well. He explores rather which suttas to regard for an authentic Buddha image, and which not. Lay Buddhism simply doesn’t fit into his image of original Buddhism.

Can you elaborate on that, or link to your article?

I find speculations like Wynne’s useful, it gives us the chance to scrutinize our understanding. For example, Wynne overemphasizes the Buddha’s unwillingness to teach - which is (along with Brahma’s ‘invitation’) basically not confirmed by the Chinese sources. And who would have been witness to this event anyway?

Another small thing is that, as we discussed here on D&D, Rahula’s status as the Buddha’s son is far more shaky than tradition has it. Yes, he has been ‘born of the Buddha’s mouth’, but so have been others.

I came to see forest quietism also as the probable root of Buddhism, even though recent iterations of the forest-city debate came to conclude that Buddhism originated in both.

Wynne’s interpretation of Kondanna (SN 8.9) and Assaji (SN 22.88) is interesting, but so far I wouldn’t see the few suttas as enough to have fixed opinions about them not being liberated.


I think this belongs in the ‘watercooler’ section.

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It’s kind of on the line between, not being an essay by @UpasakaMichael, but being a link to an essay. If the mods agreed, it wouldn’t be out of place in the Watercooler, I don’t think.

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Sure, it’s here: “Was the Buddha an Anti-Realist?

(NB: There are some mistakes with layout and formatting. I was told by Richard Gombrich that their layout editor was taken ill just before the issue went to press, and a number of errors crept into some of the essays. FYI).


Continuing from my post above the doctrinal basis for the two levels of practice incorporated in the teaching, lay and adept, is laid down in MN 117, where right view is described as of two kinds:

“And what is right view? Right view, I tell you, is of two sorts: There is right view with effluents, siding with merit, resulting in acquisitions [of becoming]; there is right view that is noble, without effluents, transcendent, a factor of the path.”

Where the secular mindfulness movement stands in relation to Theravada doctrine is an interesting question and the Buddha does not mention mindfulness until the graduated training (MN 27), which is at the adept level of chapter VII, ‘The Path to Liberation’, in Bikkhu Bodhi’s chapters. This means that the secular mindfulness movement is entering Buddhism at the ‘adept’ level rather than the lay level. This is no different to the western Buddhism practiced on this site, in which lay people also aspire to the achievements traditionally left to monastics.

In the Buddha’s instructions in the suttas at the lay level in BB’s chapters 4&5, he stresses impermanence (AN 4.34, AN 9.20), but speaks of heedfulness rather than mindfulness.

The Buddha has traditionally been called a physician because he prescribes remedies appropriate to the illness, and both those following mundane and transcendent right view will benefit. (AN 10.108).


Doh! Banished to the Watercooler, again!


:rofl: :smiley: It was worth it just to get your lovely gif :rofl:

Just for you - would you like to be returned to ‘discussion’ ? :smile: but only if you leave your image up! :smiley:


@Viveka…no need to send me to “Discussion.” I happen to like the Watercooler. I can hang out, and just chill, and hide from the rest if the world. An empty hut, or root of a tree? Or, a watercooler! Pure refuge! :rofl:


MN40:10-12.4: Suppose there was a lotus pond with clear, sweet, cool water, clean, with smooth banks, delightful.

:beach: :heart:


Continuing the theme of my two previous posts the entry of western Theravada into the teaching at the adept level has one doctrinal disadvantage: it omits the study of kamma which is the concern of mundane right view and is an essential foundation for transcendent right view. Consequently such practice lacks an understanding of anything connected with cause and effect, particularly the birth-death cycle of samsara which is driven by the opposites of desire and aversion. Whenever you are dealing with the conditioned it involves opposites. Having such knowledge leads to a dynamics-oriented point of view which engenders insights such as that impermanence is really an expression of the ‘death’ element, and over-reliance on ‘life’ is problematic.

Western Theravadins have a fear of dualities that is misplaced. Although they know that conditioned phenomena is samsara and should strive against the current, it is also said that we should recognize Mara when he appears.

“Then it occurred to her: "This is Mara the Evil One” —-SN 5.1

Thus knowledge of cycles and opposites is to be cultivated.

Analayo characterizes insight relationships as ‘dynamics’ in “The Dynamics of Theravada Insight Meditation”.