The Buddha: Sage, Saint, or Savior?

To honor their departed heroes, disciples of charismatic and influential religious leaders sometimes exaggerate their lives, sayings, and/or contributions.[1]  The legacy of Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, is no exception. The Indian sage’s life is an excellent example of how a man’s disciples will embellish his life and message far beyond what he did or taught. Commenting on the historical Buddha, August Reischauer states, “Gautama the man was disappearing entirely.”[2] The man was being replaced by a superhuman who developed divine attributes. Examples of such exaggerations are recorded throughout Buddhists Scriptures, such as The Lotus Sutra and Jātaka Stories.

In the quest for the historical Buddha, a scholar will likely start with the oldest and most reliable accounts of Gautama’s life and sayings. Although a few scholars such as Hans Penner, strongly challenge the historicity of the life of the Buddha,[3] several Buddhist scholars believe that the evidence demonstrates Siddhartha Gautama was indeed a historical figure.[4] The primary evidence for the historical Buddha, however, is the product of a series of Buddhist councils that took place several centuries after the death of Gautama. During these councils (official religious gatherings), leading Buddhist monks organized and attributed a large sum of teaching to Gautama, the majority of which appears to be expanded to include the more miraculous elements.[5] These early records of the Buddha’s life and teachings, which were written down several hundred years after Gautama’s death, are primarily found in the Pali texts.

These earliest texts, also known as the Tipitaka (baskets), form the basis for the Theravada Buddhist canon and are divided into three sections:

(1) Vinaya Pitaka, or the basket of monastic discipline,
(2) Sutta Pitaka, or the basket of discourses, and
(3) Abhidhamma Pitaka, the special teaching basket.

The Vinaya and Sutta texts are believed to be the oldest Buddhist scriptures, which makes them the preeminent sources in the search for the historical Buddha. Though these writings are the most ancient, their stories and sayings are wrapped in Indian mythology, which makes it difficult to examine them from a purely historical perspective. Many readers of these texts will likely struggle to determine whether the authors intend to present the narratives and discourses as facts or as metaphors and myths that are merely meant to convey a religious idea or truth. Regarding the difficulty in evaluating the Buddhist texts, Karen Armstrong admits, “We have no means of distinguishing which of these stories and sermons are authentic and which are invented.”[6] In the end, hoping to discover some historical facts about the Buddha’s life, the historian must sift through an assortment of discourse and tales that were compiled centuries after all participants and eyewitnesses were deceased. According to Richard Robinson and Willard Johnson, “No ungarnished collection of the Buddha’s sayings has survived.”[7] Moreover, they comment that the “later versions of the early canon are variants of a still-earlier corpus that grew and crystallized during three centuries of oral transmissions after the Parinirvana.”[8] With respect to the lack of a trustworthy and historically reliable account of the life and teachings of the historical Buddha, it logically follows that competing views of the Buddha’s role as either a Teacher, Pathfinder, or Savior of humanity continue to this day.

Siddhartha Gautama’s Self-Understanding (?)

Due to the late dates and changes made to the Pali and Sanskrit texts, it is nearly impossible to state emphatically that any text records the actual sayings of the Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama. This problem is heightened by the fact that, as DeBary states, “Each of the numerous sects of Buddhism has its version of the sacred texts.”[9] Therefore, it is necessary to proceed with caution when attempting to articulate what Gautama believed about his own nature.

In his opening sentence, Oscar Shaftel says, “Little is known of the life of the Buddha; the legend is the foundation of Buddhist understanding and practice.”[10] Yet, countless books have been written on every aspect of the Buddha’s life and teaching. The very nature of Buddhism, coupled with its lack of concrete historical information, allows each biographer, theologian, or scholar to construct the life and teaching of the Buddha to fit his or her own presuppositions. This confusion makes the work of discovering the self-understanding of Gautama even more difficult, if not impossible. To correct this problem, Shaftel contends that “it is possible to reach agreement on a rather limited content of what the Buddha taught his followers, even though there is no text that can be assigned directly to him and little agreement on what parts of the many Buddhist texts derive directly from his teaching.”[11] Therefore, the goal must be that of discovering the core elements that the majority of ancient Buddhist sources agree upon.

buddha sage saint or saviorBased on the available corpus, a historian can formulate a general understanding of the Buddha’s life and teaching. Gautama was a teacher who committed his life to discover the way to escape the cycle of rebirth and then to instructing any who would listen.  Entering Nirvana, according to Gautama, was the only way to permanently end the suffering associated with life and rebirth. He taught that the path to Nirvana was through enlightenment and required adherents to completely rearrange their way of thinking and living. To enter this path, one must be awakened to and follow the truth of the middle way. Thus, the Buddha taught the primary cause of the endless cycle of rebirth was mankind’s ignorance of the dharma.

In matters of theology, the Buddha was not an atheist. When it came to metaphysical questions, he chose not to speculate, believing that such problems could not be resolved.  Gautama did not declare the non-existence of the gods; however, he did believe they had no knowledge of the path to enlightenment. Rather than being an atheist, Gautama told of encounters he had with many of the Hindu gods and demons, including both Brahma and Mara. The former pleaded with the Buddha to share the path to enlightenment with all creatures, while the latter tempted him to abandon his quest.

The Buddha was an idealistic and religious opportunist. In his quest to teach humanity the dharma, Gautama crafted stories that, even though they were not true, would serve as a raft for crossing from ignorance and suffering to enlightenment.[12]  He borrowed elements of religion that he agreed with, such as the existence of the numerous Hindu gods. He would, however, strictly limit their power, and identify them as stuck in the world of suffering. This syncretism is why Hinduism eventually engulfed Buddhism in Northern India, making the Buddha another one of its countless gods.

Based on the common historical and theological threads that are agreed upon by the earliest Buddhist sources, it is safe to conclude that Gautama did not view himself as the savior of mankind. Instead, he likely saw himself as a sojourner who had discovered the elusive path to freedom. Though the path he had been awakened to was full of self-sacrifice and extreme dedication, as a wise sage, he felt it was his obligation and calling to assist and guide others to enlightenment. The freedom that awaited those who followed Gautama’s path was the end of the cycle of rebirth and suffering. Ultimately, the simple teachings of a former ascetic turned amateur philosopher became the basis for a variety of very complex Buddhist traditions and schools, each of them with their own understanding of his nature and role.

The Buddha and His Role in Theravada Buddhism

It is philosophically and theologically impossible to reconcile the Theravada (The Way of the Elders or Primitive Buddhism) view of the Buddha—who never claimed to be a god, did not seek the assistance of the gods, and believed that the gods could not provide assistance to those attempting to escape the suffering of this life—with the doctrine of the Bodhisattva of the Mahāyāna tradition. Describing the primary differences in the Buddhist traditions, Huston Smith and Philip Novak state the Theravada motto is based on the dying words of Gautama, who commanded his followers to be lamps unto themselves and to diligently work out their own salvation.[13]  Unlike the Mahāyāna tradition, in which the Buddha is a vehicle to enlightenment, his role in Theravada Buddhism is that of a teacher whose dharma provides the path to enlightenment.  Commenting on the role of the Buddha, Shaftel concludes, “for two or three centuries after the Parinirvana the dominant image of the Master was as a man, no matter what intimations of the supernatural appeared in the stories of his miraculous birth and his past and future existences.”[14]

It would be incorrect, however, to view the doctrine of the Bodhisattva as absent in the Theravada tradition. Commenting on the Mahāyāna pantheon, Robinson and Johnson state that even the Theravada tradition recognizes Maitreya as a historical Bodhisattva.[15] Nevertheless, unlike the Mahāyāna tradition that gives preeminence to the numerous Bodhisattvas who populate countless Buddha worlds, primitive Buddhism places the emphasis on the role of the Arhat.

What is an Arhat? According to Christmas Humphreys,

The Arhat was the goal of Buddhist endeavor, the result of treading to the end of the Eightfold Middle Way to self-enlightenment. He was a man made perfect, for he had purged himself of the fetters, destroyed the roots of evil, put out . . . lust, hatred, and illusion, attained the full range of spiritual powers and achieved enlightenment. He had reached the fourth ‘initiation’; had ‘entered the stream’ he had become a ‘once-returner’, then a ‘never’, and finally had achieved the state of an Arhat who, being self-liberated from the wheel of Samsara, need never be reborn. He was, in brief, a man who had perfectly fulfilled his task, who has attained the goal of Buddhism.[16]

The Arhat, while being diminished in the Mahāyāna sects, is the focal point in Theravada Buddhist life. Following what they believe to be the most ancient and accurate teachings of the Buddha, Arhats strive to follow the Noble Eightfold Path. Believing that each person must work to achieve his own enlightenment, the Theravada sects have no need of a Bodhisattva who intercedes for them. Thus, a significant difference between the two main divisions of Buddhism is the power of the individual, as portrayed in the Theravada tradition, and the powerlessness of humanity in the Mahāyāna tradition.

Additionally, in contrast to the Mahāyāna hermeneutical approach and open canon, the Theravada tradition has a limited canon and interprets sacred texts more literally. For example, the Jātaka stories are understood as nothing more than the past historical lives of Gautama. This understanding of the Buddha birth stories is dictated by the Theravada belief that at the end of his life Gautama entered Nirvana, which was the culmination of his historical existence. He would only live on in the dharma, according to Shaftel, and not as “an intercessor or savior.”[17] Therefore, the core of Theravada teaching is not the intercession of the Buddha, but the application of the Buddha’s teaching.

The Theravada method of salvation requires the adherent to live a strict monastic life while adhering to the Noble Eightfold Path. William DeBary explains that Theravada soteriology consists of three elements: (1) adoption of the right view of the nature of existence, (2) adoption of a carefully controlled system of moral conduct, and (3) concentration and meditation.[18] In light of what the historical Buddha is believed to have taught, DeBary’s explanation is likely the closest to both the self-understanding of Siddhartha Gautama and his teaching. The fourth of the Four Noble Truths, which brings together the Noble Eightfold Path, is the founder’s original and only teaching of how adherents could achieve the goal of enlightenment.[19] Therefore, the very legalistic method of the Theravada sect is, by far, closer to what the earliest Buddhist scriptures and historical traditions reveal concerning the role of the Buddha.

The Buddha and His Role in Mahāyāna Buddhism

The Buddha of the Mahāyāna (lit. The Great Vehicle) tradition is significantly different from the Buddha of history. Gautama’s attitude towards the cardinal elements of religion, according to Reischauer, is radically different than the manner in which the Mahāyāna scriptures portray it.[20] Answering this obvious contradiction, Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki contends that Gautama’s teachings were “very general, comprehensive, and many-sided; and therefore, there are great possibilities in them to allow various liberal interpretations by his disciples.”[21] Consequently, everything that Gautama taught is open to endless explanations and applications. Therefore, in the Mahāyāna faith there exists both an open canon that has been expanded for centuries and a liberal hermeneutic that is guided by the reader’s own understanding. With this open and liberal interpretation of the Buddhist Scriptures, it comes as no surprise that the Buddha of history has all but disappeared in much of the Mahāyāna tradition. This disappearance, however, was not spontaneous; it took several centuries and continues as the Mahāyāna tradition is further established in Western cultures. As Peter Harvey writes, “The Mahāyāna developed a new perspective on the nature of the historical Buddha.”[22] The chief cause of the doctrinal and philosophical shift away from the historical Buddha was the expansion of the role of the Bodhisattva in freeing humanity from the endless cycles of pain and suffering.

Mahāyāna soteriology is centered on the grace of the Bodhisattva, a savior-type figure who stands on the threshold of Buddhahood and refuses to enter until all humanity receives enlightenment. Thus, the Bodhisattva is viewed as a compassionate savior who is unwilling to drink of the cup until all enter the kingdom. The doctrine of intercession by the Bodhisattva likely has its origins in a liberal interpretation of the Jātaka stories (Buddha birth stories), in which the Buddha recites the activities in his previous 550 lives. As previously stated, it is difficult, if not impossible, to attribute specific sayings to Gautama. Nevertheless, the Jātaka stories seem to set the stage for the evolution of the Bodhisattva by portraying the Buddha as a prodigious being.

The desire to provide laity a more accessible path to enlightenment appears to have been a primary motivation in the development of the Buddha as a mediator. Likely, in reaction to the strict path presented by the more conservative Theravada tradition, the Mahāyāna school rebelled and created a more inclusive Buddhist path. These changes in Buddhist soteriology, however, were only in part a reaction against the primitive Buddhist teaching that Nirvana was only possible for those who were able to fully commit to the monastic life. In addition to the desire to offer a greater vehicle for the masses, monks viewed the doctrine of the Bodhisattva as a fuller development of the Buddha’s teaching.  Defending the evolution of Buddhist thought, Suzuki states that Buddhists “developed [Gautama’s] teachings as required by their special needs and circumstances, finally giving birth to the distinction of Mahāyānism and Hinayānism.”[23] This culturally-driven transformation was not instantaneous, nor led by any one individual, but slowly developed to fit each new cultural context.

In order to validate the doctrinal changes, numerous additions were made to the Buddhist canon. These later writings were presented as the true or full essence of the Buddha’s teaching. These writings, which included Prajnaparamita, Maharatnakuta Sutra, Buddhayatamsaka, and the Mahasamnipata, were considered the zenith of the Buddha’s teaching and allowed the Buddha to be depicted as more of a superhuman than a historical figure.[24] The objections surrounding the contradictory nature of these additions are countered by the claim that the expanded Mahāyāna canon broadened the scope of Buddhism and allowed it to adopt other religious beliefs that would benefit the people.[25] Furthermore, the teachings of the Buddha had caused men to leave their families to pursue the path to enlightenment. A different and broader way had to be developed if Buddhism was to become a stabilizing force in society.[26] Thus, the driving force in the development of the Bodhisattva may have been more sociological than theological.

Who can become a Buddha?

Buddhists believe that out of compassion for humanity, Gautama dedicated himself to teaching the way to escape suffering and the path to Nirvana. In the Mahāyāna tradition, the Bodhisattva is the compassionate Buddha who goes far beyond teaching the way of escape and becomes the way. Thus, the question remains, how would someone become a Bodhisattva? According to Robinson and Johnson, “Even the worst sinner still has a chance to become a Buddha.”[27] Obtaining the rank of Bodhisattva requires years of dedication and intense spiritual discipline in order for the disciple to progress through the ten spiritual bhumis (stages). The path to becoming a Bodhisattva, according to Hsing Yun, “requires diligent cultivation of patience, compassion, mindfulness, and wisdom.”[28] The beginning of this difficult path is known as the Bodhi-citta, which is the desire to achieve Buddhahood for its own sake, and for the purpose of assisting other suffering beings.[29] Therefore, instead of only working out one’s own salvation, a dedicated adherent can become a savior. Providing a process where anyone can become a Bodhisattva, the Mahāyāna tradition has formed a religious system in which the historical Buddha is practically unnecessary and opens the door for the most liberal expressions of Buddhism. For example, the doctrine of the Bodhisattva is taken even further in the Buddhist text Lotus Sutra of the True Law, which states, “All those Buddhas and Lords preached the law to creatures by means of only one vehicle, the Buddha-vehicles.”[30] According to this text, there is only one path to enlightenment, and it is not the middle way of Gautama, who warned his followers to avoid extremes. The exclusive claim made in the Lotus Sutra is far removed from the teaching of the Buddha, who urged his followers to work out their own salvation by following the Noble Eightfold Path. Such claims expanded the doctrine of the Bodhisattva that reached its apex in the Amida Buddha, who came to be known as the eternal Buddha. No longer would adherents have to be lamps unto themselves. Now all they must do is sincerely (in faith) recite the name of the eternal Buddha and salvation would be guaranteed. No longer would Gautama be considered the sage who had been awakened to the truth. The Buddha had evolved into much more than a guide to Nirvana; he had become the path.


In defense of Mahāyāna Buddhism as a whole, Suzuki argues, “whatever changes it has made during its historical evolution, its spirit and central ideas are all those of its founder.”[31] To defend this amazing claim, he says, “The question whether or not it [the Mahāyāna interpretation] is genuine, entirely depends on our interpretation of the term ‘genuine.’”[32] His argument is not from history, nor is it from an orthodox understanding of Gautama’s teaching. Instead, he is pleading that the Mahāyāna view is part of a living faith, while the primitive view is “nothing but rigid inorganic substance from which life is forever departed.”[33] DeBary, however, contends that the Mahāyāna sects “gave comparatively little attention” to the fundamental teachings of Gautama.[34] Both the historical evidence, as well as the claims made by Buddhist scholars, verify that the Mahāyāna doctrine of salvation does not come directly from the religion’s founder, but indirectly through either radically modifying his teachings or drastically reinterpreting nearly all of them. Conversely, Siddhartha Gautama has evolved from the saint of the Theravada sect into the Mahāyāna savior.

Look for my next article on “Sharing the gospel with Buddhists.”


[1]Examples of such embellishments are found in the stories of religious leaders such as Krishna, Muhammad, Confucius, and Joseph Smith, Jr. Shortly after the death of Siddhartha Gautama, his disciples began to exaggerate his life by including miraculous accounts that continued to evolve over the centuries. Many of the details surrounding the life of Gautama are clouded by exaggerated stories and events that cannot be historically verified.

[2]August K. Reischauer, Studies in Japanese Buddhism (New York: The MacMillan Company, 1917), 56.

[3]Hans H. Penner, Rediscovering that Buddha (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 126.

[4]Scholars such as Daisetz Suzuki, Christmas Humphreys, Karen Armstrong, and Oscar Shaftel would all contend that Siddhartha Gautama was a historical figure.

[5]Donald K. Swearer, ed., Buddhism (Allen, TX: Argus Communications, 1997), 33

[6]Karen Armstrong, Buddha (New York: Penguin Group, 2001), xvii.  The lack of credible information in the Pali texts does not prevent Armstrong from presenting Siddhartha Gautama’s life as a historical fact.  After admitting a lack of credible sources, she goes on to say, “Be we do not despair. The texts do contain historical material which seems to be reliable,” thus proving that she will not let a lack of historically verified information on Gautama prevent her from writing as if what the Tipitaka report is reliable.

[7]Richard H. Robinson and Willard L. Johnson, The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction, 4th ed. (Belmont, CA: Wadsworth Publishing, 1997), 51.


[9]William T. DeBary, ed., The Buddhist Tradition in India, China, and Japan (New York: Random House, 1969), 13.

[10]Oscar Shaftel, An Understanding of the Buddha (New York: Schocken Books, 1974), 1.

[11]Ibid., 21.

[12]Russell H. Bowers, Jr., “Gentle Strength and Upāya: Christian and Buddhist Ministry Models,” in Sharing Jesus Effectively in the Buddhist World, eds. David Lim, Steve Spaulding, and Paul De Neui (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library Publishers, 2005), 132-143.

[13]Houston Smith and Philip Novak, Buddhism: A Concise Introduction (New York, Harper One, 2004), 65.

[14]Shaftel, An Understanding of the Buddha, 72.

[15]Robinson and Johnson, The Buddhist Religion, 105-06.

[16]Christian Humphreys, Exploring Buddhism (London: Allen and Unwin, 1974), 88.

[17]Shaftel, An Understanding of the Buddha, 73.

[18]William T. DeBary, The Buddhist Tradition in India, China, and Japan, 11.

[19]Olson, Original Buddhist Sources, 46.

[20]Reischauer, Studies in Japanese Buddhism, 52.

[21]Daisetz Teitaro Suzuki, Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism (New York: Schocken Books, 1963), 5.

[22]Peter Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism: Teachings, History, and Practices (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), 125.

[23]Suzuki, Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism, 7.

[24]Carl Olson, ed. Original Buddhist Sources: A Reader (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005), 145.

[25]Suzuki, Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism, 10.

[26]Shaftel, An Understanding of the Buddha, 91.

[27] Robinson and Johnson, The Buddhist Religion: A Historical Introduction, 85.

[28]Hsing Yun, The Core Teachings: Buddhist Practice and Progress 1 (Hacienda Heights: CA, 2006), 119.

[29]Harvey, An Introduction to Buddhism, 122.

[30]Robert E. Van Voorst, Anthology of World Scriptures, 6th ed. (Belmont, CA: Thomson Wadsworth, 2008), 85.

[31]Suzuki, Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism, 14.



[34]DeBary, The Buddhist Tradition, 12.

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