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 Outline

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.

Course Outline

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
    • 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 “Early Buddhist Texts.”
  2. [E] The Buddha’s Family

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

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

  6. [E] The Bodhisattva Career in the Theravada
  7. [Bodhisattva] Chapter 2: Meeting the Previous Buddha
  8. [Nidanakatha] The Distant Epoch

  9. [Buddha, My Refuge] Introduction
  10. [Life] After the Enlightenment
  11. Epithets of the Buddha (.jpeg) (.jpeg)
  12. The Meaning of the Word Tathāgata According to the Pāli Commentaries: Text and Introduction – Bhikkhu Bodhi (.pdf) (.pdf)

  13. [Entries] Pratyeka-buddhas
  14. [Entries] Optional: The Four Ennobling Truths
  15. [Refuge] Arahaṁ

  16. [Life] Spreading the Dhamma
  17. [L] The Two Chief Disciples
  18. [L] Anathapindika: Feeder of the Poor

  19. [N] The Last Epoch
  20. [Refuge] sammā-sambuddho
  21. DN 28: Inspiring Confidence (.pdf)

Part 2: Establishing the Religion

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

  3. [Life] Formation of the Order of Nuns
  4. Mahāpajāpatī’s Going Forth in the Madhyama-āgama – Bhikkhu Anālayo (.pdf)

  5. [Refuge] Vijjā-caraṇa-sampanno
  6. The Buddha and Omniscience – Bhikkhu Anālayo (.pdf)

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

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

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

  14. [R] Anuttaro purisa-damma-sārathi
  15. [L] The Person
  16. The Buddha Was Bald – Eisel Mazard (.pdf)

  17. [L] The Doctrine
  18. [E] Anatman

  19. [R] Satthā deva-manussānaṁ
  20. [T] Devas Honor the Buddha
  21. [L] Devadatta

  22. [R] Buddho
  23. [L] Old Age
  24. [E] The Buddha and Cakravartins
  25. Review: [T] Devas in the Buddha’s Career

  26. [L] The Last Year
  27. Sūkaramaddava: The Buddha’s Last Meal – John D. Ireland (.pdf) (.pdf)
  28. [E] Relics of the Buddha
  29. [R] Bhagava

  30. [E] Early Symbols of the Buddha
  31. [L] The First Council
  32. [T] Liberation and Conclusion

Epilogue: The Far Future

  1. [Bodhisattva] Maitreya

Further Reading




Canonical Works

And even those disciples of his who fall out with their companions in the holy life and abandon the training to return to the low life–even they praise the Master and the Dhamma and the Sangha; they blame themselves instead of others, saying: “We were unlucky, we have little merit”

I did not delight in the contemplative Gotama’s speech; I condemned it, rose from my seat, and left!



A classic translation of this important and immersive tale from the Pāli Canon.

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.