I'm looking for some help in finding a reference. It's from a contemporary writer -- probably in the last ten years -- not from anything ancient or canonical. The context is as follows.

The word “Buddha” -- i.e. the title-cased version -- is typically used to refer to The Buddha, Siddartha Gautama. Also, but less frequently, it can refer to a relatively small bunch of others, such as Maitreya; any of the Saptatathāgata; and the like.

By contrast, and contrary to popular opinion (although familiar to most of us here), the lower-cased version of the word, “buddha" actually applies to anyone who has attained a particular degree of awakening. Please excuse that very imprecise definition on my part, but for the purposes of my question the operative word there is simply the “anyone”.

In other words, while only a few are acknowledged as being a Buddha, in theory anyone can (and perhaps gazillions already have) become a buddha.

So to my reference. The writer was offering an explanation as to the difference between the two; i.e. what distinguishes the rare, named Buddhas from the relatively common, (lower-cased) buddhas. And he (I'm pretty sure it was a dude) said that one difference was the place of the Buddha as a major teacher of humanity.

But in fact, the writer was more emphatic than that. If I'm remembering right, he was arguing that being a teacher of extreme significance was The defining characteristic that distinguishes a major Buddha from a mere buddha.

One more clue. I have a strong hunch that the writer was Shinzen Young, but I have not been able to track down what I'm after. And, knowing how I've encountered most of Shinzen's stuff, that might be because I heard him say it, in a video presentation, rather than read it.

Is this ringing any bells to anyone?

A follow-up question. I don't know the extent to which Shinzen (or whomever it was) was expounding his own theory, versus merely explaining what is a well-established view. If it sounds like it was the latter, then just as useful to me would be a reference to any reliable source, ancient and canonical would then be ideal, that makes the same point; i.e. the point that The key characteristic distinguishing a buddha from a Buddha is that the latter teaches the world how to become the former.

1 Answer 1


No idea who the author you are talking about is, but what he/she's referring to is a samyaksambuddha. It's canonical at least from a Mahayana perspective. A samyaksambuddha is a once in a kalpa being. He (and it's always been a "he" in this world system) is a Buddha without karmic remainder. He is fully awakened in terms of his own existential obstacles and his investigation into reality. He's also perfected all of the paramitas, mastered all of the dhyanas, and so on and so forth. And yes, like you indicate his ability to teach is of paramount importance.

All being a lowercase "buddha" means is someone who has awakened. If you want to bring the Theravada into this, a buddha is anyone from a sotapanna to an arhat. The title capital B Buddha explicitly refers to someone who is a perfected Bodhisattva who has mastered all aspects of the path. He is the person who restarts the sasana after it has been lost.

  • Excellent, thanks. Your answer gave me a lead on some further digging from which I learned that “teaching” actually provides one way of classifying awakened beings. Does the following match your understanding? If we have two parameters — TAUGHT and TEACHES— and using tilde (~) for negation, then we get: Samyaksambuddha = ~TAUGHT & TEACHES; Pratyekabuddha = ~TAUGHT & ~TEACHES; Aarhat (or Sāvakabuddha?) = TAUGHT; (The programmer in me wishes that Arhat could be further subdivided into those who teach and those who don’t :-) )
    – tkp
    Commented Dec 16, 2020 at 21:21

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