A friend lately asked me who the Buddha was. I asked back: why is this important to you?
In a culture under the spell of personality cult, someone's acts and words receive less attention than appearance and demeanor. Politicians, CEOs of multinational companies, religious leaders, the rich and the famous are all too often not held accountable for their actions.
In one of his most famous discourses, the Kalama Sutta, the Buddha explicitly warned about being blindsided by loyalty, tradition, or the charisma of a leader. Instead, he suggested to remember our responsibility. A responsibility to see and experience for ourselves what is beneficial, what brings happiness and joy to our lives and the lives of others. The question which serves as benchmark for any action is
Does this contribute to suffering, or does it contribute to peace/happiness?
We are accountable for what we do, and we can hold others accountable for their actions.
"Act in such a way that you always treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never simply as a means but always at the same time as an end." Immanuel Kant
What can we actually know about the Buddha?
The Buddha gave his discourses 2.600 years ago in a Sanskrit variation called Pali. The discourses were collected presumably 300 years after his death. For another 200 years they were transmitted orally until scholars started to write them down. The differences in the written records show how versions of one and the same text developed over time. The canon can thus not serve as an ultimate source of truth. Like with all transmitted texts, we have to take into consideration that they underwent many intentional and unintentional changes over time.
Yet there are many Buddhist traditions which put worship of the Buddha in the center of their practice. This reflects in beautiful statues in Buddhist temples and precious pieces of art all over the world. In countries where Buddhist practice has strong roots, people regularly go to monasteries to offer donations and show their devotion to the Buddha. In many religious places the deep dedication of pilgrims is palpable in the air.
Worship, devotion and giving offerings have the potential to reduce the importance of individuality and independence. They also hold risks, when over exaggerated. Relying solely on a tradition or a leader, it is easy to forget to explore for oneself what is skillful and what is not. We run into the risk to hand over responsibility for happiness and actions to another.
Since ancient time Buddhists take refuge in the Buddha. This does not need to end up in personality cult or the idealization of a historic person. When taking refuge in the Buddha, we remember what the Buddha represents. The word "Buddha" stems from the verb bujjhati, which means to "wake up to something". The Buddha stands for our ability to wake up to the dynamics of suffering and happiness. Seeing these dynamics with clarity, wisdom can respond in ways which end suffering and stress. The Buddha embodies the human capacity to find ways and means to live a life with peace of heart.
We have the potential to develop strengths and qualities on the path towards liberation of heart and mind. Taking refuge in the Buddha, we express our trust that freedom from suffering is actually possible. This practice has the potential to remind ourselves that this is a path worth exploring.
I suggested to my friend not to worry too much about the historical figure of the Buddha. After all, unless we invent time travel, we can never be sure who he really was. What can be way more beneficial is to dive into the body of teachings and explore, investigate and see for ourselves if we find something worth implementing into our lives. It is, when it has the capacity to lessen suffering and bring peace. To us as well as to others.