The Buddha was not the first buddha. The Pali word “buddha” means “awakened.” The term existed before Gautama Siddhartha became the person we know as, “The Buddha” and founder of Buddhism. This happened during a period in history that some anthropologists refer to as the “Axial Age.” This was a turning point in where human beings looked for answers to the big questions in life:
“What does it all mean?”
“Why are we here?”
“What is the purpose of life?”
“Why must we suffer?”
It was at this time that people started looking “within” for answers, as opposed to looking to figures in the sky, or the spirits of their ancestors. It came slowly into general conception during this time that humanity might find solutions within itself.
The Buddha was not the only figure of note during the Axial Age. Other people held up as examples of this trend in humanity include Lao Tzu, Confucious, Plato, and Jesus Christ. There were many people through this period that made the transition to looking within for the solutions to life’s big questions. This was a momentous occurrence in the history of humanity. The again so was the wheel.
I don’t want to make light of the shift represented by the Axial Age. Far from it. I personally regard this as the time when humanity first got the opportunity to actually grow up. That being said, I do think that far to big of a deal has been made out of it. In the Tibetan Buddhist tradition it has been said that even to hear of the word enlightenment is as fortuitous an event as if there were “an ageless turtle who lives on the bottom of the sea who comes to the surface once a century, and that upon the sea there is floating a single life preserver, and hearing of enlightenment is as great a stroke of luck as if the turtle surfaced accidentally within the ring of the life preserver.” That’s a lot of luck, right there! This treatment puts way too much pressure on the whole issue, in my humble opinion.
I don’t think that everyone can become a “fully realized enlightened master forever free from suffering” on a weekend retreat. Note that there is a lot going on with that title. What I am suggesting is that the fruits won during the Axial Age, here in the Information Age, are available to everyone. The entrance way to that solution is as easy as realizing that there are solutions to find, and discoveries to be made, by looking within your own process. Over time the number of methodologies for doing this have multiplied. Psychoanalysis, meditation, yoga, philosophy, general semantic, etc. All of these are entry ways that are viable to begin this investigation. Each of them has their own fruits to offer, and they don’t require years of effort.
The great sages of the past were great. I do not mean to denigrate their accomplishments in any way. Rather the opposite. It is my assertion that part of their greatness comes from the accessibility of the methods. The Buddha, for example, did not put forth a teaching that only those who give up everything can benefit from. The teachings and practices are meant to be a gift to the world at large and not the sole purview of a dedicated few. This confusion is exacerbated when we make a big deal out of it. It may be true that not everyone can be a fully realized Buddha. Then again, not everyone gets to be a concert pianist. That does not mean that a person cannot benefit from meditation, nor does it mean that a person cannot enjoy music.
As long as these matters are cast upon pedestals, we will loose the pervasive benefit they could have. That would be a shame.