The Buddha had a variety of names that he and others used for himself. One of the names is “Tathāgata” which means “one who has come thus” (tathā + āgata) and “one who has gone thus” (tathā+ gata). This dichotomy of this name explains much of who Buddha was. First, “Tathāgata” will be examined through his reincarnation into the Buddha. Secondly, the Buddha will be observed through his renunciation of the material world. Thirdly, Buddha Gautama’s dichotomy of character will be described through his awakening and teachings. Lastly, Buddha’s “coming” and “going” persists after his death through his relics and the anticipation of Mettyya.
The legend of the Buddha can be found in the Sutra and Vinyana (Gethin 17). These texts state that before an individual attains Buddhahood is reached, he must have been a god inthe Heaven of the Contented. This level of existence is called a bodhisattva. The bodhisattva waits for the right time to be reincarnated as a human and become a Buddha” (Gethin 17-18).
The title of Buddha has also been bestowed on many individuals over time. One such man was the Buddha Dipamkara who was known for his compassion and wisdom. One day an ascetic Sumedha encountered him was so impressed with his virtuous personality, he sought to replicate Dimpamkara’s virtues. Sumedha eventually mastered this and became the bodhisattva who would become Buddha Gautama (Gethin 18). He was born to Maya and named Siddhartha Guatama. Upon his birth he spoke out loud, “I am chief in the world, I am best in the world, I am first in the world. This is my last birth. There will be no further rebirth” (Gethin 19). This is an example of our Buddha’s dichotomy. He has come into the world to spread the Dharma, but simultaneously he has also left samsara. The Buddha has also gone and walked ahead, illuminating the Eightfold Path which people can follow to go attain nirvāna.
Buddha possessed thirty-two marks which indicated he would either become a holy man, or a king. His father, Suddhoana, wanted him to be a king and continue his family line. Due to this decision Siddhartha was raised in luxury as a prince. However, as he aged he became disenchanted with the pleasurable life. He eventually decided to leave the palace and become a wandering ascetic (Gethin 20-22). This journey out of the palace is major marker in the Buddhas life, as it symbolizes his renunciation of his old ways. This step demonstrates the Buddha as “one who has gone thus” because he has turned his back on the material world, and left into the wilderness.
During this period he meditated under the Bodhi Tree. It was then swore to not move from his seat until he has reached complete awakening, even if this means that his body will perish (Gethin 22). He was then tempted and assaulted by Mara and his armies. He was then able defeat Mara without losing his concentration and reached complete awakening, nirvana (Gethin 24). The idea of meditating to reach nirvāna is essential when understanding Buddhism. However, the word for meditation “bhāvanā” means “bringing into being”, while nirvana is the halting of samsara. It seems somewhat oxymoronic in practice, to both create and cease simultaneously. On the contrary, it actually makes sense in comparison to the Buddha’s dichotomy. One must be able to bring the Dharma into being in meditation, while seeking to end suffering. This action personifies “Tathāgata”, to have gone from suffering, but come into the realization of the Dharma.
Buddha’s enlightenment was the discovery of the Fundamental truth; everything is impermanent, the extremes of life cause nothing suffering. The solution to this impermanence was to follow “The Middle Way”. This a sign that he had attained Buddhahood becoming Buddha Gautama. However, the Buddha did not simply vanish into nirvana. He continued the traditional role of Buddha as a great teacher and began turning the wheel of dharma, passing his truth to the world (Gethin 25). This eleventh act is lies at the core of the Buddha’s moniker “Tathāgata”. He had ended his karmic cycle and was able to leave this world through his realization of the truth, but also took it upon himself to return to this realm of existence to teach “The Middle Way”. The Buddha has come and gone before all those who follow him. The Buddha died at 80 years old, he was then cremated and put in a stupa at a cross roads (Gethin 25). With his death the Buddha completed the Four Great Deeds: Birth, Awakening, First teaching (turning the Wheel of Dharma), and Final Nirvāna.
Nirvāna is the end of the samsara for an individual’s karmic stream (End of Buddha, Slide 1). So it could be presumed that the end of Gautama’s story was with the cessation of his karmic stream. However, the Buddha’s form is made up of the physical body and the Dharma body, which is the truth he teaches. Therefore Buddha continues in this world through his relics and his teachings. The Buddha’s relics are the “expression and extensions of the Buddha’s biographical process” (Strong 5). After Buddha Gautama’s death, his relics were scattered across India for many years until King Asoka collected the relics, and redistributing them among 84000 stupas (Strong 136). This dispersal and gathering of relics can be representative of the expansion and contraction of Buddhism itself as this act caused Buddha’s Dharma to spread across the entire Indian subcontinent. These relics allowed people to recall his teachings far and wide (Strong 233). This exhibits how the people were able to view the Buddha even after he had died. Through this understanding the Buddha’s physical form may have perished, but the widespread existence and perpetuation of his Dharma allow him to continually exist.
The Buddha Gautama is a Buddha who has left the world and “… cannot be reborn in some new form of existence” (Gethin 28). This reinforces the “gata” in “Tathāgata”, he is gone from this world, a Buddha of the past. However, Buddhists still look forward to the Buddha who is to come, Mettyya. Metteyya is the future Buddha (Collins 134). Despite the translation of “one who has come thus” (tathā + āgata) being present tense, it is still important to understand why the anticipation of the next Buddha is so integral to the faith and his name “Tathāgata”. The arrival of Mettyya and his Dharma will change human civilization to utopian society. While the teachings of Mettyya and Gautama may be similar, and the Buddhist outlook is often cyclical, such as with samsara, the progression of the Buddha from Dipamkara to Gotama, and Gotama to Metteyya shows that there is a non-repetitive, irreversible direction in time (Collins 143). This demonstrates why a distinction can be made from the Buddha who has gone, and the one who has come, but also why these words can come together to describe Buddha as a whole.
The Buddha can be easily misinterpreted as a man of contradictions, but that could not be further from the truth. Although complicated, the Buddha is a being of perfection. His body was mortal, yet Dharma is able to span the whole of time. He has attained awakened, yet he continued to teach humanity. He was born into a world of material wealth, yet he rejected it, instead seeking true spiritual prosperity. He is the “one who has come thus”, yet he is the “one who has gone thus”. The Buddha truly is “Tathāgata”.