That’s a great huatou, actually.
In one sense, the Buddha is the historical Siddhartha Gautama, a wealthy heir who lived about 2,500 years ago. He left everything behind in an effort to understand and alleviate suffering for all beings.
After trying out all the faiths and methods available, he went his own way. One night, meditating under a fig tree, he looked up at the Morning Star, and he Woke Up. From then on, he was referred to as a Buddha (Awakened One), bhagavan (World Honored One), or Tathagata (The One Who’s Thus).
He traveled around teaching until his death, 45 years later, at 80 years old.
But that’s how people saw the Buddha; it seems like he saw himself in a different way. Namely, he didn’t see himself at all. He was free from all the perceptual garbage we tend to carry around, including rigid views about who we are.
So, Buddha isn’t just Siddhartha. Buddha is the Awakened aspect of everyone, the true mind, the true selfless self that shines without the slightest hindrance. The one who’s reading these words.
As Huang-po, and several other Chan teachers, said: “The mind is Buddha, Buddha is the mind. Apart from mind, there is no Buddha; apart from Buddha, there is no mind.”
Buddha is what we are without all the shit, though the shit doesn’t do anything to dim its light. We’re just always searching for it in the wrong places, always distracted and full of opinions and ambitions. In one second, any of us can turn around and see what Buddha is. Really, we don’t even need to turn around.
A Bodhisattva is an Awakening being, someone who’s “on the path to Buddhahood.” I put that in quotes because, really, the path is Buddhahood. Siddhartha was a Bodhisattva before he stumbled on complete enlightenment. Motivated by compassion and a thirst for truth, he put everything he had into his practice. That’s what Bodhisattvas do.
A lot of people kind of worship Siddhartha and other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas like they’re gods. That’s okay, but you don’t have to do that. If you do, just make sure to beware of attachment. People don’t Wake Up so that we can cling to them, they Wake Up to be free and ease our suffering.