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Who’s Who of Buddhism



See also: DhammaWiki.com for the bios of these teachers and many others.

19 male and 19 female significant and influential Buddhist figures from antiquity to present day listed below.

The Buddha (563 B.C. - 483 B.C.) The fully enlightened Buddha, the Buddha of our time. Historically, the founder of Buddhism, but to Buddhists he is considered the person who rediscovered the teachings after they had died out. Photo above is from Bodh Gaya, India, 80 foot (24 meter) high statue.

Other types of fully enlightened people are as follows:

Sama-sam-buddha = One who rediscovers the teachings and teaches the masses as the historical Buddha did (Siddhattha Gotama).

Paccekabuddha = A silent buddha. One who attains full enlightenment, but does not teach others.

Arahant = Fully enlightened person, who might teach others, but not as the one who rediscovered the teachings, just as one who learned it from a current dispensation.

All three types of buddha listed above are attained by study, meditation, morality, concentration, tranquility, hard work, and wisdom and all are fully enlightened saints who attain nibbana (nirvana).

Statues of the Buddha are in many different postures, but a popular choice for altars is that of the earth witness where the Buddha is seen with one hand reaching for the ground as the earth was witness to his enlightenment in 528 B.C.

Hotei (830 A.D. - 902 A.D.) A Chinese monk from the Chan (precursor to Zen) school. Many people confuse him as THE Buddha, when in fact he was a Buddhist monk. He may have been a buddha, such as an arahant (enlightened), but not THE Buddha of our time. A common statue at Chinese restaurants and temples so that many have confused him as the founder of Buddhism, which is not the case. He is always shown with a big belly as he is said to have enjoyed candy and also passed candy out to children.

Medicine Buddha is a semi-legendary buddha who represents the healing nature of the Buddha's teachings. In some schools of Mahayana Buddhism, an actual person who at death passed into a heavenly realm and presides over one of the heavens as a healer who can be called upon. In Tibetan Buddhism, it is believed that meditation on the Medicine Buddha can help decrease physical and mental illness and suffering.

Amitabha Buddha is a semi-legendary buddha who presides over the Western Pure Land according to some schools of Mahayana Buddhism. Devotees call upon his name for entrance to this heavenly realm, where once there enlightenment will be easier to attain. Statues of Amitabha appear very similar to statues of Buddha, with the main difference being that the hands form two circles in the lap of Amitabha.

Kwan Yin is the most important female figure in many Buddhist traditions. She is the goddess of compassion. In Buddhism gods are impermanent higher beings who are still subject to rebirth, they are not absolute power deities or creators, as in the western use of the term God. Kwan Yin is a rebirth of the bodhisattva Avolikiteshvara, a monk from a previous eon who was reborn in a heavenly realm and filled with compassion for all living beings. One legend states that Avolikiteshvara chose to be reborn as a beautiful woman to marry a famous king and convince him to become a Buddhist.

Maya devi is the mother of the Buddha. She died 7 days after giving birth to Buddha. She was reborn to a heavenly realm and the Buddha went to that realm after enlightenment to teach her higher psychological-scientific teachings (Abhidhamma).

Tara is a goddess in the Mahayana tradition and is especially venerated in vajrayana (Tibetan) Buddhism. She is the mother of liberation, and represents the virtues of success in work and achievements.

Sariputta (Sariputra) was the first chief male disciple of the Buddha. He was known for his caring, humility, patience, and especially his wisdom. He learned the higher teachings from the Buddha and was foremost in explaining it.

Moggallana was the second of the foremost monk disciples of the Buddha. He was known for his ease at supernormal abilities including reading the mind of others, using the mind to reach heavenly realms, speaking to gods and ghosts, walking through walls, walking on water, and traveling at the speed of light. According to the Buddhist scriptures, he had a very dark complexion (Buddhavamsa and in Buddhism A to Z by Dhammika).

King Ashoka (304 BC - 232 BC) reigned over all of South Asia and beyond due to many military invasions led by him. He controlled all of present day India, Nepal, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Iran. His kingdom was vast. He renounced all violence after becoming a Buddhist. He was a vegetarian and erected many edicts praising the Buddha's teachings which also gave further archeological proof of the Buddha's life and other historical information found in the Buddhist discourses (canon or scriptures).

Sujata is the woman who offered food (rice cooked in milk) to the Buddha when he was performing his ascetic practices (long fasts) before enlightenment. The Buddha was near death as this was before he realized and practiced the middle way. Later after enlightenment, a heavy storm came and a large cobra snake protected the Buddha. It is interesting to note that in the Judeo-Christian bible the Fall of man is blamed on a woman and a snake, but in Buddhism the world is saved (by helping the Buddha from death) by a woman and a snake. Sujata would later become a bhikkhuni (Buddhist nun).

Maha Pajapati Gotami was the aunt and step-mother of the Buddha. She became the first nun in Buddhism and became fully enlightened (arahant).

Khema was one of the wives of King Bimbisara and was very beautiful. One day the Buddha explained to her impermanence in a way to show her that the beauty would not last. Khema practiced and became enlightened and then decided to become a nun. She penetrated to the truth very quickly and was the chief nun during the time of Buddha.

Dhammadinna was the wife of a merchant. She and her husband became Buddhists and she decided to ordain as a bhikkhuni (nun). Shortly thereafter she became enlightened (arahant). Her husband progressed well, but to the stage of non-returner, which is not yet enlightened. She surpassed her husband, which became one of many examples of where women exceeded either their husbands or their teachers in spiritual progress, once again showing the gender equality in the teachings of the Buddha. On one occasion Ven. Dhammadinna was giving a Dhamma talk and the Buddha sat silently and listened. After the talk, the Buddha said that he could not have said (the teachings) it any better and praised her vigorously.

Sanghamitta was the daughter of King Ashoka. She was a nun who spread the Order to Sri Lanka and brought with her a sapling from the original Bodhi tree at Bodh Gaya. This marked one of the key moments in the spread of Buddhism outside of India.

Nagarjuna (150 AD - 250 AD) was an Indian philosopher and founder of the Madhyamaka school (middle path). His major contributions were the doctrine of emptiness which further explained the no-self teaching of Buddha and the two-truths doctrine of ultimate truth and conventional truth. Nagarjuna explained that all phenomena are without any own-nature or self-nature, and thus without any underlying essence, they are empty of being independent. Modern scientists would concur with this and have noticed the parallels in their findings and this teaching. Nagarjuna is especially venerated in the Mahayana, but since he did not teach on the bodhisattva ideal, many scholars now feel that he may have been a Theravadin.

Caroline Augusta Foley Rhys Davids, M.A., D.Litt. (1857-1942) was born a Christian in England and decided to learn Pali and the teachings of Buddha in an attempt to disprove Buddhism. She then decided to become a Buddhist after discovering the profound teachings of Buddha. She dedicated her life to translating the discourses of the Buddha from the original Pali to English. She was the second president of the Pali Text Society. Her husband, Thomas Rhys Davids was also a Buddhist scholar and translator. Their contributions were significant because they paved the way for future translators. By making the teachings more accessible, Buddhism has spread to many western nations.

Anagarika Dharmapala (1864-1933) was born in Colombo, Sri Lanka and received a Christian education through college. He was the translator for the first Theosophists, Madame Blavatsky and Colonel Olcott. He learned Buddhism from them and became very devoted as an 8 precept semi-monastic. He visited Bodh Gaya, India in 1891 and saw the dilapidated condition of the Mahabodhi temple and cried. He set up the Maha Bodhi Society to preserve and restore the temple and grounds. Today it is renovated and beautiful and attracts pilgrims from around the globe. He ordained as a bhikkhu (monk) in 1933 and died shortly thereafter in Sarnath, India.

If you notice from this list and from your own investigation of Buddhist history, you will find that from about the year 900 AD up until almost the year 1900 there was little activity in Buddhism as the religion and philosophy almost died out. During this time there was no bhikkhuni (nuns) Order and also the Mahabodhi temple complex was left in virtually ruins type condition. After the efforts of Anagarika Dharmapala and the restoration of the temple, it seems Buddhism started to once again flourish in the world. In the year 1900 there may have been about 1,000 western born Buddhists at best. Today there are over 10 million.

Dipa Ma (1911-1989) taught vipassana from her humble small home in India. She mastered the jhanas of Theravada meditation and taught at major retreat centers as well in India, Europe, and the U.S. She taught Sharon Salzberg, Joseph Goldstein, and Jack Kornfield, all of whom became one of the first western born teachers of Buddhism in America.

Ajahn Chah (1918-1992) was from Thailand and was the most famous meditation master in the Thai forest tradition of Theravada Buddhism. He had many students who went on to become famous in their own right and included many westerners, such as Ajahn Sumedho in England and Jack Kornfield, Ph.D. in the U.S. There are currently several hundred monasteries around the world affiliated with Ajahn Chah's teachings.

Ayya Khema (1923-1997) was born in Germany to Jewish parents. She was one of the first western born women to receive full ordination as a bhikkhuni, reviving the Buddhist Order of nuns. She has lived in Germany, China, the U.S., Australia, South America, and Sri Lanka. She wrote several bestselling books and opened monasteries in Australia, Sri Lanka, and Europe.

Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar, Ph.D., J.D., D.Sc. (1891-1956) was a scholar, jurist, and father of the Indian Constitution. He was the first leader of the Dalit Buddhist Movement, which calls for an end to the caste system of India and for untouchables to convert to Buddhism. Dr. Ambedkar was born into this lowest caste, but rejected this and converted to Buddhism. He was one of the first untouchables to earn a college education and he went on to earn several doctorate degrees.

S. N. Goenka (1924- ) is perhaps the most famous lay Buddhist in modern times. He was born a Hindu in Burma (of Indian descent) and learned vipassana from U Ba Khin after suffering many migraine headaches and other ailments. He was healed through his meditation practice and went on to be the founder of a worldwide vipassana retreat organization centered around a 10 day vipassana technique that now has courses on every continent except Antarctica.

Thich Nhat Hanh (1926- ) was born in Vietnam and trained in the Zen tradition. He has written over 100 Dharma books and has opened monasteries around the world. He started the Order of Interbeing which has a special emphasis on social engagement work (charities, environmentalism, anti-war). His tradition blends Zen with Theravada mindfulness and western psychology. He was nominated for the Noble Peace Prize by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., for his work against wars.

Bhante Henepola Gunaratana, Ph.D. (1927- ) was born in Sri Lanka and ordained at the age of 12. He attended colleges and universities in Sri Lanka and the U.S., culminating in a Ph.D. degree. He is the founder and abbot of Bhavana Society in West Virginia, USA. He is one the leaders in Buddhism pushing for bhikkhuni reinstatement and he has personally ordained many women with the full ordination. He has written many bestselling Dhamma books and leads retreats around the world.

Ruth Denison (1922- ) studied in Burma in the early 1960’s with the meditation master Sayagi U Ba Khin (also the teacher of Goenka). She has been teaching since 1973 and is founder of Dhamma Dena, a desert retreat center in Joshua Tree, California, and The Center for Buddhism in the West in Germany. She is known for her energy and unorthodox way of teaching Vipassana meditation. She uses movement, music, rhythm, chanting, and sound as supportive meditation patterns for the practice.

Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, (Geshe, equivalent to Ph.D. in Buddhist Studies) the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet (1935- ) is the religious, spiritual, and political leader of Tibet, currently in exile, living primarily in McLeod Ganj, India. He was awarded the Noble Peace Prize in 1989 and the U.S. Congressional Gold Medal in 2007.

Bhante Madewela Punnaji is from Sri Lanka and is a scholar of the Pali Canon and also has extensive studies in science, medicine, and western psychology. He wrote the Foreword to Buddha’s Lists and has written and presented several other articles around the globe as well.

Bhikkhu Bodhi, Ph.D. (1944- ) was born named Jeffrey Block in Brooklyn, New York. He earned a Ph.D. in philosophy from Clairemont Graduate School in 1972. He was the editor and president of the Buddhist Publication Society in Sri Lanka where he lived for most of his early years as a Theravada monk. He has translated most of the Nikayas of the Pali Canon and has improved the quality of previous translations for the modern reader. He has given keynote addresses to the United Nations and to the International Buddhist Women’s Conference. He supports the full ordinations of women as bhikkhunis (nuns).

Bhikkhuni Dhammananda, Ph.D. (1945- ), born Chatsumarn Kabilsingh is a Thai woman who received full bhikkhuni (nun) ordination in Sri Lanka. She was a professor of Buddhist philosophy and currently is abbot of the only temple in Thailand where there are fully ordained nuns.

Aung San Suu Kyi, Ph.D. (1945- ) was born in Burma and has led the struggle for democracy in Burma for most of her life. She earned a Ph.D. from the University of London in 1985 and was elected prime minister of Burma by a landslide in 1990. The military nullified the election and placed her in house arrest where she remains today. She has advocated nonviolence and earned the Noble Peace Prize in 1991. She is a devout Buddhist and once addressed a half-million people at a mass rally in front of the famous Shwedagon Pagoda.

Ven. Karuna Dharma, D.Dh. (1940- ) was born in Wisconsin, USA and is the abbess of IBMC in Los Angeles. She earned two M.A. degrees from UCLA (Education and Comparative Religion) and a doctorate in Buddhist Studies from the University of Oriental Studies. She runs a unique temple that has monastics from Theravada, Zen, Vajrayana, and Mahayana. She has been a leader in the ordination of women as fully ordained bhikkhunis and has ordained about 50 women to date. The services at her temple include all traditions and practitioners from all traditions attend. She has been a past president of the American Buddhist Congress and vice-pres. of the College of Buddhist Studies.

Jan Willis, Ph.D. was born in Alabama, USA and is one of the first western born scholar-practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism. She earned a Ph.D. in Indic and Buddhist Studies from Columbia University. She was also one of the first western born translators of key Tibetan discourses, making the teachings accessible to westerners. Dr. Willis is Professor of Religion at Wesleyan University.

Bhikkhuni Kusuma, Ph.D. is a fully ordained bhikkhuni from Sri Lanka who has pioneered the re-establishment the Theravada female Buddhist Order in Sri Lanka, 1000 years after the Order died out. She has taken upon herself the task of carrying on the efforts of her mentor, Sister Ayya Khema, in establishing the Ayya Khema International Buddhist Mandir in Sri Lanka.

Maha Upasika Bongkot is a lay woman who has a very large retreat center in Shravasti, India and another one in Thailand. Her centers are run by 8 precept, semi-monastic men and women who do socially engaged work and are vegetarian. She has earned numerous awards including an Outstanding Women of Buddhism award in 2004.

Bhikkhu Buddharakkhita was born in Uganda (East Africa). He has learned from various masters in India, Burma, and the US and was ordained by the late Burmese monk Sayadaw U Silananda in 2002. In 2005, he founded the Uganda Buddhist Center in Kampala, Uganda, the first Buddhist Center in Uganda. He has been a resident monk at the Bhavana Society in West Virginia. He is the first African monk to open a temple in the continent of Africa. Previously there have been temples in Africa, but all opened by Asian, European, or American masters or teachers.

Shravasti Dhammika (1951- ) was born in Australia and ordained as a Theravada monk in India. He has written over 30 books, many of which are available to read completely online at no cost (see Links page). He currently resides mostly in Sri Lanka or Singapore. He has written several excellent books for beginners such as Good Question, Good Answer and Buddhism A to Z and also books on pilgrimage to Buddhist sites. Bhante Dhammika has a keen insight into progressing Dhamma for the modern world, calling for a “Buddhayana” Buddhism where all traditions are valued and literalist views of scriptures are avoided.

Dr. Gotami (Prem Suskawat, M.D.) was born in America of Thai heritage. She has shown how Buddhist teachings can be integrated with Western psychotherapy to treat social ills. She ordained as a bhikkhuni in India. She studied psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in Cambridge, Massachusetts. There, she works with immigrants from Southeast Asian countries, offering counseling on a wide range of issues. She has established a Buddhist temple in Massachusetts.


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