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
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.
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).
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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
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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