Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Who is the Buddha?

“The Buddha’s perfection is complete;
There is no more work to be done.
No measure is there for his wisdom;
No limits are there to be found.
In what way could he be distracted from truth?”
(Verse 179, The Dhammapada, rendered by Ajahn Munindo)

At the heart of the monolithic religion called Buddhism sits a man: the Buddha. As represented in the quotation above, Theravada Buddhism describes the Buddha as essentially a man that discovered the truth of the way things are (the Dharma), and who lived over 2,500 years ago. Mahayana Buddhism has a much more imaginative description of the Buddha, however, portraying him as a kind of cosmic man, who continues to guide aspirants along the path to spiritual awakening to this day. Who is right?

Theravada Buddhism, which predominates amongst the Sri Lankans, Burmese, Thais, Laotians and Cambodians claims to have the older, more authentic scriptures that give a pretty accurate description of the Buddha and his teachings. Mahayana Buddhism, which is practiced amongst the Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Vietnamese and Tibetans, states that it has the more complete scriptures that improve on the Theravadan Tripitaka (The name of the Buddhist ‘holy books’). In its view, the Buddha that appears in the older scriptures didn’t reveal himself to all and sundry because they weren’t all able to receive such a vision.

The Buddha himself, in the Theravadan Tripitaka says that “whoever sees the Dharma sees me, and whoever sees me sees the Dharma”. This suggests that there was more to the Blessed One than simply being a man who acquired an enlightening knowledge. In some sense, he was (and is) that knowledge. There is a strong thread of reasoning in the above scripture that the Buddha was in fact indefinable. In a revealing, if not somewhat perplexing – dialogue with the Brahman Dona, the Buddha points to his transcendent nature:

“‘Sir, are you a god?’
‘No, Brahman.’
‘Sir, are you a heavenly angel?’
‘No, Brahman.’
‘Sir, are you a spirit?’
‘No, Brahman.’
‘Sir, are you a human being?’
‘No, Brahman.’”
(Anguttara Nikaya 4:36, Pali Tripitaka)

The Buddha goes on to state that he has abandoned all taints that might result in him being a god or a heavenly angel or a spirit or a human being. He is one who is enlightened: living in the world, but not of it. He is the Dharma, the unconditioned Truth that lies at the heart of all phenomena, devoid of particular characteristics and the very enlightenment that is the heart of the Buddhadharma.

In Mahayana understanding, the Buddha has three bodies, which in turn are known as the ‘Transformation Body’, the ‘Dharma Body’, and the ‘Enjoyment Body’. The Transformation Body is the human form he takes in the world; not an actual physical form as such, but an emanation of the Dharma Body, where the Buddha and Dharma are one and the same – note the similarity with the quotation above where the Buddha and the Dharma are said to be the same also. The Enjoyment Body is the form that appears before bodhisattvas in the heavenly realms, where the Dharma is taught and experienced by all those residing therein. The Dharma Body is considered the original form of the Buddha, the others being the skillful means by which the Dharma is taught to gods, angels, and human beings.

It is interesting to note again that in the Theravadan Tripitaka the Buddha is described as ultimately indescribable, something that occurs in the Diamond Sutra also, when he refers to himself in a way that seems to transcend all the above descriptions of what he may or may not be:

“If one sees me in forms,
If one seeks me in sounds,
He practices a deviant way,
And cannot see the Tathagata.”

I am not interested in doctrinal battles here, nor in philosophizing about which came first, the Theravada or the Mahayana, nor in seeking out the differences between the traditions at the expense of the obvious similarities. But a question that persists nevertheless is, “Who is the Buddha?” In Theravada Buddhism, he is both an enlightened man and yet no such thing, and in Mahayana Buddhism he is described as three-bodied and yet without any form at all. We are left with various Zen masters reply to the question, “Who is the Buddha?”

“One made of clay and decorated with gold.”
“He is no Buddha.”
“The dirt-scraper all dried up.”
“See the eastern mountains moving over the waves.”
“The mouth is the gate of woe.”
(From ‘An Introduction to Zen Buddhism’ by D.T. Suzuki)

What do you think, feel, or experience the Buddha to be? Was he a man who died over two-and-a-half millennia ago? Is he somehow still alive today in the form of the Dharma, or is he merely a statue that simple folk bow to? Or is he a dirt-scraper all dried up?! Please feel free to leave a comment by clicking on the word ‘comments’ below, and we can learn together to see the non-existent transcendent Buddha – at least that’s the best description I can muster right now. If only I had a Zen master at hand…


Mercurious said...

Personally, I'm comfortable with the Buddha being both things——an historical man, as well as a symbol of the enlightenment inherent in us all.

You've done a nice job of setting aside some of the ill will between the schools. I get weary of all the "Lesser Vehicle" "Greater Vehicle" debate, too.

They sometimes forget a key lesson, that "all dharmas agree at one point."

They call him James Ure said...

I like to see the Buddha as being within us all. That "he" is beyond any description in a way. Maybe I'm taking the easy way out but that's my view for what it's worth. :)

Also, you're post got me thinking about my tradition of Buddhism, Zen.

In some ways I see it as its own form of Buddhism or perhaps a subset of Mahayana? I say this because it is so different than say Tibetan Mahayana Buddhism and Pure Land.

They call him James Ure said...

I don't mean to say though that I don't believe he existed in physical form. I believe he did.

puthujjana said...

Hi G,

For some reason “Who is, or was, the Buddha?” isn't a question that has ever concerned me. Because we are unenlightened beings we will naturally find any description lacking in some way.

A man who discovered the truth of the way things are – an enlightened man who showed us the way to end suffering. I'm quite ok with that. I'm also ok with others coming up with a different answer that works for them.

I don't “know” who the Buddha is. My sense is that if I put his teachings into practice then possibly one day I will. I suspect that if that time ever comes, I'll likely discover that it didn't really matter.

(I hope I'm not sending duplicates here. I tried to leave a reply a couple of times earlier today but nothing happened)


G said...

Hi Mercurious, James, & Kris.
You all seem to be keeping close to the Middle Way between extreme views here, in your own ways. Which is surely the Buddhist Way, too.

"All dharmas agree at one point" is a great quote in relation to this issue, Mercurious. As was often said by Master Hua, there are 84,000 Dharma Gates leading to Awakening. I'm pretty sure that there's at least one of these that's a Theravadan gate!!
As to the "Greater Vehicle" & "Lesser Vehicle" debate, I always return to the teaching in the Lotus Sutra which promotes the "One Vehicle" (Ekayana), which includes both of the above. Of course, the Lotus Sutra is part of the Mahayana movement, and does display some leanings towards it, but one of its essential messages is that all Buddhist schools can be classified under the heading of "Buddhayana". Which leads us back to the Buddha, of course!

You're a true Zennist, James! Yes, 'the Buddha' can be seen as an historical figure and as the Buddha-nature that is the heart of our being. Interestingly, unlike Buddhism in Japan, there's not such a strong divide between the Zen & Pure Land schools in China. Therefore, Zen masters in Chinese lineages tend to teach a fusion of the two schools, using the Pure Land teachings & practices as further Dharma Gates to the realization of "Buddhahood".

I like your approach to the whole issue of who the Buddha is, Kris. It also smacks of Zen, in fact! Yet, in fact, you're in line with the Theravadan teachings that I pointed to in the article, when the Buddha answered in the negative to all those questions about his identity. This reminds me of Zen Master Chao Chou's "No!" when asked if a cat has Buddha-nature or not.

It seems clear from the different traditions of Buddhism that the answer does lie in Awakening itself. 'We' can never know who the Buddha is without knowing who 'we' are, and it's in the transcendence of this 'we' that the answer will arise.

Thank you for some stimulating comments.

solitaire said...

Neti, neti.

G said...

"Not this, not that" - you old Advaitist, you, Solitaire!

Seriously, this is so close to some Buddhist practices aimed at seeing the truth of not-self that it's amazing that Adviata Vedanta Hindus and Buddhists have never got on that well. But, then again, Mahayanists and Theravadans don't usually see eye-to-eye, do they, so it's not so amazing after all! (Of course, this is indicative of most religions, philosophies, and sects, not only Buddhism.)

But, in the end, what does all this matter, as long as we see that it's all 'neti, neti'?!


Dhamma81 said...

I like to think about the Buddha as a human being that awakened to the Dhamma and was able to teach it to people for their own use. I also find it helpful to take the long view and think of him as perfecting virtues over many lifetimes.

I find it more useful to me that he was a human because it makes it more real to me. The fact that he was a human and put an end to suffering makes me feel like I have the same opportunities as he did. After all, the aggregates of the Buddha are the same that we live with. If he can do it, so can we. He just learned how to pare away everything until he found the Deathless.

I like what Kris said about how if she attains the fruit of practice she'll probably realize who he really is/was is a non issue.

G said...

Seeing the Buddha as the Perfected One as an example for one's own practice is a good way to approach him. We do have living examples of great Buddhists, too, of course, such as Ajahns Sumedho & Brahm.

It seems here that realizing that the Buddha is also "the dirt-scraper all dried up" is crucial to the Way, also. This immediacy of realization is what Buddhism is ultimately about. It is the Awakening that equals "seeing the Buddha". It seems that the fruition of the Path is knowing the Buddha fully, for the essence of everyone's nature is one & the same as the essence of the Buddha, otherwise we wouldn't be able to achieve Awakening as he did.

Who is the Buddha?
Look, look!

Be well in the Dharma, Justin.