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…

Monday, May 19, 2008

An Introduction to Buddha Space

Wesak: lighting candles in honor of the Buddha

Welcome to Buddha Space, a space for exploring modern Buddhism, as it says in the header above. As today (19th May 2008) is Wesak, or ‘Buddha Day’, it seems both appropriate and perhaps fortuitous to launch Buddha Space today. For, the point of this blog is to examine the nature of the Buddha, of space, and of awareness itself via experience, as opposed to academic or philosophical means. This doesn’t mean that scripture, books, and other sources of wisdom are to be rejected, but that their value will be in how they relate to the central point above. Posts will be scheduled to be published on every Uposatha Day (a kind of Buddhist sabbath), on the Full, New, Waxing, and Waning Moons of each month. Hopefully, pontification will not appear here…too often!

As the heir to my previous blog Forest Wisdom, this one continues in the vein of everyday reflections on the Dharma, as well as broader ruminations on the nature of ‘Buddha-nature’ itself. Unlike its predecessor, Buddha Space is not written from the viewpoint of one particular branch of Buddhism, rather taking the basic teachings of the Great Teacher and using them as tools for reflection. In this spirit, both Mahayana and Theravada Buddhism will feature here, with such teachers as the Chinese Zen Master Xu Yun and the Thai forest monk Ajahn Chah. Non-Buddhist teachers will not be ignored either, most notably the British ‘Seer’ Douglas Harding. Anyway, welcome!


“When you’re in harmony with Mind,
arms and legs operate on their own.”
(Zen Master Bankei, 1622-1693)

Sitting at this desk, typing words into the computer, there are two ways to experience the present moment. Firstly, there is the ego-based perspective, seeing these fingers as my fingers and these words as my words, being attached to them and experiencing dissatisfaction if they fail to communicate my message as intended. The second viewpoint is to see everything that’s arising, whether sights, sounds, words, thoughts, or feelings, as occurring within awareness itself. Not my awareness, you understand, but this awareness; an awareness that’s without personal perspective or bias or suffering.

This may sound like a tall order, something that can only be achieved after years of meditative or ascetic practice. True, it is an extremely hard task to maintain, a fact that has hit home in some dramatic ways over the years, but an initial glimpse of the space that lies at the heart of life isn’t as difficult to experience as one might think. And there’s the barrier right there: thinking. Thought, in the form of beliefs, is a powerful barricade against experiencing spacious awareness, the backdrop to all that is seen, heard, and, indeed, thought. The way to break through this mind-made wall is to bypass it with a new perspective, for even the briefest moment, for in such a moment lays the gateway to eternity.

This breakthrough can be achieved right here and now. We don’t need to wait for ‘the right moment’ as such, which may come after years or even lifetimes of spiritual endeavor, for the only ‘right moment’ is right now. If you don’t believe this, and consider these words as so much pontification – the very thing I undertook to avoid in the introduction above – please follow the instructions below, and see what you make of them, if anything.

  • Look at the computer screen in front of you. Note its color, size, shape and solidity. It’s an object in a world of objects.
  • Next, look at your hands and arms, noticing their particulars of color, size, shape and opacity. They are objects, too.
  • Now, turn your attention around, to look back at the one that is doing the looking. What does he or she look like? On present evidence, can this ‘looker’ be called a he or a she, in fact? Is there a face here, or a head, even? Or is that which is aware better described as naked awareness, no-thing, or emptiness?

Looking back at that which looks, I find no ‘I’ as such, but a collection of what Buddhism calls the aggregates – body, feeling, perception, thoughts, and consciousness. Whatever ‘I’ was previously experienced here is lost, broken up into its constituent parts. And this includes beliefs, those thoughts which dictate how one usually confronts the world as a separate, individual being, with all the idiosyncrasies and foibles associated with an ego. All of the desire-born sufferings that come out of attachment and aversion fall away with the vision of a self-contained self to be found here. In truth, there’s nobody home.

Of course, this is but a glimpse, the door of awakening quickly slams shut, pushed by all the old attachments and habits that arise out of identification with the personality, and one is left slumbering with the dreams of ego. The Buddha is not to be caught so easily, for he is like a playful child disappearing behind a bush in a game of hide-and-seek. This shouldn’t lead to despair or self-criticism however, for these are simply more ploys used by the mind to deceive itself, to retract into its shell like a scared tortoise. If the Buddha is to be known, patience is a quality we need to cultivate in abundance, along with the determination to achieve true freedom.

In the meantime, we can approach the abode of the enlightened by taking note of space, which is a kind of freedom itself. For, in space, we are free to roam, to explore, to gain knowledge and grow in wisdom. Noticing the space within one’s apparent self can loosen the bonds that it ties itself up in, and the cracks in its construction begin to show; the gaps between body and feeling, or memories (perception) and thoughts. Space not only encapsulates all experiences, but separates them too, if one is able to look with the calmness and insight needed. But for now, let’s finish with one more thought:

“When one has a spacious mind,
there is room for everything.
When one has a narrow mind,
there is only room for only a few things.
Everything has to be manipulated and controlled;
the rest is just pushed out.”
(Ajahn Sumedho, ‘The Mind and the Way’)