Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Looking at the Buddha

 Daibutsu: is this the true Great Buddha?

One of the most recognizable images produced throughout recorded human history is that of the historical Buddha, or Shakyamuni Buddha. His countenance inhabits innumerable temples, households, public spaces, mountain sides, paintings, books, and nowadays, countless websites (including this one - look to the right!). Buddha statues and amulets proliferate in the West as well as in the East as Buddhism and the Buddha become more popular amongst Occidentals. Not all of these images are of Shakyamuni, of course, as other Awakened Ones such as Amitabha Buddha ('the Buddha of Infinite Light') and Hotei (the fat-bellied 'laughing Buddha') are also very popular. Whichever particular Buddha it may be, a Buddha image can have a variety of influences on the observer.

In Thailand, the culture-defining golden Buddha statues sometimes seem to be more numerable than human beings, and are treated with the utmost respect by the majority of Thais; indeed, there are strict laws in Thailand prohibiting disrespectful acts towards such images, and heavy penalties for vandalizing or stealing them. Not known to many foreign visitors to the Kingdom, it is even considered unacceptable to have one's photograph taken with one, and especially taboo to sit on one!

In Japan, the most common Buddha to be represented in devotional imagery is Amitabha Buddha, the world-famous Daibutsu ('Great Buddha') of Kamakura being a particularly striking example. (It is this statue that is pictured above.) Attitudes towards behavior around Such statues in Japan isn't as strict as Thailand, but hordes of pilgrims along with secular tourists flood Kamakura every year to pay respect to this giant image of Amitabha, many reciting, "Namu Amida Butsu" ('Homage to the Buddha of Infinite Light').

Of course, in the modern and ever-increasingly commercial world, Buddha images are also used in less traditional and devotional ways, such as on the covers of dance music albums, in restaurants, and on T-shirts. These are not (usually) prayed to or even deeply respected, but are used to symbolize certain qualities such as peace and exoticism in the attempt to promote certain products. More traditionally-minded Buddhists often take exception to this kind of use of Buddha images, seeing them as disrespectful and insulting.

Looking at the Buddha, whether in a Thai temple or restaurant, whether on a pendant or a website, the response that arises will, of course, depend upon the way that one views such images. If someone is a devotee of Amitabha, then the Kamakura Daibutsu will inspire deeply religious feelings, but if one is a tourist gazing at the same image, then it will be seen as a good photo opportunity and nothing more. And, because of the sectarian tendencies of the human mind, a Theravada Buddhist may well view with scorn the same statue as a heretical idol, much like a fundamentalist Christian or Muslim might do.

A pertinent point here is the well-known tale of a Chinese Zen monk who was extremely cold while sheltering in a temple one night. Instead of praying to the Buddha statue for assistance or inspiration, he promptly set it alight, and used it as a warming fire! As awful as this may appear at first, it hints at an important point that many Buddhists would make about Buddha images: they are visual tools to assist in the practice of Buddhism, not idols to be worshiped or considered somehow 'holy.' The real Buddha, if you take the traditional Theravada Buddhist viewpoint died over two thousand years ago, and is now in an indefinable state beyond the reach of mortals. From the Mahayana point of view, both Shakyamuni and Amitabha Buddha exist on a 'higher plane', ready to intervene in the affairs of this world. Either way, a statue is a statue, and only to be used as focus in Buddhist practice, rather than as an actual manifestation of a Buddha.

So, if we wish to use a Buddha statue to help us reflect on certain qualities considered important in Buddhism, this would seem perfectly in line with Buddhist teachings regarding skillful means to spiritual development. If, however, we wish to actually see the Buddha - whichever one we choose - statues and pictures are not even a poor substitute for the real thing. But then, how are we to look at the (real) Buddha? In a dream or vision we might believe that we are viewing the Buddha, but it may well be an elaborate creation of the subconscious, manifesting in the mind's eye in response to a deep psychological need (or desire) to see the Buddha. Such dreams and visions are not unheard of, of only in Buddhism, but in Christianity and Hinduism, for example. Are we to believe that the vision of Christ is any more or less 'real' than the Hindu's visualization of Krishna, or that either are more or less valid than the Japanese Buddhist's dream of Amitabha?

This leaves us nowhere in our search to look at the Buddha, however. If inner visualizations are no more to be taken literally than outer ones, where else is there to see the Awakened One? Furthermore, how are we to recognize the Buddha if there are widely differing representations of Shakyamuni, Amitabha, and Hotei etc? Looking at the etymology of the word Buddha will give us a big clue here. It is an Indian word found in the ancient languages of Sanskrit and Pali meaning 'enlightened one' or 'awakened one', and comes from the root word budh, meaning to know, or to be awake. The Awakened One (the Buddha) can only be seen by the Awakened One. That is, if we find the Awakened part of ourselves, we find the Buddha. Moreover, this isn't a particular Buddha, in the sense of being a particular individual being, rather, it is that which is Awakened in all of us.

Now we come to the heart of the matter, so to speak, when we need to open our Buddha Eye to be able to see beyond these mortal frames and minds.This Eye is not a small ball of flesh and optic nerve, however, although it can be used in conjunction with the physical eyes. It can, however, be used equally well with any of the other senses such as the ears, or even with what Buddhists call the sixth sense - the mind. Where is this Eye, then? Well, it's right where you are seeing, right now. If you turn your attention around and look at where you are looking from, you are looking at your Buddha Eye. It's both vast and yet without appearance (in itself).

If you point at whatever is in front of you, you can see specific colors, shapes, sizes, and various other features. However, if you turn your pointing finger around and gaze back at that which is doing the gazing, you will see an absence of particular features. This is your Buddha Eye. It is vast, in that it not only contains all that you see, hear, taste, touch, and smell, but it also plays host to the multitudes of thoughts, feelings, memories, impulses, and other mental phenomena that we normally take to be 'me.' It contains everything. It is featureless if focused on in isolation, but this is deceptive, for because it is without limits and can never be 'closed', this Eye is everything that it sees. Seeing as this Eye and not as an ego peering out of two small eyeballs has a devastating affect on the usual duality of human experience: everything merges into each other, shining with the light of awareness.

But, where's the Buddha in all of this? It seems that if the Buddha Eye is accepted as not only the 'vessel' into which everything is born, then all that we experience now is all. So, where's the Buddha? Raise that pointing finger again (if you've already lowered it , that is) and direct it at the Knower, the Awakened One as experienced right now. Where is this Awakened One found? At this end of the pointing finger, right where the Eye and all that it is are located also. Eye, Buddha ('the Awakened One'), and the suffering world are all right here, nowhere else. And, what's more, they are seen, heard, and known to be undivided, beyond dualism. When we look with our Buddha Eye, there is no way to completely separate your needs and mine, no way to conveniently dismiss others as less important than one's 'self', for this apparent self and all other apparent selves a part of this single Knowing that is the Buddha. Want to see the Buddha? Take a good, hard look at yourself...


They call him James Ure said...

Yep, when you meet the Buddha--Kill him.

Thickethouse.wordpress said...

To me, the statues of the Buddha function like sacramentals in the Catholic church, or like the bell in many Buddhist traditions. They bring you back to awareness of the present moment. I don't know what else to say about this now, though I know your question goes far beyond this.

Amarna said...

Though people see different things in these statues, I am sure that there are certain qualities that are brought out when you look at the statues.

Robbie C said...

I think you presented a great article that helps us examine the illusion of separation and dualism. Helping us to work on deconstructing the delusion we project, that there is separation all around us. Trying to secure the truth, that we all exist in a universal space, which has no barriers and no definitions. If only we could stop examining the world within our "mortal frames" (cutting, catagorizing, separating) and begin seeing it in its undivided clear completeness. May we all achieve the enlightenment that dispells our ignorance and sets us free from Samsara.

Anonymous said...

Am curious how people feel about tattoos of Buddha, especially when the wearer is from the West.

G said...

Thanks everyone for the thoughtful comments.

This month I've been unable to give each comment the individual response that I'd like to have, due to limited Internet access. Reading through them now, it strikes me how differently we interpret a word or concept like 'Buddha.' Also, the skillful ways in which we utilize Buddha images is diverse, and Kordo makes a good point regarding perspective on this subject.

As to experiencing the Buddha here & now, Robbie C. has some excellent insights that we would all do well to reflect on. Letting go of these "mortal frames" is what it's all about, for at heart we are not this or that thing, but this gorious No-thing that is frameless.

Personally, I have a tattoo of the Dharmacakra (an eight-spoked wheel representing the Eightfold Path). It would seem somewhat hypocritical to then judge Buddha tattoos as inappropriate or offensive. Also, I like seeing images of the Buddha, for as Kristi wrote, they can bring the mind back to present moment awareness.

As too killing the Buddha, James, you've got to catch him first, as he's pretty elusive, to say the least!