“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?’
‘Sir, are you a heavenly angel?’
‘Sir, are you a spirit?’
‘Sir, are you a human being?’
(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…