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The Disappearing Buddha

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by Sangharakshita

... me just a little while ago, or rather he was reminding me, that I don't give many talks these days and I said "well yes I don't". But I used to give hundreds in India.

And I used to go round villages and towns, especially in North India, and Western India, Central India, and sometimes I'd give a talk where I'd talked perhaps fifteen, twenty years earlier. And people would remember. But what would they remember? They always remembered the stories. They remembered the parables. They didn't always remember the principles, the rules or anything of that sort, but the parables, the stories they remembered, because the stories delighted them, the stories had fired them. The story had even inspired them so they remembered them. I think that is a very important point.

So we see that the Buddha's hearers, each of the eight assemblies were instructed, inspired, fired, and delighted. The Khattiyas were delighted, the Brahmins were delighted, and so on. Even, we're told, the maras or satans were delighted. And think what an achievement that must have been. It's very interesting because the maras or satans in Buddhism are wicked, even evil, beings. Wicked or evil, supernatural or supernormal beings. But the Buddha nonetheless adopts their appearance and speech too.

He doesn't shrink from that. He enters their assembly too. He delivers a discourse on Dhamma to them. What is the result? They too are instructed, inspired, fired, and delighted. Presumably they are permanently affected, presumably they are changed.

Presumably they cease to be satans, presumably they become angels. This is an example of what we may describe as the radical optimism of Buddhism. That is to say Buddhism's conviction that even the weakest person, even the monstrously evil person can change. And this is perhaps reminiscent if we look at the Christian tradition, reminiscent of Origen's belief that even the devil will eventually be saved. This is a belief of course which the Christian Church as a whole has not unfortunately shared. But after they have been instructed, inspired, fired, and delighted with the Buddha's discourse on the Dhamma, what do the members of the different assemblies do? What do they say? They say 'Who is it that speaks like this? A deva or a man?'. 'Who is it that speaks like this?' The Buddha has come among them like one of themselves. But they know that it cannot be one of themselves speaking. They've never been so deeply affected before. It's rather like what happens when we read a wonderful poem by a poet of whom we've never heard before. Wonderful poem. We want to know more about it. We want to know who he is, this wonderful new poet. So in the same way the Buddha's hearers all ask 'Who is it that speaks like this? They're full of wonder; they're overwhelmed. They know that someone has spoken to them, they know it's not one of themselves, even though appearing like one of themselves. They want to know who it is. So they try to identify, they try to categorise him. And this of course is what we usually do. We try to understand the unknown with the help of the known, the unfamiliar with the help of the familiar. Sometimes it works, very often it works. But sometimes it doesn't. And the Khattiyas, and the Brahmins, and the others, they seem to operate with two principal categories. They ask: 'Is he a deva', that is to say a god, 'or a man?' It seems not to occur to them that there is any third category. 'Is he a deva -- a god -- or a man?' And this is very much the situation in the West today. We still operate with these two categories.

The Buddha, we may say, has appeared amongst us. He's appeared in the West, appeared in Europe, appeared in America. Not of course in the flesh. We've learned about him from books. He's appeared to us from the pages of books. And we've seen pictures, we've seen images of him, some of them very impressive, very inspiring, very beautiful.

And we've become acquainted with his teachings, at least to some extent. Perhaps we've even been impressed by him and his teaching. And so we want to know more about and we ask, 'Who is the Buddha?' And sometimes we don't really wait for an answer. We try to answer the question ourselves. We seek to categorise the Buddha by applying to him terms with which we are already familiar, just like the Khattiyas, and the Brahmin, and others. And thus we see him either as a man, either as a human teacher rather like Socrates, or perhaps like Confucius. Or we see him as a kind of Oriental god.

Sometimes, if we're a bit more sophisticated, we think that the Buddha was a human teacher, who his followers unfortunately made into a god. And we talk of the Buddha's followers as having deified him. Sometimes scholars even speak of the Buddha being a human teacher in the Theravada and a deified figure in the Mahayana, and so on. You may remember those famous lines of Kipling from his poem 'Mandalay'. These reflect the popular view of the Buddha as a god.

"Bloomin idol, made of mud, What they called the great god Bud" From 'Mandalay'.

Well this is how some of our ancestors not so very long ago saw the Buddha, 'the great god Bud' . Hindus of course very often see the Buddha as a god. They see him as the ninth incarnation of their own god Vishnu. But Buddhists themselves don't accept this.

They don't accept that the Buddha was a human being in the ordinary sense, and they don't accept that he was a god or God with a capital G.

In the West of course the whole question is complicated by the fact that Buddhists are seen to worship the Buddha. I spoke a little while ago about Buddhists offering lighted candles to the Buddha. Well, they offer lots of other things, they often offer incense, they offer flowers, they offer food, they offer tormas, all sorts of symbolical representations of the whole universe. The offer all sorts of things. They offer them of course before his image or his picture. And to the Christian or ex-Christian Westerner this rather suggests that, that the Buddha is being treated as God. Even that he is God for Buddhists. Because in the West customary worship is only offered to God. So that if you worship someone or something it's thought he or it must be your God. But this is not true of Buddhists. In Buddhism worship is offered to anyone who is superior, especially spiritually superior. And Eastern Buddhists will often speak of worshipping their parents. I used to hear pious Hindus say 'Well I'll come out with you in just a minute, I'll go and worship my parents first', meaning that they'd go to their parents, bow down, touch their feet, take their blessing and then off they'd go. The call this worshipping their parents. In the same way [?] worship your teacher, even your primary school teacher.

They speak of that too, in those terms. The use the same word, it's derived from the Pali and Sanskrit 'puja'. Worship. So the fact that Buddhists worship the Buddha does not mean that they regard him as God. What then is the Buddha? If he is not man, if he is not God, who is he? Buddhists will say usually that he belongs to a third category, not man, not god, whether with a small G or a capital G. He belongs to a third category, a category quite separate and quite distinct from the other two. They will say that he is one who has completely eliminated greed, hatred and delusion. One who knows from his personal experience absolute reality. One who is, so to speak, at one with absolute reality. One who possesses supreme wisdom, who manifests infinite compassion. And they will say that one who has achieved all this by his own human efforts, but who has gone so far beyond humanity as we know it that he can no longer be called a man, without nonetheless assuming the cosmic functions that we usually associate with the idea of God with a capital G, who is neither man nor god, who belongs to a distinct third category, he is Buddha, the Buddha. So that when we ask: 'Who is the Buddha?' we can really only say he is the Buddha. In the text the Khattiyas, the Brahmins and so on they cannot even say that, because after instructing them the Buddha just disappears. And they are left wondering. They're left wondering: 'Was he a deva, or a man?' We'll come back to that in a minute. Meanwhile I want to say just something about the Buddha's other titles.

Buddha, the word Buddha itself, is a title, is not a proper name. And it means one who understands, one who is wise, who is awake, awake to reality. But the Buddha is known by quite a member of other titles. And we don't always realise this. In the West the Buddha is generally known simply as the Buddha, the Enlightened One. But in the Buddhist scriptures he's often referred to as the Tathagatha. In fact he's often represented in the Buddhist scriptures as usually referring to himself in the third person as the Tathagatha. There's a lot of discussion about the meaning of this term. There are several different explanations. And there's more than one grammatical analysis of the term, but I won't bother you with this. It means, Tathagatha means literally, 'He who goes' , but it also means "He who comes' . The Buddha goes through wisdom. He goes through wisdom from the mundane to the transcendental. And he comes through compassion back from the transcendental into the mundane. He comes in order to teach, in order to show the path to liberation. He comes in order to instruct, inspire, fire, and delight, with a discourse on the Dhamma. As he does when he enters the assemblies of the Khattiyas, the Brahmins and so on. The Buddha is both the embodiment of wisdom and compassion. He goes through the one, comes through the other. And this underlines the point, the fact that the Buddha comes through compassion. This underlines ...

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