I have noticed that, regardless of how the subject is explained, there are many aspects of the teaching that the majority of people do not understand. Why is this? Most of us are familiar only with one kind of language, ordinary worldly language, and we fail to recognise the existence of another quite different and special language—the language of dhamma [of spiritual or religious truth].
Dhamma language has to do with the mental, intangible, nonphysical world. In order to be able to speak and understand this language, it is necessary to have insight into that world. If we know only everyday language, we are in no position to understand true dhamma when we hear it, the supramundane truth that could liberate us from this unsatisfactory worldly condition (dukkha).
It is essential to interpret the Buddha’s teaching in terms of dhamma language as well as in terms of everyday language—both meanings must be considered and not just one of them alone.
The word ‘Buddha’, for example, in everyday language refers to the historical enlightened being, Gotama Buddha. It refers to a physical man of flesh and bone that was born in India over two thousand years ago, died, and was cremated.
Considered in terms of dhamma language, however, the word ‘Buddha’ refers to the truth that the historical Buddha realised and taught, the dhamma itself. The dhamma is not something physical, yet the Buddha said it is one and the same as the Enlightened One. ‘One who sees the dhamma sees the Enlightened One’. Anyone who fails to see the dhamma cannot be said to have seen the Enlightened One. So in dhamma language the Buddha is one and the same as that truth by virtue of which he became the Buddha, and anyone who sees that truth can be said to have seen the true Buddha. To see just his physical body would not be to see the Buddha at all and would bring no real benefit.
During the Buddha’s lifetime the majority of people were unfavourably disposed towards him. They abused him and even did him physical harm. They didn’t understand him because what they saw was only his physical body, the outer shell, the Buddha of everyday language. The real Buddha, the Buddha of dhamma language, is the truth in his mind, knowing which he became Buddha. When he said, ‘Who sees the truth sees me. Who sees me sees the truth,’ he was speaking dhamma language.
Again, the Buddha said, ‘The dhamma and the vinaya [rules of the order] which I have proclaimed and have demonstrated, these shall be your teacher when I have passed away.’ So the real Buddha has not passed away, has not ceased to exist. What ceased to exist was just the physical body, the outer shell. The real teacher, that is the Dhamma Vinaya, is still with us. This is the meaning of the word ‘Buddha’ in dhamma language. The ‘Buddha’ of everyday language is the physical man; the ‘Buddha’ of dhamma language is the dhamma itself, which made him Buddha.
More from Buddhadasa Bhikkhu.
Buddhism Now May 2004
[Buddhadasa Bhikkhu gave many other examples of two kinds of language in a booklet by that name of which the above is extracted. He was a well-known and respected Thai monk who died some years ago.]