Twofold Depictions of the Buddha
Very rarely do people contemplating some wide-scale reality recognise that its origin is often to be traced back to an event too tiny to be seen with the naked eye, like a minute island far away in the vast expanse of the ocean. Over a period of some 2,500 years Buddhism has spread throughout the world, but its long-ago origin lay in the experience of a single person, an experience which, as unanimously corroborated by Buddhist sources, was at first impossible even to put into words.
The process whereby Buddhism—which first began as the deeply internal experience of just one ascetic practitioner—has over time borne fruit within vastly different races, climates, cultures and histories, might be likened to the way volcanic magma breaks through the earth’s crust and gushes heavenwards then flows down in every direction, descending slopes, changing course, swallowing rocks, trees and water currents in its path, sometimes redoubling in force, sometimes widening to a gentle flow until eventually it cools and coagulates. Overnight the path traced by the magma appears as a great mountain nobody has ever seen before. The invisible terrestrial heat has changed into a dignified, visible landscape.
Stupas, images, doctrines, sutras, temples, teachings, and all manner of ascetic ways of practice—the myriad different factors that go to make up Buddhism—have assumed visible form. For those born into the world after the death of the Buddha at least, Buddhism is theirs to inherit only in these tangible forms. At the same time, however, even if all these visible factors are drawn together, Buddhism cannot be reconstructed out of them, for Buddhism is, first and foremost, an intangible effect that comes about within the sphere of internal experience.
Had the experience that took place within the Buddha not been relived at first hand by those who met him, Buddhism could not have been regarded as having been successfully transmitted in the true sense of the word. If the tangible form of Buddhism born as the result of intangible effect were completely separated from the inner world of experience as its source and origin, Buddhism would be nothing but an empty shell.
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What we should keep in mind is the simple fact that whenever and wherever Buddhism has been transmitted, there have existed ‘persons’ or more precisely ‘relationships between one person and another’. It is only when we have a dialogue between two people that the externalities of Buddhism—otherwise no more than empty forms—assume meaning, restore the heat of emotion and become the incarnation of inner experience. The transmission of Buddhism, viewed from the perspective of communication, can be understood as an effect shared between two persons—a sender and a receiver—where internal experience and external expression are inseparably connected.
If we imagine Buddhism being transmitted in its simplest form, it is where the experience of the Buddha is handed down to his immediate disciple. Through the eyes, expressions, actions, words of the Buddha, through all the visible features of his person, the inner experience of this single ascetic practitioner is being offered to a lonely, anguished youth. And now an effect beyond the restrictions of expression comes about in the internal relationship of the two people, the Buddha and the youth in distress. If this effect is successfully realised between the two, the Buddha as the sender of inner experience and the disciple as the recipient, experiences ‘definite inner transformation’.
At this point, the youth who has encountered the Buddha is determined to walk persistently in the steps of the Buddha, trusting the Buddha as the only mentor able to end his suffering. The Buddha, meanwhile, confronted with this trusting youth, is confident the young man will finally attain the goal he himself has reached, no matter how hard the going will be. For the youth, at this moment the Buddha before him is the ‘future’, what he is going to be, and for the Buddha, the youth in distress in front of him is the ‘past’, that which the Buddha certainly once was. Between mentor and disciple an overlap appears between the future of the disciple and the past of the teacher, with the ‘present’ being shared as the point of contact between them. When between different individuals something external in tangible form is associated with some internal intangible experience, a different phase of time is encountered.
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This scene of encounter between the Buddha and disciple introduces the important idea of ‘bodhisattva’, a sentient being who has placed his ideal in supreme awakening and is determined to be a Buddha in the future after overcoming all manner of difficulties. Disciples, following in the path of the Buddha and placing unquestioning trust in him no matter what problems they face, ask themselves in the midst of their difficulties what paths the Buddha took in order to reach the world of nirvana, and try to superimpose ‘their own present’ on the progress of the ‘previous Buddha’. The fact that the Buddha was once a ‘bodhisattva’ marching toward the ideal, standing up to the anguish and agony of the world, is of vital significance for those who keep on towards their own ideal despite the sufferings of reality.
When a disciple confronts the Buddha—the being who has now reached the ideal but who himself was once a bodhisattva pressing on towards that ideal—for that disciple the Buddha is both the voice from the future, nirvana, that he is advancing towards and simultaneously the power that encourages him to strive towards the ideal of nirvana in the midst of his sufferings. The Buddha, as he who has reached eternal truth is far beyond the sufferings of all disciplinants, but the Buddha as bodhisattva is one of those sentient beings who withstood far more serious anguish and agony than that experienced by the disciplinants. Given these two aspects of the Buddha—the Buddha triumphant and the Buddha-in-waiting—the single being of the Buddha can be both an absolute ideal that transcends this world and, at the same time, a friend who supports his followers with all his heart. When the notion of bodhisattvahood is understood, the idea of the Buddha becomes all the more significant in depth and breadth. This seems crucial when we examine the history of Buddhism as transmitted ‘among people’.
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By describing the encounter of the Buddha with his immediate disciples I have up to now been trying to show how Buddhism spread amongst people. In the history of Buddhism, however, such an event is necessarily so rare it can almost be seen as a miracle. Except for those favoured few lucky enough to have encountered the Buddha in their lifetime—a negligible minority compared to those unable to meet him in the flesh—all other followers had to be Buddhists without ever seeing the Buddha, and obviously many things would be very different after the death of the Buddha than they were during his lifetime.
It should be noted, however, that the experience of Buddhists living in the post-Buddha era will have been duplicated even during the Buddha’s lifetime. In the days of the Buddha, there was once an ascetic practitioner who, weighed down with age and unable to move his own body any more, earnestly longed for a sight of the Buddha. But the Buddha sent this message to the old ascetic, ‘It is of no use your seeing my aging body. Those who see the Buddha are those who see the truth, and those who see the truth are those who see the Buddha.’ Serendipitously these words allude to the significance of the Buddha after the corporeal existence of the Buddha disappeared. Seeing an outward manifestation of the Buddha does not mean one sees the Buddha.
When we fully take into account the significance of the state of nirvana, a state completely released from all worldly shackles, we have to acknowledge that, however close the relationship to us, the Buddha must live in a completely different world from ours. As long as we have not reached the state of nirvana ourselves, we cannot see the Buddha living in nirvana. In this respect, that Buddha whom sentient beings (who are striving for the goal of nirvana) can expect a close relationship with, is the Buddha-in-waiting as a bodhisattva accumulating virtues to become the Buddha; it cannot, in effect, be the Buddha who has become eternal truth.
When the idea of the Buddha is understood—not only as the Buddha in his ultimate state (effect), but also as the Buddha on the way to the attainment of that state, that is the Buddha as a bodhisattva (cause)—it will be obvious that the passing away of the Buddha from this world is not the same as the total disappearance of the Buddha. The Buddha in the state of being a bodhisattva continues to exist, overlapping each step of sentient beings as long as they continue to advance towards nirvana cherishing in their minds the same ideal of becoming a Buddha.
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The idea of the Buddha comprising the ideal of the bodhisattva, acknowledged at least in theory during the lifetime of the Buddha, manifested itself as vividly as ever after the Buddha’s passing from this world. The Buddha, the moment he had attained parinirvana, hid his corporeal existence completely and no longer appeared as a visible figure. If the disciples of the Buddha, even in this situation, were eager to encounter the Buddha, one of the most rational ways of doing so would be themselves to follow the path the Buddha had taken, always keeping his teachings in mind. With the event of the Buddha’s entering parinirvana, the existence of the Buddha was internalised by his disciples deep within their being.
Regarding the existence of the Buddha, a certain unique conflict has arisen on earth. After his decease from this visible world, disciples began to depict the Buddha either as an external figure or as an internal experience, by consigning him to a variety of visible forms such as stupas and sutras. It is evident, however, that the figures symbolising one and the same Buddha are twofold in their depiction, showing him both as the Buddha in the state of a bodhisattva heading for nirvana, and as the Buddha living in the eternal truth, facing this world from nirvana.
When the event of the Buddha’s attaining nirvana, or perfect awakening, is regarded as a watershed in the history of Buddhism, the Buddha as he was prior to his coming to the village of Bodhgaya, the place of his awakening, and the figure appearing in between Bodhgaya and Kushinagar, the last place in this world, are completely different in significance. What is shown in the former figure is the bodhisattva striving for nirvana, and in the latter figure is the Buddha who has already been awakened and arrived in nirvana.
Disciples of the Buddha, however, having themselves not yet reached nirvana, cannot in principle properly express in any form the Buddha living in nirvana after Bodhgaya. In the spiritual sense the Buddha lives in a completely different world from theirs. As an indication of the respect his disciples had for this fact, for three or four hundred years after his passing, the Buddha was never depicted in anthropomorphic form either as a statue or in relief.
On the other hand, however, after achieving the perfect awakening and without being in any way restricted by the abilities of his followers, the Buddha remained on earth for more than forty years, relating to others as the Buddha in the state of nirvana. Due to the fact that the Buddha, having reached perfect awakening, continued to exist in this world discoursing on a variety of matters, resulted in there being followers of Buddhism and the birth of Buddhism itself on this earth.
In this way, the twofold Buddha figures—one ‘the bodhisattva striving for nirvana’, the other ‘the Buddha affecting this world from nirvana’, are preserved in the history of Buddhism. In other words, the sole being of the Buddha can been seen as both the Buddha heading for nirvana as ‘cause’ and the Buddha arriving at nirvana as ‘effect’. On the earth these two aspects are incorporated into one and the same life story of the Buddha. This world, where the bodhisattva was born, renounced his secular life, attained the supreme awakening to become the Buddha, and as such imparted his wisdom to those in the state of suffering, is really a place of wonder in which the Buddha existed simultaneously as cause and effect for as long as forty-five years.
First published in the May 2006 Buddhism Now.
You can read part two here.