Twofold Depictions of the Buddha
You can read part one here.
A fact that could surprise people who visit Buddhist remains on the Indian subcontinent may be this: monuments relating to the Buddha are concerned not only with the present life of the Buddha but also often with his previous lives, namely with the events connected with his earlier life as a bodhisattva. It seems almost impossible to understand this peculiar phenomenon, particularly for those researchers who are accustomed to regarding the Buddha exclusively as an historical person. However, when we remember the simple fact that throughout history the Buddha has been the one who has stirred deep within people’s hearts the desire to proceed to nirvana and continues always to help them in their purpose, this phenomenon ceases to seem strange. Even during his lifetime, the significance of the Buddha rested mainly in his efforts to strive for nirvana as a bodhisattva. For those who cannot see the corporeal existence of the Buddha, the Buddha appearing through the footsteps taken by the bodhisattva one by one appears much more significant after the Buddha’s parinirvana. Although they cannot directly meet the Buddha who affects this world from the state of ‘nirvana’, the Buddha’s figure as it strives ‘towards nirvana’ as a bodhisattva will be respected as something familiar and will be always widely sought after.
In order that you may gain a clear understanding of the idea of the bodhisattva, I would like to turn your attention to a long-standing discussion in the scholarly world regarding an erroneous belief widely maintained by contemporary scholars. According to their understanding, the bodhisattvas of Buddhist scriptures belong to two almost mutually exclusive categories, namely, the bodhisattvas in the life stories of the Buddha Shakyamuni, who simply represent Shakyamuni in the state of the practitioner before he attained supreme awakening, and the bodhisattvas of the Mahayana scriptures who represent those whose ultimate concern is to become a Buddha. Scholars call the former ‘bodhisattvas as virtuoso’ and the latter ‘bodhisattvas as whoever’. They then go on to assume there are two types of Buddhism, namely Buddhism based on emotional feeling and devoted to a deified Shakyamuni, and Buddhism led by those who think of themselves as bodhisattvas, and are consequently often thought of as the spear carriers of popular social movements.
If we are true to our historical sources, however, we must admit that no such distinction exists between bodhisattvas. They are all simply referred to as bodhisattvas. Buddhist scholars seem to have made a simple but serious mistake based on a vague, but overriding conviction that Buddhists can only relate to Shakyamuni bodhisattva, or the bodhisattva as virtuoso, through the emotion of worship, a feeling of submission to the absolute. There exists, however, another possible attitude toward this absolute being that the researchers have seldom thought of and that is ‘emulating as an example’.
When a prominent, outstanding figure appears in society and founds a religious community, members of that community may entertain submissive feelings towards that heroic figure as being someone way beyond their reach. At the same time, however, they may also feel a certain empathy with that figure. It is open to anyone to feel both emotions at the same time. However much submissiveness and empathy may seem to contrast with each other, they are not necessarily mutually exclusive, nor do they necessarily express two completely different emotions in terms of nature, origin and quality. No matter how great an entity a bodhisattva is depicted to be, his greatness does not preclude feelings of empathy from his followers.
Some Buddhists in history must have been in a very similar position to Shakyamuni bodhisattva, trying to take the same path. Though there have been very few, it is they who have bravely led Buddhism. They overcame all difficulties by force of will, following the path that leads to Buddhahood, motivated by a strong sense of mission. Many people were touched by the indomitable and sublime spirit of these chosen seekers for the world of the Buddha. They became their followers, attaching themselves to them with a strong sense of submission.
Amongst these followers, however, there also arose a number of people who, out of their very submissiveness, came to empathise with the world that these chosen ones pursued. Such people attuned themselves to this other world, shared the same sense of mission as these prominent figures, and themselves started following the path to becoming a Buddha. If they are thought of as bodhisattvas, they may be called ‘bodhisattvas as virtuoso’ because of their definite resolution, but not popular bodhisattvas or ‘bodhisattvas as whoever’.
There are at least two not unconnected reasons why contemporary, especially Japanese, scholars have come to entertain the aforementioned false notion that takes the two types of bodhisattvas as mutually exclusive. One reason is that modern studies of Buddhism, led by the West, have confined their analyses of the religious significance of bodhisattvas to a Christian interpretation. If, when interpreting another faith, one still adheres to the model of an absolute God as creator of all things and all people, it is simply not possible to accept the existence of a bodhisattva who seeks to become the absolute sublime entity or Buddha. There is of necessity a huge difference between the sort of religion that postulates a divine entity entirely separate from ourselves and one that allows its followers the possibility of becoming that entity. If we try to understand the one by simply adopting the framework of the other, it will lead us to a serious misunderstanding.
The other reason is rather more particular to Japan. A sense of equality as a point of political principle became widely spread amongst Japanese intellectuals, especially after World War II. The result of this was a tendency to equalise and homogenise different elements into a single system, a tendency that soon transcended even the political dimension. The formation of this new intellectual climate, so in tune with the notion of absolute equality before God, had an homogenising effect on the entire history of Buddhism with the result that an interpretation of Buddhism that removes anything foreign has become remarkably dominant.
In Buddhism, however, an equal world in which all inequalities and differences are done away with exists only in the realm of the Buddha, in other words, in the world of complete effect. There may be parity of destination, but no such parity on the way to that destination. In the intellectual climate of post-war Japan, however, the philosophy that all should be equal was swiftly seized upon as reality, not as a noble end that will take a long time to reach. Such an attitude would certainly have made it hard to accept an historical structure featuring a few chosen bodhisattvas with an exalted sense of mission and many Buddhists following in their footsteps inspired by their leaders’ sublime awareness of mission and strict code of conduct.
The problem here is one that the study of Buddhism which first started in the West under the influence of Christianity, has unconsciously but persistently suffered from for a long period of time. If Buddhist studies assume the position that all human beings are completely separated from the one absolute being, and as a result are equal in front of that absolute being, then all Buddhists have to be equal in every possible sense of the word right from the start. Consequently, any Buddhist movements that start from this point have to be ‘popular, political movements’ that remind one of social movements in today’s world. The loss of a feeling of awe toward something sublime easily leads to the image of a mass movement, quantity substituting for quality. If the Buddha is understood simply as a human being, and Mahayana seen merely as a mass movement, it is difficult to grasp the historical structure in which ‘bodhisattvas as virtuoso’ and ‘bodhisattvas as whoever’ exist as one.
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I would like to return to the following point. The Buddha’s existence working ‘from nirvana’ did not cease at the moment of the Buddha’s death. Given the fact that the Buddha’s existence originally means a trigger working deep inside a person’s consciousness to make him strive for the ideal of nirvana, the Buddha can be seen as continuing to exist as long as this effect continues to exist. If we carefully look at the world of Buddhism after the death of the Buddha with this fact in mind, we will find no difference between Buddhism during the Buddha’s lifetime and Buddhism after his decease.
After his death the figure of the Buddha was first introduced in the form of stupas, then of statues. His words, on the other hand, were woven as scriptures in the Tripitaka. These visible forms are simply expressions by Buddhist followers or by disciples of the Buddha of impressions given by the Buddha as inner, invisible experience. If there arises an inner desire for nirvana in followers who look at stupas or listen to the words of the Buddha after the Buddha’s parinirvana, there will be no difference between their experiences and those disciples who directly met the Buddha. All of them have or will experience that vitally important inner, invisible transformation through the external, visible forms of the Buddha. In fact, since the death of the Buddha, countless numbers of people have continued to advance towards nirvana in this way.
First published in the May 2006 Buddhism Now.