Buddha’s Words: The Buddha and You
The second chapter of Bhiikkhu Bodhi’s book In the Buddha’s Words is about the Buddha himself – his conception, birth, life, enlightenment, teaching, and death. Buddhism is, in every sense, as guilty of hagiography as any other religion. That is, transmitting the stories of holy people in a way true historians find more than a little suspect.
If there is one thing I learned in my Chan [Chinese Zen] studies class, it is that the stories of the Chan masters tend to get longer over time. A biography of Bodhidharma that was five paragraphs in the eighth century will somehow have grown to twelve paragraphs in the tenth century, with no new sources being consulted. In making our masters into gods, we make ourselves into saints.
The Buddha’s story is not immune to this tendency. Therefore, some have advocated that the story of the Buddha be read as literature or allegory. I believe this is taking it a step too far. There is, after all, something empowering and salvational in believing that the Buddha really existed as the man Siddharta Gotama, the Shakyamuni. Believing that immediately upon his birth he walked seven steps, spoke blessed words, and lotuses bloomed under his feet? That’s another thing.
As Bhikkhu Bodhi astutely reminds us, “The Buddha who stares back at us from the texts will be too much a reflection of ourselves, too little an image of the Enlightened One.” And “our interpretation will be infludenced as much by our own presuppositions.” (p. 43)
So naturally, the Buddha I see is a fully human Buddha, an un-miraculous Buddha, but nonetheless a fully enlightened Buddha free from suffering. This Buddha gives me hope, because he speaks to the buddhanature within all people, to the ability of each and every one of us to achieve ultimate enlightenment and freedom from suffering. To others, this merely human Buddha is disempowering and disheartening. For their own reasons, they prefer the miraculous deified Buddha.
I do not believe the two views are in conflict. They are merely different. Each is an interpretation of the reader. Both views are supported by the scriptures.
The Nikayas offer two perspectives on the Buddha as a person… One perspective, the one highlighted most often in modernist presentations of Buddhism, shows the Buddha as a human being who, like other human beings, had to struggle with the common frailties of human nature to arrive at the state of an Enlightened One. … The other aspect of the Buddha’s person is likely to seem strange to us, but it looms large in the Buddhist tradition and serves as the bedrock of popular Buddhist devotion. … From this perspective, the Buddha is seen as one who had already made preparations for his supreme attainment over countless past lives and was destined from birth to fulfill the mission of a world teacher. – p. 45-46
It is important to understand that in each of these presentations, the Buddha shares key details: the Buddha both understands and teaches the path to liberation and paths to wholesome living and happiness in the present live. He is “a guide to the Dhamma in its full range and depth: one who reveals, proclaims, and establishes all the principles integral to correct understand and wholesome conduct, whether mundane or transcendental,” meaning his is a teacher to laypersons and monastics, beggars and kings alike. (p. 45) He is one who has mastered the four jhanas or states of meditation and the three vijjas or types of knowledge. He has realized that “dependent origination does not signify a joyous celebration of the interconnectedness of all things but a precise articulation of the conditional pattern in dependence upon which suffering arises and ceases.” (p. 47)
The Buddha, this Buddha, Shakyamuni Buddha, discovered what he called “the middle way” between extremes of self-denial and self-aggrandizement. Only by following the middle way, he told his students, can one both remain true to the renunciation of sensual pleasures while also steering clear of pointless and unproductive self-torture. In his forty-plus year teaching career, he elucidated the Four Noble Truths, Noble Eightfold Path, and many more teachings to help human beings understand the nature of cyclic existence and the path to freedom.
This chapter of the book includes seven sutta references, spending the most words on the Buddha’s quest for enlightenment. The first of three stories related by the Buddha about this quest discusses his three teachers, each of whom practiced an extreme form of nihilistic aestheticism and each of whom the Buddha eventually became disenchanted with. In the second story, the Buddha uses the metaphor of a piece of wood difficult to burn to describe the unenlightened mind. Here the Buddha also discusses his entry in the four jhanas, or states of meditative absorption, which he only attained after having set off on his own, free from his self-destructive teachers. Below I have used the translation of Thanissaro Bhikkhu available on Access to Insight.
I thought: ‘I recall once, when my father the Sakyan was working, and I was sitting in the cool shade of a rose-apple tree, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities — I entered and remained in the first jhana: rapture and pleasure born from seclusion, accompanied by directed thought and evaluation. Could that be the path to Awakening?’ Then following on that memory came the realization: ‘That is the path to Awakening.’ I thought: ‘So why am I afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskillful mental qualities?’ I thought: ‘I am no longer afraid of that pleasure that has nothing to do with sensuality, nothing to do with unskillful mental qualities, but that pleasure is not easy to achieve with a body so extremely emaciated. Suppose I were to take some solid food: some rice & porridge.’ So I took some solid food: some rice and porridge. Now five monks had been attending on me, thinking, ‘If Gotama, our contemplative, achieves some higher state, he will tell us.’ But when they saw me taking some solid food — some rice and porridge — they were disgusted and left me, thinking, ‘Gotama the contemplative is living luxuriously. He has abandoned his exertion and is backsliding into abundance.’
“So when I had taken solid food and regained strength, then — quite secluded from sensuality, secluded from unskillful mental qualities, I entered and remained in the first jhana: rapture and pleasure born from seclusion, accompanied by directed thought and evaluation. But the pleasant feeling that arose in this way did not invade my mind or remain. With the stilling of directed thoughts and evaluations, I entered and remained in the second jhana: rapture and pleasure born of concentration, unification of awareness free from directed thought and evaluation — internal assurance. But the pleasant feeling that arose in this way did not invade my mind or remain. With the fading of rapture I remained equanimous, mindful, and alert, and sensed pleasure with the body. I entered and remained in the third jhana, of which the noble ones declare, ‘Equanimous and mindful, he has a pleasant abiding.’ But the pleasant feeling that arose in this way did not invade my mind or remain. With the abandoning of pleasure and pain — as with the earlier disappearance of elation and distress — I entered and remained in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity and mindfulness, neither pleasure nor pain. But the pleasant feeling that arose in this way did not invade my mind or remain. – MN 36
Yet the fourth jhana was not enlightenment. It was during meditation in the fourth jhana that the three knowledges, or vijjas, came to the Buddha. The first is knowledge of all his uncountable past lives. The second is an understanding of dependent origination – that is, the passing away and rebirth of all things, including you and I. The third is knowledge of the origin of suffering and the destruction of taints, or those qualities which keep beings, including you and I, trapped in cycles of suffering. It is only with this final knowledge that the Buddha was able to obtain true freedom from suffering.
The third story the Buddha tells about the quest for enlightenment likens it to an ancient path leading to an ancient city.
So too, monks, I saw the ancient path, the ancient road traveled by the Perfectly Enlightened Ones of the past. … I followed that path and by doing so I have directly known aging-and-death, its origin, its cessation, and the way leading to its cessation. – SN 12:65 (p. 69)
The Buddha himself tells us that he is not the first, other buddhas have come before, and they too have traveled this path and reached this city. Likewise, so did he and so can we.