Monday, August 22, 2016

The Third Buddha

For twenty five centuries people all over the world have been inspired by the wisdom of a 4th century B.C.E. teacher named Siddhartha Gautama who, through his own meditation practice, woke up. As Siddhartha traveled around India and taught for fifty years people asked him, “Are you a guru? Are you a saint? Are you a god?” He would simply answer, “I am awake.” In Sanskrit, the word for “awake” is budh – Siddhartha became known as the Buddha, the one who woke up.

              At the core of Buddhism is this central claim – normal, everyday awareness is a kind of sleep, a conditioned state of consciousness that, it turns out, isn’t very conscious at all. But the good news is, like Buddha, we too can wake up. Buddhism shows us how.

              First, we must acknowledge that life as it is normally lived is characterized by suffering and dissatisfaction. Second, we must come to understand that our suffering and dissatisfaction has a cause, namely, our own cravings and attachments. Third, we must see that if we released our cravings and attachments, our suffering would decrease. And fourth is the Eightfold Path: eight suggestions for changing the way we think, speak, and act. If we follow these suggestions, our self-obsession would decrease, thereby decreasing our suffering. We would move closer toward nirvana, that state of consciousness where the agitation of fear and craving is replaced by the stillness of clarity and insight. Then we would awaken.

              When Buddha died his students struggled to codify and record his teachings and practices. Disagreements arose, splitting his followers into two groups: Theravada and Mahayana. As in the development of early Christianity, core questions fueled the dissent: Who was the Teacher? How should we regard him? Should we emulate his life and embody his teachings, or worship and revere him?

              As a way of approaching these challenging questions, a Mahayana doctrine called trikaya (three forms) developed. Although Buddha-nature is a singular reality, it manifests itself in three distinct forms. The first is nirmanakaya, the physical form, the flesh and blood man Siddhartha. The second is sambhogakaya, the spiritual form of the Buddha that inhabits the celestial realm where he receives our devotion and answer our prayers. The third form is Dharmakaya, the universal form that permeates all reality, including us. In this third sense, everything is Buddha-nature, an ultimate reality beyond the reach of the conceptual mind, but experienced in the awakened state.

              So which of the three Buddhas is the most important – the physical Buddha, the celestial Buddha, or the universal Buddha? It depends on your temperament. For the more devotional among us, the second Buddha has enormous appeal; a sacred power above and outside of us capable of hearing our prayers and offering supernatural assistance. But for the more philosophical and introspective among us, it is the third Buddha that holds sway; the idea that all matter, energy, and consciousness is already Buddha-nature, and we have only to awaken to this reality. In this scenario, the dynamic of spiritual seeking shifts. It turns out there is nothing to seek, nowhere to go, and nothing to become – we’re already there, and we’re already That. The purpose of our spiritual practice is to remove the hindrances that prevent us from realizing our intrinsic Buddha-hood. As the Christian mystic Meister Eckhart put it, “God is not found in the soul by adding anything, but by a process of subtraction.”
               This is what it means then to awaken -- to come out of the fog of confusion and claim our rightful place in the clarity of this present moment. We are in the Kingdom of Heaven. We never left. We only dozed off for a little while and forgot where we were. Follow Buddha or Jesus or Muhammad is a beginning. But we must be willing to take the next step -- as the embodiment of Dharmakaya or Buddha-nature -- becoming who we have always been. As Japanese Dominican priest Father Oshida put it, "We are not called to be like Christ, but to be Christ." The third Buddha is us.

[This piece was originally published in my "A to Zen" column in the September/October 2016 issue of Unity Magazine, and is reproduced here with permission.]

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