On Buddha Day Buddhists ask what the Buddha means today, so long after his death. Is he an historical figure or an eternal principle?
Thought for the Day 21.6. 2016
hen Gautama, the man history knows as The Buddha, died two-and-a-half thousand years ago his followers faced a question. Was he really dead and gone – this person who had transformed their lives and seemed to embody a reality so much greater than ordinary existence? They knew that his influence lived on in his teaching; but was there some other sense in which he continue to exist? A similar question faces Buddhists around the world today as we celebrate Buddha Day, the anniversary of the Buddha’s Awakening.
The Buddha himself refused to discuss his status after death, saying he wasn’t concerned with speculating about such things. His message to others was that they could liberate themselves by practising his teachings. Then they would eventually come to see the world as he did and understand Nirvana through their own experience.
But the Buddha also said that his experience of Awakening made him more than a wise, compassionate but fundamentally ordinary human being. So over time the focus for some Buddhists shifted from the historical Buddha to an ideal of Buddhahood that’s beyond time and space. They embodied this in the figure of the eternal Buddha, which is often what you’re looking at in Buddha images, especially Far Eastern ones. Other figures in Buddhist art represent particular aspects of the Enlightened mind – many arms denoting compassion, a sword depicting the wisdom that cuts through ignorance, or a body surrounded by flames that represent energy.
For Buddhists of all traditions Buddhahood means that there are no limits to how far we can develop ourselves. Personally, I love the different ways of approaching what that means through the figure of the Buddha. One is rooted is rooted in humanity. In one early text describing the Buddha’s last year he tells us that, aged eighty and increasingly frail, he’s like an old cart that’s tied together by a few fraying ropes. In these words we catch the dignity of a wise man who is facing death.
The second is through the archetypal forms that offer a way to connect with qualities that can’t be put into words. What does Enlightenment look like? Imagine the infinite sky, profoundly blue, stretching in all directions, and a shimmering golden figure, poised and vital, resting in its midst, radiating calm and peace. That’s the Buddha – the ancient sage, and a symbol for our own minds at their fullest unfolding. The figure of the Buddha for me embodies the unlimited potential of all human beings.