Buddha Is Not Dharma

By: David Xi-Ken Astor Sensei

“We take refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, the Sangha”.   If we follow Buddhist thought, and not accept a duel state of being, we may come to realize that while we make distinctions of the Three Jewels in practice, in reality they are not separate phenomena.  They are interdependent and connected as one reality, and are components of the principle of Inter-dependent Origination.  So, we come to ask the question, “how can ultimate reality be embodied in the form of a person (Buddha)?”   I would argue that if we strictly apply Buddhist logic, it isn’t.  It is a kind of paradox, and what is “ultimate reality” anyway?

We use the term “Buddha nature” rather freely sometimes without a clear notion of what we are talking about.  Yes, as human beings (and the historic Buddha was that) we are both Universal and unique expressions of the Universe at the same time.  Buddha nature is an expression that points to our inclusion in the Dharma; we manifest an image or reflection or intimation of that which can not be separate from all the other expression the Universe is.  Life as we know it can be considered as a large fabric woven of all the various expressions that in totality makes up what we know as reality.  Remember that science tells us that we have only identified about 8% of what makes up the Universe.  We have a long way to go yet in our exploration.  Dharma goes beyond this limited notion of reality to encompass both what we can know, and that which is unknown.

Some Buddhist traditions acknowledge the passing of the Buddha into nirvana, as an act of absolute deliverance from suffering as though it is a place or dimension somewhere.  They suggest some kind of termination of his manifestation in the human form to something “other”.  The danger in this belief is that it suggests a duel nature, something Siddhartha denies in his doctrine of not-self.  Hui-neng, the sixth patriarch, said, “For whatever can be named leads to dualism, and Buddhism is not dualistic.  To take hold of this notion of non-duality is the aim of Zen practice.   Hui-neng’s teacher said, “One will not get rid of birth and death if one constantly thinks of other Buddha’s.  However, if one retains one’s mindfulness, one is sure to reach the further shore.”  In the Vajraccedika-parajnaparamita Sutra the Buddha states, “If any one wishes to see me in form, or to seek me in sound, this person is treading an evil path and he cannot see the Tathagata.”  His meaning here is only clearly understood if you also understand the term “further shore”.  Our practice must bring us to understanding and liberation from all attachments that act to distort our awakening to how the Universe is and we are in it, including the form of the Buddha too.  This recalls to mind the Zen expression “If you see the Buddha on the road, kill him!”

From a contemporary point of view, away from medieval logic, it can’t be said that the Buddha is revered and worshiped in either his human form or a Universal metaphysical expression.  Dharma is beyond all of these states of thinking.  So if we consider our human Buddha nature appropriating a specific definition, then it can not really be the Dharma.  On the other hand, if Buddha nature is given emptiness (formlessness) of definition and possession of absolute suchness, then we have an opportunity to awaken to Dharma.  Only from the Dharma we come to see the Buddha as he is, and not vice versa.

Take that into your Contemplation session and see where it takes you. 


Filed under David Xi-Ken Astor

4 responses to “Buddha Is Not Dharma

  1. Ethan McCune

    If we should not find the Buddha in physical image then why do we have statues of him? Please help. I am new to this.

    • Greetings Ethan. Thank you for visiting us here on the web, and asking this very important question. One of the hardest Buddhist principles to comprehend is that of Dependent Origination. As you read Buddhist material you will find this foundational principle expressed in different words. Form & emptiness, suchness, dual non-dual, not-self, Universal reality, mutual causality, to mention a few. The phrase I mention in this lesson is “how can ultimate reality be embodied in the form of a person (Buddha)?” The key word here is “ultimate”. This lesson also gives recognition to how we are to come to understand the Three Jewels (Buddha, Sangha, Dharma). Yes, when you see an image of the Buddha on an altar, you see a representation of Siddhartha (Buddha) as the man that brought us Buddhist philosophy and thought. You also see material the statue is made of: wood, glass, plastic, jade for example. But you must also go beyond this first level of meaning to see what is revealed to us behind the meaning of the image. The Buddha nature we all possess as human beings is another level. You also must awaken to the reality that this Buddha image is about us and our potential. When we bow to the Buddha image, we are not bowing to Siddhartha in respect as much as we are bowing to our own potential to realize Universal realities. The Buddha images is also us. Some images of the Buddha are transparent for this very reason. I say, “When our practice is clear, you can see right through me.” Thus we should see the Buddha-within each of us (and others) too. The primary Buddhist principle is the Four Noble Truths, which is about transformation and how we can achieve liberation from the unsatisfactoriness in life that much of which we bring on ourselves. The Buddha image points to this transformation and liberation, not about the man himself. The Buddha was very clear about this in his teachings. We do not worship the Buddha. Although in some Asian countries we see that they consider the Buddha as a deity out of ignorance and cultural expectations. We respect his wisdom and karmaic energy that is with us today that can be the vehicle for our own human flourishing. The Buddha image is the form we use to remind us of the reality we come to understand as being empty by its very nature. But other images are just as useful: like a flower, a rock perhaps. Even the incense we light on the altar is another way of expressing the Buddha. When you come to understand this, you will awaken to the fact that image is the language our mind uses to transcend the ordinary mind.

      It will take you some while to come to see more deeply what I am getting at in this very brief explanation. This is why it is very important to find a teacher. I Bow to your curiosity and interest. Do not hesitate to ask questions, or to seek a clearer understanding. We are always available to you when you need us.

      /\ David Xi-Ken Sensei

      • Ethan McCune

        Thank you so much, David Xi-Ken Sensei. And I would love to find a teacher, but I live in Kentucky and most people here are Christians. I have no idea where to find a teacher.

  2. Ethan, I am glad you are exploring the Buddhist potential to enrich your life in ways yet not clear to you. I also understand how hard it is to find an authentic teacher in many parts of America. It does not surprise me at all that you do not have one in your area. I hear this all the time. This is why EDIG was established so individuals with no access to a teacher could still engage Buddhist study by using the power of the internet. We use Skype as a teaching platform. While our Order teaches those in formal monastic vocations, EDIG teaches the laity. I have several students like yourself that I meet with online weekly to teach the fundamentals of Buddhist thought. There is no fee associated with our teachings as it is apart of our ministry. If you would like to explore this option with me, please send me an email and let me know your intentions. An exploratory first meeting can then be arranged. The only thing you need is a Skype account in order to do video chat. Send an email to oebvocationdir@gmail.com and I will get back to you.

    David Xi-Ken Sensei

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