พระพุทธเจ้ามีกี่พระองค์

คำถามหนึ่งที่มีคนถามญีมาถักปาริมโปเชในการบรรยายของท่านที่บ้านมูลนิธิพันดาราเมื่อวานก็คือว่า ในพระพุทธศาสนาทิเบตมีเรื่องเกี่ยวกับพระอาจารย์ที่บรรลุกลายเป็นพระพุทธเจ้าเป็นจำนวนมาก แล้วพระอาจารย์ที่บรรลุเหล่านี้จะเหมือนหรือแตกต่างอย่างไรกับพระพุทธเจ้าศากยมุนี คำถามนี้เป็นคำถามที่น่าสนใจ ก็เลยคิดว่าจะเอามาพูดในรายละเอียดในที่นี้

ก่อนอื่นเราต้องเข้าใจว่า การเป็นพระพุทธเจ้านั้นไม่ได้หมายความว่าจะต้องมีร่างกายร่างนี้หรือเป็นคนๆนี้เท่านั้น เรื่องนี้สำคัญอย่างยิ่ง พระพุทธเจ้าเองตรัสไว้ว่า “ผู้ใดเห็นธรรม ผู้นั้นเห็นเรา” ซึ่งก็หมายความว่าการเป็นพระพุทธเจ้านั้นไม่ได้อยู่ที่การมีร่างกายร่างนี้ มีหน้าตาแบบนี้ มีชาติกำเนิดแบบนี้ สวมใส่จีวรแบบนี้ พวกนี้ไม่เกี่ยวข้องแต่ประการใด ใครที่คิดว่าเกี่ยวก็หมายความว่ายังไม่เข้าใจคำสอนของพระพุทธเจ้าดีพอ

แล้ว “ผู้ใดเห็นธรรม ผู้นั้นเห็นเรา” หมายความว่าอย่างไรกันแน่? การเห็นธรรมคือการเข้าใจคำสอนอย่างแจ่มแจ้ง ซึ่งจะทำได้ก็ต่อเมื่อปฏิบัติตามคำสอนของพระองค์ เดินตามเส้นทางของศีล สมาธิ ปัญญา พูดอีกอย่างหนึ่งก็คือว่า ทำตามแบบที่พระพุทธเจ้าทรงสั่งสอนให้เราทำ คนที่ทำเช่นนี้ได้ชื่อว่า “เห็นพระพุทธเจ้า” เพราะว่าเขามีจิตที่น้อมนำไปสุ่การหลุดพ้นจากทุกข์ มีจิตที่เปี่ยมไปด้วยความเมตตากรุณาและปัญญา

แล้วเหตุใดคนที่เห็นเช่นนี้จึเรียกว่าเห็นพระพุทธเจ้า? ก็เพราะว่าความเป็นพระพุทธเจ้านั้นไม่ได้อยุ่ที่รูปลักษณ์ภายนอก ไม่เช่นนั้นเวลาเรากราบพระพุทธรูป เราก็กำลังกราบก้อนอิฐก้อนปูน หรือก้อนทองเหลืองเท่านั้นเอง แต่จริงๆแล้วไม่ใช่ เพราะเวลาเรากราบพระพุทธรูป ใจของเราน้อมนำไปที่คุณสมบัติของการเป็นพระพุทธเจ้า เมื่อเรามองพระพุทธรูป เราเห็นมากไปกว่าก้อนทองเหลืองหรือก้อนปูน แต่เราเห็นตัวแทนของคุณสมบัติที่ทำให้พระพุทธเจ้าเป็นพระพุทธเจ้า นี่ต่างหากที่พระพุทธองค์ทรงอยากให้เราเห็น ไม่ใช่มาเห็นรูปร่างภายนอกของท่านเอง

เมื่อเป็นเช่นนี้ ใครก็ตามที่เข้าถึงคุณสมบัติเหล่านี้อย่างเต็มที่ ก็ย่อมไม่ต่างจากพระพุทธเจ้าเช่นเดียวกัน ด้วยเหตุนี้พระพุทธเจ้ากับพระอรหันต์จึงไม่ต่างกัน เพราะต่างก็บรรลุถึงคุณสมบัติข้อนี้เหมือนกัน เป็นไปไม่ได้ที่พระพุทธเจ้าที่มีคุณสมบัติอะไรที่พระอรหันต์ไม่มี เพราะคุณสมบัติของการหลุดพ้นเป็นของสาธารณะ ไม่ใช่สมบัติส่วนตัวของพระพุทธเจ้า เมื่อเป็นสาธารณะ ทุกคนก็ย่อมเข้าถึงและเอามาเป็นของตัวได้เหมือนกันหมดทั้งสิ้น

เมื่อเป็นอย่างนี้ แล้วตกลงพระพุทธเจ้ามีกี่พระองค์ เราต้องคอยระวังตัวอย่าให้ภาษามาหลอกลวงเราได้ การที่เราถูกภาษาหลอกเอาแสดงว่าเรายังอยู่ภายใต้อวิชชาอยู่ ที่สำคัญก็คือว่า เราคิดไปว่าภาษาหรือถ้อยคำเป็นอย่างไร ความเป็นจริงต้องเป็นอย่างนั้น ซึ่งจริงๆแล้วไม่ได้เป็นเช่นนั้นเลย ภาษามักปรากฏตัวออกมาเป็นรูปประโยค ซึ่งต้องประกอบด้วยภาคประธานกับภาคแสดง หากเราไม่ระวังตัว เราก็คิดไปว่า โลกภายนอกนั้นก็แบ่งตัวออกเป็น “ภาคประธาน” กับ “ภาคแสดง” ไปด้วย หรือตามที่อาริสโตเติล (ซึ่งเป็นตัวอย่างอันดีของการคิดตามภาษา) บอกว่า สรรพสิ่งประกอบไปด้วย “องค์ประธาน” หรือ “แก่นสารสาระ” (substance) กับ “คุณสมบัติ” (property) ซึ่งจริงๆแล้ว ทั้งหมดนี้เป็นเพียงสิ่งที่เราสมมติปรุงแต่งขึ้นทั้งสิ้น ไม่ได้มีรากฐานอยู่บนความเป็นจริงที่แท้แต่ประการใด ทั้งนี้ก็เนื่องจากว่า ทุกสิ่งทุกอย่างที่เรากำหนดขึ้นเป็น “องค์ประธาน” นั้น ก็ต้องตกอยู่ภายใต้กฎไตรลักษณ์ คือต้องเปลี่ยนแปลงอยู่ตลอด ไม่มีสาระประจำใดๆที่จะทำให้กำหนดได้ว่าเป็นสิ่งนี้จริงๆไม่ใช่สิ่งนั้น ซึ่งเรื่องนี้ขัดแย้งกับการคิดแบบอาริสโตเติลโดยตรง

เรื่องการที่ภาษามาหลอกลวงเรากับเรื่องพระพุทธเจ้ามีกี่พระองค์ มาเกี่ยวกันก็เพราะว่าภาษามักบอกเราว่า พระพุทธเจ้าเป็นศาสดาของศาสนาพุทธ หรือพระพุทธเจ้าทรงสั่งสอนสรรพสัตว์ ทำให้เกิดภาพว่าผู้สอนก็สิ่งหนึ่ง ผู้ถูกสอนก็อีกสิ่งหนึ่ง แต่ในความเป็นจริงที่แท้นั้นผู้สอนก็ไม่มี ผู้ถูกสอนก็ไม่มี การคิดไปว่ามีผู้สอนกับผู้ถูกสอนก็มาจากการอุปโลกน์ความเป็นจริงโดยภาษาเท่านั้น คือเมื่อมีคำว่า “ผู้สอน” ก็เกิดความคิดว่ามีสิ่งหนึ่งที่เป็นผู้สอน ซึ่งก็ย่อมต่างจากผู้ถูกสอน ผลก็คือการคิดแบบแยกแยะนี้ไปขัดกับความเข้าใจที่ว่าคุณสมบัติของการเป็นพระพุทธเจ้าหรือการบรรลุธรรมมีเหมือนกันทั้งในพระพุทธเจ้าและในพระอรหันตสาวก

แล้วตกลงมีพระพุทธเจ้ากี่พระองค์ คำตอบคือมันขึ้นกับเหตุปัจจัย เหตุปัจจัยเป็นแบบหนึ่ง เช่นต้องการจะเน้นเรื่องศาสนาของพระพุทธศาสนา หรือเจ้าชายสิทธัตถะที่บำเพ็ญเพียรจนบรรลุธรรมแล้วสังสอนสรรพสัตว์ พระพุทธเจ้าก็มีหนึ่งเดียว แต่นั่นไม่ใช่คำตอบที่น่าสนใจ เพราะเรากำลังมุ่งไปที่ตัวบุคคลหรือร่างกายเนื้อหนัง ซึ่งไม่ใช่เป้าหมายของพระพุทธองค์ในการสั่งสอนเราเลย เราควรมุ่งไปที่คุณลักษณะของความเป็นพระพุทธเจ้าหรือสภาวธรรมที่เป็นอยู่เอง สภาวะดังกล่าวนี้เป็นไปไม่ได้ที่จะมีมากกว่าหนึ่งหรือน้อยกว่าหนึ่ง เพราะทั้งหมดตั้งอยู่บนการไม่แบ่งแยกออกเป็นสอง ซึ่งได้บอกไปแล้วว่ามาจากการถูกภาษาหลอกเอา

หรือมองอีกแง่หนึ่ง จำนวนพระพุทธเจ้าในจักรวาลนี้มีนับไม่ถ้วน มีมากมายมหาศาลสุดจะนับได้ มีอยู่ในทุกอณูของอากาศธาตุ ทั้งนี้ก็เพราะว่าแต่ละอณูของอากาศธาตุนั้นมีความแตกต่างกัน และเป็นจักรวาลในตัวมันเองทั้งหมด ดังนั้นเนื่องจากในแต่ละจักรวาลจะมีพระพุทธเจ้าประจำอยู่อย่างน้อยหนึ่งพระองค์ จำนวนของพระพุทธเจ้าจึงมากมายมหาศาล สุดจะสรุปออกมาเป็นตัวเลขได้

Three Types of Compassion

When I was staying at the Khadiravana Center someone I had known before came to visit the Center and talked with me for a while. He was a student of Buddhism and used to translate a number of Tibetan Buddhist books. He had an interesting question which he told me many monks and scholars could not answer. It has to do with compassion and emptiness. Since everything is empty, that is, lacking in their inherent existence, when we have compassion, what exactly are we having the compassion for? If everything is empty, isn’t the thing for which we have compassion empty too? If it is empty, then wouldn’t our compassion be directed to an empty object, a compassion to nothing?

This is clearly a clever question, and it shows that someone who does not understand the Buddha’s teaching thoroughly could get mired in these conceptual web. Not that the Buddha himself planted these webs, but it seems that some of his followers created these webs for themselves because of their attachment and preconceptions.

In any case this question needs to be fully answered, and the answer is not an easy one. The question rests on a very fundamental tension in the Buddha’s own teaching – the tension between taking things as they appear, on the one hand, and seeing their ultimate nature as being empty through and through on the other. This tension lies at the heart of Buddhist teaching.

On the side of taking things as they appear, there certainly are beings who need compassion. They are suffering; there are innumerably many of them. They are beings in samsara. Clearly they are there as objects of the Buddha’s and bodhisattva’s and our own compassion.

On the other hand, things are empty of their inherent character. What this means is that things do not stay the same forever, and even at a moment when they are what they are, they are what they are only because of their being dependence of causes and conditions. These causes and conditions are no exception either; they depend on other causes and conditions too, and so on ad infinitum. In the end everything is what it is because of their dependent nature, which for Buddhists means that they are empty of their inherent character which would make them truly what they are without such dependency. Since this has no exception, any object of compassion, any suffering being, is ultimately empty too. So when we feel compassionate toward them, what exactly are we compassionate toward?

One way out of this is to treat things at two levels – that of ‘conventional’ truth and of ‘ultimate’ truth. This is the path Nagarjuna takes. In fact talking about levels is rather misleading, for in fact things do not present themselves in levels. They are one and the same things, but described differently. According to one way of describing, they are there as objects of reference and certainly of compassion, but according to the other description, they are empty. Since all things do not possess any essential properties from the beginning, there is no contradiction in the two descriptions.

However, there is another way of looking at this which is perhaps less philosophical. According to Deshung Rinpoche in The Three Levels of Spiritual Perception, when we practice compassion, we should do it with the realization that there are three types of compassion. We should always take into account all these three types whenever we feel compassionate toward other beings and practice compassion. The first type is the ordinary compassion we have toward other beings. The second type is the realization that these beings suffer because they are mired in avidya or fundamental ignorance. The third and most refined type is the realization that in ultimate reality there is no one to be compassionate to, no one who is being compassionate, and no such thing as compassion.

The trick is that the third type is classified as a kind of compassion. This neatly solves the problem that my friend asked me before. The tension between compassion and emptiness is only apparent and arises only if the first type is understood to be the only type. But when one takes into account the second and third types, then the tension dissolves, because the realization of emptiness is a kind of compassion too.

This needs to be unpacked. Buddhist teachers usually say that compassion and emptiness (or wisdom) are the two wings that enable a bird to fly. A bird cannot fly with only one wing, so one cannot attain Buddhahood with realization of either compassion or emptiness only. One needs both to attain Buddhahood. And a way to achieve this is suggested in Deshung Rinpoche’s teaching that the third type of compassion is just this realization of the wisdom of emptiness itself.

How is this so? It arises from the understanding that the truly genuine way for true compassion to arise in one’s mindstream is for one to achieve the wisdom of emptiness – the realization that ultimately all beings are of one nature. Furthermore, it also arises from the understanding that the only way the wisdom of emptiness to arise in one’s mindstream is for one to have genuine compassion toward other beings. When one has genuine compassion, the apparent boundary separating oneself from the world and every being breaks down, but that is just emptiness in action.

So in the end the two, compassion and emptiness, are one and the same. Thus the question I mentioned earlier arose only out of some misconception. But it is a very strong misconception. This is why the practice of compassion is so crucial in Mahayana Buddhism. Without it there will absolutely be no way toward Buddhahood.

Nirvana, Parinirvana, Enlightenment, Buddhahood

A follower of mine on Twitter asked what are the differences between ‘nirvana,’ ‘parinirvana,’ and ‘Enlightenment.’ This is a very good question, but to answer it in Twitter is like walking with the feet tied together, so I have to answer this in more detail here. I have already gave an answer in Twitter, but my tweets there are necessarily too short. This might not be clear enough, especially for those who are new to Buddhism.

Nirvana is the goal of Buddhist practice. This is why people became a Buddhist in the first place, and it is the goal that the Buddha taught everybody to pursue since he began his teaching career soon after he had attained Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. Etymolotically, ‘nirvana’ means ‘extinguished,’ like when a fire is extinguished, in Sanskrit one would say the fire is ‘nirvana.’ This sense of ‘being put out’ then is transferred to refer to the state where the suffering is ‘put out’. There is no more suffering. Thus, one gains total liberation from samsara.

‘Parinirvana’ literally means ‘being put out all around;’ that is, it is all extinguished. In this sense it means the same as nirvana, only that there is the emphasis on being totally extinguished. However, it is more commonly used to refer to the dissolution of the body of one who has already entered nirvana. So when one has entered nirvana while one is alive, his ego attachment is completely dead, and when that one finally ‘dies,’ it is said that he enters ‘parinirvana.’ In Theravada tradition this is only used for the Buddha.

‘Enlightenment’ is the state where one gains complete Knowledge. This is what the Buddha achieved under the Bodhi tree that enabled him to become a Buddha. A ‘Buddha’ means ‘one who is awakened.’ Those of us in samsara are not awakened because we live in the dreamworld of thought construction and conceptual fabrication, believing that they are real. So we believe that our egos, our “I’s” are real and so on. The Buddha, on the other hand, realizes that this is an illusion, and in reality there is nothing but pure state of naken, unadorned, expansive being. This is what an enlightened being knows. In Pali one says, sammasambodhi, meaning perfect, complete Knowledge (actually I have to put in the diacritical marks on the Pali or Sanskrit terms, but it takes time to do that and I don’t think it’s really necessary here as we are focusing more on the meaning.) ‘Knowledge’ here, by the way, does not refer to one’s ordinary, commonplace knowledge that relies on concepts, but the complete knowledge obtainable only when one lets go of all concepts. Thus ‘Knowledge’ with the capital ‘K’ refers to the state of complete knowledge, or the Buddha’s state of Enlightenment, and ‘knowledge’ with a small ‘k’ to refer to ordinary, conceptual knowledge.

Since all sufferings are caused by not realizing this truth, the state of complete Knowledge here is their direct antidote. So one who is enlightened naturally is free from any and all sufferings. So in a sense Enlightenment and nirvana mean the same in that they refer to the same situation. But literally they mean differently.

Now, there is still another distinction between those who have attained nirvana and have totally abandoned samsara, and those who, though they have attained nirvana but chose instead to remain in samsara to help beings. This is a key idea in Mahayana Buddhism. In Theravada, the goal of practice is to eliminate all causes of suffering and entered nirvana, becoming an ‘arahat.’ In Mahayana, on the other hand, that goal is commendable, but it is not the complete or ultimate goal of one’s practice. The aim of a Mahayana practitioner is not just to liberate oneself from samsara, but to be able to help all sentient beings to attain nirvana also. Thus the goal of the Mahayana practitioner is to become a Bodhisattva, or one who has the aspiration to attain Buddhahood, that is to become a fully enlightened Buddha, in order to be able to help beings.

So this is all for now. I’ll write more about all these in later posts. Those who would like to know more might want to read my earlier post on Nirvana and Samsara.

The Six Perfections

One of the most important component of the Bodhisattva path is the practice of the six perfections. “Perfections” is a translation of the Sanskrit paramita, which means something like, well, perfection. More specifically, the perfections are virtues that the trainee on the Bodhisattva path practice in order to accumulate the merit and wisdom that are necessary for realizing complete Buddhahood. They are the accumulated store of resources that will eventually enable the trainee, or the Bodhisattva, to become a Buddha in the future.

The idea of the paramita is not only found in Mahayana Buddhism. It is an older idea found also in Theravada. Buddha Shakyamuni was only able to summon up the resources he needed to defeat the Mara because of the paramita that he had accumulated through all the aeons. It is said that the dana-paramita (the perfection of giving) that he had performed in all the previous aeons was such that it became a huge torrent of flood that flushed out Mara and his retinues, thus enabling Siddhartha finally to attain complete Enlightenment and became the Buddha.

There are some slight differences in the list of the paramitas in the Mahayana and Theravada. But essentially they are one and the same idea. In the Mahayana the perfections are six in number, and they are:

  1. Giving
  2. Morality
  3. Patience
  4. Diligence
  5. Meditation (single-pointedness)
  6. Wisdom

It is said, such as in Santideva’s Bodhicaryavatara, that the previous five perfections exist in order to provide foundations for the sixth one, ultimate wisdom realizing emptiness. Taken all together, they represent necessary steps or landmarks on the Bodhisattva path. Without them Buddhahood would be completely impossible.

White Tara

White Tara

The first perfection giving (dana in Pali and Sanskrit) is the first thing that the aspiring Bodhisattva needs to perfect. This is the first step in caring for the well being of sentient beings. The work for the ultimate benefit of sentient beings cannot be merely words and thoughts, but real action, and the action has to start with giving. The giving can be done at many levels, starting from giving material things, to giving of “fearlessness,” which is a gift to sentient beings so that they no longer live in fear, and then giving of the teaching of the Buddha’s so that the beings know the correct path to ultimate freedom.

Furthermore, Deshung Rinpoche taught that, in order for the perfection of giving to be of utmost merit and benefit, there has to be a realization that, ultimately speaking, there is no giver, no recipient, and no thing given. That is, the giver should be think that by doing the giving she reaps benefits for herself. That will just destroy the purpose of walking the Bodhisattva path, which is constituted by egolessness.

The second paramita is morality. In Sanskrit this is sila. The purpose of practicing morality here is to take action in such a way that beings are not harmed. The Bodhisattva does not kill; she does not hurt the beings in any way at all. On the contrary she does everything in order to benefit their well beings. This will also accumulate merit which is necessary for realizing the Buddhahood.

The third paramita is one of the most significant. The Bodhisattva needs to cultivate patient. In Sanskrit this is ksanti and in Pali it’s khanti. The idea is that the Bodhisattva needs to overcome anger and ill will completely. No matter how much she is being harmed, the Bodhisattva realizes that this outward action is only a result of previous karmas and Shantideva said that it is in fact the one who is perpetrating the harm that deserves more compassion because he is incurring negative karmas that will result in more intense sufferings later on. The only thoughts of the Bodhisattva are to find ways to benefits beings. Shantideva also said that one moment of anger actually destroys aeons of accumulation of merit, just like a flash of fire destroys things that have been accumulated for a long, long time.

The fourth paratmita is diligence, or viriya in Pali and virya in Sanskrit. This si also very important, because without it no progress along the Bodhisattva path is possible. One of the worst forms of obstacles to the Path is the feeling that one is not worthy enough for the Path. One might think one is only an ordinary being and as such won’t be capable of becoming a Buddha. Or one might think that to become a Buddha is such a daunting task and feels that one is not up to it. This is a big obstacle because it discourages one to actually moving on the Path. This tendency is countered by practicing the paramita of diligence. By diligence the practitioner is always joyful and enthusiastic in practice. In fact becoming a Buddha is always possible for everybody, because Buddha Shakyamuni himself used to be born as animals. So we human beings are now in much better form than Buddha himself when he was an animal. So what reason do we have in thinking that we are not up to the task? Even though the Path is a long one and may take aeons to complete, the Bodhisattva joyfully takes up the task because he always bears in mind the ultimate benefit that will accrue to the sentient beings.

The fifth paramita is also very important. The Pali is jhana and Sanskrit is dhyana. In order to realize the sixth perfection, that of ultimate wisdom that will actually transforms one into a Buddha, one has to perfect the practice of meditation and single-pointedness. Shantideva recommends the practice of tong-len, or giving and taking in Tibetan. This is done by imagining that we are taking up all the sufferings of all the sentient beings in samsara so that they are completely free from them, and radiating out all of our happiness and merit to the beings. This will go a long way toward calming the mind and will be a foundation on which the realization of selflessness of all phenomena be possible.

The sixth paramita, prajna-paramita, is perhaps the apex of all the perfections, but in fact all the previous five are necessary because without them the sixth, or ultimate wisdom, would not be possible. (The Pali for ‘wisdom’ is panna.) This is the wisdom that completely realizes that all phenomena are empty of their inherent character. This may sound easy talking out loud or typing out. But it actually requires years of practice in order for one to realize this truth down to the core of one’s being. One is completely free from the fabrication and illusoriness of concepts. One perceives things completely without any conceptual thought. This in fact is really easy, but since we are so mired by the fabricating thoughts it’s not as easy as it looks. Nonetheless it’s possible.

So I would like to wish you for this coming Year of the Ox a very successful and prosperous year. For those who are willing to take up the Bodhisattva path, please undertake the six perfections in every moment of your breath. This is really what we are practicing for, that we are enabled to help sentient beings. May the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas always be with you to take care of you, to protect you and to help you along the Path.

Bodhicitta

Bodhicitta, or the aspiration to attain the final goal of complete Buddhahood in order to be able to help sentient beings, is the starting and end point of Mahayana Buddhism. Shantideva says that bodhicitta gives one all the joy and all the merit equal or more than Mount Sumeru. Riding the horse of bodhicitta, one only experiences joy after joy, happiness after happiness. One who has bodhicitta will accrue merit even when one is asleep (in the same way as one’s interest in the bank accrues all the time.)

But why is the practice of bodhicitta so important? The fact that having bodhicitta incurs such a vast amount of inexhaustible merit shows that this is a very important aspect of the practice of Buddhism. All the teachers say that one’s practice of Mahayana Buddhism will not even start if one does not begin with the proper attitude which is there in bodhicitta. This is because the very existence of Mahayana, the practice of finally attaining Buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings, requires bodhicitta as the starting point. This is simply why we practice Buddhism in the first place. We practice not so that only we become a Buddha; that is limiting and is not the proper goal that we can achieve. So we need to start with bodhicitta. Moreover, bodhicitta is at the end of the practice, for if we finally achieved the final goal of Buddhahood, that would consist in nothing but the pure thoughts for the welfare and happiness of all beings wandering around in samsara. Nothing else matters. This is the thought of all Buddhas and Bodhisattvas.

Nonetheless, one may ask if bodhicitta is really necessary in one’s practice of Buddhism. Why is practicing in order to liberate oneself alone discouraged? The answer is that we need to repay the kindness of all sentient beings who have been most kind to us, and without their kindness we can’t even stay on living. Asanga wrote in a very moving piece about the seven-point mind training that all beings used to be our mothers and fathers in the past. Since the number of sentient beings is finite (very huge, but finite), but the duration of time leading from the present to the “beginningless time” is infinite (that is, we can go back further and further into the past and will find no starting point), there is bound to be a time when a particular being was our mother, our father, our friend, our enemy, our teacher, and so forth. All beings are thus interconnected in this way. So realizing this, it would be mean to leave these beings behind and seek out liberation for oneself alone.

I usually emphasize that Mahayana and Theravada are essentially the same, but here there is a difference, because the Theravada does not put as much emphasis on realizing Buddhahood as does the Mahayana. However, it is entirely possible for a Theravada practitioner to set a goal of their practice higher and aim at realizing Buddhahood for the sake of sentient beings, all the while keeping their Theravada practices. This will make their practices much more meaningful. In fact in the end there are really no differences at all.

But let us come back to the point about bodhicitta and merit. Why does bodhicitta incurs so much merit? Because we are aiming not only at ourselves alone, but all sentient beings in the universe (or in other universes too if they exist). Hence any merit that would occur to oneself would be multiplied by the sheer number of the sentient beings one intends the merit to go to. Thus if one were to dedicate oneself to the well being of, say, one million beings, then the merit accrued will be multiplied by one million and so on. And in fact the number of all sentient beings is much, much, much more than one million This is why the Mahayana practice is so powerful.

But doesn’t that smack of self interest? Well, I have heard the Dalai Lama say that thinking of others’ interest is a best way to push forth our own interest! That is true, but then you need to keep check your motivation. The motivation has to be pure, and if you think of yourself first you would not gain much even though you regard others interest later on. But if your primary motivation is yourself, then even if you think of others in order finally to advance your own interest that would not do much. What the Dalai Lama said is strictly speaking an upaya, a skillful means to get people interested in bodhicitta. One in whom bodhicitta is firmly planted will have no regard for oneself; all his or her action will be totally devoted to the welfare of others.

So how does one plant bodhicitta within one’s mental continuum? First think about other beings and think of their kindness to us, the fact that we won’t even be where we are now without them. Then think that we will not abandon them no matter what. This will be important first steps….

Avatamsaka Sutra

In my earlier post on “All the past and future lives” I refer to a Sutra where the Buddha emits all encompassing light rays that transmit infinite wisdom to an infinite number of sentient beings in the universe. That was from Bob Thurman’s podcast. Well, I did some searching and the Sutra was “The Flower Ornament Sutra” or Avatamsaka Sutra in Sanskrit. This is a huge body of literature and would fill a whole book in itself. The passage which I think is relevant to Thurman’s talk is perhaps this one (from the Taisho Tripitaka 0279):

“When those sentient beings hear this, by the Buddha’s preternatural power, they all recollect their past lives and become enraptured. Because their hearts are enraptured, they spontaneously produce clouds of udumbara flowers, clouds of incense, clouds of music, clouds of robes, clouds of canopies, clouds of pennants, clouds of streamers, clouds of fragrant powders, clouds of jewels, clouds of lion pennants and crescent towers, clouds of songs and eulogies, clouds of various adornments, and reverentially offer them all to the Tathagata. Whence? Because all these sentient beings have obtained pure eyes. [Then] the Tathagata gives them prophecies about their attainment of anuttara-samyaksambodhi. Children of the Buddha, in this way the sun of the Tathagata’s wisdom benefits those sentient beings who are born blind, effectuating their wholesome roots to reach full maturity. Children of the Buddha, this is the fifth characteristic of the body of the Tathagata. All Bodhisattva-mahasattvas should perceive it thus.”

“Anuttara-Samyaksambodhi” is perfect Buddhahood, the state of complete enlightenment and omniscience, and “Bodhisattva-mahasattvas” are the Bodhisattvas who have realized non-abiding nirvana, the state of Buddhahood that is beyond nirvana and samsara at the same time. The Bodhisattvas who dwell in non-abiding nirvana are said to be in a way in samsara, but they do not belong to samsara. They are perfectly realized beings, as they have completely eliminated all causes and conditions that afflict sentient beings wandering in samsara. Yet they remain in samsara out of their compassion for all the beings.

This is the traditional teaching of Mahayana. The key is to make this teaching relevant to our condition. The goal of practice is to eventually realize this state of non-abiding nirvana. This is what practitioners aspire to when they are motivated by great compassion to be able to bring all sentient beings in the samsara to the complete and perfect happiness of Buddhahood.

All the past and future lives

Yesterday I listened to a podcast by Robert Thurman. He talked about a Sutra where the Buddha turned himself into a blue figure. He was not turning himself into Medicine Buddha, whose body is also blue. But he is about to perform a miracle. What he did was to send out very bright light rays from his urna, which is a tuft of hair between his eyebrows. The light was sent to all corners of the universe. Everyone was touched by the light, and when that happened, they were suddenly able to see all their past and future lives in all their entirety. Suddenly everybody could see who they were in their immediate past life and in all the lives in the past. They could also see what they will become in the future, they can see all their future lives. What is amazing is that all the sentient beings could see their future lives all the way to their eventual becoming Buddhas.

The Buddha

Thurman said that everyone could then see themselves having the life of a Buddha. They will see that they will be born a prince, living a protected life by a doting father, seeing the four signs of birth, sickness, old age and death, heading for the renunciate’s life and attaining Buddhahood.

Listening to Thurman’s account of the Sutra (I happened to forget the name of the Sutra, but it is not too hard to track it down), I was struck by the power of it. If the Buddha could open our eyes and let us see all our past and future lives, what would happen? If I were able to see all my lives, what would I do? What would I become?

Let us think about it. Thurman said that the reason why most of us are not able to see our past lives is because they are too traumatic. Each one of us used to be every kind of sentient being in the universe before taking on our present lives. The Buddha said that if all the bones of all the animals and beings that used to be us were to be piled up, its height would exceed that of Mount Sumeru. Or if all the tears have have been shed because of the immense sufferings that the beings that we used to be were poured down, the entire world would then be flooded deeply. This is how many and how countless our past lives are. We would then see that we used to be eaten by lions countless times, chased down by wolves countless times, suffering hunger as hungry ghosts countless times, being burned in hell countless times, enjoying the pleasures of the heavens countless times, suffeing the intense angst of no longer able to enjoy these pleasures countless times, and so on and on. THere does not seem to be an end to it. In the future the same fate will happen to us again, and again, and again, until in the long while we attain Buddhahood.

So this is the point of the Sutra. On the one hand, it shocks us to see all our past and future lives. So we don’t need to have trained ourselves so that we could actually see them, Due to the power of the Buddha in the Sutra, we can see them now. In fact this is not so hard as it might look. Since all of samsara is beginningless, there is no being at all that we did not use to be. Pick one being, an insect perhaps, it is we that used to be that particular insect. So the insect in a real sense is us. Thus, all beings in samsara are all connected to one another. Every being then used to be our mother, our father, our friends, our enemies, our colleagues, our partners, etc. etc. in the countless number of revolving lives in samsara.

So what is the point of all this? The catch is that the Buddha let us see that there is the end to the story. Everyone of us will one day become a Buddha. This is reality. Why? Because sooner or later we will become so bored with this unending cycle. We will see with our own very eyes how pointless the whole thing is. We will want to find a way out. That is, we will become Buddhas.

Furthermore, seeing all our past and future lives lets us realize that our own sense of individual self is a mere chimera. It is purely illusory. Time itself is also illusory. The sense that there is our *self* that is separated from all others is also illusory. All of us used to be a woman, a man, a grandmother, a husband, all kinds of animals, all kinds of pretas, all kinds of hell beings, all kinds of gods, all kinds of goddesses, and so forth. So what we think of as our *self* is only what appears if we hold on to the sense that there is something to hold on to, that this particular life is something different, something unique among all others. But that is totally a false conception. The reason why all beings are still wandering around in the endless cycle of samsara is that they do not see this Truth. Seeing all this, an acute sense of compassion is aroused in the Bodhisattva. He or she sees the pointlessness of all this and is resolved to achieve Buddhahood for the sake of all beings.

Emptiness and Practice

Many people seem to think that the teaching is emptiness is perhaps only for intellectual exercise. They think that talks about emptiness are for those who study Buddhism academically and have little to do with practice.

However, emptiness is at the heart of practice. Your practice won’t go anywhere without realization of emptiness, and in fact fully knowing emptiness is the mark of your practice. It is the ‘benchmark’ that tells if your practice has reached the intended goal or not.

The Buddha taught that there are three main components of practice — morality (or Sila), concentration, and wisdom. Without morality, concentration is not possible, and without concentration, wisdom is not possible. There can be no concentration without morality because if you live a very sinful life then your mind will be scattered too much and you will be distracted by all the immoral things you are doing, so it is not possible to concentrate at all. The mind that is free from these sinful acts (killing, stealing, committing sexual misconduct, lying, taking intoxicants and perhaps others in some cases) is the mind that free from distractions, and hence is ripe for meditation practice.

Furthermore, there can be no wisdom without concentration because we are talking about the kind of wisdom that is so close to us that we in fact become the wisdom. This is not mere reception of information, but the wisdom here has to penetrate deeply into your heart so that you are changed because of it. And this is not possible at all if you do not do meditation practice.

But here is the point: The wisdom I am talking about is nothing other than the realization of emptiness. Here all schools of Buddhism concur. You can study about emptiness in a classroom but then you would merge yourself into it and become one and the same with the teaching unless you take the emptiness to your heart. Then, and only then, will your defilements be eradicated and you be established on the Path.

So emptiness cannot be separated from meditation practice. Without the wisdom of emptiness, no Buddhahood is possible. And without meditation practice, no such wisdom is possible. This is why the study of emptiness cannot be separated from practice in any way.

Aspiring to Buddhahood

Aspiring to Buddhahood is the noblest and most demanding task for all Buddhists. Instead of practicing only in order to get rid of one’s own defilements that cause us to suffer and to wander in the endless rounds of samsara, we are practicing so that we are enabled to help all the sentient beings in the whole cosmos. Thus not only we ourselves will be liberated, but all the sentient beings will be as well. Only a fully enlightened Buddha is able to help all the sentient beings like this.

A couple of questions naturally arise when one confronts this attitude. First question is: Why should one aim at helping others instead of oneself only? After all, it is we ourselves, each of us, who are suffering — the suffering that we feel is most intense if it is our own suffering. Others’ sufferings can at most be imagined. And frankly speaking they are their sufferings, so it should be their responsibilities to take care of their own sufferings.

This is all right as far as it goes. However, if there is a way in which we could help others get rid of their sufferings, then why shouldn’t we be doing something about it? This is the crux of the matter regarding Theravada (Hinayana) and Mahayana. What is the purpose of practicing the Dharma? For the Theravadin, one practices the Dharma in order that one’s own sufferings be eliminated and thus one attains the status of the ‘arahat,’ or those who have completely destroyed all their ‘enemies’ namely the defilements so that one does not have to be born again in samsara.

Nonetheless, when one realizes that other beings in samsara have been so kind to us, and that in fact our very beings are constituted by theirs, then one feels that one is obligated to repay them through the practice that would enable these beings to be helped across the ocean of samsara to the shore of Liberation. This is the typical Mahayana attitude.

In fact there is not much of a difference among the two traditions, much as people have seemed to emphasize it. One still needs to practice in order to eliminate all the defilements. In order to become a bodhisattva, one who aspires and undertakes the task of eventually becoming a Buddha for the sake of sentient beings, one has to root out all of one’s defilements so that none will ever sprout again. This is the path of the arahat. One follows the same teachings, practices the same way, and so on.

But it is the aspiration to Buddhahood that separates a Mahayana practitioner from the Theravada one. In fact there is a lot of discussion of the bodhisattva and his aspiration in the Theravada teachings; it is only that these teachings are not as emphasized as in Mahayana. So we have here the same teachings, only different emphases.

The teachings then are suited to people of different attitudes and characteristics. If you are so tired of all the wanderings and the seemingly endless cycle of births, deaths, rebirths and redeaths, then one undertakes the Arahat path. But if one sees the connection and indeed the sameness of oneself and all sentient beings, then one feels that it is not enough to become liberated all alone. One has to be able to take all the beings with himself or herself. This is the Bodhisattva path.

The above are the traditional teachings. If we look at them rather closely, though, we will see their intention. What does it mean to aspire to Buddhahood in today’s world? It means, I think, that one tries to see the essential connection and oneness of oneself and others. That there is a self — the individual me — who does the thinking and who somehow feels that there is a distinct entity that is referred to whenever the word ‘I’ or ‘me’ is used is indeed an illusion, much like an illusion one sees when one looks out on a hot, dry day on a deserted road and sees something that looks like water straight ahead but in fact there is no water. But when there is no ‘me,’ there is no ‘you’ or ‘he’ or ‘she’ or ‘they’ either. All beings are one and the same. Your feelings are my feelings too, and your pains and sufferings are also mine. This is because I have destroyed the wall between what has been thought to be myself and others. This wall is constituted since time immemorial by the fundamental ignorance that is avidya in Buddhist terminology. In reality there is no me nor you. It is all ‘emptiness.’

So does one who aspires to become a Buddha in today’s world have to give up everything and live the life of a wandering ascetic? This is not quite necessary. Becoming an ascetic in itself is not enough. It means one has to find contemporary ways to get the message across to the contemporary world. Who knows? Perhaps we are now having many bodhisattvas living among us here and now, perhaps in your neighborhood, or perhaps they are someone you know very well. You only need to recognize them and appreciate the tremendous sacrifice that they are making for the sake of all beings in the world.