Malcolm David Eckel and “To See the Buddha”

This December Malcome David Eckel, noted scholar of Mahayana Buddhism, will travel to Thailand and give a lecture at the Department of Philosophy, Chulalongkorn University. This is a very welcome occasion as Buddhist scholars in Thailand do not have much chance to listen to and interact with scholars who work in other traditions of Buddhism. Eckel is known for his work on lesser known Indian masters. His book, To See the Buddha: A Philosopher’s Quest for the Meaning of Emptiness, is a study of the work of Bhavaviveka, one of the greatest masters of Indian Mahayana Buddhism. This is a translation and study of Bhavaviveka’s main work, Tarkajvāla (The Flame of Reason), and is filled with his interpretations. The theme of the book is on the various dimensions of “seeing the Buddha.” By doing so one gains an insight into the nature of the Dharma and thereby moving further along in the path toward Liberation.

“Seeing the Buddha” has been a problem for Buddhists ever since the Buddha himself entered parinirvana. What does it actually mean for one to “see the Buddha”? Surely just seeing the Buddha himself before he entered parinirvana (before he died) was not enough, because that would mean seeing him is not different from seeing any normal, sentient being in samsara. But there is something very special in seeing the Buddha. Is it the same as seeing a statue of the Buddha, as in Buddhist temples? That will come back to the same question. Seeing the Buddha is not the same as seeing you or me. But then what is so special with seeing the Buddha?

Eckel subtitled the book “A Philosopher’s Quest for the Meaning of Emptiness.” The ‘philosopher’ in question could be Bhavaviveka, who is after all the subject matter of the study in the book. Or it could mean Eckel himself. So by reflecting on what it means by seeing the Buddha, one enters on a quest for the maning of emptiness. But how are the two related? Is seeing the Buddha the sme as seeing emptiness?

Many Buddhists, Theravada and Mahayana alike, know the famous sentence from one of the Sutras where the Buddha said, “Those who see the Dharma, see me; those who see me, see the Dharma.” This is considered to be the standard way of the Buddha’s own idea about seeing him. Stricken with terminal illness and lying on his bed, the Buddha was asked who should succeed him as the Teacher and Leader of the Order. The Buddha, as is well known, did not name any successor. Instead he enjoined his students to take up the teaching itself, the Dharma, as their guide and their leader. The important thing is not that there be any leader of the Order, or any living supreme teacher or authority, but the Dharma itself. It is the task of the Buddha’s students to study, understand and take up the Dharma in their practices to eliminate suffering. So those who really see the Dharma see the Buddha because they really follow the Buddhist path.

To see the dharma comes in very different levels. It also includes seeing what Emptiness is, seeing Emptiness directly, coming face to face with it. So in a way the Buddha himself and Emptiness is one and the same. That is why Eckel’s and Bhavaviveka’s quest to see the Buddha is also their quest to “see” the nature of Emptiness.


Now let us consider some passages from Bhavaviveka himself as translated by Eckel in the book. The interpretations given here are entirely my own, not Eckel’s or Bhavaviveka’s. This is my own engagement with the text. You call it my own personal meditation of the meanings of the text — perhaps my own quest for the meaning of “Emptiness”:

269-270. Without apprehending [equality as an object], [the Buddha] understands the equality of different dharmas, because [dharmas] are equal in the sense that they do not arise or cease. Or [the Buddha] understands the equality of self and other. Therefore [the Buddha] is called Sambuddha among gods and human beings because [the Buddha] understands the equality without understanding equality.

Thoroughly understanding the ultimate nature of things as empty of their inherent characteristics, the Buddha sees everything to be the same. This is seeing without any conceptualization. The Buddha just “sees”. He sees everything as equal; none has any special feature that sets it apart from any other thing. In fact the word “thing” itself is inappropriate because the Buddha’s seeing does not differentiate one thing from another at all. This is why he does not see any differences in self and others. There is no self; there is no other. However, he sees all this without engaging in the conception of “being equal” for that would be just another conceptualization. Hence he “understands the equality without understanding equality.”

So this is how the Buddha sees the world. With neither self nor other, the Buddha does not distinguish himself (or herself) from what he (or she) sees. Hence the Buddha and reality is one and the same. So in the context what does it mean to see the Buddha? It is to see him or her as he or she sees the world. So in a way we become a Buddha ourselves. The dichotomy between subject (one who sees) and object (things seen) completely break down. To see the Buddha is to see things as the Buddha himself sees them.

Bhavaviveka goes on:

273. [The Buddha] is immeasurable because he understands the immeasurable. [The Buddha] is incalculable because he cannot be grasped. [The Buddha] is unthinkable because he cannot be an object of thought. [The Buddha] is incomparable because he cannot be compared.

The Buddha cannot be measured because any act of measurement presupposes dividing reality into parts, but since the Buddha does not see things to be composed of parts, and since there is nothing that divides subject from object, any act of measuring the Buddha fails to see the Buddha from the beginning. Likewise, he is not able to be calculated or thought of. The Buddha cannot be an object of thought, because being an object of though requires one to be engaged in a system of linguistic categorization and conceptualization. But the Buddha does not see things divided into concepts. He just “sees.”

So the Buddha herself is coextensive with the whole of reality. All that is, is the Buddha, and the Buddha is all that is. I am a Buddha; you are a Buddha. And in the same vein Bhavaviveka goes on:

274ab. [The Buddha] is indefinable because it is utterly impossible to specify that he is one thing rather than another.

Eckel emphasizes that Buddhist texts such as Bhavaviveka’s exists primarily to facilitate meditation of the meaning of reality as a means toward gaining Liberation. These are religious texts and one fails to grasp their true meanings if one overlooks these practical purposes for which the texts were written. So one practicies the Dharma by closely reading these texts and reflect on the meaning. One also does this in the context of meditation.


I will give the details of Eckel’s talk at Chulalongkorn University later on here in this blog. Please stay tuned.


8 thoughts on “Malcolm David Eckel and “To See the Buddha”

  1. Cittasamvaro November 24, 2008 / 9:58 am

    Yes, please forward details of the talk as soon as you have them so I can distribute. More than 20 of our network went to the Bhutan film the other day, despite all the last minute changes… So do let me know as soon as you can .


  2. soraj November 24, 2008 / 12:40 pm

    Dear Ven. Cittasamvaro,
    Eckel will come to Thailand during the week starting on Dec 23. I am waiting for further info from him and will announce the details as soon as we have it.
    I am now in Sweden and missed the Bhutan film.


  3. Surasawasdi December 26, 2008 / 9:53 pm

    Dear Ajarn Soraj and Ajarn Kris,
    I really want to participate the public talk on “Learning from Bhavaviveka: A Sixth-Century Buddhist Rationalist” today but I’m so far. However is it possible if I would like to talk with Malcolm by e-mail? And how I get another book of him; Buddhism: Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Holy Texts, Sacred Places (2002)

  4. soraj December 27, 2008 / 8:41 pm

    Dear Aj. Surasawasdi, thanks a lot khrub. Perhaps we could meet again soon.

  5. Magentarecruitment November 28, 2011 / 8:59 pm

    I have always been so curious about Buddha that I just found myself trying to search for more deep meanings on it on the net. I enjoyed going through this blog. 🙂

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