Buddha Is Not Dharma
David Xi-Ken Astor
“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’. 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 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.