Who and What Is Buddha, Really?

The Buddha is actually an archetype representing enlightenment, an icon symbolizing inner wisdom, a pointer towards the possibility of a level of spiritual awakening embodying the fullest actualized potential of human beings.
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Last night PBS aired The Buddha, a new TV special about the sage's life, impact, and particular relevance to our own bewildering times of violent change and spiritual confusion. By filmmaker David Grubin, the documentary features the work of some of the world's greatest artists and sculptors, who across two millennia have depicted the Buddha's life through art rich in beauty and complexity. Moreover, this film points out how we may integrate enlightening wisdom and mindfulness into our daily lives today, which is the main point of Buddhism in practice, for the Buddha himself exhorted us not to worship Buddha but to become more Buddha-like and to be a Buddha.

But who and what is Buddha, really? The stone Buddha outside in the garden is not the real Buddha, obviously, any more than a Jesus statue is the deathless Christos. The Buddha is actually an archetype representing enlightenment, an icon symbolizing inner wisdom, a pointer towards the possibility of a level of spiritual awakening embodying the fullest actualized potential of human beings.

"Nowness-awareness is the authentic, unfabricated Buddha," said my late Dzogchen master Kyabje Dudjom Rinpoche.

Putting aside for a moment the mystical content of this statement, let's examine the fact that the late, great Tibetan lama equates "Buddha" with an awakened state of consciousness instead of a person. There was a historical person, Siddhartha Gotama, who was born in northern India (now Nepal) about 2500 years ago, became spiritually awakened at the age of 35 sitting beneath a tree in Bodh Gaya, and taught for 45 years before dying at the age of 80 in Kushinagar. After his enlightenment -- what he described simply as "waking up" -- he became known as the Buddha, or the Awakened One.

As the religious historian Karen Armstrong has pointed out explicitly, and as the Rinpoche's statement implies, in addition to being an influential historical person and world-changing leader, the Buddha is also an archetype. The historical Buddha, in a sense, is an example of the archetype of Buddha, or the personification and iconic embodiment of the enlightened state of mind.

As an archetype, Buddha represents what is actually possible for each of us -- our full flowering. It's helpful to think of the message of this archetype on three different levels. On the external level of form, Buddha is the historical teacher. On the internal level, Buddha is innate and ever-present awareness -- which is typically obscured by discursive and repetitive thoughts. On the innermost or secret level, Buddha is our deepest nature: radiant Being or Nowness-awareness, beyond gender, nationality, religious affiliation, or other local distinctions. This is what the historical Buddha meant when he said, "I am awake": awake to the radiant Buddhaness within himself and every sentient being.

Buddhism is an inside job. Therefore, during his long and active lifetime, Gotama Buddha himself forbade the making of his image in polytheistic India; yet within a single generation after his passing, human nature and its attachment to forms and images prevailed, creative images arose, and a religion whose primary goal was enlightenment arose around the memory of his teachings, instructions, and personal example. As a longtime meditator and student of Buddhism, when I myself see a Buddha statue, I intuitively sense that I'm looking in a mirror at my highest, deepest, truest, and most authentic best self. It is not merely something to imitate -- in dress, shape, or hairstyle -- but something to emulate in terms of seeking what the Buddha himself sought and found, in order to find it in myself along with recognizing that in others, and then acting accordingly.

Buddha means the Enlightened Sage or the Awakened Wise One. For Buddhists, wisdom is not merely a form of belief or a particular truth or historical attribute but a living, breathing, functioning quality inherent in the mind of each of us, waiting to be explored, exploited and developed and in the pursuit of liberation, healing, and happiness. Anyone can become a Buddha, and not just his single historical son. (Yes, Buddha had been married at an early age, and had a son named Rahula who later became enlightened himself and took Buddhism to Sri Lanka.) Anyone can develop oneself through practicing the two Buddhist wings of wisdom and compassion and be transformed by mindfulness and other loving practices, regardless of religious persuasion -- even agnostics and atheists.

Enlightenment means to awaken out of illusion's dream and the snares of conceptual thought, and into a directly lived moment-by-moment experience. Being awake is paradoxically to live both as a particle -- as the ever-changing world of our day-to-day life -- and as a wave -- the (potentially) uninterrupted experience of Nowness-awareness through which the particles continuously pass. This is known as the illusory dance of forms and emptiness, or the inseparability of awareness and the shining void. It is we ourselves as dancer and the dance, beyond the ego-world's divisions of subject, object, and interaction.

According to Buddhism, attaining enlightenment is possible in this lifetime and has been achieved by millions of individuals over the millennia. How then can we fully flower and become what Buddha-as-archetype represents for us and within us? We assiduously cultivate mindfulness, or moment-to-moment lucid attention. And once our mindfulness yields to brief experiences of simply Being or Nowness-awareness, we practice resting in this cognizant, peaceful, and clear state. Eventually, we come to realize that although the world -- in all of its splendor and pain -- surely exists, there is, again paradoxically, nothing other than the luminous awareness of Being. In other words, we understand that life itself is an expression of Being. And once this realization occurs within us, we too awaken, and our actions in this world are Buddha's actions: altruistic Buddha-activity.

As an historical figure, the Buddha-as-a-living-breathing-Buddha embodied and acted on profound principles with which we are already familiar in some sense: non-violence, equality of all beings, interconnectedness, and respect for the earth. Until we each awaken fully from confusion and delusion -- and especially important for these frenzied, twittering times -- let us cultivate the sacred transformative virtues such as patience, generosity, loving kindness, respect for others, and the discipline of living according to our deeper truths. Let us do so for our own benefit, and for the benefit of all. This is how our lives can become examples of the archetype of Buddha.

Who then is Buddha for us here and now? He/she/it is the one who practices resting in, as, and eventually realizes that all is luminous awareness and nothing else. This can be called meditation practice, and includes the cultivation of mindfulness, a lucid moment-to-moment vigilant state of intentional attention. What is mindfulness, really? It is simply an alert presence of mind, the opposite of and antidote to mindlessness. Mindfulness is the key ingredient in Buddha's recipe for wisdom's development and conscious evolution. Through actually practicing this methodology as a path, millions have undertaken the journey of awakening and become enlightened over the centuries. Why should I practice in this way? Because, among other things, it's good for both mental and physical health, and ultimately includes the spiritual well-being of one and all.

The innate Buddha-nature or Buddha-ness within each and every single sentient being is genderless, unborn, and undying -- more akin to clear light than to our personalities -- and is timeless, untarnished, and incorruptible. All beings are endowed with this inner lamp of pure spirit, along with the potential for its divine unfolding. The equality of us all is the natural implication of this recognition of universally innate Buddha-nature or Buddha-ness, the primordially pure and untrammeled inner light. Thus, one of the principle tenets of Buddhism has always been nonviolence, the protection and cherishing of all forms of life, and the interwoven interdependence of all things, including all creatures great and small.

The historical Buddha Sakyamuni was a radical social reformer who freed people from ancient India's hide-bound caste system and was the first leader in history to educate women en masse. He exhorted each of his committed disciples to plant at least one tree each year in order to replenish the earth for resources used. He brokered peace agreements and was a reformer as well as a spiritual teacher, community elder, and servant leader. This Bodhisattva career is a good role model for us today.

Practice makes perfect and is perfect, ultimately; we just have to do it and experience the benefits for ourselves. Buddha is as Buddha does. When we act like Buddhas, the Buddha-principle flows through us into the world. I believe that it is incumbent upon us, especially in these frenzied and volatile times, to cultivate the sacred transformative virtues of generosity and non-attachment, virtuous self-discipline, concentrated mindfulness, and so forth; awaken from the sleep of illusion and delusion; and thus re-enact the joyous pageant of enlightened awakening ourselves, for the benefit of one and all. This is the life story of living Buddhas today.

Far better to be a Buddha than a mere Buddhist today. Shall we be awakened living Buddhas rather than sleeping Buddhas? Can we awaken from our collective somnolence, ignorance and enervating distractaholism? This is and can be the joy of collective spiritual awakening.

"Since everything is like an 'apparition,'

Perfect in just being 'What It Is' -- as it is.

Having nothing to do with 'good' or 'bad,'

'acceptance' or 'rejection' --

You might as well just burst out laughing!"

-- Tibetan master Longchenpa, fourteenth century Tibet

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