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Dharma World Buddhist magazine

The Buddha Is Not Everywhere:
Where Does the Buddha Live Now?

by Gene Reeves

 
 

The Buddha does not live everywhere. But this does not mean that there are places from which the Buddha is simply and completely absent. The Buddha is everywhere we look for him, but you and I can never look everywhere. We can only look somewhere.


I suggested the theme "Where does the Buddha live now?" for Dharma World because I think it is terribly important that readers of the Lotus Sutra are clear about the sutra's most important teaching, a teaching found especially in chapter 16 but assumed throughout the text - the ongoing or everlasting life of the Buddha, a life that depends on the Buddha's being embodied, being alive, in human beings, just as the Buddha was embodied in the historical man Shakyamuni.

Eternal Buddha

In Rissho Kosei-kai we often use the expression eternal Buddha. I don't think this is entirely inappropriate, but it can be very misleading. Beginning perhaps with Plato, Western philosophers have often made use of ideas of eternity. This term has the basic meaning of beyond or above time and space; in other words, a kind of timelessness outside of historical times and places. The eternal is contrasted with the historical or worldly. God lives in eternity; human beings live in history; and the two are totally different.

Of course, in everyday, ordinary English, the word eternity is used in much less expansive and much less technical ways. One can say, for example, that I waited "an eternity" for a package to arrive in the mail. But such usage is a matter of exaggeration rather than a reflection of the philosophical or technical meaning of eternal.

So far as I can tell, the authors of the Lotus Sutra, or at least the Chinese translators, had no conception of eternity, or if they did, they did not make use of it in the sutra. They had something quite different in mind: a buddha who died and was cremated but continues to live, continues to live in our world and in our historical time. Rather than being outside of time, the Shakyamuni Buddha of the Lotus Sutra is present, at least potentially, in all time. In a sense, the Buddha of the Lotus Sutra is the very opposite of eternal: rather than being outside of historical time, he is always present in it.

The Lotus Sutra, however, is a very practical and religious book, not much interested in philosophical ideas of being out of time or of being in all time. Its interest is in the presence of the Buddha for you and me, in our lives, whenever, and wherever we may be.

The Fantastic Abundant Treasures Buddha

The story in chapter 11, "The Sight of the Treasure Stupa," is extremely important for the Lotus Sutra as a whole. Though there are twenty-eight chapters in the sutra, in an important sense, chapter 11 is in the middle, at the heart of the sutra.

In this story, a fantastically large and beautiful stupa, a "treasure tower," emerges from the earth before Shakyamuni Buddha and his congregation of monks and nuns, laywomen and laymen. Immediately a voice emerges from this stupa, praising Shakyamuni for teaching the Lotus Sutra. Everyone knows, of course, that stupas are repositories for crematory remains. Only ashes, bones, and teeth should be inside. So the Buddha has to explain that this appearance of a stupa with a buddha in it, the whole body of a buddha, is due to that buddha's vow to go, in his stupa, to anywhere the sutra was being effectively taught. Importantly, Shakyamuni Buddha says, more than once, that this Abundant Treasures Buddha is "extinct." He died long, long ago and his body was cremated.

The point of this part of the dramatic story is that a buddha from the past, even the distant past, still lives in the present. This part of the story is preparation for the claim to be made in chapter 16 that Shakyamuni Buddha, our Buddha, though dead and cremated, is still alive in the present. Just how he is alive is not discussed explicitly but is implicit in much of what the sutra teaches.

We may be tempted to equate this conception of the Buddha with standard Christian conceptions of God. Accordingly, like God, the Buddha would be utterly different from human beings, above ordinary space and time, living in a very distant heaven or otherworldly location. With miracles and such, he would intervene from time to time in the natural workings of our world, but he himself would not be in or of this world.

This is almost exactly the opposite of what the Lotus Sutra teaches. For the Lotus Sutra, this world is Shakyamuni's world. This is where he lives and works. In the next part of the story in chapter 11, Shakyamuni Buddha emits a light that goes throughout the universe, inviting all the buddhas to come to this world to see him and to see the whole body of Abundant Treasures Buddha. The point of this part of the story is that this world, and its Buddha Shakyamuni, are centrally important for the whole universe.

The buddhas and their attendant bodhisattvas do not, however, come to this world to work, they come to witness and learn. What they see and learn is that a dead, cremated, and extinct buddha can be alive in the present. And later in the story, in chapter 15, when some of those bodhisattvas from other worlds offer to stay behind to help Shakyamuni Buddha with his work in this world, Shakyamuni in effect says "Thanks, but no thanks. We have plenty of bodhisattvas of our own." This is a powerful affirmation of the importance of life in this world.

Bodhisattvas of the Earth

No sooner does the Buddha reject the offer of the bodhisattvas from other worlds than millions and millions of bodhisattvas emerge from the earth. These bodhisattvas from the earth can be interpreted in many ways but have long been understood to be bodhisattvas of the future, bodhisattvas who emerge from everyday life in this world. You and I, at least some of the time, are among those bodhisattvas. To the extent that we are bodhisattvas at all - and the Lotus Sutra insists that we are - our lives emerge from everyday life in this world.

These bodhisattvas of the earth are the primary place in which the Buddha lives now. They are how the Buddha's life is extended far beyond the life of the historical Buddha. But this extended and long-lasting life of the Buddha is not a life in eternity or in some other world. The bodhisattvas are bodhisattvas of this world, here to do the work of the Buddha in his world, which is our world.

This is how our buddha continues to be actually alive though also dead.

Some say that Shakyamuni's death was just a magical stunt to get our attention. According to them he never really died but only pretended to die, like the doctor-father in the parable of the good physician in chapter 16. Accordingly, the Buddha has now gone off somewhere, where he now continues to live. It certainly is possible to interpret the Lotus Sutra in this way. But to do so would be, I think, to miss the central thrust and meaning of this wonderful text.

The Lotus Sutra wants us to know, in the depths of our being, that it is we who can keep the Buddha alive, that those who do the Buddha's work in this world make the Buddha's life long lasting. It is in the deeds of bodhisattvas, who exclude no one, that the Buddha lives and can continue to live.

The Buddha's World

In the Lotus Sutra the buddhas in the ten directions are important. They are the ones who come to this world to witness and hear Abundant Treasures and Shakyamuni Buddha. But what is more important for the Lotus Sutra is that Shakyamuni Buddha's world is this world. This is where his work is done - or not done.

Thus, for the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha is not found in some distant land or in the depths of the cosmos. The Buddha is not like a great god in the heavens making arrangements from some lofty location. The Buddha is the buddha of this world and in this world. This means, of course, that those who want to do the Buddha's work have to do it in this historical, concrete, and actual world.

Everyone and Anyone

We can say, correctly I think, that for the Lotus Sutra buddha-nature is in all beings, in everyone. There is a sense in which this is the central teaching running through the entire sutra. But such an abstract truth is not what the Lotus Sutra is primarily trying to teach. The truth that the Lotus Sutra wants to affirm, and wants us to affirm, is that we can find buddha-nature in anyone.

The difference between everyone and anyone may not seem very great or very important, but it is. To have compassion for everyone is about the same as having compassion for no one, because real compassion cannot encompass everyone, which of course includes mostly people we don't know and never will. But we can have compassion for anyone, that is, for someone, for any someone. In other words, it is not the highly abstract everyone that would benefit from our compassion but rather some real, concrete someone or several such someones. The difference is thus a difference between a very abstract idea (everyone) and a very concrete someone.

Similarly, for the Lotus Sutra, the Buddha is found not just everywhere but anywhere, in specific, concrete special moments somewhere. Somewhere can be anywhere, and in this sense the Buddha can be found anywhere, but such an anywhere is always some very specific, special time and place. The Buddha is with each one of us in special times and places and ways.

Thus we can say, and I think should say, that the Buddha does not live everywhere. But this does not mean that there are places from which the Buddha is simply and completely absent. The Buddha is everywhere we look for him, but you and I can never look everywhere. We can only look somewhere.

The Many Places of Meeting the Buddha

Thus the Buddha can be met, and is met, in myriad places and ways.

When I was a young theological school student at Boston University, I would sometimes walk across the Back Bay Fens to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, where I would sit in a room in the basement containing only a large statue of Amida Buddha sitting in meditation. Just being in the presence of that buddha had an enormously calming effect on me. In retrospect, I think I was feeling the presence of the Buddha in that statue.

In more recent times, I often go to Rissho Kosei-kai's Great Sacred Hall just to sit for a little while with its great Buddha image.

All such images are just that - images made of materials from the earth: wood and clay and metal and stone. They are not the Buddha, but in them and before them we can feel the calm but also exciting presence of the Buddha, and on some days our hearts, like Shariputra's heart, may dance for joy before this joy bringer.

Buddhist Practice

I am not much of a meditator in a strict sense of that term. As chanting and recitation do for many, they bring me greater peace and insight. For most Buddhists in East Asia, reciting "Namu Amida Buddha" or "Namu Myoho Renge-kyo," or reciting from one of the sutras, is one of the most important ways in which people meet the living Buddha.

For other Buddhists, especially in the West, encountering the Buddha may come from practicing deep meditation, primarily sitting meditation.

There are many different such Buddhist practices. None is essential. They are all skillful means that may be appropriate for some people in some situations but not for everyone.

Guanyin (Kannon), following the Lotus Sutra, teaches that the most important Buddhist practice is compassion. This is not the compassion of meditation, a feeling of compassion that remains in the heart and mind, but rather an actually practiced, embodied compassion, a compassion that is always for real, concrete living beings in actual situations. In other words, it is a this-worldly compassion.

Practice of compassion can be compared with bodhisattva practice but is not quite the same. The idea of bodhisattva practice is very broad. Sometimes it is manifest in simple acts of kindness; sometimes it may involve performing surgery requiring great skill. It is doing good in whatever ways we can do good. Probably all bodhisattva practice involves some compassion. But compassion can also be seen as a special kind of bodhisattva practice. Compassion involves reaching out to another with sympathy and understanding. It may entail no more than sitting with someone when the person needs someone to be with him or her or listening to someone when that person needs someone to listen.

Any of these various kinds of practice, too numerous even to mention here, make it possible for us, and for others, to feel the presence of the Buddha. Thus we can say that the Buddha lives not only in images of buddhas and bodhisattvas but, perhaps more important, in the actions of bodhisattvas of the earth.

Buddha-Nature

While we can affirm the possibility of finding the Buddha in many images and different kinds of image, and in many practices and many different kinds of practice, in the Lotus Sutra the most important place for meeting the Buddha is in the buddha-nature, the potentiality of becoming a buddha, that can be found in anyone and in any situation we meet. While it may be true that buddha-nature is everywhere, what is important is that it can be found anywhere, especially anywhere you seek it or try to discern it.

Often it is found where you would not expect to find it. King Wonderfully Adorned in chapter 27 does not expect to find the Buddha in his own sons, but he does, and he learns from them.

Normally we think of buddha-nature in people, including ourselves. This is appropriate, but buddha-nature is not so limited. We can, if we look, find buddha-nature in all sorts of situations - especially in difficult situations where we think there is no hope, no redeeming element, nothing but darkness on our horizon. But if we look, look under and over and through the clouds of darkness, we may find a silver lining, something that redeems the situation and makes it possible to go on. Such a silver lining is the buddha-nature in that situation.

Recognizing buddha-nature, whether in other people or in ourselves, whether in nature or in situations of everyday life, recognizing buddha-nature wherever we find it, depends on ourselves. Like the two men in chapter 12, Shariputra and Accumulated Wisdom, who think the Buddha cannot be embodied in a girl, we may be helped in our seeing by a dragon girl, but finally we ourselves have to see the buddha-nature in people with a vision that is given to us.


Gene Reeves has done research and given lectures on the Lotus Sutra worldwide for more than a quarter century. He was a visiting professor at Peking University and a professor at Renmin University of China in Beijing until retiring in 2012, and serves as an international advisor to Rissho Kosei-kai. Dr. Reeves was head of Meadville Lombard Theological School and a lecturer at the University of Chicago Divinity School from 1979 to 1988. His recent works include The Lotus Sutra and The Stories of the Lotus Sutra (Wisdom Publications, 2008 and 2010).


This article was originally published in the July-September 2013 issue of Dharma World.

 
 
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