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Where Does the Buddha Live Now?

by Yasuaki Nara


If I am asked where the Buddha is, I can only reply that it is the place where we meet the Buddha while walking ?along the Buddhist path.

The question "Where does the Buddha live now?" has a distinctly existential feel. As is widely known, Buddhism has numerous buddhas. Just as there is the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, there are buddhas associated with the dharma-kaya (Dharma-body), the essence of the Dharma, whose truth the Buddha realized. Personifications of this Dharma include the Eternal Buddha of the Lotus Sutra and Vairocana Buddha. At the same time, there are buddhas who express the sa?bhoga-kaya (bliss-body or reward-body) of the Buddha, like Amida Buddha (Amitabha) and Yakushi Nyorai (Bhai-?ajyaguru, Medicine Buddha), whose bodies have been received as a reward for accomplishing their vow to save living beings. Shakyamuni as a historical personage is a transformation-body (nirma?a-kaya), taking actual physical form. Basically all of these buddhas are, in the end, the buddha of the Dharma-body. Each has devotees who expound the specific form of belief associated with them. It is up to individual believers which buddha to give their faith to and how to express that faith. This is very closely related to the life of each person, so there is no objective way of answering the question "Where does the Buddha live now?"

For me, the Buddha is, above all, the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. Many decades ago I was studying at the University of Calcutta in India. Once when I was walking through a farming village in Bengal, I happened to come across a Hindu ascetic. I was deeply impressed by the serene atmosphere around him and by his intelligent, gentle expression. In that extraordinary encounter, I could not resist seeing in his face the face of Shakyamuni. Ever since, whenever I have read "the Buddha said" in the sutras of early Buddhism, that ascetic's face has swum into view. Since it is a very concrete image that I see, I ask him many questions. Immediately an answer comes. I have questioned and argued with the ascetic, or rather with Shakyamuni, who has taken form in my mind with the ascetic's face, and I have been taught and encouraged by him. Through the scriptures, I have been able to hold conversations with Shakyamuni the man.

What I first came to realize was that Buddhism is not only doctrine but a path to live by. Though it is not a philosophy in itself, gradually I have come to see that there is a philosophy within that path. This is shown in an important teaching in the sutra named "The City" in the Sa?yutta Nikaya, in which the Buddha was teaching his disciples about the path to enlightenment. He tells the story of a man speaking to his king:

"'Sire, I was wandering in a lonely forest and by chance discovered an ancient road that had been traveled by people of past times. I followed it, and I came across an ancient city inhabited by people of past times. There were parks and groves, and along the banks were beautiful lotus ponds. Sire, rebuild that city.'
"The king had the city rebuilt. It flourished, and many people gathered there. It was prosperous beyond measure.
"Bhikkhus! In the same way I too discovered the ancient path, the ancient road traveled by the buddhas of past times.
"Bhikkhus! What is that ancient path, the ancient road traveled by the buddhas of past times? It is this noble eightfold path. . . . This is the ancient path, the ancient road traveled by the buddhas of past times. I followed that path, and following it, I gained knowledge of old age and death, knowledge of the origination of old age and death, knowledge of the cessation of old age and death, and knowledge of the path leading to the cessation of old age and death." (Sa?yutta Nikaya 12.65)

What is called here the "ancient city" is the aim of religious training, the truth that is the goal of seeking the Way. To attain that truth, to gain knowledge, is nothing other than enlightenment. However, the sutra is silent about what the ancient city and enlightenment actually are. Rather, it speaks of an eightfold path as the way to reach them. Someone walking along the ancient path to the ancient city comes to know old age and death, those things that give rise to disquiet and suffering, what causes them, that they can be extinguished, and the way to do so. That is to say, the sutra is speaking here of the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path.

These are truly the means to enlightenment. At the same time, though, we must not ignore the fact that they are also the practice of enlightenment itself. The Buddhist sutras say over and over again that the Noble Eightfold Path is the Way that should be practiced throughout one's life. Enlightenment is becoming a buddha, and it also means living as a buddha. Thus the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path are simultaneously the "path to buddhahood" and nothing other than the "path of the Buddha."

If I am asked where the Buddha is, I can only reply that it is the place where we meet the Buddha while walking along the Buddhist path.

Zen master Dogen (1200-1253) taught exactly the same thing.

I am affiliated with the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism. When I returned to Japan after studying in India, I became a lecturer at Komazawa University in Tokyo. I had a knowledge of Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen, but now I had to deal seriously with Dogen's religion. Just as I had done when coming face-to-face with Shakyamuni, I began to question Dogen, listen to his answers, and question him again. I knew of no other way than this to come close to him. In doing so I learned that Dogen expounded the meaning of walking the Buddhist Way far more clearly than Shakyamuni.

Dogen wrote in the Shobo genzo (The eye and treasury of the true Dharma) about the perfections (paramitas), the foundation of the practice of the Dharma in Mahayana Buddhism: "Paramita means 'reaching the other shore.' . . . The 'other shore' is 'what is manifested' [genjo], and 'reaching' is 'what is fixed without fail' [koan]. Do not think that practice leads you to the other shore, for there is practice on the other shore. If you practice, you have reached the other shore" ("Bukkyo" [Buddhism]).

Paramita is Sanskrit for "perfection," and it was commonly translated into Chinese by a compound expression meaning "reaching the other shore" (Jpn., to-higan). The "other shore" is used in contrast to "this shore," which refers to the world of ordinary human beings, and it denotes the world of enlightenment, reached through religious practice and training. It is to know Dharma, the Truth. This is precisely the reason that "reaching the other shore" is used. Dogen, however, deliberately reconstructed the Chinese grammar, transposing the verb and reinterpreting the phrase as "the other shore has been reached" (Jpn., higan-to). "Perfection" makes us think of the six (or ten) perfections that are a ubiquitous aim of religious practice and training in Mahayana Buddhism. There is no difference in terms of practice between the perfections and the Four Noble Truths and the Noble Eightfold Path in the early Buddhist scriptures. They are all ways to live in the Truth that is the Dharma.

Here, Truth (that is, Dharma, the Buddha's Way, and so on) incorporates everything that exists (phenomena), without exception, including us human beings. It is the activity of the universe that has brought everything into existence, whose spontaneous working is expressed specifically in words such as dependent origination, impermanence, nonself, non-self-nature, and emptiness. It was this that Shakyamuni discovered to be the absolute religious truth. He realized that gaining insight into this truth and abiding by it are ways to manifest one's true self and bring oneself and others liberation from suffering. He taught that there is an absolute truth on which we can depend for our way of living, that is, the Buddhism he expounded.

Dogen expressed this idea using the beautiful metaphor of the boat of the Dharma:

[This self of mine, my life, is mine; it is my individual thing, but it is not my possession. If I did not live, I would not have life. However, my life is sustained by the Dharma, the Truth of the universe.] Life is like riding in a boat [called Truth]. I set the sail, I take the rudder, I pole the boat. [The boat thus carries me along.] The boat and I are one; there is no "I" that is outside the boat. That I sail in the boat makes the boat a boat. [That I am enabled to live within the Truth makes the Truth the Truth.] Do your utmost to keep on learning the various facets of your own true existence that never changes. (Shobo genzo, "Zenki" [Full functioning])

From the time we are born, we are riding in the boat of the Dharma. Here Dharma may be considered to refer to the Buddha of the Dharma-body. From the very beginning, we are one with the Dharma, one with the Buddha. Nevertheless, it is I who am actually sailing the boat; if I did not do so, it would be as if there were no Dharma and no Buddha.

I understand Dogen's saying that the other shore "has been reached" in this sense. Walking the Way of the Buddha (religious practice) is a means to enlightenment, but it is not something that finishes with the means. We continue to walk until we die. Dogen tells us that "there is practice on the other shore." At the same time, when we walk the Way "here and now," "the other shore has been reached."

In another place in the Shobo genzo, Dogen said that walking the Buddhist Way unsteadily is as different from living with a firm conviction as a spark is from a kalpa (aeon) fire that burns up the universe. The difference is not in the essence of walking the Way itself but in whether or not a person has advanced along the Way. This is why Dogen said "initial training and true enlightenment are one."

I understand the Buddhist way of living to be underpinned by faith in walking the Way of the Buddha (the aspiration to enlightenment), so we live true to ourselves and true to the Dharma (that is, the Buddha). This faith is also a dialogue with the Buddha, but we should not expect the conclusions to be the same for every person. Ten people may have ten different dialogues. Living in the present, I ask "the Buddha" questions, receive replies, and live accordingly. This may be said to be "returning to the Buddha." Or perhaps it could be called having the Buddha live in the present.

At this point, it does not matter who this "Buddha" or what the "Dharma" is. In a similar vein, Dogen too called the Truth by various names: the Buddha, the Buddha and the patriarchs, all the buddhas, Kannon, Bright Jewel, and so on. All of them, though, ultimately go back to Shakyamuni. Dogen wrote: "All the buddhas spoken of here mean Shakyamuni Buddha. Shakyamuni Buddha is exactly one's very Mind being the Buddha. When all the buddhas of the past, present, and future become buddhas, they become, without fail, Shakyamuni Buddha" (Shobo genzo, "Sokushin ze butsu" [The Mind is none other than the Buddha]).

I agree with this definition. To me, there is no contradiction between the Shakyamuni whom I met in India, and am still continuing to meet, and the Buddha of the Dharma-body.

I am still immature as a human being. I continue to hold to my faith in Shakyamuni while at the same time revering Dogen, but I remain far from what we call "enlightenment." However, through the long years of my relationship with the Buddha, my conviction about the truth of the teachings has been, in its own way, affirmed for me. I am living as a person in the modern world, facing the various issues of the modern day. For me, this is in itself the "path to the Buddha" as well as the "path of the Buddha." There is no other path by which to live.

In this sense, as far as I am concerned, the Buddha is with me.

Buddhism is the path that all people walk with the Buddha.

Yasuaki Nara is the author of numerous books on Buddhism and is chairman of the Society for the Promotion of Buddhist Studies. He received a LittD from the University of Tokyo in 1973 and taught the history of Buddhist culture at Komazawa University, Tokyo. Later he became president and then chancellor of Komazawa University, retiring in March 2006 as a professor emeritus.

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

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