Buddhist Audio Books

Who is the Buddha?
By Sangharakshita
ISBN: 1899579516
Read by Tejasvini

The image of the Buddha, cross-legged and meditating, appears increasingly in magazines and on television in the West. But who was the Buddha?

Here we see the Buddha as a historical figure, a warrior prince searching for the truth; in the context of the evolution of the human race, as the pinnacle of human perfection, and as an archetype, in the context of both time and eternity.

An Extract from: Who is the Buddha?
From chapter 5: From Hero-Worship to the Worshipping Buddha

To get anywhere ourselves, we really do have to acknowledge that there are men and women who are more developed than we at present are. Hero-worship, or the hero-worshipping attitude, is by no means a bad thing, provided it is directed at the right objects - provided, that is to say, it is directed towards those who are really more highly developed than the rest of us, rather than towards the media-generated icons of contemporary popular culture. The tendency to cynicism, a determination to uncover the feet of clay, must be seen for what it is - a vice. That unwillingness to believe in anything like high ideals, to respect those who devote their lives to the serious pursuit of those ideals, or to recognize greatness in an individual - this whole attitude is soul-corroding and spiritually corrupt.

By contrast, Buddhists try to cultivate a spirit of admiration, of respect, of reverence and devotion. This reverence is not only for certain individuals as they are, on account of the level of spiritual development they have already attained, but also for everybody else, on account of what they are capable of becoming. A comparison is drawn in the scriptures with the convention in a monarchical system of respecting the heir to the throne even as a baby. Though this child may be playing with his rattle now, you know that one day he is going to be king, and thus you treat him with the reverence due to a king. Buddhism encourages such an attitude, such a feeling, towards all sentient beings. They may be anything now - they may be thieves or prostitutes or financiers - they may even be politicians, but one day they are going to be Buddhas. However degraded their present condition, however limited their outlook, however enmeshed they are in their own evil deeds, you need to respect them on account of what they are in potentiality, which one day will surely be realized.

No case is so desperate that you can ever say, 'Oh well, they will never get out of the hell they have created for themselves.' The classical villain of the Buddhist scriptures, for example, is Devadatta, the Buddha's cousin. In some ways he was one of the brightest of the Buddha's disciples - he had all sorts of psychic powers - but he was ambitious and jealous. One day he went to the Buddha and said, 'Lord, you are getting old. Lord, don't exert yourself any more. Take it easy, retire. I shall look after everything for you. I shall lead the Sangha.' When the Buddha made it plain what he thought of this idea, Devadatta tried to initiate a split in the Sangha, which is regarded in Buddhism as a truly heinous crime. When this failed he even made attempts upon the Buddha's life. He had a mad elephant let loose upon his teacher on one occasion, and another time he sent a boulder rolling down a hill towards him. All these attempts failed, of course, and some time later Devadatta died of disappointment - and we're told that after his death he went to an unpleasant place. But the Mahayana scriptures tell us what Devadatta's name will be when he becomes a Buddha, and exactly when this will be. So whether or not you accept the precision of these forecasts, the principle is clear. Even someone like him has the seed of Buddhahood in him, and when he has purified himself he too will become Enlightened and liberate other sentient beings. No one, therefore, is ever completely and hopelessly lost. If Devadatta can bounce back, anyone can.

Buddhists revere their spiritual teachers in particular, because their teachers represent what they can become, what they want to become, what indeed they will become when they have made the necessary effort. If we have no reverence for our ideals as embodied in the form of human beings, whether still alive or long dead, whether we meet them through personal contact or through the pages of a book, it will hardly be possible for us to attain that ideal for ourselves. Devotional practice, the whole question of worship in Buddhism, has to be understood as proceeding from this basis.

This means that we have to dissociate the word 'worship' from notions of churchgoing and the doxologizing of a universal creator figure. It is easy for people who associate religion exclusively with the worship of God to jump to the conclusion that if Buddhists worship they must be worshipping a god. The confusion arises out of the limited sense in which the word 'worship' is used nowadays. In India, by contrast, one word serves to denote the respect you pay to anyone, whether to the Buddha, your parents, your elder brothers and sisters, your teachers - spiritual and secular - or to any senior and honourable person.

When Buddhists bow down and make offerings of flowers, candles, and incense to the image of a Buddha or a Bodhisattva, they are honouring the Buddha as an Enlightened being, not worshipping him as a god. Nor should this fact be allowed to suggest that worship plays a minor or even dispensable role in Buddhism, as those who present Buddhism as merely a rational philosophy would like to think. The expression of gratitude, of rejoicing, of respect - in short, worship - is fundamental to Buddhism. Just how fundamental becomes startlingly apparent when we take up again the account of the Buddha's life and find out what it was that occupied the Buddha's thoughts as he sat by the River Neranjara after his Enlightenment.

He remained in the same area for some seven weeks after attaining Enlightenment, sitting beneath the trees - a few days beneath one tree, then a few days beneath another. In this way the weeks passed by, and during this time he hardly bothered to eat. There is just one reference to food in the scriptural account - apparently, two wandering merchants offered him some honey and rice cakes - but we can assume that he was above all bodily considerations.

It wasn't just that he had gained Enlightenment. That was a tremendous thing in itself, but it wasn't just that. He had something else to do, something which was if anything even more difficult. For seven weeks he was intent upon the task of absorbing the Enlightenment experience, allowing it to transform and transmute every atom and fibre of his being. After all, what had happened to him was literally the most tremendous thing that can possibly happen to a human being. The transformation from an unenlightened to an Enlightened being is so overwhelming that, in a sense, when one becomes Enlightened, one ceases to be, in the ordinary sense, a human being at all. An Enlightened human being, a Buddha, has entered an entirely new and different category of existence.

The Buddha was the first in the course of human history to undergo this transformation. No wonder that he was staggered by his own achievement. And it seems that he found himself faced with one or two dilemmas - or, at least, certain teachings have been presented in the form of dilemmas that exercised the newly awakened mind of the Buddha. One of them is quite well known and forms the basis for the next chapter. The other, which we are going to look at now, has been almost completely overlooked by commentators on the life of the Buddha. So far as I know, no one has remarked on the extraordinary and clear implications of the passage. Both episodes are found in the Samyutta Nikaya, 'The Book of the Kindred Sayings' - that is, sayings of the Buddha on the same subject - but the first is found elsewhere in the Pali canon as well. The more obscure - though as we shall see, quite surprising - dilemma comes straight after the more famous one in the text, but it actually happened before it, having apparently occurred five weeks after the Enlightenment.

The Buddha's reflections at this point - the quandary he was pondering - went as follows: 'It is ill to live paying no one the honour and obedience due to a superior. What recluse or Brahmin is there under whom I could live, paying him honour and respect?' Now this is surely remarkable. The Buddha has just attained supreme Enlightenment - and here we find him wondering to whom he can pay honour and respect. These days, of course, no one generally wants to pay honour and respect to anyone. We demand respect; we demand equality; we want to make sure that no one is regarded as superior to anyone else. Some of us may try to be polite and courteous, but the idea that respect benefits the person who offers it rather than the person to whom it is offered runs right against the grain of current social values. Not only that, the Buddha's attitude also seems to upset traditional Buddhist ideas about the Buddha, and even about Enlightenment itself.

But let us continue with the episode. Perhaps things will become a little clearer. The Buddha continues to reflect, and his reflections are concerned with four things: the training in ethics, the training in meditation, the training in insight or wisdom, and the training in contemplation of knowledge of emancipation. What he sees is that there is no one in the universe - no one among the gods, even Brahma Sahampati, lord of a thousand worlds, and no human being, no holy or wise man anywhere - who is more accomplished in these things than he is himself. He sees that in terms of spiritual insight and understanding he himself is the highest living being in the universe. This is how the Buddha sees himself, and if we don't see the Buddha in this way, then we don't really see the Buddha at all.

Having realized for the first time who he really is, the Buddha sees that there is no one 'under whom he can live, paying him honour and respect'. That, surely, is clear enough. One lives 'under' someone in order to learn from them. As the Buddha is more highly developed than any other living being, he has nothing to learn, spiritually speaking, from anyone. But the crucial point here is that he doesn't give up. He still requires a focus for his devotion. So he reflects further: 'This Dharma, then, wherein I am supremely Enlightened - what if I were to live under it, paying it honour and respect?' And at this very moment, Brahma Sahampati appears before him and approves of the Buddha's decision, telling him that all the Buddhas of the past lived under the Dharma, honouring and respecting it, and that all the Buddhas of the future will do likewise.

This is really an astonishing episode. It shows that even a Buddha 'needs' (not that the Enlightened mind can be literally in need of anything) to honour and respect something. Even a Buddha needs to offer worship. So worship is not just a spiritual practice to be taken up as a means to an end, and then discarded once Enlightenment is attained. Worship is an integral part of the Enlightenment experience itself. The Enlightened mind is a worshipping mind no less than it is a realized mind or a compassionate mind. We are all familiar with the image of the meditating Buddha; we have probably seen images of the teaching Buddha, and even the standing or the walking Buddha. But we must add to these the much less familiar image of the worshipping Buddha.

The text tells us that the object of the Buddha's devotion is the Dharma - only it is not, in this case, the Dharma as we usually think of it. It is not the Dharma in the sense of the Buddha's teaching which the Buddha worships. For one thing, by the time of this particular episode the Buddha had not, as yet, taught anybody anything. The Dharma referred to here is the Dharma as principle, the Dharma as the Law, the Truth, or Reality. The Dharma we know about is the Dharma as just a conceptual formulation - expressed in accordance with people's needs - of the Dharma as Reality itself. What the Buddha worships is the object or content of his own experience of Enlightenment.

When we think about it, however, a further difficulty confronts us here. If you worship something, what you worship is necessarily higher than you are. If the Buddha worships the Dharma, then the Dharma is higher than the Buddha. But in what sense can this be the case? Has not the Buddha penetrated the Dharma, mastered it, so to speak? What is left for him to worship in the Dharma? To solve this puzzle we shall have to take another, closer look at the most fundamental formulation of the Dharma, pratitya-samutpada: 'conditioned co-production' or 'dependent origination'. As we saw in the first chapter, this principle consists in the fact that one thing is conditioned by something else, that whatever happens takes place by way of a cause. And conditioned co-production is of two kinds, one being a circular process symbolized by the Wheel of Life, and the other generating a spiral of spiritual development. The first of these the Buddha has clearly left behind him: he is free of the Wheel of Life. What we are concerned with at this point is pratitya-samutpada in its spiral form, the form of the successive stages of the spiritual path.

The best-known formulation of this sequence of positive mental states or experiences, known as the chain of positive nidanas, runs as follows:

In dependence on suffering arises faith. In dependence on faith arises joy. In dependence on joy arises rapture. In dependence on rapture arises calm. In dependence on calm arises bliss. In dependence on bliss arises concentration. In dependence on concentration arises knowledge and vision of things as they really are. In dependence on knowledge and vision of things as they really are arises dispassion. In dependence on dispassion arises withdrawal, or disentanglement. In dependence on withdrawal, or disentanglement, arises freedom. In dependence on freedom arises knowledge of the destruction of the asravas, or all unskilful, negative states.

So this sequence is the second of the two processes by which the principle of pratitya-samutpada works out, and it represents the rationale of the spiritual life. In turn, it also divides into two sections: one mundane, the other transcendental. The first section consists of the first seven nidanas, or links, up to 'the arising of knowledge and vision of things as they really are'. All these nidanas except the seventh are - though positive, though skilful - still mundane. They are mundane because after having attained them you can still fall back to the Wheel. From 'the arising of knowledge and vision of things as they really are' onwards, however, through the five links that comprise the second section of the 'spiral', you cannot fall back - you can only go forward. And you cannot fall back from them because they are transcendental attainments.

This makes the seventh nidana the crucial one. The arising of 'knowledge and vision of things as they really are' marks the transition from the mundane to the transcendental. It constitutes the arising of transcendental Insight, or Stream Entry - that is, it is the point at which you enter the stream that leads unerringly to the ocean of nirvana. It is also, for obvious reasons, known as 'the point of no return'.

So much for the twelve positive nidanas. The reason the whole matter of the nidana chain has been brought up is to clear up the mystery of how it is the Buddha worships the Dharma as higher than himself. The culmination of the nidana chain is the arising of knowledge of the destruction of the asravas. This is what happens when one attains Enlightenment. At this point one becomes a Buddha. But is it literally the culmination? Is the twelfth nidana literally the last one? To answer this question we have only to turn to the scriptural account of the occasion when this nidana chain was originally delineated. We will find that it was put forward by the brilliantly gifted nun, Dhammadinna, whose exposition, we should add, the Buddha assented to in full. From what she said it is clear that the formulation of the twelve positive nidanas stops at this point simply because it has to stop somewhere. So the implication is that there is no reason why the spiral process should not continue indefinitely. In other words, attaining Enlightenment does not mean achieving a fixed, determinate state, however high. It means becoming involved in an irreversible and unmeasured transcendental process.

Therefore, even though the Buddha was the highest living being in the universe, even though he had progressed further along the spiral path than anyone else, there were still reaches of that path, there were still developments of that progression, which he had yet to explore. This is why it was possible for the Buddha 'to live under the Dharma, paying it honour and respect'. The Dharma here is the law, or reality, of pratitya-samutpada. And for the worshipping Buddha, the Dharma is especially this law or reality as represented in unnamed and as yet unrealized nidanas - nidanas which from our point of view are literally inconceivable. So this fact, that one of the first things the Buddha thinks of when he has gained Enlightenment is to look for something to worship, and that even he is able to find something to worship, should be enough in itself to convince us of the central importance of worship within Buddhism.

In this episode from the Samyutta Nikaya, the word for 'honour and respect' is garava, which means, according to the dictionary, 'reverence, respect, honour, esteem, veneration, worship'. So the term clearly suggests the kind of positive attitude which we naturally adopt towards something or someone we see or experience as being higher than ourselves. Obviously there are the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas - but is there anything else that can be an object of honour and respect?

As it happens, the Buddhist tradition provides a list of six garavas, six objects that are worthy of reverence, respect, and worship. They are: Sattha, Dharma, Sangha, sikkha, appamada, and patisanthara. The first three of these can be more or less taken as read: they are known collectively as the Three Jewels. The central act of becoming a Buddhist, and of affirming one's commitment to Buddhism, is traditionally termed 'Going for Refuge to the Three Jewels', usually abbreviated to just 'Going for Refuge'. So you go for Refuge to the Buddha as the ideal of Enlightenment, to the Dharma as the fundamental spiritual principle discovered by him, together with their formulation in a body of teachings, and to the Aryasangha as the spiritual community of those who really follow those teachings.

In the context of the garavas, however, the first of the Three Jewels is termed Sattha, which is yet another title accorded the Buddha, the full honorific usually being sattha devamanussanam, 'teacher of gods and men'. Why the term Sattha appears here instead of 'Buddha' is probably because we experience the Buddha through the scriptures mainly as teacher - as supreme teacher, the teacher of gods and men. Also to be considered is the fact that in ancient India, as in almost all ages apart from our own, anyone who earned the title of 'teacher' automatically commanded great honour and reverence. It is still the case in India today - you call even your primary school teacher your 'guru' - and it is, of course, a term of great respect. In the Buddhist tradition, parents are often called 'the first gurus' - or to use another term with an equivalent meaning, 'the first acaryas' - because they are the first people from whom you learn anything. And again, this represents a posture of respect. You respect your parents not only because they brought you into the world, but also because they were the first people from whom you learned anything.

The remaining three garavas, after Sattha, Dharma, and Sangha, are less familiar. The fourth, sikkha, is study, training, or discipline. Study is a garava inasmuch as we cannot study Buddhism effectively unless we see it as something higher than we are, as having the power to help us to grow and develop, just as the rain and sunshine help plants and trees to grow. In Buddhism there are traditionally three objects of study or training: the higher ethics, the higher states of consciousness, and the higher wisdom. These are the pre-eminent sources from which we learn, grow, and develop. But there are all sorts of other things that benefit our human development - friendship and the fine arts, for example - and these too can be aspects of Buddhist study and training, and thus worthy of honour and respect. Thus the basic principle implied by the idea of study as a garava is that if we are unable to honour and respect something, it isn't really worth studying, because it won't help us.

The fifth garava is appamada, or 'non-heedlessness' - that is, mindfulness or awareness. So why is mindfulness to be venerated? Why is it one of the six garavas? The answer is quite simple. We have to respect those qualities that we are trying to develop. If we think rather lightly of them, if we don't really take them seriously, we won't get anywhere with them. In other words it behoves us to bring an attitude of reverence to our own spiritual practice, whether it be mindfulness or, indeed, any other discipline that we are taking up. Appamada or non-heedlessness is named as the fifth garava in an essentially representative sense, in the sense of being pivotal - the key - to all other Buddhist practice.

With the last of the garavas we are introduced to a rather interesting word with a wide range of associated meanings: patisanthara. It comes from a root meaning 'to spread', and its literal meaning is 'spreading before'. This probably leaves us none the wiser so far as identifying it as an object of respect is concerned. However, there is an English idiom that takes us a little closer to the nature of this garava: 'laying out a good spread'. It is an old-fashioned expression, redolent of tuck-boxes and midnight feasts in the dormitory with one's chums - or high tea with an indulgent great-aunt - but you get the idea. A spread is a sort of feast, and patisanthara has much the same kind of meaning. It means 'spreading before' in the sense of 'friendly welcome, kind reception, honour, goodwill, favour, friendship' - this is what the dictionary tells us. And the 'spreading before' can be material, or it can be spiritual. If you take it as meaning a 'kind reception' you can see that, as well as gastronomic feasting, it could suggest a feast, say, of music, and even 'the feast of reason and the flow of soul'. At the highest level, it is a 'spreading' of spiritual abundance before people. Thus patisanthara covers a rich, important aspect of human life, including spiritual life. And we will not be able to draw nourishment from it if we take it for granted. As well as honouring mindfulness, the heart of Buddhist practice, we also need to honour the whole expansive richness of the Buddhist life.

The significant place of reverence and worship in the spiritual life is made explicit in the teaching of the six garavas. But as we have seen, it is clear from the evidence of the Buddha's own life, too, that worship is a spiritual requirement of every Buddhist, however highly developed. In fact, the greater the place we can give to worship in our own lives, the more certain we can be of one day attaining to whatever the Buddha himself attained, and of worshipping as the Buddha himself worshipped.


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