16 August 2010

Buddhism with no Buddha?

Some students express an unease with the concept of Buddhahood, and wonder if Buddhism would still work without it. My comments here are intended to ease that anxiety: specifically, to encourage people to quit worrying and love the Buddha, specifically the Buddha-potential within you.

Consider an analogy.

I have some friends whom I trust and respect. These friends have never lied to me but their ways sometimes confuse me. For instance, they insist they are from a place called Denmark. I have never been to Denmark and I have no physical evidence that Denmark exists. All I have to rely on is the testimony of my friends, some recordings of the very vowelly Danish language, some butter and furniture and shoes that may have been designed by people from Denmark, some comments from Hamlet on the subject of rot: nothing hard and fast.

However, I have also come to understand that there is a way for me to see Denmark first hand. I will need to apply myself diligently to the task of swimming, sailing, or flying (three vehicles...); I may have to accept some formal practices that seem a bit bureaucratic; I may have to accept a temporary layover in an implausible bardo state such as Iceland or, worse, Heathrow; and I have to accept that my friends know the way. In short, I need to trust people who have more first-hand knowledge than I have, and I need to trust the guidebooks they suggest to me. Since I have an open invitation to visit Denmark and see for myself, what do I have to lose if I try?

Buddhahood is like Denmark in this analogy. (Danish readers: Find a different analogy.) It is not something you can get a handle on in ordinary terms. You need to experience it first hand, and in order to experience it, you need to put some trust in your guide and your friends. You have to take a chance on it. This means you must admit that you don't have all the answers before you start to learn. Beginner's mind! And as it happens, you will find as you proceed that you had the potential in you all along to visit this Denmark place, that Denmark is fundamentally the same place you have always been all along.

At first, putting your faith in the teachings of the Buddha means simply trusting that the Buddha is not lying to you, is not trying to pull a prank on you, is not trying to dupe you out of your money or embarrass you or anything else except to bring you over to his field of experience.


  1. Now you have to come to Denmark ;-)

    Great post!

  2. Thanks for the kind words and the warm invitation, Senshin. Count me in: I would very much like to visit Denmark & the Danish Sangha, and I fully intend to do so.

  3. I love it! I had the opportunity to serve someone yesterday whom I had never met before in person. He came in before we were open and I saw him in the parking lot. He let me know who he was and that he would like to come in a little early to do some research. I agreed and offered him a fresh cup of coffee. He figured out pretty quickly I was a Buddhist which made it easier for us to connect so I could serve him better. He explained that he is a Christian but in form and practice he was a Buddhist. Good example of the system working for someone who has not taken refuge. He does not belong to a sangha nor does he go to a temple to participate. He noted that we have a choice. We can choose to help someone, we can choose not to . . . it is a choice. We spent the whole day together getting his things done and at the end he noted that although I never said a word about Buddhism he could feel the spirit of it in the way I spoke and cared for him. I have had a lot of people see me in action and wonder how and why I am the way I am.
    ~ I have never been to Denmark either but I do have Sisters and Brothers from there. We survived training together, the hardest and most rewarding training I have had the opportunity to complete. Their ways and actions tell me a bit about Denmark and now it doesn't seem so far away. I find it is easier to give something a shot if you have someone from the other side to show you the effects of being there. I'm going there one day and I will bake cakes and laugh and be with my Danish Family.