"Eternal" Buddha?

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Yuren
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"Eternal" Buddha?

Post by Yuren » Mon Jul 21, 2014 1:28 am

I've just completed reading this book : "Buddhist Thought: A Complete Introduction to the Indian Tradition" by Paul Williams, the great scholar who also authored "Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations", in my opinion one of the best books on the Mahayana available in English.

In the former, Mr. Williams writes:
The other great teaching of the Lotus Sutra concerns the
revelation of the lifespan of the Buddha. The Buddha was
actually enlightened aeons ago, and what is more although he
now manifests the appearance of death he has not really died. He
is really still around helping in myriads of compassionate ways.
The Buddha’s demonstration during his life of seeking
enlightenment, becoming enlightened and dying was also an
example of skill in means in order to give various lessons that
would help others (Saddharmapundarika Sutra, trans. Hurvitz:
239). Conviction that the Buddha is still around is of course
religiously transformative. It opens out the possibility of
reciprocal relationships with the Buddha—petitionary prayer,
visions, devotion, and continuing revelation for example—as well
as the possibility that all the infinite previous Buddhas
throughout the universe also are still around helping sentient
beings. In East Asian Buddhism (influenced by the work in
China of Chih-i (538–97 CE)) it is commonly held that the
Buddha of the Lotus Sutra is actually eternal, but I do not find
this clearly stated in the sutra itself. If a Buddha is eternal then it
is difficult to see how anyone else could become a Buddha, short
of combining the teaching of the Saddharmapundarika with that
of the tathagatagarbha (Buddha-nature) and claiming that we are
actually already fully-enlightened Buddhas if we but knew it.
This is exactly what Chih-i himself did. It seems to me however
there is no evidence that the Lotus Sutra itself accepts a teaching
of the tathagatagarbha, and without it a literal acceptance of the
Buddha as eternal would destroy the very possibility of attaining
Buddhahood and with it the Mahayana path
Thoughts?

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Re: "Eternal" Buddha?

Post by DGA » Mon Jul 21, 2014 1:45 am

This is one that gets debated endlessly in many directions. It's clear that Buddha Shakyamuni states in the Lotus Sutra that his lifespan is something on the order of a majillion times ten to the order of a bajillion years long. Really, really long. What does that mean? If you take it literally, then you get one answer; if you take it in a more nuanced way, you get other answers.

For myself, I don't see a contradiction for someone who accepts the premise that the time of a Buddha is in at least one meaningful sense without limit, and also the premise that Buddhahood is accessible to all*.

*there's another one: in the sutra, it's stated that those in the assembly may attain Buddhahood. Does this mean the same for those who were not in the assembly? Or those who are not part of the sangha in any way? Again, if you assume a literal interpretation, you'll get a limited answer. I prefer the broader view.

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Re: "Eternal" Buddha?

Post by Jetavan » Mon Jul 21, 2014 3:45 am

"Eternal" can also mean "with out an end", in addition to "without a beginning and without an end". Perhaps to say that the Buddha is "eternal" is to say that he is available to help sentient beings from the moment of his Awakening unto eternity without end -- in other words, that the Buddha upon death of the physical body does not simply enter a state of total transcendence and separation from samsara.
Last edited by Jetavan on Mon Jul 21, 2014 4:24 am, edited 2 times in total.

Yuren
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Re: "Eternal" Buddha?

Post by Yuren » Mon Jul 21, 2014 3:49 am

Jetavan wrote:"Eternal" can also mean "with out an end", in addition to "without a beginning and without an end". Perhaps to say that the Buddha is "eternal" is to say that he is available to help sentient beings from the moment of his Awakening unto eternity without end.
Poor Maitreya will have to wait a long, long time then, before he becomes a Buddha. (In fact he'll have to wait forever ...)

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rory
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Re: "Eternal" Buddha?

Post by rory » Mon Jul 21, 2014 12:21 pm

Well the Nirvana Sutra reasserts the eternity of the Buddha;

"Those who cannot accept that the Tathāgata is eternal [nitya] cause misery".[15](Vol. 3, p. 16)

and here is Mark Blum the translator of the BDK Nirvana Sutra

"He [the Buddha] makes it clear that while he will disappear from their [i.e. beings'] sight, he is not going to die, because in fact he was never born in the first place. In other words, buddhas are not created phenomena and therefore have no beginning and no end."[18]

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mah%C4%81y ... nal_Buddha" onclick="window.open(this.href);return false;

It doesn't get any plainer than that and the Nirvana Sutra is accepted by all of Mahayana.
gassho
Rory
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Chih-I:
The Tai-ching states "the women in the realms of Mara, Sakra and Brahma all neither abandoned ( their old) bodies nor received (new) bodies. They all received buddhahood with their current bodies (genshin)" Thus these verses state that the dharma nature is like a great ocean. No right or wrong is preached (within it) Ordinary people and sages are equal, without superiority or inferiority
Paul, Groner "The Lotus Sutra in Japanese Culture"eds. Tanabe p. 58
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Yuren
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Re: "Eternal" Buddha?

Post by Yuren » Mon Jul 21, 2014 12:47 pm

rory wrote:Well the Nirvana Sutra reasserts the eternity of the Buddha;
The Nirvana Sutra indeed does explicitly claim eternity. You say it "reasserts", but the scholar Paul Williams says that he cannot find this eternity in the Lotus Sutra.

So either a) Lotus doesn't say it, but the Nirvana does; b) Lotus implies it, but the Nirvana explicitly reveals it; c) the Lotus and Nirvana both explicitly claim eternity.

You seem to claim (c), in which case there must be a passage in the Lotus that says "Buddha is eternal", but Williams cannot find it. Longevity is not yet eternity.

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Re: "Eternal" Buddha?

Post by Qianxi » Mon Jul 21, 2014 3:56 pm

The Nirvana sutra says that the Buddha is eternal 常住 nitya (ie. the common Buddhist term anitya/impermanent without the negating bit on the front => nitya/permanent).
The Lotus Sutra says that the Buddha's lifespan is measureless 無量 amita.

It's a bit of a shame some Lotus translations have amita as 'eternal'. Anyone who has studied maths knows there is a categorical difference between a very very large number and infinity. The message of the Lotus Sutra seems to be that the Buddha and his attributes are inconceivable (不可思議 acintya) and immeasurable/boundless (無量). But I don't think it is saying that the Buddha is not subject to impermanence. His lifespan is so long that from our point of view it seems eternal, but to say that the Buddha is actually eternal is a significant philosophical step that the Lotus Sutra doesn't take. The Nirvana Sutra does, however.

Although most Buddhists would see both sutras as descriptions of the same thing, I think it helps to try to maintain their specific flavour.


EDIT: having read the passage of the Lotus Sutra quoted by jikai here, I think the Lotus Sutra may well actually talk about nitya/permanence of the Buddha (as well as amita/measurelessness of his lifespan). I don't know what the Sanskrit behind this is, but the Chinese does say 常住, which as jikan says means 'constantly abiding' - it's the same Chinese terminology used in the Nirvana sutra.
I still think it's a good idea to translate nitya and amita differently. But it seems they may both appear in the Lotus Sutra.

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Anders
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Re: "Eternal" Buddha?

Post by Anders » Mon Jul 21, 2014 9:24 pm

Yuren wrote:
it is commonly held that the
Buddha of the Lotus Sutra is actually eternal, but I do not find
this clearly stated in the sutra itself. If a Buddha is eternal then it
is difficult to see how anyone else could become a Buddha, short
of combining the teaching of the Saddharmapundarika with that
of the tathagatagarbha (Buddha-nature) and claiming that we are
actually already fully-enlightened Buddhas if we but knew it.
This is exactly what Chih-i himself did. It seems to me however
there is no evidence that the Lotus Sutra itself accepts a teaching
of the tathagatagarbha, and without it a literal acceptance of the
Buddha as eternal would destroy the very possibility of attaining
Buddhahood and with it the Mahayana path[/b]
Thoughts?
I think it's pretty simple. If you accept both as buddhavacana, then the Lotus must necessarily imply the same message as the Tathagatagarbha sutras, since they proceed from the same realisation.

We may qualify one as more provisional than the other, etc. But I think Williams' hermeneutic of treating a sutra as an independent witness isolated from other sutras does not hold up to the standard Mahayana practitioners with conviction in the Buddha's realisation in general will hold them to.

Aside from that, I don't know how he even arrives at the view that an eternal Buddha sáns Tathagatagarbha = No other buddhas possible. Can someone spell that one out for me?
"Even if my body should be burnt to death in the fires of hell
I would endure it for myriad lifetimes
As your companion in practice"

--- Gandavyuha Sutra

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dzogchungpa
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Re: "Eternal" Buddha?

Post by dzogchungpa » Mon Jul 21, 2014 10:12 pm

Anders wrote:Aside from that, I don't know how he even arrives at the view that an eternal Buddha sáns Tathagatagarbha = No other buddhas possible. Can someone spell that one out for me?
I think the idea is that one cannot become a Buddha when there is an "incumbent" Buddha. Here's a little more from Williams' "Mahayana Buddhism":
In East Asian Buddhism it is commonly taught that the Buddha of the Lotus Sutra is eternal. However, there is a problem with the notion of an eternal Buddha. If the Buddha is eternal then no one who is not already a Buddha could attain Buddhahood. If the Lotus Sutra taught an eternal Buddha it would accordingly destroy the notion that all will eventually attain Buddhahood – unless, that is, the Lotus Sutra also held to a doctrine of the tathagatagarbha.
There is not only nothingness because there is always, and always can manifest. - Thinley Norbu Rinpoche

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Re: "Eternal" Buddha?

Post by LastLegend » Mon Jul 21, 2014 10:20 pm

There is something always present.
NAMO AMITABHA
NAM MO A DI DA PHAT (VIETNAMESE)
NAMO AMITUOFO (CHINESE)

Bodhidharma [my translation]
―I come to the East to transmit this clear knowing mind without constructing any dharma―

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rory
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Re: "Eternal" Buddha?

Post by rory » Tue Jul 22, 2014 2:09 am

dzogchungpa wrote:
Anders wrote:Aside from that, I don't know how he even arrives at the view that an eternal Buddha sáns Tathagatagarbha = No other buddhas possible. Can someone spell that one out for me?
I think the idea is that one cannot become a Buddha when there is an "incumbent" Buddha. Here's a little more from Williams' "Mahayana Buddhism":
In East Asian Buddhism it is commonly taught that the Buddha of the Lotus Sutra is eternal. However, there is a problem with the notion of an eternal Buddha. If the Buddha is eternal then no one who is not already a Buddha could attain Buddhahood. If the Lotus Sutra taught an eternal Buddha it would accordingly destroy the notion that all will eventually attain Buddhahood – unless, that is, the Lotus Sutra also held to a doctrine of the tathagatagarbha.
But in the Lotus Sutra Shakyamuni Buddha preaches and sits next to Many Treasures Buddha in the Treasure Tower...
2 buddhas in the same world system. I agree with Anders about Williams.
gassho
Rory
Namu Kanzeon Bosatsu
Chih-I:
The Tai-ching states "the women in the realms of Mara, Sakra and Brahma all neither abandoned ( their old) bodies nor received (new) bodies. They all received buddhahood with their current bodies (genshin)" Thus these verses state that the dharma nature is like a great ocean. No right or wrong is preached (within it) Ordinary people and sages are equal, without superiority or inferiority
Paul, Groner "The Lotus Sutra in Japanese Culture"eds. Tanabe p. 58
https://www.tendai-usa.org/

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Re: "Eternal" Buddha?

Post by jikai » Tue Jul 22, 2014 2:56 am

Both the phrases 'limitless life' and 'constantly abiding' can be found in the Lotus Sutra, so I will respectfully disagree with Williams.
As Jikan san said, this is one of those infinite measureless and eternal arguments.Nevertheless, nothing else (other Sutra) is required in my humble opinion, for the Lotus Sutra itself to suggest something akin to tatagatha garbhic concepts, and so overcome Williams' concern. The Buddha states in chapter two that He 'only teaches Bodhisattva'. Any one who hears that by extension is ipso facto a Bodhisattva.
(apologies for the quality of the post- am using a phone)
Gassho,
Jikai.
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Anders
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Re: "Eternal" Buddha?

Post by Anders » Thu Jul 24, 2014 8:31 am

dzogchungpa wrote:
Anders wrote:Aside from that, I don't know how he even arrives at the view that an eternal Buddha sáns Tathagatagarbha = No other buddhas possible. Can someone spell that one out for me?
I think the idea is that one cannot become a Buddha when there is an "incumbent" Buddha. Here's a little more from Williams' "Mahayana Buddhism":
In East Asian Buddhism it is commonly taught that the Buddha of the Lotus Sutra is eternal. However, there is a problem with the notion of an eternal Buddha. If the Buddha is eternal then no one who is not already a Buddha could attain Buddhahood. If the Lotus Sutra taught an eternal Buddha it would accordingly destroy the notion that all will eventually attain Buddhahood – unless, that is, the Lotus Sutra also held to a doctrine of the tathagatagarbha.
That is a faulty notion on Williams' part then. It's true that early Buddhism allows for only one Buddha at a time, but Mahayana obviously considers this to be only one Buddha per world system.

The notion of Supreme Nirmanakayas, as the one there can only be one of in a world system at a given time, is probably too late for the Lotus Sutra, but the chapter on the infinite life of the Buddha essentially presages the idea of many Nirmanakayas, since it tells us Shakyamuni has emanated in many various forms across the ages, even saying that he, as a Buddha, met with Dipamkara. So right there in the sutra is proof that the Lotus doesn't abide by Williams' assumptions.
"Even if my body should be burnt to death in the fires of hell
I would endure it for myriad lifetimes
As your companion in practice"

--- Gandavyuha Sutra

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Re: "Eternal" Buddha?

Post by Mkoll » Thu Jul 24, 2014 9:35 am

Anders wrote:That is a faulty notion on Williams' part then. It's true that early Buddhism allows for only one Buddha at a time, but Mahayana obviously considers this to be only one Buddha per world system.
How does Mahayana define "world system"?
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Re: "Eternal" Buddha?

Post by Grigoris » Thu Jul 24, 2014 9:41 am

I was under the impression that the whole "one Buddha at a time" deal is a Sravakayana notion and not Mahayana. Does anybody know of a Mahayana Sutra that states that two Buddhas cannot exist in the same world system? I know of some Theravada texts where it is explicitly stated, but have never seen it said in a Mahayana Sutra. Maybe Williams is confounding the two?
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Re: "Eternal" Buddha?

Post by Astus » Thu Jul 24, 2014 11:42 am

I think that reading the idea of eternal buddha as an immortal being is at best a provisional teaching. What in my view the eternity of Shakyamuni points to is no different from what Vimalakirti said to Ananda:

"You should understand, Ānanda, the bodies of the Tathāgatas are bodies of the Dharma, not bodies of longing. The Buddha is the World-honored One, who has transcended the triple world. The Buddha’s body is without flaws, the flaws having been extinguished. The Buddha’s body is unconditioned and does not fit the [conventional] analytic categories."

And as the Diamond Sutra teaches:

"Someone who tries to discern me in form
Or seek me in sound
Is practicing non-Buddhist methods
And will not discern the Tathāgata"


In other words, emptiness is the true nature of the Buddha (cf. SN 44.2), and that is eternal.
1 Myriad dharmas are only mind.
Mind is unobtainable.
What is there to seek?

2 If the Buddha-Nature is seen,
there will be no seeing of a nature in any thing.

3 Neither cultivation nor seated meditation —
this is the pure Chan of Tathagata.

4 With sudden enlightenment to Tathagata Chan,
the six paramitas and myriad means
are complete within that essence.


1 Huangbo, T2012Ap381c1 2 Nirvana Sutra, T374p521b3; tr. Yamamoto 3 Mazu, X1321p3b23; tr. J. Jia 4 Yongjia, T2014p395c14; tr. from "The Sword of Wisdom"

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Anders
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Re: "Eternal" Buddha?

Post by Anders » Thu Jul 24, 2014 11:43 am

Sherab Dorje wrote:I was under the impression that the whole "one Buddha at a time" deal is a Sravakayana notion and not Mahayana. Does anybody know of a Mahayana Sutra that states that two Buddhas cannot exist in the same world system? I know of some Theravada texts where it is explicitly stated, but have never seen it said in a Mahayana Sutra. Maybe Williams is confounding the two?
Unless stated to the contrary, or at least heavily implied, Mahayana's default is the setting of the early Buddhist sutras.

Nagarjuna actually adresses this directly in his Prajnaparamita-Upadesha, acknowledging the 'One Buddha per world system idea' and clarifying the meaning of it:

  • [The disciples of Kātyāyanīputra]. - The Buddha said: "Two Buddhas do not appear simultaneously in the same world (ekasmin lokadhātu), just as two cakravartin kings do not appear simultaneously in the same world." Therefore it is wrong that presently there are other Buddhas [than Śākyamuni]."

    [The Mahāyānists]. – 1. No doubt the Buddha said that; but you misunderstand the meaning of his words.
    The Buddha means that two Buddhas do not appear simultaneously in the same trisāhasramahāsāhasralokadhātu (or trichiliomegachiliocosm); he does not say that in the universes of the ten directions (daśadiglokadhātu) there are not actually [several] Buddhas. Thus, two cakravartin kings do not appear simultaneously in the same caturdvīpika (or universe of four continents), for these very powerful beings have no rival in their domain. Consequently, in one caturdvīpaka there is one single cakravartin only. In the same way, two Buddhas do not appear simultaneously in one single trisāhasramahāsāhasralokadhātu. Here the sūtra puts the Buddhas and the cakravartin kings on the same level. If you believe that there are [other] cakravartins in the other cāturdvīpakas, why do you not believe that there are [other] Buddhas in the other trisāhasramahāsāhasralokadhātus?

    2. Furthermore, one single Buddha cannot save all beings. If one single Buddha could save all beings, there would be no need for other Buddhas and only one single Buddha would appear. But the qualities of the Buddhas (buddhadharma), who save beings to be converted (vaineya), perish as soon as they arise (jātamātrā nirudhyante) like the flame that is extinguished when the candle is used up; indeed, conditioned dharmas (saṃskṛtadharma) are transitory (anitya) and empty of self nature (svabhāvaśhūnya). Thus, in the present, there must be yet other Buddhas.

    3. Finally, beings are numberless and suffering (duḥkha) is immense. This is why there must be magnanimous bodhisattvas and numberless Buddhas who appear in the world to save beings.


Also in Maitreya's Madhyāntavibhāga:
  • "The [sūtra] says that two Tathāgatas and two cakravartins do not arise [simultaneously in the same world}. According to some, the world in question is a trichiliomegachiliocosm if it concerns Tathāgatas, but a universe-of-four-continents if it concerns the cakravartins. According to others, in both cases it is a matter of a universe-of-four-contintents."
And Vasubandhu's take:
  • "What should be understood by 'this same world? By 'this same world' one should understand either one single cāturdvīpaka or one single trisāhasramahāsāhasralokadhātu."
TBH, seeing Nagarjuna's extolling elsewhere in the upadesha of how the Buddhas appear in many bodies and many ways to save beings, one gets the impression that's sort of a lukewarm concession and that if he weren't attempting to meet the non-Mahayanikas halfway, he'd happily go along with there being untold Buddhas all over the place. But that's just my impression.
Last edited by Anders on Thu Jul 24, 2014 11:52 am, edited 2 times in total.
"Even if my body should be burnt to death in the fires of hell
I would endure it for myriad lifetimes
As your companion in practice"

--- Gandavyuha Sutra

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Anders
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Re: "Eternal" Buddha?

Post by Anders » Thu Jul 24, 2014 11:45 am

Mkoll wrote:
Anders wrote:That is a faulty notion on Williams' part then. It's true that early Buddhism allows for only one Buddha at a time, but Mahayana obviously considers this to be only one Buddha per world system.
How does Mahayana define "world system"?
"A thousand suns (sūrya), a thousand moons (candra), a thousand Jambudvīpas, a thousand [Avara]godanīyas, a thousand Uttarakurus, a thousand Pūravidehas, a thousand Sumerus, a thousand Cāturmahārājikas. a thousand Trāyastriṃśas, a thousand Yāmas, a thousand Tuṣitas, a thousand Nirmāṇaratis, a thousand Paranirmitavaśavartins, a thousand Bramalokas, a thousand Mahābrahmās: all that is called sāhasracūḍikalokadhātu (chiliomicrocosm) or cūḍika for short.

A cāturdvīpaka is 'four continents', so basically planet earth.
"Even if my body should be burnt to death in the fires of hell
I would endure it for myriad lifetimes
As your companion in practice"

--- Gandavyuha Sutra

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Re: "Eternal" Buddha?

Post by Anders » Thu Jul 24, 2014 12:02 pm

Astus wrote:I think that reading the idea of eternal buddha as an immortal being is at best a provisional teaching. What in my view the eternity of Shakyamuni points to is no different from what Vimalakirti said to Ananda:

"You should understand, Ānanda, the bodies of the Tathāgatas are bodies of the Dharma, not bodies of longing. The Buddha is the World-honored One, who has transcended the triple world. The Buddha’s body is without flaws, the flaws having been extinguished. The Buddha’s body is unconditioned and does not fit the [conventional] analytic categories."

And as the Diamond Sutra teaches:

"Someone who tries to discern me in form
Or seek me in sound
Is practicing non-Buddhist methods
And will not discern the Tathāgata"


In other words, emptiness is the true nature of the Buddha (cf. SN 44.2), and that is eternal.
The point the lotus sutra makes is basically that the 'seed of bodhi' can not be burned out. Hence, Arhats can continue on the path of Buddhahood despite having ended the afflictions and Buddhas likewise can continue to emanate bodies after their provisional "Parinirvana".

That said, the notion of individual Buddhas does look somewhat less true than it's conventional presentation. For example, in the Shurangama-Samadhi Sutra
  • The life of the Buddha Vairocana is 700,000 incalculable periods (asaṃkhyeyakalpa). The Buddha [Śākyamuni] said to Mañjuśrī: “That buddha is myself”, and the Buddha
    [Vairocana] in turn said: “The Buddha Śākyamuni is myself.”
"Even if my body should be burnt to death in the fires of hell
I would endure it for myriad lifetimes
As your companion in practice"

--- Gandavyuha Sutra

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Re: "Eternal" Buddha?

Post by Astus » Thu Jul 24, 2014 12:36 pm

Anders wrote:The point the lotus sutra makes is basically that the 'seed of bodhi' can not be burned out. Hence, Arhats can continue on the path of Buddhahood despite having ended the afflictions and Buddhas likewise can continue to emanate bodies after their provisional "Parinirvana".

That said, the notion of individual Buddhas does look somewhat less true than it's conventional presentation.
Everybody can reach buddhahood, and buddhahood is the dharmadhatu, emptiness. Thus the arhat is the example of the practitioner who understands emptiness as annihilation and not as dependent origination, thus the parable of the illusory city.

As for individual buddhas, since the notion of individuality is about self, and enlightenment is realising the lack of self, the concept of individual buddhas is only a provisional skilful means.
1 Myriad dharmas are only mind.
Mind is unobtainable.
What is there to seek?

2 If the Buddha-Nature is seen,
there will be no seeing of a nature in any thing.

3 Neither cultivation nor seated meditation —
this is the pure Chan of Tathagata.

4 With sudden enlightenment to Tathagata Chan,
the six paramitas and myriad means
are complete within that essence.


1 Huangbo, T2012Ap381c1 2 Nirvana Sutra, T374p521b3; tr. Yamamoto 3 Mazu, X1321p3b23; tr. J. Jia 4 Yongjia, T2014p395c14; tr. from "The Sword of Wisdom"

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