I am a Buddha (and so are you)

Posted by on Mar 3, 2013 in Buddhism | 552 Comments

I tend to discuss Buddhism from the perspective of early Buddhist thought. I sometimes talk a bit of Zen, Tibetan or general Mahayana, but I know the Theravada stuff the best.

Buddhism is diverse

Sometimes people from different Buddhist traditions get in touch or leave comments from significantly different perspectives. It sounds like the opposite of what I’ve written.

Are we all ‘proper’ Buddhists? And if so, how do such apparently different views fit together in any meaningful way?

Recently I’ve had a couple of comments from followers of Nichiren Buddhism.

I don’t know loads about this, and I’d be very happy if readers who practice in that tradition would flesh out or correct anything I write here.

One specific point I wanted to address is the idea that we’re already enlightened.

Since I figured that might be confusing to some of my other readers who are maybe new to Buddhism and wondering what the hell is going on.

The end of the path

It may seem strange, but some schools of Buddhism (particularly a couple of Japanese ones) argue that we are in fact Buddhas. The work has already been done.

Sometimes it’s been done by bodhisattvas on our behalf and our practice is simply expressing gratitude for this.

Sometimes there’s simply no work to do in the first place. Samsara (the unenlightened ‘cyclic’ existence where we are perpetually reborn) and nirvana (enlightened existence where we aren’t) are one and the same.

“All beings are, from the very beginning, Buddhas” goes one text.

That’s right folks. You’re already at the end of the path!

Now what?

Samsara is nirvana

As far as I can remember, the theory is that because all phenomena are empty of selfhood, it’s not possible for one thing to exist separately from another.

In order for samsara and nirvana to be fundamentally different, they would need to be discreet phenomena. Since Buddhists don’t believe in discreet phenomena, it follows that samsara and nirvana are one.

Choose your metaphor

What does this mean for the practitioner? I mean, I don’t *feel* like a Buddha! And that guy who cut me up on the road this morning, I’m pretty sure he’s not one either!

So what’s the crack?

The fundamental position in Buddhism is that, right now, you’re deluded. Seriously.

You’ve fundamentally got the wrong end of the stick about life, the universe and everything.

This delusion is what leads you to crave. This delusion is what causes you to be reborn. This delusion is the cause of your suffering (because it leads to the craving).

And right there, inside this delusional state, Buddhist teachers are trying to snap you out of it.

One way they do it is with the image of ‘the path’.

The path you’ve dedicated your life to following.

The ‘Noble Eightfold’ Path that the Buddha kept going on about.

There is no spoon

Another way to see it is that there is no path.

You’re already a Buddha. You just have to get used to it, stop chasing after enlightenment (i.e. stop your craving for something different) and let go of the delusion that there is anything to achieve, anywhere to go, any suffering or end of it.

Of course, the idea of ‘no path’ is also delusion.

It’s another way of visualising your position in the universe. It just looks at things in terms of time (you’ve nowhere to go, you just have to realise that – here are some practices to help you with this) rather than space (you’re here, enlightenment’s there, here are some practices to get you along the path from here to there).

So we have temporal and spacial metaphors. They’re both metaphors though. True wisdom is beyond such things.

But as metaphors, they’re both useful. And personally I think they’re both useful as antidotes to each other.

One and not one

One of the few Buddhist jokes I can remember is “How many Buddhists does it take to change a lightbulb?”

“One and not one.”

I’ll admit, outside of geeky Buddhist scenes, it’s not a funny joke.

But I think it makes my current point quite well.

Yes samsara is nirvana. Yes you’re all Buddhas.

At the same time, you’re not.

You have to walk the path to get to where you already are.

If you don’t walk it, you won’t ever get there.

But if you do walk it, you’ll come to realise there’s nowhere to go, and in fact, there is no one to do the walking.

Yes, I’m afraid the more you get into Buddhism, the more of a head trip it can be.

This is good as a technique for up-ending your logical mind and giving you a chance at glimpsing the direct experience of what we’re talking about.

Getting attached to views is part of the problem, so Buddhism has developed its own ways of discouraging that.

When one school of Buddhism develops, you can bet your bottom dollar another will develop in response to it.

I love that I live in a time and place where I can know the breadth of what is considered ‘Buddhism’ and can try to make sense of it. I think it enriches my practice.

But if you’re committed to one school, as long as you have a good teacher, your practice will have balance anyway.

And even though you don’t need to practice because you’re already enlightened, I hope you’ll keep turning up!


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