Buddha in His Time and Ours
Hallisey, Charles, The World and I
Charles Hallisey is John L. Loeb Associate Professor of the Humanities in Sanskrit and Indian Studies at Harvard University.
Who was the Buddha? Much is assumed in what might seem to be a small choice about the tense of the verb in the question, in saying "who was the Buddha?" instead of "who is a Buddha?" or "who will be a Buddha?" To put the question as "who was the Buddha?" as most modern scholarship does, is to focus our attention on Gautama, the historical figure who lived approximately twenty-five hundred years ago and who founded and inspired the Buddhist religion.
Buddhists across Asia have had a loving interest in Gautama, but they have consistently denied that what he achieved--Buddhahood--is in any sense something that belongs only to the past. Buddhahood is in the present and the future, too. Thus, in the traditional Buddhist scheme of things, there have been many Buddhas and there will be many more. Gautama is thus just one Buddha among many, although he has a special significance because he is "our Buddha," the one who has made salvific truth available to us. In other words, that Buddha of the past assists us--through his teaching and his example--to become Buddhas ourselves, now or in the future.
The Sanskrit word Buddha means "someone who has woken up." It is, according to Buddhists, a name that "no mother ever gave," a name that is "a designation based on realization." In other words, Buddha designates a condition, not a person. It is a title given to someone who has perceived the true nature of reality in a transformative experience, an experience of absolute freedom that puts him beyond the ordinary constraints of life and death. The experience and teaching of every Buddha, including those today, address universal concerns, not the problems of a particular time and place. For Buddhists, the Buddha's experience is not a product of his historical context but a liberating insight into the conditions of existence itself.
Buddhists disagree about the transcendent truths that a Buddha awakens to, but they consistently hold to the relational implications of the metaphor in the notion of "Buddha": A Buddha is to us as we are to people who are asleep. Although during a dream we may feel that we are experiencing something real, when we awaken, we realize just how insubstantial the dream was. So, too, with a Buddha. His wisdom is based on his unique ability to distinguish between illusion and reality and to act on the basis of what is.
When a …
Questia, a part of Gale, Cengage Learning. www.questia.com
Publication information: Article title: Buddha in His Time and Ours. Contributors: Hallisey, Charles - Author. Magazine title: The World and I. Volume: 14. Issue: 10 Publication date: October 1999. Page number: 294. © 1999 News World Communications, Inc. COPYRIGHT 1999 Gale Group.
This material is protected by copyright and, with the exception of fair use, may not be further copied, distributed or transmitted in any form or by any means.