What we want to do is eventually go beyond Buddha, go beyond Buddhism. I don’t mean in any organized manner, but rather collectively as individuals, conceptually. If the goal of putting an end to conceptual thinking is to be realized, then we must also let go of our concepts about Buddha and dharma.
The teachings are a raft that ferries all beings across the sea of suffering to the shore of nirvana. When we reach that shore, we no longer need the raft. In this way, the Buddha as the teacher, or the oarsman, and the teachings as the raft, are implements for our liberation, vehicles we use to reach our destination. As Robert Thurman says in the quote I love to quote, “Buddhism is a bunch of tools.”
This does not mean we cannot revere the image of Buddha, honor his memory or chant his name. However, when we celebrate the Buddha’s enlightenment we should keep in mind that the Buddha’s awakening represents our own awakening, or potential for it. And when we chant the Buddha’s name, we are actually chanting our own true name.
We will never know the true Buddha, the historical person. His time is too remote from us for that. We can try to gaze past the layers of mythology and interpretation to see the historical Buddha but it is only an exercise in futility. As a human being, he walked, talked, sat, itched and scratched, yawned and laughed, ate and attended to his bodily functions, and yet, we can never know exactly how he did those things. We can never know what it was like to look into his eyes or how the timber of his voice sounded.
Yet, there is a way to know the true Buddha. The Buddha is here, is ever present, always with us. As Chih-i suggests in this passage, we can know the real Buddha, for we are the True Buddha:
All phenomena are not other than the realm of reality; hearing of this nonduality and nondifference, do not give rise to doubt.
If you can see in this way, this is seeing the ten epithets of Buddhas. When seeing Buddha, one does not consider Buddha as Buddha; there is no Buddha to be Buddha, and there is no Buddha-knowledge to know Buddha. Buddha and Buddha-knowledge are nondualistic, unmoving, unfabricated, not in any location yet not unlocated, not in time yet not timeless, not dual yet not nondual, not defiled, not pure. This seeing Buddha is very rarefied; like space, it has no flaw, and it develops right mindfulness.
Seeing the embellishments of Buddha is like looking into a mirror and seeing one’s own features, first you see one Buddha, then the Buddhas of the ten directions. You do not use magical powers to go see Buddhas; you stay right here and see the Buddhas, hear the Buddhas’ teaching, and get the true meaning. You see Buddhas for all beings, yet do not grasp the form of Buddha. You guide all beings toward nirvana, yet do not grasp the character of nirvana. You produce great adornments for all beings, yet do not grasp the forms of adornment . . .
In this way, you see living beings as the true reality realm of Buddha.
From the Mo-Ho Chih-Kuan or Great Stopping and Seeing, translated by Thomas Cleary