I don’t know about you, but I’m the kind of person who likes to go right to the source. So when it comes to studying Buddhism, I want to get right to it- let’s meet Buddha, right? Don’t give me the lieutenant or the maitre d’- take me straight to the Buddha. There’s only one problem- he died 2500 years ago. From a certain viewpoint that could be a big problem!
The problem is that we can re-invent somebody who lived that long ago, and in a sense, re-form that person in our own image. We can take what that person said or supposedly said and kind of mold it to further our personal interpretation.
For example, as regards the Buddha, even at the physical level, if you go to China he’s got a big belly, if you go to India he might have the refined features of Gandharan sculpture. What did he actually look like? The answer is that we don’t really know.
What Buddha really is, on a certain level, is what is called an archetype. In that regard, there are certain things in the representation of Buddha that capture the essence of what he taught, what he represented. For example he is often seen touching the ground, which means his wisdom is grounded and connected to the earth. He is not spaced out. He also has a certain gaze which represents a relaxed, clear awareness. There are many other marks of his qualities and accomplishments in these representations.
So, when we say we want to meet Buddha, what we really mean is that we want to connect with his teachings and his enlightened qualities. The word Buddha means awakened mind. It literally means that. Buddha means awake.
So as we stumble through the fog of our sometimes overly discursive mind and say “I want to meet Buddha,” if you shift that a little and say “I want to meet the awakened state of mind,” then we have clarified what it is that we are looking for and we might actually find it.
But if we want to have a fairy tale about some guy who lived a long time ago and did this and did that and somehow use that story to justify being right about something, or justify our own sensibilities, or wield it as truth against somebody else’s truth, the whole thing can become problematic.
What I personally don’t want to get into with this practice is some kind of thick, dull, archaic accounting of who said what 2500 years ago. In the vajrayana tradition of Tibetan Buddhism, these teachings are considered to be extremely alive right now. There’s no problem at all that “awww, we missed the boat.” If we are caught up in perpetuating legends, myths, fairytales, it can all be very sweet and entertaining but we can also miss the point entirely.
We actually have to get to the bones and marrow of who we are to meet these teachings. We ourselves are the only gateway. There’s no fairytale that will actually save us from having to encounter ourselves and our lives fully.
The teachers who are passing along this tradition are, in a way, transmitters — like a satellite dish — a transmitting station. They receive the transmission of the awakened state of mind and pass it along to their students.
If we can contact what it is that the Buddha put in a time capsule 2,500 years ago that has been passed along from generation to generation, we will know firsthand why these teachings survived intact. The essence of those teachings is what is called the awakened state of mind — enlightenment. If you look at the Buddha as a discoverer of that awakened state of mind, a carrier and a perpetrator of that, then we can see a mirror of our own path in his journey.
He is the archetype of somebody who started from a somewhat confused, ordinary situation and then underwent a complete transformation and became totally awake and enlightened. He was at first a materialist, then second a seeker, and then third somebody who claimed that he had found a method of transcending materialism as well as transcending the seeking itself. He pointed to a path by which others could have the same realization.
With this understanding, it is possible to meet the Buddha!