It is easy to think that Mahāyāna has made it pretty clear that they distinguish between ‘the Buddha’ and ‘Buddha’ as a state of being per se. The problem with referring to ‘Living Buddhas’ and people becoming a Buddha in this lifetime is that it is Canonically false and logically inconsistent with the nature of the teaching and reality generally. The moment ‘I’ think that I might be enlightened then I am sure I am not. Just the very idea that everyone is already enlightened and they just need to uncover it is a trick of ego. ‘Everyone’ includes me and that means that I am telling myself that ‘I’ am already enlightened. Okay, if this is true, then the very ‘I’ that needs to be examined is enlightened — so why bother?
To briefly characterize these perspectives, it might be fair to say that the Nikāyas and Āgamas give us a ‘historical-realistic perspective’ on the Buddha, while the Mahāyāna sūtras give us a ‘cosmic-metaphysical perspective.’ These terms are not intended to use the Nikāyas to eclipse the Mahāyāna Sūtras, of course, the Nikāyas are more likely to be closer to the Buddha’s original verbal teachings. The Mahāyāna texts are at best apocryphal or anecdotal. They are still useful teachings, however, especially when they do not contradict the original teaching. This is just to characterize the viewpoints that they use to look at the Buddha and interpret his significance for the world.
These two perspectives define what the Buddha accomplished through his enlightenment. When we take the historical-realistic perspective, the Buddha became an arahant and the arahant became the ideal. Being an arahant he was arahant with differences. He was not simply an arahant with a few incidental differences, but an arahant whose differences eventually elevated him to a unique level.
The Bhagavā, a world teacher rose well above all the other past, present and future arahants. These differences inevitably lead to the notion of the ‘cosmic-metaphysical perspective’ on the Buddha as a way to understand what accounted for these differences. The Buddha was then seen as the one who brought to fruition the immeasurably long journey of the bodhisattva covering innumerable lifetimes during which he was said to have sacrificed himself in multiple ways for the good of others. This is the cosmic perspective. The Buddha was viewed as the one who arrived at the ultimate truth. The Tathāgata became just one of the infinite number of beings who have come from Suchness, reality as it is, (tathā + āgata) and gone to Suchness (tathā + gata), but who resides nowhere. This is the metaphysical perspective. This cosmic-metaphysical perspective then became a dominating feature of the Mahāyāna movement.
An arahant is A ‘worthy one’ or ‘pure one’; a person whose mind is free of defilement (kilesha), who has abandoned all ten of the fetters that bind the mind to the cycle of rebirth, Saṃsāra. The Aranhant’s heart is freed from mental effluents and is because of this not destined for further rebirth in Saṃsāra.
Arahant, title for the Buddha, is considered the highest level of his noble disciples. It is far from the meaning of ‘liberator’ in that one does not liberate another from defilements. That is a falls into the category of impossibilities. An Arahant, like a Buddha, can only point the way and encourage others in their practice. If people don’t want to practice correctly they should be left in the dirt of their defilements. (Anguttara Nikaya 4.111)
‘So what difference, what distinction, what distinguishing factor is there between one rightly self-awakened and a monk discernment-released?’
‘For us, lord, the teachings have the Blessed One as their root, their guide, & their arbitrator. It would be good if the Blessed One himself would explicate the meaning of this statement. Having heard it from the Blessed One, the monks will remember it.’
‘In that case, monks, listen & pay close attention. I will speak.’
‘As you say, lord,’ the monks responded.
The Blessed One said, ‘The Tathagata — the worthy one, the rightly self-awakened one — is the one who gives rise to the path (previously) unarisen, who engenders the path(previously) unengendered, who points out the path (previously) not pointed out. He knows the path, is expert in the path, is adept at the path. And his disciples now keep following the path and aftel;.3rwards become endowed with the path.
‘This is the difference, this the distinction, this the distinguishing between one rightly self-awakened and a monk discernment-released.’
— Samyutta Nikaya 22.58
As you see, the Buddha himself indicates that there is but one Buddha for each dispensation. He is the founder of the Way. One way cannot have many founders scattered out through history. The rest of us are followers, even if we are arahants or bodhisattvas of the highest bhumi.
…this is the criterion whereby a monk, apart from faith, apart from persuasion, apart from inclination, apart from rational speculation, apart from delight in views and theories, could affirm the attainment of enlightenment: ‘Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been accomplished, what was to be done is done, there is no further living in this world.
— Samyutta Nikaya 35.152
This is the definition the Buddha gave to Arahant. Please notice, there is no mention of liberating others. Not even the bodhisatta liberates another. It would be an anti-Buddhist statement to claim that it is possible for one to liberate somebody else. All we can do is point the way.
160. One truly is the protector of oneself; who else could the protector be? With oneself fully controlled, one gains a mastery that is hard to gain.
161. The evil a witless man does by himself, born of himself and produced by himself, grinds him as a diamond grinds a hard gem.
162. Just as a single creeper strangles the tree on which it grows, even so, a man who is exceedingly depraved harms himself as only an enemy might wish.
163. Easy to do are things that are bad and harmful to oneself. But exceedingly difficult to do are things that are good and beneficial.
164. Whoever, on account of perverted views, scorns the Teaching of the Perfected Ones, the Noble and Righteous Ones — that fool, like the bamboo, produces fruits only for self destruction.
165. By oneself is evil done; by oneself is one defiled. By oneself is evil left undone; by oneself is one made pure. Purity and impurity depend on oneself; no one can purify another. (This seems to negate the view the the role of the Bodhisattva as one who enlightens another.)
166. Let one not neglect one’s own welfare for the sake of another, however great. Clearly understanding one’s own welfare, let one be intent upon the good.
This was the basis of the Buddhist practice in its original form. When Mahāyāna later changed the parameters of some very basic definitions we somehow also forgot what the Buddha actually taught.
‘There is the case where a certain individual…’
Himself abstains from the taking of life and encourages others in undertaking abstinence from the taking of life,
Himself abstains from stealing and encourages others in undertaking abstinence from stealing,
Himself abstains from sexual misconduct, and encourages others in undertaking abstinence from sexual misconduct.
Himself abstains from lying, and encourages others in undertaking abstinence from lying,
Himself abstains from intoxicants and encourages others in undertaking abstinence from intoxicants.
Such is the individual who practices for his own benefit and for that of others; but even in making that statement, the Buddha makes it clear that benefitting others is done by way of ‘encouragement.’ (Anguttara Nikaya 4.99) That is, the Bodhisatta Path according to the Buddha. It is not about enlightening others so much as about encouraging others.
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