Recently I’ve been reading ‘The Genesis of the Bodhisattva Ideal’ by Bhikkhu Anālayo and it has really opened my eyes as to how ideas about our teacher have evolved over the centuries and how seemingly small interpolations become very significant and bring about dramatic changes in the Buddhist thought world.
The whole book is an interesting read and a rather convincing one. It and other discussions on the matter have allowed me to let go of whole bodhisatta practicing for millions of lifetimes to be our saviour idea, and I have to say this has taken a tremendous amount of weight off my shoulders. When I first starting getting into Buddhism I felt that the path to Buddhahood was the one for me, I felt that I couldn’t leave behind those I love and I felt compelled to help them. These are still very real concerns that I have, but as I learn and study and especially practice more, I realize that the future really is uncertain, and the best way to help people is to practice and teach them from experience. There’s no telling if, in the vast reaches of samsara, I would ever encounter them again, or even be assured of the path to Buddhahood. I might’ve just missed my once-in-a-googolplex-lifetime opportunity to meet a Buddha’s Dhamma. So reading this and learning the perspective of early Buddhism on it has taken away some sense of guilt for following the ‘Hinayana’ or whatever.
One part in particular had me just reflect, “Why didn’t I notice this before?” The argument goes like this: if the bodhisatta in a very recent past life was the disciple of the Buddha Kassapa, and practiced up to the point where he could’ve reached Stream-Entry if he wanted to, how can the newly awakened Gautama Buddha really claim to be self-awakened with no teacher, when all traditions agree he had a vision of his past lives before full awakening? He very clearly would’ve remembered everything he learned and would have awakened based on the previous Buddha’s teachings, not his own ‘rediscovery of an ancient path’. Was he implying he had no teacher in this lifetime? Was he using a play on words for emptiness? Or was the idea that he was a disciple of an ancient Buddha a later addition? There’s a large body of evidence that would suggest the latter, and I think most EBT scholars would agree, but I can’t claim that with certainty. Personally, I agree. As with most comparative historical studies of the EBTs, I think the light shed on the Dhamma-Vinaya presents a much more manageable, consistent, practical, and honestly more real idea of the Buddha and his teachings.
The question that popped in my mind as I pondered this though, was that if the Buddha in his previous lifetimes HADN’T met another Buddha, would that seem plausible? For a cycle of birth and death without discoverable beginning, would it make sense that he never encountered another awakened being? It brings to mind more questions, such as are there a finite or infinite number of beings? I assume it’s a futile question, and might even correspond to the metaphysical question of ‘is the world finite or infinite?’ that the Buddha wouldn’t answer. While I have always taken that to be a spatial reference, I have read elsewhere that the Buddhist idea of lokas relates to beings of a particular type, not the place they inhabit itself. So from this I guess to assume that there are finite beings is wrong, and to assume that there are infinite beings is wrong. Any sutta references to support or counter this would be nice.
So now we’re left with a few possibilities. Either the Buddha-to-be was a disciple of one or many Buddhas of the past, and subsequently is part of a lineage of Buddhas with no actual self-teaching, simply transmission through past life recollection; or he hadn’t encountered a past Buddha, and simply did discover it on his own, being ‘rightly self-awakened’. I think this makes more sense for me, and reminds of a comment by Steffen that Bhante Sujato quoted in his article ‘Ten Ideas About Time’, “I am glad that death exists, and when my time arrives, I will go, to make place for the young generation. They deserve their chance.”
Maybe no two Buddhas ever actually meet (at least while one is awakened and teaches the other). Maybe they share the same lineage and connection through awakening only, not through direct contact. Maybe to follow the path of the bodhisatta is robbing future beings who’ve never encountered a Buddha of re-putting the wheel of Dhamma in motion. Maybe it leads to getting lost in samsara. Or maybe it actually is the way to Buddhahood, and that’s how our very own Gautama did it. I do think that the aspiration for Buddhahood, as a vehicle to help the largest amount of beings possible, and not as a way to omniscience and cosmic rulership, is the most compassionate and honorable goal one can have. It entails an immense amount of future suffering one will have to go through for others, and for those embarking on that journey I wish them good fortune and happiness, whether they’re successful or not.
But as a person who puts their greatest amount of faith in peer-reviewed study, unbiased historical research, and a certain amount of doubt in traditional storytelling, I can say with confidence that one path the Buddha did teach is the Eightfold Path, and I think that all Buddhists, whatever their aspirations, should try to follow it to at least some degree. These have just been my own thoughts on the matter, and I’m wondering if anyone has any others?