Norman gives his seventh talk on Mahayana Buddhism based on Paul Williams’ book “Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations”.
From: Mahayana Buddhism – Talk Seven
By Zoketsu Norman Fischer | February 16, 2011[This is a segment from the talk on the chapter “The Bodies of the Buddha,” from Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, by Paul Williams
Abridged and edited by Barbara Byrum
This book covers highly idealized, maybe overly enthusiastic discussions that may leave a person far in the dust – that person who is simply looking for comfort or belief or a path of spiritual satisfaction. You may read this and think, “What does this have to do with anything I am actually interested in? What does this have to do with the reasons that I am doing this practice?”
Maybe before we talk about any of the details, we should back up a bit and ask ourselves, “What does all this elaboration amount to? Why did the sages of the past feel a need for it?”
In order to think about these questions, I am going to back up still further and ask two more questions that are very simple. One: “Do the three bodies of the Buddha and the ten stages of Bodhisattva practice actually exist?” Number two: “If we can say that such things actually exist, are they things that we would experience and have any personal connection to?” Makes sense to ask those questions, right? Why launch into a discussion about something that doesn’t exist or is irrelevant to you?
So these are the questions I begin with. The world of religious practice never avoids confronting ultimate human questions, because that is what religion seems to be for. It automatically invites these sorts of questions. Questions like: “How come we are born? How come we die? How come there is a world at all? What’s it for? What is ultimate knowledge?” These are the kinds of questions that you always entertain in the religious life. There may not be any actual answers to these questions, but that doesn’t really matter. The human necessity to ask such questions is there anyway, because we have language. These questions are built into the basic structure of language. So we have to keep asking them, even if we can’t say that we have finally come to the ultimate answer. That’s where things like Christology and Buddhalogy enter into it, because they are really attempts to engage these questions directly.
So do the three bodies and the ten stages actually exist? No. Not in the way in which we usually think of existence as being something tangible, something actual. But they do exist as ideas that have been important, over the centuries, to people who have been looking for ways to entertain these ultimate questions. As ideas in that discussion, they have a kind of reality that is important. People in the past and in the present felt these things to be real, although I think that people have always understood that they do not actually exist in the way that we usually think that things exist.
As people over the centuries continued to practice the teaching of the Buddha, continued to think about the teaching of the Buddha, continued to have different experiences and discussions, to expand on the teaching, to challenge the teaching, to be challenged by the teaching, and to relate it to their own deepest inner issues, it became increasingly necessary for them to expand the field of discourse. It became necessary to think of new conceptual frameworks to entertain the kinds of questions they were asking. Eventually that whole process inescapably led them to ideas like the three bodies of Buddha and the ten stages of Bodhisattva practice.
Many scholars have assumed that the three bodies and the ten stages can actually be experienced by people. This is kind of a trend among Buddhist scholars in recent times, and an implication, I think, of the writings of Buddhist sages in the past – that the great sages have seen these things in meditation and in visionary experiences. But I doubt that that is so. I don’t really think that is so. Not in the way we would think of it. We are so conditioned by special effects movies. I am serious! When we hear the stuff about the ten bodies of the Buddha, we are thinking about some movie about the Buddha by Spielberg – with all these things flying around. Even in this Dogen movie that we have seen, they have this kind of cosmic stuff.
When we think of the three bodies of the Buddha and the ten Bodhisattva stages and magical powers, we are thinking of special effects. But I don’t think special effects – Buddha bodies floating around in the sky and superpowers attributed to the Bodhisattvas – ever existed. Now I am not saying that there were never visionary experiences. Of course people had visionary experiences, and, of course, they had some experience of superpowers from time to time. But that is not really what they are talking about. The pretty crude literalism that we have about these things comes from our western, materialist projection onto them.
I have often referred to my all time favorite Buddhist scholar, Robert Scharf, who is a wonderful person and who lives in Berkeley, has written about this extensively and very convincingly. He has basically argued against the projection of special effects onto religious experience in Buddhism. This is one of his great contributions to Buddhist scholarship.
So I have no doubt that the sages of the past – who wrote about the three bodies and the ten Bodhisattva stages – understood that these things did not exist in the special effects kind of way that we might project. They believed in these things. They believed they had a crucially important reality, but not the kind of reality that we would ascribe to them when we talk about things being real.
They were real thoughts, real ideas, and real concepts, expressed in language that described how they felt and understood the practice. For the great sages in the past in India, these thoughts and this language were real enough. They didn’t need special effects. It was so engaging to them that they didn’t need to think that it referred to something else. They had no trouble, I think, distinguishing the difference between what they were writing about and ordinary, concrete, everyday reality. They knew that these were two different things.
The three bodies and the ten stages are worth studying and thinking about as important ideas that will help us to understand our own lives and our practice. But they don’t exist, and we won’t experience them. And that doesn’t really matter. They are imaginative theological constructs, and they are important for that reason.