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Buddhism: Meeting the Buddha Today

February 18, 2010

David Nichtern
Senior Shambhala Buddhist teacher
The Huffington Post
February 16, 2010

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! What do you think?

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