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Was the Buddha a God or a Human Being?
Growing up in Kathmandu, I usually came across two groups of people who viewed the Buddha differently. One group viewed the Buddha as a God, someone who was able to magically relieve people from their sorrows. The other group saw the Buddha as a mere human being. For the second group, the Buddha was a social reformer who proclaimed ways to achieve harmony and peace in society. This duality made little sense to me and, in fact, I had a hard time understanding if the Buddha they were talking about was the same being. This confusion only got worse as I came across other preconceived notions about Buddhism, some of them were that in order to follow Buddhism you had to become a monk or a nun, that meditation meant following your breath and nothing else, and some even hilarious ones like claiming Buddha to actually be a reincarnation of Vishnu and that Vishnu’s main intention to teaching a different stream of religion was to see how committed Hindus were to him. Things got even more bizarre when people started rallying on the streets to claim that Buddha was born in Nepal (and not in India) and started carrying the slogan “Buddha was born in Nepal” everywhere from the bumper of a public bus to football match stands.
Somehow, I found a direction to delve into Buddhism from a very unlikely source – a fiction book about a cat and his journey in Dharamashala. The book was “The Dalai Lama’s Cat” by David Michie. For the first time, I came across aspects of Buddhism that made sense to me. That book led to another and that to another and slowly the books introduced me to the interesting world of Tibetan Buddhism. Eventually, I also got introduced to a weekly Buddhist Philosophy class given by Venerable Narayan Prasad Rijal. That was how I got to know the depth and precision of Buddhist Philosophy and from then on I went on looking for a more extensive and engaging Buddhism course. When I stumbled upon the one-year Certificate Course in Buddhist Studies being offered at Rangjung Yeshe, I thought it was a perfect fit for me and so I signed up for the course.
It has not even been a year at RYI but I can feel the growth in my understanding of Buddhism. Soon after I got here, I was delighted to find like-minded people, who were very much interested in understanding Buddhist views, its history and even learning new languages to understand Buddhism better. I slowly learnt the value of languages like Tibetan and Sanskrit in understanding the nuances of Buddhist philosophy. Not only that, since RYI is housed inside a monastery setting, it felt like I was in the center of this living, breathing Tibetan Buddhist culture. The setting is a special source of motivation to instill faith and certainty towards Dharma. Sometimes, I feel like RYI is the closest Nalandaexperience that I can ask for. On top of all this, the international students community at RYI has really helped me to get a wider perspective regarding Buddhism in the modern world.
Besides RYI, the place Boudhanath itself has been a major inspiration for me. I have always been interested in visual arts, and the visual side of Tibetan Buddhism has opened up a new dimension in my understanding of visual communication. I not only get to come in contact with Thangkas and other interesting ritual objects, but I am very fortunate to find people around Boudha who explain the significance of these objects and their uses in practices. All this has added to my understanding of Vajrayana Buddhism, which although I found very attractive, felt so foreign and out of reach before. But experiences like these has helped me add bits and pieces of knowledge to my understanding of Vajrayana Buddhism. Apart from this, there were also “fan-boy moments” like when I bumped into Matthieu Ricard at the Boudhanath stupa!
But the most important lesson that I have received from RYI has to be the understanding of the importance of transforming Buddhist views and philosophy into day-to-day practice. The practice here doesn’t mean just sitting meditation but includes all forms of actions, from talking with someone to responding to an unexpected event. The result has been a challenge and applying these practices is definitely not easy but I have come to appreciate its benefits and I try to practice according to my capability.
So looking back, how do I feel about the Buddha? Is he just a human or the creator God? I recalled this childhood confusion when I came across the dialogue between Buddha and Dona in Anguttara Nikaya IV, 36:
Dona: Master, are you a deva (god)?
Buddha: No, Brahmin, I am not a god.
Dona: Master, are you a gandhabba (water spirit)?
Buddha: No, Brahmin, I am not a water spirit.
Dona: Master, are you a yakkha (powerful demon)?
Buddha: No, Brahmin, I am not a powerful demon.
Dona: Master, are you a human being?
Buddha: No, Brahmin, I am not a human being.
Confused, Dona then asked the Buddha “Master, what then are you?” To which the Buddha replied:
“I have eliminated all those corruptions that would make me a god, a water spirit, a yakka, or a human being. Brahmin, just as a lotus, though born and grown in the water, rises up and stands unsoiled by the water, so, though born and grown in the world, I have overcome the world and dwell unsoiled by the world. Consider me a Buddha, an awakened one.”
In many ways, my experience here at RYI has helped me gain a sense of clear direction regarding Dharma and Dharma practices and after living here for some time, Bodhi (Bodhigyan) seems more of a reality than just a mythical objective.
~ Pranav from Nepal