The idea of an eternal Buddha is a notion popularly associated with the Mahayana scripture, the
Lotus Sutra. The Lotus Sutrahas the Buddha indicating that he became awakened countless, immeasurable, inconceivable myriads of trillions of aeons ("kalpas") ago and that his lifetime is "forever existing and immortal". From the human perspective, it seems as though the Buddha has always existed. The sutra itself, however, does not directly employ the phrase "eternal Buddha"; yet similar notions are found in other Mahayana scriptures, notably the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, which presents the Buddha as the ultimately real, eternal ("nitya"/ "śāśvata"), unchanging, blissful, pure Self (Atman) who, as the Dharmakaya, knows of no beginning or end. The "All-Creating King Tantra" additionally contains a panentheistic vision of Samantabhadra Buddha as the eternal, primordial Buddha, the Awakened Mind of bodhi, who declares: "From the primordial, I am the Buddhas of the three times [i.e. past, present and future] ." The notion of an eternal Buddha perhaps finds resonance with the earlier idea of eternal Dharma/ Nirvana, of which the Buddha is said to be an embodiment.
Eternality of the Buddha in the Pali Canon
The concept of the "Eternal Buddha" is considered by some to be implied in many suttas of the Pali Canon, where Nirvana is described as being "Amata" (immortal) or deathlessness. In MN 18 Madhupindika Sutta, Buddha is described in powerful terms as the lord of the Dhamma and the bestower of immortality:
"Knowing, the Blessed One knows; seeing, He sees. He is the Eye element, He is Knowledge element, He is the Dhamma element, He is the Brahma element. He is the speaker, the proclaimer, the elucidator of meaning, the giver of the Deathless, the Lord of the Dhamma, the Tathagata."
Similarly, in the Anuradha Sutta (SN 44.2) Buddha is described as " the Tathagata — the supreme man, the superlative man, attainer of the superlative attainment". Buddha is asked about what happens to the Tathagatha after death of the physical body, "The Tathagata exists after death, does not exist after death, both does & does not exist after death, neither exists nor does not exist after death.'
Buddha replies, "And so, Anuradha — when you can't pin down the Tathagata as a truth or reality even in the present life — is it proper for you to declare, 'Friends, the Tathagata — the supreme man, the superlative man, attainer of the superlative attainment — being described, is described otherwise than with these four positions: The Tathagata exists after death, does not exist after death, both does & does not exist after death, neither exists nor does not exist after death'?"
The Buddha's eternal quality is considered by some to be described in the Vakkali Sutta, where Buddha is considered by some to identify himself with the Dhamma.The qualities of the Dharma (Law, truth) is the same as the qualities of the Buddha and forms his "truth body" or "Dhamma Kaya":In the
Samyutta Nikaya, Vakkali Sutta, Buddha said to his disciple Vakkali that, :"IAST|Yo kho Vakkali dhammaṃ passati so maṃ passati" :"O Vakkali, whoever sees the Dhamma, sees me [the Buddha] "
Another reference from the Agganna Sutta of the
Digha Nikaya, says to his disciple Vasettha:
: "Tathāgatassa h'etam Vasettha adivacanam Dhammakayo iti pi ...": :"O Vasettha! The Word of Dhammakaya is indeed the name of the Tathagata"
Eternal Buddha - Self and Anatta
The notion of
anatta(non-self) as one of the 'IAST|trilakṣana' (the three characteristics of phenomenal things) is common in Buddhism. This embodies the idea that there is no definite, fixed, unchanging entity constituting a "person" that passes from one life to the next; The common interpretation of " anatta" also denies the existence of a fixed, unchanging, ever-enduring personal soul. The concept in place of the soul is 'bhava' ("becoming"), which is an ongoing flow of karmically projected energies that derive from, and give rise to, volitional thoughts and emotion.
Some expressions of
Mahayana Buddhism, however, regard such teaching as incomplete, and offer in the Tathagatagarbhasutras the complementary and allegedly culminational doctrine of a pure Selfhood (the eternal yet ungraspable hypostasis of the Buddha) which no longer generates karma and which subsists eternally in the realm of Nirvana, from which sphere help to suffering worldly beings can be sent forth in the forms of various transitory physical Buddhas ("nirmānakāyas"). While the bodies of these corporeal Buddhas are subject to disease, decline and death - like all impermanent things - the salvational Tathagataor Dharmakaya behind them is forever free from impairment, impermanence and mortality. It is this transcendent yet immanent "Dharmakaya-Buddha" which is taught in certain major Mahayana sutras to be immutable and eternal and is intimately linked with Dharmaitself. In the Tibetan Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha tells of his eternal and blissful nature in the following words: "the Blessed One is permanent, stable, eternal, unwavering and utterly blissful." Furthermore, according to the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, worldly beings regrettably fail to see this eternality of the Buddha and his Dharma. The Buddha comments in that latter Mahayana sutra, which presents itself as the last and most definitive of all sutras: "I say that those who do not know that the Tathagata [Buddha] is eternal are the foremost of the congenitally blind."
*"The Threefold Lotus Sutra" (Kosei Publishing, Tokyo 1975), tr. by B. Kato, Y. Tamura, and K. Miyasaka, revised by W. Soothill, W. Schiffer, and P. Del Campana
*"The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra" (Nirvana Publications, London, 1999-2000), tr. by K. Yamamoto, ed. and revised by Dr. Tony Page
*"The Sovereign All-Creating Mind: The Motherly Buddha" (Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi 1992), tr. by E.K. Neumaier-Dargyay
* [http://www.accesstoinsight.org/ Access to Insight]
God in Buddhism
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