Editorial: I Can Think, I Can Wait, I Can Fast
Featured in Mountain Record 24.3, Spring 2006
This simple line by Hermann Hesse has stayed with me since I first read it fifteen years ago. The reason it made such an impression was that it seemed to capture the kind of person I wanted to be: clear, unencumbered, steady in the face of turmoil and conflict.
Now I know that Buddha would probably have said it differently. Yet, I can’t help but associate the spirit of those words with the founder of the tradition that became my home.
Here at the Mountain Record we realize that, like so many of the topics we choose to cover, we simply cannot do justice to the figure of the Buddha or to the depth and impact of his teachings in a single issue. For that reason, we’ve chosen to concentrate on two kinds of writings which paint what appear to be contradictory pictures of Shakyamuni. First, there are those articles that portray him as a human being who was both great and obstinate, who made mistakes, and who was also capable of limitless wisdom and generosity. Second, there are the stories and sutras that turned him, against his own advice, into a kind of god, a supernatural being of omniscient power.
We include the first chapter of Hesse’s Siddartha, Mitchell’s retelling of the Buddha’s rejection of a female monastic sangha, as well as Karen Armstrong’s account of the Buddha’s final sickness and parinirvana. In contrast, we have a more “deified” perspective of the Buddha and his different manifestations as seen in the Pure Land’s devotional practice of reciting Amida’s name, an excerpt of the Avatamsaka Sutra with its light-emanating buddhas, and Judith Simmer-Brown’s description of the wisdom dakini or “sky-dancer.”
A careful reading of these pieces will show, however, that to even create these two categories is, in fact, misleading. Simmer-Brown points out that in the Vajrayana, the wisdom dakini is a female representation of a realized buddha, yet her qualities are universal. Cheng Chien Bhikshu equates the glorious and inconceivable Buddha of the Avatamsaka with each one of us. And Shugen Sensei says in his dharma talk, “Even though the notion of the cosmic Buddha of Mahayana Buddhism is described in very vivid, extravagant language, Shakyamuni’s humanness is not lost.”
Maybe the paradox of Buddha the demi-god and Buddha the man is not really a paradox after all. It is no more of a contradiction than his saying to Manjushri in the koan that opens the issue, “In forty-nine years of teaching, I have not spoken a single word.”
The truth cannot be found in one side or the other, as Daido Roshi says in his commentary. “It’s in the merging of all dualities that we find reality itself.” Man or god, the real testament to the impact of the Buddha’s life on our own lives has been, and always will be, the truth and inspiration of his own awakening
Mn. Vanessa Zuisei Goddard, MRO
Mountain Record, Editor