Clinging to the Buddha

by Ryuei Michael McCormick

This Dharma talk was given in February 2002 for the
service commemorating the passing away of the Buddha.
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,

Clinging to the Buddha

“Followers of the Way, if you wish to see this Dharma clearly, do not let yourselves be deceived. Whether you turn to the outside or to the inside, whatever you encounter, kill it. If you meet the Buddha, kill the Buddha; if you meet the patriarchs, kill the patriarchs; if you meet Arhats, kill Arhats; if you meet your parents, kill your parents; if you meet your relatives, kill your relatives; then for the first time you will see clearly. And if you do not depend on things, there is deliverance, there is freedom!” (Zen Teaching of Rinzai, pp. 43-44)

This outrageous statement was made in the 9th century by the Chinese Buddhist teacher Lin-chi. The purpose of this statement was not to encourage homicide, or even worse, parricide or buddhacide. Lin-chi was challenging the complacency and fixations of his disciples. He was challenging them to get past their daydreams of enlightenment and their dependence on custom, ceremony and traditional piety so that they could see the Dharma directly for themselves.

It is a strange irony of Buddhism that the Buddha himself is at once the most illuminating and the most obscuring figure there is when it comes to seeing the Dharma. The example of Ananda just before and just after the parinirvana, or passing away, of Shakyamuni Buddha provides a case in point. In the last few months of the Buddha’s life, he and Ananda were travelling together. Three times the Buddha hinted to Ananda that he could use his spiritual powers to extend his life for an age. This is sometimes intepreted to mean that he could live for the maximum lifespan of a human life, roughly 100 years, or that he actually meant he could live for an entire kalpa, the length of time it would take to wear away a mountain by brushing it with a silk cloth every hundred years. In any case, each time Ananda failed to pick up on what the Buddha was suggesting and did not request that he extend his lifespan. A little later, the Buddha announced that he would soon pass away. Startled by this, Ananda begs the Buddha to remain, but it is too late. The Buddha tells Ananda that the time to ask had already passed and he had already determined the time of his death. There would be no turning back. In any case, the Buddha reminds Ananda, all things must pass away, including the buddha. So not only does Ananda take the Buddha for granted, but when it comes time to acknowledge that even the Buddha must die (whether after 80 years, or a hundred, or a kalpa) he does not want to accept it and clings to the Buddha.

After the Buddha’s parinirvana, Mahakashyapa prepares to convene the first council wherein the teaching (Dharma) and the monastic rule (Vinaya) would be recited. Ananda is to recite the sutras, but he alone of those who are to attend has not attained enlightenment. Ananda has heard all of the teachings, but never felt the urgency to deeply reflect on their meaning and practice them himself. His close relationship to the Buddha as the Buddha’s attendant and the preserver of the teachings has actually hindered rather than helped him. On the night before the council is to begin, Ananda finally feels a sense of urgency and even shame because he has not yet attained liberation. He spends the night sitting upright in meditation, desperately striving for enlightenment. But in the end, even this desperate grasping for the goal of enlightenment turns out to be futile. Instead of awakening he finally decides to let go of his willful efforts and fall to sleep just before dawn. Before his head hits the pillow he attains the liberation he sought. Finally, free of the Buddha, free of complacency, free of his need to prove himself to the others, free even of willful striving for liberation, he awakens.

Shakyamuni Buddha taught that those who truly see him, see the Dharma; and those who see the Dharma see him as he really is. The real Buddha is not a person to be clung to, but the Dharma itself. It is for this reason that the Buddha appears to pass away. He does this so that we can see past the superficial appearance of the Buddha, put the Dharma into practice, and then directly see for ourselves the rare and precious Wonderful Dharma which is the true presence of the Eternal Buddha. In the Lotus Sutra the Buddha explains why he must appear to leave us:

“Good men! The duration of my life, which I obtained by the practice of the Way of Bodhisattvas, has not yet expired. It is twice as long as the length of time as previously stated. Although I shall never enter Nirvana, I say to men of little virtue, ‘I shall pass away’ I teach them with this expedient. Why is that? It is because, if they see me for a long time, they will not plant the roots of good, but become poor and base, and cling to the five desires so much that they will be caught in the net of wrong views. If they think that I am always here, and do not think that I shall pass away, they will become too arrogant and lazy to realize the difficulty of seeing me, and they will not respect me. Therefore I say to them expediently, ‘Bhiksus, know this! It is difficult to see a Buddha who appears in this world.’ Why is that? It is because some men of little virtue cannot see me even during many hundreds of thousands of billions of kalpas while the others can. Therefore, I say to them, ‘Bhiksus! It is difficult to see a Tathagata.’ Those who hear this and know that it is difficult to see me, will adore me, admire me, and plant the roots of good. Therefore, I say to them, ‘I shall pass away,’ although I shall not. (Lotus Sutra, pp. 243-244)

The Buddha has not gone, but we must not cling to him if we are to see him. Only by upholding the Dharma ourselves will we see the real Buddha.

Relevant Passages

‘Ananda, whoever has developed the four roads to power...could undoubtably live out the age or the remainder of one. The Tathagata has developed these powers, and he could, Ananda, undoubtedly live for an age or the remainder of one.’

But the Venerable Ananda, failing to grasp this broad hint, this clear sign, did not beg the Lord: ‘Lord, may the Blessed Lord stay for an age, may the Well-Farer stay for an age for the benefit and happiness of the multitude, out of compassion for the world, for the benefit and happiness of gods and humans’, so much was his mind possessed by Mara.
(Mahaparinibbana Sutta 16, 3.3 - 3.4)

‘So now, today, Ananda, at the Capala Shrine, the Tathgata has mindfully and in full awareness renounced the life-principle.’

At this the Venerable Andana said: ‘Lord, may the Blessed Lord stay for an age, may the Well-Farer stay for an age for the benefit and happiness of the multitude, out of compassions for the world, for the benefit and happiness of gods and humans!’

‘Enough, Ananda! Do not beg the Tathagata, it is not the right time for that! Ananda, have I not told you before: All those things that are dear and pleasant to us must suffer change, seperation and alteration? So how could this be possible? What is born, become, compounded, is liable to decay - that it should not decay is impossible. And that has been renounced, given up, rejected, abandoned, forsaken: The Tathagata has said once and for all: “The Tathagata’s final passing will not long be delayed.”' (Mahaparinibbana Sutta 16, 3.37 - 3.48 Abridged)

Meanwhile, the time came when the venerable Ananda thought: “The meeting is tomorrow. It is not seemly for me to go to the meeting place as a mere learner.” He spent much of the night in contemplation of the body. When the night was near dawn, he thought “I shall lie down”; but he kept mindful of the body. Before his head touched the pillow and after his feet left the ground, his heart was in this interval liberated from taints through not clinging. So the venerable Ananda went to the assembly as an Arhat. (Vinaya Cullavagga 11: 1-10)

Copyright by Ryuei Michael McCormick. 2000, 2002.

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