The following are some of my thoughts about who gets to be (or regarded to be) a Buddha. It is the result of many years of ruminations and I continue to reflect on this issue, but I share these now because of some “dialogues” I have been having lately and also in response to Brian’s thoughtful essay about it over at Dr. Science. So here goes:
1. I consider an enlightened person to be someone who is completely awake and lives insightfully and compassionately in accord with reality. You can call this person an arhat, a bodhisattva, a buddha, a saint, or a mensch but the point is this is the kind of person we should all hope to be.
2. I think the teachings and example of Shakyamuni Buddha as set forth in the sutras set a very high bar on what kind of insight and conduct we can expect from such a person. And I agree that this person Shakyamuni Buddha is more or less mythical (or at least legendary) though there was (I believe) a solid historical basis for this person.
3. I see no value in setting up any sectarian founder as a replacement for Shakyamuni Buddha, and the consequences always seem to be that a lesser standard of conduct and insight overshadows that set by Shakyamuni Buddha and also fact that the sectarian founders’ own work depended on the inspiration of the sutra is overlooked or obscured and the sutras themselves set aside. I see no value and a lot of harm in that. It ends up betraying the founders’ own vision because the founders themselves depended upon the sutras and the example set by the Buddha.
4. The whole point of taking refuge in the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha in the first place is to be enlghtened ourselves. There are no schools of Buddhism that would disagree with this or who would say that the Buddha gets to be enlightened and we don’t. That would defeat the whole purpose of Buddhism itself. So can the followers of different schools of Buddhism hope to become buddhas, and should they regard their founders as having attained the goal of Buddhism which is “buddhahood” (in the wider sense of the word that indicates a fully awake compassionate person)? I would say so. I would hope so.
5. Finally, related to points 2 and 3, I take refuge in (which is to say I take my primary inspiration from) the person who supposedly taught the following:
“In this world
hostilities are never
appeased by hostility.
But by the absence of hostility
are they appeased.
This is an interminable truth.”
(Dhammapada verse 5 translated by Glenn Wallis)
My primary inspiration for how to act like a buddha does not come from the person who said (even if in jest) this:
“Unless all the temples of the Pure Land and Zen Schools such as Kenchoji, Jufukuji, Gokurakuji, Great Buddha, and Chorakuji are burned down and their priests all beheaded at Yuigahama Beach, Japan will be bound to be destroyed.”
(p. 243 Senji-sho, Writings of Nichiren Shonin: Doctrine 1).
Which standard would most people regard as the conduct of a Buddha I wonder?
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,
Ryuei

Here is an amusing article I happened across today:
Punk Rockers Hit the Road for Kerry
I had been wondering when the punks and others would come out and direct their musical vision and energy into a prophetic stance against what is happening in this country. And I noticed that some country-western artists want to come out and support Bush. Wow, liberal punks on one side and country neocons on the other. I’d like to group the Budhists with the liberal punks, but it seems that some of them have run off and joined the libertarians!
Plus I keep running into Buddhist Republicans online. And I thought “form is emptiness, emptiness is form” was a hard to crack Buddhist paradox.
Anyway, I do appreciate what Alice Cooper had to say: “If you’re listening to a rock star in order to get your information on who to vote for,” Cooper told the Edmonton Sun in August, “you’re a bigger moron than they are.”
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,
Ryuei

My own reading of the Buddhist canon leads me to believe that the
term Buddha or Awakened One was not quite as exalted in the begining
and that in some ways it was equivalent to the term Arhat or Worthy
One in the very beginning. If memory serves, there was even a little
used term Shravaka-Buddha which meant someone who became a Buddha by
listening to the first Buddha’s teaching.
In time, however, the term Buddha became reserved for Shakyamuni
and tied itself in with Indian cosmological ideas (which may have
been pre-Buddhist) that there can only be one Buddha per world
system per dispensation. The term came to be used in the more
restricted sense of someone who discovered the Dharma without a
teacher (something shared with Pratyeka Buddhas) and then set the
Wheel of Dharma in motion. The only difference between a Buddha and
an Arhat then was that the Buddha was not only enlightened but had
also developed the compassionate means of teaching the Dharma over
ages of bodhisattva practice. For that matter, Shariputra and
Maudgalyayana at least were said to have developed merits and
methods of teaching through ages of fulfilling compassionate vows,
but not to the degree that the Buddha did. In my article at
Ryuei.net called “The Nature of the Buddha” I talk about the 18
virtues of the Buddha above and beyond his enlightenment that made
him a Buddha whereas others were only Arhats who were equally
enlightened but not equally able to teach.
Then comes the Mahayana with the idea that the Buddhas and
bodhisattvas compassionate aspirations made them more selfless than
the more “short sighted” Arhats. And that is when the Buddha really
began to be exalted and the ideal of the Arhat correspondingly fell
in estimation. The two were no longer equivalent but now clearly two
seperate goals, one greater and one lesser. The early Mahayana sutra
called the Lotus Sutra even taught that the Arhat was just a
provisional goal on the way to full Buddhahood.
Other Mahayana sutras went even futher and advanced the idea that
the Arhat wasn’t even enlightened to the same degree as a Buddha.
The idea was that while the Arhat awakened to the selfless nature of
people, the Buddha had gone even further and realized the selfless
or empty nature of all dharmas (i.e. phenomena). And that their
boundless compassion went hand in hand with this deeper and more
thoroughgoing insight.
In East Asian Buddhism, however, there was a need for a more
immediate realization of enlightenment and even buddhahood itself.
Unlike the Indians, the Chinese were not content with the idea that
the full enlightenment of buddhahood lay in some far distant future
or Pure Land. So in Ch’an especially, if not in the other schools
but Ch’an came to predominate, you have the idea that anyone who
becomes enlightened has become a buddha or realized buddhahood. This
rhetoric came to pervade East Asian Buddhism and completely
overlooked the more technical and systematic definitions of what
buddhahood entails found in the Indian tradition.
Funcitionally, I believe, the Chinese and other East Asians had
completely bypassed the conceptual gap between Arhats and Buddhas
that had become the rhetorical divide between Hinayana and Mahayana
Buddhism in India. Now anyone who had become selfless and
compassionate was considered a Buddha and this goal could be
achieved in a single lifetime. In many ways, I believe, the
functional description of attaining buddhahood in East Asian
Buddhism is not far off at all from the functional descriptions of
Arhats in pre-Mahayana. No one in East Asian claims that
these “buddhas” (consisting of monks, nuns, and laypeople) had all
the 18 virtues which buddhas supposedly have according to the Pali
Canon and Mahayana sutras. No one in popular East Asian rhetoric
gets into the technical definitions of which obstuctions to
enlightenment are transcended which would supposedly differentiate
between an Arhat and a Buddha. They are simply liberated and
compassionate people. And in fact, this is how Arhats are described
in pre-Mahayana works.
But because East Asians were committed to being Mahayana Buddhists
(even if they were not the logical systematic hair-splitters of
Indian Mahayana) they could not ever admit to an equivalence between
their home grown Buddhas and the original meaning of Arhat because
the Mahayana sutras had exalted the former term and derided the
latter. So now the title Buddha meant someone who knew at heart that
they were fully awakened in a non-dual selfless and compassionate
interaction with all life while acting as a bodhisattva in worldly
affairs, whereas the Arhat came to mean someone who selflishly
removed themselves from the world to pursue their own spiritual
gratification. These East Asian approaches to the titles Buddha and
Arhat are not exactly what the Indians may have intended, but I
think that there is as much wisdom in this outlook as there is in
the Indian scholastic tradition.
The lesson I walk away from all this is not to get too caught up in
terminology but to look past the lables and see what functions are
being pointed to. And what I see, whether in the Pali Canon, the
Mahayana sutras, or the East Asian commentators, is that it is
possible in this life to attain selfless wisdom and boundless
compassion and that this goal has been and is being achieved both by
those who become known as teachers and by quiet ordinary people.
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo,
Ryuei