Buddha: Man, Myth, or Legend?

It is said that soon after his enlightenment the Buddha passed a man on the road who was struck by the Buddha’s radiance and presence. The man stopped and asked “My friend what are you? Are you a celestial being or a god?”

“No.” said the Buddha.

“Are you a wizard or magician?”

Again the Buddha replied “No”.

“Are you a man?”

Again the Buddha replied “No”.

“Well, my friend, what are you then?”

The Buddha replied “I am awake”.

In my last post I broached the subject of deifying the Buddha, and Algernon wondered why it is that this has happened over the years. I’d like to say that personally, I find that when we make the Buddha into something other than a man, we devalue the practice of Buddhism. One of the strongest arguments I can find for walking the Buddhist path is that nibbana is open to anyone that is willing to put in the work necessary to achieve that final cessation. When we make the Buddha into something other than a man (though he was an extraordinary man and teacher) it seems to make nibbana an unreachable goal to us mere mortals. His amazing accomplishment was that he was able to escape samsara all on his own, without the help of any magical powers or the gods. There are plenty of myths surrounding the Buddha’s birth and life, and I am in no way arguing that we should throw them out. But I have to wonder, what’s the point in making the Buddha into anything other than an awakened person? Is it simply to give the Buddha more authority? Can’t we honor the man without turning him into a magical shaman?

Your thoughts?

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13 Comments

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13 responses to “Buddha: Man, Myth, or Legend?

  1. Two conjectures on making Buddha more than a “mere” awakened person:

    It’s entertaining! For those of us still strongly conditioned in the consciousness that always wants something more or something better, the illumination of the ordinary does not seem very exciting. A more entertaining version of “REAL” enlightenment entails magical powers, Jedi knight talents, miracles, and that sort of thing.

    It’s elite! If the Buddha is beyond ordinary humanity, then maybe “I” can attain something beyond ordinary humanity, too.

  2. “more than a “mere” awakened person” -lol
    I struggled writing this post, trying not to dumb down enlightenment and reach that balance.

    Yeah, I think it is alluring to think that we too (us mere mortals) can levitate and shoot beams of light out of our foreheads. Seems like that’s just an extra-heavy dose of delusion and samsara to me. Nirvana is a very ordinary type of transcendance, though it does remain transcendant. I think people want to make it into something more grandiose, because we just can’t seem to stand accepting what is ordinary, and real (1st/2nd noble truths anyone….?)

  3. You can’t shoot beams of light out of your forehead?

  4. Adam, you sum it nicely, there isn’t much one can add. I suppose we need to take into consideration that there is a natural myth-making process that seem to accompany all great men. And, it was partly entertainment for those ancient folk. After all, they didn’t have cable, so what else were they going to do besides make up stories about people.

    Mythologizing or super-sizing the Buddha is not really a problem if you have the right perspective. The problem is, as you know, that too many take it literally and become attached to the myths. Even if it turned out that there was no such person as Gautama Siddhartha and it’s all a fiction, it shouldn’t matter unless the human factor has been lost.

    Like Dogen said it’s not about a ordinary person trying to be a Buddha, it’s about a Buddha expressing himself as an ordinary person.

    • “Even if it turned out that there was no such person as Gautama Siddhartha and it’s all a fiction, it shouldn’t matter unless the human factor has been lost.”

      Also true, and not something that I’ve spent much time thinking about.

  5. zenbija

    I wrote about this very topic a few weeks ago:
    Buddha, the myth and the medicine.

    I link it to our mythical way of thinking about various things–we say “I’ve been dodging bullets” instead of “I wrote an email in response to criticism.” So it makes sense that we’d speak mythically about the Buddha after 2600 years. Still, I believe that knowing the myths is an important part of the Buddhist path. How literally we believe them is up for grabs.

    • Yes, it certainly is part of the path, especially when we want to dig deep and find out what was really being said 2500 years ago. Myth was part of the language, and that’s something we have to deal with, in whatever manner we choose to.

  6. The first step to deification can be found in your text. You say the Buddha was an “extraordinary” man who accomplished something “amazing.”

    He was a man ten thousand million times more like each of us than different in any extraordinary way.

    He woke up. What’s so amazing about that?

  7. Ordinary / Extraordinary

  8. I wonder if even the enlightenment itself was mythicized. Sure, I happen to believe Siddhartha woke up and had deep changes. But after that, perhaps the implication of those changes were further embellished to sound so magical as to be unobtainable.

    • In “Wings to Awakening” I think Thanissaro Bhikku did a good job of describing what the “awakening” process was, without myth-ifying it.

  9. Regardless. the mental processes observed in his path was incredible enlightened thinking for his time. And how in the west, we can get so busy doing stuff, that we never even scrape the surface of awareness, before we die…that is unless we encounter some real physical transformation post a life-changing event.
    I met a man to meditate, who was on such a quest after witnessing his mother and brother die in the same year. Giving up his career, his home and his wife in a real awakening as to where life is going to calmly see things as the really are. I was honored to bump paths several months ago, and when he passed through on his way somewhere else, I invited him to stay at my house when I was gone to see family.
    He left me a mala, a small buddha and a warm thank you laid on my meditation cushion.
    So how to we Honor Buddha, you ask? With compassion and understanding that we all subject to Samsara. No one is immune.