By Rev. Jon Turner
There are two main branches of Buddhism. One traveled South and is called Theravadin Buddhism. The other branch traveled in two directions, East and North. It is called Mahayana Buddhism. It is challenging to make any generalization about these two branches since they are so varied and have developed and evolved over the past 2,500 years. So, the time frame of the discussion is also important to note.
In general, Theravadin Buddhism tends to focus on the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. You might say that they try to emulate the Buddha’s path. They follow in his footsteps. This is a valid strategy. For example, many young basketball players are likely now mimicking the path of LeBron James. But this analogy is a bit flawed since there will always be another LeBron James for the next generation to follow. But this is not the case for Theravadin Buddhism. The historical Buddha is considered to be unique in human history.
For Mahayana Buddhism, the focus was more on the Dharma since the leader of our tradition had died. So, they began to focus more on the teachings and on the Sangha, the community where one could practice. In effect, as long as the teachings and practice survived so too did the Buddha. Thus, the concept of Buddha began to broaden. No longer a singular event in history but something revealing itself continually within everyday life.
This also helps explain where Amida Buddha statue comes from and the motivation for it. It is reality that manifests truth all around us. Thus, it is infinite and because it awakens us to what is true and real it is also a Buddha. You could even describe Amida Buddha as the Buddha that awakened Shakyamuni. From this perspective, we can say that we have never been without a Buddha teaching and practicing. It is part of the human experience. It is alive and all around us.
This approach was amplified within the Mahayana branch of Pure Land Buddhism. No longer are we without a Buddha in our lives. The Dharma is available to us as something living and dynamic. The Buddha is no longer something we follow but instead something that is unfolding within us. To understand this, I developed the following metaphor to help explain this change of emphasis within the Buddhist tradition. I wrote it while working on a graduate degree in Buddhist studies. I still think of it whenever I begin to get the two branches and various schools of Buddhism confused.
One day a man was wondering in the wilderness and came upon a movie theater. This theater was called The Bodhi Tree. He went inside, sat alone in the dark and watched the film that was playing. This event changed his life. He left the theater and told everyone he could find about this movie. He reviewed and analyzed the movie for others hoping to encourage them to go see it too. In time he was successful and many went to the very same theater to see the movie assuming that this was the only place the movie was playing. Thousands of people got in line to see the film. However, the theater was very small, and only one person could view the movie at one time. The movie was also very long so the line moved very, very slowly.
The wait to see the movie became so long that over time those in line began to forget about actually seeing the movie itself. Instead they concentrated on the stories and reviews and the man that had told them about the movie. And standing in line began to evolve into a practice itself. One had to behave and follow certain rules in order to maintain their place in line. And those in front were considered far superior to those in the back of the line since they got to see the movie first.
However, there were some at the back of the line that got very discouraged. The wait to see the film was far too long, and they were also unable to behave properly in line. Rather than just giving up, these back-enders began to look around for other theaters that might be playing the same film. As they explored other venues, they began to realize that the film was not only being played in other theaters, but it was also being projected on all the walls of the countryside. This encouraged more and more people to view the film. As they watched the film, they also began to realize that they themselves had actually been starring in this film all along. The film was not some separate reality that one watches, but in fact, it was reality itself and the title of this film was Namo Amida Butsu.
These special people then went out to all sentient beings to explain what they found. It seemed too simple to be true but everyone was starring in this film and all one needed to do was realize it. And for the first time every one could watch the film simultaneously without any conditions or restrictions. Of course, the people that were still waiting in line were not so happy to hear this and were convinced that this could not be so and continued to wait their turn in line.
In gassho, Rev. Jon Turner