I now [have] come [to] this world [for the] eight thousandth return, for this Sahā World[‘s sentient beings], sitting [upon the] vajra flower light king’s throne [to manifest Buddhahood].
– Śākyamuni Buddha
(Brahmā Net Sūtra’s Bodhisattva Precepts’ Text)
In the Wonderful Dharma Lotus Flower Sūtra’s《妙法莲华经》chapter 16 on ‘[The] Tathāgata’s Lifespan’ (如来寿量品), Śākyamuni Buddha revealed that although many assume that he attained Buddhahood in his particular life then, immeasurable hundreds of thousands of koṭis of nayutas of kalpas (i.e. countless world cycles) have passed since he had done so. In this period of time inconceivable even by the greatest Bodhisattvas, he had constantly resided in this Sahā World, to unceasingly teach and inspire with the Dharma, also benefiting sentient beings by manifesting in incalculable worlds elsewhere. As his lifespan achieved through perfecting his practice is immeasurable, he never really enters Parinirvāṇa (i.e. the total relinquishment of his physical form), while speak and manifestation of it is a skilful means, that accords with sentient beings’ spiritual capacities to benefit them.
Just when we feel touched by the Buddha’s attainment of Buddhahood around 3,000 years ago to teach us the precious Dharma, the Buddha moves us further, by explaining that his boundless perfect compassion for all innumerable beings who have yet to attain Buddhahood does not expire at once upon Parinirvāṇa. In fact, he had already manifested as a good example, to show and inspire many, by walking the Bodhisattva path to Buddhahood many times, over an unimaginably long time. He will continue to do so indefinitely, appearing to come and go for us till we are all fully liberated. Such remanifestation is not just when on the Bodhisattva path, but also after attaining Buddhahood, which is essentially the realisation and expression of perfect Bodhisattvahood.
If the Buddha abides for a long time in this world, some beings are likely to become spiritually lazy and arrogant, taking the presence of the Buddha, the Dharma and their own ever shortening lifespans for granted, by not learning and practising the Dharma well. Continuing to be deludedly attached to desires for fleeting sense pleasures, they will fall repeatedly into troubled rebirths. The thought that the Buddha and the Dharma are difficult to encounter, thus to be respected and treasured does not awaken in them. Therefore, the Buddha says that those with little meritorious virtues may not see any Buddha for a long period of time in the future, so as to spur yearning to connect to the Buddha and the Dharma, diligently and in time – now.
It is indeed true, that due to our limited positive karma, we cannot encounter the Buddha in the present. Even if the Buddha wishes to appear before us to teach the Dharma, our heavy negative karma makes us undeserving of this. Not living in any Buddha’s presence in this Dharma-Ending Age, we should be all the more repentant, if still complacent about Dharma learning and practice – as our meritorious virtues are already so much lesser than those who lived in the Buddha’s time, (some of whom also took his presence for granted). Exactly since the Buddha cannot offer us the Dharma in person now, we should never take good Dharma teachers who share true Dharma teachings with us for granted, as they ‘stand in’ for the Buddha and the Dharma.
Using a parable, the Buddha spoke of a wise and efficient doctor, who has already skilfully cured many. However, he has many children, who drank poison by mistake in his absence, and were discovered to be in pain when he arrived home. Some were delirious, while others not. Seeing him, they rejoiced and asked for the cure. He then blends the most appropriate medicine for them, that even looked, smelled and tasted good, telling them to take it to quickly to remove their pain once and for all, and to never ever be afflicted again. While those who did not become delirious took it immediately and were cured, the delirious ones did not, as the poison had penetrated their minds too deeply, such that they could not see its worth clearly.
Although not physically birthed by them, every Buddha lovingly sees each sentient being to be like a precious only child. Those without affinity to receive their Dharma guidance might be consumed by the three poisons of attachment, aversion and delusion, thus leading to suffering. Once they have the affinity to know about the Buddha and the Dharma as the cure, the less poisoned ones will naturally be joyous and eager to partake of it. Being experienced, the Buddha surely presents the perfect remedy in the most appealing ways possible to urge acceptance. Even when those too confused have yet to appreciate it, just as wilful and immature children refuse to take good medicine for their well-being, the Buddha still cares for them relentlessly.
Back to the parable, as a skilful means to urge them to take the medicine, he tells them that as he is now old, feeble and close to death, he can only leave the medicine there for them to take, after which they would not have to worry about not recovering. He then goes off to another country, before sending a messenger back home, to inform them that he had ‘died’. Upon hearing of his passing, the children become distressed, reflecting that if only he was still alive, he would be able to help them, but they now have no one to rely on. After grieving, as their minds became calmer and clearer, they remember the excellent medicine that he had left behind, along with his last instruction. They immediately take the medicine and are cured. Their father then returns.
In parallel, (though having transcended ageing, sickness and death) before manifesting Parinirvāṇa, the Buddha gave his ‘final’ exhortation to all still unenlightened, to take his Dharma medicine, to cure themselves of their suffering. As the saying goes, ‘You don’t know what you have until it is gone.’ We tend to truly learn to cherish what the beloved bequeathed when the beloved is lost, as what left behind is all that represents the beloved. After grief comes clarity, after the emotional upheaval settles is resting upon the rational, to respond appropriately. We, being like these children, should not lament endlessly, on not being able to see the Buddha now. We should heed his advice to practise the Dharma well instead, to see him in good time, to emulate his virtues.
The Buddha taught that he, being the spiritual ‘father’ of this world, is just like the good doctor. He is never truly gone for good, while always truly doing what he should for the good of all. Even those who see him enter Parinirvāṇa, who earnestly revere his physical relics, with sincerity and receptivity to the Dharma, which are his spiritual relics, who aspire and practise wholeheartedly, can still meet him – with the enlightened Saṅgha, always on Mount Gṛdhrakūṭa (i.e. Vulture Peak, where this teaching was taught), and at other places. The peak is an indestructible ‘Pure Land’, as seen by those meritorious, faithful and truthful enough, even while others might see it ravaged by the elements due to their karmic obscurations.
The way to meet the Buddha is by sincere practice of the Dharma, with mindfulness of him. Yet, it is challenging, in this increasingly defiled world manifested by our collective negative karma, to perceive anywhere momentarily as a Pure Land, what more for durations long enough to listen to the Buddha teach in detail. Thus, Śākyamuni Buddha, in around 300 sūtras, as all Buddhas do to keep us focused, universally encourage seeking of birth in Amitābha Buddha’s Pure Land. With ideally lifelong faithful mindfulness of him, it is the easiest Pure Land to first reach, through which all other Pure Lands can be reached, including Śākyamuni Buddha’s actual fully purified Pure Land in the West named ‘Unsurpassable’, where his most magnificent Reward Body can be met.
[In the] Western [direction] from here, thirty-two Ganges’ rivers’ sands [of] Buddha lands [away], is [a] world named ‘Unsurpassable’. All [of] that land’s adornments [are] also like [those of the] Western [Pure] Land [Of] Ultimate Bliss, equal [and] without having differences. I, from that land, appeared in [this] world, for transforming sentient beings thus, came [to be] in this Sahā World’s [defiled] land. Yet, [it is] not [that] I [am] from this land, [with] all [other] Tathāgatas [here] likewise so.
– Śākyamuni Buddha