This was a last-minute post, but earlier today I found this great post on Twitter from the monastic community at the famous Koyasan temple in Japan (click here if you can’t see it):
This is a famous image of the infant Buddha often used in Japanese services to celebrate his birth. According to Buddhist tradition, upon birth, the infant Buddha took 7 steps, then pointed to the heavens and to the earth below and said:
ten jō ten ge yui ga doku son
Which means: “In Heaven above, and the earth below, I alone am the world-honored one.”
While this is just a story, like all Buddhist stories, it carries a lot of meaning. Why would the Buddha declare that he alone is worthy of praise and honor? Without some background information, this statement and story seem very strange.
In Buddhism, the highest stage anyone can attain is that of a Buddha (hotoke 仏 in Japanese). This means a person who is:
- Fully enlightened (悟り, satori)- a Buddha can perceive what others overlook, have insight and clarity that is clear and solid as a diamond, so to speak. What a Buddha sees cannot be unseen, it is not something to believe in, only to see and know.
- Attain Nirvana or “unbinding” (涅槃, nehan) – a Buddha, by virtue of his or her ability to see all things, is able to completely let go of selfish cravings and attain perfect contentment. Because they are fully content, they generate no more karma, and are thus unbound, and totally free.
Attaining the state of Buddha-hood is something that can take many, many lifetimes to accomplish.1 It is not like a home project you start up, and finish in a few months or years. It takes vast amounts of discipline, cultivation and dedication to accomplish. Once accomplished though, a Buddha is a great asset to all beings because they can teach and explain the Dharma (the teachings of Buddhism) in such a way that inspires and motivates others to do the same. This is what is called “turning the wheel” in Buddhism.
The famous Jatakas Tales, an early collection of stories about the Buddha’s past lives, shows the many ways the Buddha-to-be made great sacrifices, or noble accomplishments toward this end. The Lotus Sutra, similar has many verses implying the Buddha’s long, long journey to become enlightened, and the many people he assisted, or was assisted by, along the way.
This is one reason for the phrase above: the Buddha has been born into his last life, and will fulfill a great, long journey for the benefit of all beings.
But in the photo above, there is a second bit of text on the left too. The text says:
kore wa oshaka-sama mo, hito mo, ikitoshi ikiru mono mo, hitori hitori ga tōtoi busshō wo motsu sonzai da to iwareta deshō.
My rough translation of this (apologies if I am wrong) is:
Is this not the same priceless Buddha-nature that is said to dwell within Shakyamuni Buddha, each person, and all creatures great and small?
The picture reminds us that all beings are capable of being enlightenment. Even if we are not really serious about Buddhism (or not interested at all), the potential to become a Buddha (i.e. Buddha-nature, 仏性) is still there within us. If not this lifetime, the aspiration will come someday, and some time after that, a person will fulfill this path and become a Buddha too.
But also, it is a reminder that Shakyamuni Buddha was once a person like us too. As the Japanese Buddhist proverb says:
Hotoké ni naru mo shami wo heru
Even to become a Buddha one must first become a novice.
So the birthday of the Buddha isn’t just a celebration of one man’s accomplishments, it’s a reminder that every one of us, starting just where we are now (even with our faults and bad habits), can one day become a Buddha too.
Namo Tassa Bhagavato Arahato Sammasambuddhasa
P.S. More on what makes a Buddha a Buddha from the perspective of Pure-Land Buddhism.
1 Some esoteric schools such as those found in Tibetan Buddhism and some elements of Japanese Buddhism offer a kind of “fast-track”, but whether such paths are suitable is up to the individual.