I found this great passage in Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentaries on the Lotus Sutra, Opening the Heart of the Cosmos. In the book, he talks about this difficult passage from the famous Lotus Sutra, chapter 16:
“When living beings come before me, I use my eye of wisdom to observe what obstacles brought about by ignorance they have, and what form of teaching would be most beneficial for them. Then I use the wisdom of skillful means in order to teach the wonderful Dharma so that all living beings can be transformed. There are living beings who link and appreciate the small vehicle, so I use skillful means to appear to be born, practice, realize enlightenment, teach the Dharma, and enter nirvana, in order to guide these practitioners onto the Buddha path and help them transform. But in fact the Tathagata [the Buddha] has already been a Buddha, and has been teaching beings in this and many other worlds, from beginningless time.”
(pg. 79, “Opening the Heart of the Cosmos”)
Chapter sixteen in general is unusual because it asserts the near-infinite lifespan of the Buddha when earlier Buddhist traditions focused on the life of the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni, born as a price, who left the palace for the ascetic life, attained enlightenment, etc, etc.
However, Thich Nhat Hanh’s interpretation of this is interesting and worth sharing I think:
In fact, the Buddha is not born and does not die; that is the true nature of the Buddha and of everything else. When we look deeply enough into any phenomena—a pebble, a drop of dew, a leaf, a cloud—we recognize its ultimate nature in the Three Dharma Seals of impermanence, no-self and interdependence. In this way we can discover its true nature of no birth, no death, which is exactly the same as the true nature of the Tathagata. A beautiful golden leaf in autumn is also just putting on a magical show for us. First the leaf plays at being born in the springtime, and later it pretends to fall down to earth and die. As far as the phenomenal world is concerned, we believe that the leaf comes into being and then passes away. But in terms of the ultimate dimension, birth and death, coming and going, existence and nonexistence are only a magic display, a mere appearance. (pg 80)
Another way to look to at it is that existence is completely fluid, constantly shifting and transitioning from moment to moment, lifetime to lifetime, as the currents dictate and flow. It is a river that flows endlessly. For this reason the Dharma is always there, and thus the Buddha is there too.