The Buddha is Not a Teacher in the Past: Where is he in your life?

The living source of understanding and compassion,
To the Buddha I go for refuge. 

––Thich Nhat Hanh


An increasing number of us living now in contemporary society are being touched by the Buddha’s teachings, known formally as the Buddhadharma. From guidance offered more than 2,500 years ago, we are receiving solace and comfort, along with important advice about  good and compassionate ways to live in our complicated world. These teachings seem to skillfully (and perhaps somewhat miraculously) describe our lives in the twenty-first century. They offer perspectives and suggest actions that can calm our hearts and minds a bit and help us feel safer, more connected to others. As we reflect on and practice with the Buddha’s understanding, we often feel clearer in our direction, less alienated and alone. We’re happier when we recognize that yes, things do change––constantly, gradually, and, at times, suddenly––and yes, when we cling to our own habits and opinions a bit too much, our lives do get more stressful. Perhaps most importantly, as we realize that we are not the only person to whom “bad things happen” and who has a tendency “to make things worse” through self-criticism or blaming others, we begin to argue with reality less. We cope more effectively with the problems in our lives, and we have increasing trust and confidence in the Dharma and in the Sangha as living, growing sources of refuge in our lives.

The Buddha himself is said to be the third living refuge accessible to us. What is the Buddha? Where is the Buddha? Are there times in our lives when we feel we have a meaningful relationship with the Buddha as a living supportive presence, a safe refuge? In a series of teachings this past fall, Charles Hallisey, a Buddhist scholar at Harvard Divinity School, invited those of us present to know the Buddha as a teacher who is still alive and changing, not as an historic teacher from the past. Can we know the Buddha as a teacher here and now in our own lives? Perhaps he touches us directly through an insight we have––some surprising realization about “the way things really are” right now. Maybe we can know the voice of the Buddha directly in the moment that we read something, or hear something someone says, which causes some shift in us. Charles Hallisey explains that there are moments when a teaching feels like it is “for me alone,” a direct transmission from a living teacher. We are changed by the encounter––and so is the teacher, he says; the Buddha, in this view, is necessarily relational.

Charles Hallisey uses the story in George Saunders’ historical novel Lincoln in the Bardo to amplify his point. At the start of the book, Abraham Lincoln’s son has just died. His body is in a crypt in the cemetery, and Lincoln goes each night to visit it and mourn over it. The other spirits in the graveyard get concerned about the child and the father, and about what they see as a growing, disabling obsession. They decide to enter Lincoln’s body in order to convince him to let the boy go. Their plan works. Lincoln is changed, freed from his obsession and able to engage in life fully again. Then the spirits too, as they talk with one another, realize that they have been changed by this challenging encounter. One says he didn’t know that James Buchanan wasn’t president anymore. Another, a Black man who had been enslaved, is amazed to learn of the war between the states and the possibility of freedom. He hadn’t known this was possible.

I enjoy exploring the idea that the Buddha is right here with us now. He is learning about the angst of computer snarls; the heartbreaking wars around the world; the rise of fascism; the far-reaching spaciousness of Zoom dharma halls. Even while he supports us with his wisdom, he is changing; his knowledge base is growing, his teaching style is evolving. He was always known for his remarkable ability to speak with people in any language, of any profession, and to be respected, loved, and understood. It seems he still is.

I find it enlivening and uplifting to sense that we are walking the Path of Peace with the Buddha in real time. We are aligning ourselves with the Dharma, the natural laws of harmony; acting as a living, breathing, loving community of practitioners with an alive-now teacher among us. The wonderful and beloved Buddhist teacher Thich Nhat Hanh, who died two years ago in January, referred to the Buddha as “the living source of all understanding and compassion”––internally, externally, and both. He tells us that love and wisdom are accessible, all around us, and suggests that it has something to do with our intentional and attentional relationship in this very moment.

Where is the Buddha in this? When is the Buddha? What is the Buddha? How is the Buddha discovered? How is the relationship nurtured? Are there times in your life when you can already sense the presence of the living Buddha––the source of all understanding and compassion–as a refuge and as a friendship? Can you think of ways you might want to explore and develop a friendship with the Buddha in your life? Maybe you feel an inkling of this in your life now, or maybe you’ll be inspired to start to look for the appearance of the Buddha in a moment of pause. Perhaps you could play with this idea directly through reflection or art––writing or drawing or dancing or a photograph.

Here is an invitation. Last May, in honor of  Vesak Day––the day honoring the Buddha’s birth, death, and enlightenment––our Valley Insight newsletter published the thoughts of several of our teachers in regard to this question of the Buddha. Who is the Buddha? How is he manifesting? This year we want to invite all of you in the Sangha to give some reflection to the presence of the Buddha as a living, evolving teacher; and we invite you to share these ideas in this year’s May Newsletter. We will need your submission by March 20th to ensure consideration for the Newsletter which will be published in early May. You can send your ideas to me:

Along these lines, I was reminded recently of Billy Collins’ wonderful poem called “Snow Shoveling with the Buddha”, which describes a subtle sharing of wisdom and discovery of new experiences as the Buddha and Billy work together on clearing the driveway. I also was recently introduced to The Bluebonnet Sutras, a book of poems by Laurence Musgrove . Each poem describes a conversation between Laurence and the Buddha. All have some exchange, some touch of friendship, comradery. With his permission, I’ll end with one of his poems:


Trout Sutra

I was meditating on shenpa today
Because of how often I am hooked
Into the habits of fearful response
When I encounter those people
And daily responsibilities
That intensify my path of suffering.
I was telling the Buddha how I was
Looking for some helpful teaching
Or image that would awaken me
To these automatic failures.

“The hook,” said the Buddha,
“May be a worn metaphor to some,
But consider the skill of the catch
And the joy of the release the angler
Must feel in cradling the trout
And then freeing it to swim away.
Every hook will be barbless when
You can catch yourself being caught.”

–– Laurence Musgrove, reprinted with permission 

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