Your Questions, My Answers ~ THE POWER AND THE GLORY


"How come, if the Buddha was so powerful, did He suffer from dysentery and die soon afterwards? Should He not have been able to prolong His life indefinitely?"


There is so much misunderstanding about the person of the Buddha—as about any great Teacher—about His power and His capacity to help others, and this misunderstanding inhibits and impedes our efforts to follow the Way. Not surprisingly, soon after the Buddha had passed away and wasn’t around to discourage it, the tendency to deify Him set in, and He was transformed from a human being to a ‘superman’/‘savior-in-the-sky’ kind of figure, who was expected to respond to prayers and supplications, to bless, help and save, in direct contravention of what He had taught.

As time passed and the movement He had started spread, His Teachings were modified to make them more acceptable to the masses; perhaps it was felt necessary to do this, or maybe it is natural for it to happen, but we can see now, looking back, that quality was thereby sacrificed to quantity, and the Teachings were diluted, similar to the way that cordial is diluted to make it drinkable; straight from the bottle, it is too strong to drink, and water must be added, but if too much water is added, it loses its flavor. And so, over the ages, things alien to the Buddha’s simple message—that each person must work out his own salvation—have crept in, and many people have accepted them as the authentic Teachings of the Buddha.

Several years ago, there was a documentary on TV about a Vietnamese doctor who had recently arrived in Australia, and, because his qualifications were not valid there, was studying to re-qualify. Due to a number of factors, however—not the least of them the language, no doubt—he was undergoing some hardship.

The camera followed and filmed him in several places, including a temple, where he was shown burning incense. Later, he was asked whether or not he had any guilt-feelings over the fact that he had survived the escape from Vietnam by boat, while so many others had perished in the attempt. He replied that he did, and added that he thought the Buddha did not give everyone equal chances.

Such thinking—of endowing the Buddha with power to help and save, reward or punish, show favoritism or partiality—though quite common, is erroneous. In this case, here was a man highly educated in a specialized area, but quite ignorant in another, an area in which a little bit of time and effort spent investigating would have made things so much clearer.

Today, Philosophy—"the study (or love) of Wisdom", a most essential quality—is considered, by many, as something abstract and obsolete in our practical and so-materialistic world (I recall how I looked upon philosophy class in high school!). But it is not so, and although few people value it, it has not lost its importance. Indeed, though many people might not be aware of it, most, if not all of us, have a philosophy of life of some sort or other—Hedonism, or "Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die", seeming to be the dominant philosophy of great masses of people today, or "I’m alright, mate; I don’t care about you". And even a thief has a philosophy: "Steal, and grow rich, without working for it" (not a few of our prominent leaders and politicians seem to subscribe to that one!) But whether such thinking deserves the name of philosophy is rather debatable.......

In treating a sickness, a doctor has first to acknowledge its existence, then analyze and diagnose it; only then can he begin to effectively treat it. It would be a waste of time complaining that life is not fair and doesn’t give people equal chances, because we can all see the manifold inequalities of life all around us—rich and poor, high and low, sickly and healthy, beautiful and ugly, intelligent and dull, etc., and all the gradations in between—even though the causes of such are obscure. They are facts, and if we are to deal with them at all, this is where we must begin, and not by wishing them to be otherwise, or by blaming someone or something else.

The Buddha does not come into the picture here; He is not responsible for what happens to us, and should not be praised, blamed, or implicated in any way. According to the records we have of His Teachings, He said that each of us has his/her own individual karma, meaning that, somehow, whatever we experience, is of our own making, directly or indirectly, and, like an airplane ticket issued in one’s name, is non-transferable. Our present situation, therefore, whatever it is, and whether we like it or not, should be accepted for what it is and assessed, to see what can be made of it, and where we can go from here. If it is unpleasant, we should examine it to discover—if possible —its main causes, causes which it would be wise to avoid in the future. If it is pleasant, its causes should be ascertained, for possible reproduction of the same effect. In any case, praise or blame of another for whatever happens to us is not in order; we should accept, assess, and go on. Acceptance, here, however, does not imply complacency or resignation to ‘Fate’, for we can work to change and overcome the things we dislike. It is an approach like that of a doctor when dealing with disease, and this is why the Buddha is sometimes known as "The Great Physician"; He formulated His Four Noble Truths as a doctor would diagnose and prescribe treatment for a disease.

Now, back to the question: "If the Buddha was so powerful ....?" Well, in what way was the Buddha powerful, and how did He get His power? His was the power of Wisdom or Knowledge about the basic nature of life, and it came to Him with Enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. At first, He thought that what He had found was so profound that if He tried to teach people who were deeply entangled in the emotional problems of life, no-one would understand, and it would only be troublesome for Him; so He decided to remain in the forest alone, enjoying the bliss of Enlightenment, until He passed away. But the books say that, as He was thinking so, a voice spoke to Him, and some say that it came from outside, while others say it came from inside Him. We cannot say for sure where it came from, and it doesn’t really matter anyway, but it said: "There are some people with just a little dust of Ignorance in their eyes. If they hear the Dharma, they will understand, but not hearing it, they will fall away and be lost". This persuaded Him to leave His peaceful forest, and go out into the world to teach.

During His long ministry of 45 years He must have met many thousands of people, but we shouldn’t think that everyone who had the good fortune to meet Him became enlightened thereby, for even with His great wisdom—by which He could perceive people’s capacity to understand and teach them accordingly—His power was still limited, and He wasn’t able to help everyone, as some people mistakenly think (and want). In those days, we must realize, there were few forms of entertainment, and the visit of a wandering teacher to a village or town was an event—providing a welcome change from the everyday life of work, eat and sleep—and people would go to see such teachers—then, as now—for different reasons; some because they had nothing else to do, or to accompany family or friends; some to see something unusual, maybe with hopes of seeing miracles performed; some to make offerings and gain merit thereby; some would even go to heckle or debate or compare their knowledge with that of the teacher; others, always only few, would go with the sincere desire to learn something, and be uplifted. But we can be sure that not everyone became enlightened from meeting the Buddha; even in the presence of a Buddha, that is not so easy, as the story of the Buddha’s favorite disciple and personal attendant, Ananda, illustrates.

It is said that Ananda was the same age as his cousin, Prince Siddhartha, with whom he grew up in the palace, and after Siddhartha’s Enlightenment, Ananda also became a monk. And so, when the Buddha was about to pass away at the age of 80, Ananda was also an old man. But, although he had heard the Buddha preach and teach so many times, and although he had an extremely retentive memory, he was not yet enlightened, and as the Buddha lay there on His death-bed, Ananda was overcome by grief and went aside to weep. The Buddha called for him and consoled him, saying: "Enough, Ananda, do not weep, do not grieve, for have I not told you, so many times and in so many ways, that all that is born must die? How can it be otherwise that this body of mine, having been born, should not die? It is in the nature of things that, having come into being, they age, decay, and pass away. All things are impermanent. Work out your own salvation with diligence". And with those words, He passed away.

From this, we can see that mere intellectual understanding does not produce Enlightenment. We can easily understand, intellectually, that all that is born must die; there is no mystery in this. But we do not perceive it intuitively, by wisdom, and so it does not have a deep and transforming effect upon us; therefore we continue to look for teachers to impart secret and esoteric knowledge to us, until finally, we must return to ourselves to find what, in one way, we have always known, but never really understood.

So, back again and finally, to the question that started all this: We really must examine it, because, as with many questions, we might find the answer therein. Or, we might find, as with this question, that it has no meaning. How come? Well, to talk of the birth or death of a Buddha is a contradiction in terms, because a Buddha is not born, and so does not/cannot die. A play on words? No, a clarification, and one that makes a great deal of difference. The person born in Lumbini Garden (the spot is marked by a pillar erected by Emperor Ashoka two-and-a-half centuries later), in Northern India, was a Prince named Siddhartha Gotama, the son of a provincial ruler. Buddhists say that, at this time, he was a ‘Bodhisattva’, which means ‘an aspirant to Buddhahood’; he was not yet fully Enlightened, and so was not a Buddha; therefore, we cannot talk of ‘the birth of the Buddha’. He became a Buddha upon Enlightenment at the age of 35, Enlightenment being a state of mind, as is happiness or sadness; it is not a physical condition.

Now, what is born must die; what is not born, cannot die. The body of the Buddha was born, so naturally, it died, like every other body has or will. But the Buddha, having reached the Deathless state of Nirvana, did not die. So, the question: "If the Buddha was so powerful, why did He die?" simply does not arise.

We must be careful not to think of the Buddha as omniscient or omnipotent, because He was not; that is just our projection, supposition, belief, or wishful thinking. If the power of the Buddha’s wisdom, love and compassion could protect us from sickness and misfortune, we would all be eternally healthy and happy; but it is inadvisable to depend upon the goodwill of the Buddha, or of anyone else; His body, like ours, was subject to natural laws. Instead of praying and hoping that He will help us, we should follow His last advice, and "Work out your own salvation, with diligence".

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