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The Divine Historical Buddha

Dr. Eviatar Shulman,

The Hebrew University, Jerusalem


In the traditional cultural contexts in which Buddhism flourished in Asia, Buddhism was well-integrated with local religions. Buddhism often provided the cosmological framework for a broader religious system, a part of which was an accepted hierarchy between the Buddha and other gods: gods are still implicated in the world of existence; although powerful, they are not free. Therefore a Buddha – the consummation of knowledge, who is utterly beyond desire and self-interest - is a more reliable and creative power, to which the gods are subservient. 

The Buddha himself is rarely a one-dimensional figure. Each Buddha arises in his own time and place, but lives the exact same life as all other Buddhas. In certain contexts, the Buddha is best understood in light of ideas familiar from Hindu, particularly Vasihnava, theology: In a manner similar to the logic of avatāra ("manifestation"), the Buddha is a "Lord" (bhagavān), who arises in the world in order to work for the dharma, and his activity is viewed as divine play (līlā). Thus, an “historical” Buddha is an embodiment of the deeper structures of reality; the gods therefore submit to him and participate in facilitating and celebrating its manifestation. Buddhas also come into being after a path that stretches over many lives, thereby generating a densely packed, multi-layered personality, whose main characteristic is comprehensive omniscience. Omniscience refers primarily to an infinite knowledge of karmic conditioning, both in relation to the Buddha himself and in relation to others. The Buddha’s knowledge of himself and of reality are thus related like micro-cosmos and macro-cosmos. 

This talk is designed to work toward a conceptualization of the cosmological, ever-expanding Buddha, which provided the theoretical framework for the integration of Buddhism in the different contexts of Asia, among them in Japan. These ideas will be fleshed out in relation to a number of texts from the Pāli canon, primarily the Buddha-vaṃsa, the Udāna and the Jātakas

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