How many Buddhas?

Are there many Buddhas or just one?

Whereas the teachings of the Theravāda school of Southeast Asia are preserved in the Pali language, another form of Buddhism began in India that used other languages, including classical Sanskrit. This form of Buddhism found its way to Tibet and Mongolia and to East Asian countries such as China, Vietnam, Korea and Japan.

There were several Mahāyāna Sūtras that came to be regarded as literary masterpieces in classical Sanskrit literature. One of the most prominent of these was the Saddharma-puṇḍarīka or Lotus of the True Teaching, a text that has had a lasting impact on Wast Asian Buddhist culture. It is important not only as a literary masterpiece, but as one of the most important of a genre of literature that places a strong emphasis on the importance of faith. Probably no single Mahāyāna Sūtra enjoyed wider popularity than the Lotus Sutra.

Unlike many other Mahāyāna texts, the Lotus Sutra was written in a dramatic style that was accessible to everyone. Its message is conveyed in parables and stories rather than abstractions. Moreover, the main doctrine of the Sutra is that of Universal Enlightenment, and this doctrine appealed to a wide range of people. Therefore, every school of Chinese Buddhism found some place for the Lotus Sutra, and a number of schools, especially the influential Tiantai, made the Lotus the centerpiece of their systematic exposition of Buddhist teaching.

The Lotus Sutra was evidently formed at a time when Buddhists were embroiled in controversy over the legitimacy of Mahāyāna teachings. A principal teaching of the sutra is that there is a unifying force in Buddhism that solves the problem of legitimacy. That unifying force is the Buddha Śākyamuni, who is portrayed as a single principle that is manifested in all particular Buddhas. In contrast to the way the Buddha is portrayed in the Pali canon, the Śākyamuni of the Lotus Sutra is depicted as “the father of the world, the Self-born, the Healer, the Protector of all creatures.” This protector of all creatures tirelessly devotes himself to doing whatever may be necessary to lead all sentient beings, without exception, to unsurpassed full enlightenment, an everlasting condition of peace, harmony and bliss. That there are many Buddhists paths turns out to be an illusion, for in fact all paths are given by the same Śākyamuni. In fact there is but one vehicle, one path, and that is the Mahāyāna, the Great Way.

An integral theme in the narrative of the Lotus Sutra is that there will be some who will deny the legitimacy of the Lotus Sutra itself. This suspicion of the Lotus Sutra, says the Lotus Sutra, will be especially strong during the age of degeneration, when the moral state of beings in the world will have fallen to such a low state that even the teachers of Buddhism cannot be trusted. Fraud and charlatanism will abound in that age, and many people who claim to be teaching the True Dharma will in fact be teaching a false dharma that will bring those who follow it to ruin. People who claim to be offering cures and antidotes will in fact be offering toxins that make their patients worse.

Within Buddhism, especially in India, there was always a perceived danger of putting forth doctrines that seemed too much like the teachings of the Vedas and the Upanishads, which form the basis of what is now called Hinduism. Making the Buddha sound too much like the Brahman described in the Vedānta—the philosophical systems based on ideas found in the Upanishads—was something to be avoided. It is noteworthy, therefore, that Śākyamuni Buddha as described in the Lotus Sutra is never at rest. He is dynamic, constantly adapting his teachings in order to reach the depths of degeneration that the sentient beings of the world descend into. And yet, this dynamic Buddha retains his unity, and there is a sense in which he never changes. The authors of the Lotus Sutra seem to have been fully aware of the metaphysical difficulties involved in having an entity that is unified and unchanging at yet never resting. Lest someone feel inclined to say that such a being cannot possibly exist, the Lotus Sutra emphasizes that the truth is entirely beyond reason. The Dharma is profoundly mysterious. No one but a fully enlightened Buddha can possibly grasp it. Trying to approach the Dharma through logic and reasoning is bound to fail. The Dharma can only be approached through a kind of innocent and unquestioning faith in the Buddha Śākyamuni who is alone in being able to grasp it in its profundity. To everyone else, it is unfathomable.

Alongside the developments of the Lotus Sutra there were scholastic movements that developed a very different  view of a buddha’s nature. The next question to be addressed, then, is What kind of Buddha suits a philosopher?

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