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The Buddha as Avatar of Lord Vishnu

edited February 2007 in Philosophy
The Buddha is said to be an Incarnation of Lord Vishnu in the Puranic texts of Hinduism. I recall having seen intense emotional debates about that issue in past. How do different Buddhist traditions and sects adress the issue today?

Comments

  • SimonthepilgrimSimonthepilgrim Veteran
    edited November 2006
    This is something that I have never pondered. Have you any links, Fofoo?
  • SimonthepilgrimSimonthepilgrim Veteran
    edited November 2006
    Long article in Wikipedia:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddha_as_an_Avatar_of_Vishnu

    My first reaction is one of admiration for a theology that is so flexible and inclusive. A pity Hinduism appears to have gone down the fanatical route later on and, thus, has been unable to include Allah and he Prophet into their pantheon!

    Of course, Christians and Muslims have similar re-interpretations of Jesus: in the one, divine, and, in the other, a prophet.

    It's the sort of discussion where people may get upset because, to accept that we can learn truths from all points of view means that we have to let go of certainties. There is real scope for unseemly wrangling.

    And, indeed, what is the point of outlining the view of the Buddha Shakyamuni as an avatar of Vishnu if we are not open to something new?
  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator
    edited November 2006
    fofoo,

    Essentially, they do not address them. For most Buddhist, this is a non-issue. It is somewhat analogous to the Islamic assertion that Jesus was a prophet, as opposed to the son of G_d, whereas the Christian assertion is quite independent of that view. Moreover, just as the Islamic ideas of Jesus post-dated his death (or ascension to heaven), the same holds true for the Hindu ideas of the Buddha being an avatar of Vishnu.

    Jason
  • edited November 2006
    thanks jason,

    I think that`s the best short-explanation for westerners familiar with the Abrahamic Religions I read to date.
  • edited November 2006
    Simon,

    I think what`s important, wether we explore the position of theravada or that of mahayana, is that in any case the buddha never is seen as merely another prophet of god. According to the wikipedia article at least, some in mahayana see the buddha as highest being or supreme soul, "akin to the Brahman of Hinduism and worship him in the form of images and icons", he is not just another incarnation of vishnu. The comparison with christianity seeing jesus as flesh become God versus the view of muslims that Jesus merely was another prophet that Jason gave is excellent imo.
  • edited November 2006
    After a second thought, it came to my mind that there is a list of 28 Buddhas. How does it differ from the concept of brahma manefsting thru vishnu ? (besides that the persons differ)
  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator
    edited November 2006
    fofoo,

    That is a very good question. The differences between the two are their qualities and characteristics I am not sure about Mahayana, but at least in Theravada, a Buddha is not seen as an aspect, incarnation, or manifestation of anyone or anything. A Buddha is simply a being who rediscovers the path to awakening which has become lost to the world, and proclaims it to the world once more. The doctrine expounded by all Buddhas consists of the Four Noble Truths—suffering, its origin, its cessation and the way to its cessation.

    An avatar on the other hand, at least in this sense, is the physical manifestation of a higher being. In this sense, the Buddha was often seen as a reformer of the Vedic religions — to apparently straighten out the Brahmins — but without every directly referencing his supposedly divine nature. There are other ideas and beliefs concerning the Buddha as an avatar; however, I am not well versed in those so I cannot really go into any more detail. The number 28 might be a coincidence, or it might be a play on one or the other.

    Jason
  • JasonJason God Emperor Arrakis Moderator
    edited November 2006
    fofoo, all,

    As familiar as I am with Buddha, from the Theravadin standpoint of course, I would be extremely interested in hearing this topic explained from the other side. I am not as familiar with the various Hindu traditions as I am with their Buddhist counterparts, and I think that it would be interesting to see what they have to say about this. I would also be interested in hearing what other Buddhist traditions have to say as well, especially those that do view the Buddha as an aspect or emanation of an already enlightened being. Perhaps Xing Ping would care to join this conversation and add his understanding of the Buddha as an Avatar of Lord Vishnu with us. Like Simon, I am always open to something new.

    Curiously,

    Jason
  • edited November 2006
    As far as I understood, the vishnu stuff is not in Sutta.

    It is in non-buddhistic puranic texts of orthdodox Indian religion (labeld hinduism today). The discussion on the wikipedia article contains actually some good information.
  • SimonthepilgrimSimonthepilgrim Veteran
    edited November 2006
    It is a classic manoeuvre for religions to claim that founders of other faith structures are 'only' a part of their, original, story. It happens right here, on this site: look at the threads where Jesus is claimed as a buddha or a bodhisattva. Same process, different names.
  • PalzangPalzang Veteran
    edited November 2006
    Fo-foo,

    Buddha is Buddha. There isn't a mustard seed's difference between, say, the Dalai Lama and Shakyamuni Buddha.

    Palzang
  • edited November 2006
    I may be one of the people that Simon is referring to. Please allow me to take exception to the words "classic manoeuvre." They seem to imply that some sort of violence is being done by one religion to another in the realm of ideas. Indeed that has often been the case in the past and present interactions among religions. But I do hope I haven`t simply "claimed" that Jesus is a Buddha or a Boddhisattva, though the idea seems to me a possiblity which might make sense from within an orthodox Mahayana point of view. In other words it isn`t necessary for Mahayana Buddhism to do violence to itself in order to put Jesus pretty much on an equal footing with a Buddha/Bodhisattva. On the other hand I feel that saying Jesus was a "Buddhist" (rather than a "Buddha") might be doing a bit of violence to Judaism.

    I can only suppose that the Hindu understanding of Shakyamuni Buddha as an Avatar of Vishnu makes sense from within the classic Hindu understanding of the way things are. That wouldn`t be my understanding, but I am happy that Hindus are able to recognize the greatness of Shakyamuni Buddha without having to distort their own tradition. I am really not sure what an authentically traditional orthodox Christian understanding can do about putting Shakyamuni Buddha on an equal footing with Jesus Christ. It seems to me impossible without doing violence to the Christian tradition.

    BUDDHAS AS MANIFESTATIONS OF THE TATHAGATAGARBHA:

    I truly know little about it, but I am trying to study Shingon Buddhism, which is the Japanese form of Chinese style Mantrayana-Vajryana. Shingon has a teaching that relates to the question above about how Mahayana understands Buddhas as manifestations of the Ultimate Reality. The Tathagatagarbha doctrine is absolutely central to Shingon teaching and practice. Shingon makes a great deal of use of the three M`s: mantras, mudras, and mandalas. One of the two main mandalas used in Shingon is the Matrix World mandala, which shows Mahavairocana Buddha as the origianal Adhibuddha and as the source of all other Buddhas and enlilghtened beings, in fact, if I understand it correctly, as the source of all beings without exception.
  • PalzangPalzang Veteran
    edited November 2006
    It is a classic manoeuvre for religions to claim that founders of other faith structures are 'only' a part of their, original, story. It happens right here, on this site: look at the threads where Jesus is claimed as a buddha or a bodhisattva. Same process, different names.


    Saying that Jesus was a bodhisattva is quite different than trying to claim Jesus as a part of Buddhism, Simon. A bodhisattva is one who works ceaselessly for the liberation (from suffering) of all sentient beings. It doesn't come with a religion. Anyone can be a bodhisattva. The word itself is a description of the way the person acts, not what religion they may or may not belong to.

    Palzang
  • SimonthepilgrimSimonthepilgrim Veteran
    edited November 2006
    Palzang wrote:


    Saying that Jesus was a bodhisattva is quite different than trying to claim Jesus as a part of Buddhism, Simon. A bodhisattva is one who works ceaselessly for the liberation (from suffering) of all sentient beings. It doesn't come with a religion. Anyone can be a bodhisattva. The word itself is a description of the way the person acts, not what religion they may or may not belong to.

    Palzang


    I do understand this, Palzang.

    I also know that a word like "bodhisattva" comes with a whole cultural context. It is that viewing of one tradition through the lens of another which can add lustre to both.
  • edited November 2006
    Well, at least in India, there seems to be some disagreement. FYI:Indian Buddhist Revival

    I decided for me that the topic is not relevant for my personal practice and I let those dispute who think it matters.

    Regards
  • PalzangPalzang Veteran
    edited November 2006
    I'm not sure I get your point, Fofoo, but I do have a big problem with one of their "vows":

    20) I firmly believe the Dhamma of the Buddha is the only true religion.

    I also like the one about "I believe I'm having a rebirth." Not on my couch you're not, buddy!

    Anyway, certainly the word "bodhisattva" is a Buddhist word that wouldn't make any sense to anyone not at least familiar with Buddhist teachings, Simon. No argument on that! Nor anything else, for that matter.

    Palzang
  • edited November 2006
    sorry, I was refering to the Buddha as incarnation of Vishnu, that is not relevant to my practice, not to the bodhisattva-ideal :)

    While aproaching Indian culture in past, i saw fierce discussions of that topic.You see, it is still an issue, look at vow no 5. So, what I was trying to say is I will not involve myself anymore in that discussion
  • PalzangPalzang Veteran
    edited November 2006
    Oh, sorry, my bad!

    Palzang
  • edited November 2006
    This discussion seems to be winding down, but here is a link to the central part of the Wombworld Mandala with Mahavairocana Buddha shown as the "source" of other Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. I found it by following the link to the site about the Indian Buddhist revival movement and subsequent links from there.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Mandala1.jpg

    Viewing through the "lens of another which can add lustre to both" (thank you, Simon), Shingon Buddhism provided the way for Japanese Shinto and Japanese Buddhism to harmonize. The deities of Shinto came to be viewed as "appearances" of Enlightened Beings. A kind of Vajrayana style of Shinto even developed which might be compared, though I am unsure, to the development of Bon in Tibet.

    Sometime back a Shingon priest (we don`t call them "monks"; nearly all are married) lent me a book on how to write Siddham script mantras. In that book I saw several mantras of Mantrayana which were concerned with Hindu deities. I cannot remember if Vishnu was one of them; certainly Indra and Brahma were.

    But does Shingon Buddhism view Hindu deities as "apprearances" of Enlightened Beings? I do not know. And if they do, would that be a contradiction of the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha?

    Thoughts, anyone?
  • edited February 2007
    But does Shingon Buddhism view Hindu deities as "apprearances" of Enlightened Beings? I do not know. And if they do, would that be a contradiction of the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha?

    Thoughts, anyone?

    Coming in a bit late, but allow me to weigh in.

    On the subject of Hindu gods, they do seem to get absorbed into East Asian Buddhism as Guardian Deities, which are somewhere below Bodhisattvas and such. To illustrate, I once visited a Japanese temple called Sanjusangendo (The Temple of the 33 halls). There is a huge, long room containing hundreds of statues of Avalokitesvara, but in front of these statues is another row of life-like statues containing varies guardian deities. Many of these guardian deities (according to English language plaque) were actually Hindu gods such as Shiva, Vishnu, Indra and all the other big-wigs. Their actual role in medieval Buddhism seems to have been really limited. They just kind of watched over "good Buddhists" as far as I can tell.

    Now with regard to the nature of "Celestial Buddhas", my experience has been that on one level they do seem to behave like gods or deities of their own. However, if you look deeper, those same celestial Buddhas are actually reflections of reality, or personifications of Buddhist principles.

    Being a Shingon enthusiast, I also have studied about Mahavairocana Buddha. Mahavairocana Buddha can be considered a personification of the Buddhist concept of emptiness, and the totality of all existence. There's no real praying to Mahavairocana, but rather people meditate and ponder Mahavairocana, because to under Mahavairocana is to understand reality.

    Another example is Amida Buddha in Shin Buddhism (my other "hobby"). Earlier Pure Land sects treated Amida as a strictly salvational figure, but Shinran turned things on their head by teaching that Amida was the personification of compassion and wisdom. The "light" of Amida was simply wisdom and compassion that pervade existence. Amida leads all beings to Enlightenment because Amida is the embodiment/personification of wisdom/compassion.

    In either example, these Buddhas appear to be real figures, but I've heard many times from senior Shingon and Shin Buddhists that if you delve deep enough, you'll realize that you are these very same Buddhas. It's part of the growth that comes with Buddhism. ;)
  • SimonthepilgrimSimonthepilgrim Veteran
    edited February 2007
    At the intellectual and 'mystic' heart of all the evolved polytheisms is an understanding that the gods are themselves signposts to the singularity. This is true today in Hinduism, just as it was millennia ago in Egypt. It is instructive to look at what happens when a mystic comes to power and tries to impose a single, generative deity: the example of Amenhotep IV and his cult of the Aten should serve as a salutary lesson.

    It was not until relatively recently, in the latter quarter of the Christian era, that the old gods were heavily suppressed in Protestant lands. I notice that even Protestant churches are now introducing celebrations of 'saints' days' and, in some circles, a reverence for the Mother of Jesus.

    From the One came the Two. From the Two came the Three. And, from the Three, came the Ten Thousand.

    We are so very close in time, when measured against the age of the universe, to our parents' parents and their belief in many powers at work unseen but experienced.
  • edited February 2007
    Thank you for sharing your thoughts on my questionings, Gerald and Simon.

    I am glad to see Kukai`s image as an avatar on these forums.

    I guess we are all signposts to the singularity, we could say.

    I am still wondering about a lot of things.
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