- Contrasting Images of the Buddha
All the Christian writers express a deep and sympathetic appreciation for the historical Sakyamuni Buddha, demonstrating some of the positive fruits of interreligious dialogue. But—speaking as a practicing Buddhist—their views appear to be focused on the human face of the Buddha and scant attention is paid to what might be called the numinous. It is this dimension of his enlightenment experience that constitutes his very being and the reason for his appeal far beyond the borders of India. This sense of the sacred, the transhistorical, inspired the great civilizations of Asia and today attracts worldwide attention to the Buddhist path of liberation and freedom.
Terry Muck makes an ironic allusion to the respective lives of the Buddha and of the Christ. He states that “Official Christian dogma teaches that Jesus was divine, a part of the Trinity, three gods in one: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Buddhist teachings dogmatize a different understanding of the Buddha—that he was human through and through,” but a reversal occurs in later history: “The popular Buddhist [End Page 133] approach to the Buddha tends to produce a ‘godlike’ Buddha in a religious tradition that insists on his humanity, and the popular Christian approach to Jesus tends to produce a very human Jesus in a religious tradition that insists on Jesus’ divinity. It is almost as if the populace has decided to emphasize what the buddhologians and theologians have decreed secondary. The evidence for this reversal is everywhere” (Muck, p. 107).
This may be a valid observation, but the truth of the matter might not be so simple. That is, both religious figures may combine the practical and the spiritual in different, complex ways and, depending on the historical lens, a person may see one aspect and not the other. At any rate, in this paper I wish to note that Sakyamuni Buddha is more than simply “human, through and through.”
Rudolph Otto was the first to use “numinous” as a religious category to describe Christian and Hindu experience, but it also can be applied to the Buddhist case. This is so if we subscribe to one of its basic characteristics: the quality of the inexpressible—“in the sense that it completely eludes apprehension in terms of concepts.” 1 In Buddhist literature we have an abundance of words suggesting this fact: the unconditioned, formless, ineffable, inconceivable, unthinkable, unattainable, indefinable, immeasurable, and so on.
In order to understand the numinous fully, Otto writes that a person “must be guided and led on by consideration and discussion of the matter through the ways of his own mind, until he reaches the point at which ‘the numinous’ in him perforce begins to stir, to start into life and into consciousness.” 2 He continues: “The arising of the numinous from beyond discursive consciousness is central to the Buddha’s enlightenment experience. This point has been overlooked and has caused misunderstanding, as noted by John Ross Carter: ‘One is told repeatedly that one has to work out one’s own salvation—this is treated as a corollary to there being no savior or savior god. This has been pounded into the English-reading audience to such an extent that one has failed to discern what Theravada Buddhism has long known—one does not work out one’s own salvation or liberation or release.’” 3
In the Theravada classic, Visudhimagga, the ultimate awakening does not result from human calculation. According to Mahinda Palihawadana, it comes from the “arising of magga.” Magga is the “path” in the eightfold scheme (ariya attahangika magga), but it has a further connotation: “the moment of spiritual change as well as the event and the content of the mind at the moment.” 4 He sums up this process by enumerating the fourfold goal of Theravada life. The first three are well known—sila, samadhi, and lokiya panna. There is also the fourth, which is crucial but often overlooked: supramundane or lokuttara panna. The first three are preliminaries to the fourth realization: “Personal effort is only the ‘setting’ for the realization of the highest religious truth, that the highest realization can take place only when effort ceases to be...