Shakyamuni Buddha

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Buddha's inconceivable life span

Many stories illuminate Shakyamuni Buddha's life after his enlightenment. But one of the most defining stories about the nature of buddhas and bodhisattvas is from the Lotus Sutra. As Shakyamuni is preaching the Lotus Sutra, bodhisattvas who have gathered from many distant dimensions of space, time, and mind ask the Buddha if they can help preserve this teaching for beings in the distant future, after his passing. From our vantage point, 2,500 years later, I imagine the question as: "In the distant future age of television, computers, automobiles, and nuclear weapons, how will people hear the true teaching of universal awakening?"

The Buddha tells them not to worry, and suddenly from out of the empty, open space under the ground spring vast multitudes of noble, gentle beings, dedicated to the emancipation of all creation. The Buddha declares that these bodhisattvas practice diligently within the earth, forever guiding confused, worldly people. Moreover, they have all trained intently with him, even though many apparently are ages older than the Buddha himself.

Buddha's disciple, the bodhisattva Maitreya (Lesson 7), asks how Shakyamuni could have trained them all. Thereupon the Buddha proclaims that although it may appear that he was born, left the palace, attained enlightenment, taught, and would pass away into the extinction of parinirvana, in reality a buddha's life span is inconceivably vast. The regular events of his life are only displayed for the benefit of beings, in accord with what would be most helpful to their development. While buddhas may seem to arise and disappear, there is actually no place or time where there are not buddhas. The implication is clear that bodhisattvas, too, springing up out of the ground, are everywhere and in every time, with inconceivably long life spans.

Historically it is recorded that Shakyamuni died at about age eighty. Although he had realized the end of suffering, as a historically manifested human with a limited body, the Buddha was still subject to sickness, old age, and death. In his recorded death Shakyamuni was calm, teaching to the last, encouraging his awakened disciples to realize that all conditioned things pass. We cannot ignore the aspect of buddhas and bodhisattvas as regular mortals, subject to the limitations of physical incarnation. But simultaneously the awareness and awakening of buddhas and bodhisattvas is always present, never dying, ever available to help all beings.