It’s long past the proper time for me to confess that I nearly failed my first Buddhism class in college four decades ago. On the exam, I made all kinds of mistakes, among them confusing Bodhidharma, the monk who brought Zen from India to China, with dharmakaya, a term often used to describe buddhanature. The professor, a young Tibetologist who had already published several books, kindly gave me a final grade of C for reasons I decided not to ask about.

But in spite of my confusion, I came away with one powerful idea. As Buddhism evolved over many centuries, the wise and compassionate human being named Siddhartha Gautama gradually dematerialized and was replaced by an abstract nonentity—more or less a god—residing outside time and space, far removed from the human suffering that Siddhartha tried to alleviate. I definitely wanted the person back.

Since then, though, I’ve changed my mind. Humanizing the Buddha doesn’t guarantee a deeper understanding of enlightenment or even of ourselves. Instead, it can have the opposite effect, confining us more tightly within identities that we need to see through. Personhood, after all, isn’t a fact but a cultural construction that seems real only because it’s collectively shared and individually internalized. As social, symbol-using animals, we’ll remain inside constructions of some kind no matter what we do, but the dharma also tells us that we’re much more than all that the idea of “the person” can contain. I’m persuaded that we need two Buddhas, at the very least: Siddhartha, the 80-year-old man who died near the city of Kushinagar, and the cosmic Shakyamuni, radiating light, who is beyond our understanding in every way.

Of course, I still appreciate my earlier view. Like most Americans who pride themselves on their democratic instincts, I find it deeply reassuring to think that even the Buddha was once one of us. That’s surely what the Pali suttas mean to convey by depicting Siddhartha’s parents weeping bitterly as he leaves their home (Majjhima Nikaya 26). On his journey, the young man has to contend with his sexual desires. He wrestles with doubts about himself and nearly surrenders to the fear and loneliness attendant on the solitary seeker’s life (MN 19, MN 128, MN 4). The Buddha of the suttas looks like one of us in another sense as well: nothing comes easily to him, neither before nor after his awakening. In the moments just following that event, what he registers is not elation, bliss, or unity with all things but a stoic recognition of the sacrifice that his enlightenment required. “This dharma,” the new Buddha reflects, is “hard to see,” “not easily realized,” “abstruse, subtle, deep . . . going against the flow”—so hard to reach that he wonders if others can follow where he has gone (Ayacana Sutta, trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu).

To the Buddha’s surprise, people from all walks of life eagerly embrace his teaching, but the rapid growth of his community creates constant headaches, too—monks misbehaving, ill-will between home-leavers and the laity, bickering inside the sangha, and shocking political violence outside (MN 65, MN 48, Samyutta Nikaya 3.14). That so much responsibility takes a toll we can infer from occasions like the one when the Buddha tires of people asking him for details about their previous lives (Digha Nikaya 16.2.8). His back hurts so much that he has to lie down in the middle of a dharma talk (MN 53.5), and in old age he confesses publicly that after the death of his two closest friends—Sariputta and Moggallana—the sangha feels empty (SN 47:14). Unlike the supernaturally omniscient Shakyamuni of the Mahayana canon, this Buddha makes mistakes and changes his mind. In one sutta, he sends away five hundred monks who have just arrived because they settle in too noisily. But then some pious villagers nearby convince him to reverse his decision (MN 67.2). Opposed to ordaining Prajapati, his aunt, the Buddha reluctantly gives way before Ananda’s entreaties (Anguttara Nikaya 8.51). The suttas also reveal his uncertainty about how to deal with his cousin Devadatta, who has plotted to replace him by hiring assassins (AN 6:62).

Details like these encourage us to think we can find the truth about the Buddha only by peeling back the layers of myth to expose the flesh-and-blood human being, one not so different from you or me. Yet the elements that strike us as most real could be every bit as invented as the Buddha’s conversations with various gods. Of course, it’s understandable that we should start with whatever feels familiar when we’re coming to grips with a non-Western religion spanning three millennia. But the dharma was created, we might remind ourselves, by societies that ought to seem as strange to us as ours would seem to them. If we stop with the obvious, we make the same mistake as those artists in the Renaissance who painted Jesus, a male from the Middle East, to look like a Northern European. We need to allow the “unreal” elements of the Buddha’s story to challenge and enlarge our ways of seeing. And unless we’re prepared to take that risk, we’ll never know how much we’ve missed. The strange, not the familiar, points the way to what’s truly new and liberating.

Using the Pali suttas, we can create a biography of the Buddha that aligns with our conventional thinking, but only by reading them quite selectively. Side by side with factual details, we’ll find elements defying common sense. According to some suttas—though not all—on the “first watch” of his awakening, the Buddha witnessed every one of his rebirths prior to his existence as Siddhartha. In this passage from the Maha-Saccaka Sutta, the Buddha describes the moment when he recalled the whole expanse of his past lives:

When [my] mind was thus concentrated, purified, bright, unblemished, rid of defilement, pliant, malleable, steady, [and] attained to imperturbability, I directed it to the knowledge of recollecting my past lives. I recollected my manifold past lives—one birth, two . . . five, ten . . . fifty, a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, many eons of cosmic contraction, many eons of cosmic expansion, many eons of cosmic contraction and expansion: “There I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose there. There too I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such the end of my life. Passing away from that state, I re-arose here.” Thus I remembered my manifold past lives in their modes and details.

–trans. Thanissaro Bhikkhu

As 21st-century Americans, we might assume that the Buddha’s audience would have seen nothing remarkable about this account. It’s well-known that the idea of rebirth goes back to the pre-Buddhist Upanishads, if not earlier. But the Buddha, or the anonymous monks who wrote the sutta down around 100 BCE, may have decided to include these details for the very opposite reason. People then could very well have found the passage just as strange as we do today.

Snapshots of people on multicolored background was buddha divine
Illustrations by Martin O’Neill

Yes, rebirth was widely accepted as real, yet the passage presents it to the audience in an unfamiliar way. It’s true that the Buddha rehearses specifics that his listeners would have recognized as the defining elements of their time on earth: “I had such a name, belonged to such a clan, had such an appearance. Such was my food, such my experience of pleasure and pain, such the end of my life.” These are the sort of facts lovingly recalled when we deliver a eulogy; but before the Buddha gets to the particulars, he beholds a chain of lives that extends over “a hundred, a thousand, a hundred thousand, many eons of cosmic contraction, many eons of cosmic expansion, many eons of cosmic contraction and expansion.” The sheer volume of past lives doesn’t reduce the biographical details to insignificance, but it radically alters how we look at them, and this was one of the Buddha’s great discoveries. We’re born in a certain place at a certain time, with certain people as our countrymen, our neighbors, and our family. But we’re also part of something much greater, something that has no beginning and no end. And once we’ve seen both of these together—the individual births and the deaths, set against the backdrop of “many eons of cosmic contraction and expansion” —it’s hard to think of personhood the same way.

The point is not to reach agreement about the real nature of Siddhartha, but to recognize our own multiplicity—which is infinite.

In case we missed the point our first time around, the sutta takes another pass when it relates that in the “second watch of the night” the Buddha sees karma’s laws working to shape the destinies of all the people he once was. This attention to karma appears to underscore the importance of the individual, whose good decisions will lead to better rebirths or, in the case of bad decisions, to worse. But then, in the third watch, the Buddha declares, “Birth is ended, the holy life fulfilled, the task done. There is nothing further for this world.” Many people would have found these words puzzling because they understood karma as a something like money in the bank, hard-won and carefully amassed. And they might have supposed that the Buddha’s karmic wealth would have raised him to the deva realm in the life to come. But the Buddha announces that the awakened state is no longer defined by clinging to personhood, whether human or divine. For him, the formation of karma has stopped because he regards the ups and downs as trivial. The Buddha still has to sleep and eat; he gets tired, old, and sick and finally dies, but he also keeps constantly in view that other, larger horizon. And it is the discovery of this horizon that transforms Siddhartha into the World Honored One.

I see now how mistaken it is to believe that the Pali suttas show the Buddha as a man, whereas the Mahayana texts depict him as a god. Yes, the suttas focus on his humanity, but then they rotate the lens to take in a much, much wider panorama.

What truly made the dharma so appealing in its first few centuries wasn’t the “realism” that we believe we see but this uniting of a personhood embedded in one’s family, clan, and place of birth with a larger, more open frame—one that is really without boundaries. As scholars Greg Bailey and Ian Mabbett suggest in The Sociology of Early Buddhism, men and women moving from the villages into urban centers needed a “new cosmology.” Taking the dharma as their guide, they could explore all the novel possibilities without falling into one extreme—feeling bound to an unvarying past—or the other—feeling completely uprooted.

But we bring to the suttas very different concerns. Our need to separate humans from gods, and reality from myths, may reflect our culture’s anxiety about states of consciousness that fall outside the range accepted as normal. And that anxiety arises, I’d suggest, from the fear that these “abnormal” states might destabilize identities we feel obligated to embrace.

Ironically, the Mahayana sutras—with their multitude of buddhas, bodhisattvas, gods, garudas and apsaras— take us much closer to the world we know because they address a problem quite distinct from the concerns of the early Buddhists. Those Buddhists never faced the consolidation of power that made the caste hierarchy more rigid. But for later Buddhists, caught in that hierarchy, the problem was no longer how to remain grounded at a time of unprecedented change but how to get free from the identities imposed on them by the people at the top. We face much the same problem now, and it’s why the major struggles of our time have started with groups who ally to throw off the forms of selfhood that hold them down: people of color, ethnic minorities, women, gays, lesbians, and transgenders. They’ve resisted their assigned identities by stripping those formulas of their naturalness in order to transform them or replace them altogether.

We need two Buddhas, at the very least: Siddhartha, the man, and the cosmic Shakyamuni, radiating light, who is beyond our understanding in every way.

But because members of subordinated groups also internalize society’s messages, the struggle for liberation has to begin with “decolonizing the mind,” in the words of the Kenyan writer Nguge wa Thiong’o. If we look at the Mahayana sutras in this light, we can see that they mobilize the power of myth—especially mythology’s use of the strange to destabilize the familiar. Apparently, as social life in India grew increasingly stratified, nothing less than a drastic break with the “real” could allow Buddhists to try on new, liberating personae. One example of this tactic that survives today is Tibetan deity meditation, whereby practitioners, by becoming one with a god, loosen the grip of old self-images. If myth allows people to break free this way, then attacking myth strengthens the status quo by closing off fresh possibilities.

Nowhere in the Mahayana canon is the struggle over identity dramatized more powerfully than in the Lotus Sutra, arguably the single most important text for Buddhism in China, Korea, and Japan. If everything is empty, the sutra says, then everybody must be equal, and if buddhanature can be found everywhere, then we should never fear our differences. Among the sutra’s surprises is the unfamiliar light it casts on the foremost of the Buddha’s followers, the arhat Shariputra (Pali, Sariputta). Revered as the most accomplished of them all, he’s praised in the Pali scriptures as nothing less than the Buddha’s spiritual son and heir. Yet the Lotus Sutra recounts that this man has long felt secretly ashamed for having never measured up to the Buddha’s achievement:

Whether sitting or walking around,
I always thought about this matter
And blamed myself completely, thinking:
“Why have I cheated myself so?

. . . . . .

We will never receive
The golden body with thirty-two characteristics,
The ten powers, or various kinds of liberation.”

. . . . . .

I thought I had been deprived of this benefit,
That I had been deceived.
All day and all night, I pondered over these things,
And wanted to ask the World Honored One
Whether I had lost my opportunity or not.

–trans. Gene Reeves

Shariputra has done everything he’s been told, flawlessly cultivating the paramis, the forms of moral excellence, and maintaining day and night the deepest concentration, yet it appears that he still has failed to become truly perfect like the Buddha, with his “golden body” and “ten powers.”

Observing his chief disciple in acute distress, the Buddha offers these words of encouragement:

Shariputra, in a future life, after innumerable, unlimited, and inconceivable eons, when you have served some ten million billion buddhas, maintained the true dharma, and perfected the way of bodhisattva practice, you will be able to become a buddha whose name will be Flower Light Tathagata.

Since most of us have felt at times the frustration Shariputra expresses—“When will I ever reach the mark of the people I most admire?”—we probably also share his happiness when the Buddha offers his prediction. But if we pause to consider what the Buddha says, it could seem a little disconcerting.

Contrary to what we might expect, the Buddha doesn’t tell Shariputra, “Just stop trying to become what you are! You’re enlightened right now.” As an arhat, Shariputra should have already reached the highest possible stage, but the World Honored One reassures his friend that he will indeed attain buddhahood. He will reach it, though, only at a time so far removed that none of us can get our minds around it—after “innumerable, unlimited, and inconceivable eons”—and then only after Shariputra has “served some ten million billion buddhas.” Shariputra doesn’t respond with dismay, but we might feel shocked because the Buddha’s words directly contradict the early Buddhist view of enlightenment as a final, permanent state.

What we—and Shariputra—have yet to understand is that no condition can be permanent, not even for an arhat. As the sutra says, “a world/Full of men like Shariputra,/ Using all of their mental powers together/Could not fathom Buddha-wisdom.” The point is that the worlds we call “reality” are only fabrications of our minds, which select a tiny handful of details from the Ganges of perceptions flowing by, moment after moment. To make order out of that complexity, we have to pretend that the worlds we create are solid and enduring, when things actually never cease to change. The order we cobble together isn’t false, at least much of the time, but it’s always becoming something else and something more. In the Buddha’s words, “Nothing is simply real, nothing simply empty, nothing as it seems, nothing the opposite.” And this holds true even for the identity of a “World Honored One,” which the Buddha candidly describes as just another skillful means. “Sometimes,” he says, “I appear as myself, sometimes as someone else; sometimes I appear in my own actions, sometimes in the actions of others.”

This line of thought could sound depressing, for it implies that practice never stops, and the interminability may feel less like liberation than a cosmic treadmill. But we’d benefit from taking a second look at Shariputra’s reaction when the Buddha promises a long, hard road ahead. The sutra tells us that Shariputra can’t contain his joy:

My doubts and regrets
Are forever ended.
I am dwelling at peace in real wisdom.
I am confident of becoming a Buddha.

The key to his reaction may be found in the words he uses to describe his prior state—full of “blame,” ”fault,” “doubt,” and “regret.” Shariputra held himself responsible for his failure to become the “finished” buddha of his imagining. But now, aware that transformation never stops, he feels completely free.

He is free not to be perfect, however, but to make mistakes in just the way that Shunryu Suzuki means in his classic work Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Here are Suzuki Roshi’s words:

When we reflect on what we are doing in our everyday life, we are always ashamed of ourselves. One of my students wrote to me saying, “You sent me a calendar, and I am trying to follow the good mottoes which appear on each page. But the year has hardly begun, and already I have failed!” [Yet] Dogen-zenji said, “Shoshaku jushaku.” Shaku generally means “mistake” or “wrong.” Shoshaku jushaku means “to succeed wrong with wrong,” or one continuous mistake. According to Dogen, one continuous mistake can also be Zen. A Zen master’s life could be said to be so many years of shoshaku jushaku.

If we turn from Suzuki to his source, we learn that Dogen saw making mistakes as the fullest expression of our intrinsic buddhanature. We should, he writes in his Extensive Record, “play vividly and energetically” with our experience, smashing the “polished tile of trying to become a buddha.” Samsara is precisely the belief that the truth exists ready-made somewhere else. “To realize the way and clarify the mind,” he says, we should “completely avoid following others” (trans. Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura).

Illustrations by Martin O’Neill

And with that advice, we’re in a very good place to rethink the motivations that might explain our desire to find the real Buddha. At first, the search seems to reflect a confidence in ourselves so firm and sure that we have no need for the fantasies concocted by Buddhists before us. But our search for such a person may instead reveal the collapse of our sense of possibility in this troubled time. We may think that realism takes us closer to things as they actually are, yet it may be the biggest fantasy of all—the illusion of a single, unvarying truth that everyone will see in the same way if they only wipe the dust from their eyes. And if realism is indeed a fantasy, then the Mahayana texts, with worlds piled high onto other worlds, demonstrate the courage we most need today: the willingness to think and act differently, and to re-create our lives by defying “common sense.” On my reading, the Lotus Sutra insists that both the so-called Buddha of history and the cosmic Vairocana, one of the celestial buddhas, are constructions of our own minds, only visible to each of us in our individual ways. This is why the Buddha in the Lotus declares, “Because living beings have different natures, different desires, [and] different activities . . . and because I wanted to lead them to put down roots of goodness, I have used a variety of . . . explanations.” The point, then, is not to reach agreement about the real nature of Siddhartha, but to recognize our own multiplicity—which is infinite. It’s not just the Buddha we diminish when we humanize him; we also deny our essential formlessness.

Given the importance of the teaching of no-self, it’s odd that Buddhists would ever disagree about who the real Buddha might have been. But behind this debate we can detect a larger clash between the dharmic paradigm of interbeing, or dependent coarising, and the contrary Western ideal of an autonomous, independent self uniquely able to redirect the course of events. And whether we realize it or not, this self might be the one we’re arguing for when we clamor to see the real Buddha. Nor are Westerners alone in confusing personal autonomy with true enlightenment, as illustrated by this exchange between a monk and Zen master Chao-chou ( Jp., Joshu):

A monk asked [Chao-chou], “What about a person who has gone beyond Heaven and Earth?”
The master said, “I’m waiting for that person to appear.”

The monk assumes that Siddhartha achieved buddhahood by freeing himself from everything—not just the earth but the heavens, too. He probably expects Chao-chou to answer him, “You must be speaking of the World Honored One.” But Chaochou, in his decades of practice, has never met this person the monk asks about. And by responding cryptically, he’s nudging the monk to discover for himself that autonomy isn’t enlightenment. Real liberation means, in Dogen’s words, “to perceive oneself as all things” (trans. Kosen Nishiyama and John Stevens). That’s why the Buddha of history, supposedly born in 563 BCE and enlightened thirty-five years later, was never for a moment just a person. And why, in everything he said and did, he meant to show that the same holds true of us.