This week’s theme from The Teachings of the Buddha is “The Bringer of Light.”—Editor's Note
The picture of the human condition that emerges from the Nikāyas, as sketched in the preceding chapter, is the background against which the manifestation of the Buddha in the world acquires a heightened and deepened significance. Unless we view the Buddha against this multi-dimensional background, extending from the most personal and individual exigencies of the present to the vast, impersonal rhythms of cosmic time, any interpretation we may arrive at about his role is bound to be incomplete. Far from capturing the viewpoint of the compilers of the Nikāyas, our interpretation will be influenced as much by our own presuppositions as by theirs, perhaps even more so. Depending on our biases and predispositions, we may choose to regard the Buddha as a liberal ethical reformer of a degenerate Brahmanism, as a great secular humanist, as a radical empiricist, as an existential psychologist, as the proponent of a sweeping agnosticism, or as the precursor of any other intellectual fashion that meets our fancy. The Buddha who stares back at us from the texts will be too much a reflection of ourselves, too little an image of the Enlightened One.
Perhaps in interpreting a body of ancient religious literature we can never fully avoid inserting ourselves and our own values into the subject we are interpreting. However, though we may never achieve perfect transparency, we can limit the impact of personal bias upon the process of interpretation by giving the words of the texts due respect. When we pay this act of homage to the Nikāyas, when we take seriously their own account of the background to the Buddha’s manifestation in the world, we will see that they ascribe to his mission nothing short of a cosmic scope. Against the background of a universe with no conceivable bounds in time, a universe within which living beings enveloped in the darkness of ignorance wander along bound to the suffering of old age, sickness, and death, the Buddha arrives as the “torchbearer of humankind” (ukkādhāro manussānaṃ) bringing the light of wisdom. In the words of Text II,1, his arising in the world is “the manifestation of great vision, of great light, of great radiance.” Having discovered for himself the perfect peace of liberation, he kindles for us the light of knowledge, which reveals both the truths that we must see for ourselves and the path of practice that culminates in this liberating vision.
To read the rest of Bhikkhu Bodhi’s introduction to “The Bringer of Light”, click here.