“dhammaṃ passati, so maṃ passati. yo maṃ passati, so dhammaṃ passati”
“One who sees the Dhamma sees me; one who sees me sees the Dhamma”
—Saṃyutta Nikāya 3.120
Throughout his teachings, Gotama urges us to see clearly how experience unfolds in the moment, how it blossoms from the seeds of conditions that come from the past interacting with conditions arising in the present. It is not a question of just “be here now” (much as I like Ram Dass’s concise reminder). Gotama wants us to see here now. When we see clearly this unfolding, we understand that there is no reason to assume a someone behind it all. We are inside a process, looking out, but the we & the looking are all just the process. This is not a denial of reality, just another way of understanding it. A more helpful way, in the sense that this process perspective removes the tendency to get stuck on the perception of sensations, emotions, people, & ideas. That stuckness, that friction between a perception of some self & other arisings, is exactly the nature of dukkha: suffering & stress.
Within this present-moment awareness of arising & passing away, the sense of a solid self dissolves, even though the elements that created the illusion remain. You can see the constellation as a bear, or you can see that it is just a group of stars: real stars, imagined bear. It is, as several suttas record, like seeing the artifice of the magician’s trick: we see that her props are real, but the illusion itself is not what it appears to be.
So it should not be surprising that Gotama can say that there is no difference between understanding—clearly seeing—himself & seeing both his teachings and seeing the Dhamma (the process he describes). You cannot see one without seeing the other. He is simply the manifestation of the arising of a being who comprehends & teaches the way things actually are, the way the trick works, including how it causes suffering. He is also, of course, a living example of what the end of dukkha looks like: that this is possible, that a free, realized being, too, is part of the Dhamma, the way things are. It is possible to be that wise, that compassionate, that saturated with equanimity.
It also demonstrates, for me at least, that while his understanding is extraordinary, it is something that a human being can achieve. He himself (as opposed to some others after him) does not claim to have anything other than human origins. He does, of course, indicate that the nature of his achievement takes him, after the fact, outside the ordinary definition of “human,” while clearly indicating that this is a case of rising above, & that it is available to others (if not necessarily everyone currently living).1 He compares himself to the lotus flower that has earthly origins, growing in mud & water, but rising above them. Not a deva, or a human being, but “unsmeared by water, unsmeared by the world…I’m awake.”2
We can also see this when, just before his parinibbāna, he says that the Dhamma itself will succeed him as the best teacher. He says this despite the fact that many of his disciples have achieved freedom for themselves, & that he often praises them for their superior abilities as teachers of the Dhamma & as living examples of the teachings. He clearly saw the dangers of becoming attached to a particular person, or to put it another way, a particular manifestation of the Dhamma in the form of a person. This would be a potential distraction from the work of clearly seeing the Dhamma for onself—which is the only method of achieving freedom. While “faith“—or as I find it more helpful to translate saddha, “trust”—in a teacher is certainly useful, freedom must be achieved by the individual, from the inside out; it cannot be imposed from the outside.
So by stating this equivalence between seeing him & seeing the Dhamma, Gotama makes it plain that freedom is a possibility for those who can work to achieve it. It is in the nature of reality that this is possible; he has discovered it (another metaphorical complex he uses), but he did not create it. He created ways of teaching how to see it, teaching how to achieve it: That is his unique contribution.
The complete humanness of Gotama is important because it makes his accomplishment more achievable for the rest of us. It reminds us that the Dhamma is something inherent in the nature of our experience, if only we can learn to see it unfolding. This is equalivalent, for me, to the idea of grace in other traditions: It is an aspect of nature that is always there, always available, no matter what events have come before. As long as there are beings with the nature of desire, who have—as humans do—some potential to overcome that desire, then the path is open. As long as we have the Dhamma—in the sense of the teachings themselves—we can follow the path. This is a key idea in relation to a pragmatic approach to human existence in a universe that offers no human-focused beneficence outside of other, somewhat unreliable, human beings. It is pragmatic because human beings through their wholesome actions create the new field of kamma for all those with whom they come in contact; this can then spread in a geometric ratio through other beings. Together this creates new opportunities for future beings to embrace the teachings, & compound the growth of wholesomeness. Indeed, the history of human beings, for all its horrors, does show growth in wholesomeness, & this mechanism explains how. These continuously emerging opportunities for growth correspond to what those in the Christian tradition call “grace,” but without the need for a diety to explain it.
The citation above, about the equivalence of the Buddha & the Dhamma, has an interesting context. The Buddha is visiting a disciple who is gravely ill, Vakkali. Asked by the Buddha if he has any regrets, Vakkali says that he had long wanted to travel to see the Buddha in person, but was too ill to do so. Gotama says to him, “Why would you want to see this foul body?” The quote above follows. It is not this body that matters, but the teachings & the Dhamma they describe. Later after leaving Vakkali, the Buddha sends him a message that his impending death “will not be a bad one.” Vakkali responds by demonstrating that he understands the teaching on the five aggregates, that for example form is impermanent, and is not self. He has no doubt about this; he is not perplexed about it. He is able to die in peace.3
1 Aṅguttara Nikāya 4.36, Doṇa Sutta
2 Transl. by Ajahn Thanissaro http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/an/an04/an04.036.than.html
3 In fact, Vakkali, who was in extreme pain, takes his own life, to spare himself pain. But that is another subject, too big to cover here.