Zen Wisdom 216

Inevitably, however, people asked: "Where do we come from? And if we don't get enlightened, what will happen after death, where will we go?" In answering these questions, Sakyamuni Buddha relied on a modified version of the teaching of reincarnation, which already existed in Indian religions. Sakyamuni perceived that sentient beings have past and future lives, were imprisoned in the seemingly endless cycle of samsara, and would remain that way unless they began to practice Buddhadharma. If sentient beings practice until they were fully enlightened, then they would be free from vexation ─ from desire, aversion, and ignorance ─ which keeps them chained to samsara.

People then asked, "If anyone can practice and attain Buddhahood, is Sakyamuni the only Buddha? If not, where are the others who have attained Buddhahood?" Sakyamuni Buddha said that the scope of ordinary sentient beings' perceptions and power is limited. This world is tiny, and the universe vast. There are innumerable Buddhas who have attained ultimate enlightenment, and when causes and conditions ripen, ordinary sentient beings will also attain Buddhahood. Again, the Buddha's answer encouraged people to practice.

But people are rarely satisfied, so they asked, "How long will it take to attain Buddhahood?" Sakyamuni Buddha explained the path and process of practice, describing the levels of attainment, which culminate in complete enlightenment. He spoke about those exemplars of practice, the bodhisattvas, who attained saintly status. Yet, Sakyamuni did not exhort people to pray to bodhisattvas; instead, he encouraged people to emulate them.