Before he died, the Buddha instructed the sangha not to make images of him. In the Maha-parinibbana Sutta, he wanted each of his disciples to be “an island unto his or herself, as a refuge unto his or herself seeking no other refuges”. There were no portrayals of the Buddha in a human form in early Buddhism. But his presence was represented symbolical in pictures and sculptures by an empty throne, dharma wheels and footprints.
The stone-relief footprint motif, originating in India, spread throughout eastern Asia with Buddhism as stamps on the earth of the Buddha’s existence, his comings and goings, his path. Was the original message in these is that what is to be venerated is not the Buddha’s person, but the path that he had walked and marked for others to walk? Are they a form of invitation for ones to follow the same course and discover their own awakenings from within themselves?
Truth is what I had in the beginning. Growing up in the US Bible Belt, Truth was written and revealed by the prophets and apostles. How the world began, why it seemed imperfect, why I was in it and what role I played; these questions were all provided with answers. Actually the answers were already provided before questions were even raised. The world and everything it contained was set up and controlled by a God that was outside of the world and its imperfections looking on.
But with the coming of age, the questions arose. The answers from the Book then seemed quaint and simple. The world became slipery, hard to grasp. The world was activated by forces and drives coming from within and working through myriad, compounded things. In all this profusion, there didn’t seem a need for a creator; for the world was creation, destruction, birth , death all in an intertwined dance with its own music without a conductor. Within this confusion, there was no rock to cling to. Truth became provisional at best.
I explored other belief systems and ways of thinking under the assumption that there was a framework that imposed order in the world and more importantly in my life. I felt a growing separation between me and others even with family and close friends. We were living in the same world, but seeing it with different eyes. Truth was becoming truths. Words of others, even my own words, failed to seize reality just as the Word of God had earlier.
I came upon Buddhism during this search. My first impression of it was that it was saying that the world is suffering and, to escape it, we have to kill all attachments to it which I read as essentially killing our souls. Breaking from all emotions, positive and negative, and extinguishing ourselves in Nibbana. The Buddha became superhuman by killing the human within him and being enshrined in gold. He was the standard to live up to. A state of perfection to emulate and attain. Luckily, you had countless lifetimes to attain this perfection. This had no appeal to me because, as with God, this was another figure to follow that was outside the world and all of its bewildering, unfathomable complexity. Since it was outside, it could be ignored except as somthing to be excaped or saved from, just as before.
I had come to sense that the world (really life) and its confusion was the truth itself. It could not be tamed and it could not be escaped. It could only be lived.
When I revisited Buddhism in its Zen form, what I found was a path laid out by Guatama Buddha that was inside the world/life. A way to live it, not to escape or to tame it. The Answers to the Questions are that there are no Questions. We practice to accept (to be) our place in this unpredictable, unrepeatable dance of being/non-being. To be home with it following the meandering path that winds through it. Actualizing the Truth that is us.
That’s why, to me, the Buddha left empty footprints in the earth. They are there to guide each of us on the path that he took to his awakening to our own awakenings.