Even Plants and Trees Have Buddha-nature

My apartment is located in the rear of the building. There used to be four beautiful trees right outside my windows. They provided cooling shade and great ambiance. In springtime, birds would come to sit on the branches and chirp their love songs to one another, making lovely music. In the summertime, I loved to look out at the trees in the afternoon,  beguiled with the way the sunlight fell upon the leaves so perfectly . . .

Two of these trees were destroyed by over-trimming and eventually cut down. Incompetent tree-trimming is a real problem here in Los Angeles. None of the people who do this sort of work seem to have any idea of how to prune a tree properly. They engage in topping and tipping, two practices that are extremely harmful to trees.

Topping is the indiscriminate cutting of large upright branches, sometimes in order to reduce the height of a tree. Tipping is basically just hacking off lateral branches. The U.S. Department of Agriculture and any responsible arborist will tell you that proper tree trimming does not include topping and tipping.

After the two trees were removed, obviously only two remained. One was a wonderful red berry tree that subsequently had the heart cut out of it by these so called “tree trimmers”:

Today they cut away at it some more, and now, it’s just ugly.

Then there was this small tree, which at one time was not so small.  The tree trimmers nearly destroyed it, and for  years now, it has struggled to survive and regrow:

When I received a notice regarding the impending tree timing, I contacted the property manager and practically begged her to leave this tree alone.  I sent her the above photo to show that the tree was coming back to life, finally thriving.  They cut it down anyway.  It’s gone, and I have a difficult time not calling it murder. A pretty strong word, but trees are living things. What else would you call the senseless act of killing a living thing? There was absolutely no need to destroy that tree.

If simply the fact that they are alive is not reason enough to cherish trees, and plants, and hold them sacred, then consider this: In Mahayana Buddhism, “even non-sentient beings possess the Buddha-nature” (Ch. wu ch’ing yu hsing). Yes, even plants and trees have a Buddha-nature.

William R. La Fleur has noted that,

Chi-t’sang [549–623 CE], a native of Turkestan and a master of Madhyamika dialectic in China, was the first to use the key phrase “Attainment of Buddhahood by Plants and Trees.” He made the first, although highly qualified, step in the direction of seeing Buddhahood in the nonsentient. In his Ta-ch’eng-hsuan-lun he stated that in theory plants and trees, since they are essentially like sentient beings, can achieve Buddhahood, but he allowed this as a possibility only within the realm of theory.”*

Around the same time, T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i (538–597 CE) put forth a theory on the Buddhahood of plants (Jp. somoku-jobutsu) based on his concept of i-nien san-ch’ien or “three thousand worlds in one thought” (Jp. ichinen sanzen). In his Chin-kang Pi (“Diamond Blade”), the ninth patriarch of the T’ien-t’ai school, Chan-jan, wrote,

“A plant, a tree, a pebble, a speck of dust—each has the Buddha nature, and each is endowed with cause and effect and with the function to manifest and the wisdom to realize its Buddha nature.”

Elsewhere in the same work, he stated,

[Because of i-nien san-ch’ien] we may know that the single mind of a single particle of dust comprises the mind-nature of all sentient beings and Buddhas…. The man who is of all-round perfection, knows from beginning to end that Truth is not dual and that no objects exist apart from mind. Who, then, is “animate,” and who “inanimate”? . . . In the case of grass, trees, and the soil (from which they grow), what difference is there between their four kinds of atoms? . . . How can it still be said unto today that inanimate things are devoid (of the Buddha-nature)?”*

This notion of the Buddhahood of Plants and Trees was extremely popular in Japan. In Tendai (the Japanese offshoot of T’ien-t’ai), scholars advanced the theory further. Chujin (1065-1138), in a work called Kanko Ruiju (“Classified Collection of the Light of the Han”) put forth seven “arguments” in this regard [see below], stating that “trees and plants do not posses Buddhahood in and of themselves, but do so when they are viewed by Buddhas”, and so, according to the principle of “original enlightenment” trees and plants posses Buddha Nature. What he is saying is that it is through the faculty of enlightened wisdom that we can recognize the precious entity of life in all existing things and recognize that they all posses Buddha-nature.

Other Japanese Buddhists such as Kukai and Dogen, and the great poet Saigyo, also championed the Buddhahood of Plants and Trees. Dogen was critical of those who couldn’t get it. He once wrote,

Students . . . consider the mind to be thoughts and perceptions and do not believe it when they are told the mind is plants and trees.”

A person who thinks in non-dualistic terms finds no separation between the mind and the world of nature.

There is no excuse for the senseless destruction of trees. Ignorance is not a defense. People in the tree trimming business should be knowledgeable about their business. They should know what is good for trees and what isn’t. I’ve tried to protect our building’s trees . . . to no avail.

And this is why I am feel sad today. With the destruction of the small tree, I feel as though I have lost a dear friend. I lamented its near-destruction.  I rooted for it to come back.

On this last day of National Poetry Month, I offer one of Saigyo’s poems. Read it in reverse, not as a human speaking to a tree, but instead, as if the little tree that struggled so hard to survive but was cut down anyway, was speaking to us . . .

Pine, of you I ask
Some services … of mourning
For aeons … of concealment;
There’s here no human being
Who might think of me when I die.

Chujin’s Seven Arguments for the Buddhahood of Plants and Trees*

1. Shobutsu no kangen. Trees and plants do not possess Buddhahood in and of themselves, but do so when they are viewed by Buddhas.

2. Gubosho no ri. Trees and plants are in possession of Buddha-nature (bussho or Buddhata). “Buddha” means “enlightenment.” The inner (or mysterious) principle of the Buddha-nature is a purity of original enlightenment (hongaku) and has nothing of impurity in it. This is something which plants and trees are in possession of.

3. Esho funi. There is an inner harmony of the achievement of the right reward (shobo) – in this case the Buddha’s enlightenment  –  and all the attendant (eho) circumstances – for example the earth, etc., upon which he depends. The enlightenment of him is accompanied by that of all these others. Therefore, plants and trees are already in possession of Buddha-nature.

4. Totai jissho. Of their own nature the myriad things are Buddha, and “Buddha” means enlightenment. In their inner nature the things of the 3,000 worlds are unchangeable, undefiled, unmoved, and pure; this is what is meant by their being called “Buddha.” As for trees and .plants, there is no need for them to have or show the thirty-two marks (of Buddhahood); in their present form-that is, by having roots, stems, branches, and leaves, each in its own way has Buddhahood.

5. Hongu-sammi. Like all sentient beings, trees and plants have three bodies: the Dharma-body, the Sambhoga-body, and the Nirmana-body. Therefore, trees and plants can attain Buddhahood as sentient beings can.

6. Hossho fushigi. The self-nature of trees and plants is not capable of being described and, therefore, the Buddha-nature possessed by trees and plants is also ineffable.

7. Guchuudo (Tendai mediation principle) and ichinen-sanzen. The principle that the 3,000 realms (i.e., all phenomena) are contained in one thought means that the mind (shin) is all things and all things are the mind. Trees-and-plants as well as sentient beings both possess all things. This is why sentient beings can conceive of trees and plants. If this were not so, there could be no cognition. The real and original nature of all things (hossho or dharmata) has two aspects. Its quiescent aspect is the one mind and its illuminating aspect is the 3,000 realms of being. The internal unity of these two aspects makes both for knowledge and for the fact that essentially plants and trees have the Buddha-nature.

*La Fleur, William R., Saigyo and the Buddhist Value of Nature. Part I. In: History of Religions, Vol. 13, No. 2 (Nov., 1973), pp. 93-128. The University of Chicago Press


Book Review: Joseph Campbell “Myths of Light – Eastern Metaphors of the Eternal”

I just read a new book by Joseph Campbell, Myths of Light – Eastern Metaphors of the Eternal, which I received as a review copy from New World Library.  Campbell, of course, passed away in 1987, and this new tome is compiled from previously unpublished lectures and articles.

The year Campbell died was the same year PBS presented his six-part conversation with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth. After the program aired, a television executive (I think he was with CBS) said that if it had been shown on any of the Big 3 networks (CBS, NBC, ABC), which would have vastly increased the viewership (remember this was pretty much a pre-cable time), the program would have changed the face of religion in America.

It certainly changed how I viewed religion, and since then, I have maintained that anyone who wishes to write, talk, or even just participate in any kind of religion or spiritual practice, would benefit greatly if they viewed this program first.

Throughout his career as a mythologist, writer and lecturer, Joseph Campbell showed us, as he wrote in Thou Art That: Transforming Religious Metaphor, how “[Religion] may, in a sense, be understood as popular misunderstanding of mythology.” In The Power of Myth he famously commented that when religion “gets stuck in its own metaphors, interpreting them as facts, then you are in trouble.”

I’ve always felt that if everyone could just get this one point, it would prevent so much confusion.

But not so fast. Confusion still abounds.

In the first chapter of Myths of Light, Campbell relates a story about attending a series of talks given by Martin Buber at Columbia:

It was during the third lecture that I got up my nerve to raise my hand. Very gently and nicely he asked, “What is it, Mr. Campbell?”

“Well,” I said, “there is a word being used here this evening that I just can’t follow; I don’t know what the word refers to.”

“What is the word?”

I said, “God.”

Well, his eyes opened. He looked in utter amazement at me and he said, “You don’t know what God means?”

I said, “I don’t know what you mean by God. You’re telling me that God has hidden his face. Now, I am just back from India, where people are experience and beholding God all the time.”

I don’t know what either of them mean by God. The use of words like “his” and “beholding” suggest to me a personal god or a “supreme being.” Yet, in the same chapter, Campbell makes it clear that “the basic idea of the Oriental philosophies to this day” is that “the cosmos is not ruled by a personal god; rather, an impersonal power.” I guess I just don’t know what Campbell means by God. I suppose if you can experience an impersonal power, you can also behold it . . . In the second chapter, “The Jiva’s Journey”, he discusses the meaning of AUM (OM): “AUM is God. AUM is the sound of God.” That is certainly not the way I understand AUM. Just what does Campbell mean by God?

Perhaps, the confusion is on my part, or maybe it belongs to David Kudler, who edited the book, or it might be Campbell’s. I don’t know, but I do find the G-word to be extremely cumbersome with all the baggage it carries and could do without it.

Unfortunately, this “confusion” made the book somewhat less enjoyable. But that is not to say that Myths of Light isn’t a good read. Campbell’s conversational style is immensely readable. A great storyteller, he uses stories to explain complicated concepts plainly and simply, and that’s what makes this and his other works so compelling.

One point I think he makes very clear in a direct manner something about the role and nature of religion. Many people today, especially a lot of younger Buddhists, are turned off by talk about the transcendent, the ineffable, the mysterious, and so on. However, Campbell explains that that is the whole point of all religion and spirituality, at least in the East:

[You] are that mystery, but not the “you” that you think you are. The you that you think you are is not it and the you that you can’t even think about is it. The paradox, this absurdity, is the essential mystery of the East.”

Perhaps folks who are bothered by mystery should not try to practice spirituality where the prime intent is to try to penetrate that mystery.

Another interesting clarification Campbell offers:

In Occidental theology, the word transcendent is used to mean outside of the world. In the East, it means outside of thought.

How the East views the transcendent or the eternal is the theme of Myths of Light and overall Joseph Campbell does a good job of exploring the subject. In some respects, the book could serve as an excellent introduction to Eastern philosophy, except for a few problems such as the use of the G-word and the R-word – reincarnation.

The longest chapter in the book is “The Jiva’s Journey.” Jiva is the Sanskrit word for the “reincarnating” entity, the “deathless soul” that “puts on bodies and takes them off, over and over again, as a person puts on and removes clothing.” What he is talking about is rebirth, not reincarnation, which would be the same person putting on and removing clothing – that is not rebirth. I wished Campbell had made a finer point about the distinction between the two, and how Buddhism, in general, rejects the notion of reincarnation.

But you can’t have everything. Elsewhere, Campbell offers a very fine explanation of nirvana:

Nirvana literally means “blown out”; the image is that once one has realized one’s unity with what is called the Buddha mind – this is the Buddhist conception of Brahman – then one’s individual ego is extinguished like a candle flame, and one becomes one with the great solar light . . . But when you get over there, you realize, I was here all the time.”

As I have said many times on this blog, realizing nirvana is not about going to some other place, even though we may use the metaphor of the “yonder shore.” Nirvana is viewing this saha or mundane world differently from how we have viewed it before.

There is this great Buddhist text, the Prajnaparamita Sutra [The Heart Sutra], and its only a very short concise thing of about a page and a half, and it culminates in one line, which is said to be the summary of the whole sense of Mahayana Buddhism. That line goes like this: Aum gottam, Buddha-tam, parigatam, parasangatam. Bodhi!* “Gone, gone, gone to the yonder shore, landed on the yonder shore, illumination!” Hallelujah.

That is the summary of the whole thing. Prajnaparamita: The wisdom of the yonder shore, beyond pairs of opposites. The one who is trying to get away from life to nirvana is still caught in pairs of opposites. But when you get there, you realize that this is it right now.”

Such an important point should be repeated, many times until it penetrates our hard skulls. And there are quite a few important points that Joseph Campbell makes in Myths of Light. A few other things, I could nitpick about, as well. But the good in this book far outweighs anything negative, and whether someone is just beginning to look into Eastern philosophy, which Campbell covers from Jainism to Zen,  or whether they are a long time seeker of Asian wisdom, this is a valuable book to have on hand.

* Gate, Gate, Paragate, Parasamgate, Bodhi Svaha


“I give it a 90, it has a good beat, and you can dance to it.”

One day when I was about five years old, I rushed home from school as I did every afternoon to watch my favorite TV show, “The Adventures of Superman.” Only that day, Superman wasn’t on and my mother informed me it wasn’t going to be on anymore. It had been replaced by a program with big kids dancing to music. I was devastated. It was horrible! I remember falling on my parent’s bed and crying my heart out. The program that replaced my beloved show was “American Bandstand” hosted by Dick Clark who passed away today at the age of 82.

Well, six or seven years later, after Bandstand went from a daily program to a weekly one, I looked forward to it as eagerly as I once did Superman. In those days, the early to mid ‘60’s, “Bandstand” was one of the few opportunities you had to see rock performers on TV. There was the Saturday airings of Clark’s show, along with the Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night show, which featured a rock group each week, and Rick Nelson’s weekly song at the end of Ozzie and Harriet. Believe it or not, that was about it. Sure, at one point we also had “Hullabaloo” and “Shindig”, but those shows didn’t last long.

Fast forward to the end of the ‘60’s and Dick Clark was just a tad bit uncool. After all, he insisted that everyone who performed on his show lip-sync instead of play live and he tended to favor teenybopper or bubblegum music, which was strictly kid’s stuff.

Today, in retrospect, Dick Clark’s contribution to rock and roll is impressive, and nothing less than massive. It’s on a par with contributions by Elvis, the Beatles and Stones, and Bob Dylan. Different, but just as significant. Clark, too, was one of the real unsung heroes of the civil rights movement for his championing of black music, not to mention that “American Bandstand” was without a doubt the first show on television to feature blacks and white dancing together. He deserves much credit for breaking down racial barriers.

So, a tip of the hat to “America’s oldest teenager,” and as Dick used to end each Bandstand show, “so long.”

Sad, as well, to hear disturbing news about two other rock legends. Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees, battling cancer for the last year, has slipped into a coma, and the end is feared near. And the family of Levon Helm, co-founder, drummer and vocalist for the Band, who made music history with Bob Dylan and on their own, has announced that he is “in the final stages of his battle with cancer.”

On top of this, one of my dear family members in Oregon is struggling to survive pneumonia and complications from a stroke, and it’s not looking good.

As the old blues song goes, death don’t have no mercy in this land . . .

The title of this post comes from the oft repeated line from Bandstand’s famous “Rate A Record” segment.


Northern Poet

Seamus Heaney was born on this day in 1939. He is an Irish poet, playwright, translator, lecturer, and Nobel Prize winner (for Literature in 1995). Heaney was both the Harvard and the Oxford Professor of Poetry and in 1996 was made a Commandeur de l’Ordre des Arts et Lettres.

He’s regarded as one of the finest poets of the twentieth century. Fellow poet Robert Lowell called him “the most important Irish poet since Yeats” and others, such as the British academic John Sutherland, have hailed Heaney as “the greatest poet of our age”.

In the essay published in Les Prix Nobel (The Nobel Prizes) 1995, states:

Heaney’s poems first came to public attention in the mid-1960s when he was active as one of a group of poets who were subsequently recognized as constituting something of a “Northern School” within Irish writing. Although Heaney is stylistically and temperamentally different from such writers as Michael Longley and Derek Mahon (his contemporaries), and Paul Muldoon, Medbh McGuckian and Ciaran Carson (members of a younger Northern Irish generation), he does share with all of them the fate of having be en born into a society deeply divided along religious and political lines, one which was doomed moreover to suffer a quarter-century of violence, polarization and inner distrust. This had the effect not only of darkening the mood of Heaney’s work in the 1970s, but also of giving him a deep preoccupation with the question of poetry’s responsibilities and prerogatives in the world, since poetry is poised between a need for creative freedom within itself and a pressure to express the sense of social obligation felt by the poet as citizen.

You can read more about Seamus Heaney here at Wikipedia, and in honor of National Poetry Month, you can read “Requiem for the Croppies,” about the 1798 Rebellion, right here.

“Croppies” was a term for United Irishmen who wore their hair close-cropped to mark their allegiance. Written in the voice of a dead croppy boy, the poem focues on the Battle of Vinegar Hill, where the rebels were defeated by the British and the bodies of 640 slaughtered insurgents were thrown into a mass grave and covered in quicklime. “Croppies Grave” is the  monument over the mass grave that commemorates their deaths.

Heaney wrote “Requiem for the Croppies”  in 1966 on the fiftieth anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916. However, as Neil Corcoran says in Seamus Heaney (Faber and Faber), “Heaney celebrates not the Rising itself but what he considers its original seed in the rebellion of 1798.”

Requiem for the Croppies

The pockets of our greatcoats full of barley…
No kitchens on the run, no striking camp…
We moved quick and sudden in our own country.
The priest lay behind ditches with the tramp.
A people hardly marching… on the hike…
We found new tactics happening each day:
We’d cut through reins and rider with the pike
And stampede cattle into infantry,
Then retreat through hedges where cavalry must be thrown.
Until… on Vinegar Hill… the final conclave.
Terraced thousands died, shaking scythes at cannon.
The hillside blushed, soaked in our broken wave.
They buried us without shroud or coffin
And in August… the barley grew up out of our grave.



One Day In Spring

It’s Spring. It’s April. It’s National Poetry Month. Three reasons to stand up and cheer.

I love National Poetry Month because it gives me an opportunity to present some of my favorite poems (not that I really need an excuse), hopefully introducing them to folks to whom they are unknown, or reintroducing them to folks who have met them already.

Today, here’s a fitting poem for the season by Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel winning poet and playwright who coined the phrase that I use as the title of this blog, The Endless Further:

One Day In Spring

One day in spring, a woman came
In my lonely woods,
In the lovely form of the Beloved.
Came, to give to my songs, melodies,
To give to my dreams, sweetness.
Suddenly a wild wave
Broke over my heart’s shores
And drowned all language.
To my lips no name came,
She stood beneath the tree, turned,
Glanced at my face, made sad with pain,
And with quick steps, came and sat by me.
Taking my hands in hers, she said:
‘You do not know me, nor I you—
I wonder how this could be?’
I said:
‘We two shall build, a bridge for ever
Between two beings, each to the other unknown,
This eager wonder is at the heart of things.’

The cry that is in my heart is also the cry of her heart;
The thread with which she binds me binds her too.
Her have I sought everywhere,
Her have I worshipped within me,
Hidden in that worship she has sought me too.
Crossing the wide oceans, she came to steal my heart.
She forgot to return, having lost her own.
Her own charms play traitor to her,
She spreads her net, knowing not
Whether she will catch or be caught.