Although Vesak (Pali: Vesakha; Sanskrit: Vaisakha) is often called the “Buddha’s Birthday”, it’s actually three celebrations rolled into one: the birth, enlightenment and death of Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Shakyamuni (Sage of the Shakyas), and of course, as the Buddha.

The date for Vesak differs according to tradition and country, but generally it’s held on the day of the full moon in the fifth month, which would be today. So happy Vesak day to everyone.

Of course, no one knows for sure when the Buddha was born or when he died, or even if there actually was such a person. Sometimes I am inclined to believe that the Buddha’s story was crafted from that of Mahavira, who was the real architect of Jainism as we know it today, or maybe it was the other way around. Or maybe there actually were two guys with nearly identical backgrounds who arrived on the Indian spiritual scene at basically the same time with very similar teachings. Maybe they’re both myths. It’s likely we’ll never know.

As far as Buddhism goes, it doesn’t matter. Edward Conze once said, “The existence of the Gautama as an individual is, in any case, a matter of little importance to Buddhist faith.” Because the Buddha is portrayed as a human being and not a god, his awakening represents the potential for awakening that exists within every human being. It’s not important whether one particular person was the first to awaken. Plenty of others awakened after him, and we can too. That potential is like a seed and when it sprouts in anyone, that person is, in the words of Jack Kerouac, “equally empty, equally to be loved, equally a coming Buddha.”

Tsung-mi (780-841), regarded as both a patriarch of the Flower Garland School and a Ch’an (Zen) Master, composed a work entitled Yuan Jen or “On the Original Nature of Human Beings.” It’s often used as a primer of Mahayana teachings. In this piece, he wrote,

All sentient beings posses the true mind of original enlightenment. From the beginningless beginning this mind has been constant, Pure, luminous, and unobscured; it has always been characterized by bright cognition; it is called the Buddha Nature or the Womb of the Awakened.

From the beginningless beginning the delusions of human beings has obscured it so that they have not been aware of it. Because they recognize in themselves only the ordinary person’s characteristics, they indulge in lives of attachment, increasing the bond of karmic power and receiving the sufferings of birth and death. Out of compassion for them, The Awakened One taught that everything is empty; then he revealed to all that the true mind of spiritual enlightenment is pure and is identical with that of the Buddhas.”

For Buddhists, then, the Buddha is the personification of all our ideals and values. He attained the highest spiritual achievement, but the same is never beyond our own reach. To me, Vesak is about commemorating that potential for Buddhahood. We are really celebrating ourselves. We are him and he is us. His day is our day.

The term ‘all Buddhas’ means Shakyamuni Buddha: Shakyamuni Buddha is synonymous with one’s very mind being Buddha. At that very moment when all the Buddhas of past, present, and future have become, do become, and will become Buddha, without fail, They become Shakyamuni Buddha. This is what “Your very mind is Buddha” means.

- Dogen, On ‘Your Very Mind Is Buddha’ (Soku Shin Ze Butsu)

I’m not sure where I got this from, I’ve had it for a while, but obviously it is a compilation of some popular quotes taken from various writings by Dogen (Mountains and Waters Sutra, Rules on Zazen are two). Some people find Dogen hard to understand. I can relate. But even when we don’t grasp everything he says, we can always appreciate it as poetry:

Even in a drop of water innumerable Buddha fields appear.

You should know it as a fact that mountains are fond of wise people and sages.

It is not only that there is water in the world, but there is a world in water. It is not just in water. There is also a world of sentient beings in clouds. There is a world of sentient beings in the air. There is a world of sentient beings in fire. There is a world of sentient beings on earth. There is a world of sentient beings in the phenomenal world. There is a world of sentient beings in a blade of grass. There is a world of sentient beings in a staff. Wherever there is a world of sentient beings, there is a world of Buddha ancestors. You should thoroughly examine the meaning of this.

Mountains and waters at this moment are the manifestation of the ancient Buddha way. Each, resting in its phenomenal expression, realizes wholeness. Because mountains and waters have been active since before the beginning, they are alive at this moment. Because they have been the self since before form arose they are liberation-enlightenment.

A flower falls, even though we love it; and a weed grows, even though we do not love it.

Do not travel far to other dusty lands, forsaking your own sitting place; if you cannot find the truth where you are now, you will never find it.”

Handle even a single leaf of green in such a way that it manifests the body of the Buddha. This in turn allows the Buddha to manifest through the leaf.

Think only of today and this moment. Don’t spend your time looking forward tomorrow, because tomorrow in uncertain, demanding, and difficult to know.

Hsin, the Chinese character for "faith" does not imply mere belief, but confidence that comes from firsthand experience.

As far as I’m concerned, there is no question that Dogen is one of the premier Buddhist teachers from the past. Not everyone has the same opinion, but that’s their problem.

One thing that I always find rather puzzling, though, is that even within the school Dogen founded, Soto Zen, it seems there is some resistance to, or exception taken with his notion that “just sitting” is the path to awakening, equal to enlightenment. I can’t believe that he meant it to be taken literally, but then I am no expert on Dogen’s teachings, and I’m not even a Zen Buddhist, so I may not know what I am talking about.

But I do know that early in his life, Dogen pondered this question: if one undertakes Buddhist practice with the hope of attaining enlightenment, then after one has achieved that goal why is it necessary to continue to practice? The answer he arrived at was that practice (zazen or meditation) and enlightenment were identical (shusho ichinyo, literally “practice and enlightenment are one’).

In the Introduction to “Moon in a Dewdrop”, a collection of Dogen’s writings, Kazuaki Tanahashi says,

There is a tendency to view enlightenment as separate from practice and to seek some splendid insight as the goal of Zen practice. Dogen teaches that this is an illusion. One must fully understand the wholeness of practice and enlightenment. Dogen describes this understanding as mastery of Buddhism or the “true dharma eye.” It is freedom from a dualistic frame of mind.

Enlightenment as actualization of buddha nature through practice is Dogen’s fundamental teaching. All his discourses are intended to help students “understand” the meaning of this practice-enlightenment. But understanding is not the final goal; continuous everyday practice is the ultimate goal.

Dogen was a Tendai priest so it is certainly reasonable to assume that the teachings of T’ien-t’ai founder Chih-i had some influence on his thinking. In the  Fa-hua Hsuan-i or “Hidden Meaning of The Lotus Sutra”, Chih-i is quoted as saying, “No affairs of life or work are in any way apart from the ultimate reality.” He, in turn, was influenced by Nagarjuna, who wrote in the Maha-Prajnaparamita-Sastra, “The ultimately real nature of the knowledge of all forms (sarvakarajnata), the ultimately real nature of the tathagata, all this is one reality, not two, not divided. When the bodhisattva realizes this reality (tatha) he is called the Tathagata.”

Tathagata is an epithet for the Buddha, meaning “one who has thus gone.” Tatha refers to “suchness” which is “the undifferentiated whole of things, the ultimate reality, it is the nature of all things.” (Soothill Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms) A tathagata then is someone who has entered deeply into the realization of  ultimate nature. There is no separation between this reality and the individual or any activity carried out by any individual, and you can carry that to say that everything is enlightenment or as the Diamond Sutra says, “Everything is Buddha.”

Because reality does not exist in separate parts but is actually a cohesive whole, Dogen said that practice is enlightenment, and I think he well understood, as I mentioned previously, that enlightenment is not a destination,  it’s a process, a path itself. Dogen “repeatedly emphasizes the interpenetration of practice and enlightenment. ‘Practice’ here means ongoing daily activity centered in [meditation]. ‘Enlightenment’ is actualization of buddha nature through practice.” (Tanahashi)

How else can one actualize buddha nature if not by practice? Since it is an intuitive process, you can’t do it by reading a book, watching a video, listening to a podcast or even thinking about it.

In reference to yesterday’s post, we could say that, within Buddhism, faith is practice. This kind of faith is not a passive thing, it’s dynamic. “Just sitting” is not just sitting, for meditation is dynamic. For instance, if the results of the study I blogged about last week are to be believed, meditation changes our brain structures. That’s not just squatting on a cushion.

Going further, faith is enlightenment, if by faith we mean the trust and confidence that helps us maintain continuous everyday practice.  Unfortunately, words like faith come with a lot of baggage, which is why I am often inclined to use the Asian words for these terms. If we talk about shraddha, the Indian word, or the Chinese hsin (Jp.: shin), these are word-sounds that are new to our ears and not loaded with a lot of images that only fog up our minds and make it difficult to grasp a new understanding for an old word.

Buddhahood may seem to be a grand ideal or a goal far off on the horizon of the future, however, faith in Buddhism means understanding that it is only a mirage. Buddhahood exists nowhere else except where we are right now. Putting one’s “faith” into action means practicing, through which we uncover the awakened nature that we have always had, and through our continuous practice we are continually becoming Buddhas.

Reincarnation is not a Buddhist concept.

Reincarnation is the idea that the same soul or same person is reborn in successive bodies. Buddhism rejects the notion of a soul or a self that is permanent. You will never be reborn as the same person ever again.

What Buddhism teaches is rebirth, the cycle of birth and death. You may carry over into your next life karma, or traces, of your former lives, but  you will be a new, unique person with no real memory of the past. According to Buddha-dharma, it’s very rare to remember a past life.

The concept of reincarnation found its way into Buddhism through the assimilation of folklore and native beliefs; strictly speaking, it is not part of the Dharma or teachings.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter. Whatever happens when we die is going to happen regardless of what we believe. Buddhism does not stand on assertions about what comes after physical death. Buddhism is about the experience of life, here and now.

The great Zen master Dogen once said, “This present birth and death itself is the life of the Buddha. If you attempt to reject it with distaste, you are losing thereby the life of the Buddha.”