In Japanese Buddhism one of the terms used to convey the concept of enlightenment is jobutsu, which means “to become a Buddha” or “to uncover one’s Buddha-nature.” Jo means “to open” or “uncovering” and butsu means Buddha. In a word, Jobutsu sums up Buddha-nature. It means uncovering one’s potential. This is why we say that all people inherently posses Buddha-nature, because all people have potential or the capacity to realize wisdom and overcome sufferings.

Although the concept of Buddha-nature developed from Indian Mahayana thought, there is no exact Sanskrit term for it. The term “Buddha-nature” or fo xing originated in Chinese Buddhism. The Sanskrit term that most closely matches Buddha-nature is buddha-dhatu, which is regarded as both the nature (dhatu/dharmata) and the cause (dhatu/hetu) of Buddhahood.

The history of Buddha-nature is long and complicated, but I believe I can summarize its development, insofar as I understand the concept, with the following quotes. First, from Hui-ssu of the T’ien-t’ai school:

The Mind is the same as the Mind of Pure Self, Nature, True Thusness, Dharma-body, Tathagata-Womb, Dharma-realm, and Dharma-nature.”

Hui-ssu’s student, T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i later elaborated:

If one contemplates the Mind to be Buddha Nature and practices the Eightfold Noble Path, then one is capable of [attaining enlightenment]. With the understanding that all dharmas (things) originate from the Mind, [then] the Mind is the Buddha Nature.”

So, the expression “Buddha-nature” embraces many different Buddhist concepts and unifies them into a single term, which is identified with the mind. This understanding was not unique to the T’ien-t’ai tradition, for instance Ma-Tsu of the Ch’an school and Dogen of the Zen school, among others, held that “Mind is Buddha.”

Now, what is a Buddha? For that, I’ll borrow the Dalai Lama’s description from Part 3 of my transcript of his commentary on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland: “a state that is said to be where all the positive aspects of our psyche or nature have been effective.” Buddha is a state of mind or a condition of life, attained when human beings overcome the negative aspects of psyche and human nature, or we could say when the positive aspects become more powerful than the negative ones.

Because Buddha-nature is the potential we possess to elevate our condition of life, it acts as a cause for Buddhahood. Everything arises from causes. Suffering has a cause. That’s one of the Buddha’s first teachings. The primary cause for suffering is ignorance. If suffering has a cause, then whatever is the opposite of suffering must also be caused, and this opposite thing is jobutsu-tokudatsu, “to become a buddha and obtain liberation” from suffering, which is also called nirvana. It’s cause is Buddha-nature, or you could call it nirvana-nature. The name is not important.

Both suffering and nirvana are innate within living beings. The potential for suffering is always present. Likewise, the potential to overcome suffering is also present, and it is in this way I feel Buddha-nature is best understood: as potential. We have the potential to experience wisdom and happiness, just as we have the potential to experience suffering. The concept of Buddha-nature is empowering, because it reminds us that we don’t have to remain in a state of ignorance and delusion, that we have the capacity, the ability to overcome our sufferings.

It’s easy to get stuck on the extravagant language often used in Buddhist literature. If we take some of the elaborate and fantastical descriptions of Buddha-nature literally, we might get the idea that it’s an entity or some sort of mystical force, or that becoming a Buddha entails the acquisition of something new, something outside of our lives. That would be a mistaken impression. All we are talking about is uncovering our human potential. We have to be able to see beyond the poetry and mythology, or, if you will, read between the lines. Then, when we can view subjects such as Buddha-nature through a more prosaic lens, they make perfect sense.

Of course, this is just my take on things. But I’m not the only one with this view of Buddha-nature. Thich Nhat Hanh says,

When he woke up at the foot of the Bodhi Tree, the Buddha Shakyamuni said, “How strange—all beings possess in themselves the capacity to understand, the capacity to love, the capacity to be free. Everyone has that capacity, but everyone allows himself or herself to be carried away on the ocean of suffering. How strange.” This is what the Buddha declared at the moment of his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. He noticed that what we are looking for, day and night, is already there within oneself. What is beautiful, what is true, what is good, is already there in oneself. We can call it the Buddha-nature, the Buddhahood, the awakened nature, the true freedom, which is the foundation for all peace and happiness. This wonderful thing is in us, and a real teacher is someone who can help you to touch that thing in yourself, who helps give birth, to bring about the real teacher which already exists in yourself.

Here too, we should avoid a literal interpetation. No one actually knows what the Buddha said when he sat beneath the Bodhi tree. Thich Nhat Hanh is speaking metaphorically. Likewise, when we talk about “the true freedom” this does not mean one can ever escape suffering. Even buddhas experience suffering, because the potential for suffering is innate, just like the capacity for Buddhahood. Suffering does not magically disappear when you turn on the enlightenment switch. Yet we can experience freedom from the oppressive effects of suffering. We can take away the power suffering has to dominate our lives. That’s what “true freedom” means to me.

I should also mention that in the T’ien-t’ai traditon, Buddha-nature, Buddha, and Buddhahood, being three designations for the same state of mind, is “all-embracing” in that there is no duality, or discrimination in the ultimate sense. They “embrace” the negative aspects as well as the positive things. For example, a Buddha can also posses an “evil nature.”

In Thursday’s post, I mentioned that many people have some difficulty with Buddha-nature. To some, it is nothing more than another version of the God concept. I can understand to some extent how people could have that impression, but I think nothing could be further from the truth.

God has nothing to do with it. The only purpose the idea of God has in any discussion of Buddhist philosophy is to provide a contrast, which seems to be necessary because we (those of us in the West) have been indoctrinated with this concept and it is not easily dispelled. The ancient Buddhist philosophers, including the Buddha himself, had never heard of the God of Abraham or Jehovah, and it is very clear that the early Buddhists rejected the atman and absolute Brahman of the Upanishads. As the Theravada scholar Nyanaponika Thera, a Westerner, in his essay “Buddhism and the God-idea”, notes,

From a study of the discourses of the Buddha preserved in the Pali canon, it will be seen that the idea of a personal deity, a creator god conceived to be eternal and omnipotent, is incompatible with the Buddha’s teachings. On the other hand, conceptions of an impersonal godhead of any description, such as world-soul, etc., are excluded by the Buddha’s teachings on Anatta, non-self or unsubstantiality.”

Along these lines, I am also inclined to reject the idea of “Protestant Buddhism” when it is defined as the widespread pollution of Buddhism by Judeo-Christian ideas. While there is no question that the early Westerns scholars and translators used Christian terms – such as “sin” which technically would have no place in Buddhism since it refers to a transgression against God – the notion that the infusion of Christianity into Buddhism is so pervasive that it has changed or perverted the dharma is, I think, rather dubious. But that’s another subject for another time.

The message today is simply that understanding Buddha-nature means to know that Buddhahood or enlightenment is our capacity to achieve our highest potential, and it is a potential already inherent in life. By observing the mind, we can perceive this potential and realize it, thereby awakening our Buddha-nature.

I know some people are reading this blog on a fairly regular basis and I want to thank you for that. I’m not the world greatest book reviewer. But I didn’t claim to be. I don’t claim anything. You’ll notice along the way I qualify my statements: from what I see, from my understanding, etc. That’s all it is. As a comedian I used to like used to say, “That’s just my opinion, I could be wrong.”

Warner’s book was a pretty fast read. I have to admit there were parts of the other book I skimmed through. Frankly, I find some of that stuff boring. For one thing, a lot of it was material I’ve read elsewhere in some form or another, and then I’m not really into psychic powers arising spontaneously in the such and such stage or that in subsequent attainments of Fruition during some other stage something or other is not called this or that.  There’s an awful lot of that stuff in Mahayana literature and I have a tough time with it these days too.

Maybe it’s because there is just too much to try to take in, in all areas and on all levels, and so much to do, and not do, and so little time. I feel time closing in sometimes. I’m old, dammit. Maybe my mind can’t handle it all. I want to make it simpler. Less complicated. Thich Nhat Hanh said all we need is mindfulness and I’m taking him at his word. I just do mindfulness, the Heart Sutra, some mantras. That’s it. I don’t think about it. I just do it. I’ve found that trying to think about it just gets in the way. I’m in the letting go stage of life. Letting things go, fall off, drop away . . . That to me is emptiness. The emptiness of conceptual thinking. Just being in the present moment.

I don’t get why anyone would want to claim they are enlightened and I guess I don’t have the skill with words to be able to communicate that properly, or maybe that’s the problem. We really can’t communicate it. It’s beyond our words, beyond our concepts. That’s what Nagarjuna (who is never boring) and those Zen guys were trying to tell us and what they warned about.

It’s what the Heart and Diamond sutras are saying: “no path, no wisdom and no attainment with nothing to attain,” and “I do not see that dharma Bodhisattva, nor a Dharma called Prajna-paramita.” It’s what the Tao Te Ching means: “The Tao that can be named is not the eternal Tao.”

But we have to communicate. We have to talk about things and in order to do so we must give them names, designations. Karl Jasper explaining Nagarjuna: “With the resources of language there is no escape from speech through significations (signs). Every sentence ensnares me anew in what I was trying to escape from.”

Non-attachment is the key. Easier said than done.

Enlightenment? I don’t know what it is. It’s not even a goal for me anymore. I’m just trying to get through the day. I’m just trying to maintain some wholesome thoughts and not grasp at every emotion that comes up. Don’t look down your nose at it. It ain’t easy.

I’d like to think that after you have been practicing for almost thirty years, you come full circle. You start with simplicity and end with it. I’d like to think that, but probably it’s just me getting old.

Here’s something the Dalai Lama said at UCLA in 1997 that really turned my head around about this enlightenment business. I’ve posted it before, but a good teaching can’t be repeated too many times. He’s talking about a passage in Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland that deals with feeling discouraged over the length of time required to become “enlightened”:

If, as a result of one’s commitment to the principles of the Bodhisattva ideal, one sees that the purpose of one’s life is to be of benefit to others, and from the depths of one’s heart there is a real sense of dedication of one’s entire life for the benefit of other sentient beings, and that kind of strong courage and principle – for that kind of person, then time doesn’t seem to matter much. Whether or not that person becomes enlightened, as far as he or she is concerned, it doesn’t make any difference, because the purpose of existence is to be of benefit to others, and if the person is able to be of service to others, then that person is really able to fulfill his or her true purpose. Such is the kind of courage and determination to altruistic principles that bodhisattvas should adopt.

I’ve noticed there are some folks out there in the blogosphere who write disparagingly about bloggers who use quotes. I use a lot of quotes. One reason is to sort of put a cap on whatever I’ve said, and another is to give some credence to what I’ve said, so that readers will know, hopefully, that I am not talking out of my hat. “Sunday Dharma” is almost always a long quote, because I usually prepare the posts one day ahead, and on Saturdays I’m lazy.

I’ve quoted Shunryu Suzuki’s Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind on a number of occasions. That’s because I think it is a very good book, almost indispensible. To my way of thinking, Suzuki had a really good handle on Buddhism and the practice of dharma. It was down to earth, no bs. And the longer I practice (nearly 30 years now), I become more and more attracted to no nonsense, simple and straightforward teachings.

A Japanese Buddhist named Nikkyo Niwano once wrote a book called Lifetime Beginner. I’ve always liked that phrase, and that’s the attitude that I have towards Buddhism and spiritual practice. To consider oneself a lifetime beginner is a good attitude for both teacher and student. Ultimately, there is no end game in enlightenment. No finish line. No diploma. The only prize is really a booby prize. In fact, I don’t even like the word enlightenment. Enlightening is better. It’s a process.

Apparently, I have misplaced Niwano‘s book, so here are some quotes from Zen Mind, Beginners Mind that address this notion of being a lifetime beginner, along with some guidance about faring on the way to “enlightenment,” which is just an endless further.

From the Introduction by Richard Baker

Beginner’s mind was a favorite expression of Dogen-zenji’s. The calligraphy of the frontispiece, also by Suzuki-roshi, reads shoshin, or beginner’s mind. The Zen way of calligraphy is to write in the most straightforward, simple way as if you were a beginner, not trying to make something skillful or beautiful, but simply writing with full attention as if you were discovering what you were writing for the first time; then your full nature will be in your writing. This is the way of practice moment after moment.

So the most difficult thing is always to keep your beginner’s mind. There is no need to have a deep understanding of Zen. Even though you read much Zen literature, you must read each sentence with a fresh mind. You should not say, “I know what Zen is,” or “I have attained enlightenment.” This is also the real secret of the arts: always be a beginner. Be very very careful about this point. If you start to practice zazen, you will begin to appreciate your beginner’s mind. It is the secret of Zen practice.

Shunryu Suzuki:

Enlightenment is not some good feeling or some particular state of mind. The state of mind that exists when you sit in the right posture is, itself, enlightenment. If you cannot be satisfied with the state of mind you have in zazen, it means your mind is still wandering about. Our body and mind should not be wobbling or wandering about. In this posture there is no need to talk about the right state of mind. You already have it. This is the conclusion of Buddhism.

We say our practice should be without gaining ideas, without any expectations, even of enlightenment. This does not mean, however, just to sit without any purpose. This practice free from gaining ideas is based on the Prajna Paramita Sutra.

If you continue this simple practice every day you will obtain a wonderful power. Before you attain it, it is something wonderful, but after you obtain it, it is nothing special. It is just you yourself, nothing special. As a Chinese poem says, “I went and I returned. It was nothing special. Rozan famous for its misty mountains; Sekko for its water.” People think it must be wonderful to see the famous range of mountains covered by mists, and the water said to cover all the earth. But if you go there you will just see water and mountains. Nothing special.

It is a kind of mystery that for people who have no experience of enlightenment, enlightenment is something wonderful. But if they attain it, it is nothing. But yet it is not nothing. Do you understand? For a mother with children, having children is nothing special. That is zazen. So, if you continue this practice, more and more you will acquire something–nothing special, but nevertheless something. You may say “universal nature” or “Buddhanature” or “enlightenment.” You may call it by many names, but for the person who has it, it is nothing, and it is something.

Our unexciting way of practice may appear to be very negative. This is not so. It is a wise and effective way to work on ourselves. It is just very plain. I find this point very difficult for people, especially young people, to understand. On the other hand it may seem as if I am speaking about gradual attainment. This is not so either. In fact, this is the sudden way, because when your practice is calm and ordinary, everyday life itself is enlightenment.

When something becomes dualistic, that is not pure. If you think you will get something from practicing zazen, already you are involved in impure practice. It is all right to say there is practice, and there is enlightenment, but we should not be caught by the statement. You should not be tainted by it. When you practice zazen, just practice zazen. If enlightenment comes, it just comes. We should not attach to the attainment. The true quality of zazen is always there, even if you are not aware of it, so forget all about what you think you may have gained from it. Just do it. The quality of zazen will express itself; then you will have it.

If you find some difficulty in your practice, that is the warning that you have some wrong idea, so you have to be careful. But do not give up your practice; continue it, knowing your weakness. Here there is no gaining idea. Here there is no fixed idea of attainment. You do not say, “This is enlightenment,” or “That is not right practice.” Even in wrong practice, when you realize it and continue, there is right practice. Our practice cannot be perfect, but without being discouraged by this, we should continue it. This is the secret of practice.

Even if the flashing of enlightenment comes, our practice forgets all about it. Then it is ready for another enlightenment. It is necessary for us to have enlightenments one after another, if possible, moment after moment. This is what is called enlightenment before you attain it and after you attain it.

The Buddha accepted certain traditional Indian beliefs concerning the nature of reality, the chief one being the notion of a continuum of existence, a cycle of birth, death and rebirth called samsara.

Samsara (“going or wandering through”) was conceived as a three-layered system, consisting of arupa-dhatu (“world of immaterial form”), rupa-dhatu (“the world of form”) and karma-dhatu (“world of feeling”). The three are also referred to as arupa-loka, rupa-loka, and kama-loka – the word loka meaning world or realm as well. In samsara living beings move up and down through vertical realms (human, god-like, and hell realms), and all beings, including devas (gods, celestial beings) are trapped in this world dominated by suffering. Nothing is static – everyone is in a state of constant motion – rebirth is the mechanism of horizontal movement and karmic seeds or imprints help determine vertical movement.

It’s not important whether samsara exists in exactly this way. What is important is that samsara symbolizes the mundane, conventional world, the world of life and death, the world of suffering and problems, where all phenomena, including thoughts and feelings, rise and fall, act and react, according to the law of cause and effect.

The problem the Buddha considered was how to put an end to cyclic existence conditioned by suffering, not an end to cyclic existence itself.  In other words, he wondered if it were possible to rise above suffering. Transcend it.

The Buddha envisioned a state of life in which a person was somewhat impervious to suffering. Suffering will not, go away. Beings will always experience suffering, and yet, he believed there must be a way to minimize the impact of suffering emotionally and psychologically. The gist of the idea, not unique to Buddhism, it can be found in Taoism as well, is to take things in stride.

The 13th century Japanese Buddhist Nichiren once wrote, “Never let life’s hardships disturb you. After all, no one can avoid problems, not even saints or sages . . .  Suffer what there is to suffer, enjoy what there is to enjoy. Regard both suffering and joy as facts of life . . .”

Pretty simply stated, but not always so easy to accomplish. Additionally, there is a much deeper and complex underlining system of thought that supports this process. But that’s it in a nutshell.

There are persons in some quarters who feel the concept of rising above suffering, realizing a state of life that we could call “happy”, is somehow trite, watered-down dharma, or that someone is trying to pull the wool over their eyes with “feel good” philosophy.

In the Buddha’s time, it was actually a radical statement to make, this idea that one can rise above suffering. Life was hard then. Most people worked from sunup to sundown and in the East, there were no days off. They lived in a hostile environment, permeated with filth and disease, and survival on the most basic level was the major concern.

Most cultures accepted suffering but not in the same way the Buddha did. They rationalized it. You were supposed to suffer in this world and then after you die, then you would have peace, happiness. There was no escape. One of the first persons after Buddha and Lao Tzu who suggested that there was another way to look at it was the same person who wrote these words: “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” That revolutionary statement was the real shot heard ’round the world.

Some of the individuals who think this is just “feel good” stuff have a better way. Of course. They say, don’t worry about trying to be happy, you can be enlightened instead. They know it can be done because they have attained enlightenment. Naturally. No surprise there.

I am not sure what the difference is between the Buddhist sense of happiness and enlightenment. Classic bait and switch, is what suspect. Don’t be concerned about your problems. Unimportant stuff. Your time would be better spent trying to understand meditation techniques and the teachings as we give them. That way we can impress you with how much we know, how intelligent we are, how enlightened . . .

Look, I am not trying to suggest that there are no wool-pullers out there or folks with watered-down versions of dharma. However, I feel that in some cases they are a picture is being painted with brush strokes much too broad.  Just because it’s simple, doesn’t mean it is not good dharma.

I think the key is to be able to develop some radar. Get to the place where you can sense whether it’s a sales job or not. Sometimes you have to learn the hard way, but if you get burned don’t give up on the dharma.

And definitely, absolutely, whenever anyone tells you they have attained enlightenment, run for the hills.

Chinese character for happiness

Chinese character for happiness

What is the nature of this joy? How can we touch true joy every moment of our lives? How can we live in a way that brings a smile, the eyes of love, and happiness to everyone we encounter? Use your talent to find ways to bring happiness to yourself and others—the happiness that arises from meditation and not from the pursuit of fruitless pleasure. Meditative joy has the capacity to nourish our mindfulness, understanding, and love. Try to live in a way that encourages deep happiness in yourself and others. “I vow to bring joy to one person in the morning and to help relieve the suffering of one person in the afternoon.” Ask yourself, “Who can I make smile this morning?” This is the act of creating happiness.  – Thich Nhat Hanh

Just as in any other religion or spiritual practice, Buddhism has its share of questionable teachers and leaders.  Following such a person can be very dangerous. People have been exploited and abused financially, sexually and otherwise.

The first clue in spotting a questionable teacher is this: An enlightened person will never tell you that they are enlightened. As soon as you hear someone claim to be enlightened, or that they have attained a high level of realization, or you suspect that they believe themselves to be enlightened, run for the hills.

Someone who is “enlightened” understands that there is no end game, only the Endless Further. There is no enlightenment, only enlightening – the continuing process of becoming awakened.  There is no state of being that one arrives at and can say, “This is it. I’ve arrived. I’ve got it.” In this sense there is no such thing as an enlightened person, only individuals who are further along than the rest of us.

An “enlightened” person understands that it doesn’t matter if you think they are enlightened or not. You are either going to get what they are teaching or you won’t. It has more to do with your progress along the path, than theirs.

An “enlightened” person understands holding the belief that he or she is enlightened may be an impediment to grasping the teachings. When you look upon teachers in that way it is very easy to put them on a pedestal, to idolize or worship them. You might be tempted to want to build monuments to them or name places after them. “Enlightened” people do not care about stuff like that.

Enlightened people have no ego. Or, perhaps it’s better to say that their ego is in check. They don’t have to tell how great they are because they don’t see themselves as great.

It is very easy to be led astray by a charismatic teacher. They usually have an agenda. They believe that the end justifies the means. Since they are a living Buddha, they may expect you to ignore your own sense of ethics and integrity in order to help promote them and their teachings.  It’s okay if you engage in unethical behavior, you’re serving a greater cause – them.

The Dalai Lama was once asked about the difficulty of maintaining faith when so many teachers misbehave. He answered by saying,

If one is able to cultivate a faith that is grounded in a personal understanding, then there is no possibility of developing such a faith towards a lama or teacher who misbehaves.

It is very important when you relate to someone  who is a dharma-teacher to use your critical faculty to subject that person to close scrutiny, so that you are aware that if not all the qualifications that are commented on in the scriptures are not found in that person, at least most of them are found in that individual.

Sometimes people select a dharma-teacher or choose a particular tradition during a very low period in their personal life. When that happens, when someone chooses a person or a tradition because they have a need to lean on someone or they lack confidence or self-esteem, then there is a real vulnerability for abuse and when that dependence is placed on someone, given that you are not really able to use the critical facility, then there is scope for abuse and disappointment.

Often when it comes to choosing a spiritual path or a teacher, our tendency is to be hasty and take on anything that comes near you, like a dog who will eat any food that comes its way and that is not how we should approach the question of choosing the dharma or a teacher.

As I say to members of the media, that they should have as long noses as possible, sort of sniffing around and also this is true for the students-you should be able to sniff around so that you can see from both the front and the back. Sometimes what happens is that things may look very impressive from the front, but from the back they may be sort of empty, just hollow.

If a teacher is able to maintain a good kind of integrity, then, of course, that person is worthy of your admiration and trust.

Judging the integrity of a teacher should be approached in the context of the three higher trainings on morality, meditation and wisdom or insight. That is what the Buddha taught in the Tripitaka, the Three Spiritual Collections . . . So, this means that since I am also a teacher, you should subject me to such investigation as well.

Never suspend your own good judgment. If you have a gut feeling that something is wrong, it very likely is. Don’t follow people who claim to be enlightened, or who seem enamored of their own achievements. They are phonies. Fakes. Charlatans. Don’t believe anyone who tells you that the end justifies the means. It doesn’t. The Buddha never taught such a thing and it has no place in Buddhism.