Everything is Buddha

I am not a Zen Buddhist but I am a follower, more or less, of one of its greatest teachers, Dogen, who introduced Zen (Ch’an) to Japan in the form of the Soto school.   He lived during the Kamakura period (1192–1333), the Medieval era in which “original awakening” (hongaku) was a core concept in Japanese Buddhism.

Tibetan monk staring at Buddha.

Original awakening refers to the fundamental nature of enlightenment native to all human beings and the external world, and is closely related to the idea of Buddha-nature. Some time back, I ran across this description of original awakening which I think is pretty good: “[it] means that everything, without exception and without alteration, is already full-blown Buddha. Ignorance? Buddha. Wisdom? Buddha. The leaf, the blossom…”  You, me, our enemies, friends, the wind, mountains… all Buddhas.

A famous Zen anecdote, “Mazu’s ‘Mind is Buddha,” goes like this:

Damei once asked Master Mazu, “What is buddha?” Mazu answered, “Mind is buddha.”  Commenting on this, master Wumen said, “If you can at once grasp “it,” you are wearing buddha clothes, eating buddha food, speaking buddha words, and living buddha life; you are a buddha yourself.”

Everything, everyone is Buddha.  It seems to me that there is no other religious philosophy other than Buddhism that has such a concept where there is absolutely no separation between the ordinary person and the ultimate reality.  You cannot become God, Jesus, the Prophet – you can be Buddha.  Here, the ultimate reality is everything.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states. “Zen aims at a perfection of personhood.”  This is it exactly.  Buddha is not a god or a psychedelic spiritual being but an ordinary person who has realized wisdom within.  A Buddha has “perfected” his or her person so that thoughts and actions are based on positive virtues as opposed to negative emotions.  And it goes further than that, a Buddha is a whole person.

If you want more detailed information about this concept and its development, see these posts.

In my less than educated view (I am not a Dogen scholar) original enlightenment is the notion underlining Dogen’s concept of the “oneness of practice and enlightenment” (shusho-itto or shusho ichi-nyo).  In his essay, Bendowa (“On Practicing the Way of Buddhas”), Dogen says,

“The view that practice and enlightenment are not one is a non-Buddhist view.  In the Buddha-dharma they are one.  Inasmuch as practice is based on enlightenment, the practice of a beginner is entirely that of original enlightenment.  Therefore, in giving the instruction for practice, a Zen teacher should advise his or her disciples not to seek enlightenment apart from practice, for practice itself is original enlightenment.  Because it is already enlightenment of practice, there is no end to enlightenment; because it is already practice of enlightenment, there is no beginning to practice.”

When we factor in the inseparability of all things, non-duality, then “oneness of practice and enlightenment” is fairly easy to understand.  “Oneness of practice and enlightenment” is an original concept, nonetheless it marks a further development of the traditional Buddhist view that meditation is the sole way leading to the transcendence of suffering, and to awakening.  Meditation is the heart of Buddhism.  Without it, there is no Buddhism.

Having Buddhahood within does us no good unless we make an effort to actualize it. Meditation is our tool for this endeavor, although Dogen might object to calling it a tool.

Francis H. Cook, Associate Professor at the University of California Riverside and author of a number of books on Buddhism, makes this important point about Dogen’s concept:

“[The]  relationship  between   practice  and  attainment  as  Dogen  understood   it:  practice  is  not  a  means  to  enlightenment  or  attainment,  but  is  that  which  measures, or  actualizes,  one’s already  existent enlightenment.   In   fact, says  Dogen,  zazen  [meditation] practice is  enlightenment.”*

While Dogen was adamant about meditation being the essence of Buddha-dharma, we should keep in mind that “practice” is not always limited to sitting.  What we do after we get up from the meditation cushion is also practice.  It is crucial that we apply the realizations we gain from meditation to our daily life.  Good behavior is a reflection of sincere practice.  If the aim is to perfect our humanness, to become better people, daily life is where we find the fruits of our labor.  Meditation is not a means to escape the world but rather to see the world as it truly is, without illusion.

When Buddha awakened beneath the Bodhi Tree, it was not some mystical experience, rather the culmination of years of effort.  Awakening is a process.  Meditation was the “tool” the Buddha used to wake up to the awakening of every thing and see the unfolding of everything into enlightenment.  Meditation is the practice we practice in the midst of original awakening.

“[Buddha] said, at this moment all beings and I awaken together. So it was not just him. It was all the universe. He touched the earth. ‘As earth is my witness. Seeing this morning star, all things and I awaken together.‘”
– Jane Hirshfield, poet 

– – – – – – – – – –

Enlightenment in Dogen’s Zen, Francis H. Cook, The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Volume6, 1983, Number 1
Cook also translated the passage from Bendowa


Original Enlightenment Pt. 3

I believe the importance of hongaku shiso or original enlightenment thought lies with how it opens all dharma gates to all people. To “enter into enlightenment” is not a privilege for those spiritually gifted or something attainable by only the most accomplished and learned. Anyone can aspire and attain Buddhahood because the seed of enlightenment, Buddha-nature, is already present.

Zen master Dogen pondered the question of why, if we are originally enlightened, is it then necessary to practice. The answer, provided by Tsung-mi, prior to Dogen, is because “from the beginningless beginning the delusions of human beings has obscured it so that they have not been aware of it.”

We have a tendency to fashion our notions about enlightenment in such a way that it becomes something mystical. Enlightenment is not very different from anything else. Say a person has a natural talent for making music or painting. The talent may be present but nonetheless it must be developed, nurtured, one must learn how to use it skillfully. The same applies to enlightenment. Buddha-nature has to be awakened.  Literally, being a Buddha takes practice.

To make music, you need an instrument. To paint, a brush. This is what meditation is for Buddhists. A tool to use in developing Buddha-nature. Practice is indispensable, and this is what I think Dogen meant about the “oneness of practice and enlightenment.” It’s pretty simple.

Believing that you have a Buddha-nature is not something that you should elevate to the level of dogma or a “faith.” It’s a basic fact. You start from that understanding and build from there.

I once had a conversation about Buddha-nature with a respected monk from the Theravada tradition. He was against it. He said that it put ordinary people on the same level as the Buddha. I said, yeah, that’s the whole point.

To him, the Buddha is “perfect.” He’s in a special class. I don’t remember what Pali word is used for “perfect” or “perfection,” and actually, I’m not sure that I’ve ever known, but regardless of how it is meant, I surely don’t believe that the Buddha wanted people to give him such exalted status. And I think there is plenty of evidence in the early suttas to bear that out.

If only a Buddha can attain Buddhahood and if we do not posses some innate quality or potential that we can call Buddha-nature or original enlightenment, then there is no point to Buddhism. It collapses. Just another “-ism.”

We tap into our original enlightenment each time we wake up, each time we see deeper into ourselves, when we become more aware of what is going on around us and with our mind and emotions. We awaken Buddha-nature whenever our wisdom grows, whenever we make better decisions and resist easy temptations, and whenever we see the Buddha-nature in others.

To do these things, we need not be perfect. As Chih-i taught, the world of Buddhahood contains the world of Hell. Therefore, flawed, just as we are, just where we are, we are Buddha. It’s here and now, in the present moment. Don’t waste you time looking anywhere else.

Buddha-Nature exists in everyone no matter how deeply it may be covered over by greed, anger and foolishness, or buried by his own deeds and retribution. Buddha-Nature can not be lost or destroyed; and when all defilements are removed, sooner or later it will reappear.

The Dalai Lama


Original Enlightenment Pt. 2

The definitive work on hongaku shiso or “original enlightenment thought” is without question Jacqueline I. Stone’s Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism (Kuroda, 1999). In Chapter One, she succinctly captures the essence of this thinking:

The Buddhas who appear in sutras, radiating light and endowed with excellent marks, are merely provisional signs.  The “real” Buddha is the ordinary worldling.  Indeed, the whole phenomenal world is the primordially enlightened Tathagata [Thus-Gone One]. Seen in their true light, all forms of daily conduct, even one’s delusive thoughts, are, without transformation, the expressions of original enlightenment. Liberation is reimagined, not as the eradication of mental defilements or as achieving birth in a pure land after death, but as the insight, or even the faith, that one has been enlightened from the very beginning.

One must read beyond the introductory pages, however, in order to appreciate the full implications of this viewpoint. As Stone later remarks, “Hongaku (original enlightenment) thought is best understood not as a tightly organized philosophical system that rejected inconsistent elements, but as a broad perspective from which the entirety of the received [Buddhist] tradition could potentially be reinterpreted in immanentalist terms.” She goes on to say that this “perspective” traditionally did not exclude or dismiss various forms of Buddhist practice but rather they were seen in a different light.

Original enlightenment is essentially the product of Japanese Tendai Buddhism, the school based on the Chinese T’ien-t’ai sect. Where in T’ien-t’ai, original enlightenment is implied (as the innate potential for awakening possessed by all living beings orBuddha-nature), in Japanese Tendai, hongaku is nothing less than the original nature of all phenomena.

But no concept is born without antecedents. In the case of original enlightenment they are numerous and varied.  One source was Nagarjuna, the starting point for almost everything Mahayana. It was T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i who was perhaps the first to emphasize the thread of harmony and unity within Nagarjuna’s teachings. In particular, the idea that there was one essence or one nature of all things both stained and pure. This is articulated in Nagarjuna’s conception of the dharma-dhatu or dharma-realm.

K. Venkata Ramanan in Nagarjuna’s Philosophy notes,

Dharmadhatu is a reference to the ultimate reality, Nirvana, the ultimate nature of all that is conditioned and contingent. In dharmadhatu, “dharma” stands for Nirvana . . . “Dhatu” conveys the sense of the essential, intrinsic, inmost nature, the fundamental, ultimate essence . . . It is the primary aim of the wayfarer to realize the dharmadhatu.”

Ramanan quotes Nagarjuna as saying,

Even as it is the very nature of water to flow down by reason of which all waters return to the great ocean, blend and become of one essence, just in the same way all determinate entities, all natures general and particular, return ultimately to dharma-dhatu, blend and become of one essence with it. This is dharma-dhatu. Even as the diamond which is at the top of the mountain gradually settles down until it reaches its destination, the field of diamonds, and having got there it will have got back to its self-nature and only then does it come to a stop, this is the case with all things. Through knowledge, through discrimination, (the mind seeks the true nature of things and thus) gets to tathata [thusness]. From tathata, the mind enters its original nature, where it remains as it ever was, devoid of birth (and death) and with all imaginative constructions put an end to. This is the meaning of dharma-dhatu.

This one essence is, in actuality, all-essences or all the natures of all things. It is the totality of phenomena and experience and is said to be “one” in order to emphasize the interdependency of all things, or, as Tendai phrases it, the mutual possession of all natures. Dharma-dhatu should not be seen as a realm outside of our lives. To flow into the ocean of dharma-dhatu is to speak figuratively. Here, it is a sign for Nirvana, which, as the ultimate reality, is not separate from this very world of suffering.

Equally influential was the Buddha-nature (Buddha-svabhava) theory that evolved from the work, The Awakening of Faith, and the conception of the tathagata-garbha (realm of the Thus-Gone), which did a great deal to inform Tao-sheng’s assertions based on the Nirvana Sutra. This, in turn, influenced T’ien-t’ai/Tendai thinking, due in part, because of the relationship of the Nirvana Sutra to the Saddharma-pundrarika (“Lotus Stura”), although it could be the other way around.

Tao-sheng, an early Chinese Buddhist scholar, held that icchantika (beings too defiled and deluded to realize awakening) could attain Buddhahood. According to Junjiro Takakusu in The Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy, the followers of this line of thought do “not admit to the existence of the icchantika who are destined never to attain Buddhahood. Further study disclosed the theory that all beings without exception have the Buddha-nature.”

It is not that people with delusions do not exist, but they are not a category unto themselves, for all people are with delusions. Were the delusions not present, there would be nothing to transcend, thus no need for Buddhist teaching or practice or any need for Buddhas or attaining Buddhahood. It’s easy to see how this informed Chih-i in his teachings on the inherent nature of evil. Once again, the aim is to dispel any sense of dualism, which is perhaps the king of all delusions. Good and evil, pure and impure, deluded and Buddha do not exist from their own sides, unconnected to anything else. Just as in the case of the doctrine of “The Ten Life-conditions and their Mutual Possession” discussed in Pt. 1., all conditions of life co-exist with one another, penetrate and are possessed by all.

The primary influence for Tendai, was, of course, the Lotus Sutra, as the Tendai sect holds this sutra in the highest regard. Lines such as the following seem to point in the direction of inherent Buddha-nature, so providing a doctrinal foundation for original enlightenment, supposedly from the Buddha himself:

Among those who have heard the Dharma,
None will fail to become Buddha.
All Buddhas have taken the vow:
‘The Buddha-way which I walk,
I desire to enable all livings beings
To attain the same way with me.’

To reiterate from the words of Dr. Stone at the beginning of the post, Buddhas “are merely provisional signs.” Were we to imagine them as a class of beings who from beginningless time have appeared in the world, their only purpose then would be to bring enlightenment within the reach of all beings. They are the guides who point to the potential within which only can activate. Only we ourselves can realize our Buddha-nature. The Buddha empowers us, but the power does not come from the Buddha – it is our inner-power we tap into, which is of the same nature as Buddha.

Here I have presented just a few of the sources for original enlightenment. There are many others, but I thought it would be helpful to cite these in order to provide some background.

There will a third and final post on this subject (for now), but tomorrow’s post I think will be a sort of rebel yell . . .

With a rebel yell- “more, more, more”


Original Enlightenment Pt. 1

One view of nirvana is that it is the termination of undue influence by trsna, literally “thirst” but signifying “desire” or “craving.” As noted previously, unwholesome desire is considered to be like a fever, and as Professor Trevor Ling notes in The Buddha,

Cessation [of passion] may be thought of as a ‘cooling’ after fever, a recovery of heath. In fact,  in the Buddha’s time the associated adjective nubbuta seems to have been an everyday term to describe one who is well again after an illness. It is evident from this that the original Buddhist goal, nirvana, was the restoration of healthy conditions of life here and now, rather than in some remote and transcendent realm beyond this life.

This is why in Mahayana Buddhism we say that samsara, the world of suffering, is nirvana. When one is afflicted by dis-ease, when one is stricken by the fever of unwholesome desire, then this is indeed a world of samsara. However, when one is healthy and free of fever, the world appears different, we see it in more positive, wholesome light, and this is nirvana. It is not about the absence of suffering, but the transcendence of suffering.

Buddhas do not obtain some special knowledge that the rest of us do not have. Rather, they have changed the way they know the world.

When we recover from a fever, we cannot be assured that we will never be sick again. The potential for disease is always present. Alternately, the potential for health is present. Health in this sense is realizing the world as nirvana.  We are not speaking of two separate worlds, one that is full of suffering and one that is full of peace. We are speaking of the disintegration of dualistic thinking.

In this same way, a common mortal and a Buddha are not two different persons. Because the potential for enlightenment is present, a common mortal can realize enlightenment and become a Buddha. To combat our tendency toward dualistic thinking, we say that the common mortal is already a Buddha, albeit an unrealized one.

The Chinese T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i taught a doctrine called “The Ten Life-conditions and their Mutual Possession.” The Ten Life-conditions, or spiritual realms (Jpn jikkai), are potential mental states inherent in each living being. In ascending order, they are Hell, Hunger, Animality, Anger, Humanity, Rapture, Learning, Realization, Bodhisattva and Buddhahood. In the Moho Chih Kuan (“Great Stopping and Seeing”) Chih-i wrote,

One mind contains ten spiritual realms. At the same time, each of the ten spiritual realms contains all the others, giving a hundred spiritual realms. . . It is obscure, subtle, and profound in the extreme. Knowledge cannot know it, nor can words speak it. Herein lies the reason for its being called ‘the realm of the inconceivable.’

What is important here is not the numbers, but that it is another way to express the non-dualism of nirvana and samsara. Hell contains Buddhahood and Buddhahood contains hell, as well as all the other realms. Instead of being distinct worlds unto themselves, they are potentialities, conditions that we can experience at any given moment.

The potentiality for Buddhahood should not be slighted. At the same time, merely thinking that one is a Buddha does not a fait accompli make. Realizing enlightenment is a process, like peeling an onion. We strip away layer after layer, and eventually we reach the core.  Some layers do not peel away easily. We have to rip through our hard karma, tear away at our dualistic mind, our prejudices and attachments. It can be painful. Onions produce tears. But it is necessary. The core awaits.

Mahayana Buddhism stresses the importance of starting with this basic understanding of original enlightenment, inherent Buddha-nature, the mutual possession of all life-conditions – awareness that this potential exists is the first step in uncovering it.

Tsung-mi, the  the fifth and final patriarch of the Flower Garland School and a Ch’an (Zen) Master of the Ho-tse School, wrote,

All sentient beings have been endowed with 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.

More on Original Enlightenment in the next post.