To the right is a poster I made based on a famous quote from a work attributed to Hui Neng (638-713) also known as The Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch.
The idea that all beings could realize awakening, or become enlightened, originated with Indian Buddhism, but “Buddha-nature” seems to have its origins in China with the term fo xing: fo is buddha; xing may refer to dhatu or realm, although some scholars feel there is no Sanskrit equivalent for the word.
In Hui Neng’s view of Buddha-nature, the original state of all beings is one that is fundamentally pure, but delusions have obscured this nature so that we are not aware of its presence. This is more or less consistent with the general Mahayana understanding.
But not all Buddhist schools accept the idea of Buddha-nature. A case in point is the Theravada tradition, who consider themselves the original school and therefore “true” Buddhism. A Theravada monk once told me he had difficulty with equating Buddha with ordinary people. In Theravada, Buddha is idealized to represent Perfection, and is seen as a supramundane being having omniscience and magical powers. Followers of Theravada deny they’ve elevated Buddha to a god-like status, but clearly their Buddha is not a ordinary person.
Personally, I have no use for that kind of Buddha. I am not interested in following beings who are perfect, who are saints, gods, divine messengers, etc. I can never become a Perfect Buddha, or God or Jesus. I’m certainly no saint. I know the historical Buddha did not walk around with his head wrapped in a halo as he is depicted in paintings, nor did he posses elongated ears, or possess magical powers. He was a common mortal, like me, like you. That’s what makes the story of the Buddha so magnificent, because what he achieved, we can achieve as well.
Actually, the idea of Buddha-nature evolved in part from the rather complex teachings on the somewhat less than ordinary three bodies of the Buddha (Trikaya). I will save discussion on that topic for some other time. The main thing to keep in mind that such teachings are metaphor and not to be taken literally. The old Zen saying attributed to Lin Chi, “If you meet the Buddha on the path, kill him” seems apropos here.
In Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Shunryu Suzuki expressed it more politely while talking about the custom of bowing to statues of Buddha:
[When] you bow to Buddha you should have no idea of Buddha, you just become one with Buddha, you are already Buddha himself. When you become one with Buddha, one with everything that exists, you find the true meaning of being. When you forget all your dualistic ideas, everything becomes your teacher, and everything can be the object of worship.”
If we see Buddha as someone or something above us, then we are seeking enlightenment outside of ourselves. We need to look inwardly, for that is where our Buddha-nature is sleeping. Buddha is our guide and we rely on his teachings for sustenance on the path, but ultimately we have to “kill” the idea of Buddha as anything other than our own life, our own mind. We have to give it up.
Dogen, in his work Bussho (“Buddha Nature”) wrote,
What we have been calling ‘Buddha Nature’ is not to be equated with ‘the saintly’, nor, indeed, is it to be equated with Buddha Nature Itself.”
But in the same work he also said,
There is no Buddha Nature which is not Buddha Nature manifesting right here and now.”
I can’t think of any more positive teaching that this, that all beings without exception possess this nature, a state of mind that is always accessible, that we can manifest at any time. Now, I don’t believe in enlightenment with a big E, you know, an earth-shattering, sudden illumination coming out of nowhere kind of thing, rather I believe we get glimpses of enlightenment, or perhaps like a flower unfolding to the sun slowly over the course of a morning, we awaken gradually, we blossom petal by petal . . . and so, moment by moment, day by day, we can awaken our Buddha. We can manifest more and more wisdom as time goes on, and even though we may not see instantaneous results before our eyes, that’s all right. I feel that real enlightenment happens subtly, in-perceptively . . .
But who knows, maybe there is a Big E, maybe there are those who experience Sudden Enlightenment . . . Not being enlightened, I’m not really sure . . . I just know that those who are enlightened don’t go around talking about it, but that is another subject . . .
For today, for me, it is quite enough to be content with the knowledge that “our very nature is Buddha and apart from that nature there is no other Buddha,” and equally as important, there is no other purpose of Buddhism than to enable all beings to realize their Buddha-nature.