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”


2 thoughts on “Original Enlightenment Pt. 2

  1. This is good. The immanent and the transcendent are one. Striving is futile. There is nowhere to go. There is nothing to do. Be. Live. See. Hear. Feel. Smell. This is what the Chinese call Wu-wei. Action through non-action. I would say, non-action through action. Every minute Zen. You empty your cup by drinking it. If your cup is empty let it be filled again. That is all you need to know. Gassho…

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