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