Butterflies Are Free

I remembered when I was a kid, I picked up a chrysalis and kept it in a jar until the butterfly started to come out.  So I broke open the cocoon to make it easier for the butterfly. When it finally came out, I noticed that it flew sort of feebly.  And then it died. Then I found out that it’s the struggle the butterfly makes trying to break through the cocoon that makes its wings strong.

Shepard Rifkin, Shepard, The Murderer Vine

The buddha nature that exists as wisdom-potential within our being is like a caterpillar.  When a caterpillar has completely grown, they form themselves into a pupa, also known as a chrysalis.  Within the chrysalis, the caterpillar undergoes an extraordinary transformation, called ‘metamorphosis.’  When metamorphosis is complete, a butterfly emerges, perhaps one with strong, beautiful wings.

Two elements are necessary for this process to be successful.  One is transformation.  The other is struggle.  In terms of Buddhism, a person who does not change cannot become a buddha.  A person who does not struggle, in the sense of making effort, cannot become a buddha.  Since we are talking about sentient beings and not insects, there is a third element that is crucial and that is the aspect of mind.

To ordinary persons, buddha potential, located within the mind, is obscured by illusion.  An ordinary person does not yet have the ability to see the true aspect of reality, much less his or her own enlightened nature.  However, a buddha sees through the veil of illusion and knows the world as it truly is.  And, a buddha recognizes that all living things are also buddhas, or potential buddhas.  A potential buddha must undergo some struggle and develop their their mind, in order to have strong wings and free themselves from illusion.

In the Anguttara Nikaya, the Buddha states:

“This mind is luminous, shining brightly, but colored by our delusions.  Ordinary people do not understand this, and so they do not develop the mind.  This mind is luminous, shining brightly, and free from delusion.  Noble wayfarers understand this well, so for them there is development of the mind.”

Development means effort, work, struggle.  In a religion like Christianity, “works” or good deeds can never win salvation.  Only faith in God, only through loving God.  Potential buddhas do not need to call upon supernatural beings and deities.  If a wayfarer trusts the potential within the mind and expends effort to develop that potential, then we call that person a realized buddha.  This, to my thinking, is the most potent form of empowerment.  We call it jiriki or “inner power.”

“Your destiny is shaped according to the combination of conditions pre-determined at birth and other factors that you are able to change through your own efforts.”

–Ryuho Okawa, The Essence of Buddha


The Five Hundred Monkeys

monkeys3bThen there were these five hundred monkeys hanging out in some trees next to a large pool of water.  After night came down, the chief monkey saw the moon reflected in the water below him.  He asked all the others come over to his tree and join hands and tails to form a chain, so that he’d be able to lean out over the pool and grab the moon.  Well, that many monkeys in one tree was just too much and the branches broke and all five hundred of the primates fell into the water and drowned.

The point of the story you can plainly see.  As long as you are blinded by illusion, all that waits for you is suffering.  So don’t go mistaking a reflection for the real moon.

In Genjo-koan (“Realizing the Prime Point’), Dogen wrote, “Awakening is like the moon reflected on water.”

One meaning of this statement is that awakening or Buddhahood is not a destination to be reached in the remote future but a potential already inherent in life.  If we see it as something outside of ourselves, it’s an illusion.

Earlier in the essay Dogen says, “Those who greatly awaken to illusion are Buddhas.  Those greatly deluded amid awakening are sentient beings. Some people continue to awaken beyond awakening.  Some continue amid their illusion deeper into further illusion.”

Another Dogen work, Bussho (“Buddha Nature”), begins with a quote from the Nirvana Sutra: “All sentient beings have buddha nature.”  Some paragraphs later, he takes exception to this statement, asserting that it is incorrect to say that sentient beings “have” or “possess” buddha nature because sentient beings are buddha nature, indeed all reality is buddha nature.

Conventionally speaking, it is not wrong to say that all sentient beings have buddha nature because we can access it.  If we could not access it then we would not have it.  Accessing buddha nature means to develop this potential, nurture it.

Furthermore, we have something, what Buddhism provides, the means to actualize awakening, to make it a common experience, not an extraordinary event.


Throwback Thursday: Don’t Lose Sight of Your Light

Today, an edited repost of a piece from 2014:

The concept of Buddha-nature is fundamental dharma and there are a number of sutras discuss its universality, yet none of them actually use the term, “Buddha-nature.”

00bThe Surangama Sutra, for instance, expounds the principle of Buddha-nature in terms of “pure” or “luminous” mind.

The Buddha said, Ananda and all of you should understand . . . that human beings, since time without beginning, have been subject to continuous sufferings because they do not know the basically bright and pure mind.”

The Buddha explains that living beings have lost sight of their light, their original brightness, even though it shines within them all day long, and because they cannot see it, they make the mistake of “entering the various destinies,” which means to transmigrate through illusory realms of existence.

The point is how to make people recognize their Buddha-nature. How much can you ‘see’ of the Buddha-nature inside of you?

The sutra is a teaching for the Buddha’s cousin, Ananda; it is his sutra. The title, Surangama, means “indestructible.” Because the light is always shining within whether we see it or not, we can say that in one sense the light is indestructible or unyielding. When we awaken to our Buddha-nature, and do not lose sight of it, others can see the brightness shining through, and then this teaching becomes our own indestructible sutra.

When the Buddha gave to his disciples the famous admonition to “be a lamp unto yourself,” he was telling them not to seek the light outside of their own lives, to always look within.

In This Light in Oneself, Jiddu Krishnamurti wrote,

One has to be a light to oneself; this light is the law. There is no other law. All the other laws are made by thought and so are fragmentary and contradictory. To be a light to oneself is not to follow the light of another, however reasonable, logical, historical, and however convincing.

You cannot be a light to yourself if you are in the dark shadows of authority, of dogma, of conclusion. Morality is not put together by thought; it is not the outcome of environmental pressure, it is not of yesterday, of tradition.

Freedom is to be a light to oneself; then it not an abstraction, a thing conjured up by thought.”

So, no matter what, don’t lose sight of your light.



The Dharma Door of Confidence

In Stopping and Seeing for Beginners, the first meditation manual produced in Chinese Buddhism, T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i says, “When doubt veils the mind, it is difficult to open any dharma doors.”

Dharma doors refer to Buddhist teachings and practice, which open onto the path that leads away from suffering. Chih-i means that when we have doubts about the teachings or the practice, it is hard to make progress along the path.

We can interpret this another way: dharma doors refer to solutions, paths that lead to the resolution of dilemmas. When we have doubts about ourselves, it may be difficult to open the door to any solutions.

0427b3I once read that Martin Luther King, Jr. always said, “I have a dream.” Not just in his speeches, like the famous one at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, but privately. He didn’t necessarily mean a dream for a new social order. He was speaking more in terms of a personal dream, a belief in his own potential. That was how he gained confidence to find solutions to the dilemmas he faced.

The tragic end of his life should not be as significant to us as the conviction and optimism he exuded while he was alive.

When doubt veils our mind, it is difficult to find any doors.

Buddhism is a doorway into the garden of life. In this philosophy, believing in ourselves means to have confidence about our Buddha-nature. When we step through the dharma door of confidence, we can discover that not only are we buddhas, but the entire universe is a buddha.


Ordaining Trees

There are about 250,000 Buddhist monks in Thailand. Today, I would like to bring to your attention just one of those bhikkhus. His name is Phrakru Pitak Nanthakthun and he engages in a practice that is a little out of the ordinary. He ordains trees.

A paper at the Forum on Religion and Ecology at Yale informs us:

Particularly over the course of the 1990s, monks in Thailand have started to take an active role in protecting the environment. Known informally as environmentalist, or ecology monks (phra nak anuraksa), this small but visible percentage of Thai Buddhist monastics feel compelled to address environmental issues as part of their religious duty to help relieve suffering . . .

Ceremonies such as tree ordination rituals (buat ton mai), in which trees are blessed and wrapped in saffron robes to signify their sacred status, are part of a larger effort to foster a conservation ethic rooted in Buddhist principles and bolstered by Buddhist practices.”

Photo: BBC
Photo: BBC

Although he is not the only “ecology monk”, Phrakru Pitak Nanthakthun was recently the subject of a BBC article that is getting some attention. He has been ordaining trees for a quarter of a century. You might think it seems like a silly thing to do or you might be a nitpicker like me who bristles a bit at the idea of ordination of any kind in Buddhism (since the Buddha didn’t actually “ordain” bhikkhus), but when you consider that trees have Buddha-natures (yes, they do), it’s hard not to view the tree ordinations as a beautiful activity.

The PBS program Religion and Ethics Newsweekly did a piece on Forest Monks in 2010 and this exchange gives us a glimpse into what it means to ordain a tree:

Lucky Severson, correspondent: To protect to the forests, one monk did something radical, just as they are doing here now. He started tying orange robes around trees, in effect ordaining the trees.

Professor Susan Darlington (Hampshire College): He was called crazy, and a national newspapers called for him to disrobe from the sangha [community or order], that this was not appropriate behavior for a monk, he’s misusing the religion. But meanwhile other monks began to do tree ordinations as well. “You can’t ordain a tree. What does that mean?” So people started debating, what does it mean to ordain a tree?

Severson: To the monks, it meant making the forests sacred, off limits to exploitation.

I encourage you to follow the links embedded in this post to learn more. Read the short BBC article and watch a video about Phrakru Pitak Nanthakthun here, and you can read Darlington’s 1998 essay “The Ordination of a Tree: The Buddhist Ecology Movement in Thailand,” here.

And you might also like to read my 2012 post Even Plants and Trees have Buddha-nature.

A plant, a tree, a pebble, a speck of dust—each has the Buddha nature, and each is endowed with cause and effect and with the function to manifest and the wisdom to realize its Buddha nature.”

Chan-jan, the ninth patriarch of the T’ien-t’ai school