Don’t Lose Sight of Your Light

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

The Surangama Sutra, for instance, expounds the principle of Buddha-nature in terms of “pure” mind and uses the metaphor of light.

The Buddha said, Ananda and all of you should know . . . that living beings, since the time without beginning, have been subject continuously to birth and death because they do not know the permanent True Mind whose substance is, by nature, pure and bright.”

Later, the Buddha explains that living beings have lost sight of the light, the original brightness, even though it shines within them all day long, and because they remain unaware of it, they make the mistake of “entering the various destinies.”

The Surangama’s essential 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 us, whether we see it or not, it is, in a sense, indestructible or unyielding. When we are able to see our Buddha-nature, and not lose sight of it, the “light” becomes the basis for the way we live and act out our life, and then this becomes our own indestructible sutra.

Not only is the purpose of meditation to cultivate a peaceful mind and rest our minds in the now, it is also a tool to help open our eyes to our Buddha-nature.  When the Buddha said to his disciples “be a lamp unto yourself,” he was telling them not to seek the light outside of their own lives, 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, don’t lose sight of your light.


White Light, Clear Light

Never having had a near death experience, I am not sure what to think about them. I am inclined to believe that they are mostly in the nature of hallucination. However, a panel of psychiatrists at the International Association for Near-Death Studies (IANDs) 2014 Conference held this past weekend in Newport Beach, Ca., stressed that while “there are people who have hallucinations and need certain treatments to function well and live healthy lives, near death experiences (NDEs) should not necessarily be lumped in with such hallucinations.”

People who have near-death experiences often report seeing a white light. Last year, researchers at the University of Michigan discovered some scientific evidence to explain this phenomenon. Evidently, the brain continues to function for up to 30 seconds after blood flow stops, and this electrical activity may account for the appearance of “light.”

In Tibetan Buddhism, it’s thought that certain practitioners also experience a white light or the “clear” luminosity of emptiness at the moment of death. Robert Thurman, in his translation of The Tibetan Book of the Dead, describes clear light as “transparency,” for it is “the subtlest light that illuminates the profoundest reality of the universe . . . It is an inconceivable light, beyond the duality of bright and dark, a light of the self-luminosity of all things.”

The Dalai Lama, during a 1991 teaching in New York, explained clear light this way,

I don’t think that in the term clear light should be taken literally. It is sort of metaphoric. This could have its roots in our terminology of mental will. According to Buddhism, all consciousness or all cognitive mental events are said to be in the nature of clarity and luminosity. So it is from that point of view that the choice of the term light is used. Clear light is the most subtle level of mind, which can be seen as the basis or the source from which eventual experience or realization of Buddhahood, Buddha’s wisdom might come about, therefore it is called clear light.”

As an extremely subtle level of mind, the concept of clear light is akin to the notion of Buddha-nature, the purest state of mind in which one is able to apprehend the true nature of reality, a state of mind that is stable enough to withstand the vicissitudes of most mental afflictions, a mind imbued with a deep sense of compassion.

According to Buddhist teachings, the moment of death presents the greatest opportunity for realizing wisdom and healing, and that the scope for spiritual healing is not limited by death but can actually continue after death. Of course, it would be foolish and wasteful to wait until then to realize an enlightening state of mind. This is why Buddhism emphasizes the present moment, because awakening is always possible, always near at hand.

However, even though sudden flashes of clear light are available in the timeless reality of now, it requires effort, and time, to experience them, and once experienced it is not a fait accompli, a done deal, irreversible, requiring no further endeavor on our part. As I have said many times here, and you may know that it is the theme of The Endless Further, awakening is a continuous process, for if there is such a thing, how could it be anything else?  Awakening or enlightenment, cannot be defined, so how can it be a destination, an end point?  It is an ceaseless journey that takes place only though living, in daily life.  As Krishnamurti said, awakening means to be a light unto oneself, and in that way then, we are the clear light.

Here’s some guys who were clear light, too. Straight from L.A. circa 1966, a long-forgotten, unheralded psychedelic rock band named Clear Light:


See the sand
Lying by . . .
The ocean!
Golden sun
In metal sky
. . . Burning!
Shimmering heat lies heavy . . .
. . . Lies in
Grass brown search
For cooling air
Dying, dying with you!
Harshness flees,
Colors fade,
Night falls!
Quiet winds
Search silver sands
. . . Wandering!


Manifesting Buddha-nature

Click to enlarge

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.


Seeing our Buddha-nature

The Lankavatara Sutra is an important Mahayana Buddhist sutra compiled during the 4th Century CE. “Lankavatara” means “Descent into Lanka”. The Buddha allegedly visited the mythical island of Lanka, which is said to correspond with present-day Sri Lanka.

One of the key themes of the Lankavatara Sutra is the doctrine of Tathagata-garbha (“Womb of the Buddha”), which later became synonymous with Buddha-nature. In Chapter Two, “Mahamati’s One Hundred and Eight Questions”, the bodhisattva Mahamati asks the Buddha,

Is not this Tathagata-garbha taught by the Blessed One the same as the ego-substance taught by the philosophers?”

The Buddha replies,

No, Mahamati, my Tathagata-garbha is not the same as the ego taught by the philosophers; for what the Tathagatas [Thus-Gone] teach is the Tathagata-garbha in the sense that it is emptiness, reality-limit, Nirvana, being unborn, unqualified, and devoid of will-effort. The reason why the Tathagatas teach the doctrine pointing to the Tathagata-garbha is to make the ignorant cast aside their fear when they listen to the teaching of egolessness and to have them realize the state of non-discrimination and imagelessness. I also wish, Mahamati, that Bodhisattvas of the present and future would not attach themselves to the idea of an ego imagining it to be a soul.” *

Buddhism teaches that any idea of a self (atman), person (pudgala), or living soul (jiva) as an abiding, self-subsistent entity is a false notion. Mahamati is questioning whether Buddha-nature isn’t also such an entity,  and the Buddha states that it is not.

What’s the difference? Buddha-nature is not an entity, a immortal thing like a soul; rather, it is a state of mind, a consciousness, or better yet, a potentiality. Buddha-nature is the seed of awakening, and if nurtured properly the seed can grow and blossom into awakening mind. All people have the potential to awaken and become Buddhas. Sometimes we say that we are Buddhas already, we just haven’t fully tapped into our potential yet, we haven’t actualized our Buddha-nature.

The false perception of self is the great hindrance to the actualization of Buddha-nature. It acts as a screen to conceal our Buddha-nature. As long as we cling to ego or imagining self to be a soul, we cannot see the external world as it truly is, let alone see the potential for awakening within. The underlying point in the above passage is about how clearly you can see your Buddha-nature.

Because as human beings we tend to look for things to cling to, the idea of selflessness can cause genuine fear. The emptiness of self and ego does not mean we lose our personality or identity. But when you remove the screens of self and ego, you realize that the things that make you uniquely ‘you’ exist only of the surface of your reality, and they are not substantial enough to justify discrimination or prejudice. Deep below the surface, inside, we are all one, because we are all Buddhas.

In the verse section appended to the original Lankavatara Sutra, the Buddha makes a number of predictions about the future great accomplishments of his disciples; presumably, because they have taken his teachings to heart. Of one he says, “Katyayana will be the author of a sutra.”

We become the authors of our own sutras when we see our Buddha-nature writ large, clearer and stronger than the small self we feel compelled to cling to, the ego that hides the truth from our eyes.  That, however, is just a rough draft.  We must then polish it by seeing Buddha-nature in others.

Buddha-nature is our original nature.  When we have no idea of ego, we have awakened life, our egotistic ideas are delusion, covering our Buddha-nature.  Everything has Buddha-nature, so something apart from Buddha-nature is just a delusion . . . So to be a human being is to be a Buddha. Buddha-nature is just another name for human nature, our true human nature.”

– Shunryu Suzuki

– – – – – – – – – –

* Adapted from the D.T. Suzuki translation.


Who is it that hears, sees and understands?

Bassui Tokusho Zenji was born on this day in 1327. He was a priest in the Rinzai school of Zen Buddhism whose teachings attracted a large number of followers despite his eccentric lifestyle.

When Bassui was young, he was concerned with such questions as “What is this thing called a soul?” and “Who is it that hears, sees and understands?” At age twenty he began training at Jifukuji Temple where he studied with a Zen master named Oko. He was ordained as a priest some nine years later, although he had reservations about taking that step. Bassui was not comfortable with the formal and ritualistic aspect of Zen. For much of his life he traveled from hermitage to hermitage, preferring the life of a wanderer to that of residing in a monastery.

He earned such a reputation as a great teacher that during the last ten years of his life, it was not possible for him to live as he liked. He settled in one place, Enzan, and founded the temple Kogaku-an, where he stayed for the remainder of his life.

It’s said that when he died, Bassui was sitting in meditation with his students and he turned to them at the last moment and shouted, “Look directly! What is this? Look in this manner and you won’t be fooled.”

Arthur Braverman, who has translated Bassui’s dharma talks, Enzanwadeigassui-shu (“A Collection of Mud and Water from Enzan”, or simply Mud And Water), tells us that “According to Bassui, all the teachings [Bassui’s] can be reduced to a single precept: Seeing into one’s original nature is Buddhahood.

Here are excerpts from Bassui’s dharma talk on “One Mind”:

“If you would free yourself of the sufferings of the Six Realms, you must learn the direct way to become a Buddha. This way is no other than the realization of your own Mind. Now what is this Mind? It is the true nature of all sentient beings, that which existed before our parents were born and hence before our own birth, and which presently exists, unchangeable and eternal. So it is called one’s Face before one’s parents were born. This Mind is intrinsically pure. When we are born it is not newly created, and when we die it does not perish. It has no distinction of male or female, nor has it any coloration of good or bad. It cannot be compared with anything, so it is called Buddha-nature. Yet countless thoughts issue from this Self-nature as waves arise in the ocean or as images are reflected in a mirror . . .

What is termed Zazen [meditation] is no more than looking into one’s own mind. It is better to search your own mind devotedly than to read and recite innumerable sutras and dharani every day for countless years. Such endeavors, which are but formalities, produce some merit, but this merit expires and again you must experience the suffering of the Three Evil Paths. Because searching one’s own mind leads ultimately to enlightenment, this practice is a prerequisite to becoming a Buddha. No matter whether you have committed either the ten evil deeds or the five deadly sins, still if you turn back your mind and enlighten yourself, you are a Buddha instantly. But do not commit sins and expect to be saved by enlightenment. [Neither enlightenment] nor a Buddha nor a Patriarch can save a person who, deluding himself, goes down evil ways . . .

[One] who realizes that his own Mind is Buddha frees himself instantly from the sufferings arising from [ignorance of the law of] ceaseless change of birth-and-death. If a Buddha could prevent it, do you think he would allow even one sentient being to fall into hell? Without Self-Realization one cannot understand such things as these . . .

What kind of master is it that this very moment sees colors with the eyes and hears voices with the ears, that now raises the hands and moves the feet? We know these are functions of our own mind, but no one knows precisely how they are performed. It may be asserted that behind these actions there is no entity, yet it is obvious they are being performed spontaneously. Conversely, it may be maintained that these are the acts of some entity; still the entity is invisible. If one regards this question as unfathomable, all attempts to reason [out an answer] will cease and one will be at a loss to know what to do. In this propitious state deepen and deepen the yearning, tirelessly, to the extreme. When the profound questioning penetrates to the very bottom, and that bottom is broken open, not the slightest doubt will remain that your own Mind is itself Buddha, the Void-universe. There will then be no anxiety about life or death, no truth to search for.

In a dream you may stray and lose your way home. You ask someone to show you how to return or you pray to God or Buddhas to help you, but still you can’t get home. Once you rouse yourself from your dream-state, however, you find that you are in your own bed and realize that the only way you could have gotten home was to awaken yourself. This (kind of spiritual awakening] is called “return to the origin” or “rebirth in paradise.” It is the kind of inner realization that can be achieved with some training. Virtually all who like Zazen and make an effort in practice, be they laymen or monks, can experience to this degree. But even such [partial] awakening cannot be attained except through the practice of Zazen. You would be making a serious error, however, were you to assume that this was true enlightenment in which there is no doubt about the nature of reality. You would be like a man who having found copper gives up the desire for gold.

Upon such realization question yourself even more intensely in this wise: “My body is like a phantom, like bubbles on a stream. My mind, looking into itself, is as formless as empty-space, yet somewhere within sounds are perceived. Who is hearing?” Should you question yourself in this wise with profound absorption, never slackening the intensity of your effort, your rational mind eventually will exhaust itself and only questioning at the deepest level will remain. Finally you will lose awareness of your own body. Your long-held conceptions and notions will perish, after absolute questioning, in the way that every drop of water vanishes from a tub broken open at the bottom, and perfect enlightenment will follow like flowers suddenly blooming on withered trees.

With such realization you achieve true emancipation . . .

If you don’t come to realization in this present life, when will you? Once you have died you won’t be able to avoid a long period of suffering in the Three Evil Paths. What is obstructing realization? Nothing but your own half-hearted desire for truth. Think of this and exert yourself to the utmost.”