This Mind Itself

Sokushin zebutsu, an important work by Zen master Dogen (1200-1253), is commonly translated as “The Mind itself is Buddha.” The word “Shin” in sokushin is literally “mind,” but since body and mind are not separate, it actually refers to the “body/mind” aggregate that constitutes an individual being. Sokushin zebutsu is analogous to sokushin jobutsu or “this very body is Buddha,” a concept, as well as the title of a work, from an earlier Japanese master, Kukai (774–835) founder of the Shingon school. Essentially, “This very body” means what it implies: this body, the one we inhabit in this lifetime, not some future body or life. This, in turn, relates to the Tendai position, as later put forth by Annen (841-899?) of sokushin jobutsu as “Buddhahood in this very lifetime.”

This line of thought breaks down the traditional notion that it take many lifetimes to attain Buddhahood. It brings awakening into the present, into the here and now.  David Shaner, a professor at Furman University specializing in Japanese Buddhist philosophy, explains:

“The crucial point is that enlightenment is not some other worldly truth to be grasped via a mystical experience. Rather, it involves a keen awareness of that which is already present.” [1.]

A crucial point, indeed, and a subtle one, which can be easily misunderstood. Dogen’s view is that all things are Buddha-dharma, or inseparable from the teachings of the Buddha, and all things are Buddha-nature, or mind itself. “All things” naturally includes sentient beings, therefore all sentient beings posses this Buddha mind or nature. However, this does not mean that all sentient beings are automatically Buddhas. Dogen taught that while awakening is innate within our minds, actualizing this awakening lies in awakening to its existence, which is possible only through practice.

There must be some action taken, a first step, what we call bodhicitta, the thought of awakening:

“’This very mind is buddha’ is aspiration, practice, bodhi, and nirvana; if there is no  aspiration, practice, bodhi, and nirvana, there is no ‘this very mind is buddha.’” [2]

Although the process of actualizing awakening in the mind begins with an initial thought, once the thought is produced, we need not continue to search for awakening. In the Genjo koan (“Actualizing the Fundamental Point”), Dogen explains that “the mind itself is Buddha” is realized without thinking. He says that

“[When] buddhas are genuinely buddhas there is no need to be conscious that they are buddhas. Yet they are realized buddhas, and they continue to realize buddha.” [3]

The mundane self (sans ego)that can be awakened and the path of awakening are ultimately the same. But to cease the search for awakening does not mean to abandon the practice that leads to the realization of the Buddha-mind. As I see it, Dogen repeatedly  stressed the need to practice, which he saw as a process of letting the body/mind complex drop off. “The mind itself is Buddha” is really no-mind. This is close to what T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i meant when he said that once you realize the One Truth, you realize No-Truth. This is why the Heart Sutra says there is “no path, no wisdom and no attainment with nothing to attain.”

It means to transcend the limitations of mind, of thought, to go beyond the relative distinctions between subject and object. It means to see things in another way, to lose our attachment to conceptual thinking, to see the wholeness of things, to see true emptiness.

In the Sokushin Zebutsu, Dogen puts it this way:

Now you know clearly: what is called ‘mind’ is the great earth with its mountains and rivers; it is the sun, the moon, and the stars. Even so, when you take what is being expressed here one step further, something is lacking; when you draw back from what it is saying, something has gone too far. The mind that is the great earth with its mountains and rivers is simply the great earth with its mountains and rivers: there are no surging waves nor is there any wind-driven spindrift to disturb or upset it. The mind that is sun, moon, and stars is simply sun, moon, and stars: there is no fog nor is there any mist to obscure its clarity. The mind that is the coming and going of birth and death is simply the coming and going of birth and death: there is no ‘being deluded’ nor is there any ‘realizing enlightenment’ . . .

Since this is the way things are, “Your very mind is Buddha” means, pure and simply, that your very mind is Buddha; all Buddhas are, pure and simply, all Buddhas.

Thus, “Your very mind is Buddha” refers to all Buddhas, that is, to Those who have given rise to the intention to realize Buddhahood by practicing and training until They awaken to Their enlightenment and realize nirvana.” [4]

And, of course, when we realize nirvana, we find that essentially it is nothing more than this very world of suffering. Nirvana is right here, right now, a potentiality within the present moment, within this very body, this life, this mind itself.


1. David Shaner, The Bodymind Experience in Japanese Buddhism: A Phenomenological Perspective of Dogen and Kukai (Albany: State University of New York Press), 1985, 75.

2. A Study of Dogen:His Philosophy and Religion, Masao Abe and Steven Heine,SUNY Press, 1992, 158.

3. Ibid., 123.

4. SHOBOGENZO The Treasure House of the Eye of the True Teaching by Eihei Dogen, Translated by Reverend Master Hubert Nearman, Order of Buddhist Contemplatives, Shasta Abbey Press, Mount Shasta, California 2007.


Having A Stubborn Streak

"The Lady" meets the Dalai Lama

I’ve been on vacation. Visiting relatives in Northern California. Had a wonderful time. Now I’m back and catching up on all the news and different things I missed while I was away: Rodney King died. That guy had one troubled life. Hosni Mubarak suffered a stroke and may be brain dead. And Henry Hill, the guy who inspired Goodfellas, also passed away. Aung San Suu Kyi traveled to Europe and finally got her Nobel Prize.  And yesterday, on her 67th birthday, she met with the Dalai Lama.

In the UK, someone asked Aung San Suu Kyi how she found the strength to resist the military government in Burma for so long, and she said,

During this journey I have found great warmth and great support among people all over the world . . . So it’s all of you and people like you who have given me the strength to continue . . . And I suppose I do have a stubborn streak in me.”

Stubbornness is not usually considered a positive trait, but all truly great people are stubborn. Unyielding might be a better word for it. I’m thinking especially of my aunt, who is English, and not because she is particularly stubborn or unyielding herself (although she probably is to some degree), but because during one of the evenings I spent at her and my uncle’s house, she told me some stories about her life as a young woman in London during the early days of World War II, when the Germans were bombing the city and the block she lived in was completely destroyed. Thank goodness, the English people were stubborn, unyielding, and refused to knuckle under to Hitler’s onslaught.

There were a lot of stubborn people around that time. Churchill was stubborn, so was Roosevelt, and Gandhi. Stubborn people are real heroes of life. In more recent times, Nelson Mandela was stubborn. After his long years of imprisonment, he stubbornly did not give in to hatred, bitterness, or vengeance. Stubborn people refuse to yield to oppression, or life-threatening diseases. They are the kind of people who do not accept their circumstances in life and want to better themselves, or resist acceptance of the way things are and because they’re stubborn, they work to enact change. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of being stubborn enough to just survive.

In this sense, I think stubbornness is good trait for Buddhists to cultivate. I hear many people complain about meditation practice these days. They say, well, you know, Buddhism is more than meditation, and so on. They’re right, and yet, I have the feeling that’s just a rationalization, an excuse. Whether it’s silent meditation or chanting, a daily practice is hard to maintain. Maybe these complainers lack the stubbornness to keep it up.

“Resolution” is another good word for stubbornness. Shantideva wrote:

The thought of enlightenment has two stages: (1) the resolution for enlightenment; and (2) the advancement toward the same. As the holy Gandavyuha says: ‘Rare, my son, in all the world are such beings who make a resolution toward the highest illumination, yet rarer than these are they that have started toward the same’ . . . The first of these, the thought of the resolution towards enlightenment, is produced by the decision of the mind: ‘I must become a Buddha’ for the Surangama Sutra says that the thought of enlightenment produced by actual deception is a cause of Buddhahood . . .”

The way I interpret this is that the “deception” is the notion that there is a final stage, a consummate state called Buddhahood or enlightenment. It’s a deception because, as I always say, enlightenment is a journey, not a destination. Yet, without some idea of an end, we would never begin; we’d never make that decision of the mind to step off on the journey. That’s why I prefer to use the word “awakening” for enlightenment. The “ing” form implies something happening in the present, of “doing.” We don’t become enlightened so much as we are becoming enlightened, we are awakening.  And to me, being a Buddhist means having the stubbornness, the resolution, the unyielding spirit to continue the process of awakening no matter what happens.

The Dhammavadaka Sutra says,

You, no less than all beings have Buddha Nature within. Your essential Mind is pure. Therefore, when defilements cause you to stumble and fall, let not remorse nor dark foreboding cast you down. Be of good cheer and with this understanding, summon strength and walk on.”

Having a stubborn streak means to “walk on.” For 15 years the military government of Burma kept Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest. She could not step out of her small compound, yet she walked on. This year she was elected to her country’s parliament. This week she went to Norway and finally received her Nobel Prize, and she traveled to England and finally received her honorary degree from Oxford University. And she, like Mandela, has resisted the temptation of hatred, bitterness or vengeance.

Unyielding. Resolute. We should all have such a stubborn streak.

Suu Kyi/Dalai Lama Photo: Jeremy Russell/OHHDL


The Thought of Awakening

Not everyone will want to undertake the formal practice of a bodhisattva, but that does not mean they cannot enter the bodhisattva path.

It begins with generating bodhicitta, the thought of awakening. Bodhicitta is actually two aspirations: to experience awakening for oneself and then for others.  It is comprised of two elements: compassion for others and a deep understanding of suffering. To wish to free oneself from suffering is true renunciation. To wish others to be free is to have true compassion.

My understanding of bodhicitta comes mainly from the Tibetan tradition, as teachers I have encountered in other traditions have not dealt with it in any comprehensive way. Since the Tibetan schools are essentially Madhyamaka or Middle Way schools, their discourses on bodhicitta are largely founded on the teachings of Nagarjuna and Shantideva.

Shantideva’s Bodhisattva-caryavatara, better known as A Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life is probably the best and most expansive guide to the practice of bodhicitta. He writes “Those who want to transcend life’s multitude of sufferings, those who wish to end the distress of living beings  . . . should never surrender this thought of awakening . . . as soon as the thought of awakening arises within, even the most miserable person . . .  is proclaimed to be a child of the Buddha.”

Lama Govinda explains,

Bodhicitta is here the spark of that deeper consciousness, which in the process of enlightenment is converted from a latent into an active all-penetrating and radiating force. Before this awakening has taken place, our existence is a senseless running about in circles; and since we cannot find any meaning within ourselves, the world around us appears equally meaningless.

Actually, without bodhicitta or any practice, there does appear to be meaning, but often that meaning is founded on pride and self-cherishing, so it is negligible.  Bodhicitta is skillful means, a tool to combat the self-centered meanings we seize.

Shantideva praises bodhicitta, calling it “a precious jewel so seldom produced for one’s own sake, much less for others.” He says altruistic intention is so powerful that “Even the wish to relieve another being of a mere headache, produces immense benefit beyond conception” and that once bodhicitta arises all the actions of the individual are those of a bodhisattva.

Naturally not all statements of this sort should be taken literally. It’s the spirit of the words, reflecting the essence of bodhicitta, that we want to capture.

In addition to selflessness and compassion, bodhicitta also requires courage. In this sense, I’ve heard the term “active bodhicitta.” Liberation through bodhicitta cannot be realized merely by making a wish or a prayer. You must put the altruistic intention into action. After reflecting deeply on the meaning of bodhicitta take active steps to help others. This is also called wisdom.

In Madhyamaka philosophy, teachings on bodhicitta have a direct relationship with emptiness. Emptiness is seen as the real ground of liberation, and it is on account of emptiness that true compassion is possible.

In teachings on Shantideva’s Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life, in Los Angeles in 201, the Dalai Lama said,

If you have wisdom of emptiness but no bodhicitta, you will not achieve full progress on the path. If you have no wisdom of emptiness but have bodhicitta, you are on the way no matter what happens.

Bodhicitta is a benefit both temporary and long term.  You should practice bodhicitta as an antidote to pride, also powerful when you are depressed.

You can practice to a point where you make a simple thought and this causes a spontaneous arising of bodhicitta within you.  To achieve this kind of liberation requires a great determination.