Ultimate Reality

I want to make a few comments about something I wrote in the last post:

It seems to me that there is no other religious philosophy other than Buddhism that has such a concept where there is absolutely no separation between the ordinary person and the ultimate reality.  You cannot become God, Jesus, the Prophet – you can be Buddha.  Here, the ultimate reality is everything.

When we talk about an “ultimate reality” in Buddhism, we’re comprehending a different understanding of the term that that of other religions or spiritual philosophies.  An “ultimate reality” is not any one thing.  It is everything.  There is no separation because we are living the ultimate reality right now.  How we perceive it is the question.

You may read that emptiness is the ultimate reality.  That is misleading.  Emptiness is the “ultimate” nature of things, meaning that all things are empty, including emptiness.  But it does not mean that emptiness itself is anything like a force, or substitute for some mystical being.  There is no creator god in Buddhism.  Buddha was not divine, nor was he was prophet.  He was an itinerant philosopher and meditation teacher.  To compare Buddha with the others is a bit misleading as well.

I’m sure most of you caught my drift when you read the post.  Just wanted to make sure…

In Nagarjuna’s Philosophy, K. Venkata Ramanan says that it is through realizing that even the subtlest things are not ultimate in reality that one becomes free of clinging.  The philosophy of sunyata seeks to bring about this realization by laying bare the inconsistencies to which one is misled into thinking things are ultimate.

So, in Buddhism there is no ultimate reality.  At the same time, all of reality is the ultimate reality.

Ramanan quotes Nagarjuna:

The ultimately true nature of the Buddha and the ultimately true nature of all things are in truth but one reality, not two, not divided.  This ultimate reality is unmade, it will never be other than what it always is.

Reality is.  Just is.  Unmade.  Indeterminable.  Non-dual.  The ultimate reality is a whole, the whole of everything.  That is why everything is Buddha and anyone can be Buddha.

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Everything is Buddha

I am not a Zen Buddhist but I am a follower, more or less, of one of its greatest teachers, Dogen, who introduced Zen (Ch’an) to Japan in the form of the Soto school.   He lived during the Kamakura period (1192–1333), the Medieval era in which “original awakening” (hongaku) was a core concept in Japanese Buddhism.

Tibetan monk staring at Buddha.

Original awakening refers to the fundamental nature of enlightenment native to all human beings and the external world, and is closely related to the idea of Buddha-nature. Some time back, I ran across this description of original awakening which I think is pretty good: “[it] means that everything, without exception and without alteration, is already full-blown Buddha. Ignorance? Buddha. Wisdom? Buddha. The leaf, the blossom…”  You, me, our enemies, friends, the wind, mountains… all Buddhas.

A famous Zen anecdote, “Mazu’s ‘Mind is Buddha,” goes like this:

Damei once asked Master Mazu, “What is buddha?” Mazu answered, “Mind is buddha.”  Commenting on this, master Wumen said, “If you can at once grasp “it,” you are wearing buddha clothes, eating buddha food, speaking buddha words, and living buddha life; you are a buddha yourself.”

Everything, everyone is Buddha.  It seems to me that there is no other religious philosophy other than Buddhism that has such a concept where there is absolutely no separation between the ordinary person and the ultimate reality.  You cannot become God, Jesus, the Prophet – you can be Buddha.  Here, the ultimate reality is everything.

The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy states. “Zen aims at a perfection of personhood.”  This is it exactly.  Buddha is not a god or a psychedelic spiritual being but an ordinary person who has realized wisdom within.  A Buddha has “perfected” his or her person so that thoughts and actions are based on positive virtues as opposed to negative emotions.  And it goes further than that, a Buddha is a whole person.

If you want more detailed information about this concept and its development, see these posts.

In my less than educated view (I am not a Dogen scholar) original enlightenment is the notion underlining Dogen’s concept of the “oneness of practice and enlightenment” (shusho-itto or shusho ichi-nyo).  In his essay, Bendowa (“On Practicing the Way of Buddhas”), Dogen says,

“The view that practice and enlightenment are not one is a non-Buddhist view.  In the Buddha-dharma they are one.  Inasmuch as practice is based on enlightenment, the practice of a beginner is entirely that of original enlightenment.  Therefore, in giving the instruction for practice, a Zen teacher should advise his or her disciples not to seek enlightenment apart from practice, for practice itself is original enlightenment.  Because it is already enlightenment of practice, there is no end to enlightenment; because it is already practice of enlightenment, there is no beginning to practice.”

When we factor in the inseparability of all things, non-duality, then “oneness of practice and enlightenment” is fairly easy to understand.  “Oneness of practice and enlightenment” is an original concept, nonetheless it marks a further development of the traditional Buddhist view that meditation is the sole way leading to the transcendence of suffering, and to awakening.  Meditation is the heart of Buddhism.  Without it, there is no Buddhism.

Having Buddhahood within does us no good unless we make an effort to actualize it. Meditation is our tool for this endeavor, although Dogen might object to calling it a tool.

Francis H. Cook, Associate Professor at the University of California Riverside and author of a number of books on Buddhism, makes this important point about Dogen’s concept:

“[The]  relationship  between   practice  and  attainment  as  Dogen  understood   it:  practice  is  not  a  means  to  enlightenment  or  attainment,  but  is  that  which  measures, or  actualizes,  one’s already  existent enlightenment.   In   fact, says  Dogen,  zazen  [meditation] practice is  enlightenment.”*

While Dogen was adamant about meditation being the essence of Buddha-dharma, we should keep in mind that “practice” is not always limited to sitting.  What we do after we get up from the meditation cushion is also practice.  It is crucial that we apply the realizations we gain from meditation to our daily life.  Good behavior is a reflection of sincere practice.  If the aim is to perfect our humanness, to become better people, daily life is where we find the fruits of our labor.  Meditation is not a means to escape the world but rather to see the world as it truly is, without illusion.

When Buddha awakened beneath the Bodhi Tree, it was not some mystical experience, rather the culmination of years of effort.  Awakening is a process.  Meditation was the “tool” the Buddha used to wake up to the awakening of every thing and see the unfolding of everything into enlightenment.  Meditation is the practice we practice in the midst of original awakening.

“[Buddha] said, at this moment all beings and I awaken together. So it was not just him. It was all the universe. He touched the earth. ‘As earth is my witness. Seeing this morning star, all things and I awaken together.‘”
– Jane Hirshfield, poet 

– – – – – – – – – –

Enlightenment in Dogen’s Zen, Francis H. Cook, The Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, Volume6, 1983, Number 1
Cook also translated the passage from Bendowa

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Beyond Religion

Today’s entry incorporates material from several previous posts.

In “The Dalai Lama: A Policy of Kindness”edited by Sidney Piburn, the Dalai Lama is quoted as saying,

“Buddhism does not accept a theory of God, or a creator. According to Buddhism, one’s own actions are the creator, ultimately. Some people say that, from a certain angle, Buddhism is not a religion but rather a science of mind.”

Several times during recent years, the Dalai Lama has also expressed his dissatisfaction with religion as a whole, suggesting that “the time has come to find a way of thinking about spirituality and ethics beyond religion altogether.”

Well, religion has never been adequate, and Buddhism was never intended to be a religion. Buddha was not a religious figure. He wasn’t a god, a miracle worker, a faith healer, nor was he a prophet like Isaiah or Muhammad, or a law-bringer in the way Moses was – he was a meditation teacher, an itinerant philosopher. The spiritual tradition he belonged to, the sramanas, was not a religious movement, it was outside of religion, and it seems the Buddha was critical of the established religion of his day, with its reliance on ritual, incantations, and prophecies, and he rejected the authority of the priests.

The Buddha’s message was not religious, either. He said, everyone has problems, and if you want to learn how to deal with your problems more effectively and perhaps even overcome the sufferings your problems bring, then once or twice a day, sit down, be still, and calm your mind. That’s not a particularly religious message. It’s a very practical message. After all, what is the best thing to do when we have a problem? Rush out willy-nilly, higgly-piggly, and try to affect a solution? No, it’s best to sit down, think the problem through, calmly, maybe analyze the causes for the problem, and then work out a solution. It’s the same principal in Buddhism, only we are dealing with deeper levels of the mind.

The Buddha did not direct the attention of his followers toward some higher, holier being but rather toward their own human nature, their inner-being, their mind.  Buddha was not concerned about the existence of gods, or speculation about how the world was made. He was concerned only with the question of how to solve human problems, how to relieve suffering.

And he asked his followers not to worship him. He expressly forbade them from revering his relics. That’s why for several centuries no representations of the Buddha were used, only images of a footprint, an empty seat, the Wheel of Dharma, a Bodhi leaf, and so on. But human beings, being what they are just couldn’t help themselves and made Buddhism a religion and Buddha a god.

Non-Buddhists, when trying to get a handle on what Buddhism is about, are often confused because they try to analyze Buddha-dharma from a religious perspective.  They are unable to fathom the idea of not having a supreme being to rely on and answer prayers.  This is perfectly natural, but not helpful.

Buddhism begins with the premise that religion is not adequate. Buddhism has always been beyond religion.  Buddhism does not really fit any category we have in the West.  It has religious elements; it is a discipline, a philosophy, a way of life, a way of mind, a path, a Way but most of all, Buddhism is beyond religion.

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