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 

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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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Prepare to Die

Are you prepared to die?

The ancient samurai of Japan would prepare for death each day of their life.  The first line in the core text of bushido (”way of the warrior”), the Hagakure reads, “The way of the warrior is found in death.”

There is another line about when faced with life or death, the samurai should always choose death.  I don’t believe this is meant to say that death is to be desired, or that death is preferable to life, but merely that we should always be prepared for death, and unpacking it a bit further, that when we are confronted with hard choices, we should not be fearful of taking the most difficult option.

Being a samurai, a warrior, meant facing death on a constant basis.  Each day could be the last.  It is no different for us.  Each day could be our last, we could be hit by a car or…

Tao and Buddha-dharma practitioners endeavor to train and tame their unruly minds.  Pull the mind back into itself rather than focus on the external.  Death is a metaphor for facing the unknown, the difficult, the unavoidable.  Death is non-attachment.

We can love life and cherish it while at the same time be unattached to the “things” of life.  This detachment helps us to prepare for face ordeals.  An unshakable mind, that holds on to only itself, is prepared, when suffering arrives, to see suffering as a materialization of the Noble Truths.  Suffering, especially physical death is a natural phenomenon, a natural aspect of life.

Some methods early Buddhists had to prepare for death was to meditate on death, meditate next to a corpse, or spend a night meditating in a cemetery.  For us, it is enough perhaps to train our minds so that we are not afraid to think about death or talk about it.  We can also reflect on death, and meditate on impermanence, which is a powerful anti-dote to self-cherishing and attachment.

We should be aware that from the moment we are born the process of old age, sickness and death begins.  Of course, as we reflect on this subtle aspect of impermanence, we should also keep in mind what Dogen said in Genjo Koan (“Actualizing the Fundamental Point”),

[It] is an established way in buddha-dharma to deny that birth turns into death.  Accordingly, birth is understood as no-birth.  It is an unshakable teaching in Buddha’s discourse that death does not turn into birth.  Accordingly, death is understood as no-death.

Birth is an expression complete this moment.  Death is an expression complete this moment.  They are like winter and spring.  You do not call winter the beginning of spring, nor summer the end of spring.

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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.

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The Moon in Water

Tuesday was Bodhi Day, a celebration of the Buddha’s enlightenment. I mentioned it only in passing because I wanted to focus on the anniversary of John Lennon’s death.

According to legend, after renouncing extreme asceticism, Siddhartha Gautama sat in meditation beneath a Ficus religiosa tree until on the eighth day of the 12th lunar month (Jp. rohatsu) he attained enlightenment and became Buddha.

In early Buddhism, individuals could only achieve enlightenment after engaging in Buddhist practice over the course of many lifetimes. In contrast, Mahayana Buddhism came along centuries after the Buddha’s advent and said that because all people inherently posses Buddha-nature, enlightenment was attainable in this very lifetime.

There are several different accounts of what happened under the bodhi tree. Because the Buddha’s time is so remote to us, it is unlikely we will ever know the facts. Bodhi is the state of awakening.

Naturally, there is diverse opinion as to the nature of enlightenment. In his writing, the Genjokoan, Dogen, offers this beautiful explanation:

moonlight2bAttaining enlightenment is like the reflection of the moon on the water. The moon does not get wet, nor is the water broken. . . For all the breadth and vastness of its light, it rests upon a small patch of water. Both the whole moon and the sky in its entirety come to rest in a single dewdrop of grass, in a mere drop of water.

Enlightenment does not divide you, just as the moon does not break the water. You cannot obstruct enlightenment any more than the drop of dew obstructs the moon in the sky. *

The analogy of “the moon in water” appears frequently in Buddhist literature. It symbolizes emptiness. Enlightenment is empty, in that it is not a fixed state of mind or being. Nevertheless, we say that enlightenment reflects the true reality. It does not divide us because reality is non-dual, there is nothing to divide.

Nagarjuna called the undivided (advaya) being the true nature of reality. Advaya is a Sanskrit word that means ‘not-two:

The ultimately true nature of enlightenment and the ultimately true nature of all things are in truth but one reality, not two, not divided.” **

Another way to express this not-twoness is harmony. Enlightenment or bodhi is realizing the world of harmony that has always been present within and without you.

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* Waddell, Norman and ABE, Masao, trans. Shobogenzo Genjokoan. The Eastern Buddhist, 1972, 136

** Venkata Ramanan, Nagarjuna’s Philosophy as Presented in the Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra, Motilal Banarsidass Publ., 1987, 268

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The Rain Rained

Saturday night, the rain rained. That may not be a big deal where you live. Here, it’s a huge deal, especially since we have been in a drought for four years.

I stole “the rain rained” from one of my favorite crime fiction novels, Get Carter (aka Jack’s Return Home) by the late Ted Lewis, which was made into a pretty decent film in 1971 starring Michael Caine.  It’s the book’s opening line. I love it. What does rain do?  It doesn’t actually pour, does it? It certainly does not come down like cats and dogs. Rain rains. Simple.

IMG_3422b2So, it rained during the night when I was asleep and I missed it. But this morning, when I awoke, the sky was still wonderfully gray, the air cool and refreshing, and drops of rain were lingering on the leaves of trees and plants.

The 13th century Japanese Zen teacher, Dogen wrote in the Mountains and Water Sutra, “Even in a drop of water innumerable buddha lands appear.”

Dogen wrote about the rain in this famous waka poem,

As I listened
I became
the sound of rain
on the eaves.

In both of these, he is expressing nonduality, emptiness, and the mutual interpenetration of all things.

Did you know that a single drop of water weighing 0.1g contains about 3 billion trillion (3,000,000,000,000,000,000,000) molecules?

A “buddha land” refers to the principle taught by the Tendai school of Buddhism, sanzen sekai or a billion worlds. According to the Dogen anthology, Moon in a Dewdrop, “This ‘universe’ is regarded as the realm influenced by one buddha’s teaching. Thus it is called a ‘buddha land.’” Tendai also contributed the concept of ichinen sanzen or the universe in a single thought.

If we understand about nonduality, then we know that ultimately there is no difference between molecules and human life. This way, Dogen or you or I, can become the rain.  And a single thought can contain the entire universe.

All things simultaneously interpenetrate into one another and this helps reveal to us the deep underlying harmony that permeates reality.

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