In Buddhism two of the ideas most distant from our rational western perspective are the Tathāgatagarbha and the Dharmakaya.
The Tathagatagarbha is the faith that, at our core – not just our core, but at the core of all living beings – is an embryo or womb of Buddhahood: a Buddha potentiality or actuality, which is covered over by our karma. It’s a very positive way of seeing: our essence is Buddha and our coverings, our karma is accidental.
The Dharmakaya is the idea that the whole universe, seen correctly, is the body of the Buddha. The Chinese integrated those two ideas by saying that the Dharmakaya was what the Tathāgatagarbha became when those karmic obstructions were removed.
Those two ideas are a bit of an embarrassment to the no-nonsense, modern idea of Zen. It’s hard to see, at least at first blush, how they’re related to practice at all: but actually they’re intimately related to practice. Specifically, they’re very related to embodiment.
When we think of ‘embodiment’ we often think that we’ll just physically become more vivid, like feeling our blood coursing in our veins, for instance. We’ll still be, as it were, an object in the world, but illuminated, special.
But in truth, what we notice when we become more embodied is, in a way that’s hard to describe, that we become less physical. We become more aware of ourselves as spacious and energetic.
One of the reasons why we place such an emphasis on sitting in a balanced posture is that that posture enables us to feel, at our core, something like the Tathāgatagarbha: a spacious and dynamic emptiness which, in its nature, is not distinct to others.
It’s not individual to us in its nature—it’s universal. And when we directly see ourselves in terms of presence, energy, spaciousness and dynamic process, the boundaries which we impose between ourselves as conceived and the rest of creation become far more porous.
That’s a gradual process. The metaphor – not just metaphor – for all of this is the breath. When we’re sitting, breathing fully, our breath is one of the correlates to this dynamic spaciousness that we feel inside us. The breath that’s inside us and outside us is really the same breath: the space inside us and the space outside us is the same spaciousness.