360. Entirely bodhisattvas

The four bodhisattva vows are –  in one sense – a response to the four noble truths.

The first two noble truths are that our life is unsatisfactory (‘suffering’, in the traditional language), and the cause of that suffering is ignorance, which creates a belief that there is a permanent self, which in turn causes desire, aversion and attachment, which perpetuates suffering.

The third noble truth is that there’s a way out of this suffering, which the fourth noble truth identifies: the noble eightfold path.

 It is, quintessentially, a solo perspective. Someone living alone on an island or living a solitary existence in the forest could practice these four noble truths.

The bodhisattva vows aren’t like that.  They are a creative and compassionate response to suffering, not primarily through recognizing the unreality of a fixed self, but by recognizing and trying to live within the oneness of everything.

The term ‘bodhisattva’ was originally used for the Buddha alone, describing his 500 lives before he became the Buddha. 

It was only in the Mahayana sutras that bodhisattva became wider in meaning, and eventually ubiquitous. For example, in the Lotus sutra, there is a scene where countless bodhisattvas, who have been concealing themselves for aeons in an empty space within the earth, burst forth.

Mahayana practitioners often refer to fellow practitioners as bodhisattvas.  

Just as the first of the pre-socratic philosophers Thales said,”Everything is full of gods”, from the  Mahayana perspective everything is, as it were, full of bodhisattvas.

So when we talk in terms of the first bodhisattva vow—All living beings, I vow to save them- we’re not talking about a unitary self being compassionate towards other unitary selves and things. We’re talking about an entirely reconfigured world and person, which is entirely 



359. Taken by an idiot

When we start practice, it’s as if we’re taken to a beautiful land manacled to an idiot. We imagine that if the idiot would stop the incessant babble, we could fully appreciate the space and the tranquility.

It takes us a long time to understand that this person, whom we view as an idiot, is dependent origination.

If it were not for the noise, the distress, the interference, of what we regard as our personal thoughts and emotions, we would never have been drawn to practice in the first place.

It’s as if what we regard as our thoughts and our emotions is a beautiful and powerful dragon, constricted within the small room of the self; which in turn is located in some limited imaginary space in our head. 

If that dragon is released from the room of the self,  is released from the head, it can manifest throughout the whole body.  This changes everything:  experience transforms from something like static or echo  to something like bright water, flowing vigorously throughout the body. In turn, this bright water can flow into and from the entire world. Then it is like space, like light.

Practicing in this way is how non-duality is actualized—not by some ego project to weld an imaginary world to an imaginary self, or to lift something fictional upwards.


358. The hands of Avolakitesvara

Just as a doctor palpates the body for what they cannot see directly, in Buddhism, teachers persistently palpate with words that which cannot be directly spoken of, or, to use the traditional language, that which is ‘inconceivable’. And palpating is an appropriate metaphor, because, even although we cannot trap it within language, we are always intimate with it.

The endless activity of expression of teachers is not pointless, it’s essential. Their effort begins to illuminate. It illuminates the teacher. It illuminates the student. It illuminates a tiny part of a vast land. It illuminates the light. It illuminates the darkness. Most importantly, it disrupts the pictures we create.

It is not that one effort supersedes another, but rather, each effort is the effort of all Buddhists, a billion little candles on a dark hill.

In meditation we are palpating the body, this body. Not of course just our body of bones and flesh and pictures, but the whole body of our experience. We are palpating this body, not with our tiny arthritic karmic hands, but with the hands of Avalokitesvara.


357. The Origin of “All Being Is Buddha Nature”

How did Chinese –  and hence Japanese – Buddhism get to the universality of Buddha Nature?

How did that broadening happen, so that people were eventually able to say, around the 8th century, that all beings have Buddha Nature?

Later, Dogen creatively reinterpreted that formulation as all beings are Buddha Nature. Everything is Buddha Nature. Not just certain sentient beings, sometime in the limitless future, but everything, now: trees, clouds, sky, everything

Arguably, the belief is there from the beginning, but in a slightly obscured form.

The three trends which constitute Chinese Buddhism are Madhyamaka, Nagarjuna’s approach—the whole emptiness perspective; Yogacara—mind only; and Tathāgatagarbha—the idea that within each of us is this essence of Buddhahood.

These are all Indian perspectives that come to China, the first two as specific schools. None of them thrived long term in their original form. Chinese Buddhism incorporated them into the specifically Chinese schools of Tiantai and Hua-yen in the 6th and 7th centuries, which in turn birthed the Zen school of meditation and the Pure Land school of devotionalism and other power. (That’s why Zen is often mistakenly seen as standing apart; you have to go through several layers to understand it, and it’s easier to talk superficial ahistorical nonsense)

In these three Indian perspectives we can see, in unstated form, this universality of Buddha Nature. 

In Madhyamaka the overriding  idea is that everything is empty, nothing has an independent, subsisting self,  everything arises and ceases depending on causes and conditions. Although ‘emptiness’ was expressed as something disruptive and new, one can see how that perspective is identical with the  original Buddhist perspective as taught in the 12-fold chain and so on. Why?

Because who is a Buddha if not someone who not just sees dependent origination, but lives it, and all that that implies?

The idea of the universality of Buddha Nature is also there in the three natures of the Yogacara school. The first nature is the imaginary nature. All the qualities that we impose on everything that we see— the smoothness of the cup, the softness of the air, all of that constructed world is the imaginary.

When a person is able to see the dependent arising of everything, that is the second nature—the dependent nature.  When that person –  paradigmatically in meditation: the ‘yoga’ in Yogacara means meditation –  is able to experience in their being this interdependent arising, not as something external, not as something thought, but something involving all of them, all of their experience, there’s a potential pivot to the third nature.

And that third nature is Suchness, which arguably, although it’s not stated in this way, is congruent with and supportive of the gradual shift towards the universality of Buddha Nature, although ironically the School fell out of favour in China because of Xuanzang’s denial of this. 

Alongside all this, there’s a change in what’s meant by Buddha Nature. Originally Buddha Nature, Buddhahood was something to be achieved in the future, after a great deal of effort and practice. We can see that, on the surface anyway, in the text of The Lotus Sutra, where predictions were made of people being buddhas in future lifetimes.

But saying that everything has Buddha Nature or that Buddha Nature is everything changes it fundamentally.  

Rather than thinking of Buddha Nature or Buddhahood as being, as it were, a picture of the biggest wave in the ocean, each living wave, now, is the full manifestation of the ocean.   


356. The relinquishing of all views

Nagarjuna said that Buddhism – The Middle Way – was the “relinquishing of all views”. 

The problem with that statement, if we take it literally, is that the apparent imperative to relinquish all views is itself a view. 

So what is meant by ‘view’?  Nagarjuna means, I think, that a view is a truth claim about how the world, reality is: this is how the world is; this is how human beings are; this is the nature of reality. All this is what is meant by ‘view’. That being so, a view is inherently dualistic. Why?

Because there is the object that the truth statement is being made about: the self, say, or the world, or reality, and the owner of the mind and eye which is perceiving that reality; the subject. 

If, instead of ‘view’, we regard everything which arises as expression, then we can see a way out of this duality.

That is, everything which is arising for me, including my views, is an expression. Not of how the world is, but how I am, at this moment. My ideas aren’t in a separate compartment to the rest of my aliveness, but an intrinsic aspect.  

If we grant that, then the whole world becomes the events of expression, not something ‘out there’ that I can pontificate truly or falsely about.


355. What is ‘Form’?

The Heart Sutra is not a general statement about existence, it is a statement about the nature of our existence as Buddhist practitioners. It is not a philosophical treatise, it is a description of Zazen. That is why we chant it after we sit.

The most famous part of the Heart Sutra is “form is emptiness and emptiness is form.” Someone who doesn’t know about the Heart Sutra might think that ‘form’ means  the physical elements of the material world, things. But that is not what is meant. The Heart Sutra is named such because it is an abbreviation of the teachings on emptiness. ‘Form’ in this context is the first of the five Skandhas. The five Skandhas are a description of you. The form isn’t the form of things generally, it is your form.

That form – the word for form is ‘rupa’ – also appears as the fourth link (as namarupa – name and form) in the chain of dependent origination in early Buddhism. The idea is that the whole causal network of suffering is dependent upon a sequence of causes, each of which is dependent on the others. Break one and you break the chain of suffering. What form means in that context is our tendency to create durable, knowable entities out of the flow of experience. Once we do that, identifying, naming and reifying them, that creates desire, clinging and so on, other links of the chain.

The ‘form is emptiness’ statement is an abbreviation. If we unfold the Sutra, it would also be telling us that the other Skandhas are equally empty: sensation is empty, perception is empty, mental formations are empty and consciousness is empty. Adding these four makes it easier for us to understand what might be meant by ‘emptiness’. If we pay proper attention to our sensations for example, we see that each sensation, far from being something fixed, is energetic, fluctuating, changeable and relational. It is related to other sensations, to perception and consciousness and so on.

So it is easy for us to understand how the four Skandhas other than form are empty. But an understanding of that does not necessarily get us out of the primary dualism of self and world, which is the true origin of our suffering. It might well make us more embodied, and it might make us more integrated, but it doesn’t necessarily deal with that split. But regarding our form – my body- as empty (relational, interdependent) does directly attack that dualism, which is why it is particularly important, especially now, when there is a risk of meditation being swallowed up by the highly individualistic – and trivial – ideal of self improvement.

It seems to me that in our ordinary life, when we regard this body, it is as if we are seeing it in a mirror or, in some other way, picturing it. In Zazen we are not picturing it, at least not all the time. In breaking the mirror of the self, Zazen enables us to experience this body as interdependent, fluctuating, not separate. That is the foundation for us to start to see in a different way. Through an attention to this form, this body, the form of the world, likewise, can change.


354. Polishing a tile

In the Eihei Koroku there is a dharma hall discourse ‘Polishing a Mirror’ 

The discourse goes as follows: 

  • Polishing a tile to make a mirror is our reward for accumulating merit and virtue;
  • Polishing a mirror to make a tile certainly depends on the nourishment from wisdom;
  • Polishing a mirror to make a mirror brings a laugh.

How are my hands and a Buddha’s hands similar?

Practicing Zazen to make a Buddha is taking our weeds and sitting at the side of awakening.

Why is it like this?”

(After a pause) Dogen said, “When one cart is hit, many carts go quickly. One night a flower blooms and the world is fragrant.”

There’s a number of things going on in this discourse. 

The reference is to the famous koan story between Nangaku and Baso. In that story, Baso is sitting in Zazen and Nangaku goes to him and says,”What are you aiming for sitting in Zazen?”

Basu says something like, “I’m aiming to make a Buddha.”

Nangaku then picks up a tile and starts rubbing it against a stone.

Baso says, “What are you doing?”

Then Nangaku says, “I’m polishing a tile to make a mirror.”

Baso says, ”How can you make a mirror out of a tile by polishing” or words to that effect.

Nangaku says, “ Likewise how can sitting make you a Buddha?”

In Dogen’s interpretation of that story (which isn’t the mainstream interpretation) it’s the act of polishing which makes a Buddha a Buddha. So, the act of polishing—Zazen—makes the mirror. It doesn’t make the tile into a mirror, but it makes a mirror. It doesn’t make you into Buddha, but somehow, within your Zazen, both you and the Buddha are sitting.

The reference to the mirror is one that would be very familiar to Chinese and Japanese people of the time. It’s referring to alaya (storehouse) consciousness in Yogacara theory. According to Yogacara, there’s a point where the storehouse consciousness abruptly changes from simply bringing into our life our karmic seeds to being mirror consciousness; where we see everything dispassionately and clearly, all of one piece, as a mirror is all of one piece; even though the images in it appear to be separate.

Dogen is playing between this idea of ourselves as like the tile of the individual karmic practitioner, and this more universal quality of mirror consciousness, which, from the Lankavatara Sutra onwards, was identified quite closely with Buddha nature within Chinese Buddhism.

There’s various ways of putting this, and Dogen does. Another analogy might be, if the given one is not clear, that the activity of Zazen—polishing—is the creation of the mirror. You might imagine yourself, the individual practitioner, as being a thousand miles away from the Buddha. But Zazen is like the ground under your feet; the same ground as under Buddha’s feet; the same ground lifting up all beings. So even though this grimy, partial, karmic self isn’t transformed into something else, everything is manifested in Zazen.

To invent another analogy: as if we’re looking at a stage and there’s a narrow spotlight. That spotlight is on you, but you in your karmic ways, your incomplete thoughts, your repetitive thoughts, all the partiality and pain which makes up you as a karmic person. And what you want is for that partial person, that passion and pain, to be transformed into something else. 

That’s the mistake. 

Because what we require to attend to is not the karmic person but the quality of light. If the light, rather than simply being focused obsessively on you, is gradually broadened—then the light illuminates all beings.

Then everything changes. 


The Gateless Gate, Case 5

The Gateless Gate Case Five: 

The Case (adapted):

Kyogen said,”It is as though you were up a tree, hanging from a branch over a ravine with your teeth; your hands and feet can’t touch any branch.

Someone then appears beneath the tree and asks, “What is the meaning of Bodhidarma’s coming from the west?”

If you do not answer, you evade your responsibility; if you do answer, you lose your life.

What do you do?”


How many people are in this story? It seems there are two, but is that correct?

The metaphor of the tree is significant, quite apart from the obvious reference to the tree that the Buddha sat under at the time of his enlightenment. ‘Trunk’ and ‘Branches’ were a common way for the Chinese to talk about Principle and Phenomena.

Branching streams, as in the Sandokai, is another way of talking about the same thing. 

The man – each of us – is hanging by his teeth. He can’t move closer to the trunk or along the branch or anything else. Why not? Because he’s in his own dharma position. He can’t move along the branch towards the trunk any more than he can move backwards in time towards Buddha. He’s just there in his dharma position now, practicing Zazen. He can move neither forward nor backward and doesn’t require to. He’s hanging over this precipice of emptiness. The effort which he’s making is a complete effort; “anything else” arises within this effort.

It seems to me that the person who asks the question about Bodhidharma is not, in the strict sense, a person different from the person making this whole hearted effort. It’s another aspect of the same person. The second person appears within the first person’s Zazen.

This Case raises a more general question—how do we talk about our practice? 

If we talk about practice with another person who’s unfamiliar with Buddhism and we use language which makes our practice understandable to that person, then it’s likely that what we convey isn’t Zen. If we speak from our heart then we’re like a little bird singing; we make no sense to that person at all. If, to avoid feeling foolish, we say nothing, then we repudiate our vow to save all beings.

The way out of this, I think, is just to see the man hanging from the tree, his total effort in the moment, in itself as complete expression. How we are, not what we say, is a complete expression of our practice. Expression isn’t enunciation: it’s manifestation.

We’re not brought into practice by someone giving us an articulate exposition of Buddhism and then us thinking Aha! I must practice that. We’re brought into practice by random, arbitrary things.

I remember when I started practice I stumbled sleepily and malcontentedly into the Salisbury Centre in Edinburgh for Zazen – which I knew nothing at all about – at about 6.00am into a very, very unfamiliar, ritualised space. I wandered towards the nearest cushion. An elderly French gentleman,who I later learnt was the teacher, just pushed me in the opposite direction. I later found out that I was crossing the front of the altar, which wasn’t allowed, but he didn’t say anything, or smile apologetically; there was none of “I wonder if you’d mind terribly..”: he just pushed me vigorously, without giving any explanation. I was very impressed. Someone else may have thought his behaviour was proof that the whole thing was crazy.

His complete expression pushed me into Zen.


353. The Treasure House

The last sentence of Dogen’s Fukanzazengi, his universal recommendation of Zazen is, “The treasure house will open by itself and you may use it freely.”

The meaning of his masterwork Shobogenzo is The Treasury (Zo) of the True Dharma Eye.

When we hear treasury we may well think of it as being a piece of poetic ornamentation that we can safely disregard.

We can’t, because it’s the key to illuminating a neglected major influence on Zen— Yogacara. We think of ourselves as descending simply from Nagarjuna and the emptiness teachings, but it’s not true. 

 When the Chinese were looking for a suitable word for tathagatagarbha, which can mean Buddha embryo or Buddha womb, the word they chose was Zong

Zong variously means treasure house—womb—depository—storehouse. ‘Zo’ is the Japanese translation of ‘Zong’. This decisively shifted the idea of Buddha Nature from something that will happen to something present now. The argument which then took place within Chinese Buddhism was whether all beings or only some beings had this—the universal view eventually winning out.

And when the Chinese came to render alaya consciousness, storehouse consciousness

(the 8th and foundational consciousness in the Yogacara system) they used the same word—Zong.

In this way, two ideas which were distinct, Alaya consciousness and inherent Buddha Nature, came to be closely linked. The identity of the two seems to have originated in the Lankavatara Sutra, which was Indian, but which was brought to China – symbolically, one imagines – by Bodhidharma, the first Zen Patriarch.

Yogacara as a school didn’t prosper in China, perhaps because of its denial of universal Buddha nature, and although it remained a major strand of Zen, its influence was concealed in Zen mythology by the Sixth Patriarch’s emphasis on The Diamond Sutra (one of the prajnaparamita sutras) rather than The Lankavatara Sutra. The creators of the Platform Sutra, our source for ‘information’ about him, were almost certainly adherents of the Oxhead School, the Zen School which cleaved most closely to Nagarjuna.

Once uncovered, you can see Yogacara’s influence everywhere. For example, there is a very close affinity between Dogen’s Kuge and the ‘three natures’ set out in the Samdhinirmocana Sutra, the primary Yogacara Sutra, as well as the simile of ‘Sky Flowers’ which appears in that sutra. 

It’s hard to see at first, because Zen language is poetical, vigorous and everyday whereas Yogacara is academic and hairsplitting, but it’s clearly there.

Arguably Yogacara is a major component of Zen, but Zogacara in a Chinese sense, one perhaps Indian Buddhists wouldn’t recognize , and which modern Zen has actively concealed, perhaps because of a misunderstanding about Yogacara.

That misunderstanding is to see Yogacara as Idealistic rather than Phenomenological. If we see it making statements about the nature of our experience, rather than the nature of reality, then we can see it as the logical development of Nagarjuna, not as some embarrassing Indian exoticism which denies the reality of anything other than the mind. It is the other side of Emptiness, as it were, considering it from the subjective side, rather than the objective side of Nagarjuna.


The Position of our hands during Zazen

In our practice we’re given instructions about our hand position. 

When we’re doing kinhin we wrap our thumb inside our left fist; we put the root of the thumb against the diaphragm and wrap the other hand around so our elbows are in a horizontal line; our shoulders are relaxed.

In zazen, we create a mudra by resting our left hand onto our right hand. Our thumbs lightly touch in a horizontal line; our little fingers are between our navel and our pubic bone, touching our lower belly. 

These instructions are universal, but the explanation of why we hold our hands in those positions is often either lacking, or superficial.  Sometimes we can reason it out from some other discipline. For example, the hand position that we have in kinhin has very substantial similarities with a mudra in yoga which encourages whole torso breathing.

But the  – much more important – mudra during zazen really isn’t given much explanation at all. We’re told that our thumbs touching horizontally are a barometer of our state. If we’re sleepy our thumbs tend to come apart; if we’re agitated our thumbs tend to push together. We’re told that having our hands in that position, touching our lower belly, directs us to breathe to our lower belly. All this is true, but the significance of the mudra is hardly exhausted by these statements. 

Part of our difficulty in understanding the mudra is that we’re attempting to get within the mind of a culture which is very different from ours. For us, what’s easiest is either to define a mudra in abstract symbolic terms, or in terms of expediency. The symbolic explanation can often be very poetic and beautiful. We can talk about this little fragment of being – the left hand – resting within all being – the right hand. We can talk about the reconciliation of opposites. But whenever we stay within this realm of interpretation, there’s a sense in which the meaning of the mudra escapes us, because our understanding of the symbolic is severely deficient.

It seems to me that when we’re sitting in the correct position,sitting on our sit bones, our spine is relaxed and uncompressed. All that opens up the pelvic area of our body. We know intellectually, in terms of anatomy, that that area of our body is quite physically dense. But we’re not concerned with anatomy, we’re concerned with our actual experience. And in terms of that, what we’re feeling when we’re doing zazen is, it seems to me, that the whole area of our pelvic bowl is a field of energized spaciousness. It also feels as if it extends further down than our anatomical picture will allow. It feels as if there’s a substantial indeterminate area behind and below where our little fingers rest against our lower belly.

From another perspective, it’s as if my spine is stretching energetically down into the ground. I’m very aware of the front of the lower spine, seen in this way,  and it’s as if this dynamic space is in front of that. This space also seems in dynamic relationship with the jade pillow, which I’ve written about elsewhere.

Your experience might be different. Obviously one always labors to describe what’s experienced in a way that’s understandable to another person. Please consider it. Try to find something that makes sense within your own experience. Don’t try to superimpose these words onto that experience.

If you were – for the sake of argument – to accept these words as possible experience for you, you could understand that the mudra takes the shape of this area, of our pelvic bowl. Granting that, it seems to me that another kind of understanding of the mudra becomes possible.

A core part of Chinese Buddhism is Buddha Nature. This is the faith that all beings –  in themselves, now – are perfect. That perfection is hidden, sometimes hidden very well indeed, but it’s there.

That idea is given the most obvious form in the concept of tathagatagarbha. In Sanskrit the word garbha is ambiguous. It can mean either womb or embryo, but the word that the Chinese chose for garbha, ‘zong’, privileged womb. 

Zong means variously womb, storehouse and treasure house. There’s lots of references to treasure house in the literature. For example, in Dogen’s Fukanzazengi there’s a reference to “the treasure house opening naturally of itself”. And isn’t the womb, as it were, behind our hands?

It seems to me that the mudra is a representation of that. It’s also a statement about what Buddha Nature is. It’s not something tangible. It isn’t something which you have. It’s something which is empty: the space that is created by the mudra is empty— dynamic and empty— so we’re not reifying Buddha Nature. And the mudra, and zazen generally, is an enactment of this faith, not a striving for some future state.

So think about all this.

Reflect on your own experience, when you’re sitting.

See if explanations of this kind make any sense to you. If they don’t, just continue with your inquiry. Find your own language, and do your best to express what you experience, not from a position of knowledge, but from a position of openness and sharing.