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292. The Buddha Field

In the Vimalakirti Sutra the Buddha announces that this world is a Buddha field. Sariputra is astonished and perplexed and takes issue. He says when he looks at the world what he sees isn’t a world of perfection, what he chooses to see is a world full of shit. The Buddha then touches the Earth with his big toe, magically transforming it temporarily into glittering diamonds and precious stones.

The underlying assumption behind Sariputra’s view is that we should be free of emotions because emotions are essentially grasping. To overcome this grasping we require disgust or revulsion.

 The Buddha magically transforming the world into diamonds and precious stones in response to Sariputra  isn’t meant to be taken literally, rather, it is emotionally evocative, inspiring feelings of wonder, delight, gratitude, astonishment and so on.

 I think that is making a fundamental point about our emotions and feelings in Zazen.

Much of apparently fantastical Buddhist language is an attempt to be descriptive about what we actually experience in Zazen. When our mind and body are balanced, and our posture enables us to feel spacious and open, comparable emotions to those evoked by the Buddha arise in our Zazen. Far from feelings of lust, grasping, rejection and hatred, what we feel – and we feel it in an unusual way, in an embodied way –  is openness, gratitude, wonder and so on. There is an entire emotional landscape available to us in Zazen which is largely ignored when we talk about desire and emotion in the usual way, because when we are in that place, we are within our normal calculation of gain and loss, where grabbing onto or throwing away is almost the defining characteristic.
And in turn, this takes us back to the four noble truths, specifically the second noble truth which says that the origin of suffering is desire. But we need to be careful. It says ‘desire’, not ‘feeling’. The first is future focused: there’s something we want to get, or get rid of. The second is present focused, and is nothing to do with grasping or rejecting. And when we say the Buddhist state is the feeling state, that’s what we mean.

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289. Tathagatagarbha

One of the core ideas of Chinese Buddhism is that all living beings have Buddha-nature. Dogen radicalises this to: all living beings are Buddha-nature. 

The core idea derives from a number of sutras, the most prominent one being the Tathagatagarbha Sutra.

Tathagatagarbha is a compound made up of two Sanskrit words. ‘Tathagata’ means ‘Thus Come One’, the Buddha. And ‘garbha’ means either ‘womb’ or ‘embryo’.

Whilst the idea of Buddha nature originates in India, China truly developed it. 

If you read the Tathagatagarbha sutra, the metaphors for Buddha-nature are generally about something being concealed or covered over. There’s nine metaphors for Buddha-nature which include images such as gold concealed under mud. Things like that. 

But it’s interesting if we take the term Tathagatagarbha more literally. On the face of it, it gives us an image in which each of us are, as it were, incubating a little Buddha. 

But the whole point of a Buddha is that they understand that they have no self-nature. So your little incubating Buddha and my incubating Buddha and everybody else’s is effectively the same Buddha. So it’s not really mine. Or your’s. (Which begs the question: who or what is within whom or what?)

And if we give birth to that little Buddha, it’s no longer an embryo: once it comes out into the world, it isn’t ours either. That’s one aspect. 

The other aspect is that it’s called Tathagatagarbha, not Buddhagarbha, so there’s a deliberate choice of words to emphasise the thus-ness of this little Buddha, the is-ness of it. So what we can say is that we’re, as it were,  incubating thus-ness and we can give birth to it.

And how would we do that? Well, quintessentially, we do it when we sit. When we’re sitting we’re, as it were, leaping out of ourselves, although we’re sitting still. We’re leaping out of ourselves in the sense that we’re unconstrained by our karma. Our likes, our dislikes, our memories, our dreams, all of that – we just allow to just be in this open, wide, awareness of practice.

And that’s why we can talk about practice-enlightenment. And that’s why we say that we sit from the perspective of the Buddha, not from the perspective of the self. 

Zazen in fact makes no sense from the perspective of the self, with its habitual patterns and expectations of gain and loss.Which is one reason why Kodo Sawaki said it was good for nothing.

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247. Within a zen shaped annexe

In the Courtyard of Master Joshu’s temple was a cypress tree. One day, a monk asked Joshu

“Does the cypress tree have Buddha nature?”

Joshu replied, “It does”

The monk asked, “When does it acquire Buddha nature?”

Joshu said, “ When the sky falls to the ground”

The inclination is to interpret his answer as something like this:

Buddha nature isn’t an attribute that can be acquired by individual things, or people. It is a mythopoetic way of describing the dynamic wholeness of all being.
So, it’s not that you, or anyone else, has Buddha nature. Rather, you and everything else are Buddha nature. In Joshu’s answer, “sky” means emptiness, so what Joshu is pointing to is different from an abstract understanding (and hence separation) of form and emptiness. Rather, it is the real experience of both, interwoven in the fabric of full dynamic functioning, or dependent origination, or Buddha nature.

But I think an interpretation like this falls into a classic zen error. We purport to debunk and leave the house of Buddhist theory, but actually never leave, remaining within a weird zen shaped annexe, perhaps called “concrete reality”, perhaps called something else.

We can’t understand practice through theory, but we can understand and explain theory through practice. But without theory, we would never start practice. But it’s not a catch 22, it’s a spiral.

In the exchange, when is the “When”?

When we practice. In your actual experience, when you are sitting, isn’t it as if your face, your head, your torso are hanging in space? And isn’t it as if your pelvis, your legs, your feet are part of the great ground? And isn’t this the sky falling to the ground? The ground falling to the sky?

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211. To make a buddha

In the Lotus Sutra the Buddha says all living beings will become Buddhas.

This may be the source of our belief that we practice, not to become Buddha, but from the perspective of Buddha.

Not to make the person into a Buddha, but to displace the person.

Dogen radicalises this further by declaring seemingly humble objects Buddhas. Drum Buddha. Stick Buddha, Broken Ladle Buddha, and so on.

It’s not affectation. It is pointing to something important and real.

The Lotus Sutra also says that only a Buddha, together with a Buddha, can see how things are.

Usually on our window ledge there are two ceramic buddhas. We bought them in a junk shop 30 years ago.

On Saturday a gust of wind blew these two Buddhas over, damaging them.

A Buddha, together with a Buddha, fell to the ground.

When we saw this we were upset. But we didn’t see this activity as part of the limitless expression of apparently humble objects. It is not that through our brilliance we impose multiple teachings on humble objects, nor that they express these teachings themselves. But together. Together.

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182. Buddha Nature

At the Winter Retreat we talked about the Tathagatagarbha Sutra. Tathagata means ‘thus come’ or ‘thus gone’, and refers to the Buddha, and Garbha means womb, or embryo.

The Sutra gives expression to the idea in Chinese Buddhism that everything has Buddha nature; which Dogen later reformulated as everything is Buddha nature.

It uses eight similes to describe Buddha nature, six of which are to do with concealment.

Thus: a precious statue concealed in rags, gold concealed in dirt, hidden treasure underneath a house, and others.

The two anomalies are, first, a seed which grows into a huge tree, and second the simile after which the Sutra is named, a humble person carrying in embryo a great person. But which is great: the embryo or the womb? If we regard practice from an individualistic perspective, we obviously want to say the embryo, because how would it be meaningful to say that what is great is the womb?

Unless we broaden our gaze. We can then see it as a description of our practice together. We are within, and we uphold, this Buddha space. Both.

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136. All Existence is Buddha Nature

At our retreat in November we talked about the Mu Koan. You may recall in that Koan story a monk asked Joshu, “Does a dog have Buddha Nature?”

Joshu says, “Mu (No).”

The basis for the monk’s question is a passage in the Nirvana Sutra where it says that ‘all living beings without exception have Buddha Nature’.

Joshu’s reply was not denying Buddha Nature. He was denying the ‘have,’ that is, that it is a property of the individual.

It is a very common idea in Buddhism that buried within us, like a jewel in mud, is compassion, wisdom, enlightenment and so on; and if our karmic mind would just shut up, these qualities would manifest.

This is a catastrophically mistaken view of practice. It ensures that we continue to suffer.

Master Dogen re-wrote the passage in the Nirvana Sutra, re-rendering it as ‘all existence is Buddha Nature’. Not denying Buddha Nature, but locating it somewhere other than the self.

That being so, the activity of the karmic mind is not a barrier, is not an obstacle. And so our practice does not need to be a continual exercise in disappointment.

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122. In a Spiritual Practice concerned with Gain

From the perspective of the self, the body and the world are within the mind. In a spiritual practice concerned with gain, even though we try to lever ourself into a different position, our head always gets stuck.

From the perspective of Buddhism, the mind is within the body. The body is within vast space. But if we do not make this vast space real, it is “Buddhism”, and we’re just back to the mind again.

When we closely examine our experience Now, isn’t that experience like space? Likewise the body; balanced in space, like a windchime. When we experience our breath Now isn’t it the dynamic interplay of space ‘outside’ and space ‘inside’? In all these cases, melding, intermingling. They are not the same, and not separate. When we sit down to practice, the space which we occupy doesn’t disappear. When we leave, the space does not reappear.

We carry it with us. And it us.

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73. Buddha Nature

One of the principal differences between Theravada and Mahayana is the doctrine of Buddha Nature.

This takes a number of forms–and Dogen has a unique position on it–but generally, it is the idea that we have Buddha Nature as a kind of foundational ground or potentiality.

The doctrine probably derives from the Tathāgata Garbha tradition. Tathāgata is Buddha; Garbha means both embryo and womb.

But who is giving birth to whom?

We might be inclined to see the embryo as our latent Buddha nature, but perhaps it’s the other way around. Perhaps the doctrines, the ritual, the lineage, the traditions; everything, is the womb which enables us to give birth to ourselves.

It is as if Buddhism is a plaster-cast on something broken. When the body is healed, when the body is whole, Buddhism is no longer needed.

When we have crossed the river, do we still require to carry the boat?