413. All These Lifetimes

Before becoming the Buddha, the Buddha is said to have lived 500 lives as a Bodhisattva. That is, as a compassionate, loving, and wise being who seeks the liberation from suffering of all other beings.

In the Lotus Sutra, [probably the most influential of all of the sutras for Chinese Buddhism, and hence Zen] it is said [by implication] that all beings will become Buddhas. It might be at an inconceivably distant time in the future, but all beings, without exception, even the least promising ones, will become Buddhas.

If you, albeit in the very, very far future, are going to become a Buddha, that’s the most important thing that could ever possibly happen to you. In a sense everything prior to that, including your life now, pales into insignificance. 

So in a sense, if you’re going to become a Buddha at some point in the future, you’re already a Buddha now. Thus we have the Chinese doctrine of the Universality of Buddha Nature which became an established feature of Chinese Buddhism prior to the formation of the Zen School in the 8th century.

Furthermore, if every being without exception is going to become a Buddha, then every being without exception is a bodhisattva now. That doesn’t mean you’re a bodhisattva,  it means that all beings you encounter are bodhisattvas.

All beings are teaching you.

This is the opposite of the spiritual inflation which is implied by thinking of practice as being a means by which you advance towards Enlightenment: you gradually elevating yourself out of the grime of the world and the unwelcome company of ‘unevolved’ beings.  It’s the opposite. All  beings, all the time, are teaching you, are moving you further towards your eventual Buddhahood. The world is not mud, but light.

They may be teaching from their wisdom; they may be teaching from their stupidity; they may be teaching from their love; they may be teaching from their hate; they may be teaching from their ignorance; they may be teaching from their antagonism towards you. It doesn’t matter: it’s all teaching.

It’s all compassion.

Contemporary Zen people are often quite embarrassed by apparently archaic talk of Buddha Nature. So we just get a lot of chuntering on about being ‘present’ and ‘grateful’ and ‘here and now’.  It’s Hallmark Zen. But the fact is, whether it seems ludicrous or not, if you can accept, even for a moment, that this is true—Everything Changes.


370. Buddha Nature (2)

Buddha Nature is said  to  exist  in  two  forms. When it’s covered over  by kleshas,  the defilements, it’s called tathagatagarbha—Buddha embryo or womb.

When  those defilements  don’t exist anymore,  it’s called Dharmakaya. Dharmakaya  is the universal  body of the Buddha, the Body which encompasses  all of existence. The Dharmakaya is  said (in the Nirvana sutra for instance) to have four qualities: self, bliss, eternity  and purity. 

When we hear that,  it doesnt sound like Buddhism. In fact, it sounds like the  complete opposite of. everything  that  we’ve been taught about no self, impermanence  and  suffering. Indeed those four  qualities are the opposite of the four qualities which we’re told  characterises samsara: suffering, the belief in a personal, continuing  self,  impermanence  and the kleshas,-—the  mental impurities. 

In her book ‘Buddha Nature’, Sallie King says   that the Dharmakaya isn’t  about establishing a new self. Rather, it’s a creative and appropriate response  to Nagarjuna. Her argument is  that  Nagarjuna’s method  of subjecting all concepts  to  destructive analysis  leaves us with a  conception of emptiness  which is negative.

In his time – and now too – Nagarjuna  is often criticised (unfairly and incorrectly) as a nihilist,  because  the  positive  side of his teaching  is ignored, because it’s not explicit in his principal writings. It’s there by  inference.

In that way, it’s quite similar  to  the Buddha, who  doesn’t describe  the  state  that the meditator is in  when they leave their  misconceived  conceptual world—when they leave  their adherence to a fixed sense of self—it’s simply  left  for the practitioner to  discover, because explication would leave the practitioner still mired in a conceptual position. 

Likewise, when  Nagarjuna clears away  all the  erroneous,  conceptual structures he doesn’t tell  us  what  the ground, which is left, looks like. The suggestion Sallie King makes is that after Nagarjuna, the emerging Mahayana tradition took a  turn towards  talking about emptiness  in positive terms to remedy this misunderstanding which led to nihilism. Compassion was further emphasised, for the same reason.

The various sutras that we associate  with that  were turbocharged in impact because of the fortunate coincidence (for  them) of their appearance in the  early centuries of the common era. This coincided with the reception of Buddhism  in China.  Because the  positive language of those sutras  was much more in keeping with the positive view the Chinese had of the world (rather than  a quite pervasive  view  in the Indian spiritual traditions that  the world was something that we require  to be liberated from), these sutras thrived in their new environment.

Careful analysis of  the texts has made it clear that people no one thought that the Dharmakaya or the Tathagatagarba  was a ‘something’, contravening  emptiness. Rather, it was a positive  interpretation of emptiness, so for  instance, in the Buddha Nature Treatise, there’s the following passage,”Buddha Nature  is the thusness  revealed by the dual emptiness of person  and things.  If one does not speak of Buddha Nature then one does not understand emptiness.” The author is clear that you need to  see these concepts  through the lens of Emptiness. 

And if we also see these concepts  through the lens of  Practice  then it seems to  me that  Dharmakaya, the universal  body of the Buddha, is an experientially accurate way  of describing our experience  sometimes in Zazen—of non-separation, of the the split  between  ourselves and the world  and the internal splits that we have dropping away, which Isso Fujita calls one piece Zen. 


369. Buddha Nature (1)

The term  ‘Buddha Nature’ first appears in the  Tathagatagarbha  Sutra  and in a number of subsequent sutras, most famously the Nirvana Sutra and thence, via the Lankavatara Sutra,  into  Zen, hence the most  famous koan about whether or not a dog has Buddha Nature

The Tathagata Sutra  is a really interesting sutra. It’s very short  and it’s not discursive. It has an instruction, then eight  similies  for Buddha Nature.

  The introduction was apparently added  later.  In it, the Buddha is giving  a talk to a large number  of  named  bodhisattvas. He performs a kind of conjuring trick, miraculously creating the appearance of a multitude of beautiful lotus flowers in the sky. Within each lotus flower,  there’s a Buddha.

After the initial vision, the lotus flowers suddenly wither, giving off a  foul stench. 

The  similes used are interesting  too:
The first is  honey  in a cave or a tree  surrounded by  a swarm of  bees;
The second  is a kernel of wheat  that has not had the husk removed;
The third  is gold in a pit of waste;
The fourth  is an unknown treasure underneath a poor person’s house;
The fifth  is the core of a fruit which  can then develop into a  magnificent tree;
The sixth  is a gold statue  wrapped in filthy rags;

The seventh, which probably gives the  sutra its name,  is (and I’m quoting) ” an impoverished, vile and ugly woman, hated by others, who bears a king  in her womb”; 

The last one is a golden statue which has been in a  foundry, so has a dark casing.

All of these similes refer to the kleshas. ‘Klesha’ literally means poison  and in this context means  a mental state that clouds the mind. There’s lots  of them: ignorance,

self-centeredness,  attachment, avoidance,  and fear, and many others.

Klesha is often translated as ‘adventitious  defilements’.  This is typical of an elevated way of translating which, focusing on apparent accuracy of meaning,  distances us  from the emotional  sense  of the term translated.  In a similar way, is-ness is often rendered as thusness, and we lose the sense of “well, it doesn’t (independently and separately) exist but it doesn’t not exist either, so what do we call it?”; a human sense, that you can imagine real people actually saying. This does seem to happen in  translation quite a lot. For example, when Ernest Jones translated Freud he rendered ‘Ich’ (‘I’)  as ‘Ego’, with predictable consequences. 

Given the ubiquity of euphemism, my  guess is that the pit of waste is really a pit of shit. The  dirty robes/rags are probably something similar. Despite that, the emotion in these similes remains clear: 
the angry swarm of bees protecting the  honey is  anger; 
the kernel of wheat inside the husk that is unknown is ignorance, 
the the pit of shit is disgust; 
the treasure beneath the poor person’s house is ignorance again,  
the core of the fruit, ignorance again; 
the gold statue wrapped in filthy  rags, disgust again;
the impoverished  vile woman, disgust;
a golden statue  wrapped within a dark casing,  ignorance;
and the initial  image  that  we have about these flowers giving off a foul stench is obviously disgust as  well.

These are emotions that we  generally don’t want to go anywhere near—just like we wouldn’t want to go near a  pit of shit, we don’t want to go near our disgust, our  anger and  so on. 

If we pay  attention to the emotions which are invoked by these similes  then I think we can understand  how the Tathagata,  far from being some  quaint  Chinese medieval  device, is actually a very  good  description  of Zazen.

When we’re sitting we’re aware of this  kind of  dynamic  emptiness – this treasure – at our centre.We’re also  aware of all our surrounding  nonsense: our  fluctuating thought babble, emotions, images and all the rest. All of which  are just coming and going  and which  we can see  doesn’t  really  exist. That’s where  the introduction is  helpful, because it is saying  that  these stinking  lotus flowers,  these  kleshas don’t exist either, because they’re  all taking place within the Buddha’s  conjuring trick. 

If you  understand all of that,  then it seems to me that the Tathagatagarbha is a  very helpful and practical way  of looking at  our practice  and  our experience  in Zazen. 


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.   


350. Ordinary Mind is the Way

The Chinese Zen masters are particularly vulnerable to misinterpretation because they use apparently ordinary, down to earth language. A good example of that is Master Baso’s famous expression “ordinary mind is the way”. He doesn’t mean that your farting, meandering, karmic mind is the way, he doesn’t mean ‘everything is Zen’, or any of the other peculiar western formulations. 

To understand this expression we have to see that wrapped up within that expression is the whole golden age of Chinese Tang Dynasty Buddhism, and specifically the development of the Tiantai and Huayan schools, which in due course created Zen. 

When he says ‘mind’, we need to understand that mind means everything. It is not just your mind, it is everything. And that everything has two aspects: a phenomenal aspect, and a thusness aspect.

 The metaphor which the Chinese use to describe this, or at least one of the metaphors, is the metaphor of the waves and ocean. The ordinary fluctuating mind is seen as being like the waves, and if you are just at the level of the waves, if you are, as it were, perpetually drowning in your own waves, then that is all you are going to see. What we need to understand is that the waves –  individual phenomena – are not separate from the ocean – thusness – and in seeing that we can see that our ordinary mind is not something that we need to get rid of, but which needs to be reconfigured as part of a greater space. We don’t need to change our position, we just need to widen our view.

In meditation, if I am simply focused on my ruminating mind, that is entirely different from understanding the depth of the ocean and the height of the sky. It is entirely different from understanding that underlying my fluctuating ordinary mind is the depth of the ocean, the depth of my spine, the depth of this body, practicing. Underlying this fluctuating mind is the sense of this body practicing, this head without conscious effort reaching upwards, and this vast space of emptiness within above and around us, just like the ocean has great depth and the sky has great height. 

The Huayan school used the metaphor to show the interdependence of all things: there is no ‘ocean’ existing prior to or behind the waves, just as there is no emptiness apart from form. Each wave, extending everywhere, is the whole ocean. Because it is the whole ocean, each wave is all waves. Each wave is the pivot around which the whole ocean turns.

Your life is not nothing.


347. Zen Master Zongmi

Zen Master Zongmi is a fascinating person. He lived from 780 to 840; almost right at the end of the classical development period of Tang Dynasty Chinese Zen. He was born about 10 years before Master Baso died. 

Zongmi produced a detailed commentary on the seven Zen schools that were in existence in his time, their practices and perspectives. 

He traced his lineage from Shen-hui who established The Southern School, but attributed that to his teacher Hui-neng, the Sixth Patriarch. 

Both are shadowy figures. Hui-neng, because although there was a Hui-neng historically, we know hardly anything about him. The ‘legend’ of Hui-neng, on the other hand, is almost entirely fictitious. 

Shen-hui is shadowy because, whilst very influential, he doesn’t appear in the subsequent lineage charts, possibly because of his schismatic qualities, possible because the dominant strain of Zen from the Ninth century onward, into the Song Dynasty, was Baso’s Hongzhou School (or rather, a peculiar later reconstruction of it, attributed – wrongly – to Rinzai), which traced its ancestry through Nangaku, another student of Hui-neng.

However, Zongmi’s interest was primarily in his own School (usually known as the Southern School, which he called Heze), and the other main schools: the Hongzhou School, the Ox-Head School and the Northern School. 

He describes the differences between these Schools using the simile of a bright jewel, which he borrows from The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment.

In this simile there’s a bright jewel called the Wishing Jewel. Next to this bright jewel is placed a black object symbolizing ignorance. The effect of that black object is to make the jewel appear black. 

He details the doctrinal differences between the Schools by how each School would describe this.

He describes the Northern School as saying that the intrinsic nature of the jewel is bright but that somehow it’s covered over by this blackness. We need to wipe the blackness off before the brightness can be revealed. That’s an unfair characterisation of the Northern School’s teaching (‘Northern’ is the term coined by Shen-hui; the School called itself The East Mountain School) which was nothing like that, but it fitted  into the sectarianism fostered by Shen-hui.

The Ox-Head School is the School which almost certainly wrote the Platform Sutra,  and which adhered most closely to Nagarjuna’s teachings of emptiness. Zongmi characterises them as saying, “so far as the jewel’s concerned, the blackness doesn’t exist because nothing – not the blackness, not the jewel, not the brightness – really exists, because everything is empty (ie interdependent).”

Zongmi characterises Hongzhou as saying the blackness is the jewel and apart from the blackness, there is no jewel, because they fail to see the original brightness of the jewel.

Zongmi was almost certainly not attacking Baso himself, for whom he had great respect. He was aiming at some of Baso’s successors who, I imagine, he felt neglected the centrality of practice.

He characterises his own School as saying that the brightness of the Jewel (Buddha nature) is real but that the blackness (delusion) isn’t real. The blackness is simply an aspect of the brightness. All particular phenomena are simply a function of the Jewel’s brightness. 

Zongmi was also very interesting in having an unusual model of practice. His model is sudden awakening followed by gradual practice.  The sudden awakening is a kind of visceral recognition of the truths of impermanence, interdependence, no-self, non duality and so on. Some kind of rudimentary, urgent understanding of that, not simply as a kind of belief; but as something felt, followed by and grounding gradual practice. The function of practice wasn’t to ‘gain’ enlightenment, as everything is originally enlightened, but to attend to the karmic afflictions which have caused these illusions of separation and self to be generated and maintained.

Reading Zongmi acts as a corrective to the picture of Zen constructed during the Song Dynasty and projected backwards, with the reformulation of the Tang Masters of Baso’s lineage as iconoclasts. His habit of explaining common metaphors used in the Zen of his time is extremely helpful. And his theoretical  integration of Zen into wider Buddhism is useful in preventing us being trapped on Zen Island, swapping the same stories over and over.


331. Becoming singing

Master Dogen wrote chapter 40 of the Shobogenzo Dotoku (expression) towards the end of 1242; right in the middle of his most productive and expressive period of writing. The chapter begins:

All Buddhas and Ancestors are expressions. Thus, when Buddha ancestors intend to select Buddha ancestors, they always ask, “Do you have your expression?” This question is asked with the mind and with the body. It is asked with a walking stick or a whisk. It is asked with a pillar or a lantern. Those who are not Buddha ancestors do not ask this and do not answer this, since they are not in the position to do so. Such an expression is not obtained by following others or by the power of oneself. Where there is a thorough inquiry of a good ancestor, there is an expression of a buddha ancestor.

Master Dogen – Shobogenzo Dotoku

The word ‘dotoku’ has two parts to it. The first part ‘do’ means ‘way’, or ‘to say’, and the second part ‘toku’ means ‘to attain’ or ‘to be able to’. 

Dogen makes ample use of the richness of these two kanji to recast buddhist practice. He does this by changing our idea of what practice is. So, rather than an idea that we are, as it were, struggling through this storm, in order to get to the other shore of imagined tranquility, rather we are to see ourselves and all being as ‘expression’.

When we hear the word ‘expression’ we normally think of either making a statement whereby something is asserted or, through a special talent for writing, painting, music or whatever, this person is able to produce something unique to this person. So we think of expression as being an attribute of the self. 

Dogen’s meaning is entirely different. From his perspective, whether we can see through the fog of the self or not, everything is illuminated. From his perspective, whether we can hear through the static of the self or not, everything is singing.

If we ungrasp from the grip of the self – this fog;  if we ungrasp from the grip of the self – this static, then even what we understand to be obstruction, even what we understand to be delusion, is in itself expression. Released from the grip of the self: the calculus of gain and loss;  the static, the fog becomes singing


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.


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.


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?