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. 


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.


352. What World Are We Describing?

When we talk about Buddhism, what world are we describing?

 The Hua-yen (‘Flower Garland’) school, a pinnacle of Tang Dynasty Buddhism, talks of the interrelationship of form and emptiness: form doesn’t obstruct emptiness, emptiness doesn’t obstruct form and form doesn’t obstruct form. 

We’re familiar with the first two, the third is unique to Hua-yen.

On the face of it, the formulation appears to be a philosophy of how the world is. It’s sometimes called a ‘philosophy of Totality’. But to understand Hua-yen in this way – in fact to understand any of the Buddhist perspectives in this way –  is making a fundamental error.

 The various buddhist schools are not schools of philosophy; they’re schools of meditation. The doctrines are not descriptions of the world; they’re descriptions of the life, actual and possible, of the world of the person meditating. They are a gift to us. Obviously, (because they’re giving a description both of how meditation is and how it can be) they’re obliged to express this in terms of how the world is – which is also one of the many services of misrepresentation other schools may offer –  but that is not the primary purpose. 

The unique insight of  Hua- yen – that everything in the world is the centre of the world; the whole universe pivots on each particular part-and-moment/event; take that as a description of your experience when sitting, whether or not you see it through the dust and noise of the self. And once experienced in meditation, it can seep out to the whole world of your existence, excluding nothing.


351. “Show them every aspect of your Zazen”

Kodo Sawaki famously said, “If anyone asks you anything about Buddhism, just show them all aspects of your posture”. 

At first glance, this seems to be exactly the kind of superficial, ‘know nothing’ zen that’s quite prevalent in the west. It seems insulting to the effort which Buddhist practitioners have made for the last two and a half thousand years. But when you think about it, you have to say, “Why is that all buddhist practitioners, whatever their beliefs, seem to have adopted the same broad position physically towards meditation?” Nobody is meditating lying down or slouching, they’re all meditating from essentially the same physical position; with a solid grounding of the lower part of the body and the spine straight. How so? 

Taigen Dan Leighton describes zazen as being an ‘enactment ritual’. He wasn’t primarily talking about the physical aspects of zazen but if he were, then zazen is an enactment of buddhism. In our ordinary lives, our spine is rather compressed, as if it has the weight of our mind pressing down on it. 

When we do zazen in the correct posture, our spine is not like that at all; it’s uncompressing itself and there’s a clear and dynamic life to it – an upward movement to it; the spine then changes from being like a kind of inadequate pillar into something like a young tree; its roots penetrating into the ground and its branches extending upward and outward. In that physical posture we can have an actual somatic experience of spaciousness, of emptiness and of non- separation and also wholeness, because our dynamic spine integrates our whole body: we’re no longer a mind and a series of body parts, we’re entirely whole. We can obviously have an intellectual understanding of interdependence, emptiness and so on, but unless we physically experience it, then purely intellectual understanding gets us nowhere. I think it’s all this that Kodo Sawaki is addressing, in his characteristically pithy way.  


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.


349. Not Mastery, Wholeness

The First Patriarch of the Hua-yen school in China was Dushan. Accounts of his life are almost entirely legendary: from him curing the sick and performing miraculous deeds, such as parting the waves of the Yellow River.

My favourite story is of Dushan being told that one of his monks had been possessed by a ferocious king dragon demon. Dushan went to see the monk, bowed to him, and sat quietly in front of him. Quite soon after,  the king dragon demon spoke in a rather apologetic voice saying, “I’m terribly sorry to have troubled you, I’ll just be on my way.”

The story is engaging, but it’s also seductive because we would like to be like the Dushan of that story;  banishing delusion, in a way omnipotent—certainly extremely powerful.

We need to sidestep the seduction. What we need to understand is that Buddhism is not a path of mastery—it’s a path of wholeness. 

In our actual experience, sometimes we are Dushan; sometimes the hapless monk; sometimes the demon; sometimes the ground that holds all beings upright; sometimes the space which contains them all. 

We’re not seeing the world from the vantage point of a master. We’re seeing the world from the endless vantage points of the world.

And there’s another way of looking at the story too.  

We can assume that in the story the dragon demon represents delusion. And so, we might imagine that the purpose of meditation is to banish delusion. And if we banish delusion –  the thinking goes –  surely all that’s left is wisdom, a wisdom pleasingly obvious, both to ourselves and to other people. 

This again is mastery. But we can also look on our practice not as the banishment of delusion but as the liberation of delusion from the body of our certainty—from the body of our love and hate. Imagine the vast energy of the dragon demon, chafing within the puny body of the monk.

It’s as if we’re always standing a little distance away from our delusion and, because of that slight distance,  it appears real. Real, permanent, known. 

But if we charge towards this delusion with our whole body, the body of Zazen,  then we can understand that it is none of these things. And more than one being is freed.


348. The Tally

The history of East Asian Buddhism is in large part the history of metaphors, such as the mirror and its images or the ocean and its waves. 

One of the lesser known metaphors used in Chinese Buddhism is the tally.

The tally originated in commercial transactions. The tally was something that was originally one piece, like a piece of decorated wood, which was then broken into two. One piece was given to one party in a commercial transaction, and one piece was given to the other. This piece could then be given to agents.

In a vast country like China, it was a very useful device to ensure that you were paying the right person or that you were delivering goods to the right person.

For our purposes, the metaphor is most apt in relation to the other use that the tally was put to, which was to do with military force. Chinese dynasties would generally be overthrown by generals in near or distant provinces, and so it was important for them to keep control of the military. A general would be given one half of a tally and the other half would be held by the Emperor or the Emperor’s representatives. When the Emperor wished the general’s army to be activated, the Court would send an emissary with the Emperor’s half of the tally to the general and the army could then move. The force embodied by the army could then take action. It was no longer stuck.

You can see how this can be applied to Buddhism. For example, when the student responds to the sutras it is as if two pieces fit together enabling both to move, and both to be transformed from the familiar position – a stuck position – to a dynamic position – a fluid position.

 So, it is not that the wisdom is there in the sutras and the student has to uncover it. Rather, the fitting together of the two creates a dynamic wisdom, now. Not forever, now. The wheel of dharma turns the wheel of dharma.

 Likewise, when we encounter our teacher. It is not that the teacher is going to put us right, or that the teacher has this wisdom which he can give us. It is this fitting together, so the whole miraculous world moves.