Zen often has formulations about beginningless or endless practice and enlightenment.
One of the gradually evolved features of Chinese Buddhism was the idea that enlightenment/Buddha Nature is already present, and has always been present.
It was this doctrine of Original Enlightenment that led to Dogen’s first question: “If that is so, why do we need to practice?”
Chinese culture is unusual for us in that it doesn’t have a creation myth of the sort that we are familiar with. There’s no divinity or god who brings the universe into existence.
Chinese creation myths tell us that the universe was originally in one form, chaotic perhaps, and then it changed into the form we see today, and that change is an inherent quality of the universe. There wasn’t a starting point.
In this self declared post religious age, why is this important?
Because it has significant consequences for how we structure the world and how we think about it, how we think of ourselves, and how we think of the relationship between the two.
If we think that the world has been brought into existence by something or someone else then it is something that has been brought about, or done to. It’s secondary. It is a lump of dough shaped and baked by other hands.
Additionally, if we conceive of the world as having a creation point then that fundamentally affects our idea of time. We are liable to see it as an arrow. The precarious present is like a person running across a collapsing bridge into deep fog.
If we don’t have a creation myth in the normal form, we lose these assumptions. There is no illuminating and darkening arrow. The world isn’t something that’s done to. All that we think of as acting upon the world become qualities of the world which is very relevant as far as our own ‘creation myth’ is concerned. How so?
Having those assumptions, I might imagine that I think something and then I say it. Or I picture something in my mind and then I bring it about in the world: the world, my life, my body is lying there -passive and dough like – as something for my will, my creativity, my intelligence to act upon.
But in this Chinese perspective my will, my consciousness, my language, my creativity – my ‘my-ness’ – are all qualities of the world itself. The primary dualism isn’t there. And that changes everything.