412. The Tathagatagarbha Sutra

One of the distinctive features of Chinese Buddhism by the time the  Zen schools start to form, around the time of Mazu in the 8th century, is the universality of Buddha Nature.  One source of that is the Tathagatagarbha Sutra.

It was originally written in Sanskrit, but that version has been lost. We can only read it in translation back from the Chinese version. Tathagata is “ thus come”, a reference to Buddha. Garbha  has a wide range of meanings. 

We’ve come to think of the title as meaning that we’re figuratively carrying a Buddha in embryo inside us which is covered over by  our passions, our afflictions and so on. In due course, once we attend to these defilements, we can, as it were, give birth, manifest our Buddha. 

The Tathagatagarbha Sutra is 10 metaphors about Buddha Nature The one which gives us this idea about this Buddhist embryonic potentiality is the eighth example,  a vile and poor woman pregnant with a future World King.

This idea of something immensely valuable  covered over by something inherently unpleasant or nondescript  is the theme which dominates the metaphors. The metaphors exploit the surprising range of meanings of the word “Garbha”

Its dominant meaning, according to the English Sanskrit dictionaries, seems to be something like “interior or womb or embryo”. 

Then there are meanings derived from this, like “seed “.

But there are other meanings too. “Garbha” also means the “outer rim of a flower”, specifically the lotus flower. And that’s  the first and most revealing metaphor which is used in the Sutra. 

In this initial metaphor, the Buddha conjures up  Buddhas in the sky,  all of whom are seated  on lotus flowers. It’s a beautiful and magnificent sight. However, the Buddha then causes those Lotus flowers to become rotten and disgusting and to simultaneously conceal the Buddha inside.  The Buddha can still see the Buddhas inside these now rotting malodorous flowers, but ordinary people can’t. In the same way, a Buddha [ or ourselves through faith] can accept that within every person, no matter how ‘rotten’ is a Buddha. That’s not a developmental model; it’s not a future oriented model;  it’s a Here and Now model.

Most of the other metaphors which are used are like that. There’s a number of metaphors which are to do with something hidden. There’s valuable treasure hidden under a poor person’s house. There’s a gold statue of the Buddha wrapped up in shitty rags. There is another gold statue of Buddha hidden within its foundry blackness. There’s honey which is protected by an angry swarm of bees.  

The majority of metaphors are present focused. The only two which apparently aren’t are the eighth one, which we latch onto, as we think it matches the title, and another one which has to do with the mango seed, which has within it the capacity to give birth to a magnificent mango tree. I think that metaphor of the mango seed isn’t really future directed because, reading the text, the emphasis is on the indestructibility of the mango seed, not its potentiality.

I don’t think that these metaphors are pointing towards a future Buddha that we attain through faith or through effort but to a present Buddha, that somehow is hidden from us.

A number of things follow. On the face of it, it looks like the thing which is concealing the precious thing is either useless or disgusting.  

But it’s not useless. Without the shitty robes around the precious statue,  without the ground concealing the jewels and so on, in other words without the passions, the kleshas apparently obscuring Buddha Nature,  the thing that’s precious wouldn’t be there. So I think the Sutra is pointing to a more complex relationship between the kleshas and Buddha Nature.

Certainly from the point of view of an observer, the shitty robes are just disgusting and that’s that. We’re better off free of them.

But from the perspective of the robes it’s different. It seems to me one of the messages which is hidden within the sutra is that to become intimate with our Buddha Nature we require to become intimate with our kleshas. In other words we no longer regard our kleshas as something that we require to discard, get rid of, or transform.  

Rather we require to abandon our hate towards them. Abandoning that hate enables us to move from a vision of something which we find distasteful to becoming really acquainted with the kleshas in an intimate way.

What we understand then is that the kleshas do not have a fixed identity, and removed from the fixity of the self they aren’t what we think.  I think that that’s one of the themes buried within the Sutra.

Another interesting thing for us as practitioners is to reflect on the relationship between  the eighth metaphor, the  world King that is being carried within the body of a vile woman, and zazen.

If you look at our mudra during zazen, we’re holding our little fingers near the foot of our belly.  This  mudra  is representing the belief that we have this womb-like buddha space that the mudra manifests. At the mudra’s centre is this dynamic emptiness or potentiality of Buddha Nature. The hands are, as it were, the pelvic bowl and the thumbs are completing the shape.  The mudra is a statement of faith, a symbolic statement of faith about  Buddha Nature.

Yet we need to be careful what we mean by symbol. It’s not simply an encoded meaning: the mudra itself changes our state.  

If I am holding this mudra with an open heart in a position of faith towards the idea of the universality of Buddha Nature, then in a sense the mudra is within me now and manifesting this space of Buddha —this potentiality;  this ease and so on.

Right in my pelvic bowl. You can feel it.

There’s a temptation for us to think of metaphors as simply being encoded meaning rather than something broader, a way of seeing.  Those symbolic ways of seeing have inexhaustible meaning within them. Symbols are inherently both open in meaning and endlessly capable of new meaning.

But also, in themselves transformative, embodying and manifesting. We’ve lost our understanding of what a symbol is. But we can recover it. Not as a signifier, nor as a spell

as a door


322. The Meaning of Gassho

Why do we bow?

The common explanation which is given for bowing, or ‘gassho’, is with bringing together opposites. We take things which are separate and possibly opposed – left and right  – and bring them together in a gesture of integration, with our hands positioned between our head and our heart. 

We can give a slightly more subtle explanation: when our hands are in this position, we’re integrating aspects of ourselves which are often quite scattered. We have an idea of ourselves as subject, somebody acting on the world, yet we also have an idea of ourselves, and certainly our body, as object; something in the world that is either acting upon other objects or being acted upon. 

There’s a smear of self between these various senses, but when we’re holding our hands in gassho, all those various senses are integrated in the simple gesture. Each hand is exerting itself and pushing against the other and each hand is experiencing the push from the other, so in microcosm gassho is a representation and enactment  of this integration and an integration of ourselves with all of existence.

There’s a third explanation which can be made.  In Shohaku Okumura’s excellent book about the Genjokoan, he points out that the characters which Dogen uses for ‘koan’ are different from those normally used. 

‘Koan’ comprises two ideograms – ‘ko’ and ‘an’. In the usual rendition, the ‘ko’ ideogram means something like ‘universal’ or ‘public’ and the ‘an’ ideogram means something like ‘desk’. So, the consequent meaning of ko-an is something like: an order promulgated at an official’s desk, as agent for the emperor, which has universal effect. And that became altered in due course to refer to the verbal teachings of zen masters. Just as the emperor’s proclamation is of universal effect because he’s the emperor, the zen master’s proclamation would have universal validity because it was true.

Dogen uses a different character for the second ideogram. Although the ideogram is different, it sounds the same as the more usual one. This happens in Chinese a lot, and we can get a sense of it when we see equivalents in English: ‘principle’ and ‘principal’, for example. Anyway, this character has as one of its components the signifier for ‘hand’, which changes the meaning of the composite ko-an. The meaning which Dogen places on ‘koan’, by the use of this different ideogram, fundamentally changes. So rather than meaning something like a universal statement of truth, the koan is rather a statement of the reality of this person exerting themselves fully, in this karmic position. There is a pivot, from Truth as Representation to Truth as Expression. 

The meaning which was brought out by Dogen’s successors, was something like, ‘to accept one’s lot’. That doesn’t mean to take a fatalistic position. It’s rather – “In this particular, unique, momentary dharma position my responsibility is to express this position fully”. I do that within a dynamic universe where everything is likewise expressing itself fully. 

In gassho, in openness and gratitude, we do that.  And so, the universe does not collapse into nothingness. 

We can see that the third interpretation of gassho is not, as it were, a bowing to something – a Buddha or a teacher or something else, but rather it is part of the expression of the full momentary dynamic activity of this person. Or as my first teacher Nancy Amphoux would say, “Your life is the koan”.


285. A Stick of Incense

On the altar there are usually three objects: a statue of manjushri, some flowers and a stick of incense in an incense bowl. The stick of incense is held in place by the ash of previous burnt incense sticks, and their little stumps lie there too.

Manjushri  is on the altar with his sword to cut the delusion of separation, using his sword to cut everything into one. The flowers and the incense are both concerned with impermanence, but in slightly different ways. 

With the flowers, we think of Dogen’s expression ‘the flowers of emptiness’, so it’s obvious that the flowers are beautiful and transient. The flowers on the altar now will just last a few days more. Further, flowers, additional to representing beauty and dignity and transience  are symbolic of karma. Zen teachers talk of flowers and fruit as a poetic way of talking about cause and effect.

The incense is more personal to this person. In our group, the incense stocks are sandalwood. Each one is representative of the practitioner, practicing now. The stick of incense will exhaust itself completely in its practice. The uprightness of the practitioner, the uprightness of the incense, enables the integrity and space of the present moment to be upheld, so that it does not collapse into nothingness. The body of the stick’s effort, its smoke and fragrance, permeates everywhere. Its ashes are the foundation for future uprightness, for the time being of future practitioners, both this being and all beings.

At the end of your life there is not just this stump of memory.

Although you look everywhere to find your true body you cannot find it.

Not because it is nowhere, but because it is everywhere.


275. The Heart of the Heart Sutra

At the end of our sitting periods, we usually chant the Heart Sutra. Some of us must have chanted it thousands of times, yet its meaning is very difficult for us to understand. 

It’s called The Heart Sutra because it’s the compressed version of the Prajñāpāramitā sutras, an enormous body of sutras on the theme of emptiness. And the heart of the Heart Sutra is really in the first line, which goes as follows:

The Bodhisattva of Compassion 

Practicing Prajñāpāramitā

Sees clearly that the five skandhas are empty

And accordingly relieves all suffering.

So what do we make of this? Firstly, the reference to Prajñāpāramitā is one of the six Pāramitās, or Perfections, of the Bodhisattva. And, certainly in the Zen context, practising Prajñāpāramitā means practising Zazen. 

So, in this first sentence we have the Bodhisattva of Compassion, who is obviously not a real person, we have Prajñā, we have Emptiness, and we have the Five Skandhas, namely the five constituents of the human being. So just in this sentence, we have Compassion, Wisdom and Emptiness, all next to each other–which is really emblematic of the whole Mahāyāna school.

Emptiness does not mean nothingness. Emptiness means that all phenomena are empty of a Self. That the world is empty of you, not that the universe is a fiction.

For further information and references on this kusen, please click this link.


271. Zazen as Enactment Ritual

What’s the point of Ritual?

Well, to start to answer that,  you have to ask yourself: what is the point of spiritual practice? 

In these strange Coronavirus times my inbox is full, as I’m sure yours is too, with lots of invitations to use this period of quarantine to develop myself, to be all I can be, to break free of all my limitations.

This pitiable and feeble language is indicative of a spiritual materialism which is absolutely  endemic. So endemic we don’t even notice it. So, if the same question is posed to these people – what is the point of the spiritual practice? – their answer surely is obvious: the development to perfection of the individual. 

That is a complete reversal of how the spiritual life has been pursued and seen through almost all of our common history.

The purpose of spiritual life is not to exalt and glorify the individual but to exalt and glorify and flood with gratitude the whole of creation.

If we embark on practice with the idea that through practice we will become a great person we are completely deluded, because we will never be a great person. We don’t need to be a great person because we are already part of the great person of all being. The purpose of our practice is to drop off our individual concerns and vanities so that, at least fleetingly, we can live as part of this great person.

We can see ritual from this perspective.

Ritual takes us out of a thinking position and into a feeling position, takes us out of an individual perspective and moves us into a collective one, where the perspectives of each of us form the whole, like shards of glass making a mirror. 

Primarily, what we are doing when we wholeheartedly enact ritual is enacting this shared, connective and dynamic reality, which is our true life.

I think that this is what the contemporary writer and teacher Taigen Dan Leighton means when he talks of Zazen as ‘enactment ritual’- it’s not a means to something. It’s the expression of everything.


270. A Fragment of Momentary Being

Our true teacher is not a person in the usual sense, but a fragment of momentary being. And because that is so, our true teacher is everywhere, like specks of gold in the granite mountain. When we bow to the gold, we bow to the mountain. When we bow to the mountain, we bow to all our teachers.

Therefore, when we bow, we do so without regard to time or place. We bow when we are eating. We bow when we are sleeping. We bow within all the activities of our life.

We bow when there are fences and walls between us. We bow when there are mountains and rivers between us. We bow when there are lifetimes between us. We bow when there is suffering between us.

Between us.

By enacting this great mystical power of gratitude and wonder, we calm and protect the entire earth. We calm and manifest all worlds. We calm and protect all moments, so they do not fall into nothingness. We calm and protect this great fabric of all being between us.


242. The Robe Verse

The kesa and rakusu are symbols of interdependence, and its reality.

Before we put the rakusu or kesa on, we place it on top of our heads and chant the Kesa Sutra.

So, as it were, we are placing interdependence above the self.

The first line of the sutra has the character ‘datsu’, the same datsu within Dogen’s description of zazen: shinjin datsuraku, dropping off body and mind. That is, dropping off, from moment to moment, the belief that this experience is my experience.

So we are putting something on, interdependence, and dropping something off, our separateness.

That being so, our focus when we sit is not to bring anything about, or exclude anything, but to welcome everything. Because we are not just the symbol of interdependence, but the reality

which is not something which happens to us, or something we see, but what we are.


233. Bowing

Bowing is a modification of prostration.

When we prostrate, we de-centre the head, throwing it forward into the world, throwing it down on the ground of all being.

Our body is open and vulnerable. Our hands are without all the things of the self.

On entering the dojo we bow to the altar: to Buddha and to the flowers of emptiness. We bow to the incense that perfumes the space. We bow to our cushion. We bow to our fellow practitioners.

It is not that our cushion is a small person and you are great person or that Buddha is a great person and you are a small person. No. When we put our hands together and bow, a great person appears – not just in front of our hands, not just behind our hands. Not just in the hands themselves:



206. The purpose of bowing

Before we sit down we bow to our cushion and bow to everyone.

How so?

In this place of practice, everything has equal and absolute value.

It is not that the person is great and the cushion is menial.


It is not that the cushion, the mat, the floor, the incense, the Buddha are here to facilitate my practice.


Everything in this place is conducting this practice.

Because this is so, even though this room is only 12 foot Square, it is the whole universe.


205. The point of ritual


1. It is like the heart is a very clever person, a brilliant person, who can only express himself through an infinite number of stupid persons. The stupid person of bowing, for instance

But each of those stupid persons, in that expression, becomes a brilliant person. An infinitely faceted person.

Until skewered on words.

2. When students ask the teacher about bowing, the teacher will often reply that it’s an expression of non-duality. We bring 2 apparently separate things – the hands – together. I’ve done this myself.

It’s not that the answer is wrong, but it’s incomplete.

We could equally say that when we bow, we de-centre the head. When I bow to you, I de-centre my self; I make myself an object in your world. And so, bowing is leaving the prison of the self and entering a cascade of lived, shared worlds.

This answer isn’t wrong either, but it’s incomplete. Because bowing’s expression is limitless.

3. How we view Ritual is the canary in the coal mine. If we misunderstand it, if we imagine that Ritual is language put into physical form – I bow to express gratitude, for example – then we cannot prevent that view gradually seeping everywhere.

Which is our end.