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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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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.

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262. Clouded Water Eyes

A famous passage in the Nirvana Sutra reads:

The Buddha’s True Dharma Body is just like space
Manifesting form according to circumstances
It is like the moon in water.

Nirvana sutra

I think this is a description of our state in zazen.

“the moon in water” is a metaphor for emptiness. It isn’t that the reflection doesn’t exist, it’s that it isn’t separate. The reflection is the expression of all the different aspects of the whole of reality working together: the moon, the water, the clouds, the clouded water eyes of the person witnessing it into being.

Each line informs the other. The third line is a poetic instance of the general statement of interdependence in the second.

And the purpose of the first line is to convey that “space” and “expression” are not in conflict: our aim is not to nullify whatever arises: thoughts, noises inner and outer, feelings, but not to fixate on them either, and thus to allow vast compassionate space to manifest, a space which can hold all this expression, like a mother holds her baby.

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257. Like a womb

In the Tathagatagarbha sutra, Buddha nature is portrayed figuratively as a little Buddha inside each sentient being. Each being is a womb for the Buddha.

An ignorant or self centred person might imagine that through practice they would actualise a personal Buddha.

Except, the Buddha which is represented in each sentient being is the same Buddha. These same buddhas form a kind of fabric, containing all beings, like a womb. Each being is like the embryo in this womb of Buddha.

It is like space: in this moment, is the breath inside you yours, or not?

Is the dynamic space inside you as the expression of this breath yours, or not? How can we distinguish this inner space from the greater space which holds us?

Yet if Being collapses, space likewise collapses.

All these little tiles create the vast space of the temple.

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238. Only a buddha, together with a buddha

In Chapter eleven of The Lotus Sutra, there is the story of a stupendously large tower, many miles high and wide, containing both the remains and the living body of an ancient Buddha, which has lain concealed within the dynamic ground, and which emerges when it appears that the Buddha is about to preach The Lotus Sutra, hovering in mid air. Shakyamuni Buddha then joins the ancient Buddha in the tower, a Buddha alone, together with a Buddha.

It seems unlikely that anyone has ever taken this scene literally, so what is it trying to say?

It is extremely rich and potent obviously, but I would wish to draw attention to the depth of the ground and the height of the sky. One is reminded of the Buddha’s enlightenment, where he touches the ground, and sees the morning star, shining through vast space.

The ground – Being – is not static or passive. It is dynamic, full of expression. Likewise, space – Emptiness – is not ‘empty’, it is the location of the liberation of Being into full expression.

And when you sit, you are the dynamic ground. You are the plenitude of space. And when you breath and move, you are Emptiness, made real.

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237. The Lotus Sutra

Within our strand of Buddhism, the most important sutra, by some distance, is The Lotus Sutra.

The sutra depicts a universe of unimaginable extent and duration, within which a large group of characters ebb and flow through an unimaginable number of lifetimes. The central message of the sutra, which is gradually unfolded, is that each being, at some point in the unimaginably vast future, will become a Buddha.

Think about this. Within this perspective, you are the past life of a future Buddha. Not only that, each event, each thought, each feeling in your life, no matter how apparently painful or useless, is part of the vast karmic tapestry which leads to this future Buddha. Were any of it to disappear, everything would unravel, so everything matters. Matters more fundamentally than we can properly express.

This future Buddha is holding your present, karmic self like a mother would hold a fitfully sleeping baby, and each dream, each flicker of that baby matters. Matters.

It’s a mythical presentation of the classic question in Chinese Buddhism: if everything is perfect, why doesn’t it seem so? And in its answer, nothing is excluded, nothing is to be harried into nothingness. It evokes a feeling through the creation of a magical world. The feeling is the important thing, not the myth.

What if you kept it?

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216. The Buddha’s true dharma body

“The Buddha’s true dharma body is just like space.
Manifesting its form according to circumstances,
It is like the moon in water.”

Mahaparinirvana Sutra

This passage from the Nirvana Sutra talks about the relation between the particular and the universal, the concrete and the spiritual. And, by necessary implication, how we should practice.

“The Buddha’s true body is just like space”: space is boundless. It extends everywhere. It is not the air. It is not like water. When objects appear, when people appear, they don’t displace space; because there is nowhere that space doesn’t reach, there is nowhere extra for it to go to.

So the person, from this perspective, is both person and space. John, Michael, Anne, Rachel, Buddha.

We do not require to exclude the personal, the particular, the phenomenal to attain the universal, that is delusion. The particular is the universal. And vice versa.

“It is like the moon in water” : the moon is a common metaphor for enlightenment, Buddha. And water is a common metaphor for the mind.

Moonlight and water completely interpenetrate each other. It is not that there is a moon, standing somewhere apart, casting its secondhand light upon the water. No. The moon is in the water.

That being so, do not hate or love the thoughts, emotions, sensations and reactivity which arise from moment to moment. They are not clouds obscuring the sky, they are the sky.

Because just this is everything.

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188. The Middle Way

[continuing previous kusen]

Dream, illusion and shadow all occupy a curious position. You can’t say they exist, but you can’t say they don’t exist either, as they can be experienced. And because everything can be experienced, we don’t slice up that experience into true and false, right and wrong.

At its inception, Buddhism occupied a middle position in Indian thought. It wasn’t eternalist. It wasn’t nihilist. But it’s not called The Middle Position, it’s called The Middle Way, because it isn’t fixed, like a position, it’s dynamic, like a person.

And this dynamic quality led from the prajnaparamita sutras, of which the Diamond and Heart Sutras form part, into the full flowering of Chinese buddhism: The Lotus Sutra, The Flower Garland Sutra, where the world of experience, rather than being taken as a given which requires to be navigated, is completely liberated into its own creative potential, through devotional, expressive, feeling language. As it were, the endlessly reconfiguring world bursts out of the heart.

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187. An illusion

At the end of The Diamond Sutra, six metaphors are used to describe this life:

a dream, an illusion, a shadow, a bubble (in a stream), a dewdrop, a flash of lightning.

What are we to make of these? Are they six aspects of something which can’t be named, or are they each different, or all the same?

They don’t seem the same. The last three seem to be real, but instantaneous, and the first three seem to occupy a strange position: experienced, certainly, but not clearly real, neither existing or non existing.

Could we say they are six instances of ungraspability?