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


371. The Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana

The Awakening of Faith  in the Mahayana  is a treatise that was written  in China  around about 550 a.d. It’s attributed to  Aśvaghoṣa  who certainly didn’t write it  and the translation is attributed to  Paramartha,  an important Indian buddhist monk  who  relocated himself to  China. He may have written it. He may also  have written the Buddha Nature treatise. 

It’s a really important treatise. It comes at a point when the Chinese  appear to have assimilated  the  Mahayana  sutras  which, following on from and balancing Narajuna, give  a positive language and a positive view  of emptiness.

Using terms such as ‘thusness’ or ‘suchness’  or ‘the tathagatagarbha’, the Treatise uses that positive language more comprehensively, and it immediately precedes, and plays a part in forming, the distinctively  Chinese schools: the T’ient’aithe Tendai school,  the Huayan school,  the Zen school  and the Pure Land school.

The most famous commentary  on the treatise was by Fazang, the  third patriarch  of the  Huayan  school.

The Treatise sets out, in a very  systematic and terse way, the  nature of   reality.  It takes as its  starting point  a position of  imminence rather than  duality or transcendence.  The nature of that imminance  it calls ‘Suchness’ . When  Suchness  manifests itself  in the phenomenal realm, (which is not separate from the absolute  realm) , it’s called ‘Mind’. 

This is an extremely important point  because it helps clarify  what people like Mazu/Baso meant when they were talking about  Ordinary Mind.

It continues, in a clearer and more methodical way, the innovation in the Lankavatara Sutra of combining two separate Mahayanan threads. The first, originally in the Tathagatagarbha sutra and later in the Nirvana sutra, is of all beings having  – in some sense – Buddha Nature. The second is the Yogacara concept of the eight  consciousnesses, but specifically the  alaya -storehouse- consciousness. Putting these two  together was natural, as the Chinese chose to use  the word  ‘zong’, treasure house/storehouse  for both the  alaya consciousness, and also  the tathagatagarbha. 

The  basic idea  is  that our underlying reality is thusness or  suchness  but that is overlayed by  ignorance.  That ignorance  doesn’t have a beginning ( because it has never truly existed), but it does  have an end.  

When there’s a turn to enlightenment,  the  eighth consciousness, the storehouse  consciousness, ( which is anyway fused – in a not entirely clear way – with the Tathagatagarbha Buddha Nature)  purifies itself, and the tathagatagarbha emerges.

That  is one really  helpful aspect of the treatise because  that  perspective  is  the one which  generally attains dominance  within Chinese Buddhism subsequently, but is often assumed rather than stated, which can make understanding what people of that time were trying to say difficult. 

The overarching metaphor which is used in the Treatise  is the ocean  and the waves. The ocean ( in a departure from the more negative use of the ocean as a metaphor for samsara)  represents suchness or mind and  the waves  represent phenomenal reality. The waves are  created by the wind of  ignorance or externality. The point is that the waves -ignorance- are  conditional, but the ocean isn’t, yet even in that conditionality, the waves are always part of the ocean. Just as the waves are always wet, Suchness is always here, whatever our confusion.

We can also see the importance of Faith, standing in stark contrast to our ideas of attainment and self improvement.

When the wind  dies down  through practice and through  faith,  the  ocean becomes like a mirror,  clearly reflecting whatever is there. Reflecting the moon above. Rendering visible the pearl of wisdom at the bottom of the ocean.

And that also ties in with Yogacara, where it’s said that the eighth  consciousness, when purified, becomes like a great mirror. And the mirror metaphor  is very  frequently used by the Zen teachers, although not exclusively in this way.

There’s a dance between different  but related  metaphors: the ocean and the waves and  the mirror. And we must add space, which in the  Treatise is used as a synonym  for  suchness,  thusness and emptiness.  It’s used in  that way  because space is indivisible.You  wouldn’t say there’s 10 square metres of  space in my room and outside  there’s another 50 square metres of space and the two are different. Space is the same space whether it’s  here or a billion miles away, and the space holds all beings within it.

In that sense, space is a metaphor ( and in meditation, the reality) for the unitary  nature of  being expressed in the Dharmakaya. Which is why  it’s said that  the Buddha’s true body, the Dharmakaya, is  just like space. 

In the treatise the word mahayana  isn’t a reference to the Mahayana school.  It’s a reference to suchness. So it’s faith in suchness, not in the tenets of the Mahayana.

The  Treatise is in effect saying that faith in the reality of suchness manifests suchness. So what is primarily required from us  is faith,because everything follows from that. And, the first classic of Zen literature is Verses of Faith Mind.


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.


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. 


346. The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment

The Sutra of Perfect Enlightenment was written in Tang Dynasty China, probably in the early 8th century, around the same time as The Platform Sutra, just prior to the formation of Baso’s Hongzhou School of Zen, which proved the most durable, going forward into the later Song Dynasty.

The Sutra was very popular in China and subsequently in Korea, but did not become widely known in Japan. Although, I think, it’s clear that Dogen was familiar with it, not least because the initial and dominant metaphor in the sutra – sky flowers – is one of the chapters of the Shobogenzo, which Dogen re-renders as the flowers of emptiness (Kuge). That chapter substantially repeats what is said in the sutra.

One of the reasons the sutra was so popular was because it gave a lot of practical instruction about meditation.

It essentially says that in meditation there are three ways to practise: Samatha, Samapatti and Dhyana. From those three approaches it generates 25 separate practices, using various combinations of these three.

So what are they?

Samatha we are familiar with. It is the wide range of practices focused on the necessity of undispersing, calming and gathering the mind. It is strongly associated with the idea that meditation cultivates tranquility, quietude, and serenity. The metaphor which the sutra uses for this aspect of meditation is the mirror. Just as a bright mirror will reflect everything truly without being caught up in it, and whose primary characteristic, brightness, is unaffected by the nature of the reflections, then likewise the meditator rests within the brightness of calm spacious awareness, unperturbed by any arising thoughts or emotions.

The second kind of practice, Samapatti, is described tersely as using illusion to overcome illusion. The meaning can be unpacked by reading the early part of the sutra, where the metaphor of sky flowers is explored. Sky flowers represent illusory ideas: self, separation from the world, permanence and so on. The mind of the practitioner which sees no-self, impermanence and non-duality is also a sky flower, because there is no ‘mind’ separate from everything else. That is what the sutra means by using one illusion to overcome another. One of the other metaphors used is two sticks being rubbed together to create a fire, which then consumes both. Another brilliant metaphor is of a person cutting off his own head; prior to the act there is a person intending to do something, but after he succeeds, there isn’t. Samapatti focuses on how we can, in the course of meditation, actively examine our tendency to separate, to continually create a “me”, to construct a familiar world of known objects and qualities, and so on. The metaphor that is used is that of a green and lively shoot bursting up through the earth. The aliveness, the activity of the green shoot bursts through the earth of ignorance, but doesn’t become separated from it, like the Lotus Flower.

The metaphor for Samatha is one of peacefulness and tranquility, that for Samapatti is very different, it is a vigorous and dynamic engagement.

The third – Dhyana – is where the separation between body, mind and world drops off or is forgotten about. In Dhyana we are just sitting, ‘One Piece Zen’, as Isso Fujita would say: body, mind and world all dropped off and gathered up in this One Piece. The metaphor for Dhyana is the ringing bell. The bell can ring because it is hollow, empty at its center. It is self-less. Yet, the ring of the bell of zazen rings out everywhere.

We can look at these three meditations as three different practices. We can also look at them as being three aspects, although not the only aspects, of our own practice. We are experiencing this One Piece Zen. At other times we are aware of the necessity of undispersing our mind. At other times we are aware of our habits of fabrication and construction. All of this can be explained in a way which is inclusive, and which broadens our practice, and stops it falling into easy formulation.


339. The Five Eyes of Practice

In Zazen we practice with our eyes open, but we do not see in the usual way.

The Diamond Sutra says there are five eyes, five ways of seeing.

The first is the physical eye. You can understand that is the eye of our karma. We see a world which has been told to us by our parents, by our society, and by earlier versions of ourselves.

The second eye is the heavenly eye. This is seeing the world conceptually. When I look up at the sky for example, I see it within the context of the world and the universe that’s been taught to me. I can see the world conceptually in many ways: through physics, through economics, through history; any number of ways. 

The third eye is the prajna eye. This the ‘wisdom’ eye that sees the emptiness and the non-separation of all things.

The fourth is the dharma eye which, while seeing the emptiness of all things, uses compassion and skillful means to alleviate suffering—the eye of the Bodhisattva. 

The fifth eye is the Buddha eye. 

When we read about these five eyes, we think that they belong to five different kinds of beings. Or to the one being, in progressive stages of development.

I think we can equally look upon these ‘eyes’ as facets of practice. The Buddha eye is this non-dual awareness, this non-separation which contains the other four. 

Not just those other four eyes of course, but the countless eyes of Avalokiteshvara.  


338. Seeing Bodhisattvas

When we finish Zazen, after we chant the Heart Sutra, we chant the four Bodhisattva vows.

The first is, “all living beings, I vow to save them”.

From this we might believe that a Bodhisattva is primarily concerned with doing, with saving all beings from suffering. Indeed, in Tibetan, the word for Bodhisattva literally means something like Enlightenment Hero. 

Hidden underneath that idea of compassionate doing is a more subtle idea concerned with seeing

In the normal way of things a person looks at another person and asks, “What is the value of that person to me?” The ordinary  person looks at an object and says, “What use is that object to me?”

In contrast,  the Bodhisattva will look at a person and say, “What is the value of that person?” The Bodhisattva will look at an object and say “What is the dignity and beauty of that object?”

In the literature Bodhisattvas are often occupying a heroic role. In the Vimalakirti Sutra for instance, at the start, in the scene setting, the Buddha is said to be preaching in the presence of 8,000 monks and 32,000 Bodhisattvas, all of  whom are recognized by the monks. 

These Bodhisattvas have heroic names. But if you look at the names closely,  they are names you would associate with the activity of practice. This is a way of seeing differently. Seeing in terms, not of personal utility, but in terms of a reciprocal relationship. Meaning-giving and love fill the world with Bodhisattvas. 

It isn’t that this person is a Bodhisattva who is going out to save all these other people. The change is primarily a change in how we see and hence, how we act. Dōgen for instance, humorously talks about the Broken Ladle Bodhisattva, and things like that. Everything is our teacher.

The Bodhisattva isn’t a being who sees themselves as a Bodhisattva. Rather, they are someone who sees other beings as bodhisattvas.

You yourself should ask whether you can see this or not. You yourself  are full of  Bodhisattvas: Enduring Through Doubt Bodhisattva, Loving Despite Everything Bodhisattva. And 32,000 others. And likewise the world.


336. The Fabric of Buddhism

The literal meaning of the word sutra is thread. At its most basic, the reference is to the thread which kept the pages of the sutra together and in order.

The root of the word sutra means ‘to sew together.’ 

We can see an association with the ordination practice in which, prior to the ceremony, a person sews together disparate pieces of material to create their rakusu, or kesa. This garment, which always has the same form, is also unique. It is unique because it is sewn by this particular person, with all this person’s skills, clumsiness, mistakes, and so on. Originally, the monk’s robe was sewn together from pieces of discarded material, so the symbolism, in terms of interdependence, the rich dialogue between particularity and universality and everything having value, is very rich.

Zazen is sewing together body and mind; self and world; past and present; practitioners seen and unseen.

That possibly throws light on one of the peculiarities of the Mahayana sutras.

At the start, the Buddha is gathered with an assembly of monks. And almost always, there’s also a huge number of Bodhisattvas.

In the Vimalakirti Sutra, for instance, the Buddha is said to be preaching on Vulture Peak to 8,000 monks and 32,000 Bodhisattvas.

Who or what are these Bodhisattvas?

If we read the Lotus Sutra does Vulture Peak appear or not? Are we there, or not? 

When the Chinese determined upon a word for sutra they used, on the face of it, an identical word, thread. But in their genius ‘thread’ has a particular context. It’s the thread of the loom. Or rather, one of the threads: the vertical, or the horizontal.

The Chinese mechanical loom is a metaphor for constant activity; the full dynamic functioning of the universe. If the thread of the sutra is, as it were, one line of the fabric to be weaved, the vertical say, what is the horizontal line? What or who is woven with it to constantly produce the miraculous fabric of Buddhism?


334. Skilful Means

The Heart Sutra is a – probably Chinese – attempt to condense and to get to the heart of the prajnaparamita sutras; a vast body of literature that started to be composed in India around the first century BC.

In these sutras, there’s a repetitive emphasis on three elements: prajna ( intuitive wisdom), compassion and skillful means. ‘Prajna’ (wisdom) is the ability to see the emptiness, the boundlessness and the lack of separation of all things. ‘Compassion’ is the feeling with all beings. 

The temptation, when we hear these three terms, is to think that they’re attributes of the person. This ‘person’ acquires the capacity to see emptiness and, seeing emptiness, this ‘person’ then develops compassion in their heart and then this ‘person’ acts towards other beings in the most efficaciously compassionate way using skillful means. 

However, to think of these three qualities as qualities of the individual is to fall into exactly the same kind of spiritual narcissism that plagues meditation today. 

Prajna doesn’t mean me seeing the emptiness of all other things. It means seeing the emptiness of all things, including this ‘person’. The wall of identity which surrounds this person and separates them from other beings is dismantled.

With those walls absent, what is there but fellow feeling? 

And skillful means, because it’s not a personal quality; because it’s a universal quality, can be seen as one facet of this infinitely faceted diamond of all beings; each facet expressing the whole diamond.


333. The Mahayana Sutras

How do we account for the fantastical and novel structure and content  of many of the Mahayana sutras: the Lotus Sutra, the Nirvana Sutra, the Flower Garland Sutra?

These sutras are dramatically different from the Pali sutras,  which are simple in comparison. Usually, they just record what the Buddha said to a specific person who came to him with a specific problem or enquiry. The sutra is simply a record of what the teacher said. 

In contrast, we read the Lotus Sutra or the Nirvana Sutra and we’re looking around amidst all the imagery and stories, trying to find the teaching.

What’s going on? 

Nagarjuna’s decisive move in the MMK, near the beginnings of Mahayana, was to make the development of a systematic body of doctrine or of a systematic framework impossible. 

That left Mahayana with a number of options.

First  the essential emptiness of everything could just be reiterated. That’s what you see in the Diamond sutra. Over time, this gets rather sterile, which is probably why the schools most directly continuing Nagarjuna’s teachings didn’t prosper in China.

The second is that the teaching can go off in unusual and new directions which changes both the nature of language and the nature of teaching. 

In the Pali sutras, the language is simply faithfully recording what the Buddha said.

In the Mahayana sutras by contrast, the language is expressive and performative, so the teaching isn’t, as it were, set out in the sutra. The sutra is like a teacher who will change you. The language goes from being descriptive to being performative. 

It’s like somebody seizing your head so it’s pointing in a different direction. 

Viewed this way, you can see the direct connection between these sutras and the koan stories.

Mahayana is accordingly not something new, but a return, in a new way, to the Buddha’s original intention, which is not to promulgate a consistent body of doctrine, but to attend to and change the person in front of him, like a doctor would.