Tuesday, November 16, 2010


In past meetings I have talked about Buddha-nature. Since the term appears often in the Buddhist vocabulary, I’d like to say more about it.

Don’t groan. It’s pretty basic, and it’s easy to understand.

Like most terms, Buddha-nature has several definitions. But most of them boil down to this: an inherent potential for reaching awakening that exists in every living being.

By inherent potential is meant that you have the capacity for enlightenment—that is, awakening—whether you know it or not.

I’ll say it again another way. Buddha-nature is an inherent potential for reaching awakening. That potential exists in every living being.

You can use it, or lose it.

Sutras are collections of the supposed talks and dialogues of Shakyamuni Buddha who lived some 2500 years ago. Most Buddhist schools have adopted certain sutras as their own authority, but Zen isn’t associated with any sutra.

Zen is a special hand down outside of sutras. It doesn’t depend on words or letters.

In Zen, truth is grasped directly or else it isn’t grasped at all.

The Christian Bible, The Jewish Talmud, and the Muslim Koran are books that contain what are reputed to be the revelations of God as well as the actual words of prophets and religious individuals. These books are known as holy or sacred volumes that are associated with divine power. People venerate them and often make solemn declarations on them as confirmation of the honesty or truth of their declarations.

For example, in most courts of law a person lays a right hand on the Bible and swears to tell the truth, “. . . , the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me, God.”

Consider. For the Christian Bible alone there are dozens upon dozens of versions. There are the King James, the Berkely, the English Revised, the New American, the American Standard, the New Revised Standard, and many more.

Each version has been interpreted and edited at different times by diverse scholars and translators, which means each version differs in some way, large or small, from all the others. And that means anything original has been fiddled around with so many times it has lost any meaning of its original intent.

Take with a pound of salt words that have been interpreted time after time and recorded time after time by committee after committee, each member of which has his own selfish reason to make a mark in history. Any originality in the meaning of those words has long since been obscured in time, and in the tinkering the words have undergone.

Neither Buddhism nor Zen has a so-called holy book.

I do own a small volume I found in a nightstand of a hotel in Thailand. It’s somewhat similar to the Gideon Bible placed in most hotels in Christian countries, but it’s not called a bible. It’s titled simply The Teachings of Buddha.

It’s not considered scripture or holy writing. In Buddhist courts no one is required to swear on it to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me Shakyamuni.

The Teachings of Buddha presents writings on the insights of the Buddha, such as The Fourfold Noble Truths, The Middle Way, and Human Nature. It makes no promises. It offers no guarantees. It deals with common sense.

Here are three quotes from The Teaching of Buddha:

1. “Learn that everything is non-substantial and transitory.”
2. “Rely upon yourself: do not depend upon anyone else.”
3. “Be the master of your own mind.”

I’m not saying written words are bad. I’m saying don’t take sutras, or other collections, for a corpus of rules or principles.

With that rambling introduction in mind, let’s consider one of the most significant personalities in Zen, and some of the concepts from his most momentous piece of teaching. I’m referring to Hui-Neng, the Sixth Chinese Patriarch, and his Platform Sutra.

The word “platform” refers to the raised area where Hui-Neng sat when he delivered his talk to the people surrounding him.

To paraphrase Hui-Neng, if one realizes his or her original mind, one has awakened. Awakening is known as no-thought. What is no-thought? It means even though you are totally aware you are not fixed to anything.

This is being free and unattached.

According to Hui-Neng, once you awaken to the notion of no-thought you have reached the status of the Buddha.

Reaching the status of the Buddha doesn’t mean becoming the spitting image of Siddhartha. There are no cookie cutters in Buddhism.

The Platform Sutra often uses the word “nature.” This isn’t Mother Nature, with its trees and bees, but self-nature, original nature, Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature means that everyone—and I say every thing—has the potential, the intrinsic spark, to be awakened. Awakening means realizing one’s own true self.

Buddha-nature is mindfulness.

Zen deals with Buddha-nature.


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