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Buddha Nature

by on November 3, 2013

Shakyamuni Buddha said, “All sentient beings without exception have the Buddha-nature. Tathagata abides forever without change.”  This is a quote from the Nirvana Sutra.  Notice the use of “have” Buddha nature. Up to this point in Buddha’s teaching, sentient beings “have” Buddha nature.  It is a possession.

Dogen interpreted this Chinese quote, “All sentient beings without exception have the Buddha nature” as “All existence (i.e., all sentient beings) is Buddha nature.” The shift in his interpretation transforms the older meaning in 2 ways:

  1. All existence is Buddha nature.
  2. Dogen equates all existence and sentient beings.

Dogen says “All existence is Buddha nature.”  Therefore all sentient beings are Buddha nature.  Who are the sentient beings?  All beings, living, sentient, embryonic, original, inconceivable beings or any other kind of beings, but not imaginary beings


Just when we might get caught into thinking that only living beings are Buddha nature, Dogen recounts the work of our Twelfth Ancestor, Venerable Ashvaghosha, who explained the ocean of Buddha nature to Kapimala, the Thirteenth Ancestor, to be: ”Mountains, rivers, and the great earth – all depend on it.”  Now Buddha nature includes insentient beings.  Mountains, rivers and the great earth are all the ocean of Buddha nature.  All depend on it means that at the very moment when they depend on it, they are mountains, rivers, and the great earth.  Dogen says that the ocean of Buddha nature is like this.  It is not concerned with inside, outside, or in between.  To see mountains and rivers is to see Buddha nature; to see Buddha nature is to see a donkey’s jowls or a horse’s mouth”.  All depend on means to totally depend on.  This is understanding and going beyond understanding.

Dogen says, If you want to understand Buddha nature intimately, observe cause and effect over time.  This means to practice with it, to realize it, to expound it, and let go of it.  You can observe cause and effect over time through observing the wisdom of desire, the wisdom beyond desire, original enlightenment, no-enlightenment, or true enlightenment.  Dogen is speaking of becoming intimate with our conditioning.  This is to study the self, to see what arises during the day as we prepare breakfast, drive to work, sit in a meeting, drop off a delivery, listen to a neighbor. Why? Because this very mind of preparing breakfast is Buddha nature, breakfast is Buddha nature, you are Buddha nature.  This is where awakening unfolds, not somewhere outside of ourselves or normal everyday activity. 


From → Zen Buddhism

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