The Buddha We Are

Taitaku Pat Phelan

As many of you know, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi was the founder of the San Francisco Zen Center. He was a Japanese Buddhist priest who came to the United States to San Francisco in 1958 to lead a Japanese American congregation. After he arrived he began sitting zazen by himself. I heard that he put a sign on the door listing the times he did zazen, and, slowly, others, mostly young westerners, began joining him. The book Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind is a collection of some of Suzuki Roshi's lectures. Suzuki Roshi offered his teaching to encourage us to practice and to take care of our lives, and he did this without emphasizing the differences between various schools of Buddhism, and without any particular emphasis on Buddhism as a religion. However, Suzuki Roshi was trained in the Soto school of Zen Buddhism in Japan.

One of the fundamental teachings in Soto Zen, or the starting point for the Soto teachings, is that we are all Buddha--we are already Buddha. Suzuki Roshi said "...to be a human being is to be a Buddha. Buddha nature is just another name for human nature true human nature." This means that being Buddha is intrinsic or essential to being human. If we were not Buddha, we could not be human. The word "Buddha" means "an awakened one," one who is awake to things as they really are, without the coloring and attachments of our individual conditioning. So another meaning of Buddha is our unconditioned nature. In the book How To Raise An Ox, Francis Cook talks about the Buddhist term, "intrinsic enlightenment." He said it "refers to the idea that all living beings are Buddhas. It does not mean that beings possess a Buddha nature, or that beings are containers in which a seed form of Buddha can be found, as if there were two realities, beings and Buddha. It means that beings are Buddha, but they are blind, stupid Buddhas who are ignorant of their true nature."

Soto Zen teaching starts with the premise that since we all are Buddha, that we are already complete, and that we already have everything we need. I think most of us are drawn to practice meditation out of a sense that something is missing from our lives. We may feel a lot of stress or tension and want to become calm. We may have a bad habit like smoking that we want to stop and think that meditation may give us the support we need, or we may come to practice out of mental or emotional pain and frustration. I think if someone told me that they had a strong conviction that they were Buddha and that they wanted to begin practicing zazen in order to realize their "Buddhahood," I would be suspicious.

From our human point of view, most of us are motivated to practice out of pain or a deep need to change our lives. But from Buddha's point of view, we are already Buddha and when we practice we are just expressing our true nature. We have unconditioned nature, we are unconditioned nature; but at the same time, most of us are ignorant of our unconditioned being. Our habits and conditioning hang like a cloud over our awareness. One way to characterize our conditioned nature is by saying that there is something that we don't have that we need. From the time we are born, the way we are treated, the things we are told, the way our language and our society is constructed, supports the notion that there is something that we don't have that we need. Whether we think we need new clothes or a new car or other gadgets, or happiness, or fulfillment, or peace of mind, or even realization whenever we feel that there is something that we need that we don't already have we are ignoring our inherent completeness and are setting up a duality between who we are and who we want to be.

Right now, in this moment, if we are dissatisfied, we are rejecting a moment of life. If we reject our life in this moment, in what moment will we accept it? Practice and realization can only be experienced right now. There is no other time. Because we are inherently complete, it does not follow that we should just lie back and enjoy it. We need to take care of ourselves, to support ourselves and take care of our lives, and, as much as possible, to take care of the environment and help improve the living conditions of all people. But the Buddhist attitude is that we take care of our activity and so we take care of the world as our selves, which is different from trying to obtain something outside ourselves, which, once we get it, will make our lives better. This kind of dualistic grasping can never be satisfied. There will always be something newer or something better available. Our sixth ancestor in China, Hui Neng, taught in the Platform Sutra: "...the Wisdom of Enlightenment is inherent in every one of us. It is because of the delusion under which our mind works that we fail to realize it ourselves...You should know that so far as Buddha nature is concerned, there is no difference between an enlightened person and an ignorant one. What makes the difference is that one realizes it and one is ignorant of it."

Soto Zen Buddhism was brought to Japan by Dogen Zenji in the first half of the 13th century. Dogen trained in monasteries in Japan and then traveled to China searching for a more original or pure form of Buddhism. He was born into an aristocratic ruling family, but when he was two years old, his father died, and five years later his mother died. At his mother's funeral, he noticed the incense smoke rising and curling and disappearing into the air. This reminded him of his experience of the impermanence of life, and, out of this deep sense of impermanence, he decided to become a Buddhist monk. When he was older and began his serious training, he had the persistent question: if we are already Buddha, or already enlightened, why do we need to put so much effort into practice?

Buddhism teaches that we are already Buddha whether we realize it or not. "Realize" means "to make real." In Buddhism the realization that is referred to is not something that happens just in our minds or to our perceptions. It is said that realization must penetrate every cell of our bodies, down to the marrow of our bones and out to each tip of our hair. This realization that penetrates our body and mind goes beyond our thinking process. When we practice zazen, our attitude shouldn't be to try to stop our thinking, but rather to set aside our belief in our thinking, or to set aside our belief that our point of view is right so our intention to practice can settle into our flesh and bones. Suzuki Roshi emphasized practice through Right Effort both in zazen and in our everyday activity. He emphasized wholehearted effort, by bringing our whole body and mind, bringing our whole attention, our undivided attention to whatever we are doing. In this way, there is no separation between ourselves and our activity. When our attention is undivided, our experience of ourselves and of the world is undivided.

There are some instructions called "The Way to Practice Throughout the Day" that were given to laymen when they visited Zen monasteries in the 14th century: "the way to practice throughout the day is to throw yourself completely into each activity." When you do zazen, do nothing else but zazen; do not think about enlightenment, do not think about Buddhist teaching. When you go to service, hold the sutra card with two hands and chant wholeheartedly; do not think about the meaning of the sutras, do not think about zazen. When you go to breakfast, fully attend to the food in front of you and realize the mind of eating; and when you rest, just rest. So when you sit zazen, just do zazen; and when you work, just work. This spirit of just sitting or just working becomes common to all our activity when we practice. In this way, wherever we are, whatever we are doing, we have the opportunity to practice. We don't have to be in the meditation hall or in the mountains to practice. Our practice isn't even dependent on meditation. Since we are already Buddha, we can never leave the environment of practice.

Buddhism teaches that it is not even "we" who practice, but the Buddha we are who practices. We just resume our true nature, or our true nature resumes itself. Suzuki Roshi, quoting Dogen, said, "So we say, we practice our way not for ourselves and not for others. We practice our way for the sake of our way. There is no other reason why we practice our way. We just want to go back to our home as a duck wants to return to water...like a traveler who comes back and lies down in his own bed."


Source: BIONA