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This lecture is reprinted from the January 2002 Berkeley Zen Center Newsletter.
Why do we practice Zen when we already have Buddha Nature? This was the great question that Dogen Zenji worked on before he went to China and met Tendo Nyojo Zenji. This is not an easy problem, but first of all, what does it mean when we say everyone has Buddha Nature?
The usual understanding is that Buddha Nature is something innate within ourselves, and because of this nature, we do something, but that is not Dogen's understanding. That understanding of Buddha Nature is just an idea you have in your mind. If there is a plant, there must be a seed, which was there before the plant appeared. There must be some nature which promotes its activity. Because of its nature, some flowers are red and some flowers are yellow. Most people understand in that way. Then why would we practice when we already have this Buddha Nature?
We may think that after we practice and eliminate various selfish desires, then Buddha Nature will appear. That kind of understanding is based on your unclear observation of things, according to Dogen Zenji. Dogen's understanding is very clear. Only when something appears, is its nature there. So nature and things themselves are two names of one reality. Sometimes we say Buddha Nature; sometimes we say Bodhi, or attainment. Not only do we call it by these names, but sometimes we call it,"evil desires." Evil desires, we say, but that is another name for Buddha Nature. For Buddha, that is Buddha Nature.
In the same way, our usual understanding is that laypeople and priests are fundamentally different, but actually there is no particular person who is a priest. Each one of you could be a priest, and I could be a layperson. Because I wear a robe, I am a priest and I behave like a priest, that's all. There is no innate nature that distinguishes priest from layperson.
So whatever you call it, that is another name of one reality. Even though you call it a mountain or river, that is another name of one reality. So we should not be fooled by words of "nature" or "result" or "Buddhahood." We should see things with a clear mind. In this way, we understand Buddha Nature.
As I said, "Evil Desires" is another name for Buddha Nature. When we practice zazen, where would evil desire come from? In zazen, there is actually no place for evil desires. Still we may believe that evil desires should be annihilated. Why is that? You want to eliminate evil desires for yourself, but where will you throw them? When we start to think that evil desires are something we can throw away, that is heretical. Evil desire is just a name we use, but there is no such thing, which we can pull out and throw away.
You may feel as if I am fooling you, but it is not so. It is no laughing matter. When we come to this point, it is necessary to understand our practice of shikantanza.
There is a famous koan about a man who climbs to the top of a hundred foot pole. If he stays at the top, he is not the enlightened one. When he jumps off the top of the pole, he may be the enlightened one. How we understand this koan is how we understand our practice. The reason we feel that something should be pulled out is because we stay at the top of the pole. Then you have a problem. Actually there is no top of the pole. The pole continues forever, so you cannot stop anywhere. But you think because you have some experience of enlightenment that you can rest there, observing various sights from the top of the pole.
Things are continuously growing or changing into something else. Nothing exists in its own form or color. When we think, "Here is the top," that is already a misunderstanding. Then you will have the problem of whether or not to jump. But you cannot jump from here. It is not possible. And even though you try to stop at the top of the pole, you cannot stay there because it is growing continuously. You may think it is possible to stop, but it is not.
That is the problem. That is why you should practice and forget all about the top of the pole. To forget about the top of the pole is to where you are right now. Not to be this way or that way, or to be in the past or future, but to be right here. Do you understand?
You should forget this moment and grow into the next. That is the only way. For instance, when breakfast is ready, my wife hits some wooden clappers. If I don't answer, she may continue to hit them until I feel rather angry. Why we have this kind of problem is quite simple. It is because I don't answer. If I say, "Hai!" ("Yes!"), there is no problem. Because I don't say, "Yes!" she continues to call me because she doesn't know whether or not I heard her.
Sometimes she may think, "He knows but he doesn't answer." When I don't answer, I am on the top of the pole. I don't jump off. I believe I have something important to do at the top of the pole and think, "You shouldn't call me. You should wait." Or I may think, "This is very important! Don't you know that? I am here, on top of the pole! Don't you know that?" Then she will keep hitting the clappers. This is how we create problems.
So the secret is just to say, "Yes!" and jump off from here. Then there is no problem. It means to be yourself, always yourself, without sticking to an old self. You forget all about yourself and are refreshed. You are a new self, and before that new self becomes an old self, you say, "Yes!" You walk to the kitchen for breakfast. So the point of each moment is to forget the point and extend your practice.
As Dogen Zenji says, "To study Buddhism is to study yourself. To study yourself is to forget yourself on each moment. Then everything will come and help you." Everything will assure your enlightenment. When I say, "Yes!" my wife will assure my enlightenment. "Oh, you are a good boy!" But if I stick to this, "I am a good boy," I will create another problem.
So on each moment you should concentrate and really be yourself. At that moment, where is Buddha nature? Buddha nature is when I say, "Yes!" That "Yes!" is Buddha Nature itself. The Buddha nature which you think you have within yourself is not Buddha Nature. Buddha Nature is when you say, "Yes!" or when you become you yourself, or when you forget all about yourself.
This Buddha Nature is not something which will appear in the future, but something which is already here. If you cannot actually see what Buddha Nature is, it doesn't mean anything. It is a painted rice cake, not an actual one. If you want to see an actual rice cake, you should see it when it is here. So the purpose of your practice is just to be yourself. When you become yourself in that way, you have real enlightenment. What you think you attained previously is not actually enlightenment.
Sometimes you will laugh at yourself when you fall into wrong practice. "Oh, what am I doing?" When you understand how practice goes back and forth, you will enjoy your practice. Real compassion or love, real encouragement or true courage will arise here, and you will also be a very kind person.
We say, "One practice covers everything." So practice will include various virtues like waves on the sea. When you practice in that way, you may be stone, a tree, or an ocean. You cover everything.
Continuous practice is necessary, so we should not rest. To have generous mind and big mind and soft mind is how to continue. And we should always be flexible, not sticking to anything. Practicing in this way there is no need to be afraid of anything, and we do not ignore anything. This is strictness of the way. When we are not afraid of anything, that is imperturbability.
To be completely concentrated on what you do, that is simplicity. And the beauty or practice is that it can be extended in various ways. It should not be so difficult, but it is difficult. Yet you cannot say our way is very difficult. It is not difficult at all. Everyone can do it, but to continue it is rather difficult. Don't you think so? You agree with this point? Thank you very much.
Last revised January 7, 2002.
Copyright 2000 Berkeley Zen Center.
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