Berkeley Zen Center

To Whom Do We Bow?

Lecture by Sojun Roshi January 18, 1992

Part One

This lecture is reprinted from the March 2002 Berkeley Zen Center Newsletter.

In the Mumonkan, Case #45, Master Wu-tsu said, “Shakyamuni and Maitreya are servants of another, tell me who is that other?” Master Mumon comments. He says, “If you can see this other and distinguish him clearly, then it is like encountering your grandfather at the crossroads: you will not need to ask someone whether or not you are right. In this verse, Mumon continues, “Don't draw another's bow, don't ride another's horse, don't discuss another’s faults, don’t explore another's affairs.” It's a very short koan. Wu-tsu said, “Shakyamuni and Maitreya are servants of another. Tell me, who is that other?” Shakyamuni of course is the past Buddha, and Maitreya is the Buddha who will appear in the future and in between is, who?” [“Us,” says a student.]

The written character for the word “another” literally means “that one.” So the koan could also be read as, “Even Shakyamuni and Maitreya are servants of that one.” This has a slightly ambiguous meaning. “Another” is a more generic term, and “that one” points to someone in particular. So to whom does Buddha bow? To whom does Buddha make obeisance? Even Shakyamuni and Maitreya make obeisance or bow to that one—that “other.”

We just finished the Bodhisattva Ceremony where we acknowledge all of our past karma and renew our intention to practice. During the ceremony, we bow many times to the various Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. Who are these Buddhas and Bodhisattvas? When we bow to Buddha to whom are we bowing? This is a question that always comes up when we give instruction to beginners. Someone will say, “Well, who are we bowing to?” And even after 10 years of practice someone will ask the same thing. A very good question. You are bowing to yourself. How do you bow to yourself? You can't see your own eyes, you can’t see your own nose, we don't see our own face. It’s pretty hard to bow in this direction [toward ourselves], we’re always bowing in that direction [away from ourselves]. If you bow in that direction, you meet yourself. So who is this self? That question begs the other. If I bow to myself, then who is this “myself” that I’m bowing to?

Therein is the fundamental koan, who is myself, and how do I bow to myself? The Buddha statue, the Buddha figure on the altar, is a kind of focal point. We make a beautiful Buddha figure in order to express our feeling about Buddha, but strictly speaking, Buddha is just an idea, a concept that we have. But behind Buddha is our true nature, so when we talk about Buddha, we shouldn't get it mixed up with some particular person or even some person from the past, who was born 2500 years ago. When we talk about Buddha we are referring to our own fundamental nature.

So, to whom does Shakyamuni Buddha bow? In our lineage we say that when you have true understanding, you are the teacher of Shakyamuni Buddha. You are the teacher of Maitreya Buddha. As a matter-of-fact you are Shakyamuni Buddha. Who is Maitreya Buddha? Maitreya Buddha is like the messiah, comparable to the messiah in the West. When will this messiah appear? People are always waiting for somebody to do something. I was talking to somebody the other day who was dissatisfied with the state of Buddhism in America and in Japan and in Tibet. He said that we just keep going until some real leader appears. That's wonderful. But how will this religious leader appear? Who is your religious leader? There was a book about 10 years ago, which was kind of cute. The title was What To Do Till The Messiah Comes. One reason why we offer incense is to invite the spirit of prajna to come forth in our practice. When we have service, we offer incense to invite the spirit of prajna to arise. We ask Buddha to join our practice. We ask them to come and visit us, but nothing comes from outside to visit. It is just a way of evoking that spirit from within, because the spirit is no place else but here. Maitreya Buddha is nowhere else but here. Shakyamuni Buddha is no place else but here. There is no Buddha out there. No tushita heaven where Maitreya Buddha is waiting to come down. Maitreya Buddha is right here. Who is going to save us? Don’t look around.

Very often, when I talk to people about practice, they seem very discouraged. They say something like, “At first I had a lot of enthusiasm for practice, but now I wonder why am I doing this. I don't feel like I'm getting anything, and then I become kind of discouraged." That's right. If you have an attitude of wanting to get something, you'll be very discouraged because nothing will appear. This is the law of practice. If you want something, you will be disappointed. The second law of practice is… (I'm making this up [laughter])… The second law is: in order to make practice come alive, you have to give. You have to present yourself as an offering. You have to offer yourself completely to what you're doing. Then, unexpectedly, something may appear. But you can't ask for it, and you can't expect it. You can't shake the tree and make the apple come down. Actually there's only giving. There’s also receiving, the counterpart of giving. So when you give yourself to the practice you stimulate generosity and then you receive something. You stimulate the nature of generosity. This is sometimes hard for people to understand when we simply want something. We want enlightenment, or we want to feel better. We want to improve ourselves, or we want to be calm or peaceful. These are good things to want. We want to be strong and imperturbable. These are all good qualities. Practice is not like going into the supermarket. “I’ll take some of these and some of those.” You can't select the things you want. You can’t just select the “good things” and put them in your bag, then leave the store. It doesn't work that way.

Practice is like making a vow. I hesitate to say, “vow.” So instead I usually say “intention.” “Vow” is good but I would not say to any of you that you should make a vow. If you want to practice you should have a strong intention to practice. Whatever your intention is, you should honor that intention. If you want a practice, then you should decide, for example, “I’ll sit zazen three times a week. Monday, Wednesday, Friday,” or whatever. And then you put that on your calendar, and when the time comes, that’s what you do. If you don't honor your intentions, then it’s hard to maintain a steady practice. There are so many competing activities being displayed before us, enticing us to pick them up, that if we don’t maintain a strong way-seeking mind, we can’t sustain the practice.

If you think about all the things that you promised yourself you would do and didn’t do, and look back on that, you'd be amazed at all the intentions you had that you didn't honor. Sometimes this holds us back. So that's why we have such a thing as the Bodhisattva Ceremony. We avow all of our ancient karma and unrealized intentions, and renew and honor our intention to continue. This is one of the most important factors of practice, that you have an intention, and honor it. Everything else flows from there. Enlightenment, peace, it's all there in our intention. We also fall off, but when we fall off we come back. As a matter-of-fact, we’re always getting sidetracked. That’s the nature of our life: to have this intention, get sidetracked, and come back. One of the obstacles is, “Now that I’ve fallen off, I can't come back.” Or, “I've been bad.” So the nature of practice is to make the effort, that no matter what happens, to keep renewing or returning to our intention.

Last revised March 9, 2002. Copyright 2000 Berkeley Zen Center.
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