All living beings are from the very beginning Buddhas15 min read

Not knowing it is near, they seek it afar. What a pity!

It is like one in the water who cries out for thirst;

It is like the child of a rich house who has strayed away among the poor.

These three lines explain further the great declaration that all living beings are from the very beginning Buddhas. The relation between Buddha and ordinary man is so close, so intimate, that it is not noticed, as the eyebrow, being so close to the eye, is not visible. The sage Confucius has remarked how pitiable are those who seek afar the Way which is near. The Christian Bible too has “Repent ye, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand” and similar phrases. The Amitayur Dhyana Sutra, describing paradise, says clearly it is no long journey.

A man came to see Muso Kokushi, the Zen master who founded Tenryuji temple in Saga Prefecture in Japan, and asked: “What is it that they call the wonderful law?” In other words, what is the Buddha law? Now Muso Kokushi replied: “The fish is in the water but does not know the water; man is in the^wonderful law but does not know the law.” The fish is bom in water, grows up in water, lives in water, but because he is so close to the water he does not know it. There is a subtle point here. If the fish goes out of the water to look at it so that he can say: “Aha! so that is water!” then he dies. Can the anatomist find the fife principle by cutting up a healthy person’s body? Chi the contrary, he kills the life. We are bom of the wonderful law, nourished by it and living by it, from beginning to end never apart from it. But we are so close that we do not perceive it. In Zen they speak of the relation between the Buddha law and ourselves, between the Buddhas and living beings, in such phrases as “the mind, the Buddha* * and “this very body the Buddha.* * Again it is taught to shine our light right down where we stand and not be sidetracked.

The disciples are all the time radiant with spiritual light, Zen master Rinzai tells them solemnly, and apart from the listeners to his sermon where should there be Buddhas? When this profound doctrine is understood, all sidetracking is ended. A monkey, seeing the moon’s reflection in the water, rushes to seize it. Hakuin warns us in the Song against such persistent folly, warns us not to be like the man in the middle of the water crying with thirst, not to stray like the rich man’s child among the poor. Imagine a man up to his neck in water but croaking with thirst; imagine the rich man’s heir who has wandered away and is now a beggar, haunting the back streets and holding out his sleeve for alms. This last illustration is taken from the famous story in the Lotus Sutra, where the nobleman’s son wanders away as a child and becomes a homeless vagrant. In time he forgets that he ever had a home, but one day without thinking he comes to the gate of the lord’s house. He has no faintest notion that he was born there, but stands at the gate imploring pity for his wretchedness. The noble sees him from within and recognizes his long-lost son even after all those years, but when he calls him to come in, the miserable beggar is frightened and will not. So he first arranges that he be taken in as the humblest servant, and then little by little promoted, until finally he again resumes his name, when the house and its wealth and treasure all become his.

Living beings are from the very beginning Buddhas; we have from the beginning the Buddha nature butliave forgotten it, have left our home and become entangled in contrary and confused thinking, so ending as wanderers on the six paths and dwellers in the three worlds of suffering. As the child of a rich house strays away among the poor— aren’t the agonies and sufferings of the people nowadays just like that? Why do they not return to their spiritual nature and find out the root of their sufferings? Seeking a Buddha outside, rushing to get away from this world and find some ideal world somewhere else—it is like being in the water but forgetting the fact and moving about looking for water. Being in the Buddha, surrounded by the Buddha, yet raising our voice and calling out for the Buddha!

Long ago in China, Ekai entered upon the Zen training under the great Baso. The master asked: “Where have you come from?”

“From the Great Cloud Temple in Etsu.”

“What do you want here?”

“I came to seek Buddhism. I am here to ask you to tell me your Buddhism.”

“I have none. What Buddhism should you seek?”

The master told him that he would get nothing by overlooking the treasure at home and seeking from others.

Ekai asked: “What is this treasure which Ekai has?”

The master said: “That which now asks me, that is the treasure. It has all, and lacks nothing at all. You have it at hand. How is it that you are seeking it from others?”

This plunged Ekai into reflection. In the light of this story we can go deeper into Hakuin’s man in the water parched with thirst and the rich man’s son straying among the poor.

In ancient India holy Vasubandhu was honoured by all for his strict observance of discipline, long hours of prayer, purity, and renunciation. To remove this one-sided view, the patriarch Gayata asked one of the disciples of Vasubandhu: “Will he reach Buddhahood by these austerities and earnest discipline?” He answered: “With such devotion, how could our teacher not attain Buddhahood?” Gayata said: “Your teacher is far from the Way. However much and however long he does these practices, it is all only an empty fancy.” The disciple asked: “Then by what practice does Your Holiness acquire merit, that you criticize our teacher?” The patriarch replied: “I neither seek the Way nor fall into contrary views, neither humbly worship the Buddha nor become proud, neither practise long meditations nor become neglectful, neither fast nor overeat. I am neither satisfied nor dissatisfied, there is no desire in my mind. This is what is called the Way.” He is saying here plainly that it is not a question of seeking the Way, since we already have it, but that perfection is merely to follow it.

There is a poem of Kanzan: “Looking up for the moon in the sky, they lose the jewel which is in their hand.” All this is falling into the foolishness of not realizing it is near at hand but seeking it afar. Instead of searching outwardly, search within. The essence of heaven and earth is the same as the essence of self; the universe and I are one, priceless treasure is within. In sum, look down where you stand, attend to where you stand! We must shine our light there and accept gratefully Hakuin’s teaching, given like food to starving children, of the futility of looking outside for something that is within.

We all have an ideal which we want to realize, but we must think carefully where we are going to realize that ideal. In a word, we must look for it where we stand and shine our light there. Real peace and eternal happiness, immortality and universal truth, the Way of heaven and earth, in other words the experience of the absolute and infinite, or in religious terms the Buddha way—the great mistake is to think of getting it in some heaven or world on the other side. We never leave the Way for a moment. What we can leave is not the Way. Morning and evening, living and dying, we can never go from it an inch or a second. In China was the brilliant Zen master Joshu, and one day a monk asked him: “What is it, the Way?”

“Outside the fence there,” said Joshu immediately. The way? Oh yes, there it is, outside the fence. But from the monk’s side—why no, that’s not what I am asking about, that little way outside the fence. The monk says:

“What is it, the Great Way, I mean?” He means the Great Way of the universe. Now Joshu says:

“The great way is the one leading to the capital.”

The great way? If it’s the great way you mean, that is the road leading to the capital. This will be the main highroad, and in these modern times we can go to the capital by express train. The great way leads to the capital, that was his reply.

Carlyle says: “Nature is the living garment of God.” The mountains and rivers, grass and trees which we see before us, this great Nature is the living garment of God. When Goethe saw the fallen leaves forlornly fluttering in the autumn sky, he said: “There is yet force in these very leaves. How should they be dead?” Even those fallen leaves, which make us feel so deeply the sadness of things, have yet a force in them. They have life. How should they be dead? The Vimalakirti Sutra says that the right mind is the place of the Way. Again it is said that the everyday mind is the Way. The everyday mind, the undisturbed mind, as it is, is the Great Way.

All these teach the same thing, that the Way is near and should not be sought afar, that we must look down where we stand and make sure of our ground so that we do not go astray. But people now are too much caught in desire for things, seeing only their own one-sided view, putting their ideals and seeking truth and freedom in non-existent places. Despite all their shifts and twists, the night falls with the Way yet distant. Especially today when the materialist view of Marx dominates the world and people have eyes only for material values, they grasp at the material things in front of them without ever thinking what spirit might be, or what their souls might be. The increase of material desires becomes egotism, becomes opportunism, becomes hedonism, and it is hard to see where the process will stop.

Recently I heard someone discussing the poetry game played by Japanese people at the New Year, which depends on knowing the poems of the famous Hyakunin Isshu anthology. In these poems, the ancients adored the moon and the flowers and sought to trace the mysteries of nature in blossoms, birds, wind, snow, and moon. Of course not a few of the verses also sing of human feelings and of love, but always there is delicacy and refinement in them. The modern man, wholly sunk in materialism, an expert in giving nothing away, is hardly one to appreciate such poems. Still, he doesn’t want to give up the poetry game, so let us perforce add one more line to make the poems more appropriate to him. And that line (the critic said) can be: “But I want some money too!”

Take the famous poem of Yamabe, the fourth in the anthology:

I started off along the shore,

The sea shore at Tago,

And saw the white and glistening peak

Of Fuji all aglow

Through falling flakes of snow.

We put at the end:

But I want some money too!

Let us try another one:

I hear the stag’s pathetic call

Far up the mountain side,

While tramping o’er the maple leaves

Wind-scattered far and wide,

This sad, sad autumntide.

But I want some money too!

Never mind hearing the stag’s call and treading on the maple leaves in the deep mountains and feeling sad—if I had some money I could go to a pleasure resort and have an amusing and happy time. But I want some money too! Put that on the end of each of the poems, and it will just suit the humour of the modern man.

At the time of the Meiji Restoration in 1868, the abbot of the Shokokuji temple in Kyoto was Zen master Ekkei. There was a noted Confucian scholar named Date whose son later became foreign minister, and he came to the temple and saw the abbot: “As you may be aware, I have studied the Confucian learning, and I have a good understanding of what the Way is. But as the way of Zen seems to be somewhat different, I have come to ask whether you would be so good as to tell me something of it.” The abbot unexpectedly brought the flat of his hand smack on to the side of Date’s face. In his surprise and confusion, Date found himself outside the room, and the abbot quietly got up, pulled the door to, and went back to his seat. The samurai scholar was furious to think of how he had instinctively fled, and in the corridor stood fingering his sword-hilt, glaring at the door. A young monk, seeing his threatening posture, inquired what was the matter. “Why,” was the reply, “nothing at all. Merely an insult from your abbot. Service under three generations of my feudal lord, and never anyone dared to lay a finger . . . and now this abbot! But he can’t treat the honour of a samurai like that! I’ll finish him off! …” The scowling countenance told that be meant it. Hearing this, the young monk said he did not understand it at all but doubtless it would be made clear later, so would not the guest have tea first? He led the way to the tea-room, where he poured out a cup for him. Date had the tea to his lips and was about to drink when the monk unexpectedly tapped the arm holding the cup. The tea spilled over everything. The monk confronted the Confucian and said: “You claimed to have a good understanding of the Way. Now what is the Way?” Date tried to find some phrase from the Four Books or the Five Classics but failed and hesitated. The other raised his voice: “What is the Way? Quick, speak, speak!” But he could think of nothing. The monk said: “We have been very rude, but will you be introduced to our Way?” Date had never come with the intention of being instructed by some young monk like this, but as his own way had failed him he perforce agreed. Then the Zen monk picked up a cloth and mopped up the spilt tea, saying: “This is our Way,” and Date, without thinking, said: “Yes.” He had a flash of realization and saw how though he had known in theory that the Way was near at hand and could never be left for a moment, still he had been seeking it afar. He changed his whole thinking and returned to the abbot’s room for instruction. After years of intense practice he became a well-known figure in the spiritual history of that time. We should in this way shine the light down to our feet, and so be free to advance or retreat at will, and to act decisively and correctly under that illumination.

One day a flag was fluttering in the breeze before the gate of the temple of the Sixth Patriarch in China. One of the disciples, a man deeply engaged in Zen training, cried: “See how the flag moves today!” Another beside him retorted: “No, today the wind is moving.”

“No, it’s the flag. Can’t you see it actually moving?”

“Not at all, it’s the wind. Don’t you understand that’s the active principle?”

And it developed into a serious dispute. Let me now ask the readers to try the question. In this case what is it that is moving?

Well, the Sixth Patriarch happened to come out, and he told them: “It is not the flag that is moving and not the wind that is moving. It is the mind of the two noble monks.” This incident has become one of the koan or classical problems for Zen study, and is called the Case of the Sixth Patriarch and the Wind and the Flag. It is a knotty point. Though the flag be there, if there is no wind it does not move. And though the wind be there, if there is no flag it does not move. Then again, though the flag be there and the wind be there, if there is no observing mind, there is nothing to be called movement. Before the gate there were doubtless cryptomeria and pine trees, but they were not having an argument. There were farmers and woodmen working quietly without minding, and they were not quarrelling. As it happened, in front of the two monks who were moving their minds, the flag was moving.

But it won’t do to stop at that and rush away with the idea: “Why yes, of course, it’s just the mind that is moving.” Even though the two monks do not agitate their minds, the flag without mind is moving. So further, it is not the flag which moves, it is not the wind which moves, it is not even the mind of the two monks. Then what is it that is moving? Let those whose karma has brought them to a reading of this book ponder it and penetrate to the truth.

Translated by Trevor leggett