[Dharma Hall Discourse on the Buddha Nature Beyond Conditions and a commentary by Rev. David Shen-Xi Astor, Sensei]
BUDDHA NATURE BEYOND CONDITIONS
“All tathagatas are without Buddha nature, but at the same time, previously they have fully accomplished true awakening. Bodhisattvas studying the way should know how Buddha nature produces the conditions for Buddha nature.”
There is much said and written about “Buddha nature.” Maybe to much. In my experience it may be one of the most misunderstood terms that has arisen from Buddhism moving to the West. I get the question often, especially when I ask for general questions from the Sangha. My answers very in approach depending on who is asking the question. The answer to this question needs to be influenced by the state of the questioners practice. Today I take another opportunity to speak about it. Master Dogen, in his effort to teach about Buddha nature, is pointing to the very essence of how the Universe expresses itself.
He begins by stating that all tathagatas are without Buddha nature although they have arrived in the state of an awakened mind. A tathagata is one that has achieved awakening as to the nature of the Universe, as did Siddhartha Gotama. Being in such a state of this unconditioned conscious condition is coming to realize through moments of perfected insight one’s own “true” nature as is expressed in our human form. In the second sentence Dogen is saying it is important for those that have vowed to work hard to become awakened to how the Universe is, to also understand how could Buddha nature produce the conditions for Buddha nature. Perhaps this is another one of those Buddhist paradoxes.
We can go about interpreting this discourse by looking at how Dogen spoke about the topic in his other writings. In Shobogenzo’s essay “Buddha Nature,” he makes the reference as, “being Buddha nature and non-being Buddha nature.” I like the use of “being” in this reference. In the first sentence when referencing all tathagatas, he is putting forth the meaning of “non-being Buddha nature”. In the second sentence, he is making the other reference as “Buddha nature produces the conditions for Buddha nature”. Interesting enough he may be also making the case that there is no such thing as Buddha nature, since a thing cannot be its own cause. In other words, an object being the subject of its own self.
If we accept Dogen’s use of the term “being Buddha nature,” we might understand this lesson as indicating that Buddha nature is unconditioned. Consider that in this state of being an object can not exist beyond its own causal circumstances.
Consider that we go down to the ocean with a glass jar. We dip the jar into the water and fill it up. We then sit down and contemplate our glass jar’s contents. Is it the ocean? Well, not really. Why? Although it has some of the key natural elements of “ocean”, it lacks the ability to function as ocean. In many ways it has lost its original causal nature. We can say it is “empty” of ocean. It has no wave action, no sea life, no variance of salient content, no tidal interaction with the moon, so on. Yet, it has expressions of dharma nonetheless. While it doesn’t have the nature and function of ocean, it does have elements that still are expressing the interconnectiveness of Universe, (thus Buddha nature). Now let us walk back to the ocean and pour the contents from the jar back into the sea. Is it now “ocean?” Has it been restored to its original nature?
Our practice is like this, our awakening body-mind is like this. Our enlightened state can be like this. Buddha nature is not something to get, or lose. This Buddha nature Master Dogen is expressing is also the reality in zazen which is the same as the state of an awakened body-mind. It is a state where the Universe looks into its own eyes.
Note: This dharma hall discourse comes from the Eihei Koroku, and was given in the Fall of the year 1249. Like many of Dogen’s discourses, this one also is very short put packed with meaning. It is # 439.