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Buddha nature is both realization and what is realized Barry Magid May 15th 2021

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As an introduction to today’s discussion of Dogen’s notions about Buddha-nature, I would like to begin by coming at it from the opposite direction and talk about the nature of delusion. Most of the time we’re much more interested in enlightenment and what that means and how to get it, but delusion is an equally difficult idea and in a certain sense it’s just as hard to explain what delusion is and how we can be deluded as it is to say what enlightenment is and how we can become enlightened.

Joko, if I remember correctly, starts off “Everyday Zen” by saying her dog doesn’t worry about becoming enlightened or much of anything else, and yet it’s a problem for us. Her remark echoes Heidegger’s assertion that Dasein is the meaning for which its own being is an issue. We’re the kind of being for whom our own being is an issue. The dog doesn’t worry about the nature of doggy-ness. It’s not a problem. It’s not something the dog has to work at or practice or develop and by and large we don’t think of it as something a dog can do well or badly. There’s something about it’s own nature that is natural to it.

But it seems to us that we don’t have an equivalent human nature in the same kind of way, such that just doing what we naturally do is good and sufficient. Or sometimes we think that, or some people have thought over the ages, that our nature is intrinsically problematic and bad and corrupted, that unlike dogs, we’re born either deficient or deformed by the nature of our desire, and that you can look at a lot of the philosophy and spiritual discussion throughout history as a kind of debate about what is human nature. Is there such a thing? Is it good? Is it bad? Are we trying to develop it? Are we trying to overcome it? Nobody seems to be able to agree on what we are.

Now, the existentialist version of this dilemma was stated by Sartre who said existence precedes essence, that our existence, our being, is more fundamental than any essential nature, if there is one, and that this means our nature is grounded in choice, in option, through possibilities of becoming this or that, and that very indefinability, or freedom, is what’s most essential to us, and what’s essential to people does not necessarily have content. So there’s a whole strand of philosophical thought that’s going to be preoccupied with the idea of our taking control of our lives and developing them in one direction or another.

When Simone De Beauvoir, Sartre’s partner, said a woman is made, not born, she was asserting that what we call the feminine and a woman’s role is not something biologically given but is an historical and cultural product, and that we first have to see all the ways in which our notion of what a man is, what a woman is, what’s masculine, what’s feminine, have been culturally shaped even before we are aware of any of this, and then with that awareness, realize that we can take charge and responsibility for some of that shaping, that we’ll have a choice about what it means to be masculine or feminine, just as the way we’re going to have a choice in determining what it means to have a life that is good or a life that is meaningful. We’ve received all sorts of answers to that question from religion and philosophy and politics, and our starting point is going to be shaped by the culture and education we’ve been brought up in, but ultimately it’s part of who we are to have the opportunity and the burden in making choices for ourselves around what good means, and what meaningful means.

Now if we want to relate this to Buddhism and to Dogen, it connects in a number of important ways. One way is that I think our modern Buddhist practice is very much one that is organized around this idea of developing our potential, developing our virtues, in Aristotle’s language. Aristotle said that in order to live a fulfilling and a happy life, we have to develop ourselves fully as human beings and that full development meant the development of our potentials into real capacities, to develop things like courage and wisdom and discernment, moderation and temperament, temperance, and he saw that the job of a human being was to recognize and develop these particular characteristics within the context of the society in which they were living.

In one way or another, even if we don’t particularly adhere to a classical Greek list of the virtues, our notions of practice at some basic level are about the development and cultivation of character, whether we talk about practicing making your bed every morning or putting the chairs back around the patio furniture the way Joko always insisted be done in San Diego. There’s a way in which our practice involves care and attention, treating things and people as if they matter. Now, one strand of Buddhism might say that treating things as if they matter, is really a function of recognizing your connection to all things, that you're not separate from your world, you’re embedded in it and defined by it, and to take care of others and things of your environment is simply the expression of your own realization, that all these things are you, are your life, they’re not outside, they are part of who you are and what your life is, and you’re going to take care of them the same way you would take care of your own mind or body or family. It’s just extending that circle to what feels like me.

And if you look at the Heart Sutra, basically it says that seeing the emptiness or the interconnection of all things spontaneously gives rise to wisdom and compassion, that that kind of right view just flows out into right action, but nobody practices that way. Nobody says, Well, I’m just going to go along doing whatever it is I’m doing, and when I’m enlightened, well, I guess when I see things differently I’ll change what I do, but in the meantime I’ll just do whatever I want. Nobody particularly runs a monastery that way or a training center, and says: Sure, just do what you want. They say make your bed, show up on time, clean up, pay attention, there’s a whole side of practice that functions in this kind of Aristotelian sense of developing character, developing virtue, and as much as we talk about enlightenment or realization, a lot of the day-to- day, nitty-gritty practice is the development of good habits, and that takes most of us a long way.

That brings us to Dogen, because as Stambaugh says, he is resolutely anti-development. He doesn’t want to talk about the slow acquisition of good habits or virtues or insights over time. That’s a very natural way of thinking about what our practice is and what’s going on, and I don’t know that we can ever really not see our life at least in one dimension as taking place that way. But Dogen is presenting something radically different, and the difference can be hard to see and maybe even harder to believe.

Dogen’s own personal koan, he tells us, was the problem of: If we all intrinsically have Buddha-nature, why is it that we have to practice? And in that question there’s a tension between two possible dimensions in the meaning of Buddha-nature. On one hand, it’s our realization and on the other hand, it’s what’s realized. See, Buddha-nature at one level is a fact about the world, that all things are empty and interconnected, and that’s true for me and rocks and the table and the plants and the chairs and everything. They all are subject to change and what they are is defined interdependently, in relation. So there’s an aspect of Buddha-nature, or a way we can use that word, which is to just say, this is a description of how the world is. But it also seems to refer to the insight into that’s how the world is, by a person. It’s what Shakyamuni realized about himself and the world, when he looks up at the morning star and says, Ah! That’s me! That there’s a way in which the realization of non-separation and impermanence is also referred to as our Buddha-nature.

And so there’s a tension between what we are and our ability to recognize what we are, that is in this phrase, Buddha-nature. You can say that we all intrinsically have Buddha-nature, our life is impermanent and interconnected, and that will play out whether we recognize it or not, so what difference does it make if we recognize it? That would be treating ourselves like the dog, like the rabbit. We’re just going to do what we do. How could there be a problem? There’s nothing we can do that will ever negate the reality of impermanence and interconnection. How much difference does it make if we realize it? And what does realizing it mean? What would it entail? How would you be any different if and when you realize it?

Now Dogen is going to come up with a solution to this dilemma that basically is going to say that enlightenment or Buddha-nature is performative. It’s not something that we achieve or discover so much as something we enact. It’s certainly not something that we develop. There’s lots in here about how Buddha-nature is not a little seed inside of us that we cultivate and water and watch grow. It means acting in every moment as if you’re already in accord with reality, with the reality of impermanence and non-separation. And here is where I think Dogen’s picture gets tricky and where I think we’re going to have trouble following him because basically he says zazen is essentially the unique performance of Buddha-nature. That zazen, the identity of practice and realization, means that zazen is the perfect human enactment of the reality of what it is to be human in the world, that zazen is the way in which we perform Buddha-nature, perform impermanence and non-separation.

He doesn’t want to say zazen is a really efficacious meditative technique to become aware of those things. He doesn’t have any kind of means-to-end language like that. He argues against it very exclusively, so it’s not pragmatic, it’s not saying, here’s a really good method to realize who and what you are, and maybe somebody somewhere else will come up with another method that will work pretty well too. He’s really saying that zazen, and zazen embedded in the life of a monk, is the truest expression of what amounts to our human nature/Buddha-nature.

Now I think where this becomes problematic and where I think we might have some discussion later, is whether this essentially smuggles in an essence of human nature, that what it is to be fully human is essentially to be a monk, to live this particular kind of life, do this particular kind of practice. I think that when we say, Each moment life as it is the only teacher, we’re asserting that impermanence and non-separation are manifesting as a fact of our lives all the time regardless of what we’re doing, and practice is indeed a matter of becoming aware of that and living in some accord with it, or at least not living a life that is constantly trying to resist that reality, but it says nothing at all about the form of life that that will necessarily take. It doesn’t say anything about spending a lot of hours sitting cross-legged or sitting in a particular kind of community. So that’s part of how I think we’ll end up interrogating Dogen, around this particular performative picture of zazen and enlightenment.

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