Shōbōgenzō Buddha-Nature: Part 1
"Buddha-nature" (Japanese, Bussho) has been regarded in the Sōtō sect as one of the three central fascicles of the Shōbōgenzō, together with Genjōkōan and Bendōwa. Dōgen delivered it the tenth month of 1241 to the followers gathered around him at the Kōshō-ji south of Kyoto. The work as we now have it, however, is a considerably revised form of that original text. Although neither the original or revised manuscript exists in Dōgen's holograph, a copy by his disciple Ejō (1198-1280), including Dōgen's later revisions, is preserved in the Eihei-ji. In most editions, Shōbōgenzō Buddha-nature is the third fascicle in the collection, following Genjōkōan and Makahannya-haramitsu.
The idea that sentient beings all possess the Buddha-nature and the possibility of attaining Buddhahood is central to most of the schools of the Mahayana. Yet Dōgen's treatment, reflecting his own unique Zen standpoint, can be said to be apart from all the rest. Strictly adhering to a nondualistic interpretation, he comments on passages from Zen and other Buddhist writings that have some bearing on this theme. What is most striking about this commentary is the manner in which it gives clear priority to religious meaning over normal grammatical syntax. In more than a few cases Dōgen chooses to read these passages in ways which are dubious, and sometimes even impossible, from a grammatical point of view. But he does it for a definite purpose. It focuses attention on what he feels to be inadequacies in the traditional ways the texts are read, and at the same time it clearly sets forth his own understanding and rectification of those inadequacies based on his religious awakening.
For example, at the very beginning of the work he quotes a passage from the Nirvana Sutra ("Northern" version) well-known to all Buddhists: "All sentient beings without exception have the Buddha-nature". This is the general Mahayana statement, which is emphasized in particular in the Nirvana Sutra. Dōgen goes beyond it, by reading the passage as, "All sentient beings-whole being is the Buddha-nature." This he does by reading the characters shitsuu normally "without exception have, as "whole being (he is aided by the fact that the character u means both "to be," or "being," and "to have"). This changes the traditional emphasis of sentient beings having a Buddha-nature, to stress a standpoint more in keeping with the basic nondualistic Mahayana position: whole being is the Buddha-nature, in which "whole being" means not only sentient beings but all beings. This avoids the duality of subject (sentient beings) and object (the Buddha-nature possessed by them), the duality which regards the Buddha-nature as a potentiality to be actualized in the future, and the duality of means and end, where practice is taken as a means and realization of Buddha-nature the end. Dōgen's reading "whole being is the Buddha-nature" thus indicates the nondualistic oneness of the realizer (whole being) and the realized (Buddha-nature), the simultaneity of Buddha-nature and enlightenment (Buddha), and the identity of practice and attainment. It is the key to his understanding of the Buddha-nature as it is developed in various aspects throughout the rest of the work*
Buddha-nature is the eighth fascicle to appear in this series of translations from Dōgen's Shōbōgenzō which began in May 1971 with Bendōwa. As in the past, we have provided rather extensive footnotes. Their aim is to provide the English language reader a means of better arriving at some understanding of this extremely difficult work, much of which would be incomprehensible without them. We of course do not pretend that they are in any way definitive. They could not be, given the profoundly complicated and suggestive nature of the text. We have attempted, however, to have them exemplify a consistent view of the work as a whole. The edition followed is that of Õkubo Dōshū: Shōbōgenzō (Tokyo: Chikuma, 1971), pp. 14–35. We would like to express our gratitude to Professor Nishitani Keiji for his valuable suggestions.
N.B. In the text, Dōgen quotes passages from Zen and other Buddhist writings at the heads of the various sections. In order to make clear both the way they are normally read and Dōgen's own sometimes peculiar interpretative reading, we have translated them according to the normal reading when the italicized quotation first appears en bloc at the beginning of the sections; then, when Dōgen's different reading makes it necessary, we have generally retranslated the same words as close to his meaning as the English will allow in the following phrase by phrase discussion of the quotation. When this is done the discrepancy between the two renderings is detailed in the footnotes. (Waddell and Abe, introduction, 94–96)
- See Abe Masao, "Dōgen on Buddha-nature," Eastern Buddhist, IV, I.