The Buddhahood of Plants and the Japanese View of Nature

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The Buddhahood of Plants and the Japanese View of Nature
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Citation: Sueki, Fumihiko. "The Buddhahood of Plants and the Japanese View of Nature." Dharma World 45 (2018): 3–5. https://rk-world.org/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/DW18_7-12.pdf.

Abstract

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Buddhist doctrine refers to entities possessing mind (Skt., citta) as sentient beings (Skt., sattva) and considers them to undergo rebirth through the six realms of existence (hells, hungry spirits, animals, asuras, human beings, heavenly beings). It is because they possess mind that they give rise to the defilements, accumulating the negative karma that is the cause of rebirth. The purpose of Buddhism therefore is to release beings from the suffering associated with rebirth, a condition called liberation (Skt., vimokśa) and nirvana. Mahayana calls it the attainment of buddhahood (Jpn., jōbutsu). There also exist nonsentient beings (Skt., asattva). Since they do not possess mind, they do not undergo the cycle of rebirth and so cannot attain liberation, nirvana, or buddhahood. In principle, therefore, plants, like inorganic substances not possessing "mind," are not understood to undergo rebirth. It is therefore impossible to discuss their attainment of buddhahood. However, when Buddhism entered China, the potential for buddhahood of nonsentient beings became an important subject for debate. Since China had not previously had any concept of sentient beings, no strict distinction was made between sentient and nonsentient, which was why the question of nonsentient buddhahood was taken up. The Jingangbi lun (Diamond Scalpel Treatise) of the sixth Tiantai patriarch, Zhanran (711–82), confronted the issue directly and asserted that nonsentient beings could attain buddhahood. This did not, however, mean that they could aspire to enlightenment, practice, and achieve buddhahood of themselves. Rather, when a sentient being attains buddhahood, the whole environment becomes the Buddha's realm. A sentient being's subjective existence (Jpn., shōhō) arises from past karmic effects and this causes the realm of the environment (Jpn., ehō) to arise. Environment is thus dependent on subjective existence, and therefore, when a sentient being attains enlightenment, so do nonsentient beings. What is important here is that sentient beings attain enlightenment through their own practice, whereas nonsentient beings can only do so as the environment of sentient beings. This was a solution consonant with Chinese ideas that placed significance on a person's own actions, seen typically in Confucianism. The Japanese did not view human beings in any special way as did the Chinese. Furthermore, they tended to look on nature in terms of plants. The land of Japan was called the "middle land of the reed beds" (ashihara no nakatsu kuni), its landscape being described as a swamp where reeds grew. The fecundity of plants symbolized the evolution of the world. According to the Nihon shoki (Chronicle of Japan, eighth century), before Ninigi, grandson of the sun goddess Amaterasu, descended from the heavenly plain, the land of Japan was where "the standing trees, and even the single blade of grass, uttered words." This is thought to represent the disordered state of nature that existed before the land was civilized. Humankind was referred to as people grass (hitogusa); in other words, the mass of people was understood through the model of grasses and trees.
      In Japan, therefore, nature was thought of in terms of plants, and people were thought to be close to them. Japan's view of nature is often described as animism, but this is not necessarily appropriate. Not all natural phenomena were regarded as spiritual entities, nor were they objects of veneration. Deities (kami) resided in the depths of nature, manifesting themselves in natural objects serving as receptacles (yorishiro). For example, at Ōmiwa Shrine in Nara Prefecture, Mount Miwa is described as the body (shintai) of its kami. Originally, though, the mountain was regarded as sacred because it was the place to which the kami descended: it was not itself the kami. The buddhahood of grasses and trees came to be a concern precisely because human beings and plants were thought of as being of the same quality. Whereas in China tiles and stones were presented as representative of nonsentient existence, in Japan it was grasses and trees. (Read the entire article here)

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