Mind Is Buddha

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Mind Is Buddha
Geoffrey Shugen Arnold

The Main Case

Damei once asked Master Mazu, “What is buddha?” Mazu answered, “Mind is buddha.”

Wumen's Commentary

If you can at once grasp “it,” you are wearing buddha clothes, eating buddha food, speaking buddha words, and living buddha life; you are a buddha yourself. Though this may be so, Damei has misled a number of people and let them trust a scale with a stuck pointer. Don’t you know that you have to rinse out your mouth for three days if you have uttered the word “buddha”? If you are a real Zen person, you will stop your ears and rush away when you hear, “Mind is buddha.”

Wumen's Poem

A fine day under the blue sky!
Don’t foolishly look here and there.
If you still ask “What is buddha?
It is like pleading your innocence
while clutching stolen goods.

From the moment we first engage the dharma, we encounter the truth of our buddhanature. This is the fundamental teaching of Zen, our essential reality. Knowing this is our nature, shouldn’t we then recognize our obligation and assume responsibility to realize it directly? We often think of obligation as a burden, but to realize our true nature is to alleviate the profound weight of our confusion, anger and fear.

Buddhanature is not something that we possess nor is it something we can be. It is the nature of things, just as they are. To realize buddhanature, to live in accord with this awakening, is the truth that alleviates suffering in the world. Having encountered this dharma that offers us a path of complete liberation, knowing that there is another way that leads us out of our self-created darkness, shouldn’t we then take on the obligation to bring it to life, to make it real? We should; it’s the obligation expressed in our bodhisattva vows. It is the wonderful burden we carry, a burden that only increases as we awaken to the true nature of things.

Damei asked, “What is buddha?” Damei was a disciple of Master Mazu. It is said that Mazu had over eighty enlightened disciples, making him one of the great teachers in the early Zen tradition. “Mind is buddha” became one of his hallmark teachings. The story of Mazu meeting his own teacher, Nanyue, is well known. Mazu was living in a small mountain temple, doing zazen day and night. Nanyue was teaching in another temple on the same mountain, and he heard about this diligent monk. He decided to pay him a visit. When he saw Mazu, he asked, “Reverend sir, what are you doing here?” Mazu replied, “I’m doing zazen.” Nanyue pursued his questioning, “What are you trying to accomplish by doing zazen?” “I’m trying to become a buddha,” answered Mazu. Nanyue then picked up a brick and quietly began to polish it. Mazu, noticing this, asked, “What are you doing?” Nanyue said, “I’m polishing this brick.” “For what?” asked Mazu. Nanyue said, “I want to make a mirror out of it.” Mazu replied, “You can’t make a mirror out of a brick by polishing it.” Nanyue countered, “Can you become a buddha by doing zazen?” Mazu inquired, “Well then, what should I do?” Nanyue said, “It’s like putting a cart to an ox. If the cart doesn’t move, what should you do? Should you beat the cart or do you beat the ox?” Mazu said, “I don’t understand.” Nanyue then explained, “You practice zazen and try to become a buddha by sitting. If you want to learn how to do zazen, know that Zen is not in sitting nor in lying down. If you want to become a buddha by sitting, know that buddha has no fixed form. Never discriminate in living in the dharma of nonattachment. If you try to become a buddha by sitting, you’re killing the buddha. If you’re attached to the form of sitting, you can never attain buddhahood.”

Mazu was trying to do what all Buddhist practitioners try to do—become a buddha. But what does that actually mean? How do you become a buddha? Should we try to become calm and serene, wise and compassionate? These are just ideas, and trying to live according to an idea doesn’t lead to reality. Why is it not possible to become a buddha?

Many years back, well before beginning my formal Zen training, I studied to be a musician. It was something I wanted deeply, what I wanted my whole life to be. I worked hard at it, practicing every day for hours. Yet in the midst of this all-out effort, I had a feeling that somehow I wasn’t a musician. I wanted music to be my whole life and, although I was filling my life with music, it was not filling me. Something was missing. At one point, I was preparing for a recital performance with another musician, and we were working on some pieces together with one of my music teachers, whom I deeply respected. We played through one of the pieces and after we finished, he sat quietly, then said, “No, this is not working. Play it again.” We started playing and he stopped us and said, “No! You’re doing this all wrong. It’s too controlled. It has to be spirited, wild! Play it so it’s right on the edge of flying out of control.” We started playing again and he kept calling out, “Faster! Wilder! Faster!” until the whole thing started to disintegrate and he cried out, “Yes! Yes! That’s it!”

I walked away from that experience having felt something come alive. There was a hint of something that I had been looking for that arose out of my forgetting the scales, the exercises and all of the discipline that I was so necessarily and diligently developing, discipline that had become an obstacle to the music filling me completely. All of my efforts and striving to become a “musician” were preventing me from letting go and just experiencing the music directly.

Nanyue said, “If you want to become a buddha by sitting, know that buddha has no fixed form.” We cannot become something that has no fixed form. That’s our buddhanature. It has no fixed form. Don’t attach to the form of sitting. But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t practice zazen. If we attach to the form, we can never attain buddhahood. If we don’t sit deeply, it is also most unlikely that we’ll realize our true nature. Clearly, neither extreme is the true path. To see zazen or the dharma as a fixed object is a danger of a 2,500-year-old tradition. We can understand zazen as a method, a technique, or an exercise that offers a solution or an answer, like a formula to a problem. It’s not that there is no resolution, but it’s not what we think it is. It has no fixed form.

Damei came to Mazu one day and asked, “What is buddha?” Naturally, he was not asking about the historical Buddha, Shakyamuni. He was not interested in a specific person assuming a certain form. He was asking about the fundamental truth. This practice can’t be fixed because everything in this great universe is formless. Everything is impermanence itself. Life doesn’t have a fixed form; a moment doesn’t have a fixed form. If our freedom depends on something static—a special state of mind or the absence of thought—then it has no true power, no ability to respond in a formless world. Damei was asking about what is true, what is real at all times, in all conditions, in all situations.

Mazu said, “Mind is buddha.” Mind alone—all-pervading and without edges—is the truth. Bodhidharma taught: “Everything that appears in the three realms comes from mind. Hence the buddhas of the past and the future teach mind to mind without bothering about definitions.” A student then asked, “If they don’t define it, what do they mean by mind?” Bodhidharma answered, “You ask. That’s your mind. I answer. That’s my mind. If I had no mind, how could I answer? If you had no mind, how could you ask? That which asks is your mind. Through endless kalpas without beginning, whatever you do, wherever you are, that’s your real mind, that’s your real buddha.” To say “This mind is the Buddha” is saying the same thing. Beyond this mind, you will never find another buddha. To search for enlightenment or nirvana beyond this mind is impossible. The reality of your own self-nature, the absence of cause and effect, is what’s meant by mind. Your mind is nirvana. You might think you can find a buddha or enlightenment somewhere beyond the mind, but such a place doesn’t exist.

“You ask. That’s your mind.” What does that mean? We ask questions all the time; we offer answers. How is this mind? How is this buddha? Bodhidharma also stated that buddha means “miraculous awareness.” The universe asks; the universe itself responds. This is miraculous awareness. Mind is buddha. This is the mind of the universe. It is the one great body that fills heaven and earth. Where is the self to be found?

This is why the search for enlightenment or nirvana beyond this mind is impossible. There is nothing outside of it. That’s one of the most difficult things for us to realize, because we look outside without even knowing. As we are seeking outside ourselves for the answers, this turning away is so habitual and deeply conditioned that we don’t see it. From the moment we encounter the dharma, the moment we begin doing zazen, we are instructed not to look outside ourselves. We know this is true, we believe in it, but we don’t do it. We continually seek and reach outside, searching for that which is beyond our awareness. We may think we can find a buddha or enlightenment somewhere beyond this mind, we might think we can find serenity, clarity and meaning beyond this mind, but such a place does not exist. Everything that appears is this mind. But if it encompasses everything, how can it be seen? That which is seen is mind. That which is seeing is mind. Seeing itself is mind. So how can it be seen? Well, it can’t, and thus it must be realized.

Mind is buddha. This is not our brain; it’s not in our head. This is one reason why it’s so important to put our awareness in the hara and get out of our heads. While Mazu’s “Mind is buddha” was one of his signature teachings, it was not original with him. Another old master said, “To see into one’s nature is to be awakened to the buddha mind. Cast all thoughts and consciousness away and see that mind is buddha. The one who realizes that their true mind is buddha is the one who has attained buddhahood. One neither practices good nor commits evil; one has no attachments to the mind. Your eyes see things, but you don’t become attached to them. Your tongue tastes, but you don’t become attached. This mind that does not become attached to each and every thing is buddha mind. This is why Master Mazu said, “Mind is buddha.” Being attached is what prevents us from seeing. It is what clouds miraculous awareness.

To be free of the discriminating mind is to manifest awareness that is miraculously simple and unadorned. This is the koan of zazen, of shikantaza. Don’t do anything. Don’t be passive either. Being passive is still doing. This is also the heart of every koan. A traditional case koan creates a sense that you’re doing something. You have a question that you drop down into your hara and inquire into deeply. You keep your mind still and stable within that question so it doesn’t turn or agitate the mind. But there’s still the sense that you’re doing something.

I remember wondering about this in my own koan study: Isn’t this somehow creating a state of mind, working with something that’s outside of myself? Can it be trusted to reveal the truth? It took a lot of work to see the error in my way of understanding the nature of a koan. When the thinking mind ceases and the self falls away, there is no koan and nothing to create. That is when the koan is realized.

In the commentary, Wumen wrote, “If you can at once grasp ‘it,’ you are wearing buddha clothes, eating buddha food, speaking buddha words, living buddha life. You are a buddha yourself.” Here’s the real point of difficulty with this koan. It seems so obvious, “Oh, I’m a buddha.” But when it’s just an idea, do we notice that nothing has changed? We’re not actually wearing buddha clothes, eating buddha food, speaking buddha words, living buddha life. All we’re doing is carrying around the thought, “I’m a buddha.” We just increased our confusion. What is it to really wear buddha clothes? What is it to see “Mind is buddha?” That’s why Wumen said, “Damei has misled a number of people and let them trust a scale with a stuck pointer.” There is no fixed form. But as soon as Mazu said, “Mind is buddha,” it became static, like a slogan. It’s a great slogan, isn’t it? Short and punchy. Yet right there the scale sticks, which is a nice image. The scale gives a weight, but it’s a fixed weight. Regardless of what you place on the scale, the reading is the same, not reflecting the truth anymore. It’s showing something, but what it’s showing is false. So, to even say, “Mind is buddha” creates a problem.

A fine day under the blue sky!
Don’t foolishly look here and there.
If you still ask, “What is buddha?”
It is like pleading your innocence
while clutching stolen goods.

Don’t foolishly look here and there. Why is this so difficult? Does it, in fact, come back to our lack of trust in our own buddhanature or lack of faith in our ability to realize it? Being confident in our ability does not require being arrogant. If it’s arrogant, it’s something other than confidence. This is simply about recognizing what’s true. When you get stuck in your own practice, rather than creating a pit of self-pity and woe, have faith in yourself. Why shouldn’t you? Being free of attachments, living a life that is joyful, is your endowment and birthright.

If you still ask “What is buddha?”
It is like pleading your innocence
while clutching stolen goods.

This is why realizing ourselves is an obligation. But whose obligation is it? It can’t come from the outside. It has to arise from within. So, please, having received the gift of this time and place, meet your obligation. If you still have doubts about your responsibility, consider the costs of confusion, delusion, jealousy, anger in this world of ours. Take the posture of the buddha on your meditation cushion and understand that there is one who knows. “Mind is buddha” is awakening to that truth. It’s no one else’s affair.

Originally published in the March 2005 Buddhadharma magazine and on LionsRoar.com. Reproduced with permission.