image by: James Spurrier CC BY-SA 2.0, Link
Are a human being and a buddha different?
A common idea in Buddhism is that we are deluded human beings, buddhas are enlightened, and it takes more than forever to become a Buddha. In early Buddhism people thought that no one can become a buddha, but in Mahayana Buddhism we are Buddha’s children – bodhisattvas are Buddha’s children – and if we continue to practice, even though it takes more than forever, we can become a buddha. So there is a connection. In a sense, living beings are a cause – now we start to study this Dharma as a cause and when we become really mature then we can become a buddha. So it’s not completely separated. Buddhas and living beings have a connection. Actually, when we read Dogen’s writings, different people or figures are teaching in different buddha-lands. That is because especially in Mahayana Buddhism, there isn’t just one Buddha.
In early Buddhism people thought Buddha was the only one; there was Shakyamuni, and no other Buddha. But I think Shakyamuni himself said that he didn’t create anything new, but that he was a person who discovered an old castle hidden in the forest. This analogy means there must have been someone else who found or discovered the same thing. I think that in the next stages of Buddhist history people started to think there were other buddhas. They thought there were seven buddhas in the past, that Shakyamuni was the seventh in a series of Buddhas, and yet he was one Buddha at one time, and in one world. So in this world, after Sakyamuni died and until Maitreya Buddha appears after fifty-seven billion years or so, we have no buddha. Subsequently, Mahayana Buddhists began to think that this universe is not the only universe. There must be many other universes and worlds. So in this world until Maitreya appears there is no Buddha, but there must be many other buddha-lands, and at this present moment other buddhas are teaching in different buddha-lands. They created many buddhas, numberless buddhas such as Amithaba Buddha in the western world.
Yet Buddha also said that each and every thing, all beings are a buddha, including ourselves, because each and every thing is empty. Emptiness is the reality to which the Buddha awakened. This reality and a buddha who awakens to that reality is the same thing. The Lotus Sutra says that only a buddha together with a buddha can see that reality. We cannot see it, we cannot talk about it, we cannot express it using words or language. What we have to remember is there are two layers of reality. One is the way we view things using our thinking mind. Another is going beyond this discriminating mind, that is what buddha means. We are bodhisattvas, Buddha’s children. If we want to become a buddha and if we vow to practice and follow that way, we have to follow Buddha’s darshana, Buddha’s way of viewing things. So as a bodhisattva somehow we need both. This is the point – we need both. If Buddha’s darshana or Buddha’s insight is really beyond our reach then Buddhism and buddhas have nothing to do with us. We are living beings within muddy water and still we want to bloom the flower of dharma. So our life has a contradiction or paradox. Even though we are independent individuals, limited and conditioned, still we want to study and practice and manifest this infinite, boundless reality that can be seen only by buddhas together with buddhas. How can we share Buddha’s way of viewing things within this life? That is a very essential point of bodhisattva practice. According to Dogen Zenji the pivotal point or joint of these two is our zazen.
In common buddhist terms living beings and buddhas are different. But when we discuss about our zazen, or Dogen’s teaching, and also Mahayana teachings, buddhas and living beings are just one reality. Buddhist teaching is really strange. We have to understand it in many different layers or profundities. When we see the reality from the deepest point of view (Buddha’s view) there is no such distinction between Buddha and a living being. But from a human perspective we aren’t Buddha. We are so different from Buddha. Even though we aspire to study the dharma, still this aspiration is self-centered. “I want to find the truth.” “I want to live in a better way then I live now.” So it’s still ego-centered. Even our motivation to study dharma is still self-centered. If I think living beings and Buddha is one and the same, if so, why do I have to practice? Why do I have to study? In fact, that was the original question Dogen had when he was fifteen years old. So please keep that question in your mind. I think it is important.
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Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi
The Dōgen Institute offers an occasional series of questions from students with responses from Okumura Roshi about practice and study. These questions and responses are from Okumura Roshi’s recorded lectures, and are lightly edited.
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For further study:
- For a translation of the Lotus Sutra sometimes used by Okumura Roshi, see this book.
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