Tag Archives: Tathagata

Waterfall life

waterfallPhoto copyright © 2019 by David S Thompson

Can we change our habitual actions?

According to the Yogacara teachers, our life itself is really a neutral and peaceful thing, and yet it develops like the currents in a stream. Here is a quote from the Thirty Verses, a work by the famous Yogacara teacher Vasubandhu, in which he is describing the store-consciousness, also known as the alaya consciousness:

Among these, “maturation” is that called “the store-consciousness” which has all the seeds.
Its appropriations, states, and perceptions are not fully conscious, yet it is always endowed with contacts, mental attentions, feelings, cognitions, and volitions.
Its feelings are equaniminous: it is unobstructed and indeterminate.
The same for its contacts, etc. It develops like the currents in a stream.

In his Chinese translation of this verse, Xuanzang (Jp. Genjō c. 602 – 664) uses an expression meaning “violent stream.” This means the water flows quickly, even violently – without stopping, always going, like a huge waterfall. In this analogy of a waterfall, “violent stream” or “currents in a stream” means that there is no substance. There is no such thing called “waterfall” because it always changing, it’s always different water. Each time it’s new – so we cannot say this is the Niagara Falls, but it’s there, but it’s always changing, always moving. And the water carries things from different places or different times to this place, to the present. So alaya consciousness is flowing like a waterfall and it transports all things which are stored in this consciousness and these seeds perish each moment and arise each moment. In a sense, this consciousness dies each moment and is born each moment, yet it’s continuous. Each moment it’s new and yet each moment has some continuation. This analogy of a violent stream is a really clear image of what our life is like. When I was born, I was little small living being, and my mind didn’t work so well, or so much, and yet after that my body is always changing, always new, and my mind is always changing. Everything is always new. Our life is like a waterfall or a river.

In Japanese, we have proverb:

mitsugo no tamashii hyaku made

Roughly, it means that the mind or spirit of three year-old child or baby persists until they are one hundred years old. Actually, I believe that three years old is around the time children start to think using words. The seeds in this alaya consciousness are not just what is newly created after our birth, but when we are born, we already have some seeds from the past. We inherit from our parents, or as a member of human society we inherit something already. So when we are born we are not completely new, we already have some seeds. And yet we are completely neutral. I think this is really important point. Whatever kind of seeds we have we are always neutral, and that means we can change. Our life is a result of past karma or past causes. We have a connection with the past and still this is a cause towards the future, so in the future who we are depends upon what we do right now. That is the way we can transform ourselves into something new, something better.

We can transform our actions and our way of thinking. That is what Thirty Verses describes in the last part of the work. Roughly speaking there are five steps, and through this practice, our “goal” in Yogacara or Mahayana Buddhism is to become Buddha. From the moment we first arouse bodhi mind, there are five major steps toward becoming Buddha. Yogacarans described what we should do in each of those steps. It’s really detailed – there are actually fifty-two stages within those five steps, and it literally takes more than forever. They believed that when we practice till a certain stage in this lifetime, we can continue to practice from that stage onward during the next lifetime. Indian people of the time believed in reincarnation. We don’t need to believe that – at least, I don’t believe it. Of course, we cannot negate that because we don’t know, so there is no basis either to believe it or to negate it. But either way, the important point is what we do right now. Even if we don’t reincarnate, as an individual person my actions still influence the future even after I die. Since Shakyamuni Buddha practiced and taught in his way, his influence is still there after twenty-five hundred years. Since I studied with my teacher, I practice in this way. In that sense my practice or what I am doing is a kind of reincarnation of my teacher. That is the way one person’s actions or karma influences the future. There is cause and effect, or influence, or seeds. Even if we don’t believe in reincarnation or the transmigration of life after life as an individual, the principal of causation remains true.

The most important thing is what we do right now at this present moment which creates the future. In order to put this into practice, we should really learn our past, not only the past of this individual person from birth, but what human beings have been doing since the beginning of history, or even from the big bang. Everything influences this person and this moment, and each one of us has influence towards the future. We should understand that even though this is a small person, and our action is really small, our action is really universal. Our being, what I am doing, influences and is influenced or created by the whole universe, by the entirety of time. From the beginning of the universe this influence continues to the endless end of the universe.

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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:

> Other Questions and responses

Copyright 2019 Sanshin Zen Community

Do you believe that everyone has Buddha-nature?

Photo copyright © 2019 by David S Thompson

Do you believe that everyone has Buddha-nature?

For people in the Yogacara school of Buddhism, this is a really important point. Yogacara teachers thought there are two kind of Buddha-nature. One is Buddha-nature as a principal or idea, another is Buddha-nature as practice or actual life. As a principal, everything is Buddha-nature – all people have Buddha-nature, but as an actuality, there are some people who hear about dharma or Buddha’s teaching and it’s not attractive to those people. “Buddha’s teaching” means the teaching of emptiness, beyond any kind of self-and-other dichotomy. This doesn’t mean those people are evil or bad, but those people cannot see the emptiness of beings; so they can be a very moral person, or a very nice person, but their understanding or way of viewing things is dualistic – “I want to be a good person so I try to be generous or do something for other people.” This kind of attitude is not bad. Yet this is blind to the reality of emptiness, of no beings, no one who is doing good things, and no person who can be helped.

When we really look deeply into ourselves, we find this person, and we cannot believe this person has Buddha-nature. It’s really important to know that. It’s easy to just think or believe that all human beings have Buddha-nature, it’s a really nice thought. Yet if we honestly reflect on ourselves, even though we hear Buddha’s teaching, still we attach, and cling to this person. Still we think, “Me first.” Even though we understand Buddha’s teaching, and even though we practice zazen or Buddha’s teaching, still we try to protect this person before other people. If we really deeply see this selfishness or egocentricity, it’s more honest to say, “I don’t have Buddha-nature.“ There is no possibility for me to become Buddha. For the followers of Yogacara, it is more important to see this incompleteness or egocentricity and deep selfishness than to simply believe all beings have Buddha-nature.

That is the difference between Yogacara philosophy and tathagatagharba theory. In tathagatagharba theory, our life is Buddha-nature itself, and yet somehow it has been covered with dirt, or delusion/selfishness. Essentially our life is good, and yet our selfishness or delusion is like a guest. Somehow it comes from outside and clings to this, covers this Buddha-nature. Therefore, what we should do is see the Buddha-nature and take this dirt away from it and polish it. Then original Buddha-nature starts to be revealed. That is the basic idea of tathagatagharba theory. Yogacara is different. According to those teachers, our alaya consciousness is not Buddha-nature, it’s always neutral. So it can be good or bad depending upon our action. In that sense, this practice or teaching is more actual, it’s not an abstract thing. I think from this point of view, the theory of Buddha-nature or tathagatagarba is kind of abstract. Therefore, it’s an important point when we study Yogacara, to see things from this point of view. When we study tathagatagarba theory, we should see things from that point of view. Those two points can be contradictory. And yet another viewpoint, the Madhyamnika, is also different. Seeing our life from different perspectives, the important point is what this means for this person.

Of course we can say this is true, this is my way; we can take one of these points of view as my point of view. “This is most familiar to me, I think this is the best way.” And yet my attitude, or the so called zen attitude is that we don’t stand on either point of view, but see them as perspectives on this life, this person. We don’t stand upon, or take any view or any point of view. That is the basic attitude of “zen people,” zen practitioners. They study and yet they try to forget; they try not to use those theoretical or philosophical terms. Instead, zen people try to show the reality within reality without using those logical frameworks, or theory. That’s why zen stories, zen questions and answers, or zen expressions are really concrete. They don’t discuss what is Buddha-nature – they just show it. They don’t discuss whether we have Buddha-nature or not but just try to show it by direct action. So as a zen practitioner, it is important to study the systems of philosophy or theory in any of the schools in Buddhism; they can be the ground or soil of our practice. And yet we have to put any philosophical theory into our own lives at this moment, right now right here. Then – what do you do, how do we live based on any theory or philosophy? That is a characteristic point in zen.

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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.

— • —

For further study:

> Other Questions and responses

Copyright 2019 Sanshin Zen Community

The Long and Short of It

Poem on “Shortening the Dark Night of Ignorance”


足びきの Ashibiki no
山鳥の尾の yamadori no o no After the long long night,
しだり尾の shidario no as long as
長長し夜も naga -naga shi yo mo the dragging tail of the copper pheasant,
明けてけるかな akete keru kana morning is finally dawning!

Ashibiki no” is a pillow word (decorative word used prefixally in classical Japanese literature) for yama (mountain). “Yamadori” literally means mountain birds, but in Japan, yamadori refers to the copper pheasant (Syrmaticus Soemmerringii) endemic to Japan that has a coppery chestnut plumage and a long tail. “Shidario” is the long, dragging tail of the bird. This modifies “naganagashi” which means very very long. “Ashibikino yamadori no o no shidario no” modifies “naga-nagashi.” And all of the words until here modified “yo,” night.

Until here, the meaning is, “the very long night like the dragging tail of the copper pheasant.” This part is an adaptation of an older famous waka poem from the Manyoshu, attributed to the famous poet Kakinomoto no Hitomaro (of the late 7th to the early 8th century) and included in Hyakunin-isshu (The Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets). This is a technique of waka called honkadori (adoption from the original waka). Dōgen took the first three lines of this waka from the famous waka, “Ashibiki no yamadori no o no shidario no naga-nagashi yo wo hitori ka mo nemu.” (Must I sleep alone through the long night as long as a tail of the copper pheasant?”) It is said that male and female copper pheasants sleep separately. This waka is about the loneliness of a couple, or family, living separately. Dōgen only changes “wo” to “mo,” that means “even”. Basically this waka is simply saying the long night is ending with the dawn.

In Buddhism, the long night refers to life-and-death transmigrating in the six realms of samsara. Living beings have been living for the long time in the darkness of ignorance. And, even this long night being pulled by ignorance begins to end with dawn, because of the study and practice of the Dharma, or faith in the Buddha’s compassion. This is a common understanding of the long and dark night in Buddhism. It seems this waka describes the surprise, exclamation, and joy of seeing the morning begin to dawn after the long dark night, in the brightness of the morning sun. This is the turning point of our lives from cause and result of the Second and the First Noble Truths to the Fourth and the Third Noble Truths.

In Eiheikoroku Volume 7, Dharma discourse 479, Dōgen quotes a saying by the Buddha:

“Life and death is long; life and death is short. If we rely on greed, anger, and foolishness, then [the cycle of suffering of] life and death is long. If we rely on precepts, samadhi, and wisdom, then this life and death is short.”

According to this saying, the dark night of ignorance is not necessarily long. When we change the foundation of our lives from the three poisonous minds (greed, anger/hatred, and ignorance) to the three basic studies (precepts, samadhi, and wisdom), then the transformation is actualized here and now.

In Shobogenzo Hotsubodaishin (Arousing Bodhi-mind), Dōgen writes:

“Arousing [bodhi-]mind is to arouse the mind of ferrying others before oneself for the first time . . . After having aroused this mind, we further meet with innumerable buddhas and make offerings to them, we see buddhas and hear dharmas, and further arouse bodhi-mind. It is like adding frost on the snow. … When we compare anuttara-samyak-sambodhi (supreme awakening) with first arousing bodhi-mind, they are like the kalpa-gni and the fire of a firefly. However, when we arouse the mind of ferrying across others before ourselves, these two are not at all different . . . This mind is neither one’s self nor others; it does not come [from somewhere else]. However, after having aroused this mind, when we touch the great earth, everything [on the earth] becomes gold, and when we stir the great ocean, [the water in the ocean] becomes sweet dew.”

Dōgen also writes,

“While being within this swiftness of arising and perishing of transmigration in each ksana, if we arouse one single thought of ferrying others before ourselves, the eternal longevity [of the Tathagata] immediately manifests itself.”

These sayings show both sides of Dōgen’s teaching: the long continuous practice, and the immediate transformation.

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Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

> Other Waka by Dōgen

Copyright 2016 Sanshin Zen Community