Is “Buddha’s Life” the same as Buddha-nature?
If we think of Buddha-nature as a certain part of our life, not our entire life or not the entire network, but something that is fixed and stored and hidden in our individual life, then that is different from Buddha’s Life. What Dogen is discussing in Shobogenzo Buddha-nature is the same thing as Buddha’s Life in the following passage from Shobogenzo Shoji:
This present life-and-death is the Life of Buddha. If we dislike it and try to get rid of it, we would lose the Life of Buddha. If we desire to remain [in life-and-death] and attach ourselves to it, we would also lose the Life of Buddha. What would be retained is simply the appearance of Buddha. Only when we don’t dislike life-and-death and don’t desire life-and-death do we first enter the mind of Buddha.
The first sentence of this paragraph is a well-known saying of Dogen. I think Dogen was the first Buddhist master who said such a thing so clearly: “This present life-and-death is the Life of Buddha.” Of course, within Mahayana Buddhism that teaching and its meaning was already there, but I think Dogen was the first who clearly mentions that this life-and-death is Buddha’s Life.
Usually “life” in Japanese is seimei, which is a scientific or medical word. The Japanese word Dōgen used is on-inochi (御いのち). Inochi is life and on makes the word polite, using the word in a respectful way. In Japanese we sometimes put “o” or “on” or “go” before nouns or verbs for that reason. For example, mizu is water, but we call it o-mizu to show our respect for this thing. We call this robe I am wearing o-kesa. Rice is kome but we call it o-kome, we almost never say kome. We say o-kome or o-misu to express our respect to each and every being, because all beings are Buddha-dharma. In this passage, I translate this on by making the ‘L’ (of life) a capital letter.
This life is Buddha’s Life. Our life and death is Buddha’s Life. We need to appreciate and venerate our life and everything which keeps our life continuing. That means everything. Without water or air or food and other people’s and other beings’ support, we cannot keep this life. So, we venerate our life and all beings as a part of our life, as Buddha’s Life, not as my personal life as an individual. Of course, this personal life as an individual is also part of Buddha’s Life.
As Uchiyama Roshi said, “We bow to all beings.” When I receive water before I give a lecture, I bow and receive it. When the Jisha brings these texts, I bow and receive it. When we receive food during meals, we bow each time we receive. This bow is an expression of our appreciation and gratitude— not just to the person who is serving, but also to the tenzo for preparing the food and to all the farmers who worked to produce the food and to all the support from nature such as sunlight, and water. Within this bow, our gratitude toward all beings is included. Often, we just bow without thinking, or without thinking what this means, but this has a very important meaning, if we are aware, if we have the eye and ear to appreciate it. Our life and death is Buddha’s Life, this is the basis of Dogen’s teaching and our practice.
So even though the Buddha taught that life is marked by suffering, he also prohibited killing, in the Vinaya precepts. To monks, killing other beings is like killing ourselves. We always have to say “yes” to life, and appreciate life. That is the Precept of “Not Killing.” When people sometimes think that Buddhism is a kind of negative religion which does not appreciate life, that is not true. The Buddha taught that we need to appreciate life, and that we can transform our life from samsara to nirvana, from suffering to the cessation of suffering. The Buddha taught that this is possible, and yet, we should not cling to life, because when we cling to life, then we create samsara. If we dislike or hate or negate this life, then we negate Buddha’s Life.
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Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi
The Dōgen Institute hopes to offer 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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