Tag Archives: yogacara

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

False and true, good and bad


Photo copyright©David S. Thompson

Dogen’s Chinese Poem (10)



In our lifetime, false and true, good and bad are confused.
While playing with the moon, scorning winds, and listening to birds,
For many years I merely saw that mountains had snow.
This winter, suddenly I realize that snow completes mountains.[1]

生涯虚実是非乱 (生涯虚実是非乱りがわし、)
弄月嘲風聴鳥間 (月を弄び風を嘲り鳥を聴く間、)
多歳徒看山有雪 (多歳徒らに看る山に雪ありと、)
今冬忽覚雪成山 (今冬忽ちに覚る雪山を成すを。)

This is verse 10 in Kuchugen and verse 90 of volume 10 of Eihei Koroku (Dogen’s Extensive Record). It is the first of four poems about “snow” in Kuchugen. In Manzan’s version of this poem, there is one small difference in the first line:

In our life time, regarding each and every affair, good and bad are confused.

And the second line is quite different:
Facing things, we [sometimes] lose true [principle] between false and genuine.

In our lifetime, false and true, good and bad are confused.

In Yogacara teachings, all of the experiences we had in the past have been stored as seeds in the 8th and deepest layer of our consciousness, called alaya. Alaya means storehouse; this is translated into English as storehouse consciousness. The 7th layer is called manas, which means discrimination, and sometimes is translated into English as ego consciousness. The 7th consciousness grasps the stored seeds in the 8th consciousness as “I.” This influences the first six layers of consciousness; the first five are consciousness caused by the mutual encountering of the five sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and body) and their objects (color, sound, smell, taste, and touch), and the 6th layer is the ordinary thinking mind. This is an explanation of how each of us, with our karmic consciousness, sees things in different ways, thinks differently, and makes different evaluations or judgements about things.

For example, in Shobogenzo Genjokoan, and also Shobogenzo Sansuikyo (Mountains and Waters Sutra), Dogen mentions that four different kinds of beings see the same water in different ways. Heavenly beings see water as jewels, human beings see water as water, fish see water as a palace, and hungry ghosts see water as raging flames or as pus and blood.

Even among people living in the same human realm, the same thing can be seen in very different ways, depending upon the person’s karmic conditions. When we are burning with thirst, water can be more valuable than any material treasure. In the East Asian countries where rice is grown as the main grain, having enough water in the summer is the most important element to get a good harvest. In ancient times, when the rice fields dried up during a long drought, farmers had to fight with others to get more water to their own fields. But when we have more than enough water, such as during a rainy season or when we are hit by a typhoon accompanied by heavy rain, or when we are struck by a tsunami after big earthquakes, we feel water is like a demon. About such happenings in nature, most people in the human realm share quite the same feelings.

However, in the case of subtler and more complicated situations, like incidents between people, each person sees things from their individual point of view, evaluates them differently, and even makes various stories, like people in Kurosawa’s movie, Rashomon. In this movie, a samurai was killed in the forest by a bandit. But the bandit, the samurai, and his wife tell very different stories about what happened. Not only those three people – even the woodcutter who finds the dead samurai and reports it to the police makes up his own story. In their made-up stories, each one of them is the hero or heroine. They make up their stories in such a way that they can be considered good or honorable people. According to the Yogacara teaching, that is the function of the seventh, the ego consciousness. This is how we see things in self-centered ways. Among people and even within ourselves, what is false or true, right or wrong is not always obvious. Still, we tend to consider the way we see things as absolutely right and others’ views as always wrong or distorted. It seems this kind of thing is happening many places in the world every day.

Religions used to be powerful systems that made their believers blindly believe in things according to their doctrines and judge other people as wrong or evil. However, it seems the same kinds of things are happening in the world of politics today. I think it is dangerous. People don’t trust others, don’t listen to other people who have different opinions, and simply call their voices fake.

While playing with the moon, scorning winds, and listening to birds,

We see the moon with different feelings depending upon the seasons and the situations in our lives. When we see the beautiful harvest moon and the clouds blown by the wind hide it, we want to scorn the wind. Listening to birds singing is the same; sometimes we feel cheered up, and sometimes we become saddened by them.

This is how our minds change depending upon the objects and the situation. We also see  external objects differently depending upon our psychological condition. Internal conditions and external views are working together. Our minds go up and down depending upon the stories we are making. When we study Buddhism, we may come to think that the views we have on each occasion change depending upon our karmic consciousness and the situation.

For many years I merely saw that mountains had snow.
This winter, suddenly I realize that snow completes mountains.

Thinking in the way I have just described above, we understand that external things and our psychological conditions are ever-changing, delusive, and impermanent. They are always floating and changing and therefore we cannot rely on them. The sceneries of the mountains – flowers in the spring, green leaves in the summer, tinged leaves in the autumn, and desolate bare trees covered by white snow – are the same as our delusive feelings influenced by the change of the situation. To be free from such impermanent and unreliable conditions, we might think we should see the mountain itself, before or beyond such transitory phenomenal conditions. We may pursue awakening to the reality beyond external impermanent things and beyond temporal mental conditions.

However, in this poem, Dogen says that he realized that there is no such substantial mountain which does not change in the process of the turning of the seasons. Rather the different sceneries of each season – flowers in the spring, the song of cuckoo in the summer, the shining moon in the autumn, and the snowy mountain in the winter – are themselves the true reality of mountains. And our mental conditions caused by these changes are the true reality of our lives at the moment, if we are not deceived and pulled by them. This is the meaning of Dogen’s waka poem entitled the Original Face:[2]

春は花    夏ほととぎす  秋は月   冬雪きえで  すずしかりけり
Haru wa hana / natsu hototogisu / aki wa tsuki / fuyu yuki kiede / suzushi kari keri

Spring, flowers
Summer, cuckoos
Autumn, the moon
Winter, snow does not melt
all seasons pure and upright

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[1] Dogen’s Extensive Record 10-90, p.635. © 2010 Taigen Dan Leighton and Shohaku Okumura, Dōgen’s Extensive Record. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc., http://www.wisdompubs.org.
[2] See more about the poem Original Face here.

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Translation and commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi.

Copyright 2018 Sanshin Zen Community