Mahayana Buddhism begins with a deep faith in the "is-ness" of things, the shining fact that things' existence beyond our various projections is absolutely perfect. This is a faith that is proposed in Mahayana Buddhism, which, of course, violates all common sense. One only needs about five minutes of honest introspection to realize that everything is not perfect, that is-ness is not shining, and we are, more or less, a mess.
Mahayana Buddhism proposes that exactly underneath this mess, or on top of the mess, or right inside the mess, or as the mess, is shining and perfect Thusness. We are Buddha. We are all children of Buddha - all of us, and all things, without exception. The whole point of practice is to remember this, to uncover it, and to appreciate it. You could easily see that if you did that, and you actually felt that all the time, this would have a big impact on your life. You would feel different about almost everything. Your whole motivation for living would change. Your daily activity would be, even if outwardly the same, inwardly quite different.
As we discussed when we studied Mahayana philosophy, this is called the Tathagathagarba teaching - the teaching of Buddha-nature. All beings have Buddha-nature, or as Dogen puts it in his creative misreading of the sutra, all things are Buddha-nature.
This world that we live in - which is the best world to live in, the most fortunate to live in - is called the saha world. It is a world in which there is just enough suffering to give us the incentive to awaken and to realize our Buddha-nature. This is better than the god realm, in which there is not enough suffering, and there is no incentive to awaken. So the suffering is necessary, but, as we know, it's also a very dangerous world, because if we don't awaken, and if we go on and on being pushed around by the suffering, we can really make a lot of trouble.
All of this is background for the story of Zhaozhou's famous dog. In one version - probably the most famous one, the one that you find as the opening case in The Gateless Barrier - a monk asked Zhaozhou, "Does the dog have Buddha-nature?" Zhaozhou answers, seemingly emphatically, "No!" or "mu" in Japanese.
In the Book of Serenity, Case 18, there are two parts of the story, and they go like this:
The monk says, "Does the dog have Buddha-nature?" Zhaozhou says, "Yes!" The monk says, "If so, then why does it appear as this miserable cur?" Zhaozhou says, "It's because he knows, but deliberately transgresses."
So if we have Buddha-nature - and, of course, the dog is us - if we are so perfect, so noble, why is it that we are in such a mess? Why do we have so many problems, so many troubles? Maybe we could say that we don't have so many troubles and problems, and maybe we don't, but collectively we certainly do. Just read the newspaper. We have some very, very bad problems. How is it so if we are Buddha? If that is so, what comfort is Buddha-nature to us?
Zhaozhou's response to this is really profound. He is saying, in effect, "Don't complain. Don't yearn for something else. Admit the suffering, and grieve over it, but recognize that this is just the suffering we need." Yes, our confusion and the suffering of the world are real. This is just the way life is made. This is the way that we're made. This is what has to happen. It's beautiful once we awaken to its real nature, but if we don't awaken to its real nature, it is really terrible.
So that is the first part of the story in Case 18, and then there is another part. A second monk asked Zhaozhou if a dog had Buddha-nature, and this time he said, "No." The monk asks, "Why not?" Zhaozhou said, "Because he still has impulsive consciousness."
What is impulsive consciousness? Impulsive consciousness is just life. We all have impulsive consciousness, not just the dog. Life means you have to eat, right? So you go toward what is pleasant or life-furthering. You go towards that, and you go away from what is life-threatening.
Kathie showed me this under a microscope. It was a fantastic thing. She had been asking me to go to her school to see this for years, but I never got there, so she brought the microscope home and showed me these one celled creatures - the smallest autonomous, living creatures. A one-celled organism doesn't have a brain; it can't think about anything or decide anything, or have what we would call emotions. Yet even these primitive, one-celled beings have impulsive consciousness, which you can observe. They go toward the food. Where there is food, they are going in that direction. If they happen to be the food - because some of them are food and other ones are going toward the food - they are going in the opposite direction. You could watch this for hours and hours and hours. It's really something to see.
It is a sadly beautiful situation. It is definitely tragic; but because each one of us is alive, because each of us has impulsive consciousness, we have the capacity to experience beauty and sorrow, and we have the capacity to love.
Thanks to this impulsive consciousness, we have violence in the world. We have selfishness, willfulness, and many, many problems. People don't seem to be able to get along. Have you noticed this? Even nice people like us, committed to Buddhism and being nice in every way, even we sometimes have trouble getting along. Even we sometimes have feuds and disagree and get mad at each other.
So forget about it. We do not have Buddha-nature. We are just impulsive consciousness. It's a mess. This is being human. This is being a dog. We are sacred, perfect creatures, and at the same time, we are driven to all kinds of serious problems and tragedies. These tragedies have to be addressed; they can't be ignored. That's why practice requires some effort. You actually have to do something. It requires some intelligence. It requires some intention. It requires, sometimes, doing something difficult or unpleasant. We work with our afflictive emotions. We look at the world around us, and we try to identify ways in which we can encourage what is positive and oppose what is negative.
At the same time, on our cushions and off of our cushions, we are working on recognizing and seeing that everything is also perfect as it is. That in the midst of this crazy world, we don't need to be desperate or hopeless. Things will go as they need to go, and we need to play our part in that. It's not that we can goof off. We're part of that. But as long as we make effort, we can trust that things will go as they need to go.
So in the Book of Serenity version of the story, there are two sides. "Does the dog have Buddha-nature?" "Yes." "Does the dog have Buddha-nature?" "No." I think that the Book of Serenity emphasizes this double response because it is a particular specialty of the Zen school to recognize how much we are pushed around and pushed out of shape by our ideas and our concepts.
In a way, this sounds like an abstract consideration, but really it's not. Because we are all living - however unexamined this may be - according to a set of ideas and preconceptions. Mostly these ideas and preconceptions oppress us and cause us to oppress others, because they are blinders. Some wonderful research is now claiming that we are at heart - all of us - essentially compassionate, caring, good people, who have been blinded to and separated from our own goodness by our conceptualizations. This is what makes us so hurtful and violent.
So one of the main virtues of practice on the cushion - sitting regularly and sitting long over a period of time - is that we develop the ability to see through, or sit through, our confused thinking. We develop the ability to be more intensely present in our lives than we could ever be with merely our thinking. We develop the ability to be there for what happens, rather than just to live in a fog of reactive interpretation and ideology, which is the usual human consciousness.
But our religion can also fog us over. Being mindful can be a big attachment. It can be a big conceptual overlay on our experience. Zen can fog us over, and that is why Zhaozhou responds this way. This is the point. We like the answer "Yes, we have Buddha-nature." We like that. We believe it. We want to believe it. We don't like the answer, "No, we don't have Buddha-nature. We are nothing but a bunch of mangy dogs." But if you stick to either one of those, you are going to be fooled, because any idea fervently held becomes toxic in the end, no matter how nice and broad-minded and tolerant it may seem. The tolerant can be intolerant of the intolerant, right?
So how do we practice? Well, we do as Zhaozhou does in this story. We meet each occasion definitively for what it is, and then we let go. We don't get stuck on it.
This was the point that Suzuki Roshi always made, his whole life, as reflected in the wonderful title that Ed [Brown] gave to his book: Not Always So. Soto Zen in three words: Not always so. It may be so now, but it is not always so. If you know that, you hold your truth differently. More openly, more generously, and with a willingness to look and say, "What now?" You will never think that you have completely understood something.
So our practice, like this main case of Zhaozhou's dog, is double-sided. On one side, we vow to avoid all evil and do all good. This is the path of cultivation. Sometimes in our seminar we talk about this side. It begins with the shocking recognition of one's tremendous foolishness and the extent of one's pain. But we recognize it, and we study it, and we forgive ourselves for it, and we take care of it. We begin to see how it has come to be, and how much our sense of identity and our belief system support it. When we see that, we gradually, patiently, through the pain, begin to stop doing and thinking and feeling all the stuff that causes ourselves and others so much harm. We don't have to willfully impose a regime on ourselves. We just need to be honest with ourselves and to be aware.
When we do, we begin to clear up the situation, and now we can see that it's possible to do good for some others. Maybe we could actually help somebody. We could be a decent, helpful person in this world. So we practice like that. We practice generosity. We practice ethical conduct. We practice energy, patience, meditation, wisdom, vowing, skillful means, beneficial power, and we acquire salvific knowledge. In other words, we try to become a resource and comfort to others.
All that is on the one side. No Buddha-nature. We really have to work hard. That is the side of the long journey and the heroic effort. The other side is the Buddha-nature side. On this side we go beyond helping or not helping. We go beyond afflictive emotion or not afflictive emotion. We go beyond Buddha-nature or not Buddha-nature. We see, like Mahayana Buddhism teaches, that what is, is. We see that each day's creation is good. We see that it is within our capacity to live intimately within the nature of things as they actually are, and to drop all our projections and confusions. This does not mean that we are perfect - far from it. It doesn't mean we are enlightened, that we are wise, that we are kind, that we are good. It means almost the opposite of all this. It means that we are humble, that we understand that inside we possess nothing, and that outside there is nothing to seek. We see our many limitations, but we are willing to enter our lives and fully embrace whatever is in front of us - moment after moment, whatever it is.
So on this side, there is no such thing as compassion. There is no such thing as Buddha-nature or not Buddha-nature. There is no self. There is no "others." There is just this on every occasion. Just this.