What is “Originally Being Buddha”?
Oh the imposing Great Way! It is bright and clear. Every person is originally furnished with it, each and every one has accomplished it. (Hymns by Yefu, in Geumganggyeong ogahae (Five Seon Explanations of the Platform Sutra))
This is a hymn by Seon Master Yefu that means, “Sentient beings, as they are, are Buddha.” This is exactly the meaning of originally become Buddha. If so, then am I really originally Buddha? Furthermore, if I am Buddha, then shouldn’t there be no need for practice?
Patriarchal Seon does not maintain that “Sentient beings are enlightened through practice and become Buddha.” It says that sentient beings are not to practice meditation in order to become Buddha. This is because, “We, as we originally are, are simply Buddha.” The nature that originally one possessed is not refined and so obtained. If it is obtained through practice that would mean it is broken. Also, just as the truth cannot be lost, so too the original nature is not lost and then found. The nature thus is furnished from the beginning and being universal, it is said to be originally fully provided (bollae gujok). One only needs to see that one is oneself the Buddha (to know) that it is originally fully provided.
So Seon emphasizes directly see one’s own nature that is originally Buddha, and that it is not a matter of emptying out frustrations (kleśa) and revealing the Buddha-nature. “You are originally perfect. So look, look at yourself.” Seon is a way of making one confirm this. Nothing else is sought.
Seon Master Dahui said,
If one is enlightened (to the fact that) this mind is originally become Buddha, everything will be at ease within an unimpaired freedom. Since the marvelous functions do not come from outside, this therefore is due to the fact that one originally possesses it from the very start. (Reply to Chen Shaoqing in Shuzhuang (Letters))
Śākya Mūni Buddha also clearly stated that all people are originally the completely perfected Buddha. The Buddha said, “Those who see the Dharma see conditional production (pratitya-samutpada), and those who see conditional production see the Dharma.” Moreover, this conditional-production Dharma was only discovered by the Buddha, he did not create it; for this world existed eternally without any connection with the Buddha. And so this conditional production Dharma originally exists inside and outside us, and in everybody and every thing without exception.
In the “Tathāgata Eternal Life Chapter” of the Avatamsaka Sūtra it says, “There is no differentiation between the three items of mind, Buddha and sentient beings.” Our pure mind is the mind of the Buddha. This theoretically and systematically is Tathāgatagarbha thought. The Tathāgatagarbha is also called the Buddha-nature. Buddha-nature thought is the teaching that all sentient beings originally all had the Buddha-nature. That is, sentient beings clarify that their own mind is a pure mind, that that original nature is fundamentally pristine. The Buddha-nature, or Tathāgatagarbha, means the pure Tathāgata Dharmakāya (Body of Corpus of the Dharma of the Tathāgata).
How is “Originally Being Buddha” Revealed?
In Buddhist practice it is an extremely important question as to whether one “commences with the understanding that practice is a process to become Buddha” or whether one “commences from the reality that one is originally a perfected Buddha.” The method of gradually refining frustrations through practice so that sentient beings will become Buddha is called the gradual method of cultivation. The meditation method of sectarian Buddhism and of the Northern Seon School of Seon Master Shenxiu are all a part of this.
However, the meditation method inherited by Seon Master Huineng was a Seon that took the position that “everyone is originally Buddha.” The meditation method of Huineng, the Southern Seon School, was the marrow of the Patriarchal Seon transmitted by Patriarch Bodhidharma. It formed the core of Ganhwa Seon. Let us examine the difference between the Northern Seon School and the Southern Seon School through the verses of Shenxiu and Huineng as recorded in the Platform Sutra:
Shenxiu’s verse was:
The body is the bodhi-tree,
The mind is the clean mirror.
Continually strive to wipe it,
So that no dust sticks to it.
The basic nature of the mind is compared to a mirror. This means that one cannot be enlightened when the dust of frustrations soil the bright original nature that is like a mirror. If one wipes away that dust assiduously, the true mind can be attained.
Huineng’s verse was:
Originally there is no bodhi-tree,
And no mirror or frame.
As the Buddha-nature is always pristine,
Where can there be any dust?
Huineng’s verse reveals a different world from that of Shenxiu. As the pristine Buddha-nature was originally fully provided, all one needs to do is to be directly awakened to that. Moreover, this mind is not some form, and since “there originally was not even a single thing” (bollae muilmul), there isn’t any dust here to soil it, and so it is not an object to be wiped (practiced).
Why must one practice if originally one is Buddha?
If one is originally Buddha, why must one practice? It is because one has fallen into the illusion of the existence of ‘I’ and is ignorant of the fact that one is originally Buddha, and so cannot see that. As one is not able to see that one is originally Buddha, one practices in an attempt to see that feature. The generations of Seon masters did not say never practice and just loaf about doing nothing. If one does not practice, one is the same as a common person. So they emphasized an intense practice. Why? When saying there is no need to practice, how could they then say one should practice?
This is because in reality sentient beings cannot even revive and make full use of their own nature that is originally Buddha. However, although the current situation is like this, because our original nature is the Buddha, we have to practice desperately. But in practicing, let us commence from the position that we are Buddha.
Practice means believing that one’s everyday mind itself is the Buddha, and that one does not discriminate or pick and choose. This is not an invented practice. However, being confused, sentient beings cannot believe this, and so suffer in the midst of frustrations.
The mind that does not invent this or that is important. Therefore Seon Master Mazu (709-788) spoke as follows:
There is no need to practice the Way. Just do not be polluted. What is pollution? Inventing, aiming for and going towards (something) with the mind of birth and death, all of this is pollution. What about if one wants to know the Way? The everyday mind is the Way. Why do you say the everyday mind is the Way? It is because there is no creation, no right or wrong, no choosing, no discontinuity/annihilation or eternity, and no commoner or saint. (Jingde chuandeng lu)
The departure from creation and right or wrong is in order that cleverness disappears. Mazu replied to the question, “How must one practice the Way so that one can be enlightened?” with the following reply: “One’s own nature is originally pristine. And so one must not be stuck in the realm of discrimination in which something is good or evil. Such people are the persons who practice the Way.”
Not being stuck with good and evil means that one has not fallen into discrimination or picking and choosing. Likewise, our investigation and practice of the hwadu is the firm belief that oneself is originally Buddha and that one experiences and confirms that fact. The holding of the hwadu is removing it together with creation and the discrimination of right and wrong.