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Religion Library: Zen

Human Nature and the Purpose of Existence

Written by: Julia Hardy

The key to understanding human nature in Zen teachings is the concept of Buddha-nature. The discourse about Buddha-nature developed within the Buddhist tradition because of a seeming contradiction between the doctrine of no-self, or anatman, and the potential of an individual to attain enlightenment. Even in the early texts, which explain that the key to enlightenment is the realization that there is no separate, permanent self, the Buddha talked about self-mastery, conquering the self, etc. In addition, there was a concern that the doctrine of no-self was being perceived as nihilistic, because it seemed to some that the dissolution of self led only to oblivion.

The subject of the nature of the self was debated by Yogacara and Madhyamika scholars, and also addressed by Mahayana scriptures. To oversimplify a very complex debate, some argued that within each person was an intrinsic essence of Buddha-nature, some argued that there is no such material essence, some that it both exists and does not exist, and some argued that the illusion of separation between self and Buddha-nature persisted only until the moment of enlightenment.

Rising from this debate, an interpretation emerged that there were two realities—one absolute and one relative. The absolute was pure, the relative corrupt, and one must clear away the relative in order to realize the pure absolute. Others argued that there is nothing to attain, as attainment is an illusory form of separation between absolute and relative, whereas in actuality, literally everything that exists has Buddha-nature. Still others would expand the absolute/relative dichotomy to include the theory that both are potentially pure, the absolute being the embodiment of pure wisdom, and the relative the embodiment of pure compassion, which motivates the self to aspire to enlightenment for the sake of all living beings.

Chan/Zen has no single response to this debate. Shenxiu's poem in the Huineng story supported the idea of the purity of the absolute, with the image of cleansing the mirror of the self of impurities to reveal a pure mind of Buddhahood. Huineng's response was that neither mirror nor mind exists; there is nothing to attain, as one is already there. While Huineng's interpretation is arguably more "Zen," both theories have continued to shape the tradition in a variety of ways.

Some Zen schools advocate silent meditation practice, or zazen, and others do not, at least in theory. The practice of zazen is, for some, a process of cleansing the mind of obstructions in order to reveal one's essential Buddha-nature. For others, it is an enactment of the emptiness of self that is at the same time a realization or experience of Buddha-nature.


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