Buddha’s Enlightenment: Sitting Through It All

Buddha’s Enlightenment: Sitting Through It All December 4, 2015

FullSizeRenderNote: This is the second part of five, based talks from last year’s Rohatsu that students (Brian, Ryan, Erik, and Vera-Ellen – thank you!) transcribed and I edited. The others will be posted here over the next couple weeks. Click here for the first part:  “The Root of Zen.”

Sitting so that the reeds grow up around us, we sit upright and tranquil, becoming a zazen person as a necessary condition – but not a sufficient one.

A sufficient condition for what?

In the passage cited in the previous post, “The Root of Zen,” Dogen said, “We find that transcendence of both mundane and sacred … depends entirely on the power of zazen.”

This is the heart of the buddhadharma – transcending both mundane and sacred.

Most spiritual paths are about transcending the mundane, but not so much about transcending the sacred. This Zen way is about transcending both samsara and nirvana.  And it depends on the power of zazen.

Yet, the power of zazen and transcending mundane and sacred are not the same thing. Indeed, it’s possible to sit upright so that when people come by they think you’re a dead tree stump without going beyond. In our tradition in China, for example, there was a teaching style know as the “dead tree stump hall” where practitioners sat upright developing the power of zazen, really sitting through it all, but some we’re told still did not open their hearts, transcending mundane and sacred. Revering samadhi is a trap that we can get into in this practice.

Now, whatever you’re working with on the Zen way, it is characterized by the simply becoming one-with.  If you are working with the breath, become one with the breath.  If you’re doing shikantaza, earnest vivid sitting, become one with each of the myriad things as it arises and passes away.  If we’re working with mu koan, wholly becoming mu.  No part left out.

However, it’s possible to miss the forest for the trees, to over identify with the minutiae of the technique and miss the spirit.  The living, open-hearted spirit requires fearlessness – and fearlessness can be painfully scary.  So instead, we can distract ourselves from the rawness of this practice by identifying with the technique.

The Buddha, our original great teacher, sat under the bodhi tree with rigorous authenticity. Before he became the Buddha, he had traveled around ancient India and worked with a number of teachers and quickly mastered their systems. He was a samādhi master. Yet he noticed that his heart’s innermost request was still yearning, because even in the wondrous states of mind that he realized, when the special state of mind passed, he was no closer to carrying all beings across, his one great vow, than he had been before whatever deep state of mind.

He had come to a corner where he could not move an inch, and so having exhausted all the options, he just sat under the bodhi tree without leaning.  Just sitting through it all. Finally, sitting through the night, he must have been looked up from his just-sitting downward gaze and saw the morning star with open-hearted rawness, and the world turned around. He cried, “I together with all beings and the great earth attain the Way!”

He realized intimate self-knowledge – what is this “I”?

Keizan tells us,

“That is to say ‘I’ is not Shakyamuni Buddha. Even Shakyamuni Buddha comes from this ‘I.’ And it does not only give birth to Shakyamuni Buddha, all beings and the great earth also come from here.  Just as when you lift a net, all the holes are raised, in the same way when Shakyamuni Buddha was enlightened, so too were all beings on earth enlightened.  And it was not only all beings on earth that were enlightened, all the buddhas of the past, present, and future also attained enlightenment.”

The Buddha transcended mundane and sacred by fully entering who he was from the beginning of time. It’s completely beyond discussion – an eighty thousand foot precipice in each of us. The Buddha’s insight was that all beings – that includes us! – and the great earth attain the way. This is not offered as something you might understand and believe but something that must be personally verified so that it is has power in our lives.

Out of compassion for us, concerned about our clearly seeing the morning star, Keizan asks us, tests us, “Let me ask you, practitioners, is the Buddha enlightened with you? Or, do you become enlightened with the Buddha?”

Now you might say that you’ll take enlightenment either way.

But Keizan is raising an important and subtle point here.

What is your relationship with the Buddha?  Really, what is it? Which comes first – you or Buddha?  Is the practice of enlightenment a passive process, where the Buddha does the work? Or is it a process of activity, of assertiveness, where you make it happen, doing the Buddha’s work?  Is the Buddha enlightened with you, or do you become enlightened with the Buddha?

Which is it?

Keizan then pulls the sitting mat out from underneath us: “If you say that you are enlightened with the Buddha, that you become enlightened with the Buddha, or that the Buddha becomes enlightened with you, this is not the Buddha’s enlightenment.”

If you chose the Buddha doing the work – Wrong! If you chose you doing the work – Wrong! Passive won’t do, active won’t do. What is the self?

In our thorough wrongness, our passive or active stance is illuminated. Illuminating our stance, we sit through it all in a corner where we cannot move an inch. In this same corner, we find the Buddha sitting through it all. No going back.  No going forward.  No one to do the work for us.  No work to do for ourself.

Looking up, you might suddenly roar like a lion, “Ahhh! I together with the great earth and all living beings attain the Way!”

Like the lion’s roar, the Buddha’s roar comes from the primordial depths, rattling and shaking the great earth. “I together with the great earth and all living beings attain the Way.” Keizan’s voice resonates through the ages, entwined with the Buddha’s voice, inviting us to realize this for ourselves.

Let’s take a look at another story that might at first seem like a non sequitur.

One day Keizan met with the nun Sonin and asked her, “The winter is coming to an end and spring is arriving. Certainly seasons come and go. There’s an order to this. What is your understanding?”

Can you hear the child-like innocence here? Keizan is like a little kid asking, “How come winter changes to spring?”

Sonin said, “In the branches of a tree without shade, how could there be any season?”

For a tree not to have shade it would have to transcend light and dark, mundane and sacred, profane and holy.  The tree would have to be the tree under which the Buddha is sitting with nothing outside.

Keizan said, “Well, what about right now?!”

How can you make it real?

Sonin just bowed.

Right now!  Oh my goodness! “I together with the great earth and all living beings attain the way.”

Right now. Not twenty-five hundred years ago in India or seven-hundred years ago in Japan – right now.

When we become the breath, shikantaza, or mu with no remainder and look up – “Oh my god!  Oh my god, right now!”

Sonin just bowed. She leveled herself, put herself horizontal with everything, and brought forth the great earth and all living beings.  Sonin just bowed.

Keizan confirmed her awakening and gave her dharma transmission. With her body and heart, Sonin became perhaps the first woman in Japan to receive dharma transmission. Later, Keizan said that Sonin and he were closer than “iron and magnet.”

So this story has a happy ending.

How about your story? Will you have the end of your story written for you or will you write it yourself?

If you allow your story to be written or write it yourself, it is not the ending of a Buddha’s story. So what will you do? It’s very important. The Buddhas of the past, present, and future, depend on what you do now.

"Lovely story. Thanks. I like the translation “one-doing power” for the samadhi (一行三昧) variously called ..."

“Please Sit By The Heater”: On ..."
"Reading this,I am struck by the similarities of what Meido writes about, to the patchy ..."

“Hidden Zen: Practices for Sudden Awakening ..."
"keep laughing, no place to go, nothing to do; the spring comes and the grass ..."

Saving Energy is Gaining Energy: More ..."

Browse Our Archives