Buddha-Life, by Katagiri Roshi

Amida Nyorai (Buddha of Infinite Light & Life).  Photo: © @KyotoDailyPhoto

Buddha is always present in what-is-just-is; buddha just is. If we think we understand ourselves, this is already not exactly what-is-just-is, or thusness or as-it-isness. This what-is-just-is, or thusness, is not a state of being that we can know through our consciousness. In Zen Bud­dhism it is said that this is ‘the self prior to our parents’ birth’ or prior to the germination of any single thought. This is the self before some­thing runs through our consciousness. The problem is that our con­sciousness is always working, going this way, that way, in every direction from moment to moment. So how can we know the state of ‘the self prior to our parents’ birth,’ or thusness or what-is-just-is-of-itself? This is a big question, a big project for us to research. The best way to do this research is just to sit down and do zazen, and let the flower of life force bloom in thusness. That is all we can do. Nothing else. In other words, whatever problem we have, we have to take care of it and constantly keep walking.

This is not so easy for us, and many people give up on the way. Most people become angry with practice and many complaints come up. This is why we need to share compassion with each other, encourage each other, and walk together listening to the Budd­ha. This help is very important for us. If you are a very strong person you can walk by yourself. But usually it is pretty hard, so we need to practise in the sangha, walking hand in hand with the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha. This is buddha, or what-is-just-is-of-itself.

We can see the original principle of existence in the life of a tree, a pebble, snow, the seasons and other forms in nature. This principle is what-is-just-is-of-itself, before it runs through our consciousness. This original principle as a manifestation of buddha is not separate from the form of trees, form of pebbles, form of the seasons or the form of every­day routine. It is always manifested and completed. ‘Completed’ means there is no excuse, because it is completed in every single form of existence. It’s there, speaking. Trees are always speaking about the original principle or buddha. This is called Dharma or teaching. Every­thing becomes a teaching for us. We realise the Buddha in every single existence. We realise all sentient beings are buddha.

This buddha or pure nature of existence is not abstract; it is mani­fested and completed in every single form of existence. If so, we can practise it, we can manifest it. Even though we don’t practise, we are all buddha. But if we don’t practise Buddha’s life, we cannot manifest buddha. So we have to practise it. In other words, if we don’t take care of our life as Buddha’s life, then our life doesn’t make sense; it is a very shal­low, very thin life, like a piece of paper. But if we take care of our every­day life, finding it within the life of the universe, then our life becomes very deep. We have to practise what-is-just-is-of-itself. Whether we understand this or not, forget it! Forget it because what-is-just-is-of-itself is exactly manifested and completed beyond our speculation or understanding. It is always with us. It is a qualification of our existence, of our presence. So all we have to do is live in the domain of this qualification of our presence. If we live within it, we can manifest it. How? This is zazen. It is a very simple practice. Without zazen, each single buddha cannot be buddha as it really is. Without zazen, we can­not be buddha. This is the authentic teaching of zazen handed down from generation to generation and open to everyone.

Sitting is zazen. This is a great opportunity wherein we encounter ­buddha exactly. But we cannot see, we cannot touch this with our six physical senses. All we can do is accept this reality as a whole, and then just walk within it. Using our flesh, bone, muscle and marrow, then sitting down, is not the sitting we think it is. Sometimes people say that sitting is wasting time, or that it is a great opportunity in which we can get good ideas, or that it is a way to calm ourselves down, or that it strengthens our lives. Whatever we say, it doesn’t hit the mark. Whatever ideas we have about it, they are nothing but a part of impermanence. These ideas always appear and disappear. Beyond these ideas, we should pay attention to the moment itself when we sit down right now, right here, with wholeheartedness. What is this op­portunity and time? What can we experience? When we sit in zazen, buddha encounters buddha. This doesn’t mean we encounter another separate buddha. If there is another separate buddha, there are two; ‘I’ encounter ‘buddha’; this is dualistic. Buddha encounters buddha. Winter sees winter. It doesn’t run through our six senses, because bud­dha means what-is-just-is-of-itself. There is nothing to see through our six senses. But when we sit down, we can exactly encounter what-is-just-is. And then, within what-is-just-is, which is called buddha, we can become one with winter, trees, birds, all sentient beings, exactly.

However, consciousness always pokes its head into zazen. That is why in the next moment that teaching becomes blurred, and we don’t understand it. Then that teaching is far from us, and it’s pretty diffi­cult to really taste it. Finally, what can we do? If we want to practise the Buddha Way we should believe what-is-just-is-of-itself, without confusion, perverted ideas, suffering or pleasure. There is nothing to say. All we can do is just believe. Believe means do it, practise. In Bud­dhism, to believe is simultaneously to practise. So, sit down. Then, belief comes up.

In Zen, the form of zazen is simultaneously the life of the Buddha. In other words, the form of zazen is something more than just a form; it is nothing but the expression, the manifestation of the whole uni­verse or what-is-just-is-of-itself, before we can understand it, before we can know it. This is called universal life. When we sit down, imme­diately we can switch the form of zazen into the Buddha’s life. How can we do this? Practise in motion—sit down right now. There is no space, no room for us to poke our head into this zazen. This is a pivotal opportunity to turn our zazen into ­Buddha’s zazen. But we always try to do zazen. This means we try to get something, we try to see some­thing in zazen. When we try to see, we try to know, we completely ignore the fact that we are allowed to know. Then there is no opportunity to turn the form of zazen into Buddha’s zazen.

Willow, Totnes. Art © @TessaMacDermot

Our life is something we can know, but simultaneously something we cannot know, because it is universal. To try to know what the uni­verse is, is like always pouring water into a bamboo basket that is small and loosely woven. How can we keep the universe in this bamboo bas­ket? It’s impossible. But this is our usual pattern. We always want to know, we want to acquire, we want to see something. But life is not exactly like this. Life is something we can know, and at the same time it is something we cannot know.

How can we know what we cannot know? We can devote ourselves to doing zazen, put ourselves right there, and then we can see both the zazen we can know and the zazen we cannot know, life we can know and life we cannot know. This is to become buddha. Regardless of whether we are conscious of it or not, there is no other way. This is the unique way to live, whether we are Christian, Buddhist, or whatever else we practise; it doesn’t matter.

For instance, how can we know what real death is? There is no way to know. All we can do is surrender, completely give up right in the ­middle of life and death. We have to give up lots of ideas. ‘Give up’ doesn’t mean to destroy ourselves. It means to make our life alive, make our life refreshed. At that time, we can just walk from day to day toward death. That is all we can do. But we always try to know what death is. There is no way we can know. But if we put ourselves right in the middle of death we are allowed to know even though we don’t want to. How can we accept this opportunity through which we are allowed to know or to see? We must be magnanimous, compassionate, tolerant and openhearted. In terms of the Buddha’s eye, in terms of the uni­verse, the whole world is really given to everyone in equality. Equality is not something we try to know. Equality appears when we put our­selves in the appropriate place and then naturally we are allowed to know. We are always trying to live in order to enjoy our life. This ap­pears to be strength, but real strength cannot be obtained by only try­ing to know. We have to open ourselves, and at that time, we are al­lowed to know, to live. This is the pivotal opportunity where we can know oneness of Dharma and person, oneness of life that we can know and life that we cannot know.

Without exception we have to practise this way, and then we be­come buddha. Buddha is not something separate from us. When we use the term, buddha, it seems to us that buddha is far from us and we think we are not buddha. That is a great misunderstanding. We are buddha. Budd­ha means we become something more than a human being; we become a great being from whom the light of our personality as a whole is given forth. Then people are very moved by our pres­ence, by our talk, by our silence, by whatever we do.

Buddhism Now August 2004

Dainin Katagiri was born in Osaka, Japan, trained at Eiheiji Monastery for three years, and attended Komazawa University. In 1963 he went to the United States and in 1972 became the first abbot of Minnesota Zen Meditation Center. He died in 1990.

This article is taken from Returning to Silence: Zen Practice in Daily Life, published in 1988 and reprinted here by courtesy of Shambhala Publications.

Click here for a few more teachings from Katagiri Roshi.

Categories: Buddhism, Buddhist meditation, Chan / Seon / Zen, Foundations, Mahayana

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2 replies

  1. Thanks for your great article about Buddha’s life.

  2. A great article on practice and buddha nature.


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