Question: What is the basic teaching of Buddhism?
Harada Sekkei Roshi: It is simply to realise for yourself that all things in the world are Buddha. This represents a major difference between Buddhism and other religions. In other teachings, something other is perceived to exist such as God, fate, destiny or the will of heaven. You are then taught to live in accord with this. However, in Buddhism it is taught that there is nothing which exists.
Q: But isn’t it taught that Buddha exists?
Roshi: In terms of a human being, a Buddha is a person without ego-self. This means that for sentient beings there is no centre or self-nature. In Buddhism, this is explained as the law of causality.
Q: What is the law of causality?
Roshi: To speak in concrete terms, it is the teaching that all phenomena in the universe are comprised of four basic elements—earth, water, fire and air. According to many conditions, these elements change into different forms and are never once the same. This is what we call impermanence with neither beginning nor end. With regard to human beings, it happens that we also are only comprised of the elements—earth (flesh), water (bloodstream), fire (body temperature), and air (breath). This means that we cannot avoid the condition where air (breath) ceases or earth (flesh) disappears.
Q: That is to say there is neither life nor death, isn’t it?
Roshi: That’s right. It isn’t possible to compare life with death, or death with life. Also, the four elements continually appear as new forms, so there is no centre. As there is no centre, there is no time, place or separation. Consequently, the `no’ of `no-self’ is completely different from the `not’ of existing and not existing.
Q: Does that mean people don’t have a soul?
Roshi: As there is neither life nor death, how can there be a soul? Some people say that Buddhism teaches that when a person dies, a soul remains which is then reborn over and over again, but this is a mistake.
Q: But it seems as if I’m here . . .
Roshi: `Jack’ or `Betty’ is nothing more than a symbol for something which happens to be comprised of the four elements.
Q: But I can see things and hear things . . .
Roshi: People have six sense functions—seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, and thinking. Things can be heard, smelled and tasted and so on because these senses are functioning.
Q: How about thinking?
Roshi: Thinking is the function of consciousness. Good and bad, likes and dislikes, high and low, painful and itchy and so on, and thinking about many things, is a tool which functions like the eyes and ears. Why is it then that we suffer and are deluded? It is because of the function of the ego-self which thinks it is `me’.
Q: Does that mean that we suffer and feel deluded within our own minds?
Roshi: Yes. However, if there were no delusion or suffering, it wouldn’t be possible to be enlightened. Furthermore, we can say that only human beings can realise this truth.
Q: Then should a person who has lost the ego-self be called a Buddha?
Roshi: Buddha is only a provisional name. It isn’t really possible to attach a name to something which has no centre, is it? However, the Patriarchs — those people who attained `no-self’ — used various names to refer to this condition. To give one example, long ago in China there was a priest named Zuigan. Everyday he would call out to himself, `True Self! Are your eyes wide open?’ `Yes, yes.’ Then he would say, `Don’t be fooled by others (symbols).’ `No, no,’ he would answer. He lived his life always admonishing himself in this manner.
I think you all have mirrors at home. If you have time, why not try facing a mirror and calling out `True Self.’ (Roshi laughs.)
Q: I understand the story. But in real terms, how should I live my life?
Roshi: No matter how much we think about the past, it isn’t possible to change it. And in the same way, even if we worry about how we should live our life in the future, finally this is something we cannot know. So, it is important that we be able to live now without feeling dissatisfied or discontented.
As I’ve previously explained in detail, it is because of the contradiction that we think there is a centre to something which essentially doesn’t exist, that all delusion and suffering arises. So to truly accept that there is nothing which is the centre, or in other words to ascertain that there is no ego-self—to become a Buddha—is the only thing we can do. This is what I mean by living life now in which there is no discontent. At the very least, it is important to be one with now and then forget that thought of being one. It is important to live with this attitude.
Other articles from Harada Sekkei Roshi
Published in the May 2000 Buddhism Now.
Harada Sekkei Roshi is the Abbot of Hosshinji in Japan. He is the author of The Essence of Zen. This article is taken from the Hosshinji Newsletter of Spring 1997 and is reproduced here with grateful thanks.