Buddha is only a provisional name, by Harada Sekkei Roshi

Burma: Pagan period. 12th–13th century. Wood with traces of red lacquer, gesso and gold leaf.

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?

Japan, Meiji period (1868–1912). Fragment of a banner depicting manifestations of Kannon (Avalokitesvara)

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.

Categories: Buddhism, Buddhist meditation, Chan / Seon / Zen, Foundations, Harada Sekkei Roshi

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6 replies

  1. Harada Sekkei is certainly entitled to his opinion but his opinion as to what is the basic teaching of the Buddha has no foundation in teh teachings of the Buddha. The Buddha never taught that all things in the phenomenal world are Buddha. The Buddha taught that all things in the phenomenal world have three linked characteristics: impermanence, unsatisfactoriness, and no-self.

    The basic teaching of the Buddha is the Four Noble truths which includes the Eightfold Path that the Buddha taught for developing understanding. The Buddha’s “Law of Causality is known as Dependent Origination in which he teaches that through twelve causative links grounded in ignorance suffering arises and has nothing to do with “teaching that all phenomena in the universe are comprised of four basic elements.” Harda Sekkei seems to have the Five Clinging-Aggregates confused with dependent Origination but what he is saying is so confused it is hard to say.

    Further on he states that “if there were no delusion or suffering, it wouldn’t be possible to be enlightened.” If there were no teaching on the causes of suffering and the path leading to the cessation of suffering there would be no enlightenment. That teaching is known as the Four Noble Truths. Awakening as the Buddha teaches awakening is to be free of clinging to all objects and views and it is certainly not dependent on the existence of suffering in order to abandon clinging. Wisdom developed through the Eightfold Path brings the understanding to abandon clinging. Dukkha is the condition of life in the phenomenal world originating in clinging. Abandoning clinging gives rise to awakening.

    John Haspel

    • Not for me to defend Harada Roshi, John.

      Always worth remembering that the Buddha taught from his direct experience, not from theory.


      • Hello R. at Buddhism Now,

        As one of Harada Roshi’s students, I thank you for posting his work here, sharing it with your global audience. I also want to mention that Roshi’s first book to come out in English is not “Essential Zen,” as you mention above but “The Essence of Zen.” A few months ago another book was published in English, and it is called “Unfathomable Depths:”

        Bowing in gratitude,

        Rev. Konin Cardenas

      • Well spotted, have made the changes.

        Many thanks,


    • I think J.H. has not really understood the paradoxalities inherent in the Buddha’s teachings.
      Buddha expresses himself mainly in a negative way: no self, nirvana is extinction of the flame etc.
      The same realities, experiences can be expressed in a positive way as realising Self, buddhanature etc.
      By clinging to the litteral words and seemingly not understanding the experiences and realities behind those words you will end up with a dogmatic, fundamentalistic, dead kind of Buddhism.

    • Dear John,

      Perhaps a couple of points of reference might be helpful here. First, the four elements might be more familiar to you as the mahābhūta, which are referenced numerous times in the Nikaya. The four great elements are sometimes used as objects of meditation when examining form, the first of the five skandhas. This is at least in part because of the suffering or clinging created by thinking of our body as something we own, as Roshi references in his comments. It appears to me that he references the other aspects of the form skandha, such as sense organs and their consciousnesses in his comments as well.

      As for all the world being Buddha, if Buddhahood is understood as absolute harmony with the truth of the impermanence and emptiness of all things, then by definition Buddha is one with all things as they truly are, and all things as they truly are must be one with Buddha.

      And as for the relationship between delusion and enlightenment, I believe that Roshi is simply referring to the motivation to practice. We don’t live in the deity realms, where bliss prevents us from seeking the truth. Whatever ideas we have about suffering or delusion bring us to the cushion where all, including our ideas about the Buddha, will be transformed.




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