You Are Already the Buddha
The trick is realizing it…
There’s an old joke: What was the Zen Buddhist’s order at the hot dog cart? “Make me one with everything.”
Back when I started sitting, around 30 years ago, that was pretty much the way I approached it. By meditating, I was going to accomplish something. I was going to merge my consciousness with the Universe.
In his 13th century essay “Genjokoan” (“The Actualization of Reality”), Soto Zen founder Dogen writes that to make the self one with all things is delusion, but for all things to be one with the self is enlightenment. I wish someone had read that to me back then. It might have saved me some time.
What the Buddha Realized
About two and a half millennia ago, a Hindu prince called Siddhartha Gautama decided to, quite literally, sit on his ass until he figured out what to do with his life. But unlike most people who make that decision, as he was sitting he paid attention to everything he experienced, neither rejecting nor desiring any of it. And lo and behold, rather than falling asleep, he woke up. And since then, he has been called the Buddha, the Awakened One.
Untold volumes have been written about what the Buddha woke up to, despite the fact that they all agree that it cannot be described. It can be pointed to, but in order to know it, one has to experience awakening for oneself. Still, there are a few basic ideas about “waking up” that we can be pretty sure date all the way back to the Buddha’s original teaching.
One of these fundamental notions goes by any number of rather awkward terms, such as dependent origination, interdependent co-arising, and pratītyasamutpāda. But the general idea is this: Nothing has any independent existence apart from everything else.
Think of it this way…. Imagine yourself sitting on a beach watching a sunrise. It seems to you that you’re an independent entity in a world of individual things, all of them (all of us) rattling around in a big old universe, doing what we do — the fish in the sea, the stars in the sky, the sand on the beach, the clouds in the air. But is that really what’s happening? Press the reset button on your mind for a moment, and let’s examine what’s actually going on.
There you are, on the beach, breathing easily. But that couldn’t happen if there weren’t air, could it? And there wouldn’t be air if the earth weren’t large enough to have an atmosphere. And your body wouldn’t exist if heavy elements had not been formed in supernovae. And there wouldn’t be life on earth if the planet didn’t occupy an orbit within a particular range from the sun. And so on and so on, all the way out to the galaxy clusters and superclusters, all the way down to the atoms and quarks, and all the way back in time to the Big Bang and whatever set that in motion.
Every thing is the way it is because Everything is the way it is. We are not really independent individuals. We are more like waves within the ocean, ruffling the beds of seagrass. A diver cannot pluck out a wave and take it up to the boat and go home with it. And although, as humans, we have more apparent independence of movement than does a sea wave, fundamentally we also, at every moment in time and in every place we are, have no existence entirely unto ourselves. Even the contents of our consciousness, the essence of what we think of as our selves, depends upon the things that bounce off our bodies — molecules in our nose and on our tongues, light waves reaching our retinas, percussion waves in the air striking our ears. There is even evidence that our cravings for particular foods arise not from our minds, but rather from the forests of microbes in our guts sending signals to our brain, making us desire the kinds of foods that will create more of their kind.
The Physics of Interdependence
If you are about my age, born around the middle of the previous century, you were likely taught in school that the world is made up of something like billiard balls bouncing around in empty space. The atoms were like little solar systems, with a nucleus resting sun-like at the center, and electrons orbiting it like planets. The nucleus, upon closer inspection, was a cluster of ping-pong balls, usually of two different colors to distinguish the protons from the neutrons.
This is no longer how anyone thinks of the “building blocks of the universe”. (And in fact, it wasn’t so even then among scientists, but primary education takes some time to catch up.) Electron shells are not modeled as planetary orbits, but as something like regions representing the probability that an electron might be in a certain place if you were to look for it.
The things that I grew up thinking of as “particles” are now widely viewed as excitations in quantum “fields” that permeate every point in spacetime. The idea of “empty space” no longer exists in this more modern view of our universe. Rather, the fields are universal and ubiquitous, everpresent, and continually foaming with submicroscopic perturbations that rise and subside within them. And even the distinctions among these fields result only from the level of energy in which they find themselves. At the earliest stages of our universe, they were not distinct. And it may well be that, at a fundamental level, their apparent separation is illusory.
In short, modern science has revealed a deep level of unity among the apparently independent objects in our world that the Buddha could not have imagined. Our current knowledge takes the idea of dependent origination out of the realm of interdependent objects and into the realm of universal physical identity. We are indeed like the waves beneath the sea, having our existence only as the locations in spacetime where the ubiquitous stuff of the universe happens to be shaped like us.
The Body of the Buddha
One of the most difficult conventions of Buddhism for me to wrap my mind around was the notion of the true body of the Buddha. This is a concept which has its roots, quite frankly, in ancient thinking and a certain amount of superstition. It was a way of reconciling the Buddha’s message to existing ways of thinking about religion.
Zen master Man Gong (1871–1946) sums up the more modern way of viewing this rather puzzling concept: “Everything is the true body of the Buddha”. And this essentially is the core realization at the heart of pratītyasamutpāda: Each of our bodies is merely an ever-shifting location within a unified universal body. The Buddha’s true body, and mine and yours as well, is everything that exists. We are never separate from the whole, and never can be. And if my true body is Everything, and so is yours, and so is the Buddha’s, then you and I are already the Buddha and always have been.
But isn’t the Buddha long gone? Didn’t he vanish centuries in the past? Well, yes and no.
We tend to imagine time as a kind of path that we are traveling along. Things in the past are “behind us” and things in the future are “ahead of us” and they are not here. We know this is a metaphor, but it is a pernicious metaphor that distorts our perception.
In reality, the past is here, right now. It’s just shaped differently. All the stuff that existed at any time in the past, all the matter and energy, still exists at this moment. It’s merely been rearranged. There is nothing “behind us” because we have no means of moving away from it. Everything is always Everything.
This is why it is delusion to try to make oneself one with everything — it can’t be done, because there is nothing to do. And this is why for all things to be one with the self is enlightenment — it is merely the lightbulb going on, understanding what is already real.
Understanding, Realization, and Actualization
Yet understanding is only the beginning. Someone can explain to me how to play a guitar, and I can understand what they have explained. And I will still be unable to play the guitar.
If I want to play the guitar, I need to make that understanding real. I need to practice. And through practice, I get to the point where I can do what I think. This is the stage of realization.
But there is another stage beyond this one, when the thinking is no longer needed, and the doing is all there is. That is actualization. This is what distinguishes someone who can merely play a guitar from a master guitarist. When we actualize, the “thinking about” gets out of the way.
This is why, despite already being the Buddha, we practice. This is why we sit, why we observe the precepts, and why we study the dharma, which is the tradition handed down from those who have practiced before us. Not because we have been told to. But in order to realize what we have understood, and to actualize what we have come to realize.
Now let us return to that beach at sunrise. If we stop to think about it, we know that the sun isn’t actually rising. Rather, the planet we are sitting upon is rotating. It is we who are turning toward the sun.
In our daily lives, we can behave as though this is not true. We can speak and act as though the sun were orbiting the earth. If we were to actualize the truth of the earth and the sun, we would continually see ourselves as living on a turning planet and the sun would never appear to us as rising or setting. It would take a great deal of practice for us to get to this point, to always recognize the illusion of the sunrise as illusion.
Actualizing our existing Buddha nature is something like that. Through practice, we stop seeing ourselves as separate from other people, from other things. We stop seeing you and I as different and apart. We recognize the delusion of separation as delusion. And we live the non-separation that is the truth, has always been the truth, and ever will be the truth.