I. The Awakened Mind Is the Buddha
“Buddha; (footnote: Buddha is a Sanskrit term; literally it means the awakened one or the enlightened one.) it is awareness.” All sentient beings possess Buddha nature, but because they are not awakened, their Buddha nature turns to be the nature of sentient beings. If this mind gives rise to greed, anger, and ignorance, and commits the acts of killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct, Buddha nature then turns to be animal nature. If this mind is awakened, Buddha nature immediately manifests, as the Buddhist sutra says, “Mind, Buddha, and sentient beings; these three are no different from each other.” Mind, Buddha, and sentient beings are in essence one. When this mind is awakened, it is the Bodhi mind; it is the Bodhisattva mind. Therefore the ancients have said:
The Bodhisattva, like the serene moon,
Always sails in ultimate emptiness;
[When] sentient being’s water-like mind is pure,
The Bodhi image manifests therein.
Consequently, we do not need to look for the Buddha outside of ourselves; rather, when this mind is awakened, it becomes lucid and refreshed, and that is the Buddha. But when this mind is deluded and turned by external conditions, and is confused and ignorant, it then becomes the mind of the sentient being. When our awareness constantly manifests, our Buddha nature will also manifest. Buddha means awakening, and because everyone has this mind, everyone can achieve Buddhahood.
II. Cessation of All Vexations and Delusions Is Awakening
Sentient beings have tens of thousands of vexations. Generally, these vexations derive from three types of delusion: delusion of erroneous views and thoughts, delusion of not knowing myriad skillful dharmas, and delusion of Primal Ignorance. Because of these delusions and vexations, sentient beings are endlessly mired in samsara (i.e., the cycle of birth and death) and cannot attain peace and joy.
Delusion of erroneous views refers to the vexations that arise from erroneous conceptions and mistaken understanding, whereas delusion of erroneous thoughts signifies the vexations that arise from erroneous thoughts and behaviors; they include the fundamental vexations: greed, anger, ignorance, pride, doubt, and so forth. Delusion of erroneous views comes from failing to understand external phenomena and experiencing mistaken cognition, whereas delusion of erroneous thoughts originates mainly from the greed, anger, and ignorance of one’s own mind. When we completely eradicate the delusions arising from erroneous views and thoughts, we will then attain Arhathood.
The second type of delusion is called the delusion of not knowing myriad skillful dharmas. Bodhisattvas vow to liberate all sentient beings so they need to know all of the different skillful means to help liberate them. When one is not yet able to clearly grasp all the different skillful means of liberating sentient beings, it is called the delusion of not knowing myriad skillful dharmas. By eradicating this delusion, one can know limitless and boundless skillful dharmas, and help to liberate limitless and boundless sentient beings, thus attaining the sagehood of the Bodhisattva.
Among the delusions and vexations of sentient beings, the third type is the delusion of Primal Ignorance, i.e., the fundamental innate delusion of sentient beings, which hinders one’s true knowing of Reality. The Buddhist sutras say that Buddha nature is innate in each of us, and so is Primal Ignorance. When Primal Ignorance is completely extinguished, then we will surely attain Buddhahood.
Because of this mind’s different degrees of delusion in the past, when we are born into this life, our wisdom and physical bodies are all different. For example, in Chinese history, the famous poet, Bai JuYi, could read the Chinese characters “zhi (之)” and “wu (無)” not long after he was born. This fact demonstrates that people have a past, a present, and a future, and that the causality of three times in life also exists. In this life, wisdom does not come out of nowhere. It is the result of diligent practice in this life as well as in past lives. That is why, after some people are born, they may be able to know events from their past lives. However, why do most of us often forget events from our past lives when we are born? It is because we each have different karma. If everyone can perfect samadhi concentration and prajna wisdom, then we can surely know events from our past lives. From this perspective, we can understand why cultivating the Way is a task of many lifetimes. As long as we persevere, cultivate concentration and wisdom, and eradicate the three delusions—the delusion of erroneous views and thoughts, the delusion of not knowing myriad skillful dharmas, and the delusion of Primal Ignorance—we will transcend the mundane and achieve sagehood, and ultimately realize the Way of Bodhi awakening.
III. Realizing the Three Bodies of the Buddha
The Buddhist sutras state that when this mind is filled with prajna wisdom and samadhi power, it can actually change our physical body and our external environment. An ancient sage who attained awakening once said, “In the past one followed the dharma. Now the dharma follows the one.” Here “one followed the dharma” means that before realizing the original mind and nature, at every moment sentient beings are like monkeys; these minds are restless, unrestrained, and constantly affected by the external environment. On the other hand, “the dharma follows the one” reveals that after realizing this very mind and clearly understanding this original mind and nature, which is unmoving and unperturbed, neither coming nor going, always serene and illuminating, this mind of ours can really transform the external environment, and we become always peaceful and at ease.
Buddha is an awakened sage complete with three kayas (or three bodies), namely, Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya. Dharmakaya is our very mind. Although we cannot see it physically, in our daily life it can perform all “Buddha activities.” Dharmakaya is precisely our Buddha nature; it is also this perfect and complete innate mind of ours. Everyone has it. But, because every one of us has different levels of concentration and wisdom, we therefore experience very different karmic retributions and rewards.
All sentient beings possess Buddha nature. But where is Buddha nature? It is said that when it functions through the eyes, it is called seeing; with the ears it is called hearing; on the tongue, we can taste all the flavors; in the hands, we can perform various movements; on the feet, it is walking. If this Buddha nature truly manifests and expands, then all the worlds and universes are within it. If this Buddha nature is constricted, it becomes like a tiny mote and cannot be grasped. It is called: “When set free it pervades the whole universe; when constricted, it is just a tiny unseizable mote.” When we withdraw the six roots, i.e., the six sense faculties, into this very mind, unlimited subtle and wondrous functions can arise. This is the manifestation of Dharmakaya. Where the physical body will eventually decay, Dharmakaya will never perish.
This mind of awareness, this mind of wisdom that we use to reflect inward, eliminate evil and cultivate virtue is called the Buddha of wisdom. With this mind of wisdom and awareness, we can eradicate all illusions and realize the nature of emptiness. With this mind of wisdom and awareness, the absolute emptiness can give rise to wondrous existence. This mind of wisdom and awareness is filled with all miraculous powers and insights. The awakened mind－the mind of awareness－is the Dharmakaya Buddha. Dharmakaya is Buddha nature, is awareness; every sentient being has it. When one clearly understands this truth, one will awaken the mind to see its true nature. When seeing the true nature, one becomes a Buddha.
When this mind of wisdom constantly reflects inward, the ensuing reward is the Sambhogakaya Buddha. When the mind is infused with both Sambhogakaya and Dharmakaya, we will naturally exhibit miraculous powers and wondrous abilities. This is known as the Nirmanakaya Buddha which manifests in accordance with conditions for the sake of liberating sentient beings. Yet Nirmanakaya and Sambhogakaya both have their root in Dharmakaya.
Every one of us has all three kayas: Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya. Yet, in comparison to those of the Buddha or Bodhisattva, the ordinary being’s Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya differ in thousands of ways. For example, if you work in a school, you may be the principal or a teacher; or if you work in an office, you may be the general manager, chairperson, or a clerk. When you return home, you become a son or daughter, a father or mother. With all these different roles, you exhibit the conditional manifestation of an provisional character, and that is the Nirmanakaya of everyone. Although teacher, Buddhist practitioner, chairperson, father, or mother, each has different characteristics, this original mind remains the same, and it is this everlasting original mind that is called one’s own Dharmakaya. Although we cannot see our Dharmakaya, it is replete with endless wisdom and virtue. This very mind is now, always has been and always will be. When attaining Buddhahood, this mind does not increase the least bit. Before attaining Buddhahood, this mind, in comparison to that of the Buddha and Bodhisattva, does not decrease the least bit as well. It is this very mind that “neither increases in the sage nor decreases in the ordinary being.” The Way transcends the notions of old and young. This mind never differs in all beings; that is precisely the Dharmakaya. Then what is the Sambhogakaya of the sentient being? Sambhoga is fruition and reward; it is the present fruition arising from what was sown in the past. So everyone’s Sambhogakaya is different; the eyes, ears, nose, tongue, body, conscious mind, four limbs, five sense faculties, appearance as beautiful or ugly, tall or short, fat or thin, male or female, a lay practitioner or a monastic member, and one’s environmental conditions and so forth are all different. These are the Sambhogakaya of the sentient beings.
Using the sunlight as an analogy, the sunlight is the Dharmakaya; the physical body of the sun is the Sambhogakaya; and the shadow images of myriad phenomena formed by the sunlight are the Nirmanakaya. The Dharmakaya, just like the sunlight which never ceases to shine, exists both during the day and at night; likewise, this very mind also exists both during the day and at night. During the day, this mind thinks and functions. At night, when the body may be resting, one’s consciousness does not easily remain still, and so this mind does not really rest. It is still in motion and functioning. Even when consciousness is not in motion or functioning, this mind that knows and feels still exists. Hence, this mind that knows and feels is the root; it is the Dharmakaya. This mind is clear, pure, and undefiled; it is called the clear and pure Dharmakaya Buddha. The future reward and fruition of using this clear and pure mind is the complete and perfect Sambhogakaya Buddha. When this mind of wisdom acts in accord with the absolute emptiness and the true suchness of Reality, it manifests myriad miraculous powers and wondrous abilities and is then called the billion-multitude manifesting Nirmanakaya Buddha.
All Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have realized the nature of emptiness. Their Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya are complete with miraculous powers and wisdom. They can manifest many wondrous functions freely and without any hindrances. Sentient beings have not yet eradicated their erroneous habits, delusions, and vexations so they have not realized and awakened to the reality of emptiness. Thus they are not liberated and cannot manifest miraculous powers or subtle functions. It should be known that Dharmakaya has no beginning and no end; that Sambhogakaya has a beginning but is without end; and that Nirmanakaya has both a beginning and an end, and its arising and ceasing are illusory in nature and are always in accordance with the conditions in that very moment. Although there is the difference of Dharmakaya, Sambhogakaya, and Nirmanakaya, Dharmakaya is still the root and these three kayas cannot be separate from this very mind, the original mind, and as a result the three kayas are actually in one essence.
IV. Awakening the Original Mind and Seeing the True Nature
Regarding the “mind”, there are generally three definitions. The first one is the physical mind (or heart). The second is the deluded mind. The third is the true mind; it is also the Bodhi mind, the Dharmakaya.
The physical mind is the physical heart; it exists in the sphere of matter, and everyone needs a heart to survive. With today’s medical advances in heart transplant, A’s heart can be transplanted into B’s body. If the heart were indeed our original mind, the true mind or true self, then when one’s heart is transplanted, would one then forget everything in one’s past? Or, following the transplant, would B who received A’s heart know what A previously knew? In reality, we now know this is not what happens. The events of B’s past are still B’s memories and the events of A’s life do not replace these memories. Therefore we know that the physical heart is not our original mind or our true mind.
Some people may think that the neurons of the brain represent our original mind, our true mind, but neurons also belong to the material world. Neurons or neural cells are subject to metabolism and are constantly arising, ceasing, and dying, just like the sweat and bodily filth which are merely products of dead cells. Therefore, neurons certainly are not our original mind or true mind.
The deluded mind is the constantly drifting thoughts that endlessly arise and cease. If it is not thinking of the past, then it is thinking of the future. It is constantly worrying about personal gains and losses, always restless and has often been called the wild and unrestrained monkey mind. Like a waterfall, the thoughts of the deluded mind constantly arise and cease, and flow continuously. Further, these thoughts are illusory and deluded. As a result, the mind of deluded thoughts cannot be the everlasting and stable true original mind.
The true mind is the mind that constantly knows and feels; it has wondrous wisdom and spontaneous awareness; and it manifests the true suchness of serenity and illumination, stillness and clarity. It is also called the Bodhi mind. For the true mind to manifest, we must not cling to anything. The Diamond Sutra says, “The past mind cannot be grasped; the present mind cannot be grasped; the future mind cannot be grasped.” This mind does not cling to the past, the present, or the future. When this mind is bright, lucid, and perfectly clear, it is what the Diamond Sutra calls the “mind of non-abidance.” When we realize this mind and constantly abide in samadhi concentration and prajna wisdom, it is then our original and true mind.
In the statement, “Awaken the mind to see its true nature,” nature has two meanings: awareness and emptiness. Awareness is the mind that each one of us possesses and is constantly clear, bright, subtle, knowing, and infused with wondrous wisdom and spontaneous awareness; it is also the mind that knows what is right or wrong, good or bad, and that repents wrongdoings and turns them toward virtue. Awareness exists in three levels: awareness of non-awakening, awareness of right awakening, and awareness of unsurpassed supreme awakening.
Awareness of non-awakening is the state of sentient beings who are not awakened to Reality and constantly subject to thoughts of greed, anger, and ignorance, as well as to physical actions of killing, stealing, and sexual misconduct. In this state, sentient beings are always thinking of themselves and clinging to self-centered ideas. It is called awareness of non-awakening because non-awakening is precisely the state of a sentient being.
Upon hearing Buddhadharma, awareness of right awakening arises. One knows that life is suffering and that one should quickly practice the Way—to remove the vexations of greed, anger, ignorance, pride, doubt, and erroneous views, and to transform dualistic consciousness to nondualistic wisdom. When vexations and delusions of erroneous views and thoughts are completely eradicated, one attains the awareness of right awakening. There are also different levels of realization when cultivating the awareness of right awakening. It is like cultivating Arhathood when a practitioner goes through the different stages of Srotapanna, Sakradagamin, Anagamin, and finally Arhat. At each stage the degree of vexations that have been eradicated and the level of realization with respect to Reality as such are each different. Nevertheless, the mind of the sages who have attained the state of Arhat or Pratyekabuddha is always lucid and pure; their awakened awareness manifests at all times; they will never perform acts of killing, stealing, or sexual misconduct. They are constantly in the state of right awakening.
The state of the Bodhisattva is higher than that of the Arhat. Bodhisattvas strive for Buddhahood and are always cultivating the Six Paramitas as well as the myriad ways of skillful means of liberating all sentient beings. Bodhisattvas are motivated not only to awaken themselves but also to awaken others. Yet the Bodhisattvas’ cultivation—wisdom and virtue—is not completely perfect yet, so they have not reached the state of Buddha. When the Bodhisattvas’ cultivation is perfected; when they have completely eradicated the three different kinds of delusions: the delusion of erroneous views and thoughts, the delusion of not knowing myriad skillful dharmas, and the delusion of Primal Ignorance; when they are able to liberate all sentient beings or to help develop the virtuous roots of all sentient beings; when they perfectly awaken their own awareness as well as those of others, and attain Buddhahood like Shakyamuni Buddha; when all these are perfectly accomplished, this is known as attaining the awareness of unsurpassed supreme awakening.
The meaning of emptiness is subtle and important, especially in correctly understanding the teachings of the Buddha as a whole. If we do not understand the meaning of emptiness, we can easily develop erroneous views regarding the Buddhadharma. In Buddhism, emptiness is not the emptiness of vast space or the emptiness of nothingness or void. Although vast space is empty, it does not contain wisdom. Buddha nature or the original mind is perfectly empty in nature. Whereas its original nature is fundamentally empty, it is also filled with virtue, wisdom, miraculous powers, and wondrous abilities. It is completely different from the emptiness of vast space or that of hollow nothingness.
Specifically, there are three different kinds of emptiness in Buddhism: emptiness of the self, emptiness of the dharma, and fundamental emptiness of the original nature. Emptiness of the self is the emptiness which Shravaka-Arhats and Pratyekabuddhas have attained, for they have eradicated all attachments to the self and realized that the nature of the self is emptiness. Bodhisattvas have realized the emptiness of the dharma because they have eradicated the delusion of not knowing myriad skillful dharmas and thus the attachments to all dharmas. Buddhas have completely understood both the emptiness of the self and the emptiness of the dharma, and their mind is no longer attached to emptiness or to existence (i.e., non-emptiness) but avoids and transcends both extremes. Buddhas consistently walk the Middle Way and thoroughly grasp the essence of the original mind and nature. Reaching this state is then called realizing the fundamental emptiness of the original nature, the realm of absolute (or ultimate) emptiness and wondrous existence.
“Awaken the mind to see its true nature,” means to realize our innate Buddha nature and to be awakened to the awareness of this very mind, which is filled with ultimate emptiness and wondrous existence. Here, emptiness and existence (or non-emptiness) manifest as one-suchness; as the Heart Sutra asserts, “Form is emptiness; emptiness is form.” If we do not understand the meaning of emptiness, we will cling to material form and body, and regard all phenomena and things as ultimately real (or inherently existent), thus deluding our original mind. When the original mind is deluded, its wondrous wisdom, miraculous powers, and subtle functions cannot manifest.
Therefore, to cultivate the Way and strive for awakening, we must first eradicate our attachments by contemplating and realizing the emptiness of the self. Not only must we realize the emptiness of self, but furthermore, we must realize the emptiness of the dharma until we are finally not even attached to emptiness itself. Then we will see the fundamental emptiness of our original nature. In this respect, contemplation of emptiness is particularly effective as the skillful means to eradicate our attachments. Next, we should eliminate our erroneous views, eradicate afflictions and vexations, increase our virtue and wisdom, and further realize our innate awareness or Buddha nature. After achieving this realization, we need to continue practicing and cultivating the Way until we eradicate all delusions and ignorance, and finally perfect the Bodhi Path to ultimate awakening.
V. Nurturing the Seeds of Sagehood till Buddhahood
To cultivate the Way and strive for awakening, we must take the Buddha’s understanding to be our own understanding. Our mind must constantly reflect inward so as to realize the innate true nature of the mind. After reaching this understanding, we need to continue to practice according to changing conditions yet retain the true original mind that is immutable in essence. In Chan, this process is called nurturing the seeds of sagehood. In this process, there are four levels of awareness: the awareness manifested by ordinary beings, the awareness manifested by Bodhisattvas who have not yet entered the Grounds (footnote: A Bodhisattva goes through fifty-two stages to achieve Buddhahood. The Ten Grounds are the forty-first through the fiftieth stages, each of which is associated with the elimination of a certain obstruction to enlightenment with one of the Ten Paramitas.), the awareness manifested by Bodhisattvas who have entered the Grounds, and the awareness manifested by the Tathagata (footnote: One of the ten epithets of the Buddha; literally it means thus gone or thus come. The former implies that via the path of thusness or suchness one goes to the fruition, i.e., nirvana, of Buddhahood, whereas the latter indicates that from the thusness of Reality comes the awakened one.). Awareness itself is Buddha nature, but only after passing through all the four levels of awareness and eradicating all vexations and delusions can our cultivation be perfected; then one truly realizes ultimate awakening and becomes a Buddha.
From an ordinary person to attain Buddhahood, one must go through a period of diligent practice, or more specifically, cultivate these four levels of awareness. Often when people hear the Chan saying, “Mind is Buddha; Buddha is mind,” they misinterpret it and think that they do not need to go through these four levels of practice and do not need to constantly reflect inward. From this misunderstanding arise feelings of superiority and arrogance in thinking that since mind is Buddha, there is no need to pay respect to Buddhas or Bodhisattvas, to meditate, or to practice good deeds. It thus creates biased, erroneous views and attachments, and consequently makes one further away from awakening to Buddhahood.
When people first encounter Buddhadharma, they may generally develop two problems: the first is having faith without wisdom, and the second is having wisdom without faith. For example, many good and faithful men and women know only devotional practice and sincerely prostrate to the Buddhas, so they pray to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas every day. After a year, two years, three years, and even ten years, all along they have not tried to delve into the essential Buddhadharma, but only practice their faith superficially. When conditions have not changed to make their lives, their family or their fortunes better, doubts and regrets surface, and they begin to think that the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas have failed to care for or protect them. Consequently, they lose their faith. Practicing in this manner is a form of emotional dependence; their faith has no foundation—it is called having faith without wisdom. This type of faith is not true faith or right faith.
For one’s faith to reach the level of true faith or right faith one must practice the dharma, sincerely believe in causality and sincerely believe in that all sentient beings possess Buddha nature. Work hard with the causes to eradicate vexations and delusions. Uphold the precepts, practice meditation, and cultivate wisdom so as to make this mind pure, lucid, free from defilements, and filled with perfect confidence, samadhi, and prajna wisdom. This is then the true faith or right faith.
On the other hand, there are also those who have wisdom but do not have faith. They may think that Buddhadharma is very deep and profound and worth investigation, but they only view Buddhadharma as a field of study or knowledge and do not have true faith in the teachings. We must comprehend that everyone possesses Buddha nature and that every one of us can become a Buddha. Confucian scholars have also said, “Everyone can become Yao and Shun. (footnote: Yao and Shun were ancient Chinese sagely kings.)” To achieve this, we certainly need to know how to practice. If we do not understand the methods of practice, we will either take the sinuous route or may even take the wrong route.
If we wish to delve deeply into the heart of Buddhadharma, we must not only understand its philosophical principles and conceptually know its methods, but must also diligently cultivate the Way in our daily life and realize this very mind. After achieving this realization, we must keep nurturing the seeds of sagehood and manifest our awareness in accordance with Reality as such; that is, the awareness of this very mind should be present at all times, without clinging, without confusion, and be perfectly clear and lucid. In this way, we will surely realize the true benefits of Buddhadharma.