Dharma Talk on

Today I would like to explore the term “self-nature” which is used in one version of the precepts. We chant the precepts during the monthly Bodhisattva Ceremony, and we receive the precepts in the ceremony when formally becoming a Lay Buddhist and in the ceremony, Leaving Home and Accomplishing the Way when people are ordained as a priest. Soto Zen also uses the Sixteen Bodhisattva Precepts in its wedding and funeral services. These 16 precepts are the Three Refuges, the Three Pure Precepts, and the Ten Grave or Clear Mind Precepts.

There is also a version of the Ten Precepts called the Bodhidharma One-Mind Precepts. As it turns out, they aren’t included in Bodhidharma’s written teachings and they appeared sometime after Bodhidharma lived, and no one knows where they really came from. The One-Mind Precepts are expressed from a non-dual perspective, and they begin, “Self-nature is subtle and profound ...” There are several Chinese characters that can be translated as “subtle” and “profound,” and some of these characters also have the meaning of mysterious, dark, inconceivable and wondrous. Okumura Roshi translates this phrase as, “Self Nature is wondrous and imperceptible.

After having used the Bodhidharma One-Mind precepts in ceremonies since 1996, at some point I realized that I didn’t really know what “self-nature” was. But as it turns out, Suzuki Roshi talked about “self-nature” in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind saying, “The basic teaching of Buddhism is the teaching of transiency, or change. That everything changes is the basic truth for each existence.....all the teaching of Buddhism is condensed within it....This teaching [of impermanence] is also understood as the teaching of selflessness.” He continued, “Because each existence is in constant change, there is no abiding self. In fact, the self-nature of each existence is nothing but change itself, the self-nature of all existence.” “There is no special, separate self-nature for each existence.”

I’ve often thought that the only thing that Buddhism teaches that’s permanent...is impermanence. And where Suzuki Roshi said, “the self-nature of each existence is nothing but change itself,” reminds me that in Master Dogen’s text Buddha Nature, or Bussho, he wrote that Buddha-nature is impermanence, which, I think, helps distinguish the idea of a self from the idea of Buddha nature.

So, we might think of Buddha-nature, as the awakened aspect of consciousness — or the deep experience of everything in the universe as change with nothing having an unchanging, permanent structure or essence. This is very much like the Buddhist teaching of emptiness which is sometimes defined as dependent co-origination — that everything is dependent on other or outside causes and conditions for coming into being and existing, that nothing stands apart or separate from everything else. I think it is easy to misunderstand the terms “Buddha-nature” and “self-nature” to mean something more real than our body, or character, or volition, our history and continuity, or however you might think of a self.

These terms, “Buddha-nature” and “self-nature,” that were translated from Chinese or Japanese and then into English don’t refer to something inherently existent or substantial. Buddha-nature is not a thing any more than change and impermanence are things, or any more than impermanence and change exist as an absolute, independent and autonomous. Rather, impermanent, changing, and empty are characteristics of how everything exists. The way that Suzuki Roshi takes the word that’s translated as “self-nature,” and shifts the way we might understand it in English, to mean impermanence, change, and selflessness, has been really helpful to me. Impermanent and selfless are ways of characterizing reality. So, instead of saying, “Self-nature is subtle and profound,” or “wondrous and imperceptible,” or “mysterious and inconceivable,” we could say “Reality is mysterious and inconceivable, subtle and profound..., etc.”

In Master Dogen’s teaching, the Jijuyu Zammai, or The Samadhi of Self Enjoyment, this term is described by Kaz Tanahashi as “realizing and utilizing the joy of samadhi.” While in Uchiyama Roshi’s commentary, Shohaku Okumura and Taigen Leighton translated this term as the “Samadhi of Self Receiving,” and the “Samadhi of the Self Accepting its Function.” So, as strange as it may seem, talking about the meaning of Jijuyu Zammai, involves a lot of use of the word “self.” I suspect that the meaning of the word “self” has a much different significance in Japan where the common welfare or welfare of the community is stressed over the welfare and preferences of the individual, compared to the US where the individual is given more importance and agency than that of the community.

Okumura and Leighton emphasize that this is not the self that takes an object. They write, “There is nothing other than or outside of this self. The enjoyment, fulfillment, or satisfaction is the samadhi of the self of which there is no other.” So, again, these usages of “self” really means selflessness, referring to the non-dual experience of no self and no other, no subject and no object, and this is an all inclusive experience since at that point in time, nothing exists outside it.

The Jijuyu Zammai is part of a longer text called Bendowa or Wholehearted Practice of the Way, which was one of Dogen’s early teachings written in 1231, when he was thirty-one. In Uchiyama Roshi’s commentary on Bendowa, he talked about the Bodhidharma One-Mind Precepts saying, “Self nature is what I call the reality of life. Since the reality of life cannot be grasped by words, it is said to be wondrous and imperceptible. Within this world, in whatever situation, everything is the reality of life. The reality of life cannot be killed by any means. The precept of not killing means that since all beings are in the reality of life, we cannot kill anything. When you don’t awaken to the reality and [you] kill some creature it is a violation of this precept.”

Katagiri Roshi also talked about existence as change, similar to the way that Suzuki Roshi did. Katagiri said, “Existence is nothing but motion and change. Motion and change penetrate the entire universe. They are the life of trees, the life of winter. They are your life, too. So if you examine your life, you find the whole universe.... Your life manifests as the activity of the Whole. The total activity of the Whole manifests as you.” Katagiri Roshi said, “the question you must ask is: using this body and mind, how can I participate in the life of the world after throwing everything away?” I would say that “throwing everything away” refers to our ideas, conceptualizations and expectations about...everything. Another way to think of this is letting go — letting our ideas and expectations fall away, and simply returning to fundamental, unadorned being.

In April, we celebrated Buddha’s Birthday and the legend of Buddha’s birth that’s found in Chinese and Japanese Buddhism, which is just after the baby Buddha was born, he took seven steps and pointed up with a finger of one hand and down with a finger on the other and said, “Below heaven and above earth, I alone am the world honored one.” I think this statement puzzles most of us. It doesn’t sound like Buddhism, much less like Shakyamuni Buddha. The first time I met Daitsu Tom Wright, who practiced with Uchiyama Roshi in Japan, I brought this up and he said this is not a good translation and it’s unfortunate that it’s used so much in English. He said that the term translated as “I” is jiko in Japanese and it refers to life force itself. So we could say, “Below heaven and above earth, life force itself is most honored, or the living energy we share with everything is most important.” In other words, honor life.

I would like to talk more about this term jiko, especially as it is used by Uchiyama Roshi in his books, Opening the Hand of Thought and Wholehearted Practice. I was fortunate to attend sesshin in Pennsylvania at Mt. Equity Zendo where Dai-En Bennage was the teacher. She invited Doyu Takamine, another disciple of Uchiyama Roshi, to lead sesshin, and Daitsu translated. For the rest of this talk, I would like to refer to notes I made from Takamine Roshi’s lectures in which he talked about the term jiko, in hopes that this will give a fuller sense of what this word, which is translated as “self,” in English, means in Soto Zen Practice.

In contemporary Japan, the word jiko is used in a way that is similar to the way we use the word “self,” meaning our normal, psychological self. In Master Dogen’s 13th century text, Bendowa, jiko was translated both as self and as universal self. I think the term, universal self sounds like it might refer to a larger “self” or maybe something like God. But Dogen’s usage of jiko, according to Takamine Roshi, is more like “life force,” and he said that jiko is the “life that fills the universe. The food I eat has been given by the whole universe. The air that I breathe is the breath of the whole universe.” Takamine Roshi said that “we are always living out the life that fills the universe.” He also described jiko as the “causes of life-death or universal self.” Sojun Roshi used the terms “birth and death” to mean “life” so that life and death do not stand in opposition to each other, but birth and death are included in the meaning of life. “Although it is the universal self, it is also ‘I’ [or my personal self life-force].” Takamine continued, “As we practice, we begin to understand that ‘I’ am not just this body and this mind. The parameters are wider. Jiko refers both to the universal self and to the individual. Jiko is the life that fills the universe, and it can be individual, or it can be everyone.”

He said, “All of us are life force. As life force, it takes time for us to become fully that life force.” He said, “In [Japanese] temples there has always been a tradition of having gardens.” And “Gardens are a good teacher. Through this garden we begin to understand that life force takes time. If you give to the earth, the earth will give back.” He said, “The earth is our true intention.” “In Dogen’s Instructions for the Pure Community, or the monastic community, he advised the gardener to go out into the garden and dirt.” Dogen said, “Put your spirit into it, and in time the earth will give you its fruit. Take your time and be patient. Put your intention and energy into it.”

According to Takamine, “Uchiyama Roshi said that even if we have money, we still need air, water, sun, the earth, etc. and...they are given to us. We often take for granted the things that are given to us. How we grow as adults is to realize all these things are given to us, and so we give by cooking, cleaning, painting, etc.” He said, “So, give what you have been given.”

On December 8, Buddha’s Enlightenment is celebrated in Japan. The Zen version of Shakyamuni Buddha’s enlightenment is that after doing extreme ascetic practices for several years, Shakyamuni had nearly died from starvation when he decided that he was no closer to finding the truth that would end suffering. So, he decided to follow the middle way between asceticism and indulging his senses. At this time, he was on the brink of starvation, when a local girl offered him milk and rice. After eating and beginning to feel stronger, he decided to meditate, and he was determined not to move until he discovered the truth that would end suffering. After sitting all night, as morning approached, when Shakykamuni saw Venus or the morning star, he awakened to the enlightened nature of all things. He said, “I was, I am, and I will be enlightened simultaneously with the whole universe and all beings. Everything – mountains, rivers, grass, and trees – all attained enlightenment.” In my opinion, you could add onto this, “in my own mind.” Since everything is already deeply connected and interconnected or empty of a permanent, unchanging essence, Shakyamuni awakened to this in his own mind or being.

Takamine Roshi said, “As Shakyamuni sat, he sat within himself. Within that, he realized what he really was, which is the whole universe. Shakyamuni sitting under the Bodhi Tree realized that he was interconnected with all things.”“‘Mountains, rivers, grass and trees’ refers to everything.” Takamine said that Shakyamuni Buddha realized, “The whole universe, everything, everyone is Buddha, is enlightened with me. My enlightenment is the enlightenment of all things. My life force is the same life force that flows through all things. This was Buddha’s awakening.” Then Takamine shifted and said, “Don’t understand the precepts as commandments which are something that comes from outside ourselves. Our life is connected to all things, to kill someone is to kill oneself. If all life is connected, there can’t be stealing.” He said, “The precepts need to be understood through connectedness or else it becomes a duality.” “When you see the connection, internally, you can’t go to war, etc. Precepts are internal.”

Takamine Roshi said that “Uchiyama Roshi taught that the life force that functions through us, whether we feel reverence for it or we don’t, whether we see it or not, that life force we must pay reverence to. And whether we feel it or not, understand it or not, it is most precious. This is how we move more deeply into life. When you see the connection, internally, you can’t go to war. Precepts are internal. Just sitting with the life that you have as an individual, aiming to be one with the life of the universe, that is sitting into the depth of life.”

Takamine said, “In the 2,500 years that have passed since Buddha lived, many sanghas have developed. And no matter how deep the teaching, if there is no sangha [or community of practitioners], it isn’t generated, [the teaching] doesn’t function. So, the sangha is a living function of the teaching.”

Takamine Roshi also talked about the meaning of the word, “Butsu-en,” which he translated as Buddha-connection. He said, “We are constantly being pulled and protected by the legacy of the Buddha. Everyone’s Butsu-en [or Buddha-connection] is different.” Takamine said that he was born in a temple, while we were born in the US with different backgrounds. “Each person has his own Buddha-connection that brought him here to practice. But, don’t assume that he [Takamine] was lucky to be born in a temple. What is crucial,” he said, “is if you have your antenna up. If not [i.e., if you don’t have your antenna up], you won’t catch the ‘air waves.’ For a lot of people that Butsu-en or Buddha-connection, or antenna, go up when we are suffering, in grief, or when we are struggling.”

Takamine Roshi continued talking more about jiko, “Each of us has been living out our own life individually.” He asked, “What does this mean?” And he replied, “Our zazen is the true form of jiko. Jiko in this sense is our all-comprehensive self. Our body and everything around us is our True Self – who we truly are. Encountering one’s self, you have to make your own effort.” He said, “When we see flowers, we can’t help but smile, we see the preciousness of everything we encounter. We begin to feel closer even to difficult people and see that they are like me. It brings us joy to see the preciousness of people. But we need to make effort. Over the long run, it takes less effort — this is learning the Buddha-dharma. When we open our eyes, we see that everything is our teacher. We can learn from everything around us — a cherry tree can be our teacher. It takes effort to wake up, but it also means making effort to be playful.”

I’d like to thank you for listening to all these quotes from Takamine Roshi’s teaching. They were quite moving for me and I hope they’re meaningful for you. I’d like to leave you with the idea of Life or Life Force. Life itself, the Life Force or energy we share with everything, is most important. So, the question is, “Right now, right here, how do I honor life?” How do I make the most of this precious “life opportunity” that I have right now?

Copyright © 2024 Josho Pat Phelan