By Layman Chushu
The first thing you need to know is that you’re Buddha. Yes, this might seem unlikely.
We’re used to thinking about Buddha as a person, as Siddhartha Gautama sitting under the Bodhi Tree unraveling the mystery of suffering and enlightenment, but that’s not the case. Buddha isn’t a person. Buddha isn’t something outside of ourselves and ordinary life; enlightenment isn’t on a mountain somewhere. It’s right here, right in the midst of all this crap.
And it’s not that you were a Buddha before and then messed up and fell into this miserable state; it’s not that you’re going to be a Buddha in the future. From bottom up and top down, Buddha is Just This here and now.
But don’t listen to me, don’t blindly accept or reject what I’m saying. This isn’t about learning, learning is a distraction, a winding side quest into the weeds.
Knowing is immediate, like a finger snap, and it doesn’t require faith, logic, or memory. You heard the birds sing before you learned that they were birds. You were eating, crapping, laughing, and crying before you learned your own name.
Seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, touching, feeling, and thinking are all knowing and knowing is Buddha, there’s no Buddha anywhere else. When this is as clear to you as bird song, practice can begin. Before that, it’s all based on self-interest, so whatever we get is eventually taken back.
All these mindfulness programs, insight practices, and relaxation techniques—while helpful for awhile—will eventually be another cause of suffering and disappointment if we practice them out of self-interest. The same goes for studying scriptures, putting on robes, balancing chi, going on pilgrimages, isolating ourselves and going minimalist, or joining a community and collecting incense, crystals, statues, and beads.
Anything done out of self-interest is unsteady and unreliable because self-interest makes our state of mind unsteady and unreliable.
Motives change, resolve comes and goes, self-concepts evolve, and pride and boredom prosper in continuity. We miss a meditation session here and there and then beat ourselves up about it. Or we rely on meditation to the point that we alienate our friends and loved ones. We find joy and ease through mindfulness until the car breaks down and makes us late for work.
We talk about how really everything’s empty, mind-made and that there’s no such thing as birth and death until a family member winds up in the hospital. If our beliefs don’t shatter with that, we carry them into the room as aloofness and aren’t any use to anyone.
Statues break, robes tear, solitude turns into loneliness, teachers betray and abandon us, and communities change hands and collapse. The first Two Noble Truths can be summed up as, “Self-interest makes life cruel.” This is what we get ourselves into if we practice with ideas of gain in mind.
I practiced like that for years and the only thing it taught me is that I wasn’t actually practicing at all. I was reading and re-reading the ingredients, trying to eat the recipe instead of using it to make dinner for my family. I suffered a lot because of this and acted like an idiot.
That’s why it’s recommended that we start with Buddha-nature and then get into everything else after that. Then we can do all of those things without self-interest and use them skillfully without getting burned.
If you’re allergic to the word Buddha, “Alright,” is a decent stand in. From the get-go, we’re all alright. Beneath the confusion, attachment, and aversion, we’re already alright. Because we know. When we see our lover naked, is our seeing attractive? No, it’s just seeing. If we see rotting roadkill, is our seeing repulsive? No, it’s still just seeing. If we’re stressed, is the capacity to feel also stressed? No. If we’re at ease, is feeling at ease? No, it’s just feeling. Just this, this persistent bare knowing is Buddha.
When you read a book, the words are on the page, not in your skin. We’re not a trail of footprints left by past disasters. If we can watch closely, we see that the wind smooths away each imprint a moment after it’s been made. This is what, “We’re all alright,” means.
Siddhartha said, “What’s aware of the sickness is not itself sick.” Seeing, hearing, tasting, and so on are like a mirror. Mirrors just reflect. They’re not photographs, they aren’t defined by the images within them.
We’re alright because we’re like a mirror, we’re not the punctuation mark at the end of a thought, we’re the potential, the open page that gives all these words room to rest. The problem is that our senses are turned outward. We even place our own thoughts and feelings outside of ourselves as we watch them criss-cross our minds. Looking outside, we’ll never find anything that we can keep, nowhere to hang our, “I, me, mine,” hat.
But if we turn our senses inward by asking, “What is within me?” we’re asking sight to see Buddha, hearing to hear Buddha, feeling to feel Buddha, and thinking to think, “Buddha?” while trusting that this capacity, this gaze that can look within is itself Buddha. We all feel like we exist inside of our bodies, but we tend to dwell on the surface of our experiences. What’s inside? We can follow that feeling of being inside our bodies and ask, “What is Buddha?”
If we can put everything we’ve got into that, then the knower and what’s known kind of implode, and what’s left is Buddha alone. Then we can start practicing.
This can be difficult for rationalists (I was once one myself) but it’s the most direct way. Please don’t waste your time trying to do it the other way around. Life is short. Who has time to muck about with paths, stages and expensive week-long retreats five times a year?
To show how ridiculous it is to start with self-interested study and meditation, traditional Buddhists said that it takes about 12 billion years of dedicated practice to be free of suffering. If you don’t believe in rebirth, that basically means that Buddhism and meditation are guilty of false advertising since it’s impossible to use the classic bottom-up model to be free of suffering in a single lifetime.
In China, Buddhists decided to flip the process. They weren’t able to live off of donated food, so they had to spend more time working than sitting. But the views and methods they got from India weren’t made for that kind of lifestyle. Skipping ahead, they said, “Instead of humans working to become Buddhas, let’s start with Buddhahood and then, in light of that, work back toward what it means to be human.”
Start with the roots, then work toward the branches.
While walking through the forest, Siddhartha once picked up a handful of leaves and said, “What I uncovered under the Bodhi Tree is like all of the leaves in this forest, but what you need to know to be free is just this handful.”
I think that even a handful is too much. Best to look directly at the hand. Take care.
Upaska Chushu is a Buddhist scholar, historian, and half-mad Zen hermit
Editor: Dana Gornall
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