Buddhist cosmology evolved as home-leavers migrated beyond the Indian subcontinent.  In earlier forms of the practice, it was believed that Enlightenment could be obtained only after several lifetimes of much practice.  The Jataka Tales, for example, are about the previous lives of the Buddha and the sacrifices he made prior to becoming a Buddha in his last incarnation as Prince Siddhartha Gautama. 

Early disciples (and perhaps modern disciples, too) of the Buddha believed it may take them several more rebirths before they obtain complete liberation from the round of samsara – suffering.  There are terms like “stream enterer,” or one who has entered the path of liberation and has experienced much of the fruit of the path, but has much more to accomplish and will return to the round of rebirth several more times, “once returner,” or one who has done much work towards complete liberation and has only one more life to live after the present one in order to attain complete liberation, and “Arhat,” or one who has attained complete liberation in this life and will not be returning again.

As Buddhism migrated to China it was deeply influenced by Confucian and Daoist philosophy, and these undoubtedly reinforced the emerging idea within Buddhist culture that Enlightenment could be found here and now.  Confucius believed that our role as human beings was to become human beings.  This doesn’t make logical sense because it would appear that a human being is already a human being.  However, Confucius believed that we come into the world as human beings “half baked” so to speak.  In other words, we have a lot of work to do to become truly human.  The term he used for the sage was the junzi or the Noble Person.

Confucius pressed for the cultivation of one’s heart through education – not learning and spitting back information – but of one’s whole character, including in the realms of ethics, music, writing, math, and physical activities like charioteering and archery.  When the person’s interior condition changed, then outward conditions with the family, community, government, and world would also change. 

Lao Tzu, Buddha, and Confucius

What Confucianism, Daoism, and Chan (Zen) Buddhism all have in common that is strikingly different from the earlier Indian form which Buddhism took, is that our circumstances as they are in this moment are perfect for awakening.  We don’t need to wait until some future time, a future life, or a better situation to come to us to become a sage or a Buddha.  We don’t need to go off and practice in a cave for 40 years by our self.  Practice and Enlightenment can take place in the very midst of society and in our relationships.  What we need to do now is to recognize our present situation as exactly what’s needed to propel us along The Way or The Dao.[1]

If Enlightenment is possible here and now and in this lifetime regardless of prior knowledge or practice, the question remains whether Enlightenment happens by grasping it or by letting it go.  Zen Master Dogen, in speaking to his assembly during the celebration of the Enlightenment of the Buddha tells us that there are two causes and conditions for accomplishing the Buddha Way.

The first cause for accomplishing the Buddha way is hearing Tiantong speak about dropping away.[2]

“Tiantong” is referring to Dogen Zenji’s teacher.  It’s said that when Master Dogen heard his teacher scold another monk for sleeping while in meditation and he said something like, “Drop off body and mind.”  This “dropping away” is one of the causes for Enlightenment.  Dogen Zenji searched far and wide for a teacher that could satisfactorily answer his question about why one needs to practice if we are all already Buddhas.  He found his answer with Tiantong.  His seeking paid off and he finally grasped the answer, and in that grasping his Original Face manifested.

The second cause, he says, “… is the power of [Dogen’s] fist entering all of your eyeballs.”[3]  This violent image of a fist entering the eyes gives us great pause.  Did he punch his students?  What could this be a metaphor for? 

We perhaps can see Enlightenment as both an activity of reception – dropping off – and an activity of giving – fist entering eyeballs.  Enlightenment, for the Bodhisattva, is something sought after, but it is also something we do to wake others up.

Dogen Zenji offers us another image.  The recorder of Dogen’s Extensive Record says:

Dogen raised his fist and paused for a while, then opened his five fingers wide and paused….[4]

Is this action not what all things do:  breathe in and out, live and die, expand and contract?  Is there something to grasp?  Is there something to let go of?  What is Enlightenment?

I can’t say for sure what it is, but I feel fortunate having been born in a human body, for this body is the locus for Enlightenment.


[1] For more on these relationships between Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, see, Gregory, Peter, editor, Sudden and Gradual:  Approaches to Enlightenment in Chinese Thought.  University of Hawaii Press: 1987.

[2] Leighton, Taigen Dan and Okumura Shohaku translators.  Dogen’s Extensive Record.  Boston:  Wisdom Publications, 2010.  Pages 164-5.

[3] Ibid, page 165.

[4] Ibid, page 165.

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