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Subject: Buddha Nature in Zen Buddhism
Date: Fri, 26 Jul 2002
From: Kelvin Ng

Dear Piya Tan,

I would like you to enlighten me in Zen Buddhism which mentions “realise the Buddha nature”. If a person realises his Buddha nature, then which stage would he be classified in of the four stage of Arahantship?

Thank you.


Piya's answer:

Kelvin, the first point to note here is that “Buddhism” is not a monolithic system. It is a family of religions. As Buddhism spread outside India and “matured” in other societies (even in post-Buddha India), Buddhism influenced other systems and is influence by them. This is the nature of all living religions, a vital factor in their growth as world religions.

However, at the core or foundation of any “Buddhism” worth its salt, there is the basic early teachings of Dependent Origination, the 3 Characteristics, the 4 Noble Truths, and the 3 Jewels. In the Mahayana system, each school or sect usually focuses and expands of a particular teaching (like the Vinaya or meditation) or even a particular sutra (like the Lotus Sutra).

The Vajrayana system is a reinterpretation of Buddhism heavily influenced by the shamanistic Bon religion (indigenous to Tibet) and by Hinduism (later developments in Brahmanism in India). Many mantras and ceremonies are for example taken over from Saivism. This happens both ways: for example, Manichaeism used many Buddhist terms like “Buddha”, “Nirvana” in their missionary effort to convert others (especially Buddhists).

An interesting book to read here is Pruning the Bodhi Tree: The storm over critical Buddhism, ed. Jamie Hubbard and Paul S. Swanson. Honolulu: Univ. of Hawaii Press, 197. Check through its biblio of other titles.

Having said that, let me get down to your question about Zen and “realize your Buddha Nature”. What Zen means by “satori” (enlightenment) is a Japanese development and response to the early Buddhism teaching of “bodhi”. I am not saying they are totally different (which is purely speculative). My answer is based on how Zen perceives (or not perceive) Buddhism and teaches it.

Buddhism being a totally democratic religion basically means anyone can say anything about anything, and it also depends on who will listen and how they listen. For this reason, the Buddha expounded the Kalama Sutta (please read my booklet “What Not to Look for in a Religion” (5th ed. 2002).

As such, it is important that every thinking Buddhist.have some basic skill to read and appreciate the early Teachings (whether in the Pali Nikayas or the Sanskrit Agamas) so that we can decided for ourselves and not take Buddhism merely as a guru's teaching, but ratwehr as a path to freedom and enlightenment.

In short, we might regard the Zen notion of satori (seeing Buddha nature) and the early teaching of Bodhi as parallels, but we should also understand that parallels never meet. Let me venture to say that very high levels of concentration can be achieved if one properly practices any form of mental concentration, such as the Zen practice.

With the growing friendly dialogue amongst world religions, we find for example more Catholics priests and laymen attracted to Buddhism meditation. There is nothing to stop them from adapting or switching the objects of concentration from the breath (for example) to focusing on Christ or God, or whatever.

However, as long as there is some high level of mental concentration, inner peace would arise. In this way, religions (any religion) would have served is purpose in bring the light to dispel one's shadow (opposite of Buddha Nature).

The notion of Buddha Nature is an interesting development in the Mahayana, based of the early teaching that we are all capable of becoming enlightened.

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