What is the Essence of Buddhism?

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What is the Essence of Buddhism?

I want to start with a scripture we are all probably familiar with, which is the Platform Sutra by the Sixth Patriarch Huineng. In this text, he had an awakening that occurred to him as he listened to a man outside of a store recite a line from the Vajra Sutra: “Let the mind be unattached, clinging to nothing.”「應無所住,而生其心。」Immediately upon hearing this, Sixth Patriarch Huineng had a wonderful understanding that led him to put down everything and go find where he could learn about this.

In our Hermeneutics class, as we were studying this sutra, students had questions about his cultivation process. When the Sixth Patriarch heard the line, “Let the mind be unattached, clinging to nothing”, he had an awakening experience and went to the monastery where the Fifth Patriarch Hongren resided and took refuge with him. Patriarch Hongren sent him to work behind the kitchen, basically splitting firewood and hulling rice. Patriarch Huineng didn’t go to the library, and couldn’t, because he was illiterate. He spent very little time in the Buddha Hall. He mainly worked, and did this for eight months, just splitting firewood and hulling rice. And at the end of those eight months, the Fifth Patriarch asked him, “Is the rice ready yet?” And Patriarch Huineng said, “It’s long been ready; it’s only waiting for the sieve.” At that point, the Fifth Patriarch invited him to his room at night and began to lecture to him (or just read to him the Vajra Sutra). And when he came to that line, “Let the mind be unattached, clinging to nothing.” Patriarch Huineng had an incredibly profound awakening.

And so, the students asked, “What’s the change?” The line was exactly the same: “Let the mind be unattached, clinging to nothing.” Eight months later, here the very same line, (the Sutra hasn’t changed), and yet Patriarch Huineng’s experience of this was profoundly different. So “What changed?” What was the cultivation that he did that allowed the meaning of the text to come directly into his heart, where eight months earlier it hadn’t?

This question came up in a Hermeneutics class. Hermeneutics is concerned with how do you retrieve meaning from the text? How do you understand not only what the Buddha taught but why he taught it? What was he thinking? And it seemed from this example, the students were quick to point out that mere study doesn’t reveal that; there has to be some transformation in the person looking at the text for meaning to come through. The students were moving along the line that self-cultivation was a tool of retrieving meaning. It was not just the language, or just study, (even memorization), but there had to be an inner transformation for the meaning to come through. And this was from the example of Patriarch Huineng.

This goes back to a principle that Master Hua used with us early on, which essentially translates that: Study without practice is sterile, but practice without study is blind.

So, after Patriarch Huineng gained profound realization, he understood that everything was wholly complete, there was nothing lacking. The essential nature, 自性 (zìxìng), or 本性 (běnxìng), or just 性 (xìng), is universally available to all living beings. It is not greater in the Buddhas or lesser in human beings and so forth. He had this profound realization. He realized it because our essential nature is wholly complete, lacking nothing, and never had left us. Therefore, the teaching wasn’t so much to give Dharma, but to untie the obstructions or get rid of the impediments to that direct understanding. So, when he was asked by one of his disciples would he give them his teaching, he said, “I would be deceiving you to say I have a teaching to give you. Through this process, your essential nature will shine forth.”

Some people feel that the most interesting chapters in the Platform Sutra, or as I would call them “lively encounters” are the stories of Patriarch Huineng’s direct exchanges with the disciples.

His disciples came from all backgrounds and different kinds of cultivation. Some of them were Chan, some of them memorized and recited Sutras, some of them were very strange, and one even came and tried to kill him and so forth. He gave a different teaching to each one of them as appropriate to their knots, their causes and conditions. And sometimes, these teachings seemed as if they contradicted each other, for the teaching given to one was very different from the one given to the other. To one he might teach emptiness, and to another he might teach existence.

He came back to the same point: there was no Dharma per se to give. All Dharmas are expedient, they are meant to untie knots. For example, we saw the same thing in the Shurangama Sutra, where the Buddha talked about knots and untied knots. A similar analogy is used in the Lotus Sutra where the metaphor was medicine and the Buddha was considered a skilled physician who dispensed medicine according to illness. And once the illness was cured, then there was no longer a need for the medicine. Different illnesses required different medicines; hence, you don’t give chemotherapy to someone with a headache, and you don’t give aspirin to someone with cancer. And so, it seemed as if they are different and maybe even contradictory, but from this deep review, they were completely appropriate and this is what 方便 (fāngbiàn), expedient means.

What I want to do now is to jump to something more contemporary. This goes back to probably 1975 or 1976. At that point I had come to the monastery, and was thinking about becoming a monk and spending a lot of time there. So, during that time, different people would come to visit, and I remember this one particular visit, which I want to use it to sort of get some thinking going about the follow: Just like what Sixth Patriarch said, the Buddha said in a Parable, “There’s nothing to get but only expedient devices to untie and liberate what we already have.” Then what did it mean to reach the other shore? In other words, what was the goal? Or even more closely, what was essence of the Dharma (of Buddha Dharma)? What was it for? What was it about? This was a question that I had at the time, and many people did. So, here’s a story about 1975: a famous Buddhist scholar who came to Gold Mountain Monastery, which was located on 15th street at that time, a very rustic place. He gathered in the kitchen with Shifu, and the Master invited us all in to sit around. He asked Master Hua what’s the essence of Buddhism.

The Master turned to the Scholar and said, “You know I’m just a country bumpkin; I don’t know very much. My disciples, on the other hand, many of them are college-educated, some even have PhDs. I’ll let them answer the question.” So, the Master turned to us and said, 

“So what is the essence of Buddhism?” And one person responded, “Wisdom” 智慧 (zhìhuì), and the Master said, “No.” Another person responded, “(Great) Compassion” 大悲 (dàbēi),and the Master said, “No.” Someone said, “Emptiness, 空 (kōng).” “No.” I think I said, because we’re reading the Six Patriarch Sutra at that time, “Non-attachment” 無執著 (wúzhízhuó), and the Master said, “No.” And another monk who was interested in shentong 神通 (shéntōng) said, “Spiritual powers—that is the essence”, and the Master said, “Absolutely not.” And so, we went around like this and finally there was a young Shami (novice monk) about 11 years old or 12 years old there, named Guo Tong. Some of you may have heard of him; his mother is a Buddhist nun. And he always liked to win the contest; he always liked to be in the spotlight. So, he jumped forward, and said, “I know what the essence of Buddhism is: it is following the rules.” And the Master responded, “No.”

Guo Tong said to the Master, “So what is the essence of Buddhism?” And the Master said, “Change.” And he [Guo Tong] was stumped, and said, “But you told me: ‘follow the rules.’ And the Master said, “I told you that because unless you follow them, you would never change.”

The Master said, “What that means is if you’re a bad person, you have to become a good person, you have to change.” So, Guo Tong now engaged in this and said, “But what if you’re a good person?” The Master said, “You have to become a sage, an Arhat.” And so what if you are an Arhat? And then the Master said that you have to become a Bodhisattva. And then Guo Tong said, “Now if you become a Bodhisattva, ten-stage Bodhisattva, then what?” And the Master said, “Then you have to become a Buddha.” Then Guo Tong said, “So then when you become a Buddha, you can retire and relax a little bit?” And the Master said, “No, you have to become a Bodhisattva again, like Guanyin Bodhisattva, who was once a Buddha and then became a Bodhisattva.” And at that point, he went, “Ah…”

So, this principle, although the story is somewhat humorous, is pointing to this deep principle that change is the essence of the teaching. That there’s no place to dwell, no place to set up. Even at the stage of Buddha or Bodhisattva, you’re constantly engaged in the activity of changing living beings and changing yourself. By changing yourself you change living beings, and by changing living beings you cultivate yourself. This non-dual turning is what I take away from my experience with Master Hua. In other words, there isn’t anything to rest or attain, but merely a maintaining of your activity of teaching and through that the transforming revolves.

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