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Buddha-nature and Finding Your Glasses

By Billy | July 2, 2008

You just realize you have no idea where your glasses have gone.

Damn it, you think to yourself. Did I even have them getting on the train?

It’s already been a long day and this is the last thing you need to worry about. You’re half way up the escalator and you watch the train lurch its way down the tracks. You do remember taking your glasses off when you first sat down in the train car so that you could wipe off a smudge. That doesn’t help you too much.

Pockets? No. Shirt collar? Nope. What am I going to do?

This is like Buddha-nature.

At first you are 100% oblivious to the fact that your glasses were resting on your head the whole time. For some time, don’t even know you are missing them. When you realize they are gone, you feel worried; frantic. Angry, even. You search for them with a certain ferocity that depends on:

a) How badly you need glasses for vision,

b)How soon you need them again, and

c)The urgency you feel that you might never get the chance to find them again. (i.e. you believe you have left them on the train)

Eventually you realize that you have had them all along. At this discovery, you feel silly. For a brief second you can’t even believe you thought you had lost them. You might feel stupid for a while, but ultimately you realize that what you need to do is put on the glasses and use them as a tool to help you live your life. You feel relief for a time, and happiness. The last step is just wearing them and seeing clearly.

The Platform Sutra of the 6th Patriarch, Hui-neng, contains two verses about enlightenment. The first was written by a prominent monk who was well educated in Buddhism. The second was written by an illiterate orphan who had to dictate his verse to someone who knew how to write. He was the least educated in the monastery. The first authors name is immaterial and lost in history, the second author is named Hui-neng. His verse corrected the first, and was deemed by his teacher to hold infinite wisdom.

First Verse:

This body is Bodhi tree
And the spirit is like a clean mirror set on a support
Let us clean it untiringly
And allow no grain of dust to fall over it.

Second Verse:

Wisdom knows no tree to grow
And the mirror leans on nothing
There was nothing from the beginning,
So where could the dust fall over?

This verse exemplifies one of Zen’s most prominent themes. Everyone (even you) is enlightened from the very beginning. The paradox is that we, as enlightened beings, create confusion through attachments and desires that cloud our perfect vision. Only (actually?) enlightened beings can understand this paradox. How can a perfect being delude themselves with attachments and desires? I use the word ‘actually’ to distinguish the ‘enlightened due to Buddha-nature’ from the ‘enlightened due to practice, study, and understanding.’

The verse Hui-neng wrote explains that wisdom comes spontaneously. It has no form or inherent function. Our window into our true selves—our ability to be enlightened—is not clouded by our bodies, spirits, or even our delusions when you get right down to it. There isn’t even a definite “you” to become deluded.

Buddha-nature—referring to our inherent enlightenment—is something that we need to forget we’ve forgotten. A little more complex than Epictetus, no? If you think so, you’re trying too hard.

The answer is literally right in front of your eyes. In Zen, we try to drive home the point that the solution was already there in front of you. This is to say, the glasses weren’t even just on your head, but you were already wearing them correctly!

Do you remember those 3 points I brought up about the urgency with which you want to find your glasses? How badly you need glasses for vision, How soon you need them again, and The urgency you feel that you might never get the chance to find them again.” That’s right, those ones.

Those represent a few things that drive us to discover Buddha-nature. You might think since you’re not Buddhist that you’ve never felt it, but that’s just silly. Buddha-nature is what makes us sing and laugh. It’s the stuff that tells you to dance, paint, smile, write, compose, read, kick the soccer ball, and enjoy the rays of the sun. Buddha-nature is intimately related to love, joy, and personal expansion. You know how when the soccer ball lands at your feet and you seem to just go into autodrive? All of the sudden, someone swapped your cleats with Hermes’. There’s no stopping you. You’re not even thinking. A Taoist will tell you that you were intimate with the Tao, I say you’re finding your Buddha-nature. This phenomenon happens when we let ourselves be who we are.

It’s not that wings attached to your shoes, but that you shrugged off all the weight you bear while pretending to be someone or something that you’re not. Time seems to have gotten confused while you were like that, didn’t it? You sat down to write a Java program for 10 minutes and ended up there for 4 hours. You wanted to sit and write a short blog post making a connection between Buddha-nature and losing your glasses, and end up with 3 pages with plenty more to write. All I’m trying to say is that you have without a doubt felt the urge to find your Buddha-nature. It expresses itself in the empty feeling you get when you haven’t indulged in these activities, for starters.

How badly you need glasses for vision: This criterion depends on the way you were born. Whether you believe God gave you this attribute, cause and effect leading back to the big bang made this attribute inevitable, or maybe your past actions lead to your eyesight—Whatever the case is, you are born with your eyesight. Similarly, some people feel the call to live deeply more than others. Some people have a sense of how to find the Tao in everything they do. Some people you just look at and say, “Wow. I wonder what the world looks like to this person. He’s on another level entirely.” Some people just seem to care more about this than others. They are neither more nor less happy with their lives because of this.

How soon you need them again: The time limit we have on living this life is sometimes not clear. In this day and age, I sometimes wonder whether we will learn to grow new organs and if we’ll ever need to die. Other times life seems like it might end any second. How long will it be until you need to see clearly? How much time do you have to figure out the meaning behind it all and how to do it properly? Sometimes the time difference is so great, we put off looking for the glasses. “I don’t need ‘em till next month, so I can stop worrying for a while.” That’s fine, but make sure you keep track of time. Days turn into weeks which turn into months very quickly. You may be old and grey before you realize you have been putting off living for far too long. You may also find out you need them at a moment’s notice. Imagine missing the most spectacular sight in your life because you were unprepared. What if there’s a moment when having a strong understanding of yourself would come in handy? What if knowing yourself (and by extension much, much more about the world) is required at the end.

The urgency you feel that you might never get the chance to find them again: The traditional belief in Buddhism, as in all Dharmic religions, is that every being has uncountable numbers of lives to live. To be born as a Human is very fortunate, and not an opportunity to be wasted. What about you? Is this your only life? If you waste this one, will you have to wait in purgatory until you’ve found yourself? (Finding yourself intrinsically implies sorrow for sins, forgiveness of others, and I believe many other qualifiers for the Kingdom of Heaven) Do you even get that, or is death like going to a dreamless sleep. Carrying the great mathematician and philosopher, Blaise Pascal’s, wager a bit further, I beg you to find yourself, Buddha-nature, and the Tao (they’re all the same…) while you still can. If there’s a god, he’ll be happy for you. If there’s not, you’ll have at least found worldly happiness and, since there’s nothing beyond that, who could complain with that. We all have some sense of urgency that we’ll never be able to find our glasses again, but many of us don’t let that sink in. It’s almost like we kid ourselves and say, “I probably left it at the office.” How many chances at this life do you really think you get? At least how many do you know without a doubt you’ll receive?

When you start to find yourself, you’ll learn how foolish it was to live an empty life for so long. Sometimes you’ll even get mad at yourself for waiting so long to come to your senses. The process of discovering Buddha-nature is one of positive feedback. Positive feedback is like what happens when you put a microphone up to its speaker. The white noise coming out of the speaker gets amplified by the mic which makes the speaker produce amplified white noise which the mic eats up and the speaker spits out amplified amplified white noise. Eventually everything, including the speaker, the mic, and our eardrums has exploded. (Funny Simpsons episode about that…) The path is one of the goals when it comes to Buddha-nature. You start getting the rewards as you strive to get your reward. They will encourage you overall, but sometimes make you feel silly, stupid, sad, or confused.

The realization of Buddha-nature is not something you sit back and reap the benefits of. It’s something you take to the streets. As a boyscout, I have climbed my fair share of mountains. Not once did we think, “Hey, the view is nice, the weather is fine, let’s just live here on the summit.” What we did was we turned around (actually we usually walked down the other side) and we climbed right on down. When we got down, we had some valuable experiences. Realizing Buddha-nature is not the end. Since you had it all along, how could it be? This is why the last step in the whole glasses-losing-scenario is that we eventually put on the glasses, and proceed with perfect vision.

This last comment has been added after 21 hours of thinking about the post… I just wanted to comment that I make the entire process seem very simple. It is. I want to make a distinction between realizing Buddha-nature and connecting with the Tao, in that the former is an extremely rare thing to do, while the latter is a common experience. Connecting with the Tao, getting our energy right, getting in the Zone, etc., helps us find our way to self awareness. It comes through spontenaity and intuitiveness that we understand our Buddha-nature. Don’t think I’m saying you can become enlightened over night. You wont. At the same time, don’t forget that you’re already enlightened. Try and remember it.

Confusion is a good thing. That’s a step in the right direction; often the first one.

If anyone’s continued to read this far, I’ll be amazed, but if you are, Thanks.

May you life go well.

Topics: Philosophy | 2 Comments »

2 Responses to “Buddha-nature and Finding Your Glasses”

  1. Lisa Says:
    July 6th, 2008 at 7:22 pm

    You said ” … that I make the entire process seem very simple” – uh, not so much. :)

    I think one can (and several ones have) studied Buddhism their whole life and still really just understand and integrate a tiny piece of it. I like your analogies and it definitely steps it down a bit for me. When we took a class called “Religions East and West”, all of us agreed that Buddhism seemed both the most straightforward and yet most complicated of all the faiths we studied. Interesting, no?

    (And yes, I actually did read the whole thing. I think I went to the Bahamas in my mind for a moment but came right back. I swear. hehe)

  2. Billy Says:
    July 8th, 2008 at 2:46 pm

    What I like is that you can begin both understanding and integrating Buddhist philosophy from step one. As you begin to fully grasp a concept and master a practice, you realize it has so much more to it.
    Since the first step can be “moderately moderate your life,” it’s easy to do that. Once you start to find a good balance, or if you already had one, you can look further and deeper.
    You’re absolutely right about the simplicity/complexity paradox. It reaches many levels, too. I do appreciate that you read the entire thing—vacations are always allowed.