What is this root of life? It is that instant of ignorance that has come down through endless kalpas of time. Evolving through heaven and hell, this evil world and the Pure Land, that the three evil realms and the six evil paths are made to appear is all because of the power of this root of life. Although it is nothing but dreamlike, illusory thoughts, it can block the Great Matter of seeing into one’s own nature more effectively than an army of a hundred thousand demons. Sometimes it is called illusory thoughts, sometimes the root of birth and death, sometimes the passions, sometimes a demon. It is one thing with many names, but if you examine it closely you will find that what it comes down to is one concept: that the self is real. Because of this view that the self exists, we have birth and death, Nirvana, the passions, enlightenment. That is why it is said: “If the mind is produced, all things are produced; if the mind is destroyed, all things are destroyed.” Elsewhere we read: “[Should a bodhisattva give rise to a notion of] the self, of a person, of a sentient being, this is not a true bodhisattva.” The Buddha asked Kasyapa: “What Law do the sons of good families practice so that they can conform with the Law of the Great Nirvana?” Kasyapa answered by mentioning one by one such things as the five precepts, the ten good characteristics, the eighteen differentiating qualities, the six perfections, all the good actions of a bodhisattva, the eight forms of deliverance, the countless Dharma gates, but the Buddha would accept none of his answers. Finally Kasyapa asked the Buddha: “What laws are there that conform with Nirvana?” and the Buddha answered: “The only Law that conforms with Nirvana is the Law of non-ego.”
But Non-Ego Is Of two kinds. Take a person who is weak in body and mind. He is afraid of everybody, destroys his vitality, and is influenced by all external circumstances. He does not get angry even when reviled; he does not care even if he is rejected but always stupidly plods along getting nowhere. His knowledge advances not one bit and he thinks that the non-ego to which he has attained is sufficient. Such a person is a torn rice bag, bloated from gorging himself on the swill of swine, an ignorant, blind fool. This does not represent the true non-ego. How much less so then for the person who, relying on the power of the calling of the Buddha’s name, hopes to “go” to the Pure Land and thus tries to “become” a Buddha! What is this “going”? What is this “becoming”? If it isn’t ego, then what is it? Don’t say: “This is a view that denies karma.” Is this denying or not denying? If you are not a hero who has truly seen into his own nature, don’t think it is something that can be known so easily. If you wish accordance with the true, pure non-ego, you must be prepared to let go your hold when hanging from a sheer precipice, to die and return again to life. Only then can you attain to the true ego of the four Nirvana virtues.
What is “to let go your hold when hanging from a sheer precipice”? Supposing a person should find himself in some desolate area where no one has ever walked before. Below him are the perpendicular walls of a bottomless chasm. His feet rest precariously on a patch of slippery moss, and there is no spot of earth on which he can steady himself. He can neither advance nor retreat; he faces only death. The only things he has on which to depend are a vine that he grasps by the left hand and a creeper that he holds with his right. His life hangs as if from a dangling thread. If he were suddenly to let go his dried bones would not even be left.
So it is with the study of the Way. If you take up one koan and investigate it unceasingly, your mind will die and your will will be destroyed. It is as though a vast, empty abyss lay before you, with no place to set your hands and feet. You face death and your bosom feels as though it were afire. Then suddenly you are one with the koan, and both body and mind are cast off. This is known as the time when the hands are released over the abyss. Then when suddenly you return to life, there is the great joy of one who drinks the water and knows for himself whether it is hot or cold. This is known as rebirth in the Pure Land. This is known as seeing into one’s own nature. You must push forward relentlessly and with the help of this complete concentration you will penetrate without fail to the basic source of your own nature. Never doubt that without seeing into your own nature you cannot become a Buddha; without seeing into your own nature there is no Pure Land.
Even the world-honored Tathagata, the incomparable great sage of the three worlds who longed to become the guide to all sentient beings, before he entered the Himalaya and saw once into his own nature, was no different from ordinary people, revolving endlessly in the cycle of transmigration, and he himself passed through some eight thousand rebirths. With the coming of the dawn of the great awakening to one’s own nature, then are the eyebrows opened wide to enlightenment. It is an unparalleled ignorance to believe that one can become a Buddha without seeing into one’s own nature, or that there is a Pure Land outside of one’s own nature.
The Twenty-Eighth Ancestor, Bodhidharma, borne by the living body of the bodhisattva Kannon, endured endless stretches of raging waves to come to China, a land that already possessed the sacred scriptures in abundance, to transmit the seal of the Buddha mind that had been handed down from the Tathagata. Hearing of this, and wondering what Great Matter he had to impart, people wiped their eyes, adjusted their garments, and came longing for instruction. And what he had to teach was only the one thing—seeing into one’s own nature and becoming Buddha. Although he set up six gates, including the “Breaking through Form” and the “Awakened Nature,” ultimately they all come down to the one thing—seeing into one’s own nature.
But sentient beings are numberless; therefore the gates to the Dharma are numberless. Among them [the Buddha] established one gate, that of rebirth into the Pure Land, as a temporary expedient to rescue Vaidehi from the prison in which she languished. If rebirth in the Pure Land were the pivotal teaching of Buddhism, then Bodhidharma could just as well have written a note of two or three lines and sent it on to China. Would Bodhidharma have endured the painful agonies of the raging waves, and risked his life against monster fish to come all the way to China just to say: “Concentrate on the calling of the Buddha’s name and you will be reborn in the Pure Land”?
The Same Was True Of the Buddha. At first he lived in the palace of his father Suddhodana and spent his time in pleasurable enjoyment with his wives Yasodhara and Gopika. His position was that of a ruler; he possessed the wealth of India, and he believed that at death it would be satisfactory to call the name and be reborn in the Pure Land. One can imagine the state of his mind then, when he discarded his position as king, for six years engaged in arduous ascetic practices and suffered the scorn of the hermit Aradakalama. Later he entered deep into the Himalaya and fell into so intense a samadhi that he was unaware of the reeds that were piercing his thigh or the lightning that struck down horses and oxen beside him. His whole body was so emaciated that he looked like a tile bound with rope and his bones stuck to his skin.
Then finally, on the eighth day of the twelfth month, he glimpsed the planet Venus, and then for the first time saw into his own nature and gained a great awakening. At this time he exclaimed aloud: “How wonderful! All sentient beings are endowed with the great wisdom and virtuous characteristics of the Tathagata!” And then he came down from the mountain and expounded in full measure the sudden and the gradual, the intermediate and the complete teachings. At this time he was venerated as the Tathagata, endowed with the ten titles and possessed of the perfect miraculous enlightenment. Is this not what Shan-hui Ta-shih has described in these words: “Suddenly awakening to the source of the mind, the treasure storehouse is opened”? Even though ours is a degenerate age, is this not a splendid example that Buddhists today should venerate? If you look for the essentials and the basic content of the practice that has been transmitted from the Tathagata who appeared in this world through the Ancestors and sages and all wise people and famous monks, it is nothing other than the principle of seeing into one’s own nature.
Rennyo Shonin has spoken about every day rebirth and rebirth without the welcoming of Amida. When you think about it, is this not the true principle of seeing into your own nature?
Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1769) is credited as almost single-handedly revitalizing Japanese Zen. His ink-brush paintings are prized today for their vibrancy.
Philip B Yampolsky (1920-1996) was an Adjunct Associate Professor of Japanese, translator and scholar of Zen Buddhism.