Arousing the Aspiration for Enlightenment

· Teachings, Zen Training · , , , ,

By Dogen Zenji

Kashvapa Bodhisattva extolled Shakyamuni Buddha with a verse:

Although beginner’s mind and ultimate mind are indistinguishable, the beginner’s mind is more difficult. I bow to the beginner’s mind that lets others awaken first. Already a teacher of humans and devas, the beginner’s mind excels the mind of a shravaka or of a pratyeka-buddha. Such aspiration is outstanding in the three realms, so it is called unsurpassable.

Arousing the aspiration means to intend to awaken others before yourself. This is called the beginner’s aspiration for enlightenment. After arousing this aspiration, you encounter and make offerings to see buddhas. You see buddhas, hear dharma, and arouse further aspiration for enlightenment. It is just like adding frost on top of snow.

The ultimate mind means attaining enlightenment, the buddha fruit. If you compare unsurpassable, complete enlightenment with the beginners aspiration for enlightenment, it is like comparing a blaze that destroys the world with the blinking of a firefly. Yet, if you arouse the intention of awakening others first, these two are indistinguishable.


The Lotus Sutra says: “I [the Tathagata] always hold in mind how to help sentient beings enter the unsurpassable way and immediately attain buddha bodies.”

This is exactly the timeless activity of the Tathagata in his aspiration, practice, and fruit of realization.

To benefit sentient beings is to help them arouse the aspiration to awaken other sentient beings before awakening themselves. Do not think of yourself as becoming a buddha by helping people to arouse the aspiration to awaken others before awakening themselves. Even when your merit for becoming a buddha has matured, you turn it around and dedicate it to others so that they may become buddhas, attaining the way.

This aspiration is not self, not other, and does not come from somewhere else. However, after arousing this aspiration, when taking up the great earth, all of it turns into gold; when stirring the great ocean, it immediately turns into nectar. After arousing this aspiration, if you hold mud, stones, or pebbles, they also take up the aspiration for enlightenment; if you practice splashes of water, bubbles, or flames, they intimately bring forth the aspiration for enlightenment. Thus, the offering of land, castles, spouses, children, men and women, the seven treasures, heads, eyes, marrow, brains, bodies, flesh, and limbs, is crowded with arousing the aspiration for enlightenment, the vital activity of the aspiration for enlightenment.

Although chitta is neither near nor far, neither self nor other, if you are unremitting in the aspiration for awakening others first with this chitta, this is arousing the aspiration for enlightenment. Thus, the offering of grass, trees, tiles, pebbles, gold, silver, and the rare treasures that sentient beings cling to as their own possessions, to the aspiration for enlightenment—is this not also arousing the aspiration for enlightenment?

After arousing this aspiration, when taking up the great earth, all of it turns into gold; when stirring the great ocean, it immediately turns into nectar.

It is not without cause that minds and all things, self and other, come together; therefore, at the moment you arouse the aspiration for enlightenment, myriad things become conditions that increase this aspiration. At each moment, all aspirations for enlightenment and attainments of the way are born and perish. If they were not born and did not perish at each moment, the unwholesome actions of the past moments would not go away. If the unwholesome actions in the past moments did not go away, wholesome actions in their future moments would not manifest at this moment.

The scale of this moment can only be known by the Tathagata. “The mind of this moment manifests one word. The word of this moment expounds one letter” [as in the Abhidharma Mahavibhasha Shastra].

This can only be done by the Tathagata, and not by other sages.

There are sixty-five moments when a strong person snaps the fingers and the five skandhas are born and perish. Ordinary people are not aware of it.

Photo by Will Carpenter

Photo by Will Carpenter

Ordinary people know about the moments as uncountable as the sands of the Ganges. But they are not aware that there are six billion four hundred million ninety-nine thousand nine hundred eighty moments within one day and night when the five skandhas are born and perish. Because they are not aware of this, they do not arouse the aspiration for enlightenment. Those who do not know and do not believe in buddha dharma do not believe in birth and death at each moment. On the other hand, those who clarify the Tathagata’s treasury of the true dharma eye, the wondrous heart of nirvana, believe in this principle of birth and death moment by moment.

You now encounter the Tathagata’s teaching and appear to clarify matters, but you may only know moments for being as uncountable as the sands of the Ganges and may believe that time works in this way. You may not understand the entire teaching of the World-Honored One, just as you may not know the scale of a moment. Those of you who study should not be proud of yourselves. You may not know what is extremely small or extremely large.

If sentient beings rely on the Tathagata’s ability of the way, they see one billion worlds. From the present existence you reach an intermediary existence, and from an intermediary existence you reach a future existence, passing through moment by moment. In this way, beyond your intention, you pass through birth and death driven by your karma, without stopping even for a moment.

With the body and mind that migrate through birth and death, you should arouse the aspiration for enlightenment to awaken others first. Even if you spare your body and mind from the way of arousing the aspiration for enlightenment in the course of birth, aging, sickness, and death, you cannot in the end keep them as your own possessions.

Eihei Dogen (1200-1253) founded the Soto School of Zen in Japan after traveling to China and training under Rujing, a master of the Chinese Caodong lineage.

From Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo, Volume I, edited by Kazuaki Tanahashi. Copyright ©2010 by the San Francisco Zen Center. Reprinted by arrangement of the Permissions Company, Inc. on behalf of Shambhala Publications.

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