Buddha Nature

Posted: May 8, 2013 in Spirituality. Buddhism
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Here is a beautiful story.

In Northern Thailand there was a statue of the Buddha. In artistic terms, it was nothing special; not very well adorned, plain, and made of clay. But it was a holy object, and it stood for over 500 years with generations of monks carefully tending it. Then, in the early 20th century, this statue was moved to make way for a new temple. Underestimating the weight of the statue, the crane brought in to lift it dropped it, and some of the clay was chipped away. The monks hurriedly covered the statue to protect it from the elements. Late that night, a monk who believed the statue was divine entered under the tarp with a flashlight and began inspecting the damage. When he shone his light into a crack in the clay, he exclaimed in loud surprise. For what he saw reflecting back at him was the deep yellow glint of gold. Under the clay exterior was the true statue: a beautiful image of the Buddha crafted entirely of gold. The monks soon deduced that long ago that the gold Buddha had been covered over to protect it from raiding marauders and invaders. As time passed, the succeeding generations of monks had forgotten what lay under the plain character of their statue until a “mistake” broke off some of what was there thus revealing its true nature.

This story is a perfect metaphor for who we are and why we often do not realize it. We are born perfect, whole and divine. But something happens along the way and we come to believe that we are imperfect, and must strive to become what we already are. We come to believe that we must become good, become pure, become worthy.  We are simultaneously like the Golden Buddha of Thailand, and the monks who tended it. Being born perfect and complete, our spiritual essence lacking nothing for it is the same essence as God’s. But, time passes; we grow up, and learn to be who our society expects us to be. We shape our psychological realities according to what hurts and what feels good, opening toward the good and closing off the hurts.

Each time, each moment our perfection and innate goodness gets covered over like the clay over the golden statue.  And as time passes, like the monks who tended lovingly to the statue, we forget our original being, our spiritual essence and we seek to maintain and beautify the external conditions of our existence. We begin to live as if the clay exterior was our true self, and we therefore long for salvation from the condition we have unwittingly created.

I like how the Zen teacher Karen Maezen Miller puts it, “You are a Buddha. But in the same way you will forget the circumstances of your birth, you will forget the truth of your being. And by forgetting what you are, you will suffer in the painful, fruitless search to become something else, striving against your own perfection to feel whole and secure. By your attachment to desires, you will squander the chance of infinite lifetimes: the chance to be born in human form. Luckily, the chance to be reborn—to wake up—arises every moment.” Indeed all of our efforts to achieve what we desire are, in fact, “striving against our own perfection.” This perfection is with us in every moment of our entire lives. This is what Buddhism calls “Buddha nature,” our inherent perfect goodness and capacity to be awake in a world of sleep.

         Nevertheless, inch-by-inch, layer-by-layer our perfect and divine self is covered over by masks, personae, and psychological defense mechanisms of all shapes and sizes, and we come to believe that what we seek is outside of ourselves. Those of us who are heirs to the Western and largely Christian religious and intellectual traditions have another, deep, layer blocking us from reality: this is the idea of original sin. Invented by St. Augustine in the 5th Century, this teaching basically forces us to see ourselves from a perspective directly opposite that of our true nature. For instead of saying that we are pure, divine, created in the image of God, original sin says that we are born defective. We are born in negativity and are, as a result, separate from the divine reality that created everything. It is thus a person’s task to beg God for forgiveness, and to try to live a life of faith and morality in the hope that God will save us from an eternity in hell. But the truth is, the hell that we seek to avoid in this model of reality is something we live in everyday when we are separated from our essence. 

Buddha nature is found wherever we are, for it is us. We can not lose it; we can not give it away. But we can forget about it, and live life as if it were not there. Yet, I have found that there is always a longing, a yearning for what we know not. Some traditions call for the need for salvation so that we can be reunited with it again. But if we are indeed born with it; if it is indeed our innermost being, then the task is not to be saved, but to uncover. We are, in a way, spiritual archaeologists. It is like waiting for the clouds to pass revealing the sun once again. Or, as Alan Watts put it, muddy water is best cleared by leaving it alone. That, I think, is our first clue.

  1. Chico says:

    Reblogged this on A Way in the Woods.

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