The Clear Demonstration of Buddha-Nature...
The fourteenth patriarch, the Venerable Ryuju, called Nagarjuna in Sanskrit, and called either Ryuju, Ryusho, or Ryumo in Chinese, is a man from western India, and he goes to southern India. Most people of that nation believe in karma for happiness. The Venerable One preaches for them the subtle Dharma. Those who hear him say to each other, “The most important thing in the human world is that people possess karma for happiness. Yet he talks idly of the buddha-nature. Who can see such a thing?”
The Venerable One says, “If you want to realize the buddha-nature, you must first get rid of selfish pride.”
The people say, “Is the buddha-nature big or is it small?”
The Venerable One says, “The buddha-nature is not big and not small, it is not wide and not narrow, it is without happiness and without rewards, it does not die and it is not born.”
When they hear these excellent principles, they all turn from their original mind. Then the Venerable One, from his seat, manifests his free body, which seems like the perfect circle of a full moon. All those gathered only hear the sound of Dharma; they do not see the master’s form. In that assembly is a rich man’s son, Kanadeva. He says to the assembly, “Do you know what this form is or not?”
Those in the assembly say, “The present [form] is something our eyes have never before seen, our ears have never before heard, our minds have never before known, and our bodies have never before experienced.”
Kanadeva says, “Here the Venerable One is manifesting the form of the buddha-nature to show it to us. How do we know this? It may be presumed that the formless state of samadhi in shape resembles the full moon. The meaning of the buddha-nature is evident and it is transparently clear.”
After these words, the circle disappears at once, and [the master] is sitting on his seat. Then he preaches the following verse:
[My] body manifests the roundness of the moon,By this means demonstrating the physique of the buddhas.
The preaching of Dharma has no set form.
The real function is beyond sounds and sights.
(Quoted from Shobogenzo, Bussho, translated by Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross)
This is a wonderfully rich Buddhist story. Anyone that takes the time to memorize it and carry it around with them probably find many subtle layers here… Let us simply consider one of these for now.
The great Buddhist ancestor Nagarjuna, the story goes, preaches the “subtle Dharma.” Those that hear him are surprised that his preaching fails to support their own presuppositions about the Dharma. According to the “common” view (in that place and time) the “most important thing” in the world was assumed to be good karma. Then, along comes Nagarjuna preaching about something as insignificant (in their view) as Buddha-nature.
Presuppositions – in a certain sense, the whole nature and function of authentic Buddhist practice-enlightenment is the undoing of presuppositions.
It is sometimes easy to dismiss or ignore words, thoughts, and deeds that fail to agree with our own presuppositions. Fortunately, “the people” in this story did not simply dismiss Nagarjuna and go home or back to their own temples; they questioned themselves (“What does he mean about Buddha-nature?”), and they questioned the master. What’s he saying? Is our own view about what is of greatest importance mistaken? Excellent Zen practice!
Nagarjuna said, ““If you want to realize the buddha-nature, you must first get rid of selfish pride.”
To get at the reality of “Buddha-nature” requires one to “first get rid of selfish pride.” That selfish pride can be very stubborn (and subtle) – the fact that “the people” did not simply dismiss Nagarjuna in the first place, but instead were willing to seriously inquire into his teaching (and thus their own views) seems to suggest that they were a little less attached to “selfish pride” than many of us are today.
What else can you reveal Nagarjuna? Let’s say that we are willing and able to rid ourselves of selfish pride and “realize” this “Buddha-nature” you speak of, what exactly will we be “realizing”? What is the Buddha-nature?
Nagarjuna said, “The buddha-nature is not big and not small, it is not wide and not narrow, it is without happiness and without rewards, it does not die and it is not born.”
Interesting, at first glance the Buddha-nature seems to NOT be a lot of things, and to be WITHOUT many qualities, and also does NOT DO various things – in short, it is NOT big and NOT small, NOT wide and NOT narrow, it is WITHOUT happiness and WITHOUT rewards, it does NOT die and it is NOT born.
Is this the same as “neti, neti” (not-this, not-this)? Certainly, some would argue thus. Just as the Buddhist teachings of emptiness are often used to support certain presuppositions about uniformity and non-differentiation, about non-existence and void oneness…
But does that account for the whole of Nagarjuna’s statement? Can we also read it like this:
“THE BUDDHA-NATURE IS not big AND not small, IT IS not wide AND not narrow, IT IS without happiness AND without rewards, IT DOES not die AND IT IS not born.”
If we can realize it like this the wisdom of this story may shine through and be as clear and present as a piece of fruit held in the palm of our hand. And why wouldn’t it be? The Buddhas and ancestors reveal and express the Dharma – they never conceal or begrudge. To realize what the Buddha-nature IS, and DOES we must first be rid of selfish pride – and then we realize, as Dogen says, “the buddha-nature is ‘transparently clear’ and is ‘evident.’”
The ancestral master does not begrudge them [the teaching], but their eyes and ears are shut and so they cannot see or hear it. Never having established body-knowing, they cannot make out [the teaching]. As they watch from afar “the formless state of samadhi” whose “shape resembles the full moon,” and as they do prostrations to it, it is “something their eyes have never before seen.” “The meaning of the buddha-nature is evident and it is transparently clear.” So the state in which the body manifesting itself preaches the buddha-nature is “transparently clear” and is “evident.” And the state in which the preaching of the buddha-nature is a body manifesting itself is “demonstration, by concrete means,” of “the physique of the buddhas.” Where could there be one buddha or two buddhas who failed to realize as “the buddha-physique” this “demonstration by concrete means”?~Shobogenzo, Bussho, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross
It seems as if this was the reason that only Kanadeva (Nagarjuna’s successor) was able to see the Buddha’s body (physique of Buddha) at that time. Fortunately, this event was recorded and there have certainly been many beings that have been able to meet with Kanadeva and Nagarjuna since. This story is exerted by the liberating potential of the whole Buddha Dharma – carry it around and see if you don’t find the bare fact of the Buddha-nature shining right before you. Check in with Dogen’s commentary on the story from time to time (in Shobogenzo, Bussho) for a little help clearing your vision; there you will find many clues, like this gem for example:
Remember, at this time the Venerable One is simply seated upon his high seat. The manner in which his body manifests itself is just the same as in the case of any person seated here now.~Shobogenzo, Bussho, Gudo Nishijima & Mike Cross