In honor of Shakyamuni, we call who we really are our “Buddha nature.” All of us have this, though just hearing about it won’t get us far. A few may have begun to practice because of it, but many more are likely to because something in their lives isn’t the way it ought to be. The latter was what legend said led Gautama to abandon his life as a prince and begin to practice meditating.
A popular conception is that meditation is for calming the mind. Sitting does slow thinking down, but it is better not to think of it as being good or bad depending on how we feel about it. Even those who start sitting wanting to straighten out their lives won’t end up doing it to change themselves. Rather, they will be doing what Buddha himself did: they will be sitting just to sit.
The problem is that our small self becomes a barrier between what we experience in daily life and Buddha nature. This self is interested mainly in taking care of itself, wanting what it wants when it wants it but not when it doesn’t. It is the source of suffering equally for those with an abundance of self-confidence and those with little of it, for those who believe in their own abilities and those who don’t. Either way, in liking, disliking, or not caring about things, the small self is relying on the Three Poisons of avarice, ill will, and ignorance, and in doing so, is fully supportive of both the desires that feed it and the fears that defend it. It also lacks interest in anything outside of usual ways of thinking. What matters most for Zen Buddhists instead is believing in Buddha nature, which doesn’t have such limitations and cannot be represented by any qualifications that we might choose to put on it.
Buddha nature is thus not easy to define. It shouldn’t be said that it is something we possess, since it is us who are a part of it, while to say that we have Buddha nature separates ourselves from it. It is also not completely correct to claim that Buddha nature is always with us, as this would be assuming that we and buddha nature are not the same. A further difficulty in describing it is that it acts like a mirror in reflecting anything and everything except itself and so is unable to be self-identifying.
What is true is that we are expressions of Buddha nature. Everything being this, when we see something, we are seeing Buddha nature. What we hear or touch is Buddha nature. Though everything is, there is no way to separate Buddha nature from ordinary life, as our only knowledge of it comes from each of the things that it is. In other words, we can see form but not emptiness.
Terming this ‘Buddha nature’ is fitting in that it makes the name of a specific person into the universal, symbolizing by this the inseparability of form and emptiness. Form is emptiness as we are each but a part of the whole; emptiness is form as the whole can only be experienced in each of its parts. We talk of getting to Mars to continue our exploration of the unknown when we needn’t go any further than ourselves. Each of us has the solution in ourselves, though without ‘knowing’ it, since we only know things that can be ‘known,’ and Buddha nature cannot.
Nevertheless, as Buddha nature is something discovered in humans by humans, believing in it isn’t like having faith in a God or creator. Confidence that there is Buddha nature does encourage us to go on making effort without any direct knowledge of it. In the religion of my youth, I would have gotten in hot water if I had asked an adult whether knowing oneself wasn’t the best way to know God.
Why we meditate, then, is to be fully ourselves. Japanese Soto Zen founder Dogen Zenji called this “settling the self on the self.” He also said that meditating is a sign of enlightenment and that we didn’t do it to become enlightened– though that may happen–but to be enlightened. Even Dogen’s understanding will not get us closer to Buddha nature, but we do need to realize and accept that it is here, has always been here, and will always be here. What we don’t need is time to try to figure it out Buddha nature. Use that time to sit.