Ch'an Newsletter - No. 31, August 1983
Buddhas, Sentient Beings, and Ignorance
Lecture given July 10, 1983
Buddha nature is something which is always pure and unchanging. The question
is often asked: if all sentient beings are originally Buddhas, how did we become
impure and how did we fall back into a state of ignorance? And if Buddhahood and
vexation are one and the same, does it mean that those who have attained
Buddhahood will experience some vexations at some future time?
To answer these questions we must first know what is meant by saying that all
sentient beings are originally Buddhas. This must be understood as a universal
principle which relates to the potential of all beings. For example, anyone born
in the United States can run for President regardless of race or social class. A
child in grade school can say, "I will run for President when I grow
up." This statement is not incorrect. But an election is only held every
four years; in forty years only ten people can become President. Similarly every
sentient being is capable of becoming a Buddha, but not every sentient being
will immediately realize Buddhahood.
Where do sentient beings come from in the first place? No religion or
philosophy has yet answered this question satisfactorily. Certainly it would be
nice if we began as Buddhas, and did not suffer through vexations. But Buddhism
refuses to answer these questions, and will say only that there is no fixed
point in time when sentient beings were created.
If we say that God make sentient beings, then many problems arise: why did He
create heaven and hell? Why did He create suffering? Why do sentient beings do
evil? Buddhism does not seek to answer these questions. To those puzzled by such
questions, Sakyamuni cited the example of a man wounded by a poison arrow. He
asked if it would be wiser for the man to immediately remove the arrow and begin
treatment, or ask a thousand questions about the kind of poison used on the
arrow and the lineage of the man who shot it. Obviously it is better to remove
the arrow and live. The main purpose of Buddhism is to cure your disease, not to
provide theoretical answers to philosophical questions.
The idea that we are different from the Buddha or that we are actually impure
is a product of our ignorance, or avidya. To understand this we must understand
what is meant by avidya. Avidya are certain psychological phenomena which are
localized, temporary, and changing. All three of these qualities are interlocked
and interdependent. A movement in space is also a movement in time, and it
constitutes a change in our physical and psychological environment. When one
quality changes, the others also change.
Something that is universal and eternal, however, is unchanging. It is
impossible for it to exist at one point and not exist somewhere else. When we
say that all sentient beings are originally Buddha, we are referring to their
unchanging Buddha nature, not the local, temporary, and changing vexations that
appear on the surface.
We can illustrate the difference between changing and unchanging by using the
analogy of space. Space is originally unchanging. But when space is enclosed by
a container -- round or square, large or small -- the space seems to take on the
characteristics of roundness, squareness, largeness or smallness, all of which
are changing and temporary. It is the characteristics of the containers that
change, the space itself remains unchanged. Thus any container is a temporary
phenomenon, but the space within and without it is unchanging.
When you are excited by your environment, then responses arise, vexations
arise, and your thoughts are in a state of continual change. This is avidya; it
is something that constantly changes from moment to moment.
Ignorance has been present and ever changing from time without beginning. It
is what leads to the creation of sentient beings. But ignorance is not eternal,
universal, or permanent. It has always been a local, temporary phenomenon that
is continually influx.
So long as we use our methods of practice properly, our minds will not move.
Greed, hatred, and ignorance will disappear. That which remains is our eternal
Buddha nature. When our minds are not excited or tempted by the environment,
ignorance does not exist for us. There is only Buddha nature.
Until we completely remove all ignorance, we will continue to make
discriminations and use our limited and temporary mental actions as containers
to contain that which has no boundaries and no end. When ignorance and the
containers are removed, only the universal, unchanging Tathagata nature remains.
Buddhahood has original existence, but ignorance has no original existence.
Ignorance can only be said to exist in a temporary sense. If it had real
existence, it would not be in a state of constant change.
The analogy of water and waves is used in the sutras to illustrate this
point. Water is the normal state of existence. But when the wind blows waves
form. These waves are of the same subtance as the water, but originally they did
not exist. In this same way ignorance did not originally exist. Water is the
ever existing Tathagata; waves are ignorance. Water can exist without waves, but
waves must have water to exist.
When we say that all sentient beings are originally Buddha, we are speaking
in terms of universal principle and potential, as I said earlier. If we say that
Sakyamuni was the Buddha, and he died twenty-five hundred years ago; we are
speaking of the real Buddha. The real Buddha, the Tathagata, is eternal. He
never came, and he never left.
For the Buddha to help sentient beings, he takes on the appearance of
ignorance; that is, he must speak on the level of the sentient beings he will
help. The Buddha has no ignorance; he will only reflect the ignorance that
sentient beings possess; he will not revert to ignorance, nor once again be
subject to vexations.
To be able to reach the universal, eternal and unchanging, it requires a
great deal of faith and practice. From the experience of faith, one can say that
he has met the Buddha. The same is possible from the experience of practice.
However, when most sentient beings make such a statement, they only have an
intellectual understanding of what it means to meet the Buddha.
Unless your religious convictions are strong, you won't be able to experience
the Buddha. Most people in the West seek only understanding; they don't really
want to see the Buddha. Those who want understanding will only see the Buddha as
light or sound. Those whose religious faith is strong will definitely see the
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