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 Buddha.

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