“In each of us, the seed of Buddha, the capacity to wake up and understand, is called Buddha nature. It is the seed of mindfulness, the awareness of what is happening in the present moment… There is no one who does not have the capacity to be a Buddha. But the treasure we are looking for remains hidden to us… Let go of the idea that you don’t have it. It is available within you.” – Thich Nhat Hanh
We come to a meditation practice generally with the idea to make our life-experience better in some way. We may want less stress or anxiety in our lives. We may want to have a calmer mind, not so beset by runaway or unwelcome thoughts and emotions. We may want to feel more centered, less scattered. We may want to gain insight and better control of some behavior or behavior pattern that has become problematic. We may feel there is a spiritual dimension to life that has eluded us and we hope meditation will open this dimension for us. In each case, we want something about “me” to be improved. This idea of “me” improving, of being slightly less tense, anxious, distracted, of being more centered and focused, calm and maybe even spiritual is laudable, and meditation can bring these gifts. Paradoxically, however, this idea of “me” gaining positive benefits presents an obstacle to the realization of the expansive freedom that is the true fruit of a dedicated meditation practice guided by a teacher who has made the journey themselves.
Few bring to a meditation practice awareness of how profound and transformative it actually can be, and fewer still realize that all that stands between them and meditation’s full realization is their holding onto the idea of who they think they are and their bringing this self-image to the practice. Buddhist literature, such as the Thich Nhat Hanh quote above, can be confusing, often using arcane language that the uninitiated have difficulty grasping. To say “There is no one who does not have the capacity to be a Buddha” does not make any sense from within conventional Western perspectives. It is like saying there is no one who does not have the capacity to be Jesus, and that would be considered blasphemous. So it may be considered inspiring, but not factual.
Yet, I suspect, Jesus would have understood perfectly what Thich Nhat Hanh and Buddhism are saying when they tell us to realize we all have the capacity to be a Buddha, for I see Jesus as a great mystic, a Zen Master, and we are being called here to realize within us dimensions that transcend our usual perspective and outlook. Buddhism is a very different manifestation of religion from Christianity precisely because the Christian notions of “Messiah” and “Savior” are concepts that create a separation in the nature of the kind of being that are the worshiper and the worshiped, not identification. It is very important to realize that Buddha wanted no worship of him and I see no evidence that Jesus did either. Buddha wanted identification and I have to believe so did Jesus. The worship of a religious figure as differentiated from finding inspiration and a model for how we can live our own lives lead to very different manifestations of the religious life.
Religions reflect the customs of the culture in which they grow and the Middle-Eastern culture that brought forth Jesus was one of God worship with God in Heaven and the connection to Earth was to be an intermediary, a Messiah and Savior, in Jesus, a “son of God.” The Middle-East, and later Europe where Christianity flourished, were cultures where religion was expressed in duality – humanity is here on Earth, God is in Heaven. In these cultures intermediary figures are necessary, beginning with demi-gods represented by Jesus, and then saints, then a clerical hierarchy. There is a gulf between deity and the common person. Michelangelo’s painting of The Creation of Adam on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel where Adam reaches for but cannot quite touch God exemplifies this.
Ancient Asia, on the other hand, was a world where the Universal Soul, the Ultimate Source known as Brahman (Westerners’ equivalent of God) was not in Heaven, but rather in Creation, all around in the world, and in us, individually expressed through the word Atman. While Buddhism does not concern itself with mythic theology, it was born in this theological cultural context and, in a sense, this notion of Buddha we are addressing here is equivalent to Atman awakened – and living ordinary life. All the religious figures in the Buddhist world are fully human or mythic amalgams representative of virtuous aspects of human nature, such as compassion, insight and wisdom brought to full fruition. The clergy in this world serve as teachers and role models, not intermediaries with divinity. This is what Buddha claimed for himself and what he invited his followers to discover not by worshiping him, but through identification with him and direct experience of the benefits of his way of living and his insights into the true nature life.
There is a story about how when Buddha began to travel and teach after his enlightenment, people were so awestruck by the depth and peacefulness of his presence they would ask, “Are you a god?” To which Buddha said, “No, I am not a god.” Then they asked him “Are you a reincarnation of a god?” “No,” he replied. “Are you a wizard, then?” “No.” “Well, are you a guru?” “No.” They then asked, being very perplexed, “So what are you?” Buddha simply replied: “I am awake.”
Buddha taught that he was an ordinary human who had awakened into the full and original potential of what it is to be a human being, free from being covered over and lost beneath social, cultural and psychological conditioning. He knew he was an expression of the Universe, Atman/Brahman-as-a human-being, if you will, and was prepared to live and interact in the world in this unshakeable knowledge, for his meditation had revealed this truth to him, and the name “Buddha” means “Awakened One.”
Humans become lost by attaching and clinging to their very worldly conditioning for their identity. In the process of becoming this conditioning, our original wondrous potential of intelligent awareness encountering the world, manifesting fresh each moment, becomes lost. It is as if we become a hypnotically induced idea of a human being. This idea is a delusion of separateness and insufficiency that leads to an experience of life that is always ultimately “unsatisfactory,” which is a very useful translation of the Pali language word, “dukkha,” more often translated as “suffering.”
In Buddhist parlance, “The Path of Return” is the realization that this idea of a person, our particular body, mind and life history are not ultimately who we are, and it is what is pointed to when the Zen teacher asks, “show me your original face.” The teacher is asking us to realize we are primordial Atman manifesting Brahman into the ordinary world. The Path of Return is when we let all idea of our conditioned self fall away and allow the moment experienced in awareness, as awareness, to fill us completely. It is in opening to the unbelievably vast dimensions of understanding and presence that already exist within us. Buddhist meditation is specifically designed to facilitate this possibility of realizing awareness-as-who-we-are optimally.
We come to meditation practice with no idea that there is a pure and vast experience of Beingness available to us. We have no idea that the secret to meditation is to get out of one’s own way, so we bring our body, mind and personal identity and history to our meditation. We listen to the dharma teachings about Buddha being within us, but we do not believe and we do not bring unshakeable resolve to awaken, to return to our own inherent purity. We carry too much of the dichotomic teaching of our religious conditioning. Buddha within is taken as a metaphor like Christ within, when, in truth, neither is metaphoric. Buddha and Christ are within each of us, or there would be no Buddha or Christ at all. Because these states of original purity existed in the humans Siddhartha and Jesus, they exist in all humanity. This potential only needs to be awakened as it was in Buddha and Jesus. This very different notion of religion invites us to realize that what we think of as God manifests through us. It is the Universe as intelligent Source and we, of course, are its manifestation as is all of Nature, and I believe this was the intention of Jesus’s teachings, as it was very specifically Buddha’s intent. This is why Buddhism emphasizes to realize true self in being “nobody.” Only total freedom from holding onto our “somebody” as created by our conditioning can open this door.
If you want to change, if you want to become your idea of better, come to meditation ready to shake free of all ideas you have about yourself. Be prepared to let go of the known. The journey of return is not one on which you bring baggage and it is a journey that takes you nowhere except to where you begin. There is needed only the unshakeable resolve to become who you already are. The journey is inward and then, out into the world, awake and increasingly free from the baggage of social, cultural, psychological conditioning. Meet your true self in the vast stillness of the Universe. This is the Path of Return. The Universe is manifesting through you. “The awareness of what is happening in the present moment” is the you that is a lens of consciousness into the world. Polish the lens in stillness until the vision is brightly clear, until you become nobody, nothing but the lens. Then move in the world, an ordinary person, a Buddha using the conditions of body, mind and cultural understanding, awake, returned to your original face, the idea of making yourself somehow better now realized as a case of mistaken identity. All you sought to find through meditation was in you all along. You have returned.