Kyogen Carlson on the Cosmic Buddha

Excerpted from Zen Roots by Kyogen Carlson, a book published in-house by Dharma Rain Zen Center. Kyogen Carlson is one of Domyo’s teachers.

Fish Pic - Free from PixabayThere is a Hindu story about a little fish who went to the Queen of fishes to ask a question. She asked “I have heard of the Great Ocean; mighty and powerful, sustaining all who dwell therein, universally present, yet deep and fathomless. Where is this Great Ocean, and how do I find it?” The Queen replied, “The Great Ocean is everywhere, all around you, within and without. It is sustaining you even now. You exist within it and because of it, and need only accept yourself as you are to know it fully.” We, like the little fish, exist within enlightenment all the time, unaware of its workings. Through meditation and training we become increasingly aware of it, and soon discover that we have a relationship with it, just as the fish does with the sea. We cannot be beyond it, for it will always be far greater than we. Trying to comprehend it with our intellectual faculties would be like the fish trying to swallow the sea.

[In this book] we have explored concepts such as anicca [impermanence], anatta [no-self], karma [cause-and-effect] and rebirth [the manifestation of karmic patterns over time]. These are part of what is regarded in Buddhism as the fundamental laws of the universe. Such laws are neutral, like the law of gravity, yet serve to lead us to the Truth. Like the ocean is for the fish, they are just there, constantly experienced whether we know it or not. When we open our eyes to them, they teach us a very great deal. Consider now another natural set of laws, working in nature. The laws of natural selection and evolution have lead to creatures of ever increasing complexity and intelligence. Sometimes we think we understand such laws, but can anyone ever know the “why” behind them? Science is a product of the reasoning mind, and succeeds in describing what is observable. Theories are models that again only describe the observable and help make it comprehensible. But in no way can science ever explain why any of it should be the way it is. How can the intelligence of mankind ever fully understand the forces at work that brought about the evolution of that very intelligence? We are so very much like the little fish within the sea.

Our relationship to enlightenment is exactly like this also. Since everything is within the Truth, can we not say that Nirvana is the source of our own intelligence? How foolish we would be to try to reduce the Dharma to formulae that are mechanized and unthinking. That would be just another way of trying to put ourselves, conscious and reasoning, above the workings of enlightenment; for anything that is comprehensible and reducible to formulae is containable in the human mind.

There is only one thing to do when we realize we cannot swallow the sea; relax, let go, and simply be one with it. How enjoyable that is! Our relationship to it changes, and it becomes much more personal. I can remember when I realized that it was of no use to try to force myself into the deeper stages of meditation. My part was to simply prepare myself for them. I would sit upright, remain concentrated, present, relaxed, letting thoughts, emotions, and everything come and go. When the deep, wonderful, and intense states came, my feeling of joy was even deeper, for I knew they were a gift. Gratitude would arise in overwhelming proportions. Gratitude? To what? Here we come to one of the most important aspects of Zen, one that is the crux of the next chapter, which is the point at which meditation and training in the Precepts leads to reverence, true reverence, and the deepest religious devotion. My early years of training involved learning to do zazen, understand the Precepts, and then to start thinking like a Buddhist. I began to understand anicca and anatta, karma and rebirth. I was discovering a new basis for my life, one very different from everything I had known. I found it a very great comfort that these principles, in that they are natural laws, are neutral and unbiased. I was comforted by the fact that the law of karma was not out to get me any more than the law of gravity Dancing girl - free from Pixabayhas it in for a child learning to walk. I saw great beauty in the fact that he who walks, he who dances, and also, he who falls flat on his face, are all expressing the law of gravity perfectly. The same is also true of the Dharma. We are always one with the Truth no matter what we do. But slowly and inexorably my perception of the Truth and my relationship to it began to change. Understanding the Dharma was like learning to walk. First I crawled, then I walked, then I could begin to dance.

But wait a minute! Who is leading in this dance? Come to think of it, what lead me to start my search for Truth in the first place? It is startling and humbling to realize that the Truth is so very much greater than we are; that it cannot be realized as such, but only accepted and known as the fish knows the sea; that it is not subject to our personal wills; and that it is not inert and malleable in our hands. But the most humbling of all is the realization that It has charge over our lives. At this point it is very difficult to think of the Dharma as an “it.” Many Zen Masters lovingly refer to God, and in all Zen temples there is a daily recitation of the names of the Ten Buddhas. The first is called “Birushanofu, Dharma itself.” Birushanofu Buddha is also known as the Dharmakaya, or Dharma body of the Buddha, which is to say, Truth itself. This name is translated into English as the Cosmic Buddha, and He is the personification of ultimate reality, and is the fundamental principle of Dharma.

When meditation and training lead to the natural arising of deep gratitude, words such as Cosmic Buddha, Lord of the House, or God just naturally arise too. The deepest respect for the Truth is true reverence and devotion. This too has expression in Buddhism and was a favorite topic of Dr. D. T. Suzuki. Of the Cosmic Buddha, or Dharmakaya, he wrote:

     The Dharmakaya is a soul, a willing and knowing being, one that is will and intelligence, thought and action. It is not an abstract metaphysical principle like Suchness, but it is a living spirit that manifests in nature as well as in thought. Buddhists ascribe to the Dharmakaya innumerable merits and virtues and an absolute perfect intelligence, and make it an inexhaustible fountainhead of love and compassion. (from Outlines of Mahayana Buddhism as reprinted in Mahayana Buddhism by Beatrice Lane Suzuki, New York, McMillan, 1972, pg. 59)

Much of what Dr. Suzuki is saying about the Dharmakaya is also expressed in the “Avatamsaka Sutra,” part of which he translated (parentheses in this passage were added by this author):

     The Dharmakaya, though manifesting itself in the triple world (past, present, and future), is free from impurities and desires. It unfolds itself here, there, and everywhere, responding to the call of karma. It is not an individual reality, it is not a false existence, but is universal and pure. It comes from nowhere, it goes to nowhere; it does not assert itself, nor is it subject to annihilation. It is forever serene and eternal. It is the One, devoid of all determinations. This Body of Dharma has no boundary, no quarters, but is embodied in all bodies. Its freedom or spontaneity is incomprehensible, its spiritual presence in things corporeal is incomprehensible. All forms of corporeality are involved therein; it is able to create all things. Assuming any concrete material body as required by the nature and condition of karma, it illuminates all creations. Though it is the treasure of intelligence it is void of particularity. There is no place in the universe where this Body does not prevail. The universe becomes, but this Body forever remains. It is free from all opposites and contraries, yet it is working in all things to lead them to Nirvana.

It benefits us by destroying evils, all good things being thus quickened to growth; it benefits us with its universal illumination which vanquishes the darkness of ignorance harboured in all beings; it benefits us through its great compassionate heart which saves and protects all beings; it benefits us through its great loving heart which delivers all beings from the misery of birth and death; it benefits us by the establishment of a good religion whereby we are strengthened in our moral activities; it benefits us by giving us a firm belief in the truth which cleanses all our spiritual impurities; it benefits us by helping us to understand the doctrine by virtue of which we are not led to disavow the law of causation; it benefits us with a divine vision which enables us to observe the metempsychosis (another way of saying karmic inheritance) of all beings; it benefits us with an intellectual light which unfolds the mind-flowers of all beings; it benefits us with an aspiration whereby we are enlivened to practice all that constitutes Buddhahood. Why? Because the Sun-Body (Vairocana, yet another name for Birushanofu Buddha) of the Tathagata universally emits the rays of the Light of Intelligence. (Ibid, pg.59-60)

It is clear from this passage in the “Avatamsaka Sutra” that Birushanofu is much more than an abstract impersonal law. In this He embodies everything that God means to many Christians. Beatrice Lane Suzuki, wife of Dr. D. T. Suzuki, in offering an explanation of the doctrine of the Trikaya, or Three Bodies of the Buddha, wrote (here again, parenthesis added by this author):

     In philosophical Christianity God is considered in his unknowable aspect as the Godhead, the source of all, yet not realisable except through mystical experience. This is the Dharmakaya (Body of Truth). That beings may come in contact with him he becomes God as usually known to all Christian believers; this corresponds to Sambhogakaya (Body of Bliss). But ordinary people need something more tangible and require a living personality. This is the Nirmanakaya (Transformation Body, i.e. the Cosmic Buddha appearing as Shakyamuni Buddha) to Buddhists and Christ to Christians. (Ibid, pg.62)

Far Out Buddha Image - Free from PixabayI know that there are many people, both Buddhist and Christian, who would argue vehemently with equating the Buddhist teaching of the Trikaya to Christian doctrine. It is not my purpose to prove anything on that one way or the other, because the point of Buddhist teaching is always to aid each person in discovering the Truth for himself. However, for the sake of easing the minds of those who may have problems with the idea that the Cosmic Buddha may be the same thing as the Christian God, there are several aspects of the Dharmakaya as described in the “Avatamsaka Sutra” which I feel it would be good to emphasize. The Sutra declares that the Dharmakaya, Birushanofu Buddha, is not an individual reality but is embodied in all bodies; yet He is able to create all things. The universe becomes, yet He forever remains. This is to say that nothing is separate from Him in any way, yet His existence does not depend upon creation. The Truth exists, the Dharmakaya or Cosmic Buddha IS, whether the universe exists or not.

In some ways this is a mystery or koan, but if you listen with your heart rather than your head it is quite obvious that this must be so. Nirvana is not separate from everyday life, but that does not mean that there is nothing beyond this physical world. There can be many worlds, and many levels of existence; however, they are none of them separate from Nirvana. The Cosmic Buddha as described by my Master, Rev. Roshi Jiyu-Kennett, is not a being yet not not a being. It can be said that the Cosmic Buddha has an existence beyond that of creation, yet it may not be said that He is separate from it. Because of His existence beyond creation He has attributes similar to a personality, which are actually the essence of reality, the way things are, or Dharma. The “Avatamsaka Sutra” describes His compassionate and loving heart and His willingness to respond to the needs of karma. The nature of Dharma is this willingness. The Cosmic Buddha can only be understood in this way.

Nirvana, Lord of the House, Cosmic Buddha, Dharma Realm; such marvelous concepts, such beautiful philosophy. But how can we really know that such teachings are true? The Buddha admonished his disciples never to believe anything he told them about the Dharma simply because he, the Buddha, said it. Instead they were only to believe it when they had proved it true for themselves. But we are like blind men in a world of blind men. When someone tells us about light and color, how can we know that they even exist? I have said that this Truth cannot be known with the intellectual faculties for that would be like a fish trying to swallow the sea. And yet we can experience Nirvana, know the Dharmakaya, in a profound experience of knowing in this very life.

When we first become aware of training and enlightenment it beckons to us: but we make our first efforts at training cautiously, fearing to risk too much. It is wise to investigate teachers and teaching methods carefully. But as for the Truth itself, we cannot hedge our bets. Trying to play poker with the Cosmic Buddha is a little foolish, for, after all, He holds all the cards. When we are ready we must, at last, put everything into the pot completely. It is then that we can experience the Truth directly and absolutely. To do this requires complete dedication to training, for it can happen only when we finally put that last little bit of ourselves into the pot, finally letting go of everything. It is “known” with the whole body, one’s entire being, leaving the thinking mind quite behind, breathless, trying to comprehend. It happens when every last part of one’s being, all one’s karma, all one’s desires and hopes, every aspect of one’s life come together in a moment of perfect meditation. It is the point at which will, faith and meditation are one and the same thing.

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