“I and all beings are primordially Buddha. Knowing this to be true, I am aligned with supreme enlightened mind.”
After a decade of reciting these two lines of pure perception and bodhicitta from my sangha’s prayer book, the words took flight one morning while I was on the cushion, bursting anew like a winged messenger aimed at the center of my heartmind. “This,” my teacher would say. “Just this.”
Like a mantra, this prayer book quote has since joined with my breath to be a home base—the ground I return to when distracted while meditating. It’s a teaching that calls up for me why I sit and how I can—as Thich Nhat Hanh would say—inter-be on this earth. It has also birthed many queries for my sits.
What happens when we trust that we and all others are “primordially Buddha”? That each of us was a Buddha before we were born—before time began—and we each have that quality, that potential, within us to recognize it, to be it. How does it alter our experience, our interactions with other beings, our capacity for compassion? Even if we take it on faith and patiently wait to awaken to it experientially?
I’m reminded of a day years ago when I traveled to watch the legislature debate a particular issue important to me. The State House, where I had previously served, was a collegial place for me, certainly not the malignant environment government is today. But that day, the then-House Speaker seemed like Atisha’s Bengali tea boy. When Atisha, the 11th-century Buddhist monk, was planning a trip to Tibet, he heard that Tibetans were mild-mannered people, so he brought an annoying boy with him to serve tea and keep him awake.
While I don’t recall the specific bill in play that day, there were several members of the public in opposition to the majority opinion joining me to witness the proceedings. As the House recessed for lunch, a group of us stood outside the building to voice our displeasure to anyone who would listen. When the imposing front door opened and, to our surprise, the Speaker himself appeared, alone, and walked down the steps, he had to negotiate his way past us.
The group spontaneously broke into a loud chant fiercely aimed at him personally. No stranger to political demonstrations, I joined in the shouting, throwing verbal darts at our target, whose power stood between us and the legislative outcome we desired. We kept yelling as he kept walking.
The anger I was feeling and showing toward another human being was so abnormal for me and so toxic—for both of us—that it started to form a dark shroud in and around me. After what seemed like a long time but was probably less than two minutes, tears started streaming down my cheeks. The words I’d been yelling stuck in my throat… and broke my heart.
I knew this behavior wasn’t who I was at my core, and, indeed, I’ve since learned I was only seeing my former colleague as a one-dimensional being instead of all the myriad parts of his relative self. And I certainly didn’t know then that he and I both had buddhanature.
I stopped shouting, turned away from the ruckus, and walked back to my car to head home. My walk to the parking lot happened to parallel the route of the man I had just been taunting. Watching him from behind, I saw a human being who took a different approach to governing and wielding power than I would have chosen, yet he was a living, thinking, feeling sentient being who wanted to be happy—just like me. He had run for office and won, with an intention to serve his constituents based on the political philosophy he believed in—just like me (albeit with a very different philosophy).
Wiping my tears, I thought more about what had happened. I wasn’t far enough along with Buddhist studies and practice at that point to have metabolized the teachings about buddhanature and what that meant about everyone I encountered, including my own “tea boys,” the collection of people I found annoying or worse. But I realized I had slipped into what I thought had been righteous anger, fueled by the others who had been shouting plus my own efforts to raise the volume of the demonstration. He was wrong and we were right, was our thinking. But by labeling him as an enemy, I was adding to my own dukkha [suffering] and adding to his, as well.
We identify people as either tribe or other, and other is the enemy. Every day we have reminders of how the two major American political mindsets charge forward, like boxers in a ring, from their red and blue corners for a power fight. On a Zoom call last year, someone asked Insight Meditation teacher Joseph Goldstein what one could possibly say in a metta [lovingkindness] prayer for the very polarizing figure then leading our country. He suggested offering, “May you be free from hatred; may you be filled with wisdom.” We could also do that for ourselves.
It’s clear to me that I had been contracted in body and mind while yelling. There’s nothing relaxed and open when you’re angry. In a state of contraction, we lose sight of the impact of our actions, we’re deeply into the “project of me,” and we cannot inter-be. Only with an open heart can we begin to experience our interconnection with other sentient beings, with our living planet, and with our ultimate existence within, around, and through the spaciousness of our collective enlightened mind.
The State House memory I’ve described can be seen through the lens of multiple Buddhist teachings, such as right speech, the klesha [affliction] of anger, ahimsa [non-harming], ignorance of the View, actions and their karma—and in general, sila [ethical conduct].
In Leslie Booker’s recent dharma talk on the Tricycle website, she says, “…there is a tenderness in our bodies that arises when we realize that we belong to each other.” It’s that tenderness we can touch into when compassion arises, for ourselves or others, when we realize we’ve caused harm, when we feel regret, when we see others suffer, or when we’re aware of our own suffering and its causes. If we pause and think about how universal these emotions are, we can understand how others feel and how they suffer, just like we do.
Embodying that tenderness, that openness, both on and off the cushion, can be a tall order at times. Yet it’s the first step in even having faith that each of us is primordially Buddha and we share the same supreme enlightened mind that interconnects us, if we could only open to it. The Nyingma lineage of Buddhism uses the term rigpa for our pristine, pure awareness—a state we each can actually rest in but are rarely awake to. It’s not a place or even a destination. It is who we are. Sometimes we’re blessed to catch a glimpse of it and realize that both we and our tea boys share that same ground.