One of the fundamental teachings of Mahayana Buddhism is that every being has the potential for awakening—buddhanature. Yet out of the billions of people on this planet, the overwhelming majority are locked by necessity or by choice into a materialistic approach to life. In all probability, no more than a few million have even a possibility of spiritual practice, and of those, probably only a few thousand may actually touch the mystical experience we call buddhanature.
We are deeply conditioned to think and feel that those few thousand people are in some way special. Many of us want to be one of them. Most religious traditions would have us believe in some form of specialness, whether they view the specialness as due to the grace of God, the ripening of efforts made in previous lives, or the result of our own efforts here and now.
What if it is just a matter of chance—plain ordinary chance? It is a much simpler explanation, and I’ve always been a fan of Occam’s razor.
How many seeds does the average tree produce each year? It’s almost certainly in the thousands, and possibly in the tens of thousands for some species. How many of those seeds become trees? Probably less than one seed per tree. Mother Nature is nothing if not redundant, but when it comes to growth processes, redundancy is vital. In growth processes, the aim is not to maximize output and reduce costs (as it is in manufacturing) but to maximize potential and reduce the likelihood of disaster. In evolution, disaster is the failure to reproduce. Thus, Mother Nature goes overboard when it comes to reproduction, counteracting low probabilities with very large numbers and producing thousands if not tens of thousands of seeds to ensure that one germinates and carries on the species.Any idea that you are special in some way and destined to be awake is a sign of delusion. Any idea that you can bring about your awakening . . . [or] that awakening comes from some force outside . . . is also a sign of delusion. These are all stories we tell ourselves to explain what is a mystery.
The few seeds that do germinate are in no way special. They are not different from those that fall on rocks or into rivers. They just happened to land in a good place, even if that good place is between a couple of rocks on a granite outcrop on a windswept mountain or a crack in a sidewalk in a concrete jungle.
We assume the seeds that germinate were lucky, but we really don’t know. Maybe the life of a germinating seed is hell, and a seed would be better to land on rocky ground and never have to deal with the whole growth process. Rilke felt this way about poetry. And I’ve heard more than a few teachers, myself included, say to prospective students, “Only take this path if you have to. If you can live your life in another way, do so. But if you have to make this journey, this is what it is like.”
In any event, the seeds that do not germinate haven’t done anything wrong, which means that the seeds that do germinate haven’t done anything right, either. That’s just what happened.
This whole business about being special is a problem in practice. It reinforces a sense of identity. Teachings such as buddhanature were intended to inspire people to enter a mystery. They may have served to encourage people in much harsher circumstances than ours and open them to greater possibilities. They were probably helpful and effective in their original cultural settings, at least for a time. But in our hyper-individualistic culture, the same teachings often have a different effect, reinforcing the beliefs in identity and independence that we are trying to dismantle.
Basically, any idea that you are special in some way and destined to be awake is a sign of delusion. Any idea that you can bring about your awakening through your own efforts is a sign of delusion. And any idea that awakening comes from some force outside as blessing or grace is also a sign of delusion. These are all stories we tell ourselves to explain what is a mystery.
When we practice, we often fall into the idea that we are the active agent, that we are making something happen, and that we are going to achieve something. I thought this way, too, for a long time. Eventually, however, I came to understand that it is a completely wrong-headed way of thinking.
One incident that changed my thinking was a meeting with the lead chanter, Omdzé Zöpa, at Palpung Monastery, my teacher’s home monastery in Eastern Tibet. In the middle of my second three-year retreat, Omdzé Zöpa came into the retreat to teach a friend and me a long, complex protector ritual. My friend was the lead chanter that month, and I was responsible for all the shrine offerings. It took several days to get everything straight about the ritual. During our conversations Omdzé Zöpa told us about his difficulties in his own three-year retreat. He had trouble following the schedule and did not make much progress in such practices as inner heat (Ttn., tumo). After the retreat, he became ill. He had little strength and had difficulty eating. He could not perform his duties in the monastery and could only sit in his room, too weak to move. He decided to do a purification practice based on Vairocana Buddha [a mythical buddha who represents the all-encompassing nature of timeless awareness], and he recited Vairocana’s mantra all day, every day. His illness steadily worsened. He could barely eat or drink and subsisted on a daily intake of a few sips of tea and one or two small balls of roasted barley. His hair fell out, his fingernails fell off, and his skin dried out and started to peel away. He was sure that he was going to die, but he just kept reciting the mantra. There was nothing else he could do. His condition continued to deteriorate for six months. Then, for apparently no reason, he began to recover. His skin recovered moisture and pliancy. His hair and nails grew back. He started to be able to eat, and his strength gradually returned. Eventually, he found himself infused with a vitality he had not known before. Perhaps most remarkably, he now had no problem with the inner heat practice.
Now this is a dramatic example. But it illustrates a principle of practice that I have seen in others and in my own experience. It is also one of the central principles of sorcery. You do the practice and you think you are working on the practice, but it is the practice that is working on you. As you do the practice, it changes you in fundamental ways. How this comes about, I don’t know, but I’ve seen it enough and experienced it myself to know that it happens. You do the ritual forms of the practice. You just do them. You do them with attention and intention, with faith, with trust, or whatever you want to call it. But what happens is not up to you. The practice works in its own ways, reconfiguring your whole system.
Intention is important here, but it is important not to confuse intention with goal. Intention is a direction, such as “I’m going to go north.” A goal is a definite destination, such as “I’m going to go to such-and-such a city.” When we set out on a journey, we have no idea whether we will actually reach our destination. All kinds of things may happen: earthquakes, floods, fires, accidents, riots, war, or disease. Yet whatever happens, we can still hold to our intention and use it to meet everything we encounter on our journey.
Some people practice this way, and nothing happens. Some people practice and they become ill and don’t get better. Others, such as the lead chanter from Palpung, practice and a miracle happens. The practice brings about changes—changes we may have never intended—and we have little say in the process.
Much, if not all, of what we thought we were has to go, along with our dreams and hopes of ever being what we set out to be. All our ideas about who we are or would be are revealed to be just that—ideas. The reality is quite different and we have to meet it, even if it means the end of everything we have known or understood. This may be one of the conditions for the seed to germinate, but this change is more like something that happens to us than something we decide to do. I doubt that the caterpillar decides to transform into a butterfly, but it happens.
The late Soto priest and origami master Uchiyama Roshi said, “A violet blooms as a violet. A rose blooms as a rose.” No matter how hard it tries, a violet cannot bloom as a rose, nor a rose as a violet. We think that we have to know who we are in order to bloom, but that is not true. It is our nature to bloom, but we don’t have to know who or what we are in order to do so. Nor can we actually make an effort to bloom. It doesn’t work that way. We can only do the practice and let it shape us.
If this path calls to you, or you are called to this path, then take it and give it everything you have. It is the only way you will feel complete in your life. Where it will take you or what will happen to you cannot be known—by you or anyone else. Maybe something happens. Maybe not. In either case, there is nothing special about it. It is a mystery, through and through, and it is what you sought.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.