A perennial issue in the thought and teaching of Zen Buddhism is the tension
between two basic teachings of the tradition. First, Zen teaches that all beings inherently
have the nature of buddhas—awakened or enlightened beings. Second, Zen teaches that
we need to engage in practices such as meditation, listening to the teacher’s talks, and
following the moral precepts. But if the ultimate aim of Zen is buddhahood and all beings
inherently have the nature of buddhas, why does one need to engage in the practices of
Zen, practices that can require a great deal of effort and discipline? Why exert oneself in
this way if not as a means to attain buddhahood?
This question plagued the young Dōgen, who would later found the Sōtō school
of Zen in Japan, and led him on a journey from Japan to China in search of an answer.
Buddhist scholar Francis Dojun Cook renders Dōgen’s question as “If one is in fact a
Buddha right now, why practice at all?” ...
This issue in Zen teaching—the tension between teaching the importance of
practice and teaching that beings are inherently buddhas—is sometimes referred to as
“practice and enlightenment.” This tension could be seen as a sort of doctrinal or
metaphysical or philosophical issue in Zen teaching: how to philosophically reconcile a
claim that beings inherently have the nature of buddhas with a claim that practice is
necessary. But this tension can also be seen as an issue about how Zen students engage in
Zen practice, or orient themselves toward Zen practice, and this practical and pedagogical
angle is what especially interest me.
On the one hand, Zen teachers sometimes stress the importance of engaging in the
practice of Zen, encouraging an attitude of effort and discipline and, usually, of striving
to attain a goal—the goal of enlightenment. On the other hand, Zen teachers sometimes
stress that buddha-nature, or the nature of an enlightened being, is inherent in everyone,
encouraging an attitude of acceptance and letting be and letting go of a supposed need to
strive to attain a goal.
In one sense, all teachers in the Zen tradition, even those who describe practice as
“instrumental” for attaining enlightenment, are challenging, to one degree or another, an
instrumental orientation to life in general and to Buddhist practice in particular—an
orientation of striving to attain a goal, working to fulfill a desire.
We see this teaching, for instance, in the Platform Sutra, on which Hui-neng,
known as the Sixth Patriarch of Ch’an in China, says to his students, “You have in
yourselves the attributes of inherent enlightenment.” Similarly, Lin-chi (known in
Japanese as Rinzai), the ninth-century Chinese founder of the Lin-chi school of Ch’an,
says, “Followers of the Way, you who are carrying out your activities before my eyes are
no different from the Buddha and the patriarchs,” and he says that the person listening to
his talk “has never lacked anything.” Even the great eighteenth-century Japanese Rinzai
Zen master Hakuin, who relentlessly urges students of Zen to practice in order to awaken,
says: “It makes no difference whether you call it the Shining Land of Lapis Lazuli in the
East or the Immaculate Land of Purity in the South; originally, it is all a single ocean of
perfect, unsurpassed awakening. As such, it is also the intrinsic nature in every human
In the contemporary American context, too, Zen teachers teach their students that
they inherently have the nature of buddhas. For instance, in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind,
Shunryu Suzuki says, “To be a human being is to be a Buddha. Buddha nature is just
another name for human nature.”