“The period of time since I became Buddha is an incomprehensible number of eons.”
This quote from “The Life Span of the Tathagata” section of the Lotus Sutra is the crux of the entire Sutra.
This is difficult to understand at first. We tend to think that is has only been 2,500 years or so since the historical Buddha became enlightened, taught and entered nirvana. So how could he have said at the time after his enlightenment that it had already been an incomprehensible period since he had been enlightened? I think that we have to look at this life 2,500 years ago as an expedient, and that in fact it had been an unfathomable period of time since he had become Buddha. And you have to understand this to have a basic understanding of Buddhism.
When asked the purpose or goal of Buddhism, most people would reply with something like, “To achieve Buddhahood,” however, this is in fact not the case. Why? Because all sentient beings are already fundamentally the Buddha. Thus the goal is not to achieve Buddhahood, but to discover that we are already Buddha.
Before enlightenment, of course, one doesn’t know that. But after enlightenment, one realizes that we all have been Buddhas for a fathomless period of time. But if we have been Buddhas for incomprehensible eons, why do we have to discover Buddhahood again? So that we all may come to learn our fundamental nature. Consequently, we use such terms as “discover Buddha nature” over and over as an expedient towards this goal.
It is not just the Buddha who has been enlightened for a fathomless period of time, but all sentient beings, all forms of life, all rocks and boulders, all that exists and all that doesn’t exist—everything has been enlightened for this incomprehensible period.
We usually call the world in which we currently live the world of hardship, suffering, or illusion. But once you really look beneath the surface, you will discover that this is, and has been for a fathomless period of time, the world of paradise. So the purpose of Buddhism is not to turn you into a Buddha, but to have you become awakened to the fact that you have been Buddha for an incomprehensible period.
This is what you must realize. And at the same time you must come to the realization that there is no place in the ten directions that is not a Buddhafield, that is not the Pure Land, that is not paradise.
In other religions, people talk quite a bit about “saving” and “being saved.” But in Buddhism such concepts are irrelevant. In Buddhism all you have to do is attain the realization that you are fundamentally Buddha, and that every place is a Buddhafield, the Pure Land. Therefore, why would you have to have someone else save you? In Buddhism, the concept of saving is absolutely irrelevant. This is what makes Buddhism unique from all other religions and philosophies in the world. No other system of thought has ever made such a claim.
The meaning of “Buddha” extends to “non-producing, non-extinguishing.” To say that everything has been enlightened for an incomprehensible period is the same as saying that there is nothing that is not this “non-producing, non extinguishing”—it applies to people, to animals, to plants, to minerals, to the sky, to everything that is, to everything that isn’t, and to every place in the universe and beyond. Every thing and every place is “non-producing, non-extinguishing.” So fundamentally every thing is Buddha, and every place a Buddhafield.
If so, then, why are we sentient beings in a world of suffering?
A person who closes his eyes cannot see the rising sun, no matter how brilliant it may be. To him everything is dark all the time. It’s the same thing. If we open the Eye of the Mind, we see the daylight, we see the entire universe. We see that there is nothing that is not Buddha, and no place that is not paradise. If we just open the Eye!
But it is those who do not know this, those who have not opened this Eye, who think, “I am a sentient being” and “This is the world of hardship and suffering.”
So the basic issue is this one of an open Eye or a closed Eye. If the Eye is open, you see the brilliant Light; but if the eye is closed, there is nothing but darkness. And who wants to live in a world of darkness? I would think that everyone would like to live in the world of Light, the world of Buddha, the Pure Land. So you must try as hard as you can to open this Eye of the Mind. Then you will have solved everything. The big issue is not whether you’re going to heaven or paradise. That’s nonsense. The issue is to open the Eye of the Mind and to resolve everything here and now.
The Lotus Sutra continues:
For the sake of instructing all beings, I say as an expedient that I shall pass into nirvana, even though I never die and always remain here to explain the Dharma.
What the Buddha was saying is that just as it had been a fathomless period since he was enlightened, he will remain enlightened for fathomless periods to come. He is eternal in his presence among us to explain the Dharma.
By “here” he did not mean India or Korea or any one place in particular. By “here” he meant everywhere in the universe. Buddha takes endless forms, and there is no place where he does not manifest himself. And that is why he called this “the infinite universe,” “the eternally abiding.” There is nothing being produced and there is nothing being extinguished.
The past, present, and future are all the eternally abiding, and so everything is non-producing, non-extinguishing. Call it whatever you want—the Pure Land Paradise, the Sea of Garlands, the Inexhaustible Dharma. But the Buddha speaks the Dharma through the past, the present, and the future, eternally.
Are we talking about the historical Buddha Sakyamuni? No, of course not. We are talking about everything in the universe, past, present, and future as well as about every place in the universe. Everything speaks of the inexhaustible Dharma though the past, the present, and the future eternally. Everything speaks of the inexhaustible Dharma, and everything is in inexhaustible transformation.
Even the boulder at the top of a peak is constantly speaking of this in a manner hundreds of times greater than the Buddha in the Buddha Hall. You may think it sounds funny to say that a boulder speaks the Dharma. What could the boulder possibly be saying? But when you open the Eye of the Mind, you are also opening the Ear of the Mind. And you will be able to hear the inexhaustible Dharma explanations of the boulder which seems to be just sitting there. In Buddhism this is called “inanimate Dharma talk.”
Animate things can move and make noise, so you may regard them as having the potential of expounding the Dharma. But an inanimate rock, a boulder, a handful of earth—none of these moves or speaks, so you wonder how they could speak of the Dharma. If you come to understand Buddhism, however, you will come to listen to the boulder which expounds the eternal Dharma. Even all that which is invisible speaks incessantly of the Dharma.
So you see, everything in the universe speaks of the Dharma. Everything is in itself a Sutra, everything is a dimension of the Dharma. You have to understand this to understand Buddhism. And then you realize how futile it is to try to teach others, to try to “save” others.
So you have only to discover that the basis of everything, your original face, the fundamental landscape is the Pure Land, a Buddhafield, paradise. If you come to realize this Truth, then your search is over. There is nothing else to look for.
Some people misunderstand the implications of this, however. They think, “What a wonderful law. We all live in paradise, and we’re all Buddha. So there’s nothing to do. We don’t have to study, or work, or make progress. We can do anything we want, can’t we?”
That is perhaps an initial reaction, but it is the result of a lack of true understanding. Yes, we’re fundamentally Buddha, we live in paradise, and the Great Light brightens the entire universe. But people with their Eye closed still can’t see the Light. You are fundamentally Buddha, but if your Eye is closed, there is only darkness.
Think of a mirror covered with dust. The mirror itself is clean and clear, and it reflects light. But once covered with dust, it reflects nothing. The fact that a dust-covered mirror cannot reflect anything is itself a wonder.
To say that you are Buddha is not enough. It’s wrong to think that since you are Buddha, you live in paradise and therefore there’s nothing more to do. To think that there’s no need to open the Eye means that you’ll be a blind Buddha forever.
So you have to have confidence in one thing. Even if we are sitting here in the darkness with our Eye closed and unable to see the Great Light, we must move forth with the confidence that we are living in the Great Light and that if we strive hard enough we will be able to see the Great Light. No, you may not be able to become as perfect as the Buddha in this life, and you may not be able to see paradise all around you. But you must have the confidence that you are fundamentally Buddha, and that you do in fact live in paradise. The only flaw is that you haven’t opened the Eye and haven’t seen the Light.
If you become aware of the fact that you are surrounded on all sides by the Great Light, and if you open the Eye, then the great Light is yours. Present reality is absolute. It is non-producing and non-extinguishing. And as I said before, Buddhism has the exclusive copyright on these words.
The fundamental nature of humanity is astoundingly great. It goes back fathomless time periods and it is immortal. It is only because we have not opened the Eye that we cannot see this.
You may be saying to yourself something like, “What is this monk talking about? My eyes are wide open, they’re as clear and bright as day itself, and he’s telling me I’m blind. What’s going on here?”
But you’re talking about the visual sensation from your eyes. And you may have great eyesight, good enough to see the eye of a needle in the dark. But those eyes are of no use. What I’m saying is that you have to open your Internal Eye, your Eye of Wisdom, your Eye of Intuition, the Eye of the Mind. I’m talking about opening this Eye so that you can see the Great Light pervading everything evenly throughout the universe. I’m talking about a perfectly clean mirror that reflects everything quietly, very, very quietly.
How can you clean the mirror of dust, how can you open the Eye? The easiest and fastest way is through meditation, and through use of a koan. And if you make the breakthrough with your koan, the Eye of the Mind will open up. It will sparkle and glimmer. There’s a saying that if you try really hard once, you’ll even surpass the level of the Buddha, that your Eye will open.
Yet there is another method of opening the Eye. Something is covering the Eye, just as dust covers a mirror. If you discover what that something is, and remove it, then you’ll be able to see, won’t you?
Excerpted from Echoes on Mt. Kaya – Selections on Korean Buddhism
As with many other writings, there are always parts that stop us in our tracks. Is it the translation or my lack of understanding? This is a very rich talk covering many advanced concepts, some which I would even classify as “not tending toward edification” as the Buddha said in response to some questions asked of him. The places where we stop are meaningful koans in and of themselves.
We all are aware of receiving teaching from traditional sources; few can hear the teaching of inanimate things or non verbal, animate beings. One can see the depth of learning available; how many will keep sculpting away to reveal the masterpiece within?
The pine tree’s voice is always whispering,
Yet how many pause to listen?
For when the churning mind is still,
The Diamond Heart within
Reflects even the falling dusk that
Shrouds every eye and branch,
And hears, but listens not.
Walking, then, with Courage and Kindness,
Never ceasing to walk in Wonder,
We follow our ancient path.
For the Way of the sword is folded two;
Like the rose we have thorns,
And like the rose, we unfold.
Ji Aoi Isshi