Before Enlightenment, After Enlightenment
Dharma Talk by Geoffrey Shugen Arnold, Sensei
A monastic asked Zhimen, “How is it when the lotus flower has not yet emerged from the water?”
Zhimen said, “A lotus flower.”
The monastic said, “What about after it has emerged from the water?”
Zhimen said, “Lotus leaves.”
In Buddhism, and particularly in Zen, the lotus flower is a symbol for enlightenment. Its roots are sunken in silt and debris, yet it grows out of that debris through the water and emerges into the bright sunlight as a beautiful, perfect, fragrant flower. It does not grow out of a pure, rarefied atmosphere, but from decayed matter, from the very stuff of our lives. So, the monastic is really asking Zhimen: how is it before and after enlightenment? This question is central to the buddhadharma, and is something every student wants to know.
Buddha realized and taught that each and every one of us possesses the buddha nature symbolized by this lotus flower. In fact, this teaching is the basis of the 2500-year-old tradition of Buddhism, as well as the truth of the universe, the freedom that comes from being in accord with reality. Buddha nature is unhindered, because in it there are no obstructions; it is identical with wisdom. Identical with all things, it is identical with compassion, the great heart of Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva. That’s our nature, and all of us possess it. It’s not something that can be found somewhere else. But, that’s not the end of the story, because without practice our lives don’t reveal that perfection.
Even though we possess that perfect flower, it hasn’t emerged yet. That’s what we call delusion-not knowing what’s real, believing in a separate independent self, believing all of the perceptions that the discriminating mind creates as if they were ultimate truth. What is it before enlightenment, then? Zhimen says, “Lotus flower.” We speak of Buddhism as a path or journey, which implies having to move from one place to another. In this case, it means moving from a place of struggle, self-centeredness or doubt, to another, better place: a place of wisdom and compassion, of selflessness, of no doubt. But then we have to ask ourselves, where is that place? And how do I get there?
It would seem obvious that the answer would be through practice, awareness and gaining insight. We think we will proceed down this spiritual path, and one day-one glorious day-we’ll arrive at that place where we can look with vast, unhindered vision and never have another problem. This picture makes perfect sense to us because that’s the way our minds work, that’s the way we think the world works. We can get enlightened and live in a kind of Buddhist heaven, forever free of pain and suffering.
Sometimes people come to daisan and they tell me that their practice is seeking peace. I ask them, “How do you do that?” And usually they say, “I practice being peaceful.” But what is peace? Where is it? And how do you practice it when you’re angry? In other words, what is the idea that you’re practicing and is it really going to help you?
The Buddha himself spoke of marga, the path. Buddhist teachers throughout history have talked about the journey in terms of practice, realization and actualization. Obviously there is a path, and it works; peoples’ lives actually change, something happens.
How is it when the lotus flower has not yet emerged-when we have not yet realized buddha nature? Zhimen says, “A lotus flower.” What does that mean? Before it’s emerged, there is a lotus flower-fully present, fully formed, complete. In order to manifest it, we have to slog our way through the entanglements, through our attachments, through all of the things that are preventing the flower from emerging. And in so doing, it emerges. That’s the moment of insight, that’s when we see into our nature. Then that perfection is no longer an idea, but something we know to be true. In that moment, we realize that the flower is fully formed, fully present, radiant, and always has been. We realize that it was never submerged to begin with. At the end of a long journey, we realize we haven’t taken a step. But still the question remains, if that is true, then why don’t we experience our lives as that perfect flower from the beginning?
The power of our delusion lies in the fact that we believe it has nothing to do with the flower at all. Buddha nature is always present. But so are delusion and all the things that bind us. That’s why practice has to occur in the present. Realization occurs in the present. There is nothing else.