After the Buddha’s enlightenment, and once he began to teach, he talked to his monks about the early experiences that caused him to seek the religious life. “I lived a spoiled life in my parents’ home,” he said. “In the midst of that happy life the thought came to me one day, ‘Truly the ordinary person who is him or herself subject to old age is repulsed when seeing someone old. But I, too, am subject to old age and cannot escape it.’ At this thought, all delight in my youth left me.” This happened before he went out of the palace and encountered a sick person, an old person, a corpse and a monk. At this time, he was much younger and was just beginning to understand that in the midst of a very privileged and protected life, there were things which he could not avoid. In that moment, he realized the fleeting and fragile nature of his happiness. His confidence, youth, health and the notion that the life he had was going to last forever was not something he could rely upon. That was a pivotal moment for him because, as he said, “At that moment, all delight in my youth left me. All delight in my health left me. All delight in my life left me.” In other words, he awoke to something which stole that carefree, innocent, youthful arrogance that we all experience as part of being young, but that needs to be taken away in order for us to grow up to become real people.
In this koan, the Buddha ascends the seat one day to give a talk and Manjushri strikes the gavel and says, “Clearly observe the Dharma of the King of Dharma; the Dharma of the King of Dharma is thus.” The Buddha then got down from his seat. “Clearly observe,” Manjushri says, “the dharma of the Buddha.” How can this dharma be observed? It’s ineffable. It’s not a thing, it’s not an object. So when Manjushri says, “Clearly observe...” how can it be observed? Clearly! That’s how. What does that mean? It means no obstruction, nothing in the way. Manjushri is saying exactly how it needs to be observed, “Clearly observe the Dharma of the King of Dharma.” That’s how to observe—but what is observed? What is seen? “The Dharma of the King of Dharma is thus.” This is the great matter. This is the Buddha’s realization: suchness, things just as they are, which is a very precarious, tricky way of speaking about it because it sounds so simple. It is simple, but in its simplicity we can mistake our ordinary way of seeing things for what the Buddha realized. It can’t be described or conveyed, but it can be heard, it can be seen. How? With the whole body and mind; not with our ordinary ears and eyes. This is why Master Dongshan speaks of “hearing with the eye and seeing with the ear.” In Zen, this is precisely what students are working on from the very first moment they begin practicing. We sit down on the meditation cushion to see things as they are and to realize their self-nature as enlightened nature. As Dogen says in his fascicle Inmo (“Suchness)”, “To do zazen is to manifest buddha mind, is to manifest suchness.” Long before we understand it, it’s being manifested. But how do we clearly observe, how do we go beyond hearing and seeing?
Dogen continues, “If you want to attain the matter which is thus, you must be a person who is thus. Already being a person who is thus, why worry about the matter which is thus?” Wanting to attain this clear observation, this dharma, Dogen says you must be a person who is that very dharma. This is an essential point: only a buddha can realize buddha. So the very thing that we’re seeking must already be present; we must be a person who already is the truth. Then Dogen goes on to say, since that is the case, why worry? It still needs to be realized, but you don’t have to worry about it—which we do all the time. We worry about whether we’re practicing correctly, whether we’re on the right path, how long it’s going to take; why is everybody else making progress while we’re plodding hopelessly along, step by step. We worry about what will happen if we don’t see it. We worry about what will happen if we do see it. Are we suddenly—finally—going to have to take responsibility? Will we no longer be able to rely on excuses for why we aren’t manifesting our full potential? It seems silly, but time and time again I hear people say that they realize they’re consciously sabotaging their practice because they’re afraid to discover their true nature. They’re afraid of what it will mean. “Why worry about it?” Dogen says. That’s what’s happening when we’re filled with self-doubt, isn’t it? At that moment we think, “I’m not such a person.” Yet, if we really believed that, we wouldn’t be practicing at all. Once we see through this mind of self-doubt, we see both its self-deception and futility.