The next line of the commentary reads, “Buddha nature exists in life and in death, as well as prior to life and death and after life and death.” That is, it transcends time and space. “Aside from the words and ideas, Secretary Du doesn’t understand the truth of the buddhadharma.” I ask you, what is the truth of the buddhadharma—not the words and ideas that describe it, but the buddhadharma itself, the buddha’s teachings?

“Caught up in his illusory thinking, he searches for buddha nature.” Illusory thinking is fundamentally dualistic thinking. It’s one of the characteristics of human consciousness. It’s part of our survival mechanism. It would have been very difficult for us to get to where we are in the process of evolution without being able to see things in terms of self and other. However, we should understand that this is only one aspect of human consciousness. We can see everything in terms of this and that, and we can also see it in terms of a single reality. The truth is to be found in neither, nor in both, nor in one side or the other side. Then where is it?

Master Dongshan, a contemporary of Changsha, wrote the following poem:

Don’t seek it from others or you’ll estrange yourself.
I now go out alone. Everywhere I encounter it.
It now is me, I now am not it.
One must understand it in this way to merge with being as it is.

It now is me, I now am not it. That’s the same as saying, you and I are the same thing, but I’m not you and you’re not me. Both of those facts exist simultaneously. But this doesn’t compute, because we’re trying to understand it intellectually, just as Du was trying to understand buddha nature intellectually. And yet, to his credit, Du must have known he hadn’t completely realized it because he was still studying with Changsha. He was willing to keep going, keep questioning, no matter how far he thought he had developed.

“Like searching for nature in the midst of nature, like a fish trying to find water, he only seems to mire himself more deeply with each question.” In the dedication for the first service we do each morning at the Monastery we chant: “Buddha nature pervades the whole universe, existing right here now.” I ask you, what does that mean? If it’s all-pervading and it’s right here now, can you show it to me? This was the heart of Secretary Du’s dilemma. He knew the doctrine, he understood all the various teachings, but lacked personal insight.

Du’s first question is, “When you chop an earthworm into two pieces, both pieces keep moving. I wonder, in which piece is the buddha nature?” I would say that when the buddha nature is chopped in two, which has the worm?


Photo by Oliver Petry


“Changsha said, ‘Don’t have illusory thoughts.’” That’s nice, but will it awaken Du who seems to be fast asleep? “Du said, ‘How are we to understand that they are both moving?’” The more you question, the more you answer, the deeper you get, and the mire gets stickier. You end up filled with ideas, notions, permutations and combinations, without getting any closer to the truth. “Changsha said, ‘Understand that air and fire are not yet scattered.’” When they do scatter, where will the buddha nature be? That’s a good question. Does it just disappear? Keep in mind that at that time, air and fire were seen as two of the elements that made up life. So what happens when those elements scatter? When you die, does the buddha nature die? Does it come and go? Where does it go?