Buddhas and Sentient Beings

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Good morning. I'd like to introduce our speaker today, Greg Denny. Greg has been practicing here at Berkeley Zen Center for almost 20 years. He was the Shuso in 2005 and was invited to So Green Rokusu in 2008. Greg is also a devoted father to boys and a loving, and excellent husband. I might pay for this later. Thank you. Well, here I am. Here we are.


Here I am. That's a good gatha, I think, right? Just like, here I am. So I'm going to talk, try to talk about or how all of us are both Buddha and sentient being. Sogen says this somewhat frequently. And so I'm going to try to express my experience of that. And I'd like to express my understanding


of it is that we are at every moment both Buddha and a sequence of sentient beings, and that not to understand that statement that we are both as some indication of an arc of development, like we go from sentient being to Buddha, or some understanding that refers to two distinct modes of experience or modes of being. You're either a Buddha or a sentient being. We are always both. And I think that Buddha is sort of another dualism that we try to understand in non-duality, right?


So Buddha is the absolute side of things and sentient being is the relative side of things. again those two sides are always happening at the same time and in fact they're not two sides of all, they're the same thing. So when I'm talking about expressing Buddha or being Buddha or embodying Buddha or talking about expressing being or embodying a sentient being, they're just ways of speaking to try ... they're metaphors, right? It's a metaphor, they're archetypes for trying to understand life, trying to understand our experience. And I don't want us to take them too literally as real things, right? They're approximations, limited, although hopefully skillful approximations of


what life is really like, the two aspects of what life is like. So I think I'll try to talk about the Buddha side first and then the sentient being side. So one way I have of understanding manifesting Buddha or experiencing myself as Buddha is that I am Buddha. when I experience everything and everyone as Buddha, and only then. That the moment that I see you as Buddha, see all of you as Buddha, see this as Buddha, is when I become Buddha. And that is always true. What does this mean?


So there's the, I don't know what you call it, it's not really a fascicle, but Khezan's transmission of light, which is, there's stories about all the enlightenment experiences of our ancestors, right? And each ancestor, so we, you know, several times a week we chant our ancestors. And for each ancestor, there's an enlightenment story, a story about when they have this experience of being Buddha and seeing everything as Buddha. So the first one is about Shakyamuni. And it goes, so you know Shakyamuni, a guy sitting under the Bodhi tree, right? And he has a moment where this becomes true for him. And in Kazan's case, or story about this, he says, Shakyamuni, seeing the morning star, realized enlightenment.


And he said, I and all sentient beings on earth together attain enlightenment at the same time. Now to me this is an expression of the same idea. that I become Buddha when everything is Buddha, when I see everything as Buddha. It's always a transmission, in a sense. So, more discursively, what does it mean to see everybody as Buddha? What does that mean? We all know, we've been in here and read and talked enough, so that's when we drop our discriminating mind. When we see everything as equal, or we see things as they are, without judgment, without opinion, without wanting things to be any different than what they are.


This is a place of silence, I think. Katagiri Roshi wrote a whole book, Returning to Silence, which I think that phrase is about this experience of stillness, being, or returning to a place where our ideas about what's happening are not center, that we see or witness life, people, myself, the parts of myself, my emotions, everything in a non-judgmental, just non-discriminatory, non-comparative way. So it's jotting down other ways, other colloquial ways to describe this experience. And I wrote, absolute acceptance.


But I think that's a little too much. The word acceptance is a little too much, because it's already an activity, right? It's already going a little further than that moment of just seeing what's there before you do anything else. That place of silence. that foundation. So, Sojin, he has another good, I think, image of a clear pool, right? That the world is a pool or a body of water and things have settled to a stillness and the water is clear, you can see all the way to the bottom. That's kind of a metaphorical or figurative way of trying to describe this experience of being Buddha or experiencing the world as Buddha.


Another way I would put it is that we see things, we see the components or the objects or the aspects of our life and we allow that they have completely equal claim in existing. So let me try to give more concrete sort of examples. So the things that are hardest for me to see as Buddha are the things which are difficult. the things about me that are difficult, the aspects of my personality, or my activity, or my relationships that are difficult, the people that I find difficult. So one example in my life right now is I have a coworker or someone I work with that, because of the way my job is configured right now, has a lot of


impact on my daily work life. Let's just put it that way. So the decisions they make and what they do has a big impact on my work life. And my experience for a while now has been that that impact has been very, very difficult. It has made my job difficult. It's created some suffering for me, some resentment, all kinds of and chains, and anger, right? Anxiety. And so, I could say that one way, but this person is Buddha, right? And for me to embody Buddha, to experience Buddha nature, is to see this person as Buddha. Well, that's hard to do, and I'm really irritated with them in a lot of ways. So one way of doing this is, and this fits in with our practice, right, is that we understand when we sit zazen and we understand our life, we understand that things arise and flow and change because of causes and conditions.


And so I can understand this person and why they do what they do from causes and conditions. I can think about her and know that, well, you know, she did this really kind of defensive, unconscious thing and created a bunch of work and created this mess that I'm cleaning up. But, you know, she really is trying hard and she's overcompensating because she feels some inadequacy. She's doing the best she can and she's being unskillful, but she's trying to do the right thing, right? And this is all true, right? This is all true. And it is a way of seeing her as Buddha, seeing her as a human being with all the characteristics and tendencies of human beings. But in a way, this isn't really dropping down to the bottom of the pool. Because I'm still trying something, right?


I'm trying to create a story or trying to understand my pain, my suffering, my anger, my resentment, all that stuff that arises out of my relationship with this person, trying to understand it in a way which will make it feel a little better. It'll make it seem okay. So I think it is, in a way, to look at people in this way. is an activity of Buddha, but it's still, it's a bit of a Buddha, let's see, a sentient being trying to be Buddha, in a way. You know, and this goes for all kinds of things. For me, you know, the experience, you know, when I think about evil, you know, I don't, evil is a loaded word, just colloquially, let's put it, the evil, you know, terrorist bombing, all the things happening in Syria, all the horrible things, the collateral damage of a drone strike.


I often try to struggle to understand these things by doing the same sort of activity. Violence begets violence. When people are violent to someone else or act out or do damage, it's because they've been hurt. This is all true. It's great to understand the world in that way. And I believe this to be absolutely true, that the most destructive, violent, awful things, heinous things that people do to people, still ultimately, deep down, if you drill down all the causes and conditions, come from our innate, natural desire for wholeness. unfortunately because of the causes and conditions and twistedness of our ancient twisted karma in the world that so many of us, me included, try to experience that wholeness through unskillful and destructive and ignorant ways.


And this is true of the most heinous activity. I believe this to be the case. Now I suppose this is one way of looking at the world and seeing it as Buddha. But I think it's still a little, it's not quite as radical as our practice is inviting us to go. I think our practice to wake up in the moment and experience Buddha nature unconditionally is to not have any rationale at all. is to be able to look at whatever is there, whatever's in front of you, a bomb going off. And just without question, without rationale, seeing it as Buddha. Accepting it as a 100% legitimate thing in the world. Very hard to do.


So I refer to Katagiri, he's got, I'm going to read one passage of his that I think he tries to express this. So we did, I wasn't here, but the Bodhisattva ceremony is kind of a, is a ritual of doing this too. Of unconditional seeing everything, all our twisted karma is Buddha. All sentient beings are allowed to live and are, from the beginning, forgiven for living their lives in this world. Everything, whatever it is, has some reason why it exists. Evil, good, even something neither evil nor good. You cannot destroy devils just because you don't like them. Even though you don't like monsters, still there is some reason why they exist. Everything is entitled to live in this world in peace and harmony, beyond our judgment, our evaluation. This is the first condition we have to realize.


Everything is Buddha. So he's stating it pretty unequivocally, you know. Everything has a right to exist and not because they're good or my rationale about intrinsically everyone seeks wholeness and is good in some fundamental way. Everything has a right to exist just because it exists. So, you know, often if I talk to people and we talk about this kind of thing, someone might say, well yeah I understand what you're saying or I understand the idea but how do I do that? How do I see everything as Buddha? And that's hard, I wish I could give you a little ... I mean Zazen, the activity of Zazen is the fundamental way to cultivate this experience of the world.


and why we're told, and I believe, and it's my experience, that it is a foundational activity for our practice. People have experiences, and we have words for it, satori or kensho, where in zazen, or it can be at any point in one's life, where you have kind of an indescribable experience of this ... everything is ... am I doing something? Well, people can hear me in the back. Yeah. Where the judgmental, the discriminating mind just drops away and one has a visceral full body, sort of indescribable experience of this equality.


And, you know, Sojin will say, and we'll read in our texts, and, you know, that you can have this experience, but you still, you know, it's not the end. Our practice is to cultivate that understanding over and over. But again, it's easier said than done. So I think my favorite ... just to sort of finish discussion of Buddha or experiencing life as Buddha. Maybe my favorite story or metaphor for it is Case 2 in Transmission of Light. So Case 1 was Shakyamuni's enlightenment experience.


Case 2 is Makakasho. You know, we chant the names of the ancestors. Enlightenment experience. And most of you know that occurred. Shakyamuni was sitting in a seat at the front of an assembly and Shakyamuni held up a flower, twirled a flower. And Makakasho saw the flower and Shakyamuni and the twirling of the flower and had the experience. Everything is Buddha. I am Buddha. Everything is a flower. Everything is a flower. It has its own life, and in that moment of accepting our life in its totality, when we see a bomb, we need to see it as a flower, that life is its own growing.


It's very radical. very humbly, you know? I mean, I think it's hard for me also because it pushes me back into my pain. Because life is hard and we don't want the hard parts and we want only the easy ones. But the hard parts are flowers. And so to see the hard parts as flowers pushing me back into my pain, or can push me back. But that's what we have to do, that's what our practice is.


That's where we have to start. So the segue into maybe the sense, how long do we go? I think it's till 1110. I'm supposed to hold up the striker for you. Sorry, 1105. OK, that's good. OK, so thank you. So the segue into the other side of things, sentient being. So, included in the flowers are me, are my sentient being. Every moment ... all right, I'm sorry, let me go back.


So, you start from the silence, but then we have to act, right? We have to go to the next moment, either saying something, choosing something, doing something, you name it, we have to live. So it's in that transition that I become a sentient being. And every moment I become a different sentient being, I think. Some are more similar than others. but in that moment I am no longer in silence, I am no longer in the place of not choosing, of not judging, because I'm saying something, I'm doing something. So what happens to Buddha then?


I think our practice is to understand that, or our practice is a way of trying to cultivate that ground of Buddha so that it informs us. when we take the step into, when we are born each moment as a sentient being. But, see this is where it gets so dualistic, because in form, you know, every moment we are a sentient being, we're not Buddha. Every step that I take is going to be partial. It's going to be a delusion for that. I'm picking and choosing something and not picking and choosing something else. It will be from a point of view. So I think it's important, it's important for me to understand that this was absolutely true of Shakyamuni too.


That he was a sentient being, and he was from moment to moment a different sentient being, but he was, you know, we refer to him as Buddha, the nirmanakaya, but he was a person, he was a guy, he was a dude. And in every moment that he had to relate to people, in many moments, or let's say every day that he related to people, he manifested his sentient beingness, just like we do. I think this has been critical to my understanding of what our practice is about, is to see everything as a Buddha sentient being, seeing everyone as a human being. So how, for instance, does my experience of the Buddha side of things inform my stepping into that moment?


I think at some point in my practice, I just realized, or it sunk in, I couldn't deny the fact that in every decision I made, in everything that I said, in every way that I tried to relate to one of my children, to my wife, she can testify to this for sure, to my co-workers, that I really did not know what I was doing fundamentally. I had an idea, I'm giving it my best shot. That shot is informed and helped by my coming from silence, but as soon as I give it my shot, as soon as I make a decision, as soon as I become and am born as a sentient being, then all bets are off. This changes the way I am.


This changes the way that I relate to the world. it doesn't make it less likely that I'll take a stand on something, but it's going to make me much more open to the way I take a stand, the way I relate to people. So I think, so every moment, I believe this to be true, as sentient beings we're deluded. That's why language and delusion are the same thing, nirvana and sapsara are the same thing. So this again is just sort of explanatory, it's not absolutely true. I like to think that there's two kind of levels of delusion. Now there's delusion like I was just referring to, and that is that every time we take a stand, every moment that we say something, it comes from a partial view. it can't include everything. It can be informed by our attempt to include everything in our zazen, in our practice, in our silence.


But in that sense, still when we act it's going to be partial. Now I think there's another category of delusions that I would describe come from our habit mind, or from our neuroses, from my neuroses. And those are Those come from my stepping into the world not having practiced or worked in the silence, where I operate from essentially a being who hasn't tried to include all the parts, all the aspects of my history, of my experience, and I act in unconscious or habitual neurotic ways out of anxiety. Now that doesn't stop, I haven't noticed that it stopped yet for me, that that happens, but practice has allowed me to have awareness of who those sentient beings are, so that when they arise and try to run the show, I can ask them to step aside.


But, you know, I have to be honest. Every day, every day, I embody a sentient being who's unskillful and neurotic. Many, many times. With my wife, with my children, with my co-workers. And that, I don't think will ever cease to be true. So I have two more things to read. Another way of sort of integrating the two sides, too, is that what I just said is true about my neuroses, my neurotic sentient beings, but because I cultivate my practice and because


I try to see the world as Buddha, I see my neurotic sentient beings as Buddha as well, as flowers. This is critical for me and I think it's critical to all of us for our practice, that if we want that becoming Buddha or embodying Buddha or being enlightened or whatever, that it doesn't that those parts of us go away. It means that we experience them on a different plane and that they rather than those parts of us enslaving us we are in charge of those parts at least more of the time. This is I think what Suzuki Roshi meant when he says, the boss of everything, there's a talk in that always so.


In Kata Giri, I think he has a beautiful, another line in here about that, about encouraging us to see ourselves as, those parts of us as flowers, as Buddha. Buddha's world means the truth or the same in one ground or that which is beyond good and bad. Whether we like it or dislike it, we have to accept this. And this is what is meant by readily accepting Buddha's compassion. We have to live our lives in the complete realization that we are already forgiven. that we too are already allowed to live, already allowed to live. And that we ourselves must make our lives come alive.


It's so easy for me to see a non-skillful or anxious or neurotic part of me and not allow it. Say, why do you live? Why can't I get you to stop living? Why can't I get you not to be born again tomorrow? You know? But, you know, it's like the glass is already broken. All these things live unto them. They're flowers. They grow, they live unto themselves. They're Buddha. And that has to come first before I can have any power over those parts of me, those shadowed parts of me. I'll throw open the questions just a second. So the other thing I would like to stress is that for all this talk about Buddha, I have to remember that that's not where I live, that's not where any of us live, right?


We live here in life, we're sentient beings, that's where we live. And that we're Buddha and sentient being at the same time is sometimes in stages of practice we can become sort of intoxicated or seduced by an idea that we can hide, or not hide, find refuge, which is really a kind of hiding in the world of Buddha, in the world of silence or on a cushion. But our practice is really an invitation for us to step off the cushion. There's a great koan in the Book of Serenity which tries to integrate the two sides and make clear that which side ... well, not which side, there's no two sides, but anyway, you know.


This one is called Yun Yan Sweeps the Ground. As Yun Yan was sweeping the ground, Da Wu said, too busy. Yun Yan said, you should know there's one who isn't busy. All right, so too busy. So Yun Yan is sweeping the ground. So he's being a sentient being, right? Busyness. He's doing, he's acting, he's in, you know. I mean, busyness is a good way in which our sentient beings are neurotic, right? Mine is, right? Western civilization and Berkeley and this life, busyness is a pretty common expression of our sentient beings. But it just stands in for the being too busy is the sentient being side. But then Yen Yen responds, well you should know I'm not just a sentient being, I'm a Buddha. You should know, there's one who isn't busy, right?


And then Dao Wu said, Well, if that's so, then there's a second moon. So, that's Zen speak for ... So, there's one moon, right? We have one moon in our planet, and that moon is a representation of enlightenment. This. It. Shasnist. One thing. And so Da Wu is saying, so you're saying there's two worlds? There's the sentient being world and the Buddha world? And then Yan Yan held up the broom and said, which moon is this? He's saying, look, it's just this life and I got a broom in this life, in this moment. Maybe this will change again.


The longer I practice, the more I experience practice as an encouragement not to hold back. I mean, sometimes it's easy to think about... So, sitting on the cushion, returning to silence is letting go, right? Or activity of letting go. And I guess that's true. But maybe the real letting go is when we step off. We take the risk to jump off that pole, to step off the cushion and to allow our sentient beings, informed by Buddha, to be ourselves completely. Okay, I'll take questions or comments. Peter? Thank you very much, Greg. I'm really touched by your practice. And I want to ask about, because we hear sometimes that Buddhas have great compassion for sentient beings, can moving from


Can you repeat the question? Peter's asking, he said that sometimes it's said that Buddhas have great compassion for sentient beings. So can we say, then Peter asks, can we say that the act or the moment or the gesture of moving from the cushion into activity is an act of compassion? Is that your question? Absolutely. Absolutely. Because otherwise we're not living. And the most compassionate thing we can do, that's saving a sentient being, right? It's allowing it the flower to live. It's the greatest act of compassion there is. So stepping off the cushion is every moment is allowing myself to live.


Yeah. I'm thinking about a similar thing, stepping off the cushion and what you're saying about how becoming a sentient being as we step off the cushion means that our views and our actions will be partial and deluded and therefore deluded. And I'm thinking about the experiences in my life when I face some difficulty and for whatever reason have actually taken in that difficulty in this way of allowing it to be and really and getting my ego out of the way so that it's not about if I like it or if I don't like it or if I want it or don't want it, it exists, what am I going to do now? And in that moment, I feel as though the clarity is that I am partial, that this is my range of motion.


And this is how I am in relationship with the world. And that often leads to a very clear choice. And so I guess I'm wondering about And that's action I can take as a person. I'm wondering what the delusion is in that, this partiality that you're talking about. Is there some alternative? There's no alternative. And don't get bogged down on the delusion. You said it so nicely, better than I did, about that moment. Because the only way is not doing anything, right? I guess I don't entirely understand what the sentient being is.


The sentient being is the being in the moment in the world. Not necessarily written by ego and neurosis. Not necessarily, although it's asymptotic at the nodes, right? Again, so the two categories, they're ways of understanding two sides of experience. They're not absolute modalities, right? So we're always both, and there's the five ranks, which tries to mathematize the different mixtures of the two sides, right? And to different types of experience. But we're always operating kind of like with both. You had a question? And then... There's lots of time outside to ask questions.


So we're really done, done? Okay, one more, one more. Sorry. Yeah, thank you for your talk. Yes. One of the, I guess, something that I come to when I hear the analogy of the flower is that a flower, to me, seems like it's something that a lot of people have a kind of good connotation with. And I think seeing something as it is, it is. Even applying a term to something, it's bound within the restrictions of language, connotations, culture, all these things, and everything that we see isn't a flower.


There are other things. Absolutely, absolutely. There's a great passage in Dogen, Genjokorn, about that. There's no flowers, we can just continue the metaphorical language. There's just plants. And then if you say there are flowers or weeds, flowers or weeds don't exist. We make them by choosing. A flower is a flower is because we have a preference or like it. So you're right. If you want to drill down literally, yeah, to call something a flower is already to express a preference. It's already to come out of the absolute equality, absolutely. I think the beauty of ... so, you know, metaphors are ... the poeticness of it and the encouraging part of it is that, you know, where the rubber meets the road in practice is in ... even if you're grasping for something that you want,


It's a resistance. It's not accepting life, right? It's because you want to keep something that's going to fade and you don't want ... And so there's the things we push away and the things we pull in. And I think there's an encouragement in the metaphor of the flower, is because it tries to get us before that point, to see everything as something that's okay to be there. Right? So it's a little extra. You're right. OK. Thank you so much, everyone. Are you going to have a discussion in Zenda at 11.30? Well, I think not today. Maybe because, and correct me if I'm wrong, the people in charge, there's a candidate team. And so I think that should take precedence. But I'll be out there for a day.