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Perfection Revealed

Dharma Discourse by John Daido Loori, Roshi
Gateless Gate, Case 9
Jingrang's Nonattained Buddha

Featured in Mountain Record 25.4, Summer 2007


The Main Case

Once a monastic said to Master Jingrang of Xingyang, “Dadong Zhisheng Buddha did zazen on a bodhi seat for ten kalpas. Buddhadharma was not manifested, nor did he attain buddhahood. Why was it?” Jo said, “Your question is splendid indeed.” The monastic persisted, “He did practice zazen on a bodhi seat. Why did he not attain buddhahood?” Jo replied, “Because he did not attain buddhahood.”

Wumen's Commentary

The old foreigner may know it, but he cannot really grasp it. An ordinary person, if he knows it, is a sage. A sage, if she grasps it, is an ordinary person.

Wumen's Verse

Rather than give the body relief, give relief to the mind:
When the mind is at peace, the body is not distressed.
If mind and body are both set free,
Why must the holy saint become a lord?



Students often ask me about the nature of enlightenment. They want to know, if we are indeed perfect and complete, then why do we need to do anything? Why is there is so much pain in the world? Why is there ignorance and enlightenment, and why are they separate?

In Buddhism we start with original perfection: each one of us is perfect and complete, lacking nothing. But somehow, through the process of living our lives, we become separated from that inherent perfection and by the time we reach maturity we find ourselves very confused about who we are. We wonder, what is life? What is death? What is reality? Who am I?

Yunmen continues, “So nowadays, when monks go north they call this worshipping Manjushri.” Manjushri, the Bodhisattva of Wisdom, is said to live on Wutai Mountain and during Yunmen’s time, doing a pilgrimage to Wutai was considered a very important and valuable thing to do. “And when they go south they journey to Nanyang.” Nanyang was the place where the National Teacher Nanyang Huizhong came from, and supposedly those who traveled there became enlightened. “People who go on such pilgrimages, though they are called mendicant monks, just squander the alms of the faithful. What a shame! What a shame!” The modern equivalent of these pilgrimages are the twenty-thousand-dollar trips in which a guide—sometimes even a Buddhist teacher—takes a group to Bodhidharma’s cave in China or to visit temples in Japan, India, or Tibet. But what does this mean in terms of the dharma? How does going to Bodhidharma’s cave—if it is indeed his cave—help you to transform the way you live your life and treat other people? How does it empower you?

This koan gets to the bottom of these questions. The name of this buddha, Dadong Zhisheng Buddha, literally means “Wonderful Wisdom that Pervades the Universe.” He is one of the legendary buddhas that preceded Shakyamuni. The Lotus Sutra says, “This buddha did zazen on the bodhi seat for ten kalpas.” A kalpa is an incredibly long period of time. So for ten kalpas he did zazen and yet buddhadharma was not manifested; he didn’t attain buddhahood. Understandably, the monastic wants to know why.

Linji commented on this koan in his Record of Linji. He said, “[Dadong] means ‘the one who has attained at all places the no nature, the no self reality, of all things.’ [Zhisheng] means, ‘the one who does not rely on any teaching and has no doubt whatsoever under any circumstances.’ Buddha is the one whose mind is pure and lucid and whose light penetrates through the dharma world. To do zazen on the bodhi seat for ten kalpas refers to the life of the ten paramitas. ‘Buddhadharma was not manifested’ means that the buddha is originally unborn; dharma is undying. How then could it ever manifest itself? ‘He did not attain buddhahood’ means that being buddha originally, he does not become buddha again.”

Well, that’s true. But it’s also very intellectual. The key to this koan—the key to any koan—is not in the words and ideas that describe the reality, but in the actual manifestation of that reality. The literature is filled with explanations and descriptions about koans, but that’s not what koan introspection is about. That’s not what realization is about. Realization is a state of consciousness, a state of being. That’s what’s examined in dokusan. These koans are just vehicles for helping us to manifest in our lives the teachings contained in the sutras and koan collections. That’s the whole point of practice, because if it’s not functioning in our lives, then what good is it?