Buddhism in New Light Chapter 17: Freeing the Caged Bird Within
The Buddha nature refers to the potential for attaining Buddhahood, a state of awakening filled with compassion and wisdom.
SGI-USA Study Department Leader
1) The Lotus Sutra stresses the universality of Buddhahood by recognizing its potential in those denied enlightenment in other Buddhist teachings. The tradition of the Buddha nature concept teaches that we must challenge our delusions to reveal our Buddha nature.
2) Nichiren Daishonin teaches that when we chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, we are praising the Buddha nature of all living beings and, at the same time, bringing forth this supreme potential of life from within our own lives. The key to manifesting our Buddha nature lies in our confidence in its existence.
Food for Thoughts
- Do you sometimes feel like "I can never attain enlightenment" or "I'm already a Buddha, so I don't have to do anything"?
- What is wrong with these two attitudes?
- How does each attitude distort the teaching of the Buddha nature?
The Buddha nature refers to the potential for attaining Buddhahood, a state of awakening filled with compassion and wisdom. Although the Buddha nature and Buddhahood are sometimes used interchangeably, strictly speaking, the Buddha nature is one's potential for becoming a Buddha, and Buddhahood is the manifest state of that potential. Through the development of the Buddha nature concept, Buddhahood became the universal principle of authentic happiness rather than the isolated awakening of one gifted person.
Of all the early Mahayana scriptures, the Lotus Sutra stands out in terms of representing the view of salvation from within. The Lotus Sutra-part of which possibly dates from the first century bce-repeatedly emphasizes the universality of Buddhahood. For example, it states, "If there are those who hear the Law, / then not a one will fail to attain Buddhahood" (ls, 41). It also states, "The original vow of the Buddhas / was that the Buddha way, which they themselves practice, / should be shared universally among living beings / so that they too may attain this same way" (ls, 41).
The Lotus Sutra stresses the universality of Buddhahood by recognizing its potential in those denied enlightenment in other Buddhist teachings. For example, many Mahayana sutras asserted that monastics and solitary mendicants were incapable of attaining Buddhahood. Incapable as well, in some Buddhist traditions, were women and evil men. The Lotus Sutra, however, recognizes the potential for Buddhahood in all categories of people denied enlightenment elsewhere.
Another important feature of the Lotus Sutra is that all people are acknowledged as the children of the Buddha. The Buddha's disciples proclaim: "So we did not know that we were in truth the sons of the Buddha. But now at last we know it" (ls, 86). The sutra also explains, "And if in future existences / one can read and uphold this sutra, / he will be a true son of the Buddha" (ls, 181). All people, the sutra teaches, are related to Shakyamuni-that is, they share the Buddha's spiritual makeup and therefore will eventually develop into Buddhas, just as a child inevitably grows into an adult.
Nichiren writes: "Myoho-renge-kyo is the Buddha nature of all living beings.... The Buddha nature that all these beings possess is called by the name Myoho-rengekyo" (wnd, 131). Regarding how to manifest one's innate Buddha nature, Nichiren explains: "When we revere Myoho-renge-kyo inherent in our own life as the object of devotion, the Buddha nature within us is summoned forth and manifested by our chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. This is what is meant by 'Buddha.' To illustrate, when a caged bird sings, birds who are flying in the sky are thereby summoned and gather around, and when the birds flying in the sky gather around, the bird in the cage strives to get out. When with our mouths we chant the Mystic Law, our Buddha nature, being summoned, will invariably emerge" (wnd, 887).
In Nichiren's metaphor, our innate Buddha nature, whose name is Nam-myoho-renge-kyo, is a bird trapped in the cage of ignorance. In other words, our deluded minds create this cage that imprisons our Buddha nature. But when we chant Nam-myoho-renge-kyo to the Gohonzon, which expresses Nichiren's enlightened life and the potential of all people, our dormant Buddha nature becomes activated.
The singing of the caged bird is our chanting, and the birds flying in the sky are the Buddha nature in our environment, particularly as it is expressed in the Gohonzon. Through our chanting, the Buddha nature within our lives and the Buddha nature inherent in the universe begin their dynamic interaction.
For Nichiren's metaphor to work, however, it is necessary for the caged bird to recognize the birds in the sky as being its own kind. In other words, when we pray to the Gohonzon, rather than thinking of it as an external power or deity, we must think of it as the mirror image of our own Buddha nature. If the caged bird thinks of itself as an elephant, it is unlikely to give the slightest thought to flying.
Nichiren Buddhism clarifies that the teaching of the Buddha nature is a teaching of faith and practice. All people have it, but not many can believe in it. Furthermore, some of those who believe in their Buddha nature may not practice to manifest it, erroneously thinking-I'm already a Buddha, so I don't have to do anything. One's faith in the Buddha nature must be expressed in one's actions to manifest it.
Those who see the universal Buddha nature of oneself and others and work to awaken it in all people are already Buddhas, for such actions belong to none other than a Buddha. As we cultivate our inherent Buddha nature through our conviction and actions to manifest it no matter our circumstances, we begin to see it and experience it. In our everyday lives, seeing may be believing. But in the world of Buddhism, believing in the Buddha nature is the first step toward seeing it.