161 - The Parinirvana Ceremony and the Teaching of the Buddha's Dying and Death
163 - Lotus Sutra 4: Parable of the Plants - Superior, Middling, or Inferior Beings and the Dharma

If you practice Buddhism, it’s natural to ask yourself, at some point, “Am I a Good Buddhist?” It’s difficult to see ourselves as a good Buddhist when we fail to act in accord with our own deeper aspirations. And yet, according to Zen, no amount of practice is going make us into a Buddha, any more than you can polish a tile and make it into a jewel. So what is practice about? Ultimately, it’s about radically accepting ourselves while simultaneously honoring the call of our Buddha nature to work hard toward greater wisdom and compassion.



Quicklinks to Episode Outline:
What Do We Imagine a Good Buddhist Looks Like?
A Good Buddhist = Living According to Our Own Aspirations
Our Messy Human Nature
Polishing a Tile to Become a Good Buddhist
A Good Buddhist Is Not What You Might Think
And Yet, You Could Use a Little Improvement


What Do We Imagine a Good Buddhist Looks Like?

Most of us, at least sometimes (many of us, frequently!): Am I a good Buddhist?

Don’t even need perfection! Just “good.”

What is a good Buddhist? Not just what you really think, but also what your friends and family members might think when they observe your behavior and say, “But aren’t you a Buddhist?

Brainstorm from Dharma talk: If I were a good Buddhist, I would… always be patient and compassionate and follow the precepts; I would be more wholehearted and focused while sitting zazen, and mindful while going about my daily activities; I would look after my health, be vegetarian, and be more active in my community… I wouldn’t get angry, fear death, care so much about what others think of me, judge others, be disturbed by difficult circumstances, or be attached to the finer things in life…

Even deeper: Our glimpses of reality – emptiness, boundlessness, non-separation, interdependence, sufficiency, the preciousness of things-as-it-is (we’ve all had such glimpses, however briefly…)

Part of us knows which way is up, like a seed under the soil…

Our Buddha-nature… this is the “Buddha” treasure, at the most profound level…

From the Kyojukaimon (our commentary on the precepts): “At the source: the highest truth is called the buddha treasure; immaculacy is called the dharma treasure; harmony is called the sangha treasure. In the past: those who realized the truth completely are called the buddha treasure; the truth realized is called the dharma treasure; those who have transmitted this dharma are called the sangha treasure.”[i] (See episode 60 – Taking Refuge and Precepts: The Significance of Becoming a Buddhist – Part 1)

The Dharma = The truth, and the Buddha treasure = the human ability to recognize it…

A Good Buddhist = Living According to Our Own Aspirations

I think this is where we feel the most regret about not being a good Buddhist. Behavior – indulging anger, being inwardly or outwardly judgmental, being filled with lust or desire, etc. – we know we’re not perfect, no one is…

But it’s not living in accord with our own aspirations, acting contrary to what we know, at some level, to be true – that’s what’s discouraging…

According to Buddhist mythology, Mara holds up a mirror to those who have recently died, and what they see in that mirror about their past is what determines which of the six realms they will be reborn in…

No God observing you from afar, to judge or forgive. It’s our Buddha nature which knows right from wrong, and which can forgive and embrace…

Our Messy Human Nature

Compared to the ideal, we’re all terrible Buddhists. You neighbor may look like they’re sitting in complete peace in meditation, but they’re not. You many know certain people who appear to behave in a relatively saintly way you can only aspire to, but they have their own problems. (You realize this after years of practicing with a Sangha…)

This human nature we’ve inherited is messy… As Robert Wright discusses in Why Buddhism is True,[ii] it’s like our minds are made up of competing modules, each which have evolved to ensure our survival and reproduction in different circumstances. We’re conscious of power imbalances and our place within social power structures. We’re paranoid about our relationships and alert to the possibility of betrayal. We seek safety and comfort, and get tempted to use others to meet those needs. Fear of pain and suffering makes us self-absorbed. The instinct to protect ourselves, our children, and our tribe manifests and anger and even rage…

Fighting this humanness seems like a losing battle at times (and Buddhists are far from the only religious tradition to try)

E.g. A technique from the hard core Christian monastic Desert Fathers to control our negative thoughts:

“According to the Desert Fathers, uncontrolled thoughts are the origins of some of the sicknesses of the soul. They identified eight non-psychological sicknesses of a spiritual origin, classified by the monk Evagrius as: greed of any sort, a pathological relationship to sex, a pathological relationship to money, sadness, aggressiveness, acedia (an illness of the soul expressed by listlessness, boredom, laziness – a precursor to slothfulness) vanity, and pride. These eight generic diseases have a pathological source: narcissism, which the Fathers called philautia, excessive self-love.”[iii]

Practiced “guarding the heart,” sobriety, hospitality, and meditation… Guarding the heart much like what we mean by mindfulness.

But then there’s also our Buddha nature. We know there’s a possibility of something more, a life lived with some measure of self-transcendence. We witness and experience liberation from the bondage of self-concern. We know the joy of enacting compassion and generosity…

So, our lives can end up feeling like an endless struggle between our base natures and our aspirations – between the devil on one shoulder and the angel on the other. At any given time, we may feel like a good Buddhist, but if we really contemplate what we know is possible in terms of liberation and compassion, we have to admit we fall short by an almost incomprehensible distance.

Polishing a Tile to Become a Good Buddhist

This is part of the teaching in an ancient Zen koan, here repeated by Dogen in the fascicle “Kokyo,” or “Old Mirror” (this translation by Kaz Tanahashi):

“Living in the Chuanfa Temple, Mazu was engaged in continuous practice of zazen for over a decade. Ponder his sitting on a rainy night in a thatched-roof hut. There is no account that he skipped sitting on a cold platform when stranded by snow.

When Nanyue visited his hut, Mazu stood up.

Nanyue said, “What have you been doing these days?”

Mazu said, “I have been just sitting.”

Nanyue said, “What is your intention in just sitting?”

Mazu said, “I intend to become a buddha.”

Then Nanyue picked up a tile and started polishing it on a stone near Mazu’s hut.

Mazu said, “Master, what are you doing?”

Nanyue said, “Polishing a tile.”

Mazu said, “Why are you polishing the tile?”

Nanyue said, “I am trying to make a mirror.”

Mazu said, “How can you polish a tile and make a mirror?”

Nanyue said, “How can you do zazen and become a buddha?”[iv]

Practice is not about taking this messy bundle of behavioral modules which evolved to ensure our survival and reproduction, and transforming it into a saint. It’s not about purifying ourselves, rooting out and destroying or throwing out our desire, greed, anger, or self-concern. It’s not about our saintly self wrestling our base self into submission, vanquishing forever our wandering mind and frivolous obsessions.

That’s just not going to happen. You can’t pick up a tile and polish it into a mirror (or in some translations, a “jewel”). It’s a ridiculous waste of time to try, especially if you’re really attached to some kind of progress or ultimate success.

A Good Buddhist Is Not What You Might Think

So what IS practice about if it’s not about trying to become a Buddha, or at least more Buddha-like? What about our Buddha nature, which knows which way is up?

At some point, as Buddhists, we discover the miracle of acceptance. If dukkha (dissatisfaction…) is caused by desire for things to be other than how they are, dukkha can be instantly relieved by radical acceptance.

Just this…

Letting go of the self-concern involved… (how is my practice?)

Then we can observe the “small self” – the parts of us concerned with survival and reproduction, power and pleasure, safety and comfort – objectively, without shame or self-flagellation.

We gain increasing freedom around the small self; yes, we feel lust, fear, hatred, etc… but we have some choice around how to interpret those feelings and what to do about them.

In other words, we can’t make the tile into a mirror, but that’s okay.

As Dogen says in Genjokoan, “Those who greatly realize delusion are buddhas. Those who are greatly deluded in realization are living beings…”

And in Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind, Suzuki Roshi talks about a Buddhist teaching comparing practitioners to four different kinds of horses: Best responds to the shadow of the whip, second best responds just before the whip touches the skin; third to pain; fourth when pain penetrates to marrow of its bones! Suzuki says:

“When we hear this story, almost all of us want to be the best horse. If it is impossible to be the best one, we want to be the second best… You may think that when you sit in zazen you will find out whether you are one of the best horses or one of the worst ones. Here, however, there is a misunderstanding of Zen. If you think the aim of Zen practice is to train you to become one of the best horses, you will have a big problem. This is not the right understanding. If you practice Zen in the right way it does not matter whether you are the best horse or the worst one. When you consider the mercy of Buddha, how do you think Buddha will feel about the four kinds of horses? He will have more sympathy for the worst one than for the best one.

“When you are determined to practice zazen with the great mind of Buddha, you will find the worst horse is the most valuable one. In your very imperfections you will find the basis for your firm, way-seeking mind…”[v]

When we accept ourselves completely, just as we are, letting go of all expectations about how we should be… what is the truth of this moment? How is it our Buddha-nature manifests? It’s right there in our aliveness, our mindfulness, our way-seeking mind, our awareness of which way is up…

And Yet, You Could Use a Little Improvement

But we must not get caught in either end of the duality: I am flawed and need to improve in order to be worthy, and that improvement is an extremely daunting task and I’m not making much headway at all versus My life is complete and precious just as it is, no effort to improve is required.

Dogen goes on:

“Without polishing a tile, how can a great sage have the skillful means to make a true person?

“…Nanyue’s expression… is an expression of expressions. Thus, polishing a tile is making a mirror. Those of you nowadays should also try to polish a tile to make a mirror. It will certainly be a mirror.

“If a tile does not become a mirror, a human being does not become a buddha. If you look down at a tile as a lump of mud, you look down at a human being as a lump of mud. If a human has mind, a tile should have mind. Who knows that there is a mirror that is brought forth as a tile and is actualized as a tile? Who knows that there is a mirror that is brought forth as a mirror and is actualized as a mirror?” [vi]

We are changing our relationship to this lump of mud, this tile, this messy human form…

It is because we engage in the polishing that our life is precious and complete…

Our practice has two sides… Shunryu Suzuki apparently said (often repeated quote but no one gives a source): “All of you are perfect just as you are and you could use a little improvement.” (Sounds like something he would say, in any case)…

To be a good Buddhist is to keep polishing this tile, to nurture our aspiration to manifest as a buddha, to be kind, wise, compassionate, generous, free from greed, ill-will, and ignorance… even while letting go of a self-centered hope for progress in our effort.



[i] https://brightwayzen.org/practice/taking-the-precepts/text-of-precepts/
[ii] Wright, Robert. Why Buddhism Is True: The Science and Philosophy of Meditation and Enlightenment. New York, NY: Simon and Schuster, 2017.
[iii] https://aleteia.org/2018/04/14/a-technique-from-the-desert-fathers-to-control-our-negative-thoughts/
[iv] Dogen, Zen Master. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. Shambhala. Kindle Edition.
[v] Suzuki, Shunryu. Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind (p. 20). Shambhala. Kindle Edition.
[vi] Dogen, Zen Master. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo. Shambhala. Kindle Edition.


Photo Credit

Image by Florin Birjoveanu from Pixabay


161 - The Parinirvana Ceremony and the Teaching of the Buddha's Dying and Death
163 - Lotus Sutra 4: Parable of the Plants - Superior, Middling, or Inferior Beings and the Dharma