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 Transcript Headings:
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 (perhaps many of us, frequently!) wonder, “Am I a good Buddhist?” I don’t think any of us really expect perfection of ourselves. We just want to be good enough. But what is a good Buddhist? What do your friends and family have in mind when they observe your behavior and say, “But aren’t you a Buddhist?!”

I recently gave a Dharma talk on this topic and asked people to brainstorm ways to complete the sentence, “If I were a good Buddhist, I…” This is some of what we came up with:

  • I would always be patient and compassionate and follow the precepts
  • I would be more whole-hearted and focused while sitting zazen.
  • I would sit every day. 
  • I would be mindful while going about all of my daily activities. 
  • I would look after my health, be vegetarian and more active in my community. 
  • I wouldn’t get angry. 
  • I wouldn’t fear death. 
  • I wouldn’t care so much about what others think of me.
  • I wouldn’t be so judgmental of others.
  • I wouldn’t be disturbed by difficult circumstances, or be attached to the finer things in life. 

Even deeper than this list of stereotypes or ideals is the fact that we all have had glimpses of the deeper reality that I often talk about, where we have some perception of emptiness, boundlessness, non-separation, interdependence, sufficiency, and the preciousness of things-as-it-is. I think we’ve all had such glimpses, however briefly. Even if it feels like a vague intuition, part of us knows which way is up, like a seed under the soil. This is what we call our Buddha-Nature. This is the Buddha treasure at the most profound level. The Kyojukaimon, our lineage commentary on the precepts (See episode 60 – Taking Refuge and Precepts: The Significance of Becoming a Buddhist – Part 1), says this:

“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]

In the most pure and profound sense, the Dharma is the truth, and the Buddha treasure is this human ability to recognize it, to resonate with it.


A Good Buddhist = Living According to Our Own Aspirations

We know we’re not perfect. No one is. But I think we feel the most regret about not living in accord with our own deeper aspirations. When we’re indulging anger, being inwardly, outwardly judgmental, filled with lust or desire, etc., we’re acting contrary to what we know at some level is true.

Falling short of our own aspirations is what’s truly discouraging. According to Buddhist mythology, after you die you go into a system of rebirth. There are six different realms you might be reborn into, some of them pleasant and fortunate and some quite miserable. After death, you face Mara, the deity of the desire realm. This is the moment of judgment. However, Mara doesn’t judge you, he simply holds up a mirror. When we look into that mirror, we see our past actions and then we judge ourselves. It’s not a fixed or mechanical system based on what we’ve done in some objective sense, which then sends us to the appropriate realm for rebirth. In Buddhism, there’s no God observing us from afar to judge or forgive. It’s our buddha-nature which knows what is right and wrong and it’s we ourselves who can forgive, embrace, or judge.


Our Messy Human Nature

Compared to the ideal, we’re all terrible Buddhists. Your neighbor in the meditation hall may look like they’re sitting in complete peace in meditation, but they’re not. You may know certain people who appear to behave in a relatively saintly, controlled, disciplined, or generous ways – ways you can only aspire to. However, I can assure you they have their own problems. This is what you learn by practicing with a Sangha for many, many years. You’ll see people you think have it all together but eventually you find out what their challenges, blind spot, or weakness is. On the other hand, you’ll also see people you might be judgmental of at first, but you’ll end up seeing what strengths they have and how they grow.

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).

The hard-core Christian monastic Desert Fathers gave a lot of thought to this, a lot of thought to the problem of human nature and how to purify it or control it. This is from an article about them:

“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]

The Desert Fathers practiced guarding the heart, sobriety, hospitality, and meditation. When you read the description of “guarding the heart,” it sounds very much like what we Buddhists mean by mindfulness – being very aware of what is going on in your own mind and heart. There’s this messy human nature which we constantly seem to need to fight, control, be aware of, or be on guard about.

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. Even though our messy human nature seems so burdensome at times, this other aspect of our existence also seems very, very real. Our lives can end up feeling like an endless struggle between our base natures and our aspirations – between, if you will, 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 or dis-ease) is caused by desire for things to be other than how they are, dukkha can be instantly relieved by radical acceptance. Just this.

We let go of the self-concern involved in the questions, “How is my practice? Have I improved? Am I compassionate? Am I a good Buddhist?We really let go of all expectations, because nobody ever said it was going to be a particular way. This is just life. This is how it turned out. If we’re able to look at it without filtering through any of our expectations, it simply is what it is.

It’s pretty miraculous that anything exists. —similarly, we can do that with ourselves. We let go of any sense of how we should be, how lame we might be, concern about our status or our success or our worthiness. Here we are. We ended up with this self, this package of modules, this package of karma. Then we can more objectively observe this small self, these parts of us concerned with survival and reproduction, power and pleasure, safety and comfort. No shame or self-flagellation needs to be involved. We gain increasing freedom around the small self.

Yes, we feel lust and fear and hatred, 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…” Buddhas – awakened beings – see delusion clearly. It’s not that they’ve gone into a realm where there is no delusion, they’ve just become aware of it. They see its nature.

In “Zen mind, Beginner’s mind”, Suzuki Roshi talks about a Buddhist teaching, comparing practitioners to four different kinds of horses. The best horse responds to the shadow of the whip, running quickly, turning whenever it’s required. The second-best responds just before the whip touches the skin. There has to be a bit of a threat that the whip is going to touch the skin, but it doesn’t even have to. The third-best horse only responds to pain, once the whip touches and the horse feels it. The fourth horse, the “worst” one, only responds when pain penetrates to the 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

We must not get caught in either end of the duality of our existence. One end is: I’m flawed and need to improve in order to be worthy, and that improvement is an extremely daunting task. We rarely make much headway at all. The other end, the other extreme, is where we say. “My life is complete and precious just as it is; therefore, no effort to improve is required.” Dogen goes on in “Kokyo” saying:

“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 change our relationship to this lump of mud, this tile, this messy human form. We can’t reject it out of hand. It is us – and it isn’t us. It’s what we have to work with. It is the material that becomes more Buddha-like, that manifests the Buddha-nature which is reaching up for the light. We manifest Buddha-nature through polishing the tile, by, for example, working toward greater wisdom and compassion, or trying to recognize and not necessarily act out our anger or delusion. It’s that very effort, that very willingness, that is our Buddha-nature. So, our experience has two aspects, and our practice is to live the dynamic path of life that honors both.

This reminds me of a quote attributed to Shunryu Suzuki. I have looked all over the Internet for the source of it, but everybody just repeats each other’s quotes and I never get to find out the actual source. I really hate to even share it without a source, but it sounds like something Suzuki would say: “All of you are perfect just as you are, and you could use a little improvement.”  

To be a good Buddhist is to keep polishing this tile, to nurture our aspiration to manifest as a Buddha. We keep trying to be kind, wise, compassionate, generous, free from greed, ill-will and ignorance, mindful, and appreciative – while at the same time letting go of a self-centered hope for progress in our effort or for achieving any particular level of perfection.



[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