53 - Buddha's Teachings Part 5: Karma, the Law of Moral Cause-and-Effect
55 – Listener’s Questions: Enlightened Behavior, Openings, Chanting, Recommended Books

You don’t need to improve one iota, change anything about yourself, or obtain anything you don’t already have, in order to fulfill the Buddha Way and directly experience the ultimate goal of Zen. This is because the nature of awakening is wonderfully ironic. It’s not about gaining or experiencing anything you don’t already have. It’s about realizing the indescribable preciousness of exactly the way things are – exactly the way you are – right here and now.



Quicklinks to Transcript Content:
Trying to Gain Enlightenment
The Irony of “You Already Have It”
It’s Difficult to Recognize and Accept What We Already Have
What We Already Have – No-Self Nature!
Awakening as Stepping Outside the Box
The Joy of Embracing Your Small Self

Trying to Gain Enlightenment

Today I want to talk about how you don’t need to change a thing about yourself, or obtain anything you don’t already have, in order to directly and personally experience the ultimate goal of Zen. You can call this goal by many names: Enlightenment, awakening, liberation, or seeing your true nature.

In order to directly experience what Buddhas and Zen masters throughout the ages have experienced, you don’t have to lose weight, overcome your anxiety or depression, deepen your compassion, end your addictions, or improve your relationships. You don’t have to understand Buddhism, master the art of meditation, or experience special insights. No need to perfect your morality, generosity, mindfulness, self-discipline,[1] or become any more responsible or capable than you already are. Without a single improvement, this very moment you can awaken in the way described by 12th-century Chan master Hongzhi:

“Cast off completely your head and skin. Thoroughly withdraw from distinctions of light and shadow. Where the ten thousand changes do not reach is the foundation that even a thousand sages cannot transmit. Simply by yourself illuminate and deeply experience it with intimate accord. The original light flashes through confusion. True illumination reflects into the distance. Deliberations about being and nonbeing are entirely abandoned. The wonder appears before you, its benefit transferred out for kalpas [eons]. Immediately you follow conditions and accord with awakening without obstruction from any defilements.”[2]

It’s natural that students of Zen assume some remarkable enlightenment experience must be involved in touching the “foundation” beyond change – the foundation which is bright, intimate, wondrous, and free from confusion, self-concern, and obstruction. Surely this is a vision of something we have not yet seen, a way of understanding the universe that is, as yet, beyond us! Surely, we need to purify and discipline ourselves before we can manage to “cast off completely our head and skin,” or break free of our conviction that our “self” exists inside this skin bag while everything else exists outside of it. We figure the profound, transcendent awakening of the buddhas must be far, far from people like us who review movie plots in our heads during meditation, or get repeatedly overcome by afflictive emotions such as anger, greed, pride, or fear.

No matter how hard we try not to, we form a concept of what we think awakening must be, and it’s always about something we don’t yet have. After all, we long to free ourselves from our dukkha, fully appreciate this human life, and manifest great wisdom and compassion – and how many of us can say, “Check! That’s done!” Before we’ve personally experienced, for ourselves, the stuff Zen teachers talk about like no-self, emptiness, suchness, buddha-nature, or the luminous preciousness of things just as they are, we lack something. We’re without. Incomplete. Unenlightened. It seems obvious we need to work toward gaining a personal experience of the Dharma, doesn’t it?

The Irony of “You Already Have It”

The thing is, the nature of awakening is terribly ironic. It’s not about gaining or experiencing anything you don’t already have. It’s about realizing the indescribable preciousness of exactly the way things are – exactly the way you are – right here and now. It’s a paradox: Before awakening, your perception of reality is skewed by your delusive assumptions, and you need to recognize and shed those delusive assumptions. In other words, you’ve got to do something, or make a change. But one of those delusive assumptions is exactly the idea that you’ve got to be any different than you are in order to be illuminated by that original light that flashes through confusion.

It’s like the story in the Lotus Sutra, about the jewel in the cloak. There are two friends, and one stays overnight in the other’s house. The homeowner is well-to-do, and in the middle of the night he secretly sews a very valuable jewel into his friend’s cloak. Presumably, the poorer man would never have accepted the gift directly, so the homeowner hides the jewel where his friend can discover it later on. Apparently, the jewel gets hidden too well, because the poorer man wanders the land for many years, struggling with poverty. When the friends finally meet again, the well-to-do man is astonished, and points out to his friend how he had been carrying great wealth all along.

We’re like the poor man with the jewel hidden in his cloak. We struggle with lack and search everywhere for relief. When we awaken, we experience a great reward – but only because we realize the value of what we’ve had all along.

It’s Difficult to Recognize and Accept What We Already Have

Sadly, realizing the value of what we’ve had all along is not so easy. For various reasons, we can’t fathom or accept our buddha nature is just this. Someone may tell us there’s a jewel hidden in our cloak, but we don’t believe them, or the jewel’s not so easy to find! The Lotus Sutra talks about this situation as well, in the parable of the Lost Son. The Lost Son wanders in poverty and degradation for years, and when he ends up back in his father’s kingdom, he doesn’t even recognize his father. The son is afraid and suspicious, and it takes years of clever maneuvering for the father to increase his son’s confidence and make friends with him. Eventually the father is able to name the son as his heir, but it’s a long process. We’re like the son, unable to conceive of being part of the same family as the buddhas and ancestors. Practice is gradually building our ability to see and accept what has been true from the beginning.

Our sense of inadequacy and dissatisfaction can come in many forms. Sometimes it’s clearly low self-esteem. You may assume enlightenment is for people much better or smarter or more talented than you are. Low self-esteem, however, is often just the opposite side of the coin from arrogance; people may display confidence in public but secretly feel defensive, always worried that they aren’t as capable as they should be. At times we may feel okay about ourselves overall but are still plagued with a subtle sense of sorrow or longing because we fall so incredibly short of our ideals.

As long as we believe our ultimate worth is based on conditional things – ability, understanding, intelligence, strength, even “goodness” – we will be standing on unsure ground and subject to doubt about ourselves. Things change. There’s always someone better than you are. Eventually we make mistakes or lose the abilities we’re proud of. The doubt we feel about ourselves is fundamental doubt. It’s not just concern about whether you’re up to a particular task or challenge, it’s doubting you have a rightful place on this planet, that you’re fundamentally worthy and lovable, that when your life is over it will have been well-spent, that you’re an indispensable part of the incredible beauty and wonder of this universe.

What We Already Have – No-Self Nature!

Few of us are entirely free of this fundamental self-doubt! This is why 9th-century Chan master Lin-chi (or Rinzai) said:

“When students today fail to make progress, where’s the fault? The fault lies in the fact that they don’t have faith in themselves! If you don’t have faith in yourself, then you’ll be forever in a hurry trying to keep up with everything around you, you’ll be twisted and turned by whatever environment you’re in and you can never move freely. But if you can just stop this mind that goes rushing around moment by moment looking for something, then you’ll be no different from the patriarchs and buddhas. Do you want to get to know the patriarchs and buddhas? They’re none other than you, the people standing in front of me listening to this lecture on the Dharma!”[3]

What is the nature of this “self” Rinzai is telling us to have faith in, if it’s not about our abilities, capabilities, or understanding? Personally, I struggled with this for a long time in my own practice. I was always comparing myself to others and my own ideals. On the one hand I thought I was pretty smart and capable and cool, but on the other hand I wasn’t nearly smart, capable, and cool enough. In particular, Zen infuriated me with its descriptions of some kind of luminous awakening-wonderland I had never experienced. Certain special people in my Sangha had been admitted to the awakening club, while I waited miserably outside the doors.

I was determined to know the essential matter for myself. I meditated, studied, worked on my behavior, and renounced anything that seemed self-indulgent. I tirelessly sought out and tried to destroy my delusions and attachments and begged my teacher to do the same. At sesshin, week-long meditation retreats, the 8 hours a day of zazen wasn’t enough, and sat up into the night hoping to shed my sense of self and break through to the realm of awakening. Year after year I practiced – and while I matured and my life was gradually transformed, the big “E” (enlightenment) still evaded me. At times I felt terribly beaten down, convinced there was some inherent flaw in me that precluded my awakening. Fortunately, my teacher never agreed, and never stopped encouraging me.

Eventually, during a sesshin, I had an experience that came the closest to any particular event in my life I would categorize as “awakening.” An image suddenly came to my mind’s eye of being a leaf on a very large maple tree. All the leaves, including me, were a bright orangish-yellow, almost glowing. Every leaf was perfect. Each of us was an individual, but also part of one, larger, living thing. Another being’s perfection didn’t threaten or compromise mine in any way. This vision may not sound especially profound or insightful, but the experience of it, for me, was powerful and transformative. For the first time in my life I felt complete, sufficient, and connected without that state being based in any way on comparison with others, or even with any ideal. Having tasted that aspect of reality first-hand, I’ve never forgotten it.

The self-nature I awakened to in my vision of a leaf was the same self-nature embodied by every leaf in that vision, and every being in real life. In a way, it doesn’t even make any sense to call it a “self,” at least in the sense that a self is conceived of as an inherently existing, independent, unique entity separate from all that is not-self. In Zen, sometimes we say our true self is no self, in that all the ways we usually define self are illusions. Personality, history, habits, opinions, intentions, and accomplishments are irrelevant to our true self-nature, which is aliveness itself. However, the particular, temporary, unique package of aliveness that we are is a self in that it’s an active, conscious agent – creating order out of chaos, seeking ease and happiness, learning, growing, and drawn toward reunion with the greater reality of which we are a part.

Awakening as Stepping Outside the Box

When we awaken in a Zen sense, we see clearly how our small self nature – our individuality, if you will – doesn’t in any way defile or obstruct our true self-nature. It’s like the daily drama of our small self – the realm of our personality, history, habits, etc. – is a play about trying to find our way home to Kansas – a staging of the Wizard of Oz. The play is very engaging, and we wonder if we’ll ever make it. Maybe we’ll perish at the hands of the wicked witch or sleep forever in the field of poppies. But, we eventually discover, the whole play is taking place in a theater in Kansas. We’ve been home all along, as Dorothy finds, and the drama we’ve been experiencing never once threatened that reality.

This isn’t just an analogy comparing our usual small perspective with the greater perspective of enlightenment. It’s also an analogy for the experience of awakening, which involves completely stepping outside the box. Within the context of our daily-life drama, the challenges seem very daunting – and the analogy breaks down here because, unlike Dorothy, we never actually find our way home in the play. We just keep struggling. But one day we look around us carefully and see a door we’ve never noticed before. We build up the courage to push it open… and what greets us on the other side is a bright reality that turns our world upside down. What? I’ve been home all along? This was just a play?

The Joy of Embracing Your Small Self

Of course, our daily lives aren’t make believe, like a play. They’re also part of our reality, and Zen goes to great lengths to remind us of this. Although our true nature, our buddha-nature, is luminous and completely unobstructed by the conditional details of our bodies, minds, and lives, that buddha-nature has no manifestation other than in the conditional details of our bodies, minds, and lives. When I was a bright yellow maple leaf, my importance didn’t come from being remarkably big, bright, or special. Nonetheless, being the best individual leaf I could be was my vital mission and the source of my joy and pride. As 18th-century Zen master Hakuin said in his poem “Song of Zazen,” the perfection and completeness we’re seeking does not exist separately from our individuality:

“All beings by nature are Buddha,
As ice by nature is water.
Apart from water there is no ice;
Apart from beings, no Buddha.”[4]


“Boundless and free is the sky of samadhi!
Bright the full moon of wisdom!
Truly, is anything missing now?
Nirvana is right here, before our eyes,
This very place is the Lotus Land,
This very body, the Buddha.”

Ironically, awakening to the reality of no-self is intensely personal. It dissolves that fundamental doubt we carry around that we’re somehow inadequate, incomplete, isolated, or unworthy. It’s like being embraced by a strong, reassuring parent who loves us unconditionally and knows everything is going to be alright. Hakuin describes it this way in the “Song of Zazen,” after he explains that our gateway to awakening is zazen:

“Those who try zazen even once
Wipe away beginning-less crimes.
Where are all the dark paths then?
The Pure Land itself is near.”

I once heard this aspect of awakening described as “joining the human race.” Before we understand our true nature, we usually vacillate between seeing ourselves as fundamentally better than, or fundamentally worse than, everyone else. Even when we feel fairly equal to others, we still feel somewhat separate. After all, we’re stuck in our own heads and bodies and limited to our own direct experience; it’s difficult not to feel the universe revolves around us in some way. When we give up all concern for self, this artificial distinction is seen for what it is, and even being stuck in our own experience is not a problem.

Then our particular, peculiar manifestation in this life becomes our vehicle, our gift, and our learning experience. How can we make best use of who we are? How can we unravel our karmic knots and move more freely? How can we more fully enact the fact that our true self-nature is everyone’s self-nature, and we’re all part of something greater? What more can we learn? What have we not yet seen? The ways we can grow are infinite, and as long as we’re in a human body we will experience greed, hate, and delusion in some measure. This is why Shunryu Suzuki roshi famously said, ““Each of you is perfect the way you are … and you can use a little improvement.”[5]

Buddhahood is a beautiful and unattainable ideal toward which we orient our lives. When we know our fundamental worthiness doesn’t depend on the outcome, our daily practice to improve ourselves can be done more lightly – even with joy.


Leighton, Taigen Dan (translator). Cultivating the Empty Field: The Silent Illumination of Zen Master Hongzhi. Boston, MA: Tuttle Publishing, 2000
Watson, Burton (Translator). The Zen Teachings of Master Lin-chi. New York, NY: Columbia University Press, 1993.



[1] It is essential to work on this as well, of course, but that’s not what this talk is about.
[2] Leighton, pg 33
[3] Watson, pg. 23
[4] Hakuin’s “Song of Zazen,” translated by Norman Waddell. See http://www.thezensite.com/ZenTeachings/Translations/Song_of_Zazen.htm or search for it online
[5] Suzuki is widely quoted as saying this on the internet, but I couldn’t find any references to a book in which this quote can be found. If you know, email me!

53 - Buddha's Teachings Part 5: Karma, the Law of Moral Cause-and-Effect
55 – Listener’s Questions: Enlightened Behavior, Openings, Chanting, Recommended Books