Translated by Rev. Marvin Harada, Orange County Buddhist Church
I am often asked, how can I learn about Buddhism? How can I enter the path of Buddhism? One way is to study the sutras, or to study the writings of the patriarchs. But just to study alone does not mean one really understands Buddhism. Buddhism must be understood with one’s whole life. Shakyamuni Buddha did not teach philosophy. He taught truth that he had attained and experienced. So we too must study with that same attitude.
When we do read or study sutras and other writings, they are not merely records of ancient times and things. They were recorded by people who deeply believed and revered what they were writing about.
But in order to truly study, you must have a foundation for your own path of practice. If you have a foundation, then whomever you choose to study, Nichiren, Zen, Shinran, etc., will be okay. But you must choose the teacher, the path that suits your life and practice.
Many truth seekers that I meet now say that although they seek, there aren’t good teachers to guide them. Before, when I was seeking, I too thought the same thing. But after meeting Kiyozawa-Sensei, and finding the path of truth, I realize now that the problem wasn’t that there weren’t teachers, but the problem was that I wasn’t truly seeking. Now, I see teachers here and there. All over I meet wonderful teachers.
But even if we read sutras, commentaries, and follow teachers, we must have our own path of practice. The sutras are for our practice. The commentaries are for our practice. The teachers we meet are for our practice. The Three Treasures of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, are not treasures of the world, they are my treasures.
The first step of starting one’s practice is to first look and reflect on oneself. First we must know ourselves. That is the first step. Just like Socrates said, “Know thyself,” so in Buddhism, the first step is to know oneself. But not only is it the first step, it is also the last step too. It is the alpha and omega of Buddhism. Even in Confucianism there is a teaching that says one should reflect on themselves three times a day.
There is the legend of Bodhidharma who was asked by a seeker, what is Buddhism? Bodhidharma retorted, “Show me your mind.”
When I am asked by others, “What is Buddhism?,” I always respond by asking them, “Do you know who you are?”
Everything from the ancient texts to the daily newspapers are all mirrors that reflect who we are. We must never forget the words, “To see others, is to learn about oneself.”
Although we read horrible things in the newspapers, we must not think that they are something totally unrelated to us. We must think that they are all mirrors of our own minds. The same applies to our study of the sutras and commentaries.
There are the words, “Although the path is very near, man seeks it far away.” The Zen Master, Hakuin, also said, “Sentient beings do not know that it is very near, but foolishly seek it far away.” The path to becoming a Buddha is not far, far away from us, but it is very near, it is within my own heart and mind. Even a long journey to far away England or Germany begins with the first step out of the door of my own house. Genshin also said, “You should seek the path of Buddhism, of examining oneself, even into the night.” Shakyamuni Buddha left the palace and renunciated the world to clarify the matter of his self. Dengyo Daishi’s (Saicho) intense study of the Lotus Sutra was to clarify the matter of the self. Honen Shonin secluded himself at Kurodani, reading the entire set of sutras five times. It was all to clarify the matter of the self. Shinran Shonin’s seeking the path for twenty years [on Mt. Hiei] was also to know oneself. Kobo Daishi (Kukai), Dogen, they all studied and practiced to know oneself.
Therefore, if someone with a lot of worries approached me, I would say, the path you should take is one in which you look deep into the nature of your worries. If someone was discontented, I would say what is the value of the self that holds on to that discontent? To someone who is being abused and mistreated by others, I would say, what is the nature of that self that is being abused? For someone who is sick and is suffering, I would say, what is the nature of that self that is sick? For someone who fears what will happen to them when they die, I would say, what is the nature of death that causes you to suffer? What is the self that fears death? For someone who has everyday life problems, I would say, what is your life? What is the self that is living those everyday life problems? The way to enter the path of the Buddha-dharma is not by looking out. It is by looking in. If you have the thought of entering the path of the Buddha-dharma, you must first think why these kinds of thoughts have arisen? That is the first step to opening the gate of the Buddha-dharma.
In other words, the first step to entering the path of the Buddha-dharma is to study oneself. That is the most important thing. In studying that self, you must first look at the surroundings of oneself. The Three Treasures of the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha, are the mirror, the light, the power, and the life that shows ourselves to us. Therefore, for someone who seeks the path, they must strive to awaken to what is the self that is seeking the path.
Vol. 11, Akegarasu Zenshu
(Complete Works of Haya Akegarasu)