Zen and the Buddhanature in Animals


If the “Buddhanature" is an inherent state in life, then how to consider the Buddhanature in animals? A disciple asks his master whether a dog has a Buddha nature:


A monk asked master Chao Chou “do dogs have the Buddha nature?” “No” was the reply. ”Why?” asked the disciple. “Because of learning” replied the master. Later, someone else asked Chao Chou the same question, but the answer was “Yes”.


A full description of this koan and a comment on it appear on page 36 in Holstein’s book Pointing at the Moon and it shows that Zen treats the concept of Buddhanature as a product of “learning” and “intellectual thinking”. 


Needless to say, viewing the Buddhanature as “learning-based” (and not as “heart-based”) - would naturally exclude most living beings from the potential for Buddhahood.  Many individuals - who are not necessarily highly intelligent or learnt - have nevertheless respect-worthy life and feelings, such as the inherent compassion, which does not require “learning”.


Not being able to give a decisive answer to the question about the Buddhanature in animals, Zen literature here goes from questioning the “intellectual learning” (of animals) to asking about their ”pure morality”: as the comment on this koan shows, Holestein complicates the matter by questioning whether animals can achieve “The Four Morals”, or what he calls: “pure morality”.


These bizarre comments by Holstein and others, setting criteria of “intellectual learning” and “pure morality” of pets, reveals an essential misunderstanding of what Buddhanature is.


Buddhanature as the lifeforce of living beings


Plants, animals and people strive under various conditions to display their inherent potentials and they are able to fully display it according to their level of lifeforce.  Revealing one’s inherent potential to the fullest is manifesting life’s true nature in whatever level of sophistication a life entity exists.  The Buddhanature of any living entity is its best life-state of being, as it is, within the Universal Law of Life.


The Enlightenment of Plants and Animals in Nichiren Buddhism


Nichiren’s explained the basis of the Enlightenment of Plants and Insentient Beings as derived from the concept of Ichinen Sanzen (The diverse manifestations of Life at each moment). 


According to Ichinen Sanzen, the world of Buddhahood expresses itself in three realms:  the realm of the individual human being, the realm of all living beings (including animals), and in the realm of the environment.


The Buddhanature of any living entity (Myoho) is expressed through its action and behavior, fulfilling its function: living in harmony with its inherent nature, being true to its reality.  The Buddhanature of any living entity (Myoho) is an inherent state - it is not the result of having a “learning” degree.  Any living entity, which is fulfilling its natural function in the best way within the environment is naturally expressing its own best life.  As Mr.Toda, the second president of Soka Gakkai explains:


“The True Entity of Life permeates all existences and phenomena of the world. The True Entity of Life exists for a dog as a dog, and for a human being as a human being.” Seiko Times September 1997 pages 36-37.


Animals possess their inherent spectrum of feelings; they have a sense of compassion and willingness to live in harmony within nature.  Nichiren explains that the Buddhanature exists in all living beings and in the environment, because people, animals and the environment are inseparable.  All forms of life are entities of the Dharma realm, or Myoho-Renge-Kyo. 


It is people’s ignorance and greed that reflect badly on animals and the environment.  And it is people’s enlightenment that reflects positively on the lives of their animals and their environment.


For this reason, when people manifest their Buddhahood, animals will also live in the state of happiness and harmony with life, sharing the state of life with enlightened people, without having to change their nature of existence or adopt “pure morality” and a degree in “learning”. 


Animals are entities of the same cosmic life as people, and in various circumstances they clearly express the same states of anger, sadness, compassion, love and happiness, and their natural life is simply their Buddhanature.

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