Original Enlightenment (Hongaku Shiso)

Hongaku Shiso


By Enkei Joe Mendyka

One of the most profound concepts in Tendai Buddhism is that of hongaku shiso, or Original Enlightenment. Hongaku thought speaks to the inherent enlightenment of not only all beings, but all phenomena, in each moment.

Like so many other aspects of Tendai, this doctrine can be traced back to Tendai Daishi (Zhiyi), the 6th century founder of the T’ian-T’ai school in China. In his analysis of the Lotus Sutra and the teachings on emptiness from Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka treatises, Zhiyi concluded that all dharmas contained each other. Zhiyi focused on the the phenomena of sentient beings and spoke to the presence of the Buddha in all beings. While this profound assertion–that the Buddha exists in all beings–was revolutionary enough, later T’ian-T’ai thinkers took the notion even further. The 8th century T’ian-T’ai patriarch Chan-jan wrote in his Diamond Scalpel commentary on The Awakening of Faith of the interpenetration of all phenomena and, therefore, of the presence of the Buddha in all phenomena. It was this notion that was carried into Japan and eventually led to the discussion of the enlightenment of trees, grasses, rivers and mountains.*

Here in Colorado, it can be easy to look out over our beautiful landscapes and be inspired to think there’s something enlightened about them, but hongaku shiso is also about seeing the Buddha in the more mundane. Can you find the Buddha in your annoyed thoughts in traffic? In the dust on a bookshelf? The ant crawling across your counter? This may seem like a stretch, if not downright impossible. But, try to recall the Buddha’s teaching from the Lotus Sutra where he explains his sole purpose as upaya, or skillful means. If the Buddha only exists to wake us up, can we look to see how each of these has come into being to do the same? Without our annoyed thoughts, we could never practice the paramita of patience. The dust in our home is a reminder of the diligence necessary to keep our minds clear of obstruction. The humblest creatures allow us to contemplate the preciousness of our human birth.

Everything appears before you precisely as it must. Each phenomena arises as the result of a series of causes and conditions, manifesting to bring you instantly into enlightenment. As you move through your day, try to challenge yourself to find the Buddha inside of “ordinary” thoughts, objects and sentient beings. Whether you take this as a formal meditation or a drive-by contemplation, you might be surprised at just how enlightened you find the world to be.

*For a detailed discussion of Original Enlightenment thought, pick up Dr. Jacqueline Stone’s Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddism from University of Hawaii Press (2003).




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