When we come across various terms in Buddhist philosophy, we may wonder, what does that mean? What does buddha mean? Some people may argue what buddha is, what buddha nature is, what the truth is... Maybe we have noticed that arguments based on smart ass attitude never enlighten anyone. Intellectual arguments about the truth, buddha, awakening etc are useless. I remember when I began to study and practice Buddhism, I always wondered "What does buddha mean? What am I? What is my true self?" I kept asking and asking, over and over again. It was very frustrating, because I couldn't find any useful answers to my questions. I was practicing within a Korean Zen school which stressed working with such questions, so we were challenged by the teachers, all the time, we had to answer questions like Who are you? What would Buddha do if... ? But I couldn't answer these questions and I was desperate. So they tell you things like: When you wake up, you will be able to answer. Until you wake up, you cannot answer. So that was a kind of relief, right... But then to make things really confusing, the teachers would tell us that we already are buddhas. As if that helped at all... So I was looking for answers, and I somehow believed that there are nice, correct answers to such questions, but now I understand there aren't any nice, fixed answers to any of such questions. The answers are not something intellectual and they never stay the same, the shape of the answer changes according to the context or situation... all the time.
Many years later, this year, I had a kind of misunderstanding with my teacher, about the value of great Buddhist teachers. My teacher pointed out that I may overestimate the value of Buddhist teachers. I was confused... how can you overestimate the value of authentic teachers from the past or present? I think my teacher thought I was a bit too idealistic. And that's true, I was. But I needed to solve this puzzle. For sure the Chinese masters like Nansen, Baso or Joshu were great teachers, right? And I cannot help it but Kodo Sawaki or Shunryu Suzuki to me, based on what I read about them, were great teachers. Even master Dogen praises teachers he never met, for example master Wanshi. And I am not only looking with respect at masters I never met, but also real, living teachers I met. And again, I am sure they are great teachers. But saying so, is that idealistic? I was thinking about this for a few days after the misunderstanding with my teacher and suddenly noticed there is a loose screw in the whole concept of great teachers of the past and present.
The problem whether master So and so was a great teacher or not is not whether he or she was great. The problem is how my mind or your mind processes the linguistic task of dealing with the phrase "great teacher". It is the same with words like buddha, truth or enlightenment. These are loose, freely available linguistic concepts anyone can use and talk about as much as they like. But how we process, how we deal with the meaning of these words is what matters the most. I would say there are a few ways to process a philosophically challenging term. The first mode is something I would call "no idea". If you hear the word nirvana for the first time, you have no idea what it is. The second mode is something I would call "confusion". You already heard the word nirvana a few or many times, but still it makes no sense. The third mode is something I would call smart ass mode. You think you are familiar with the term and can explain it to others clearly, without having a clue what nirvana really is as you lack real experience, in other words, you have never practiced nirvana or if you practiced nirvana you didn't notice it was nirvana. Another mode is something I would call free language. You are free to use words any way you like as long as it fits the broader context and what you actually want to say. Usually this free language is pretty logical and rational, so it is not free in terms of something like "I can say anything I like and it doesn't have to make sense". So if you want to speak about buddhas, nirvana and awakening, you need some sound, or at least some kind of philosophical background plus the freedom of your mind to speak or write in a way that is based both on philosophical reasoning within the tradition you follow and your actual experience as a practicing Buddhist. This sounds very complicated but it is just speaking or writing without being trapped in isolated nests of concepts or acting like a cocky smart ass who has read everything and been everywhere. It is just freely using words in order to point to our experience as such, our experience without words, our original not knowing, something we need to return to regularly, and which is something people in general return to regularly, otherwise they would go nuts. We Buddhists somehow stress this experience of returning to our original self, so not only we don't go nuts, hopefully, but we are aware of the value of the experience when we don't know anything and don't understand anything. Paradoxically, only then we can somehow talk about Buddhism, so some kind of primary stupidity is really necessary.
When I pointed to the great masters of past and my teacher reacted somehow critically, considering my remarks idealistic or silly, or whatever he thought, I was being a victim of isolated concepts floating in my head. It was like asking "What is the great being we call buddha? Where can we find the great being called buddha? I hear there are great beings called buddha but are they here with us? I hear there were great teachers in China, masters Dogen praised, but are there great teachers like that in the 21st century? Should we be like great masters from China or can we just live our life without worrying about those great masters?" So we can notice that I was dealing with some kind of idea about some kind of teachers. But when we carefully look into the teachings of these great or not so great or whatever you call them masters, when we carefully investigate what their teaching actually was, we cannot find any great enlightened masters who impressed heavenly beings and buddhas. All we find, when we look carefully, is a bucket of ice cold water, or a whisk or a bowl of rice. Those people were living in reality and they were teaching reality. If master Dogen called them great, he wasn't trapped in concepts, he wasn't a victim of idealistic dreams about great masters of the past. Master Dogen was telling us, and is still telling us, through his writings, that we must not get stuck in ideas about greatness or profanity. Just noticing the greatness of these masters, we have to quickly make another step and investigate what kind of water they drank and what kind of rice they ate. We should investigate if their shouting was real or something we only dream about. Today I was cycling along the river and got soaked as the rain got heavier and heavier. In the end I went back to a metro station near the center, completely wet and cold and was looking forward to a hot bath back at home. I had a hot bath. I might not catch a cold. So these are examples of something that is more real than stories about old masters. They did experience reality but we can notice what that reality was, it was everyday life reality, not some kind of great reality. They were great because they denied their greatness. If they hadn't denied their greatness and talked about their own greatness, we would never read about these great masters. Now I am saying "great masters" but what does it mean? If we get stuck, we cannot taste water and cannot have a hot bath. Even if we step into the bath and get soaked, as we are dreaming about Buddhist masters, we miss the experience of Buddhist masters. Just as we have a hot bath, without saying so, master Baso and Nansen come back and shout like crazy.
So it is important to notice how we may be entangled in ideas and concepts when we study Buddhism. I think everyone can boldly move from the original confusion, carefully avoid the stage of smart ass, and use Buddhist terms freely, as necessary. You can help me understand the meaning of life, if you speak sincerely and based on your experience. I may help you understand the meaning of life, if I speak sincerely and based on my experience. What is buddha? There are lots of books, good or bad, clever definitions, confusing explanations, intellectual arguments, but no matter what we say, we cannot miss the point if we really have a hot bath, can we?