From the beginning all beings are Buddha.
Like water and ice, without water no ice, outside us no Buddhas.
How near the truth, yet how far we seek.
Like one in water crying, “I thirst!”
Like the son of a rich man wand’ring poor on this earth we endlessly circle the six worlds.
The cause of our sorrow is ego delusion.
From dark path to dark path we’ve wandered in darkness,
how can we be freed from the wheel of samsara?
The gateway to freedom is zazen Samadhi.
Beyond exaltation, beyond all our praises the pure Mahayana.
Observing the Precepts, Repentance and Giving,
the countless good deeds and the Way of Right Living, all come from zazen.
Thus one true Samadhi extinguishes evils. It purifies karma, dissolving obstructions.
Then where are the dark paths to lead us astray?
The Pure Lotus Land is not far away.
Hearing this truth, heart humble and grateful.
To praise and embrace it, to practice its Wisdom,
brings unending blessings. bring mountains of merit.
And if we turn inward and prove our True Nature, that
True Self is no-self, our own self is no-self, we go beyond ego and past clever words.
Then the gate to the oneness of cause-and-effect is thrown open.
Not two and not three, straight ahead runs the Way.
Our form now being no-form, in going and returning we never leave home.
Our thought now being no-thought, our dancing and songs are the Voice of the Dharma.
How vast is the heaven of boundless Samadhi!
How bright and transparent the moonlight of wisdom!
What is there outside us? What is there we lack?
Nirvana is openly shown to our eyes.
This earth where we stand is the pure lotus land!
And this very body, the body of Buddha.
This is a well-known verse by Zen Master Hakuin Ekaku (1686-1789), one of the great Zen Masters in Japanese history, acknowledged as the second founder of the Rinzai (Chinese: Linji) Zen lineage in Japan. Hakuin is also known for having reformed the system of Zen koan training in the Rinzai school into a structure that is still largely used today.
This verse is chanted in common by Zen practitioners throughout the world, and this version (translator undetermined) is widely used in English speaking communities. Its opening lines affirm a basic message upon which the entire Zen tradition draws: “From the beginning, all beings are Buddha.” This is a rendering of the received Mahāyāna Buddhist doctrine that “all sentient beings are endowed with Buddha nature.”
Zen Master Dōgen (1200-1253), founder of the Soto Zen lineage in Japan, is said to have launched his Zen career having struggled with the implications of this received doctrine: “If all sentient beings are endowed with Buddha nature, what is the point of engaging in rigorous practice?” No teacher in Japan during his time could help him, so he sought and was granted permission to go to China to train under the Masters there. Upon his return, he declared that he came back “empty handed,” and went on to establish a monastic community that is now a powerful and well-established Zen Buddhist institution in Japan as well as in other parts of the world, the Soto Zen lineage. His Zen realization revolves around the same message as expressed in Hakuin’s Song of Zazen, affirming its underlying presupposition: “From the beginning, all beings are Buddha.” In the Soto lineage that receives its inspiration from Dogen, this is taken with the emphasis that an individual does not engage in Zen practice “in order to attain enlightenment” (since one is already Buddha, that is, enlightened, right from the very beginning, even before engaging in practice,) but that practice (specifically the practice of seated meditation, or zazen) is itself the very manifestation and embodiment of the reality that one is Buddha.
Hakuin’s verse continues with beautiful and moving imagery, and those who chant this verse aloud in community readily feel the power emanating from the very words of the chant. The concluding lines bring the chanter to a very palpable experiential realization of the message, especially in the context of having sat in zazen for most of the day (as this is often chanted in the evening in the context of sesshin, or Zen retreats):“What is there outside us? What is there we lack? Nirvana is openly shown to our eyes. This earth where we stand is the pure Lotus Land. And this very body, the body of Buddha.”