In the Record of Transmitting the Light, Zen Master Keizan presents the following account of the enlightenment of the Indian teacher, Aryasimha:
The twenty-fourth patriarch was the Venerable Simha. He asked the twenty-third patriarch, “I want to seek the Way. What concerns should I have?” The Patriarch said, “If you want to seek the Way, there is nothing to be concerned about.” The master said, “If I have no concerns, who carries out Buddha activities?” The Patriarch said, “If you have some business, these are not merits. If you do nothing, this is Buddha activity. A scripture says, ‘The merits I have achieved are not mine.’” Hearing these words, the master entered the wisdom of the Buddhas.
If you want to seek the Way, there is nothing to be concerned about. But how do you seek the Way if you have no concerns about it? That’s the same question posed by Joshu to Nansen, in the famous koan that appears in the Gateless Gate:
Joshu earnestly asked Nansen, "What is the Way?" Nansen answered: "Ordinary Mind is the Way." Joshu asked: "Should I direct myself towards it, or not?" Nansen said: "If you try to turn toward it, you go against it." Joshu asked: "If I do not try to turn toward it, how can I know that it is the Way?"
Indeed, the Venerable Simha then asks, If I have no concerns, who carries out Buddha activities? This question is so resonant. We frequently identify ourselves with our concerns. Who am I? I’m the mother who’s concerned about her children. I’m the son concerned about his parents. I’m the manager who worries about problems at work, the teacher who frets about his students or the doctor about her patients. If I have no concerns, who am I?
If you do nothing, this is Buddha activity. But isn’t Buddha activity everything? Shakyamuni Buddha said, upon his enlightenment, that the entire earth and all beings have simultaneously achieved the Way. Why? Because we’re all Buddha nature, it’s all one thing. So all activity, without exception, is Buddha activity, the functioning of the one thing.
Another way of seeing it is that Buddha activity is the activity of everything that we experience as Buddha, as the one thing. That, usually, is a much smaller world. In other words, what we experience as Buddha activity is a very small subset of actual Buddha activity.
How we experience ourselves and all beings, sentient and non-sentient, determines how we experience Buddha activity. For example, I usually take for granted that this body-mind, this system called Eve, is one thing. If my mind wants an apple, my arm reaches for it, my hand grabs a hold of it and brings it to my mouth, which takes it in, my teeth chew it, the tongue tastes it, and finally the apple’s remains go down my throat to my stomach, where the work continues. Any biologist can tell you that eating an apple demands the most sophisticated and complex labor, communication, and coordination. Our bodies comprise gazillions of cells working out such operations moment by moment, operations of such complexity that scientists are still far from understanding them, yet we pretty casually assume that this amazing body-mind, which we can’t fully grasp, is one thing and operates as one thing. I don’t even think about the activity of reaching, picking up and eating an apple, I just do it. So Buddha activity, for me, is an activity that is so unified, so integrated, so me, that I don’t even think about it.
Now let’s open things up. Are a parent and child one thing? In the early years, do parents wonder whether to get up in the morning and make breakfast for their children? They do it regardless of fatigue or distraction because they and their young children are one thing, they can’t imagine them as separate. The separation grows as children grow. By the time your child is a teenager or even an adult, you might wake up one morning and say, I’m too tired to make breakfast, he is old enough to do this for himself. You could still choose to make breakfast, but it doesn’t feel the same anymore, some separation has come up.
What about a couple? When Bernie and I have dinner, one person cooks and the other washes. We don’t think about it or discuss it, it’s just what happens. I call it Buddha activity. The minute we have any feelings around it at all—even good ones—it’s a sign that separation has come in. Or if someone asks me if I would come to a party, I check what Bernie’s doing, not because his activities determine what I will do, but just naturally, as a way of seeing how it works for both of us. I do that without thinking about it. When I start wondering if this is the right or wrong thing to do, when I recall how free I was when I was single, those all reflect some kind of separation.
If you do nothing, that is Buddha activity. Nothing? Eating an apple requires enormous activity. Taking care of a child, of a lover, is a lot of activity. Taking care of a family, a community, the world, is inconceivable activity. But if it’s done out of the understanding and experience that it’s the one thing taking care of itself, then it’s really nothing, and then it’s Buddha activity.