Buddha Nature, bare attention & ethics

In this talk I would like to examine the concepts of Buddha Nature and bare attention, and to see how these concepts relate to the ethics of compassion advocated by the Buddha.

Terms like ‘Buddha nature,’ ‘Zen mind’ and ‘original nature’ are often used in Zen Buddhism, and it may be useful to consider what they mean and how they are used. Often ‘Buddha Nature’ refers to our intrinsic state of being, to an innate way of being that is without any extraneous attributes or qualities. A way of being that is open, neutral and ‘empty’ – full of potential and possibility. A way of experiencing that is neither good nor bad, that cannot be defined or talked about, that simply ‘is.’

In Zen, the phrase ‘bare attention’ is used to refer to a way of perceiving, a way of being conscious, in which extraneous reactive habitual patterns of thought and behaviour are stripped away. In zazen (Zen meditation), we let go of all the clutter and cloudiness of opinion, commentary, beliefs and value judgments, that usually skitter around in our minds, and which are often hard to control and even difficult to see, they are so ingrained as habits and ‘normal’ ways of being. What we are left with, if, and when, we are released from these unnecessary attachments and mental activities, is what we might call the bare actuality of what is – things as they are. What in Zen is known as tathata, suchness – what is present, real and actual. The appleness of that apple over there. The thoughtness of that thought. The feelingness of that feeling. The thing itself.

Bare attention reveals a world that cannot be defined in conventional terms, it cannot be spoken about or described, it can only be pointed to or evoked in some poetic or allusive way. It is this way of being that so many Zen stories and anecdotes try to invoke: ‘the sound of one hand clapping’ and so on. In this mode of being we just sit, just walk – we just are. A thought is just a thought. A feeling is just a feeling. A sensation is just a sensation. The crucial word here is ‘just.’ Each thought just arises and slips away. We add nothing to it. No comments, no added judgments or mental wanderings. As the saying goes: ‘When sitting, just sit. When standing, just stand. Above all, don’t wobble.’ This is to be single-minded, unified and present – just here.

This mode of being present, what we might call our Buddha Nature, Zen Mind or Beginner’s Mind, is neutral and valueless. It is neither good nor bad, pleasant nor unpleasant, wonderful nor boring. It just is what it is. We can call it a state of non-duality – as it cannot be contained within the conventions of language or definition. It is neither this nor that. It can only be experienced as what is.

Unfortunately, it seems to me, this mode of experiencing is sometimes described as an experience of the ‘absolute’ – as opposed to the usual mode of being which is our everyday way of experiencing, framed and articulated by words, conventions, measurements and value judgments. The use of the word, ‘absolute,’ in this context, is then juxtaposed against words like ‘conditional’ or ‘contingent.’ Some teachers and writers use the term as if ‘absolute’ is a transcendent, solitary, unchanging phenomenon – somehow unrelated to everything else. In my view this is very misleading. ‘Absolute’ only makes sense in relation to ‘relative’ or ‘conditional.’ It is important to keep in mind that all phenomena are transient, everchanging and interdependent. There is no transcendent state unmediated or unaffected by these conditions of existence. Paradoxical as it may be, the absolute is relative or conditional. This is also that. Buddha Mind or Zen Mind or No Mind is, at the same time, Everyday Mind. The sound of ‘one hand clapping’ is also the sound of ‘two hands clapping.’

Another way of thinking about this is to consider meditation as being like cleaning the windows of our ‘house’ – our embodied mind; or, cleaning the lenses of a pair of spectacles so that we can see more clearly. The lenses become smudged and cloudy as we handle and wear them. This happens so slowly that we don’t notice they are cloudy, and we see the world through this cloudy, smudged glass and think that we are seeing the world as it is – but we are not. By letting go of, or wiping away, the smudges of attachments, opinions, judgments and commentary, we can begin to perceive, feel, think and act more clearly. We can let go of the delusion – that is, seeing the world through cloudy lenses – and instead come face-to-face with the endless motion and transience of what IS. Experiencing the nonduality of bare attention can enable us to see more clearly what to do and how to act.

I think it was the American poet, Gary Snyder, who once wrote that Zen is fundamentally amoral – that is, when we are wholly present, reunited in the universe, realising reality – we are untethered to any belief, judgment, or ethical position about reality or the universe. We are simply being here – indistinguishable from all that exists – unique yet inseparable from everything. Buddha, and many Zen teachers, advise us to beware of this experience, and not to become attached to it. Instead of basking in this nondual, unitary state – deluded into thinking this is the goal of Zen and Buddhism – we need to negotiate the world, make choices, take responsibility and act with clarity. Once we get up from our sitting meditation, it is necessary to make ethical decisions and judgments – but we can do this in the light of what we have experienced and learnt through meditation. We can choose to be greedy and unkind, or to be generous and kind. We can act in the light of our experience of bare attention to do good in the world, or to act unkindly. We can act in ways that increase our suffering and that of other beings, or we can help ease suffering wherever we encounter it. Recognising and exercising choice, and taking responsibility for the choices we make, is part and parcel of our being in the world.

As a counterpoint to all of this let us look at what happens when Zen mind and meditative experience become tools for troubling, and perhaps shocking, purposes and behaviour. In his book, Zen at War, Brian Daisen Victoria, analyses the relationship between Zen monastics and institutions, and the Imperial institutions of the Japanese state during the period from 1868 (the beginning of the Meiji era) to the Second World War. It is an interesting and, at times, very disturbing text to read. Victoria quotes from a book written in English by Dr. Nitobe Inazō (1862–1933) entitled Bushido: The Soul of Japan – first published in 1905. Dr Nitobe was a Christian, but he identified Buddhism as the main source of Bushido – the ‘Way of the Warrior.’ He describes the relationship between Buddhism and Bushido in this way:

I may begin with Buddhism. It furnished a sense of calm trust in Fate, a quiet submission to the inevitable, that stoic composure in sight of danger or calamity, that disdain of life and friendliness with death. A foremost teacher of swordsmanship, when he saw his pupil master the utmost of his art, told him, ‘Beyond this my instruction must give way to Zen teaching.’

A close association between the training of Zen monks and the training of Samurai – the hereditary military noblemen of Japan – had been forged in medieval times. This was in some ways the continuation of a tradition of martial arts practiced by Chinese Chan/Zen monks from the time of Bodhidharma (5th/6th CE). Indeed, legend has it that Bodhidharma, bringing Zen meditation from India to China, was the founder of the Shaolin monastery which became the renowned centre of martial arts in China.

In 1919, just after the first World War, Shaku Sōen, a Rinzai Zen master and one of the first Zen Buddhists to teach in the USA, wrote of his despair at the Japanese people’s, ‘increasing materialism, extreme worship of money, and general decadence.’  For Sōen, the solution was obvious: ‘the unification of all the people in the nation in the spirit of Bushido.’ For Sōen, the essence of Bushido consisted in ‘a sacrificial spirit consisting of deep loyalty [to the emperor and the state] coupled with deep filial piety.’ So, where does Zen fit into this picture? Sōen’s answer was as follows: ‘The power that comes from Zen training can be called forth to become military power, good government, and the like. In fact, it can be applied to every endeavor.’ Despite resistance from a few Zen Buddhists, this idea became an influential belief among the military and political leaders of Japan leading up to and through the Second World War.

In other words, the ‘power’ that came from Zen – single-mindedness, ‘Zen Mind,’ deep concentration, indifference to pain and selflessness – could be harnessed to the training of military personnel, to produce a formidable fighting force. In this way the Buddha’s path of compassion and liberation from suffering, was set aside in favour of a fearless warrior spirit entirely focused on defeating an enemy on behalf of the Emperor and the Nation. Zen training was seen as an effective training for suicide pilots who used their planes as bombs. Buddhist ethics were set aside in favour of an Imperial military moral code. More recently there are other examples of this disregard for a morality of compassion and understanding. For example, in Myanmar extreme Buddhist nationalism has led to the persecution of Rohingya Muslims. While in North America and Europe the controversies surrounding some Buddhist teachers, who are alleged to have been involved in sexual abuse and coercion, can be seen as arising from a disregard for Buddhist ethics.

It seems to me that the Buddha recognised that mindful meditation can be used or misused in this way, which is why he placed so much emphasis on developing a compassionate ethics. The realisation of awakening, nirvana or satori or Buddha Nature, is not an end in itself – it is part of the process of liberation from suffering – an enLIGHTening that can help guide us to do good in the world. Nirvana or satori or awakening is not an escape from suffering, but an engagement with suffering, a way of living as a process of caring and healing – a way of understanding and alleviating suffering for oneself and for others. We are IN the world not outside it. We are conditional rather than absolute, or rather, our conditionality is absolute. We are dependent on each other. Every being depends on other beings and on this universe of interdependence and impermanence. It is this realisation that engenders and informs an ethics of compassion, care and healing – illuminated by the clarity of bare attention.


Inazo Nitobe. 2002. Bushido: The Soul of Japan, Tokyo, Kodansha International.

Victoria, Brian Daisen. 1997. Zen at War. Online at: https://theoryreader.org/2021/08/10/zen-at-war-by-brian-victoria/ – accessed 3 December 2021.

NB. The Meiji Era in Japan refers to the reign of the Emperor Meiji from 1868 to 1912.