Suchness – tathata

Sengai meditating frog

A poem in the Zenrin Kushu (an old collection of Zen poems):

‘sitting quietly, doing nothing,

spring comes, and the grass grows all by itself.’

Tathatā – a Pali word meaning the ‘true state of things.’ Synonymous with: dharmatā.

A 5th century CE text (Awakening of Faith in Mahayana) describes tathatā as: ‘mind resting simply in its own being.’ The same text argues that when the world is viewed as empty (sunyata) it is realised in its suchness.

Suchness can be described as the manifest ‘isness’ of things – prior to language, conceptualisation and classification. In The Way of Zen, Alan Watts writes: ‘tathatā indicates the world just as it is, unscreened and undivided by the symbols and definitions of thought. It points to the concrete and actual as distinct from the abstract and conceptual.’

This emphasis on concreteness can be seen in the famous Flower Sermon, when the Buddha is surrounded by a large gathering of students waiting expectantly for him to speak. They hope to hear more words of wisdom and advice. Instead, the Buddha says nothing, but raises a flower in the fingers of one hand. The students are puzzled and confounded. Only one student, Mahakasyapa, realises what the Buddha is demonstrating, and he smiles. His broad smile is seen by the Buddha as an indication of realisation and the Buddha names Mahakasyapa as his successor. This transmission of understanding through action and showing, rather than through words, becomes a founding principal of Zen Buddhism.

The Buddha once asked his students: ‘How long is a human life.’ When no one could give a satisfactory answer, he said: ‘Life is but a breath.’ Suchness is how a thing is, in this moment, unique yet dependent on all that exists – poignant, passing, transient.

In his book, Zen and Japanese Culture, D.T. Suzuki lists a number of characteristics of Zen. The list shines another light on the term, tathatā:

  1. Zen discipline consists in attaining enlightenment (satori) – living in accord with the way things are (dharma)
  2. Satori recognises/values/finds meaning in everyday experiences (eating, drinking, washing, etc)
  3. The value revealed through Zen practice ‘is not something added from outside. It is in being itself, in becoming itself, in living itself.’ [kono or sono-mama – ‘isness’]
  4. ‘Isness’ (tathatā) is the ultimate meaning – waking up to being here is miraculous and marvellous
  5. P’ang Chu-Shih (8th century CE) writes: ‘How wondrous this is, how mysterious! Carrying logs, drawing water.’
  6. Zen doesn’t indulge in abstraction and conceptualisation
  7. Satori is emancipation. In suchness/isness, there is freedom, unity and peace.

A transmission beyond words. ‘Sitting quietly, doing nothing, spring comes, and the grass grows by itself.’ Let things be, add nothing. Just sit and realise Buddha nature. KWATZ! KATSU. POW !!!!!!!

The famous haiku by Basho, manifests suchness in all its surprising brevity:

FROG          POND          PLOP

[trans. by Dom Sylvestor Houedard]