by Wendy Egyoku Nakao
I was looking at Iwasaki Tsuneo’s Heart Sutra painting in which he renders the kanji characters in the form of the DNA double helix. Reading Paula Arai’s accompanying text stopped me in my tracks. She writes: “With DNA being central to a code for life and the Heart Sutra a powerful code to enlightenment, Iwasaki proclaims that the code of enlightening wisdom sung in the scripture is embedded in the very code of life, embodied in every living cell. His Heart Sutra DNA denotes the biological dimension of interbeing as it affirms that the essence of enlightened wisdom is a cellular reality, and that the transmission of wisdom is a fundamental life activity. We are encoded with the Buddha’s DNA.”
Have you ever encountered something that resonated so deeply that you were stopped in your tracks? You stood still at the very spot you were when your entire being registered a profound recognition of something you had not fully known before. This resonance connects to a wisdom that is already deeply imprinted in your being. As Arai says, you are “encoded with the Buddha’s DNA.”
This felt sense of being stopped—of being claimed by silence and stillness—is well known to Zen practitioners. You train yourself to shift to this quiet, not-knowing place through which the very breath of life flows unhindered. You meet whatever you are encountering—however difficult or challenging it may be—from this felt sense of slowing down, stopping in stillness and quiet. You can actually feel the breath flowing in and flowing out through your nose, your feet, through every pore of the body. Breathing is life—breathing enlivens the Buddha’s DNA.
The pandemic is such a moment of stopping, not just individually, but also collectively. COVID-19, an airborne coronavirus, is loose upon the entire world. In order to not become infected, you must wear a face covering and keep at least six feet physical distance from other human beings. Awareness of the breath has taken on a whole new dimension. Los Angeles scientist Lucy Jones says that the key to not becoming infected with the coronavirus is, “Don’t share your air.” Roshi Bernie would often point out that we are all breathing the same air. After all, there is no air boundary. Now air has become a danger zone, even more alarming than air pollution, because you and I can actually directly sicken someone else by “sharing our air.”
How are you breathing right now? Breathing is life itself—everything breathes. When George Floyd begged for his life, he called out for his mother to save him from the full body weight of a knee on this neck and pleaded, “I can’t breathe.” When you watched the cellphone video of the life force being callously and nonchalantly squeezed out of George Floyd in eight minutes and forty-six seconds, what stopped for you? What awakened within you? What stirred in the very depths of your being?
In the moment of his dying, all the countless life forces of Black human beings who have ever pleaded “I can’t breathe,” catalyzed in the cries of George Floyd. All the countless human beings who continue to be murdered for the color of their skin converged in the cries of George Floyd. What catalyzed within you—viscerally in your guts and bones—in that moment of witnessing the murder of George Floyd?
This felt sense of being stopped—of being claimed by silence and stillness—is well known to Zen practitioners.
Awakening has three important aspects. One aspect is the emptiness of the DNA itself—the life-force empty of any fixity, of any conditions. It is so fluid that it can manifest as an eager child, a loving parent, or a cruel White man arrogantly snuffing out a Black man’s life for all the world to witness. Each person, though imprinted with Buddha’s DNA, is unique, each vastly complex and nuanced within the web of the dynamic interconnected relationships of our lives, the One Body reality.
The second aspect of awakening is exemplified by the bodhisattva, the great archetypal being who clearly sees the empty essence of the life force manifesting in an infinitely vast array of forms. The bodhisattva sees that human beings are shrouded in ignorance of their Buddha DNA and, therefore, works tirelessly to wake you up to your Buddha DNA and to relieve the suffering and pain caused by this ignorance. The third aspect of awakening is how you yourself awaken from this ignorance, claim your endowment of Buddha’s DNA, and actively put your life force to good use for the benefit of others.
How do you live the One Body reality? Can you state out loud, with great conviction and determination, that, “I want to activate the Buddha DNA that I am encoded with. I want to know wrongs when I see them; to know the invisible caste system that drives our country; to know the disease of racism when I meet it in myself, and to
speak out when I see it in others; to recognize the systemic oppression which I habitually participate in without being aware of it?” How can you be awake and aware of the triggers within yourself whenever you encounter that hard wired part of yourself that is driven to create an “other?” The part that all too willingly ignores the suffering of fellow human beings? The part that wants only to protect your own well-being at the expense of others’ well-being?
The bodhisattva sees that human beings are shrouded in ignorance of their Buddha DNA.
Ground yourself in the Buddha’s DNA and activate it. Buddha’s DNA is something that every person is completely endowed with. This means that, fundamentally speaking, every person, without exception, is of equal value. It is said that when the Buddha was born, he took seven steps, pointed to the heavens with his right hand and to the ground with his left and declared, “Below the heavens and above the earth, the life force has been awakened.” The meaning of this proclamation is profound: every person is of equal value to all other persons.
The pandemic and the murder of George Floyd— and of countless Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and People of Color—reveal the deeply ingrained belief that some people are worth more than others. Awakening is an arrow shot deep into this entrenched belief and reveals it as fundamentally false. And yet, it is thoroughly stamped upon your spirit, on your heart, and on your mind. It is deeply stamped upon the pernicious policies of the government and public institutions, upon the press and its narratives, upon those who create and carry out public policy. It is stamped deeply into the cells of your being. For me, nothing exemplifies this more clearly than the callous nonchalance of George Floyd’s murderer’s hands placed casually in the pockets of his police uniform while he puts the full weight of his knee on George Floyd’s neck. The murderer carries out his action deliberately and intentionally because he believes that George Floyd’s life is not worth saving.
The meaning of this proclamation is profound: every person is of equal value to all other persons.
How about you? Buddha’s DNA has no preference and has nothing to do with who you like or dislike. But as a person you may act as if your preferences matter, and therefore you may accept and defend systems of oppression based on the idea that not everyone is of equal value. Or, at the very least, you do nothing to challenge and change this way of living. The juxtaposition of pandemic and the murder of George Floyd, which you have directly witnessed, demands that you activate your Buddha DNA.
George Floyd, a bodhisattva in death, may, indeed have “changed the world,” as his young daughter proclaimed. Now, it’s time to do your part and activate your Buddha DNA. You are already encoded, so raise an unshakeable conviction that everyone, without exception, is equally entitled to breathe. What are you doing to ensure that this is so? Do your actions speak to the fact that every person is of equal worth? Your actions will determine whether this is a moment of Great Awakening. May it be so.
Roshi Egyoku is the Head Teacher and Abbot Emeritus of ZCLA.