I've heard Zen Buddhism characterised by the notion of 'Everyone is already enlightened'. Is that correct? - does Zen Buddhism actually say that and if so can someone give a reference to a text where it actually says that or something like it.

Many thanks as always

  • original enlightenment doctrine
    – user2512
    Feb 3, 2019 at 18:39

5 Answers 5


It's a basic Mahayana doctrine, important in other schools as well as Zen.

Hongaku is an East Asian Buddhist doctrine often translated as "inherent", "innate", "intrinsic" or "original" enlightenment... It is first mentioned in the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana scripture.


Wikipedia also says it can be traced back to sayings of the Buddha in the Anguttara Nikaya: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Buddha-nature#Earliest_sources


It's the most standard Mahayana teaching. The references are too numerous to cite, almost every other text has statements to this effect. However, it should never say "You are already Enlightened" (or anything naive like that), the phrases are more nuanced and the meaning is more subtle.

For example, it may say, "Our nature is fundamentally pure" or "Your original nature is no different from that of the Buddhas" etc. - in an attempt to turn our attention to the existential conflict between our dualistic mind of "this is wrong and I need to be something else" and the perfect suchness of Nirvana in the here-and-now.

Now, if you speak with an actual Zen (or another Mahayana) teacher, they will be quick to point out that even though our primordial nature is indeed Nirvana, the habits of craving and clinging are extremely difficult to overcome on the spot, which is why we must cultivate Sila/Prajna/Samadhi.

So in some sense the teaching has two sides and which one your teacher will drum depends on which way you lean in your particular state of confusion. If you are inclined to be complacent they will drum the Path and if you are obsessed with the goal, they will drum Buddha-Nature. It's kinda frustrating because you end up being wrong no matter which position you take. It's only when you mature beyond positions is when this contradiction resolves.

  • Thank you (again) for the answer. I had a thought that "You are already Enlightened" (naive) was actually an advanced teaching. Is that correct / got some truth to it? Feb 1, 2019 at 3:27
  • @CrabBucket If you wanted to think of it that way, I would have to point out a linguistic reality that sentences don't actually have a fixed meaning of their own. They require an interpretation in order to acquire meaning. So it's entirely possible that, in the mind of an Enlighened one, "You are already Enlightened" is interpreted in a way that is true. I don't know if you are one for fictional sources of inspiration, but Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land explored this with the word "God."
    – Cort Ammon
    Feb 1, 2019 at 4:22
  • @crabbucket If by "advanced" you mean "hidden" then I don't think "You're are already Enlightened" is an advanced teaching. In Mahayana it is trumpeted on every occasion, can't be too advanced, right? In many Zen communities, Heart Sutra is recited in every meeting - and it basically says, there's no suffering, no end of suffering, no path to ending the suffering, no enlightenment, and nothing to attain. I mean, sure, compared to the basic sutta teaching that's pretty advanced - but I don't think in Mahayana they hide it or something.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Feb 3, 2019 at 9:34
  • @AndreiVolkov I guess what I was trying to get at was perhaps easy to misinterpret to ill effect.Daniel Ingram has a rant about this kind of thing being used as an excuse not to practise at all and sit back and think it's done. Maybe it is done but if you just assert this and don't practise then were do you go? I was thinking it's something that is very helpful when someone has done a whole heap of practice and pretty unhelpful when someone has done not much. That said I'm pretty goal orientated myself (though I like to pretend I'm not) so things like this I struggle with Feb 4, 2019 at 1:05
  • Yup, this dilemma is so inherent to the setup that everyone coming in touch with Mahayana must be having this same question. I guess it boils down to correct understanding of the Noble Truths. Buddha himself insisted the path must be approached gradually, with this realization left until very end, but subsequent generations of Mahayanists did not limit themselves to that formula.
    – Andriy Volkov
    Feb 4, 2019 at 19:31

So I heard,

Don't let anyone tell you that you're not enlightened.

Not formal Zen lineage, but as Andrei wrote, "the phrases are more nuanced and the meaning is more subtle".


As in Zen, Vajrayana too, needs to “assume” that oneself is already enlightened. That assumption is removed by having a vajra guru, through a process known as “initiation”.

Since only an enlightened being can see another enlightened being, only if oneself is already enlightened that he can realise his own enlightenment. That is the starting point. That was precisely how the Buddha did realised his own enlightenment, he was able to fight off the last 3 illusions under the bodhi tree.

From there he was able to teach the entire path to enlightenment starting with Theravada.


It is not zen, but the famous puthujjana called Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje has a short exposition on the doctrine that they created http://www.rinpoche.com/teachings/buddhanature.htm

   “All beings are Buddhas,
         But obscured by incidental stains.
         When those have been removed, there is Buddhahood.”
         That is a quotation from a Tantra.

he says that the characteristic of his doctrine is more about the nature of his attainment

The mind that has the absence of the three obscurations
Is “(the wisdom of) equality” and it is “peace.”
Due to having love and great compassion (for beings)
The sambhoga(kaya), etc., appears to them.
This is stated in order to refute those who say
That the attainment of Buddhahood is the same as the Hinayana (attainment).

Wisdom is the three permanences:
Permanence of nature is the dharmakaya;
Permanence of continuity is the sambhogakaya;
Uninterruptedness is the nirmanakaya.

There are three impermanences:
Mentally fabricated emptiness is impermanent;
The mind of moving thoughts is impermanent;
The composite six consciousnesses are impermanent.

However, the three permanences are present.
The three impermanences are stains.
The three permanences are wisdom.

This is not the same as the Tirthika “self,”
Because that is a mental fabrication and (Buddha nature) is not.
This is not the same as the nirvana of the Shravakas and Pratyekabuddhas
Because (in that) all the qualities of the form kayas are not manifested.
This is not the same as the body of an (ordinary) being
Because it is not created due to the defilements.

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