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Understanding Grace and Original Enlightenment in Buddhism

The dictionary defines grace as, 'a manifestation of favor, especially by a superior."  Another definition that is commonly used in religious circles is, 'underserved mercy.' 

To understand the Buddhist interpretation of grace we first need to understand the teaching of Original Enlightenment, which is found in the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana Sutra.

It states that all sentient beings are inherently enlightened. More than that, they all exist as part of a single Buddha-body.

This is explained through the Trikaya teaching, which divides the Buddha-body into three parts.  First, there is the Dharmakaya or wisdom-body of Buddha, which is the primordial essence of enlightenment.  Next, there is the Sambhogakaya or joy-body of Buddha, which includes celestial beings like Kannon and Amida.  Finally, there is the Nirmanakaya or physical-body of Buddha, which is physical reality.

We can understand the Trikaya teaching by imagining the ocean in the north pole.  We have the ocean water itself, which represents the Dharmakaya.  Next we have icebergs, which represent the Sambhogakaya.  Finally, we have clouds, which represent the Nirmanakaya.

They all appear separate, but science tells us that they are all made of identical water molecules.  Similarly, the three bodies of Buddha appear separate, but they possess the same Buddha-nature.

To put it another way,  we come from the Dharmakaya in the same way that clouds come from the ocean.  Thus, we exist as Buddha in the same way that clouds exist as water.

Of course, this begs some questions like, "If all sentient beings are Buddha, why does suffering exist," and,  "If all beings are Buddha, why are people so terrible to each other?"  These are excellent questions, and the answer can be found in the Lotus Sutra where Buddha tells the story of a poor man who has a pearl sewn into his pocket by a friend.

The poor man endures hardship for many years because he is unaware of the wealth that he is carrying around.  And some times, out of desperation, he makes bad decisions that cause harm to himself and others.  It's only after his friend tells him about the pearl in his pocket that he sees the error of his ways, and uses the pearl to end suffering for himself and others.

It is the same with us and our own enlightened nature, which is represented by the pearl.  We don't realize that we are Buddhas, so we act out in ways that are not in-keeping with our originally enlightened nature.  

We are blinded by the poisons of greed, anger, and ignorance, so we can't see the jewel in our pocket.


Thus, the practice of Buddhism is not an attempt to "fix" ourselves, or to attain something new.  Rather, it's a reminder of our true nature.  It's a sign post; showing us the way home.  And this is why grace is an integral part of the training.

It's a reminder that we are worthy.  That there is a part of us, which is sacred and good.  And it can't be changed or defiled by mistakes we've made in the past or might make in the future.  So, the mercy we receive in daily life is 'undeserved' not because we've done something wrong.  

Rather, it's 'undeserved' because we don't need to do anything to earn it!  The sun shines on us, the earth nourishes us, and the air fills our lungs for no other reason than we are Buddha.  And this favor manifests in other ways as well.

When we wear a coat we didn't make, we're kept warm both by the person who made the coat and the person who sold it to us.  When we eat food we didn't grow, we're being fed by the farmer that planted the seeds, and the truck driver who delivered the crop to market.  And when we lay down to sleep at night, we're tucked in by the person who made our blankets.

When we reflect on the infinite mercies that we receive, the countless ways that we're supported by other sentient beings, we realize that it would be impossible for us do, say, or be enough to deserve all of this help.  But we still receive it every day.

This is the grace of Buddha.  It's the understanding that we are worthy of love, kindness, and respect for no reason other than we exist.

Furthermore, when we recognize the grace we receive each day.  We learn to extend that same grace to others.  And when it's hard to love the person in front of us, we pay homage to the Buddha that lives within them.  Because we know it's the same Buddha that lives within us.

Namu Amida Butsu

 If you enjoyed this essay, you'll love my book!

Understanding Grace and Original Enlightenment in Buddhism


  1. Another reason why I look forward to your wisdom showing me who I truly am.

  2. Thank you for such clear explanations.

  3. Truly the most magnificent teaching and the hardest to realize 😊
    Thank you for your live dharma talks. They have been my sangha and support and joy.

  4. This article is full of well-thought-out ideas. Such work is quite commendable.

  5. I read all of your posts and was blown away by the quality of information you provide. Thank you for writing such a unique article.


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