little buddha

Will the Real Buddha Please Crawl over Here?


Spiritual practice is tough; we need help. We need examples; we need teachers. I want to tell you about some teachers you’ve already met but might not have really studied with yet: babies. (By the way, that one over there is Pearl the day she was born.)

Most Buddhists believe Buddhas are continually present in the world to help us. Excellent. So, who are these Buddhas? Traditionally, there’s a whole range of them, but they are very very few in number. From Taigen Dan Leighton Sensei, a bald-headed sack of red flesh you might meet on the street in San Francisco, to great Amida Butsu in his celestial Pure Land is quite a distance. But if you’re lucky enough to meet one of these two characters, or any Buddha in between, you’ll find they have at least two things in common: they’re here to help and they’ve achieved liberation from the kleshas, the afflictions of mind that keep the rest of us mean and unhappy. Lose those—even just for a minute—and you start to become Buddha. After enough practice, we may get to the point where we don’t slip back, where we become Buddhas and stay Buddhas.

Trouble is, this is brain-achingly difficult and I’ve found very few grown-up Buddhas to learn from. Luckily, there’s another kind of Buddha we can turn to: babies. Buddhas are those without kleshas, and babies are without them. The kleshas are passion, aversion, and delusion in all their many varieties and combinations. They include greed, anger, evil-mindedness, pig-headedness, arrogance, jealousy, pettiness, conceit, laziness, and so on. Think of a baby at the breast, is she greedy or just hungry? Babies can be strong-willed, but are they pig-headed? Are they petty? Lazy? They’re simply not. Imagine that baby at the breast again; that is nirvana in this world. Not just because milk is good, but because the baby enjoying it is good.

Further, babies know in their bones that they’re not fixed and enduring things. Even more than that, they know they’re not even merely changing things; they realize they are processes of change; they are change itself. There is nothing to hang on to, and no one to do the hanging. Because they know this, they are not separate from their parents, their playmates, their experience, their world. The great Zen teacher Dogen Zenji wrote in the “Genjo Koan,”

When Buddhas are really Buddhas they may not even notice they’re Buddhas. Still, they are manifested Buddhas who continue to manifest Buddhas.

I hope Dogen won’t mind me saying, “When babies are really babies they may not even notice they’re babies. Still, they are manifested babies who continue to manifest babies.”

Being around Buddhas tends to make people Buddha-like. Being around babies does the same—if we’re ready to learn. Let us become baby-like, in the best way. After all, they are teachers of pure love, pure joy, pure honesty. They teach mindfulness, the practice of being awake. Traditional Buddhas are hard to find in this world. Baby Buddhas are easy. Want to do some spiritual practice? Go hang with a baby.