What is Buddhist Salvation?

In Buddhism, says Zen teacher Koun Yamada, we find salvation by experiencing our true nature as human beings.

Koun Yamada
18 November 2015
Koun Yamada, Buddhist Salvation, Lion's Roar, Shambhala Sun
Photo by Greg Rakozy.

In Buddhism, says Zen teacher Koun Yamada, we find salvation by experiencing our true nature as human beings.

Although the Zen path may have been lumped together with others as a “religion,” Zen differs markedly from other religions from the point of view of human salvation. In order to understand the principle of salvation in Zen Buddhism, we must turn not to the transcendent power of God but to the basic question of our own identity.

What is humanity? What is this entity we call a “human being”? In Western thought these age-old questions have elicited a range of answers: Human beings are created from the dust of the earth and defiled by sin; a person is a creature composed of body and soul; or as Descartes answered, “I think, therefore I am.”

Zen Buddhism provides a different answer by declaring unequivocally that we ourselves are nothing but perfect, complete, infinite, and absolute existence. And Zen aims to realize this condition not through the intellect but in living experience. All the anxieties and suffering of humanity stem from the paradox that while we are by nature perfect, we appear in the phenomenal world as imperfection itself—limited, relative, mortal, and all too fallible—unaware of our true nature. The totality of our suffering is nothing but the labor pain of our perfect and infinite nature as it strives to negate the imperfect, limited self and to manifest itself in the phenomenal world. The efforts, struggles, and advances of humanity are the activity of this essential nature revealing itself.

When we who think of ourselves as imperfect, limited, and relative beings awaken to our True Self in the experience of seeing into our own nature and accept this reality clearly, beyond any doubt, our anxiety and suffering vanish like clouds. The joy of this moment is beyond description.

At the same time, we must understand one essential point: we can never realize our True Self simply by comprehending an intellectual explanation of the principle behind it. We must encounter that True Self in actual experience to the point where we can embody it as truth. Otherwise it will never have the power to bring us to a state of true peace.


From Zen: The Authentic Gate, by Koun Yamada, with permission from Wisdom Publications.