The only beings who
‘cannot’ become Buddhas
are those who still refuse
to see their Buddha-nature.
One of the foremost disciples of the Venerable Huiyuan [慧远大师: the First Patriarch of the Pure Land tradition], the Venerable Daosheng (道生大师) was a great enlightened master who is best known for his propagation of the teachings of the Mahayana and particularly the doctrine of the universality of Buddha-nature, even in icchantikas [一阐提: ‘those of insufficient faith’].
“At the time when only the first part of [the Nirvana] Sutra [大般涅槃经] had been translated into Chinese, Dharma Master Daosheng was lecturing on it in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province in China. When he came to the passage that said that icchantikas lack the Buddha-nature, he said instead that they have the Buddha-nature. His reasoning went like this: “‘Why is it that icchantikas have the Buddha-nature? It is because all living beings have the Buddha-nature, and although icchantikas have insufficient faith, they are living beings. Therefore, how can one say they lack the Buddha-nature?’
“He lectured on the question in a way opposite to the reading in the first half of the sutra, which outraged the other Dharma Masters of his time. They protested, ‘That’s the talk of demon kings! The sutra that the Buddha spoke plainly that icchantikas don’t have the Buddha-nature, yet he says they do. That’s really messed up.’ No one would have anything to do with him after that, and when he lectured on the sutras, no one came. The Dharma Masters ganged up and told all the disciples and people of good faith, ‘If Daosheng lectures, don’t go. Anyone who listens to his sutra lectures will fall into the hells.’…
“Dharma Master Daosheng was not one to remain silent, but was determined to deliver sutra lectures. He said, ‘Okay, you won’t come to listen? Then I’ll go lecture to the rocks and see what they do.’ And so he went off to Huqiu [Tiger] Mountain [虎丘山] and collected several hundred rocks from all over the area. He set them up in front of him and said, ‘I invite you to a sutra lecture. Be good rocks and sit there nice and still.’… When he got to the passage about icchantikas not having the Buddha-nature, he said, ‘… Icchantikas have the Buddha-nature too…Icchantikas will become Buddhas too…. Do you agree?’…
“When the rocks heard the Dharma Master ask that question, they all jumped to attention and started moving. This dull rock nodded its head, and that dull stone nodded its head… This was said by those who opposed him… The reason people were against him in the first place was that he lectured too well… Almost everyone was jealous of the way he could come up with explanations… and of how he could make the sutras come alive… When he went to the mountains to lecture to the rocks, some of them followed him on the sly to see what he was doing… That is the origin of the saying, ‘When the Venerable Daosheng spoke the Dharma, dull [stubborn] rocks nodded their heads.’ [生公说法，顽石点头。]
“Afterwards, when the Nirvana Sutra had been completely translated, it turned out that the sutra itself says that icchantikas also have the Buddha-nature. That proved that Dharma Master Daosheng had fully understood the doctrine without having seen the entire sutra; it showed the extent of his wisdom and insight. After this incident, even those who had opposed him no longer did so and came to bow to him. The meaning of the dull rocks nodding their heads is that those who had no faith in him were the dull rocks… Yet in the end, even those who had been jealous and opposed him prostrated themselves before him.” (WM 71-73)
Buddhism A To Z
Compiled By Ronald Epstein