"Is that so?" The emperor was surprised at being contradicted. "Why not?"
The minister bowed deeply: "The essence of the Buddha is the compassionate heart. Your Majesty is constantly worried about the common people out of pure compassion. Therefore, Your Majesty is already a living Buddha and does not need to visit the temple."
"Interesting," said the emperor. "That reminds me of a story. Let me share it with you. It goes like this:
"What I have learned from this story," said the emperor to his ministers, "is that the Buddha lives in the heart. When we visit the temple to pray, we are in fact praying to ourselves and asking ourselves for help. That is why I shall override your objection and proceed to the temple today."
This emperor was very wise in not letting the ministers feed his ego. Because ancient emperors wielded absolute power, they tended to be surrounded by sycophants. Many emperors could be swayed by skillful and lavish praise, but this particular emperor had enough self-awareness to guard against it. He did not let his ego gain control. Such emperors were few and far in between.
The emperor touched on a universal truth: the Buddha is a human being who becomes enlightened. Therefore, the potential for Buddhahood exists in all human hearts. If it was true for the minister to point to the Buddha in the emperor, then the same was also true for the minister and everyone else. We will all become Buddhas in the future – it isn't a matter of if, but when.
This was also the emperor's way to gently emphasize the fundamental equality of all sentient beings. Regardless of our station in life, whether royalty or not, there is no differentiation in the Buddha nature within us. External appearance and material possessions may vary from one person to the next, but the innermost essence of the Buddha nature remains the same.
"Buddha nature" is but one of many terms to describe this essence. We can also call it "the Tao" or "the Kingdom of God" or "the spark of divinity" or any number of other possible names. Whatever the name we use, its existence within us is why we are all capable of great compassion and extraordinary abilities. When we connect with this essence, we operate at our highest level and become far more powerful and resourceful than we ever imagined possible.
Prayer is the most common way for us to connect with the Buddha nature. However, oftentimes we think of praying as a communication directed outward, to a deity external to us. Both the emperor and Guan Yin pointed out that it should be the reverse – the communication should be sent inward, so it can be heard by the innermost core of our being.
In order to understand why this is better, it is important for us to think about exactly what happens when we pray to a deity – any deity of any religion. We may not be consciously aware of it, but when we pray to a deity we are actually acting with many unspoken assumptions:
1) We assume the deity exists. If the deity does not exist, the prayer would go out to no one, and the praying would be rather meaningless and pointless.
2) We assume the deity can hear us. If the deity exists but cannot hear us for any reason, then praying won't do us any good.
3) We assume the deity is actually listening. Even if the deity exists and has the ability to hear prayers, it is still conceivable that the deity isn't listening.
4) We assume the deity cares about our problems. What if the deity does exist, can hear, is listening, but doesn't care? We think we are praying to a caring deity, but what if that isn't true?
5) We assume the deity will help. What if the deity does care deeply, but will not do anything about the situation? Suppose the deity, for whatever reason, wants to let events unfold of their own accord?
6) We assume the deity's help will be timely. What if the deity provides assistance too late, after the problem is over and the disaster has already run its course? If so, then the prayer is still meaningless even if all of the above requirements are met.
In order for our prayers to be meaningful, we need all of the above to work. If just one of the assumptions turns out to be incorrect, then the whole thing falls flat. It is easy to see that this is like a chain where all the links have to be solid. If any one of the links breaks, the entire chain is broken.
How can we know that all the links are solid? We cannot. Of course, the conventional approach is that we must have faith. However, note that this does not mean one single belief or one single investment of faith. It is clear from our analysis that each link in the chain represents an unknown all by itself, and requires its own leap of faith.
Therefore, when you pray to a deity, you are not just assuming the deity exists, you are in fact making multiple leaps of faith well beyond the question of existence. This is something usually glossed over and not explicitly explained in religious practices.
Now let us examine what happens when we direct the prayer inward and connect with the Buddha nature:
1) Do we exist? Yes, we know that we exist.
2) Can we hear ourselves? Yes, we can hear.
3) Are we listening to ourselves? Yes, we are listening.
4) Do we care about our own problems? Yes, we care very much.
5) Will we do something to help ourselves? This is entirely up to us.
6) Will we help ourselves in a timely manner? Again, this is entirely up to us.
Suddenly, things look dramatically different. This particular chain has no weak links; it can be as strong as we want it to be. We are not at the mercy of any single link, because none of them can break unless we blatantly sabotage ourselves. The six great unknowns have become six great certainties, so we don't need to make any leaps of faith at all.
The two last links in this chain are choices that only you can make for yourself. Just like the Chinese emperor possessing absolute power over his subjects, you wield complete authority over your decisions. Will you make use of this authority to command assistance for yourself in times of trouble? Or will you give up the authority to depend on unknown factors that may or may not come through?
Just as the emperor was surrounded by sycophants, we too have false ministers in the mind. They are the voices that speak in flattering words to feed the ego. They tell us we don't need to go anywhere or do anything. Will you let their false advice lead you to complacency and passivity? Or will you make use of your wisdom, guard against their soothing words, and proceed with proactive action?
This proactive action can very well be to visit the temple, just as it was with the emperor. The right temple for you will have the positive energy you need to help you cultivate. If there are no temples nearby, you can still visit the temple in your heart. There is a beautiful statue of the Buddha inside this inner temple. It is your Buddha nature.
You are the absolute authority of your own life. Can you be as wise a ruler as the emperor? If so, then let us stop waiting for answers from external deities. It is time to override false objections and proceed… to the temple!