Buddha Nature, the Ever-Present Seed of Enlightenment

Category: Buddhist Path | Mind Trainer Articles | Recent Meditation Posts

A statue of a seated Buddha - contemplating the Buddha Nature of all sentient beings

Understanding what Buddha nature is and what it isn’t

In many of his later discourses, the Buddha taught that all beings have Buddha nature. This means that every one of us has the capacity to achieve enlightenment and to manifest the qualities of a buddha. What are these qualities? In brief, they are wisdom, a clear understanding of the true nature of reality; compassion that embraces all beings in response to suffering; and power, the energy through which wisdom and compassion accomplish the benefit of others. The teachings on Buddha nature are extraordinarily cheerful, powerful, and important, yet at the same time they are easy to misconstrue. Because of this, it can be very helpful to connect them with the teachings on non-self or emptiness.

How do the Buddha’s teachings on Buddha nature square with his teachings on emptiness? To begin with, the teachings on non-self and emptiness are a way of scraping away at our usual assumptions about that which is not real or true. When we look closely at the body or the mind, we can’t find anything that might conform to the notion of a “self” that’s in charge, permanent, or singular. Likewise, when we look at phenomena as a whole, we don’t find anything which is solid or stable, or has any intrinsic, independent reality.

Doesn’t that then plunge us into nothingness? How can there be enlightenment if there’s simply nothing that has any intrinsic nature? The discourses on non-self and emptiness by the great Madhyamika masters like Nagarjuna are said to be “scraping away,” so what’s being scraped from what? We could answer that a fictitious belief in a “self” and the disturbing emotions that ensue are being scraped away from that which is primordially true and has always been there: Buddha nature itself, the true nature of mind.

The analogy is one of a pure jewel which has somehow become encrusted in all kinds of dirt over the years. It’s so concealed that it looks like an impure, worthless lump of dirt or filth. But when a wise person picks it up, takes some cloth, vinegar, and other cleaning agents and scrubs it thoroughly, the pure jewel is revealed. This is similar to the true nature of mind. We use the Dharma to clean, uncover, and free it because it is this very mind, pure and unadulterated, which has the capacity to be buddha: awake.

If there was simply nothing at all, if emptiness were a vacuum, then there would be nobody to awaken to enlightenment or to benefit sentient beings. “Oho,” you might think. “Got it! It’s my ‘self’ that will awaken!” No, no, no. “Self” is part of the fiction, part of the stuff that needs to be cleaned away through the path of negation, the wonderful Madhyamika teachings on non-self and emptiness. These teachings are the cleansing agents that scrape away the fiction to which we cling to so strongly, to our peril and the detriment of others. What is uncovered is that which is true: unconditioned, naturally existent, not-needing-anybody-to-create-it Buddha nature. It is the pure, unborn nature of mind, and it will never cease because that which is not brought into existence cannot stop existing, just like space or the sky itself.

All descriptions of Buddha nature are based on analogy. Just as a finger pointing at the moon makes you look in the right direction but is not to be confused with the moon, so it is with mind’s true nature. Words such as wisdom, compassion, clarity, luminosity, and awareness help us understand that the nature of mind is not nothing, but such examples shouldn’t lead us to believe that mind is a “thing” or a “self.” All the same, we can say that Buddha nature is real in the sense that space is real. It has no beginning and no end, but it’s there. It’s the place where everything happens. In a way, everything exists because of Buddha nature: the samsaric cycle of confusion and suffering as well as the freedom of nirvana.

When I don’t recognize the nature of my mind, I create a fictitious world based on me and others, me and my possessions, friends, enemies, desire, hatred, and karma. Result: suffering. 100% disaster. I call this disaster “samsara” and I’ve been revolving around it for a long time—from beginningless time, actually. But if I would just recognize the nature of my mind for what it is, the fiction would self-implode and my mind’s boundless capacity for wisdom, compassion, and power would remain. As it is said, whosoever recognizes the nature of their mind is a Buddha. Whosoever doesn’t recognize the nature of their mind is trapped in samsara. This is why we can say that Buddha nature is the basis of samsara and of nirvana.

Buddha nature mind cannot be stained by samsara, and that’s why enlightenment is possible here and now. “Oh, so I have to make my mind pure by practicing,” you may think. No. What your practice does is scrape away the fictions of samsara; the mind is already naturally pure. This is why every sentient being, even the lowliest, has the capacity to awaken. When we recognize this, we know with confidence that all beings, high or low, human or not, female or male, god or demon—all are equally pervaded by Buddha nature, the fundamental nature of all beings, and therefore are equally worthy of our concern and respect.

Confused sentient beings, buddhas, and the bodhisattvas on the path who manifest some of the enlightened qualities of buddhahood all have Buddha nature. Enlightened buddhas don’t have a bigger share of it; the nature of their mind is the same as ours and as the bodhisattvas’. But just like in that jewel image, in us the jewel is completely encrusted in grunge and dirt. As for bodhisattvas, bits of the jewel shine through because they’ve eliminated some of the false, mistaken, and extraneous elements by practicing the path. And in buddha, the state of enlightenment, all extraneous elements have been removed. Only the jewel remains, radiating extraordinary compassion and wisdom.

Practice is there to remove everything that prevents us from recognizing mind’s true nature: all of the fictions that the disturbing emotions and belief in a “self” present us with. We’re out looking everywhere for enlightenment. We think that if we do this practice, study that text, get this, that, and the other, it will all add up to buddhahood. But the Buddha is right here at home. Buddha nature cannot be elsewhere; it cannot be manufactured. Dharma practice is necessary, but not to transform us into buddhas or to make our Buddha nature any stronger or purer. Our innate potential for awakening is already pure, strong, and enlightened. All we need to do is practice and stop believing in the fictions.

About the Author: Lama Jampa Thaye

Lama Jampa has taught Buddhist philosophy and meditation for many years
Lama Jampa Thaye, PhD, a highly accomplished meditator and scholar, is recognized as one of the leading meditation teachers in the West. He is the founder and spiritual director of the Dechen Community, an international association of meditation centers located throughout Europe and North America. An accomplished author and speaker, his books and essays have been translated into numerous languages and he has lectured for more than 20 years at universities in his native UK. He lives in London with his wife Albena Stott and their youngest daughter. Learn more about Lama Jampa Thaye here.

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