What is Buddha Nature?
Category: Buddhist Path
Buddha Nature Has No Simple Definition
There are many benefits to meditation. Among them, you may have heard that with consistent meditation practice your Buddha nature is revealed. Buddha nature has no simple definition. It is a complex, ineffable concept that each Buddhist tradition lends a slightly differing, nuanced understanding to. To ask questions about Buddha nature and attempt to explain is, in itself, Buddha nature arising.
“Buddha nature is . . . a state of intelligence that questions our life and the meaning of life. It is the foundation of a search. A lot of things haven’t been answered in our life – and we are still searching for the questions. That questioning is Buddha nature. It is a state of potential.”
– Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Ocean of Dharma
As noted in the Buddha nature quote above, Buddha nature is the enlightened aspect of us that is waiting to be remembered. It is our highest potential, our true, original nature, ever-present awareness, compassion and wisdom. It is both the essence of who we already are and the goal we seek through practice. Meditation offers us the opportunity to move past the concept of Buddha nature and connect to an experience of it, for a wisdom that surpasses conceptual understanding.
Who Are You?
Our habitual tendency is to think of ourselves as our body, our thoughts, our emotions, or perhaps as the accumulation of our past experiences, our story. But each of these things is ever-changing, so at which moment do they define us? When we closely contemplate the body, thoughts, and so on under the microscope of awareness meditation, we cannot find them.
What is revealed instead is ever-present awareness itself, the luminous and compassionate ground from which our perceptions arise. This is our true nature. The qualities of buddha nature are described as unchanging, radiant and spacious. Like the sun, this enlightened aspect of our being is always there, forever shining, despite being occasionally obscured by the constantly changing weather, a metaphor for our confused, afflicted mind.
Buddha nature is present in every sentient being, meaning each of us has equal potential to become a Buddha. We may think of the Buddha as a historical figure who has come and gone. But when Siddhartha Gautama became enlightened, he realized at once that all beings everywhere have the Buddha within.
Each of us is capable of finding lasting freedom from suffering, by remembering who we really are. To become a Buddha is to identify as the radiant, warm and giving sun versus the storms that sometimes cloud her over.
Proliferating Buddha Nature
The question may arise, if Buddha nature is already present in each and every one of us, why do we need to practice? Buddhist teachings describe two kinds of Buddha nature. One type is natural while the other is proliferating, or developing. Buddha nature is always with us and at the same time, we need to develop it.
Our consciousness has very strong habits. This includes our negativity bias and the tendency to see ourselves as separate from everything we perceive. Meditating and walking the Buddhist path helps us to overcome these habits and remember that we are not the clouds, but the sun.
As our identity and sense of separateness softens, we come to realize that Buddha nature is not something outside of ourselves that we get as a reward for meditating, it is something that has been there all along, revealed through practice. Our enlightenment is permanent because it is discovered, not created.
But who is it that discovers this Buddha nature? As the great spiritual teacher Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche has famously said, “enlightenment is the ego’s greatest disappointment.” At the moment we discover our Buddha nature, we are no longer regular, ego-centered people, but Buddhas who have known about our enlightenment all along. Our practice then transforms into the activity of an enlightened being.
Embracing Our True Nature
To trust in our Buddha nature is to have faith that we have just as much capacity as anyone to someday be free from our pain, fundamentally connected to joy despite life’s ups and downs. Everything it is that we seek is already within us. Bit by bit, through the practice of meditation, getting quiet, being still, connecting to the body and listening, we can begin to hear the call of Buddha nature that comes from within.
Everything that calls us to practice, everything we perceive, is potentially the voice of Buddha nature, inviting us to pay attention. Even our pain, suffering and dissatisfaction, by guiding us toward meditation, is part of the enlightened voice within. Just as the sun shines evenly on everything within its path, we are invited to embrace the entirety of our experience.
It may not be possible to intellectually comprehend Buddha nature in its entirety, but by applying awareness and infinite compassion to our experience, we just might be able to sense its meaning.