One of the things that first attracted me to Buddhism was that it was a spiritual philosophy without a God, a supreme being. Sure, there are gods a plenty in Buddhist cosmology, but I’ve never taken them seriously, and frankly, I don’t think many of the astute Buddhist scholars from the past did either. I think they understood them as symbols. But that may just be wishful thinking on my part.
In any case, most other religious philosophies teach that all things come from an external force, often referred to as God, and several of these maintain that the sole purpose for the existence of human beings is to love and serve this God that is external to and independent to some extent from their own lives.
Buddhism, however, teaches that there is no difference between the ultimate reality and human nature. And of course, a Buddha or “Awakened One” is an ordinary human being. All livings beings posses a pure, enlightened nature which exists as a potential. Since this potential is universal, anyone can become a Buddha. We call it Buddha-nature.
Although the concept of Buddha-nature has it seeds in Indian Buddhism, one of the first to really advance the idea was Tao-sheng (360-434 CE), a Chinese monk and scholar.
Tao-sheng taught, among other things, that all sentient beings possess Buddha-nature and that there is no Buddha-world beyond the present. These were revolutionary teachings for his day and Tao-sheng was excommunicated from the Buddhist Sangha because of them. He was later vindicated when the complete Nirvana Sutra, which distinctly mentions Buddha-nature, was at last translated into Chinese.
Although, Tao-sheng did not use the actual term “Buddha-nature”, from statements like these found in his commentary on the Lotus Sutra, there is little doubt about what was getting at:
The sentient being’s endowment with [the potential for] great enlightenment leads all to succeed in becoming a Buddha . . . The sentient beings all possess the endowed [capacity] for great enlightenment; there is no one that is not a potential bodhisattva . . . All sentient beings without exception, are Buddhas, and all are also [already in the state of] nirvana.”
Even though we have this pure and enlightened nature, we are unaware of it. Another thing we can blame on ignorance. As I mentioned in Tuesday’s post, ignorance is a sort of mis-knowing, a misunderstanding about the nature of reality. One way to dispel ignorance is to realize intellectually that Buddha-nature exists originally within our life, and then to realize Buddha-nature spiritually through meditative practice.
While I tend to view this as a gradual process, Tao-sheng saw it as a “Sudden Awakening.” In his view, Buddha-nature could not be divided and one either realized it as a whole or did not realize it at all. He said,
By gaining freedom from illusion, one returns to the ultimate, and by returning to the ultimate, one attains the original.”
The state of attainment of the “original” is what we call the state of nirvana, which is neither external to nor different from this saha or mundane world we inhabit.
That’s another reason why in Mahayana Buddhism, we say “sufferings are nirvana.” This everyday world, filled with all manner of sufferings, is exactly the same as nirvana, enlightenment. The world is a realm of absolute happiness. There is no other place for us to aspire to than this one.
It seems simple, that this Buddha-nature is innate within our minds and that attaining Buddhahood lies in realizing the existence of Buddha-nature within our minds. Some people, however, have some difficulty with it. It’s not something that we take on faith. We don’t believe in Buddha-nature, we actualize it.
As Sallie King notes in her book, Buddha Nature,
Thus Buddha nature can be present now, in its fullness and purity, even though it is not an entity of any kind and even though one is enmired in the condition of delusion insofar as it is manifest in acts of practice, or in other words, insofar as, and no farther than, one’s actions bring that Buddha nature into the world of experiential reality.”