The experience that took place as one man sat meditating under the Bodhi Tree was transforming – he was no longer an ordinary person, he was awakened. Yet, this was a very human experience, and one that is available to the ordinary person.
The message this awakening conveys is that all people have the potential to affect a similar transformation in their own lives.
What, then, did the Buddha become awakened to? The Pali suttas offer several explanations. In one, it is the realization that the “self” (atman) was the source of human trouble. In a second account, it is the knowledge of the working of the law of karma, along with the truth of suffering, the arising of suffering, the conquest over suffering, and the path that leads to the conquest over suffering. In yet another version, it is the theory of “interdependent origination” (pratiya-samutpada) that is the focus of the Buddha’s enlightenment.
Laying aside the specifics, we can say that in general the Buddha attained the realization that human beings were deluded to the true nature of life, and that they create their own unhappiness and pain by thinking, speaking and acting based on this delusional understanding.
Buddha taught that the source of suffering lies within our own lives. At the same time, also existing within each individual life is the cause for overcoming suffering. We call it an awakened or Buddha-nature, which all beings posses. When we wake up to this Buddha-nature we are able to see reality as it truly is and develop the wisdom to transform sources of suffering into causes for a more enlightened condition of life.
The concept of Buddha-nature did not originate with the Buddha, rather it is inferred. The concept was developed within the philosophical tradition of Indian Mahayana. The Theravada school does not accept this idea. A rather well-known Theravada monk once told me that he was uncomfortable with the idea of Buddha-nature because the Buddha was “perfect” and that ordinary people should not see themselves as equal to him. I think it should be fairly obvious that this sort of attitude misses the point of the Buddha’s message completely, and this was the real mission of the Mahayana, to return to the original spirit of the Buddha’s dharma.
Buddha-nature as a term is derived from another term, tathagata-garba, compounded from the words tathagata, or “thus-gone-one, and garba, meaning embryo or womb. Tathagata is a name for the Buddha; specifically, the name the Buddha used in the sutras to refer to himself.
Tatha means “thus,” referring to “thusness” or “suchness” – reality as it actually is, and gata means gone, indicating movement in the direction of this understanding. A tathagata, then, is someone who sees the true nature of reality. The meaning of tathagata-garba is that all dharmas (things), both stained and pure, are united in the nature of the Tathagata, and is therefore called the womb or the storehouse of the Tathagata.
The merits of all the dharmas are stored within the garba, the storehouse. This is also called the Dharma-body. Regarded as hidden, it is able to produce the Buddha Who Has Thus Gone, and thus the name tathagata-garba. Regarded as revealed, it is the ground of all dharmas, and so has the name Dharmakaya. It is further named Buddhata or Buddha-nature. The Buddha is awakened, and all beings have the potential for this same awakening.
Mahayana Buddhism asserts that all people inherently posses Buddha-nature. The Buddha swept away all troubles and afflictions and totally fulfilled his Buddha-nature. Therefore, he became a Buddha. Since all beings already have the Buddha-nature, they can cultivate themselves completely and fulfill their Buddha-nature, and they can become Buddhas.
Shunryu Suzuki said:
Buddha-nature is our original nature. When we have no idea of ego, we have awakened life, out egotistic ideas are delusion, covering our Buddha-nature. Everything has Buddha-nature, so something apart from Buddha-nature is just a delusion . . . So to be a human being is to be a Buddha. Buddha-nature is just another name for human nature, our true human nature.