Vasubandhu, a 4th Century Indian Buddhist, once wrote:
All sentient beings originally and universally posses the pure Buddha Nature. Thus, it is not possible that anyone should ever fail to realize Nirvana.”
– from Treatise on Buddha Nature
When you read something like this, you should feel happy. It’s really good news.
Today, I’m unabashedly gloating over the idea that all people have Buddha Nature. What a positive message. How could any person not be glad to hear it? Having Buddha Nature means that Nirvana, which is peace, is presently available. We don’t have to wait until we die to find peace, and we don’t have to rely on anyone or anything outside of our own life. Nirvana is right here, right now, if we want it.
Buddha Nature, or Fo-xing, is a term that originated in China; there is no Sanskrit equivalent for it. The word does not appear in any Indian sutras. Even in the Nirvana Sutra the term used is Buddha-dhatu (Buddha realm), although it is considered synonymous with “Buddha Nature,” as is tathagatagarbha (“womb of thusness”), expounded in the “Tathagatagarbha” sutras.* Indeed, the notion of Buddha Nature, as developed and popularized by the Chinese Yogacara and Madhyamaka schools (the basis for our present day understanding of the term), apparently was unknown in Indian Buddhism.
That’s why there is some question among modern scholars about whether or not Vasubandhu is the actual author of the Fo-xing-lun or “Treatise on Buddha Nature.” Regardless, Sallie B. King, now Professor of Philosophy and Religion at James Madison University, published a study of Fo-xing-lun, titled Buddha Nature. She says, “Buddha Nature means ‘potential Buddha’ – not as a type of being, but as practice (i.e. realization) that is an action or series of actions.”
This potential has always existed within sentient beings. Some Buddhists maintain that insentient being posses it as well, that even plants and trees have Buddha Nature. However, only human beings can realize this potential for awakened life.
I think it is important to keep in mind that just because Buddha Nature and the peace of Nirvana is presently all around us, there is still some effort required to realize it. Potential, remember, means “possible,” “capable of being.” Buddha Nature is a latent quality that must be developed for it to manifest. And once we have awakened our Buddha Nature we can’t rest on our laurels. After he became the Buddha, Shakyamuni did not just sit back and say, “I’ve got it made.” He continued to develop himself.
There’s a phrase in Jack Kerouac’s novel The Dharma Bums that I think sums up Buddha Nature perfectly:
equally empty, equally to be loved, equally a coming Buddha . . .”
If you uncover your Buddha Nature, you won’t be able to see it. If you were to become a Buddha, you might not even know it. But if you can wrap your mind around the idea that there is absolutely no real distinction between an ordinary human being and a Buddha, then you’ve taken a giant step on the journey of awakening.
*Tathagatagarbha Sutra, Srimaladevi-simhanada Sutra, Anuatvapurnatva-nirdesa