“Equally a coming Buddha”

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


4 thoughts on ““Equally a coming Buddha”

  1. “(O)nce 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”: Great point. It’s just way too easy to say, “Nirvana is inevitable! Have another drink!” (Been there, way too often.)

  2. “If you uncover your Buddha Nature, you won’t be able to see it. ” – We can spend so long chasing it, we forget that it’s not a destination in itself. That’s why it’s so hard to grasp – it doesn’t exist as a fixed state – only as the crest of an ever moving wave of compassion that we create and maintain. Was Vasubandhu the first to postulate originally inherent buddha nature.

    1. If Vasubhandhu was the true author of the Fo-Xing Lun then he may indeed have been the first to postulate both Buddha Nature/Fo-Xing and the idea that it is originally inherent, because that would place those ideas in the 4th century. If not, then I’m not sure who was the first to propose its original inherent-ness. As far as the term Buddha Nature goes, apparently it was how the Chinese translated “buddha-dhatu” in the Nirvana Sutra. It was first translated into Chinese in the 2nd century CE, although I don’t know if those early translations used fo-xing for buddha-dhatu or not. As far as I know the term was not a serious doctrine until the appearance of the Nirvana school in the 5th century (that school was later absorbed into T’ien-t’ai circa 6th century) and then it was later popularized by the Yogacara and Madhyamaka schools in the 5th century.

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