Human Nature

T’ai Hsu (1889-1947), who played a major role in the revival of the Fa-hsiang school, said,

We achieve Buddhahood through our human natures. This is the deepest truth of Buddhism.”

Human nature refers to the characteristics of being a sentient being, a human being. For me, the key word in the quote from T’ai Hsu is through. While there are various opinions as to whether human nature is fundamentally good or bad, hardly anyone would disagree that it is imperfect. Buddhism teaches that our human nature is also prone to experience the pangs of suffering, and that by going through our human nature, or transcending it, we can also transcend suffering and arrive at a state of being that we could called ‘perfected’ in the sense that it means completed or whole. We may even find that the nature we uncover by transcending human nature is more natural.

‘Transcendent’ is a word that is problematic for some because they associate it with the classical definition of transcendence, which refers to the power of God, higher or totally removed from our human world, or referring to a state that is divine, and again, independent or far above our lives in the world.

MC900As I use ‘transcendent’, it is in the sense of prajna-paramita or transcendent wisdom. Prajna means wisdom, and paramita means perfection or accomplished. The Six (or Ten) paramitas or perfections are qualities the bodhisattva must “complete” as he or she fares on the Bodhisattva Way. Also called ‘crossings’, they include generosity, virtue, patience, energy, contemplation, and wisdom.

Prajna-paramita is likened to the ship that ferries all beings across the sea of suffering,  wisdom that transcends suffering. All human experience is an insight into transcendent wisdom. In order to transcend suffering, we have to suffer. There is no escape from this truth. No easy way out. The experience of suffering can bring us nearer to insight into wisdom.

Our fundamental nature – what we term ‘the buddha nature’, the very nature of our mind, is inherently present within us as a natural attribute. This mind of ours, the subject at hand, has been going on throughout beginningless time, and so has the more subtle nature of that mind. On the basis of the continuity of that subtle nature of our mind rests the capacity we have to attain enlightenment. This potential is what we call ‘the seed of buddhahood’, ‘buddha nature’, ‘the fundamental nature’, or ‘tathagatagarbha’.”

Dalai Lama, Dzogchen: The Heart Essence of the Great Perfection (2001)

One who follows his nature keeps his original nature in the end.”

Orson Welles, The Lady from Shanghai (1947)


4 thoughts on “Human Nature

  1. So here I am thinking out loud – to myself and to you:

    And so we must experience and ‘train’ ourselves. Enlightenment or attainment has been argued as something that we already possess instead of something that we achieve. Is it not better said that it is an ability we already possess inside of us, but that through training and life experience we achieve it?

    Dan @ Zen Presence

    1. I think I’m saying that, just in a slightly different way. As the quote from the Dalai Lama indicates, buddha-nature is “inherently present within us as a natural attribute.” It’s still necessary to go through certain experiences, which we would go through no matter what, the difference is that with practice and an awareness of transcendental wisdom we also go through a change, also absolutely necessary. Without a change in the way we think, speak and act, there is no possibility of realizing that buddha potential within. Although I sometimes use the words myself, I don’t care that much for “achieve” or “attain” because I think it is more a case of uncovering or realizing something that is already there.

  2. “there are various opinions as to whether human nature is fundamentally good or bad” — I sorta think that it’s neither. It just is. Just like a wolf that kills a deer for food isn’t good or bad, he just is, I think humans just are, too. I think finding peace there is a big step towards transcending.

    1. Neither good nor bad, or both. You’re right, human nature is what it is. However, a wolf may also kill out of fear, or engage in other harmful behavior while just following its nature. Other animals like bears in their search for food may enter into areas mainly inhabited by humans and thereby put themselves and the humans at risk. These animals cannot easily change their behavior, their natures. We can. I also agree with you finding peace is definitely a big step in the right direction.

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