The Lankavatara Sutra is an important Mahayana Buddhist sutra compiled during the 4th Century CE. “Lankavatara” means “Descent into Lanka”. The Buddha allegedly visited the mythical island of Lanka, which is said to correspond with present-day Sri Lanka.
One of the key themes of the Lankavatara Sutra is the doctrine of Tathagata-garbha (“Womb of the Buddha”), which later became synonymous with Buddha-nature. In Chapter Two, “Mahamati’s One Hundred and Eight Questions”, the bodhisattva Mahamati asks the Buddha,
Is not this Tathagata-garbha taught by the Blessed One the same as the ego-substance taught by the philosophers?”
The Buddha replies,
No, Mahamati, my Tathagata-garbha is not the same as the ego taught by the philosophers; for what the Tathagatas [Thus-Gone] teach is the Tathagata-garbha in the sense that it is emptiness, reality-limit, Nirvana, being unborn, unqualified, and devoid of will-effort. The reason why the Tathagatas teach the doctrine pointing to the Tathagata-garbha is to make the ignorant cast aside their fear when they listen to the teaching of egolessness and to have them realize the state of non-discrimination and imagelessness. I also wish, Mahamati, that Bodhisattvas of the present and future would not attach themselves to the idea of an ego imagining it to be a soul.” *
Buddhism teaches that any idea of a self (atman), person (pudgala), or living soul (jiva) as an abiding, self-subsistent entity is a false notion. Mahamati is questioning whether Buddha-nature isn’t also such an entity, and the Buddha states that it is not.
What’s the difference? Buddha-nature is not an entity, a immortal thing like a soul; rather, it is a state of mind, a consciousness, or better yet, a potentiality. Buddha-nature is the seed of awakening, and if nurtured properly the seed can grow and blossom into awakening mind. All people have the potential to awaken and become Buddhas. Sometimes we say that we are Buddhas already, we just haven’t fully tapped into our potential yet, we haven’t actualized our Buddha-nature.
The false perception of self is the great hindrance to the actualization of Buddha-nature. It acts as a screen to conceal our Buddha-nature. As long as we cling to ego or imagining self to be a soul, we cannot see the external world as it truly is, let alone see the potential for awakening within. The underlying point in the above passage is about how clearly you can see your Buddha-nature.
Because as human beings we tend to look for things to cling to, the idea of selflessness can cause genuine fear. The emptiness of self and ego does not mean we lose our personality or identity. But when you remove the screens of self and ego, you realize that the things that make you uniquely ‘you’ exist only of the surface of your reality, and they are not substantial enough to justify discrimination or prejudice. Deep below the surface, inside, we are all one, because we are all Buddhas.
In the verse section appended to the original Lankavatara Sutra, the Buddha makes a number of predictions about the future great accomplishments of his disciples; presumably, because they have taken his teachings to heart. Of one he says, “Katyayana will be the author of a sutra.”
We become the authors of our own sutras when we see our Buddha-nature writ large, clearer and stronger than the small self we feel compelled to cling to, the ego that hides the truth from our eyes. That, however, is just a rough draft. We must then polish it by seeing Buddha-nature in others.
Buddha-nature is our original nature. When we have no idea of ego, we have awakened life, our 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.”
– Shunryu Suzuki
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* Adapted from the D.T. Suzuki translation.