Understanding Buddha-nature

In Japanese Buddhism one of the terms used to convey the concept of enlightenment is jobutsu, which means “to become a Buddha” or “to uncover one’s Buddha-nature.” Jo means “to open” or “uncovering” and butsu means Buddha. In a word, Jobutsu sums up Buddha-nature. It means uncovering one’s potential. This is why we say that all people inherently posses Buddha-nature, because all people have potential or the capacity to realize wisdom and overcome sufferings.

Although the concept of Buddha-nature developed from Indian Mahayana thought, there is no exact Sanskrit term for it. The term “Buddha-nature” or fo xing originated in Chinese Buddhism. The Sanskrit term that most closely matches Buddha-nature is buddha-dhatu, which is regarded as both the nature (dhatu/dharmata) and the cause (dhatu/hetu) of Buddhahood.

The history of Buddha-nature is long and complicated, but I believe I can summarize its development, insofar as I understand the concept, with the following quotes. First, from Hui-ssu of the T’ien-t’ai school:

The Mind is the same as the Mind of Pure Self, Nature, True Thusness, Dharma-body, Tathagata-Womb, Dharma-realm, and Dharma-nature.”

Hui-ssu’s student, T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i later elaborated:

If one contemplates the Mind to be Buddha Nature and practices the Eightfold Noble Path, then one is capable of [attaining enlightenment]. With the understanding that all dharmas (things) originate from the Mind, [then] the Mind is the Buddha Nature.”

So, the expression “Buddha-nature” embraces many different Buddhist concepts and unifies them into a single term, which is identified with the mind. This understanding was not unique to the T’ien-t’ai tradition, for instance Ma-Tsu of the Ch’an school and Dogen of the Zen school, among others, held that “Mind is Buddha.”

Now, what is a Buddha? For that, I’ll borrow the Dalai Lama’s description from Part 3 of my transcript of his commentary on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland: “a state that is said to be where all the positive aspects of our psyche or nature have been effective.” Buddha is a state of mind or a condition of life, attained when human beings overcome the negative aspects of psyche and human nature, or we could say when the positive aspects become more powerful than the negative ones.

Because Buddha-nature is the potential we possess to elevate our condition of life, it acts as a cause for Buddhahood. Everything arises from causes. Suffering has a cause. That’s one of the Buddha’s first teachings. The primary cause for suffering is ignorance. If suffering has a cause, then whatever is the opposite of suffering must also be caused, and this opposite thing is jobutsu-tokudatsu, “to become a buddha and obtain liberation” from suffering, which is also called nirvana. It’s cause is Buddha-nature, or you could call it nirvana-nature. The name is not important.

Both suffering and nirvana are innate within living beings. The potential for suffering is always present. Likewise, the potential to overcome suffering is also present, and it is in this way I feel Buddha-nature is best understood: as potential. We have the potential to experience wisdom and happiness, just as we have the potential to experience suffering. The concept of Buddha-nature is empowering, because it reminds us that we don’t have to remain in a state of ignorance and delusion, that we have the capacity, the ability to overcome our sufferings.

It’s easy to get stuck on the extravagant language often used in Buddhist literature. If we take some of the elaborate and fantastical descriptions of Buddha-nature literally, we might get the idea that it’s an entity or some sort of mystical force, or that becoming a Buddha entails the acquisition of something new, something outside of our lives. That would be a mistaken impression. All we are talking about is uncovering our human potential. We have to be able to see beyond the poetry and mythology, or, if you will, read between the lines. Then, when we can view subjects such as Buddha-nature through a more prosaic lens, they make perfect sense.

Of course, this is just my take on things. But I’m not the only one with this view of Buddha-nature. Thich Nhat Hanh says,

When he woke up at the foot of the Bodhi Tree, the Buddha Shakyamuni said, “How strange—all beings possess in themselves the capacity to understand, the capacity to love, the capacity to be free. Everyone has that capacity, but everyone allows himself or herself to be carried away on the ocean of suffering. How strange.” This is what the Buddha declared at the moment of his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. He noticed that what we are looking for, day and night, is already there within oneself. What is beautiful, what is true, what is good, is already there in oneself. We can call it the Buddha-nature, the Buddhahood, the awakened nature, the true freedom, which is the foundation for all peace and happiness. This wonderful thing is in us, and a real teacher is someone who can help you to touch that thing in yourself, who helps give birth, to bring about the real teacher which already exists in yourself.

Here too, we should avoid a literal interpetation. No one actually knows what the Buddha said when he sat beneath the Bodhi tree. Thich Nhat Hanh is speaking metaphorically. Likewise, when we talk about “the true freedom” this does not mean one can ever escape suffering. Even buddhas experience suffering, because the potential for suffering is innate, just like the capacity for Buddhahood. Suffering does not magically disappear when you turn on the enlightenment switch. Yet we can experience freedom from the oppressive effects of suffering. We can take away the power suffering has to dominate our lives. That’s what “true freedom” means to me.

I should also mention that in the T’ien-t’ai traditon, Buddha-nature, Buddha, and Buddhahood, being three designations for the same state of mind, is “all-embracing” in that there is no duality, or discrimination in the ultimate sense. They “embrace” the negative aspects as well as the positive things. For example, a Buddha can also posses an “evil nature.”

In Thursday’s post, I mentioned that many people have some difficulty with Buddha-nature. To some, it is nothing more than another version of the God concept. I can understand to some extent how people could have that impression, but I think nothing could be further from the truth.

God has nothing to do with it. The only purpose the idea of God has in any discussion of Buddhist philosophy is to provide a contrast, which seems to be necessary because we (those of us in the West) have been indoctrinated with this concept and it is not easily dispelled. The ancient Buddhist philosophers, including the Buddha himself, had never heard of the God of Abraham or Jehovah, and it is very clear that the early Buddhists rejected the atman and absolute Brahman of the Upanishads. As the Theravada scholar Nyanaponika Thera, a Westerner, in his essay “Buddhism and the God-idea”, notes,

From a study of the discourses of the Buddha preserved in the Pali canon, it will be seen that the idea of a personal deity, a creator god conceived to be eternal and omnipotent, is incompatible with the Buddha’s teachings. On the other hand, conceptions of an impersonal godhead of any description, such as world-soul, etc., are excluded by the Buddha’s teachings on Anatta, non-self or unsubstantiality.”

Along these lines, I am also inclined to reject the idea of “Protestant Buddhism” when it is defined as the widespread pollution of Buddhism by Judeo-Christian ideas. While there is no question that the early Westerns scholars and translators used Christian terms – such as “sin” which technically would have no place in Buddhism since it refers to a transgression against God – the notion that the infusion of Christianity into Buddhism is so pervasive that it has changed or perverted the dharma is, I think, rather dubious. But that’s another subject for another time.

The message today is simply that understanding Buddha-nature means to know that Buddhahood or enlightenment is our capacity to achieve our highest potential, and it is a potential already inherent in life. By observing the mind, we can perceive this potential and realize it, thereby awakening our Buddha-nature.


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