203 – La Naturaleza de Buda: ¿Qué Diablos Es y Cómo la Realizamos? Parte 1
204 – La Naturaleza de Buda: ¿Qué Diablos Es y Cómo la Realizamos? Parte 2

This is my second episode on one of the central teachings of Mahayana Buddhism, that all beings have Buddha-Nature (buddhata). In the first episode I discussed the view of human nature in original Buddhism and why the teaching of Buddha-Nature may have arisen in response to it. Then I talked about the beauty of the Buddha-Nature teaching along with some of its potential pitfalls. In this episode I discuss more about what Buddha-Nature is and is not, how we can benefit from this teaching, and in what sense having Buddha-Nature is a good thing even before you awaken to it.

Read/listen to Buddha-Nature: What the Heck is It and How Do We Realize It? Part 1



Quicklinks to Article Content:
The Nature of Buddha-Nature – “True Self”
Why Is It Difficult to Awaken to Our Buddha-Nature?
The Process of Awakening to Our True Nature
Before You Awaken to It, What Good Is Buddha-Nature?

The Nature of Buddha-Nature – “True Self”

As I mentioned in the last episode, in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra the Buddha says, “Every being has Buddha-Nature. This is the Self. [Note Self is capitalized] Such Self has, from the very beginning, been under cover of innumerable defilements. That is why man cannot see it.” [i] Then, later, the Buddha says that this Buddha-Nature can’t be destroyed, even if the body is destroyed. [ii]

All of this sounds suspiciously like Mahayana Buddhists believe we have a soul – that we have some kind of pure internal essence that gets covered over by defilements but endures nonetheless, and which survives after death. However, this is not the right understanding of Buddha-Nature.

Buddha-Nature is extremely difficult to understand, but not because we’re stupid or because the concept is complicated. Buddha-Nature eludes our comprehension because our minds are inherently dualistic. We figure there’s either a thing called Buddha-Nature, or there’s not a thing called Buddha-Nature. If it exists, it’s a thing, with thing-like qualities. If, as the Buddha says, this thing is eternal and can’t be destroyed and you possess it, you must, in a sense, have a soul. And yet the Buddha also taught that we have no such thing: We are composed of the five skandhas, or aggregates – physical form, sensation, perception, mental formations, and consciousness – and do not exist apart from them. All five skandhas are conditioned and impermanent. We have no eternal essence, no soul, which exists apart from or independently of the skandhas, which will disintegrate after our death.

So how are we supposed to understand Buddha-Nature? In Zen we say our true self-nature is no self-nature. This may sound like the original Buddhist teachings, which implied we were more or less the sum of all of our past actions, good or bad, and had no fundamental nature. However, what Zen is saying is this: Awakening to Buddha-Nature is breaking free from the delusion that you are your small self.

Your “small” self (as opposed to your true self, or Self-with-a-capital-S) includes everything you can identify as self or belonging to self: Your body, mind, consciousness, volition, thoughts, desires, habits, possessions, relationships, strengths, weaknesses, memories… the list goes on and on. Naturally, we think of all of this stuff as composing or sustaining the self. We figure either we are nothing other than the sum of all this stuff and therefore when it changes or passes away, our self does too, or all of this stuff belongs to or is experienced by some kind of enduring, inherent self-essence.

Both of these views of self, as well as any other views you could dream up, are delusions. They are all based on the presupposition that self-with-a-small-s is the be-all and end-all of our existence, whether it can be said to be an enduring essence or not. In other words, any kind of self-view is still self-obsessed.

In reality, our self-with-a-small-s is like a cloud – a very real manifestation, but without any hard boundaries, fixed form, or graspable core. Buddha-Nature is the fact that this isn’t a problem in the slightest. We don’t need an enduring self-nature, and when we finally let go of our attachment to the idea, we taste what it’s like to be fully alive.

What is left when we let go of our idea of an inherent, independent, enduring self-nature? Everything! We imagine it will be a void, because we assume the self-with-a-small-s to be the fundamental building block of life. But what we find when we awaken is the only thing that’s missing is delusion of self that constrained and distorted our experience.

Without the delusion of small self, Buddha-Nature manifests. When we realize we are not separate from anything or anyone else, defensiveness drops away and compassion naturally arises. When we realize there is no fixed self to protect, greed subsides and gratitude takes its place. When we recognize the limitations of the small self are as ephemeral as a cloud and do not obstruct our true nature, we experience redemption at last.

Although all words and concepts encourage dualistic thinking, it’s probably best to think of Buddha-Nature as a quality shared by all of us, rather than a thing. Your Buddha-Nature is no different than mine. They are exactly the same. And I don’t possess a little parcel of Buddha-Nature, while you look after your little parcel. There is no division of Buddha-Nature. It’s what we are. However, it’s dualistic to take this one step further and start imagining there’s some big Buddha-Nature essence out there, waiting for us to wake up to it or merge with it… this once again makes it into a thing, even if we imagine that thing to be infinitely big and undivided.

In what sense is Buddha-Nature our “True Self”? Why do we even bring the word “self” into it, when it comes with so much baggage? This is a tricky question to answer. As soon as we say “self” we start thinking dualistically, because by definition a self is separate from all other selves and things. It’s a discreet and definable entity. That’s the thing – we are selves, as long as we’re alive. We manifest Buddha-Nature with and through the self-with-a-small-s. If there was no self in the small sense, there would be no Buddha-Nature. Buddha-Nature is a quality of beings. No beings, no Buddhas. By saying our True Self is Buddha-Nature, we’re saying this small self is best used as a way to manifest Buddha-Nature instead of dwelling on selfish concerns.

Why Is It Difficult to Awaken to Our Buddha-Nature?

If we have Buddha-Nature, why do we still suffer and do harmful things? Why is it so easy to dwell on selfish concerns? I guess this can be answered with the same stories and analogies as those explaining why we have to awaken to Buddha-Nature or it doesn’t do us much good: You can imagine the man wandering in supposed poverty, ignorant of the jewel in his coat lining, doing desperate and selfish things in his ignorance. However, rather than imply Buddha-Nature is thing you possess and need to find, it might be more helpful to use a parable in which someone suffers by carrying around a tremendous burden until they realize they can put it down. We don’t wake up to our Buddha-Nature as much as we wake up to our delusion about self, and then find ourselves in harmony with Buddha-Nature.

Why is it so hard to realize one’s Buddha-Nature? Well, for one thing, natural selection has wired into us a strong attachment to a self-centered narrative, as I discussed in my podcast episode reviewing Robert Wright’s book Why Buddhism is True. It’s hard to see self-with-a-small-s as a delusion. It’s just the way we are. As Wright puts it so well, natural selection cared only that our ancestors survived and reproduced, not that they were happy or spiritually liberated. The small-self delusion was and is adaptive; fortunately we have the capacity to make use of it at the same time that we transcend it, but it isn’t easy.

Another reason it’s difficult to realize one’s Buddha-Nature is because of our sense of personal inadequacy. Everyone feels inadequate to at least some degree, and, frankly, we should. Our self-with-a-small-s is always inadequate when it comes to responding to the world with wisdom, generosity, skillfulness, and compassion. We are painfully aware of the sense in which we are definitely not Buddhas or saints. Because we can’t imagine ourselves beyond our self-with-a-small-s, we can’t imagine we have Buddha-Nature.

There’s a beautiful translation of the Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo, or the Ten Phrase Life Prolonging Kannon Sutra, which says “Our True Nature is Eternal, Joyous, Selfless and Pure.” [iii] When I first heard this phrase, I was intrigued and befuddled. I certainly wanted my true nature to be eternal, joyous, selfless and pure. What could be better? That promise answered my deepest, most vulnerable longing – to be okay, to be acceptable, to be worthy of joy, to belong, to be part of something bigger that is beautiful and fundamentally good. At the same time, those adjectives didn’t fit my sense of myself at all. What seemed more accurate were the adjectives “bounded, stressed, self-absorbed and fatally flawed.”

It’s challenging to recognize our limited sense of ourselves as a mental phenomenon. It seems like the truest thing we know. Even if it causes us distress, we cling to it as reality. We can’t imagine what would happen to us if we let go. I used to fear I would blink out of existence, even if my rational mind knew that couldn’t happen. At the very least, I figured, I might go crazy or lose the ability to function.

Fortunately, as long as we have healthy sense of self (as most of us do), we are not going to cease to exist or go crazy if we let go of our limited sense of self. For one thing, that limited sense comes back quickly enough after we’ve had a moment or two of freedom and clarity. Which is good, because we do need it to function. But we don’t need to believe our small self has inherent, enduring, independent reality in order to function. We can see it for what it is – a mental phenomenon – and taste our deeper nature, which is not dependent on any aspect of the self-with-a-small-s.

The Process of Awakening to Our True Nature

How do we go about seeing through the delusion of limited self and awakening to our Buddha-Nature? If there was an easy, straightforward answer to this, Buddhism could become a multi-million-dollar industry and we would have world peace. Alas, the path to awakening is different for every person.

We have to engage the teaching of Buddha-Nature as best we can, wrestling with it and beating our heads against various walls until, finally, something clicks and we get it. It generally doesn’t work to strive too hard – working furiously to uncover our Buddha-Nature come hell or high water. Such striving usually creates more duality in our minds. But it also doesn’t work to forget about Buddha-Nature, passively letting your life unfold, figuring that maybe someday you’ll happen to reach into your pocket and put your hand on your jewel. Our delusion of small self rarely dissolves on its own.

The Zen text “The Precious Mirror Samadhi” states, “Move and you are trapped; miss and you fall into doubt and vacillation. Turning away and touching are both wrong, for it is like massive fire.” In practice, we simply stay in the proximity of the intriguing, obscure, frustrating and inspiring teaching of Buddha-Nature. We keep our eyes on it, asking, What is this? What does this mean to me? We allow our longing to motivate our efforts, and diligently extricate ourselves from the inevitable conceptual traps we fall into, over and over.

In the end, awakening to our Buddha-Nature requires an effort, but it is unlike our usual kind of effort. Zen master Keizan, in Zazen-Yojinki (Points to Keep in Mind While Practicing Zazen), says:

“Now, zazen is entering directly into the ocean of buddha-nature and manifesting the body of the Buddha. The pure and clear mind is actualized in the present moment; the original light shines everywhere.”[iv]

The imagery of entering an ocean reminds us that the effort that’s required is not about breaking into something, or ascending to some transcendent realm, or remaking ourselves. It’s about taking this very body and entrusting it to what is always waiting – a reality that supports us, a boundless reality that allows us to recognize the folly of clinging to a limited self-view.

Do you feel this sometimes? Whether on the cushion or off? When you drop the filter of self-concern, when you are fully alive and present in this moment, do you get at least an intuition about this ocean of Buddha-Nature? If you keep seeking it wholeheartedly, you can’t fail to find it. All that’s required is that you don’t give up out of impatience or skepticism, or get distracted by the myriad things in the world.

Before You Awaken to It, What Good Is Buddha-Nature?

Is Buddha-Nature any good to us before we awaken to it? The analogies about lost gold and jewels certainly make it sound like before awakening, before we discover our own Buddha-Nature, we might as well not even have it. Sure, it might be encouraging to know our jewel isn’t buried in some far-away cave, but we quickly discover that finding the jewel sewn into the lining of our cloak is not as easy as it sounds.

While there’s a difference between before awakening and after, Buddha-Nature is what causes us to seek in the first place. When we awaken to it, we recognize in what ways it has been intimate with us, and in what ways it has shaped and informed us, all along. Before we awaken to it ourselves, we have to rely on whatever intuition we have, and on faith, but the idea is for this faith to be provisional. Eventually we can experience it for ourselves.

This means that all the way along our path, Buddha-Nature is a good thing. It is who we really are even before we awaken to it, going beyond a mere potential within each human being to attain spiritual liberation.

Zen master Dogen has a whole fascicle on Buddha-Nature, Bussho, which I could (and should) spend multiple Dharma Talks on. Dogen is a master at using words to befuddle and challenge our discriminating minds. I think of him as an impressionist painter with words, as if he’s trying to communicate something important without letting you off the hook by creating an image of something you can easily recognize. His words resonate inexplicably, arousing our intuition that what he says points toward the truth even though we can’t get our minds around anything. The follow short passage includes excerpts from a translation of Bussho by Kaz Tanahashi. Note that some words and phrases are italicized. I will read them with emphasis, trying to make that clear, but the italicized phrases in this selection are “all are buddha nature” and “all depend on it. Tanahashi italicizes words Dogen wrote using Chinese characters instead of in the colloquial Japanese of his time, suggesting he wanted to emphasize them in much the same way as when we use italic font for something:

SHAKYAMUNI BUDDHA SAID, “Living beings all are buddha nature. The Tathagata is continuously abiding and not subject to change.”

Know that the are of all are buddha nature is beyond are and are not. All are are the buddha words, the buddha tongue. They are the eyeball of buddha ancestors and the nostrils of patched-robed monks. The words all are are not limited to embryonic beings, original beings, inconceivable beings, or any other kind of beings. Furthermore, they do not mean causal beings or imaginary beings. All are are free from mind, object, essence, or aspects…

Venerable Ashvaghosha, the Twelfth Ancestor, explained the ocean of buddha nature to Kapimala, the Thirteenth Ancestor, to be: “Mountains, rivers, and the great earth—all depend on it. Various samadhis and the six miraculous powers emerge from it…”

Thus, mountains, rivers, and the great earth are all the ocean of buddha nature. All depend on it means that at the very moment when they depend on it, they are mountains, rivers, and the great earth. Know that the form of the ocean of buddha nature is like this. It is not concerned with inside, outside, or in between…”[v]

Much time could be spend analyzing each phrase of Dogen’s Bussho, and I might do that at some point. Now I will just let the passage speak for itself.

Any time we try to describe something like Buddha-Nature, we risk concretizing the concept, limiting it, thinking dualistically. But when I contemplate it, when I try to describe it, sometimes I like to think of it as life itself – the tendency of matter from the Big Bang to organize itself into particles, and particles to form atoms, and atoms molecules and then space dust and suns and planets. The tendency of molecules in the earth’s oceans to bind together and eventually become self-replicating cells, for life forms to evolve, for consciousness to evolve. For the tendency of sentient beings to contemplate spiritual matters, to employ conscious choice, and to uncover and share and practice the Dharma. I think of Buddha-Nature as being reflected in everything – in interdependence, and in the fact that we can’t harm other beings without also harming ourselves. In the fact that living selflessly is infinitely preferable to living selfishly.

However, it’s important to remember that any way we describe Buddha-Nature is not it. This is not because our description is wrong and some other description or analogy would be right. Any way we conceive of Buddha-Nature is wrong because It is what we are, and this can never be captured in words or images.



[i] The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Translated into English by Kosho Yamamoto, 1973, from Dharmakshema’s Chinese version. (Taisho Tripitaka Vol. 12, No. 374) Edited, revised and copyright by Dr. Tony Page, 2007. http://lirs.ru/do/Mahaparinirvana_Sutra,Yamamoto,Page,2007.pdf Chapter Twelve.

[ii] Ibid, Chapter 12, page 103.

[iii] Excerpted from The Zen Master Hakuin, translated by Philip B. Yampolsky, reprinted with permission from Columbia University press. https://tricycle.org/magazine/the-kannon-sutra/

[iv] https://terebess.hu/zen/denko-roku.html#z

[v] Dogen, Zen Master. Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s <i>Shobo Genzo</i> . Shambhala. Kindle Edition.


203 – La Naturaleza de Buda: ¿Qué Diablos Es y Cómo la Realizamos? Parte 1
204 – La Naturaleza de Buda: ¿Qué Diablos Es y Cómo la Realizamos? Parte 2