235 – One Reality, Many Descriptions Part 2: Suchness or Thusness
240 – One Reality, Many Descriptions Part 4: Buddha-Nature 2

This is part three of my series called “One Reality, Many Descriptions.” While experiences of Emptiness and Suchness (or Thusness) may be liberating and transformative, we may be left with the question of how our limited, embodied existence relates to these profound truths. Our natural inclination toward self-preservation, our appetites and shortcomings, our ingrained habits, our complacency – these things can seem at odds with the greater Reality we have started to perceive. The teaching of Buddha-Nature points to the marvelous and redemptive fact that we too – just as we are – are Thus: Luminous and miraculous in and of ourselves.

Read/listen to Part 2 or Part 4



Quicklinks to Article Content:
Brief Recap for Context
The Teaching of Buddha-Nature
The Joy of Buddha-Nature
Buddha-Nature as Redemption


Brief Recap for Context

This is part three of my One Reality, Many Descriptions series. In Episode 229 on Emptiness and Episode 235 on Suchness, I argued that Buddhism is primarily about awakening to Reality-with-a-Capital-R. Such awakening liberates us from suffering and allows us to live a more compassionate and skillful life. It is very difficult to perceive Reality because of the thick filter of self-concern we have created over the course of our lives. Every aspect of our practice aims to decrease and dissolve that filter.

To inspire our practice and give us a sense of what to look for, our Dharma ancestors have created various ways to describe Reality-with-a-Capital-R. As I have discussed at length in the previous episodes, there is only one Reality, but there are many ways to illuminate it. Reality is real life and has infinitely many dimensions. We couldn’t fully communicate our experience of a sunset to someone who wasn’t there even if we videotaped it, wrote a poem about it, and mathematically described the sun’s trajectory relative to the earth. Similarly, Buddhist teachings point toward Reality but never claim to capture any feature of it in a final way, let alone convey the entirety of it.

Still, descriptions and teachings do communicate something to us. They shape our journey, remind us of what we have not yet experienced for ourselves, and help us know whether we’re on the right track. When we contemplate Buddhist descriptions of the nature of Reality-with-a-Capital-R, it’s helpful to know why a small handful of descriptions have come to be valued more than all others.

Each of the five teachings I am covering in this series – Emptiness, Suchness, Buddha-Nature, Mind-with-a-Capital-M, and the Two Truths – convey a particular aspect of Reality it is incredibly important to awaken to. This isn’t an exhaustive list of such teachings, of course, but these five are sufficiently different from one another to be very complementary. It is like humanity treasuring a small, highly curated collection of portrayals of an unusually beautiful sunset – a splendid oil painting that captured the colors, a poem that captured the profound emotional experience, a piece of music that conveyed the drama, and a dance that dissolved the distinction between human being and solar body.

To briefly review, then,

Sunyata, or Emptiness, points to the falseness of the self-nature we project onto all phenomena, including ourselves. All things and beings share the quality of Sunyata, or being empty of self-nature. Emptiness does not mean empty of meaning or worth, but free from the limitation of an autonomous, independent, inherent, enduring self-essence. Everything and every being exists in vibrant freedom, in and of itself, while at the same time each thing is fundamentally boundaryless and therefore not separate from the rest of Reality.

Tathata, Suchness or Thusness, points to the luminous, miraculous quality of all things in and of themselves, which we perceive once we awaken to Emptiness.

Today I will be discussing Buddhata, or Buddha-Nature, which celebrates the existence of all beings and things, without which there would be no awakening. In this episode, part 1, I’ll discuss the joy and redemptive power of Buddha-Nature. In part 2 I’ll talk about more qualities of Buddha-Nature, and things to remember as we practice with this teaching.

In future installments of this series, I’ll talk about:

Mind-with-a-capital-M (not the discriminating mind) which points to the fact that we are not separate from anything in the universe, and that it’s possible to partake actively in a much more expansive Reality than we usually do.

The “Two Truths” Teaching – Absolute (Li in Chinese), paired with the Relative (Ri), which points to different ways we interact with Reality, and the importance of expanding our experience beyond the Relative.


The Teaching of Buddha-Nature

As I discussed in Episode 203 – Buddha-Nature: What the Heck is It and How Do We Realize It?, there was no concept like Buddha-Nature in early Buddhism. An individual’s nature was seen as being the result of countless previous causes and conditions, shaped primarily by his or her own choices in this life or in previous lives. This meant that someone’s future could be shaped by the choices they made now. If you chose the path of practice – the Noble Eightfold Path, including meditation and the renunciation of that which leads to suffering – then you would progress toward eventual liberation.

When the Mahayana way of thinking arose a few hundred years after the Buddha’s death, it proposed a different view of human nature. It proposed that our true nature is “eternal, joyous, selfless, and pure.”[i] The problem, according to the Mahayanists, is that our true nature has become obscured by self-concern and related delusions. The implications of this for Buddhist practice are profound; rather than having to work lifetimes to recondition ourselves into saints before attaining liberation from suffering, we simply need to awaken to our true nature. We already have everything we need. Of course, such awakening turns out to be no easy matter.

The Shambala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen defines Buddha-Nature (buddhata in Sanskrit) as follows:

…according to the Mahayana view, the true, immutable, and eternal nature of all beings. Since all beings possess buddha-nature, it is possible for them to attain enlightenment and become a buddha, regardless of what level of existence they occupy.


The interpretation of the essence of buddha-nature varies from school to school; there is controversy over whether all beings and also inanimate entities actually possess buddha-nature.[ii]

In one of the earliest Mahayana texts on Buddha-Nature, the Mahaparinirvana Sutra,[iii] the Buddha says Tathagatagarbha (Buddha-Womb, Buddha-Embryo, or Buddha-Nature) can never be cut or destroyed. He says every being has Buddha-Nature, and calls it the Self-with-a-capital-S. When one sees Buddha-Nature, one attains unsurpassed enlightenment, but it is difficult to see because “from the very beginning [it has] been under cover of innumerable defilements.”[iv]

As I discussed in Episode 203, the teaching of Buddha-Nature has been difficult to grasp ever since it arose. Central to debates about what it means is the fact that it seems to contradict the Buddha’s most fundamental teachings – that all things are impermanent (anicca) and nothing can be identified as self (anatta; see Episode 14 – Buddha’s Teachings Part 1: The Three Marks and the Teaching of Not-Self). Buddha-Nature does not contradict impermanence and not-self but explaining that is very tricky. Any discussion of this teaching, as I will demonstrate later, requires as much talk about what it doesn’t mean as about what it does. It is very easy to concretize or deify Buddha-Nature, and therefore create an obstacle in our practice; in some ways I can’t fault the non-Mahayana traditions for rejecting the concept altogether.

For this discussion, I’m going to focus on the Zen take on Buddha-Nature. It has its origin in the original Mahayana idea, but it is seen through the lens of Zen radical non-dualism. This, I think, helps a little when it comes to avoiding the trap of conceptualizing Buddha-Nature in a dualistic way (that is, as something separate from you, to be searched for and attained, or something you already possess and therefore you don’t have to worry about practicing). The Japanese Buddhist term for Buddha-Nature is “Bussho.” The Shambala Dictionary defines Bussho this way:

…a concrete expression for the substrate of perfection and completeness immanent in sentient beings as well as things. According to the Zen teaching, every person (like every other sentient being or thing) has or, better, is buddha-nature, without in general, however, being aware of it or living this awareness as one awakened to his true nature (a buddha) does.[v]


The Joy of Buddha-Nature

If we think of the Buddha-Nature teaching as being yet another way to describe Reality-with-a-capital-R, what is it getting at? What aspect of Reality is it calling our attention to? What does it promise us is true?

Here is a beautiful Zen description of Buddha-Nature for start off our exploration. It’s by Huang Po, a ninth-century Chinese Chan master:

Our original Buddha-Nature is, in highest truth, devoid of any atom of objectivity. It is void, omnipresent, silent, pure; it is glorious and mysterious peaceful joy—and that is all. Enter deeply into it by awaking to it yourself. That which is before you is it, in all its fullness, utterly complete. There is naught beside. Even if you go through all the stages of a Bodhisattva’s progress towards Buddhahood, one by one; when at last, in a single flash, you attain to full realization, you will only be realizing the Buddha-Nature which has been with you all the time; and by all the foregoing stages you will have added to it nothing at all. You will come to look upon those aeons of work and achievement as no better than unreal actions performed in a dream… It is pure Mind, which is the source of everything and which, whether appearing as sentient beings or as Buddhas, as the rivers and mountains of the world which has form, as that which is formless, or as penetrating the whole universe, is absolutely without distinctions, there being no such entities as selfness and otherness.[vi]

Part of the Reality we want to wake up to is “glorious and mysterious peaceful joy.” What would bring you true, complete, unconditional, pervasive, lasting spiritual joy?

Let’s say you already have a fair amount of familiarity with the first aspect of Reality, Emptiness. This can be incredibly liberating. As the Heart Sutra says, the perfection of wisdom – truly understanding Emptiness – frees us from hindrance, fear, and suffering. As a practitioner, you recognize that you are not what you think you are. You recognize that your mental map of the world is a creation of your own mind – a creation that can, at times, be useful, but can sometimes be dreadfully inaccurate – and it is not Reality itself. The world as we imagine it is no longer so compelling. Amazing!

Then let’s say you have developed an appreciation for Suchness, or Thusness. When you are able to perceive things without the filter of your mental map – when you are able to experience things non-dualistically, without constantly relating them to self – you see things are luminous and precious in and of themselves. Even when you get caught up in a self-centered dream again, you retain an awareness that life is nothing short of miraculous.

And yet… there remains the conundrum of self. Despite all you have realized, the karmic self persists. It seems incapable of relinquishing self-concern, and lapses easily into self-referential thinking, grasping, anger, stinginess, and comparison. It’s like the small self cares nothing about that things are Empty or Thus except that it can occasionally indulge in profound or pleasant spiritual contemplation when it feels like it. Despite your aspirations, you find yourself luxuriating in a sense of superiority, or obsessed with lust, or chasing distractions. At the very least, your meditation is full of thinking, and you find it challenging to be truly compassionate toward others. At times there can feel like there is a very large gap between what you know to be true and your manifestation in daily life.

Buddha-Nature encourages you to realize you are also Thus. Just as – at times – you can see the world around you as luminous, precious, and miraculous, you can recognize your embodied, karmic self is luminous, precious, and miraculous, just as it is. It is not fundamentally different from, or separate from, Reality-with-a-Capital-R, which is one singular, seamless reality. There is no inherently existing, independent, enduring self-nature who is to blame for your inadequacies or who can take credit for your practice. Nonetheless, you are alive. Nonetheless, you have chosen to practice. How incredible! What a gift to be given a front-row seat to the unfolding of your life.


Buddha-Nature as Redemption

Hakuun Yasutani Roshi was a celebrated Japanese priest instrumental in bringing Buddhism to the West in the 20th century. He said, “In Buddhism, ‘Buddha-nature’ is an intimate expression and ‘Dharma-nature’ an impersonal one. But whether we say Buddha- or Dharma-nature, the substance is the same.”[vii] What is the importance of having an intimate, personal expression of the Truth? What does the person, or intimacy, have to do with it, seeing as we’re empty of any inherent self-nature?

The teaching of Buddha-Nature points to the fact that Buddhas are human beings. The Dharma may be profound and infinite, but Buddhas are individual beings who have awakened to it. That is the value of Buddhism. If it was nothing more than a set of teachings about the transcendent nature of Reality, it would simply be brain candy for philosophers and mystics. Instead, Buddhism is all about the remarkable confluence of the individual – the fundamental unit of life – and the One. It includes countless practices and instructions for experiencing the Truth that extends far beyond the confines of our body, while remaining within it. It celebrates the apparent paradox and delicious tension between individual limitations and transcendence of the individual.

It is part of our nature as human beings to wonder where we fit into everything. It also seems to be part of our nature to carry with a us heavy sense of personal inadequacy, rejection, and/or alienation. Even if we do not think of ourselves as suffering from low self-esteem, we usually feel some regret, sadness, or longing related to the way we have lived, or are living, our lives. Perhaps we’ve even reached a deep acceptance of our limitations, but few of us would claim to be made of the same stuff as a Buddha. The wisdom, ease, and selfless generosity of a Buddha seem far beyond us.

Our limited view of ourselves presents an obstacle in our practice, and does not reflect Reality-with-a-Capital-R. This situation is reflected in a parable from the Lotus Sutra, one of the earliest Mahayana Sutras (compiled somewhere between the first century BCE and 150 CE). In the story of the Lost Son, a young man leaves home at an early age. He falls on hard times and lives a rough life. In the meantime, his father becomes rich and successful but longs for the return of his only son and heir.

After many years, the son returns home but does not recognize it as home. When his father joyfully sends men out to greet him and bring him to the father’s household, the son reacts in fear. Thinking the men have come to arrest him, he runs away. Hoping to get closer to his son, the father has him hired at a menial job – the most the son can accept at that point. Over the course of years, the father gradually promotes the son. They start working together directly and the son builds confidence in himself. Eventually, the father is able to publicly acknowledge his son, and the son is able to accept his inheritance. [viii]

The inheritance in this parable is our Buddha-Nature, and the son’s apprehensiveness is our own sense of inadequacy, or our own limited self-view. We can’t imagine ourselves to be Thus – luminous, empty, complete. Who, me? Little old me? Maybe someone else, not me. Or maybe we think it should be me, I’m worth it, so where’s my inheritance? (But deep inside we fear we’re going to be cut out of the reward.)

The many years the father in the parable spent building his son’s confidence is practice. Practice is necessary even though, as Huang Po says, “Even if you go through all the stages of a Bodhisattva’s progress towards Buddhahood, one by one; when at last, in a single flash, you attain to full realization, you will only be realizing the Buddha-Nature which has been with you all the time; and by all the foregoing stages you will have added to it nothing at all.” [ix] The son could have claimed his inheritance the moment he returned from his wandering. Unfortunately, it is not so easy. Still, don’t you find it encouraging that even though we have to work hard to break out of our limited self-view, as Huang Po says, in the end we realize our “aeons of work and achievement [are] as no better than unreal actions performed in a dream”?

That’s it for this episode. In Part 4 (Part 2 of Buddha-Nature) I’ll talk about Buddha-Nature as trust, or faith, and offer the requisite discussions of what Buddha-Nature is not, and how it is necessary for us to awaken to our own Buddha-Nature in order to partake of its joy, redemption, and faith.

Read/listen to Part 2 or Part 4


[i] Enmei Jukku Kannon Gyo, or the Ten Phrase Life Prolonging Kannon Sutra, which says “Our True Nature is Eternal, Joyous, Selfless and Pure.” 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/

[ii] Fischer-Schreiber, Ingrid, Franz-Karl Ehrhard and Michael S. Diener (Michael H. Kohn, Translator). A Concise Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen. Boston: Shambala Publications, 2010. (Original copyright 1991.)

[iii] 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.

[iv] Ibid

[v] Fischer-Schreiber, Ingrid, Franz-Karl Ehrhard and Michael S. Diener (Michael H. Kohn, Translator). A Concise Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen. Boston: Shambala Publications, 2010. (Original copyright 1991.)

[vi] Yun, Huang Po His. The Zen Teachings of Huang Po: On The Transmission Of Mind (pp. 35-36). Hauraki Publishing. Kindle Edition.

[vii] Kapleau, Philip. The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment. New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1965, 1989.

[viii] Reeves, Gene (translator). The Lotus Sutra: A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2008.

[ix] Yun, Huang Po His. The Zen Teachings of Huang Po: On The Transmission Of Mind (pp. 35-36). Hauraki Publishing. Kindle Edition.


235 – One Reality, Many Descriptions Part 2: Suchness or Thusness
240 – One Reality, Many Descriptions Part 4: Buddha-Nature 2