223 – Integrando Introspecciones
224 – Naturaleza humana: ¿Por qué no nacemos iluminados?

Why aren’t we just all born enlightened and avoid suffering? Or, we could ask: Why are human beings the way they are? Why did they evolve to cause so much suffering for themselves and others? If we all have Buddha-Nature, why isn’t that manifest from the beginning, and why does it get obscured so completely? Why is practice so hard if, as the teachings say, we have everything we need from the beginning?



Quicklinks to Content:
Questions Which Do Not Tend to Edification
But… Intellectual Understanding Can Be Helpful Too
Human Nature and I, Me and My-Making
But Why Is Human Nature Thus?
Human Nature, Buddha-Nature, and the Nature of Practice


Recently, someone sent me a Dharma question: Why aren’t we just all born enlightened and avoid suffering? I think this basic question can also take other forms: Why are human beings the way they are? Why did they evolve to cause so much suffering for themselves and others? If we all have Buddha-Nature, why isn’t that manifest from the beginning, and why does it get obscured so completely? Why is practice so hard if, as the teachings say, we have everything we need from the beginning?

I think this is one of those questions (in whatever form) that occurs to all of us, whether or not it rises to consciousness. Sometimes, particularly when we experience great suffering or witness terrible acts of greed, hate, and delusion in the world, the question of human nature can be quite troubling.


Questions Which Do Not Tend to Edification

Before I address this question, I want to take a little digression and point out that the question of why human beings are deluded and suffer even though they are endowed with Buddha-Nature is a question which, the Buddha would say, “does not tend to edification.” That is, seeking its answer does not lead to progress on the spiritual path, does not bring us closer to liberation. (To edify means “to instruct or benefit, especially morally or spiritually; uplift.”[i]) Such a question may be fascinating, and we could spend many days or years contemplating it, but the answer is not necessary to our practice – and our time for practice is limited, as our life is very short.

The Buddha offers a clear teaching on questions which do not tend to edification in the Cūḷa Māluṅkyovāda Sutta, or The Shorter Exhortation to Māluṅkya. (I discussed this Sutta in Episode 100 – Twelve Pali Canon Suttas Every Buddhist Should Know – Part 2. I tend to think of this as the “Questions Which Tend Not to Edification” sutta, which is the name given to it in an 1896 translation by Henry Clarke Warren.[v])  This translation is by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (the “Blessed One” is the Buddha; additions in italics and brackets are mine):

I have heard that on one occasion the Blessed One was staying near Sāvatthī in Jeta’s Grove, Anāthapiṇḍika’s monastery. Then, as Ven. Māluṅkyaputta was alone in seclusion, this line of thinking arose in his awareness: “These positions that are undisclosed, set aside, discarded by the Blessed One—‘The cosmos is eternal,’ ‘The cosmos is not eternal,’ ‘The cosmos is finite,’ ‘The cosmos is infinite,’ ‘The soul & the body are the same,’ ‘The soul is one thing and the body another,’ ‘After death a Tathāgata exists,’ ‘After death a Tathāgata does not exist,’ ‘After death a Tathāgata both exists & does not exist,’ ‘After death a Tathāgata neither exists nor does not exist’—I don’t approve, I don’t accept that the Blessed One has not disclosed them to me. I’ll go ask the Blessed One about this matter. If he doesn’t disclose to me [these matters], then I will renounce the training…”

Ven. Māluṅkyaputta then goes to the Buddha and says all of this. The Buddha responds first by asking whether he ever promised such a thing, or whether Māluṅkyaputta had made it a condition of his training. Māluṅkyaputta says no, and the Buddha says, “Then that being the case, foolish man, who are you to be claiming grievances/making demands of anyone?”

The Buddha continues:

“It’s just as if a man were wounded with an arrow thickly smeared with poison. His friends & companions, kinsmen & relatives would provide him with a surgeon, and the man would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know whether the man who wounded me was a noble warrior, a brahman, a merchant, or a worker.’ He would say, ‘I won’t have this arrow removed until I know the given name & clan name of the man who wounded me… until I know whether he was tall, medium, or short… until I know whether the bow with which I was wounded was a long bow or a crossbow… until I know whether the bowstring with which I was wounded was fiber, bamboo threads, sinew, hemp, or bark… until I know whether the shaft with which I was wounded was wild or cultivated… until I know whether the feathers of the shaft with which I was wounded were those of a vulture, a stork, a hawk, a peacock, or another bird… [the list goes on!] The man would die and those things would still remain unknown to him.”

“In the same way, if anyone were to say, ‘I won’t live the holy life under the Blessed One as long as he does not disclose to me that “The cosmos is eternal,” … [and all the other stuff or Māluṅkyaputta asked about] the man would die and those things would still remain undisclosed by the Tathāgata.”[ii]

In other words, it’s not necessary to know the answers to these questions to practice – and the answers to these questions don’t matter to the practice! Even if it were the case that there is an almighty God who created the universe and oversees it, it wouldn’t matter to the practice. Even if our situation is completely random and everything is meaningless in any grand sense, it wouldn’t matter to the practice. This is pretty amazing, actually. In general, the question “why” in Buddhism is considered a waste of time as long as it is about the past. (Why something is the way it is now – current causes and conditions – is very relevant, however, but that’s another topic.)


But… Intellectual Understanding Can Be Helpful Too

In Zen we do not cut anything off. We naturally have curiosity about things. Our mind is part of us; I like to think of cultivating understanding as feeding part of us, converting part of us. In order to practice wholeheartedly, we need buy-in from body, mind, and heart. When the mind is skeptical, confused, resistant, bored, or obsessed, then sometimes the medicine we need is working with the mind through practices like reading, study, contemplation, or Dharma discussion. Intellectual understanding alone won’t do it, and we may or may not arrive at an “answer,” but exploration of the “why” can be helpful. For example, it can be useful to explore the impact of our upbringing on who we have become, for better or worse, even though, ultimately, we need to focus on where we go from here, regardless of how all of this came about.

The value of intellectual understanding as part of our practice is why, I think, so many people I know have been enjoying the book Why Buddhism is True by Robert Wright. (I reviewed this book on the podcast in Episode 92.5.) We were raised with a scientific worldview. It helps us when we’re able to see Buddhism in the context of science, evolution, and psychology. It helps us make sense of it, to trust it. Then it seems less like some 2,500-year-old mystical thing we’re applying to our lives and more like something rational and compatible with the world as we know it. This can help us be more open, trusting, enthusiastic, and willing.


Human Nature and I, Me and My-Making

So… that was a long preamble to addressing this question! Why aren’t we just all born enlightened and avoid suffering?

It’s helpful to first contemplate: What does a lack of enlightenment look like? For the purposes of this conversation, I’d like to offer the following description of a lack of enlightenment: Resistance to reality formulated around a sense of being a separate and enduring self. Or, more simply, Resistance to reality based on a sense of self.

Let’s explore this sense of self. I’ve discussed it on the podcast many times (for example, see Episode 14 – Buddha’s Teachings Part 1: The Three Marks and the Teaching of Not-Self), but I’ll briefly describe again the process of self-building we undergo over a lifetime, which sets us up to obscure our Buddha-Nature.

Our sense of self starts to form as soon as we’re born, and our needs are – inevitably – not immediately and perfectly met. We recognize that whatever brings the milk is apparently not us, because even if we’re screaming for it, it may not appear. Over time the sense of self coalesces around the one who wants, the one who demands, and the one who experiences dissatisfaction or satisfaction.

Our sense of self then gets more and more complex over time. We become able to express ourselves; we develop a sense of ourselves in relationship to other people; we identify our more or less enduring preferences, strengths, weaknesses, physical characteristics, and personality traits; we develop skills, knowledge, and opinions; we gain possessions, status, and responsibilities. All of these things we come to regard as “I, me, or mine.”

Naturally, we feel great concern about the well-being of all that which is “I, me, or mine.” Given our ability to conceive of time, causation, and the persistence of people and objects outside of our immediate sphere of perception, we can anticipate things and imagine potential scenarios. Our reactions to the world get more and more complex. For example, we can cause ourselves suffering by recalling our memory of something that happened long ago, and then imagining how we might have acted differently in that situation and how much better things might have consequently turned out for us. We then may feel miserable about our current situation in comparison to that imagined state of affairs. This ability to abstract our thinking about self beyond the here and now is a recipe for crazy making!

According to the teachings, an “enlightened” person does not engage in “I-making and my-making.” This from the Upasena Sutta[iii] (Access to Insight, translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu):

Once Ven. Sariputta and Ven. Upasena were staying near Rajagaha in the Cool Forest, at Snakeshood Grotto. Then it so happened that a snake fell on Ven. Upasena’s body [and bit him]. Then Ven. Upasena said to the monks, “Quick, friends, lift this body of mine onto a couch and carry it outside before it is scattered like a fistful of chaff!”

When this was said, Ven. Sariputta said to Ven. Upasena, “But we don’t see any alteration in your body or change in your faculties.” [Meaning, Ven. Upasena remained physically, emotionally, and mentally calm]

Then Ven. Upasena said, “Quick, friends, lift this body of mine onto a couch and carry it outside before it is scattered like a fistful of chaff! Friend Sariputta, in anyone who had the thought, ‘I am the eye’ or ‘The eye is mine,’ ‘I am the ear’ or ‘The ear is mine,’ ‘I am the nose’ or ‘The nose is mine,’ ‘I am the tongue’ or ‘The tongue is mine,’ ‘I am the body or ‘The body is mine,’ ‘I am the intellect’ or ‘The intellect is mine’: in him there would be an alteration in his body or a change in his faculties. But as for me, the thought does not occur to me that ‘I am the eye’ or ‘The eye is mine,’… ‘I am the tongue’ or ‘The tongue is mine,’… ‘I am the intellect’ or ‘The intellect is mine.’ So what alteration should there be in my body, what change should there be in my faculties?”

Now, Ven. Upasena’s I-making, my-making, & obsession with conceit had already been well rooted out for a long time, which is why the thought did not occur to him that “I am the eye” or “The eye is mine,”… “I am the tongue” or “The tongue is mine,”… “I am the intellect” or “The intellect is mine.”

Then the monks lifted Ven. Upasena’s body on a couch and carried it outside. And Ven. Upasena’s body was scattered right there like a fistful of chaff.[iii]

In other words, enlightenment did not prevent Upasena from dying from a snakebite, but even knowing his death was approaching in moments, he did not fret about it. In reality, we are dependently co-arisen with everything else in the universe, and the “I, me, and mine” about which we are so concerned is simply a construction of our own mind. Contrast Upasena’s reaction to his impending death with the reactions of us unenlightened people who might fret when someone cuts us off in traffic because of what it means to “I, me, and mine”! Practice helps us recognize, lighten, and gradually dismantle our sense of self, as I discussed in Episode 108 – Buddha’s Teachings 14: The Five Skandhas as Focus for the Practice of Not-Self.


But Why Is Human Nature Thus?

But, to return to our question of the day, why do we engage in this I, me, and my-making? Why did humans evolve to engage in this elaborate self-centered narrative? Why do many of us spend more time in a self-centered dream than we do attending to what’s actually going on right here and now?

Again, it really doesn’t matter in terms of practice. However, for what it’s worth, Robert Wright really helped me get my mind around this in a satisfying way. I’m summarizing and paraphrasing what he discusses in the book Why Buddhism is True, and he might not agree with exactly how I’m saying this, but my two take-aways from his book were:

1) We evolved a sense of self because it helped our distant ancestors survive and reproduce. We had to individuate, to recognize we were a more or less autonomous actor, that our perceptions were not shared directly by others, and that we need to speak and advocate for ourselves. We had to establish an identity and play a role in the world. The blissful sense of non-separation we may have experienced in the womb has been rudely undermined from the moment of our birth. In response, we didn’t just form a sense of ourselves over time in order to look out for ourselves and make plans, we formed a sense of self-consciousness – an enduring sense of executive “I” who is in charge of – or at the center of – everything I, me, or mine. Wright offers a theory that we evolved self-consciousness primarily to communicate with others – to provide a coherent narrative about our thoughts and actions, often after the fact. Psychological research is showing that much of our behavior seems to be due to competing “modules” in our brain, and in unconscious or subconscious responses to things. Our self-narrative, however, always comes up with an explanation that makes our imagined Executive “I” the protagonist of the story.

2) Just because something is adaptive in terms of natural selection does not mean it leads to happiness, or to an accurate perception of reality. For me, Wright’s most memorable example of this is the extreme human reaction to the sudden appearance of anything that might be a snake. Even though what we perceive is almost always a rope, a stick, or a shadow, it’s adaptive for us to have evolved an automatic and extreme response that causes us to leap backwards because one time in a thousand it just might be a venomous snake. Similarly, we may have evolved a strong sense of Executive “I” because it helped our ancestors survive and reproduce, but that doesn’t mean that sense accurately reflects reality.


Human Nature, Buddha-Nature, and the Nature of Practice

Where does this leave us in terms of practice? Here’s my first take-home message for the day, which applies to our current question but also to every level of our practice:

Most things that cause us suffering have their origins in something good.

In other words, many tendencies, thoughts, behavior patterns, perceptions, etc. that are problematic arose originally because of something that was necessary or beneficial to us – something that originally was meant to help us, protect us, or make us happy. We may have to trace the chain of causation back quite a way to find what was originally good or innocent! But, for example, a number of people in my Sangha have been talking recently about the karma of irritability and frustration – the habit of going about our daily lives, bumping up against people or situations that seem designed to oppose us, and then having a negative reaction, however small. Such karma can seem very persistent and silly, even counterproductive. It can undermine our health, our relationships, and our enjoyment of life. Why would we have developed such a useless habit?

We may be able to trace the karma of irritability back to energetic determination, manifesting as clarity of purpose, the ability to concentrate and follow through, and the capacity to get things done. Energetic determination is an immensely valuable thing! The suffering arises when what was originally good gets taken to extremes, or becomes so habitual it becomes our response even when that’s not the best response, or when we add narratives and justifications to our experience and behavior.

What about the human tendency to gradually obscure our Buddha-Nature – that is, our connectedness, interdependence, and vibrant life in the emptiness of self? This tendency, too, has its origins in something good. We need to individuate, to establish ourselves. To become a being capable of self-understanding, of enlightenment, we needed to develop a strong, functioning sense of self.

This is also our undoing, but there is no other way. The Buddha Way is about a fully functioning self waking up to its true nature. This is why we say, “No sentient beings, no Buddhas.” Our practice is about the maturation of beings who have grown and become aware of themselves as separate. Who have accumulated decades of karma and often can’t imagine themselves as Buddhas.

There is no getting at the ultimate why of course, if we’re asking why the universe is the way it is. But the answer to the question, “Why aren’t we just all born enlightened and avoid suffering?” is, essentially, that then we’d miss the journey, which is the whole point. It is the returning home after all the journey has taught us which is the reward.

That brings me to my second take-home message: Enlightenment is about a fully individuated and conscious being realizing they are both an individual and One with everything else at the same time. If we were somehow able to prevent a child from ever going through the process of I, me, and my making, we would also prevent them from ever experiencing enlightenment. The individual is not destroyed in enlightenment, returning us to some blank, infant-like state. Instead, the enlightened individual recognizes their sense of inherently-existing, enduring self-nature for what it is – a fascinating phenomenon we evolved to help us navigate the world. When we see our sense of self for what it truly is, it opens up the possibility for liberation from the misery of self-concern.



[i] https://www.dictionary.com/browse/edify

[ii] The Shorter Exhortation to Māluṅkya: Cūḷa Māluṅkyovāda Sutta  (MN 63). Translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu (https://www.dhammatalks.org/suttas/MN/MN63.html )

[iii] “Upasena Sutta: Upasena” (SN 35.69), translated from the Pali by Thanissaro Bhikkhu. Access to Insight (BCBS Edition), 30 November 2013, http://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn35/sn35.069.than.html .


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223 – Integrando Introspecciones
224 – Naturaleza humana: ¿Por qué no nacemos iluminados?