This is part four of my series called “One Reality, Many Descriptions,” Buddha-Nature Part 2. I first talk about Buddha-Nature as trust. Then I 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 fully partake of the associated joy, redemption, and faith.
In the last episode, I discussed the joy of Buddha-Nature. Once we understand something of Emptiness (from our own, direct experience, not just intellectually), we taste a new kind of freedom from fear and suffering. We begin to appreciate how nothing exists the way we think it does, but also that each thing is boundless and interconnected. Once we are able to perceive things without so much interference from the mental map we have created of Reality, we can perceive Suchness, or Thusness – how each thing is complete, luminous, and miraculous in and of itself. Buddha-Nature is what we awaken to when we realize we are also Thus. No matter how flawed and limited our karmic self seems to be, it is not separate from the Dharma-Nature of the universe. We are also complete, luminous, and miraculous. No comparisons, judgments, or evaluations necessary.
I also discussed the redemptive quality of Buddha-Nature. Most – if not all – human beings end up feeling a sense of inadequacy, isolation, and/or alienation. It’s difficult for us to imagine ourselves as something undefiled by our self-absorption, grasping, stinginess, anger, laziness, judgmentalism, lack of understanding, and limited skillfulness – the list goes on. Over time, however, we can practice dis-identifying with the vicissitudes of our naturally self-concerned karmic self even as we compassionately come to terms with and accept them. We can accept our Buddha-Nature and live at ease within our embodied existence.
Buddha-Nature as Surrender and Trust
Now I want to discuss how Buddha-Nature involves surrender and trust.
It’s natural that we have become identified with our thoughts, feelings, desires, intentions, and behavior. What else would we identify as self, after all, besides our conscious experiences and choices? When we stand back and evaluate this small self, we generally find it quite a mixed bag. There are some aspects of it we like and are proud of, and other aspects we’re ashamed of or even despise. We do our best as we interact with the world – sometimes we succeed with respect to our intentions, and sometimes we fail. It’s an effort to keep it all together. Life may, at times, be exhilarating and rewarding. At other times it can be exhausting, discouraging, and overwhelming. It often feels like it’s us against the world – or, if we’re lucky, us plus a small group of supportive friends or family members.
In essence, the teaching of Buddha-Nature tells us we are not who we think we are. In Reality, we are part of something much larger than any of the aspects of self we can identify, including our consciousness and will. As I discussed earlier, we are Empty and therefore fundamentally boundaryless, co-arisen with the rest of existence and intimately interdependent with everyone and everything. Just as everything else, viewed without expectations or reference to self-concern, is complete, luminous, and miraculously Thus, so are we. Beingness manifests in and through our particularity. As the Shambala Dictionary states, Buddha-Nature is “a concrete expression for the substrate of perfection and completeness immanent in sentient beings as well as things.”[i] Immanent means inherent or intrinsic. In other words, your Buddha-Nature is unaffected by your small self’s adequacy or inadequacy.
The amazing thing is we can surrender our lives to this Buddha-Nature which we share with all beings and things. Instead of relying solely on our intelligence, strength, and skills, we can learn to relax and allow something greater and deeper to guide us. Of course, that greater or deeper source of guidance does not come from outside us, from some supernatural or divine origin. Nor does it come from inside us as if it’s a superpower we can harness and control. All words and metaphors fall short of Reality, but it’s more like we surrender our effort to impose our will on the world and instead trust something valuable to move through us, to manifest through us. Our intelligence, strength, and skills become tools for Buddha-Nature to use.
Living with trust in Buddha-Nature might sound like a kind of careless and irresponsible thing to do – as if it involves ceasing all efforts to learn, grow, improve, or succeed, in favor of simply “going with the flow” and letting things unfold as they will. However, such passivity is simply the opposite of trying to impose our will on the world and is actually just another posture the small self can take: “I don’t have to do anything, Buddha-Nature will take care of it.” This still assumes Buddha-Nature is one thing and the self is another.
In practice, trusting Buddha-Nature involves wholehearted, sincere, energetic participation. We let go into the ocean of Buddha-Nature, opening all parts of ourselves to the unfolding moment, including our intelligence and intentions. Our practice and efforts bear fruit, including whatever wisdom, compassion, and skillfulness we have managed to cultivate. As I have discussed on the podcast before (See Episode 213 – Deconstructing Self: Which Aspects Are Fine, and Which Cause Suffering?), there is no “Executive I” in charge of our life and practice the way we tend to assume there is. Buddha-Nature points to the mystery of our life – how it requires our participation, how our choices matter, even though there is no special part of us in control.
What Buddha-Nature Is Not
I hope what I’ve managed to convey so far is that Buddha-Nature is one way to describe Reality-with-a-Capital-R. It points toward the personal implications of Emptiness and Suchness, encouraging us to experience the joy, redemption, and trust available to us even as we remain embodied, imperfect individuals.
As I mentioned earlier, any discussion of Buddha-Nature needs to say as much about what it is not, as what it is. It’s the nature of the human mind to conceptualize things in order to understand them, categorize them, differentiate them from other things, and relate them to things we already know. We may find ourselves imagining Buddha-Nature is a seed of goodness and potential locked inside each of us – a little Buddha waiting to get out. Or we may imagine it is a great cosmic force guiding and supporting all of us. Or a universal Self, like the Hindu atman, to which we will return upon our death. But it is none of these things.
Yasutani Roshi, the 20th-century Japanese Zen master I quoted in the last episode, eloquently described the problem of conceptualizing Buddha-Nature, while encouraging us we can awaken to it if we manage to avoid the conceptual traps:
Now, some of you, thinking there is something called the Buddha-nature hidden within us, may inquire as to the whereabouts of this Buddha-nature. You may tend to equate it with conscience, which everyone, even the wicked, is presumed to possess. You will never understand the truth of Buddha-nature so long as you harbor such a specious view… This world – unfixed, devoid of mass, beyond individuality or personality – is outside the realm of imagination. Accordingly, the true substance of things, that is, their Buddha- or Dharma-nature, is inconceivable and inscrutable. Since everything imaginable partakes of form or color, whatever one imagines to be Buddha-nature must of necessity be unreal. Indeed, that which can be conceived is but a picture of Buddha-nature, not Buddha-nature itself. But while Buddha-nature is beyond all conception and imagination, because we ourselves are intrinsically Buddha-nature, it is possible for us to awaken to it.[ii]
I don’t know if you’re anything like me, but while Yasutani’s words inspire me to break free from conceptualizing, they also send my mind spinning with phrases like “devoid of mass” and descriptions of something that does not “partake of color or form.” Despite myself, I start trying to imagine what this thing is, and I try to reconcile such descriptions with my earlier suggestion that Buddha-Nature manifests in and through each being and thing. Is this a mysterious force yet to be described by physics? Does it reflect quantum mechanics? Yasutani says the Reality we’re aiming at is “beyond the realm of imagination,” but part of me takes that to mean it is something we can imagine and understand, we just haven’t done so yet. Or that we’re not quite smart enough, or accomplished enough, to imagine or understand it.
It helps me to remind myself that descriptions of Buddha-Nature are not attempts to pin down Reality with words. Instead, they are teachings meant to pry our minds open – exhortations to let go of everything we can think of and instead experience directly. Buddha-Nature is a quality of Being, not a thing, and is therefore “devoid of mass.” It is not a quality which can be captured in words or images, and thus “does not partake of color or form.”
If you find your brain getting tied up in knots (or if you find yourself tuning out because you don’t care to have your brain tied up in knots), it’s good to take a deep breath and remember that Buddha-Nature points to something we experience directly, with our whole body-mind. We know when we are lying down, walking, eating, or talking. We know when the air around us is cool and when it is hot. We know when we are happy or sad. This is how Buddha-Nature is known – and not just how it is known, as if there is a knower separate from It who has the satisfaction of consciously perceiving it, but how it manifests, how it is. Huang Po, the 9th-century Chan master I quoted in the last episode, said, “Our original Buddha-Nature is, in highest truth, devoid of any atom of objectivity.”[iii] Objectivity means “intentness on objects external to the mind,” or “external reality.”[iv] Buddha-Nature points toward Reality-with-a-Capital-R, the dimension along which differentiations such as internal and external, mind and not-mind, self and not self, are simply not relevant.
How Does Buddha-Nature Not Contradict the Buddha’s Original Teachings?
In what sense is Buddha-Nature permanent and unchanging, as the Mahaparinirvana Sutra[v] says? It is difficult for us to imagine something permanent that is not a thing. Perhaps it would be better to say Buddha-Nature is not subject to change because it is not a thing. Yasutani Roshi said, “What is the substance of this Buddha- or Dharma-nature? In Buddhism it is called ku [shunyata]. Now, ku is not mere emptiness. It is that which is living, dynamic, devoid of mass, unfixed, beyond individuality or personality – the matrix of all phenomena.”[vi] You might say Buddha-Nature is permanent because it is not opposed to change, or not separate from change. Therefore, Buddha-Nature does not contradict the Buddha’s original teaching of anicca, or impermanence. Although I don’t recommend thinking too much about that, or it will just tie your brain in knots.
In what sense is Buddha-Nature Self-with-a-Capital-S, when the Buddha taught all things are anatta, or not-self? Well, if Buddha-Nature is not a thing but rather the nature of Being itself, and if I don’t possess it, and my Buddha-Nature is no different from yours, it frankly doesn’t seem to be much of a “self” at all! Still, as I discussed earlier in the section on the redemptive quality of Buddha-Nature, the Dharma is realized by sentient beings. We use the term “self” even though it is empty of any inherent, enduring, independent self-nature because nonetheless we have a first-person experience of life.
Why is it called “Buddha-Nature,” though, and not, let’s say… “Suchness Self” or “Boundless Beingness” or something like that? What is the “Buddha” part about, and why is it associated with our ability to awaken? A “Buddha” is someone who is awakened to Reality-with-a-Capital-R and is, therefore, free from the self-centeredness and resistance that brings suffering to ordinary beings. The term “Buddha-Nature” points us toward the fact that each of us has the potential to reach that kind of freedom because we aren’t separate from the truth to which we are trying to awaken. We are it, and as long as we are it, it will keep presenting itself to us until we finally wake up.
Practice Is Still Required
Almost all teachings on Buddha-Nature are careful to emphasize that your Buddha-Nature doesn’t do you any good unless you awaken to it yourself. Another parable from the Lotus Sutra tells the story of a man who visits a friend before setting off on a long trip. The friend secretly sews a jewel into his cloak in the night, and the man wanders for years without realizing he is carrying a jewel. He falls into hard times and suffers from lack of money, but the jewel in his cloak doesn’t help him at all. When he finally returns to his friend, the friend points out the jewel and how his suffering could have been avoided. (I guess the friend hid the jewel too well!)
Of course, in this parable the jewel is our Buddha-Nature. The story is meant to convey that we have to awaken to Buddha-Nature ourselves before we experience the joy, redemption, and trust I’ve been talking about. Such awakening is considered an incredibly important and pivotal part of a practitioner’s journey.
We don’t investigate Buddha-Nature by thinking about it or philosophizing about it. There’s a time and place for that – engaging the mind and giving it some juice. But we can’t realize it that way. Instead, our goal is to let go of our ideas, views, narratives, and assumptions… most of which, at the beginning of practice, we aren’t even aware of! We work on letting go of this raft of views we are clinging to, fearfully… and learn to let the water support us, learn to swim.
However, those eons of work as a bodhisattva that Huang Po said would not add a thing to our Buddha-Nature are not wasted. All along, we continue to work on ourselves, examine and resolve our karma, and cultivate positive habits of body and mind. But hopefully, as we go, we also hold the question of Buddha-Nature close to our hearts: What is the true nature of this person? What is it that draws me to seek greater authenticity, to come home? What is this longing that arises within me to truly belong, to transcend my sense of alienation from other beings, from life?
It is fine to lean on the faith and experience of others until you taste it for yourself, as long as you keep seeking for your own truth. You are also Thus. You are no different than the Buddhas and ancestors. Even before you realize it, your practice is Buddha-Nature practicing. We may think that letting go and trusting Buddha-Nature will mean our small, karmic self will wreak havoc on our lives, but it is not so. When our small, karmic self is embraced and included within Buddha-Nature, everything comes into alignment.
[i] 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.)
[ii] Kapleau, Philip. The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment. New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1965, 1989. Page 84-86.
[iii] Yun, Huang Po His. The Zen Teachings of Huang Po: On The Transmission Of Mind (pp. 35-36). Hauraki Publishing. Kindle Edition.
[v] 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.
[vi] Kapleau, Philip. The Three Pillars of Zen: Teaching, Practice, and Enlightenment. New York, NY: Anchor Books, 1965, 1989. Page 84-86.