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What does the idea of buddhanature mean for you?
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15. Buddhanature as the Question of Being




Buddhanature is a term only found in Chinese (fo shing). It has found its way into the English language and assumed a life of its own. It is a Buddhist idea that “sticks” for some reason — perhaps because it seems to allow a back door for concepts like “soul” and “true self” to slip back into buddhist discourse.


If you look at the Wikipedia entry on buddhanature you will see immediately how differently it has been interpreted by the different buddhist schools. In most cases, though, it tends to refer to some transcendent element within one’s life that is obscured by defilements or simply the recognition that part of you is already awake, a buddha.


Most accounts of Buddhanature tend to be part of a movement to restore a more religious or mystical dimension into Buddhism that is felt to be rather dry and cold. This might seem at odds with a secular approach to the dharma. So how might the idea of buddhanature fit into a secular reading? Is it an idea that still has value?


In the two seminars today, I will seek to uncover a secular Buddhanature. I will start with a text from Dogen, which is generally not mentioned at all in scholarly accounts of Buddhanature.


In November 1241, the Japanese Zen master Dōgen wrote an essay entitled “Buddhanature” (Bussho). It opens by citing the Nirvana Sutra, a Mahayana scripture composed around five hundred years after Gotama’s death, where the Buddha announces that all living beings have buddhanature. “But what,” asked Dōgen, “does this mean?” He answered that it explains the phrase: What is it that just got here?


            “What is it that just got here?” This is the question Huineng, the sixth patriarch of the Zen school in China, posed to the young monk Huairang, who had just walked more than seven hundred miles from Mount Song to Nanhua Monastery to see him. Buddhanature is the capacity you have to become a question for yourself. The practice of Zen is to stay with this question, to let it sink into your consciousness, infuse the awareness of everything within and around you, penetrate into your nerves and flesh and bones, becoming, as the Gateless Gate puts it, like a red hot iron ball in your stomach that you can neither digest nor disgorge. The more you become this question, the more you hang suspended between “is” and “isn’t,” “yes” and “no,” “this” and “that.” All the brilliant answers you conjure up turn out to be trite and useless. You are confronted with the enormity of your own ignorance. You realize that you don’t really know anything at all.


cf. An Ethics of Uncertainty:


Socrates: “The result of the whole discussion has been that I know nothing at all. For I know not what justice is, and therefore I am not likely to know whether it is or is not a virtue, nor can I say whether the just man is happy or unhappy.”


Socratic dialogues often end in such a state of perplexity and doubt (aporia), leaving the participants suspended midway between “is” and “isn’t,” unsure of what to think or do.


            You return to the primal shock and confusion of the legendary Prince Siddhartha as he encountered for the first time a sick person, an old person and a corpse, and on each occasion stammered to his charioteer: “Will this also happen to me?” The first Zen masters disdained the rarified speculations of the Buddhism of their day and sought to recover such existential questions. They maintained that only a visceral engagement with this “great doubt” would lead to a “great awakening” that would reverberate at the same pitch as the questions that triggered it.


After eight years at Nanhua Monastery, Huairang reported to his teacher Huineng that he had finally understood something. Huineng asked him: “What is it?” Huairang replied: “To say it is something misses the point.”  After several pages of abstruse reflections, minute textual analysis and inconclusive conjectures, Dōgen concludes his essay on buddhanature by citing Nanyang, another disciple of Huineng. When asked what was the buddha mind, Nanyang replied: “Fences, walls, tiles, and pebbles.”


Buddhanature is a metaphor of hope. Despite the frailty, brevity, confusion and despair of human life, we find ourselves awed by beauty, inspired to selfless acts of generosity, moved to write poetry, enriched by moments of love, overwhelmed by the sheer wonder of being alive. We possess an uncanny ability to understand and respond to the often counter-intuitive sayings of those considered to be wise. All this points to an innate capacity to appreciate and be moved by what lies beyond the limits of our narrow egocentrism.


As Gotama’s dharma developed into Buddhist orthodoxy, it assumed an increasingly annihilationist stance to the world. The aloof, serene monk came to be regarded as the model practitioner of the dharma. The dogma of no-self inculcated a deep suspicion of self. Any lingering sense of self had to be identified and uprooted. Nirvana, the goal of the path, was conceived as the ending of birth and death, and thus the negation of self and life itself. Around five hundred years after Gotama’s death, a counter-movement — the Mahayana — arose in India, which sought to reverse this tendency by advocating the positive idea of buddhanature.


Buddhanature appeals to the imagination rather than the intellect, to feelings more than thoughts. It may confirm our deepest intuitions, and open us to intimations of the sacred. The Peerless Continuum, an influential Mahayana treatise on the topic, compares buddhanature to the honey inside a honeycomb surrounded by a swarm of bees; to a kernel of wheat covered by its husk; to a nugget of gold buried in a mound of filth; to an unknown treasure hidden in the house of a pauper; to a bejeweled Buddha statue wrapped in a foul piece of cloth; to the embryo of a king in the womb of destitute woman; to a golden statue encased in its clay mould. In each instance, something of great value is shown to be extremely close but concealed from view.


Buddhanature is nearer to us than anything else but obscured by the greed, hatred, selfishness and stupidity that routinely plague us. These reactive patterns are understood as adventitious, non-essential taints, which obscure the pristine awareness that is our essential nature. Such awareness is not the contingent, unstable consciousness of ordinary experience, but the awakened Buddha mind itself, which is always present but rarely noticed. The Nirvana Sutra describes it as “eternal, blissful, self and pure.” Buddhanature is equated with the ultimate nature of reality itself. It is that spark of the Buddha deep inside you, within which all virtues and excellence reside. 


Buddhanature provides a metaphysical foundation for an ethics of certainty. If a thought, word or deeds originates in the intuitions of your buddhanature, you can be confident it is grounded in ultimate truth and fundamental goodness. Whatever you do will be the right thing to do. Ethical choices need no longer be risks based on your own uncertain and incomplete assessment of complex moral situations. In theory at least, buddhanature enables you to tap directly into the source of the Buddha’s wisdom and compassion. And if your own judgment is still too clouded by reactivity to be entirely reliable, you can always trust in the wise counsel of others who are more attuned to buddhanature than yourself.


For buddhanature to have a transformative impact on how you live, it has to be directly realized in practice. Whether by a sudden breakthrough in Zen meditation or on receiving pointing-out instructions from a Dzogchen master, the experience of buddhanature has to become a deeply felt reality for you. No amount of studying the Nirvana Sutra or the Peerless Continuum can substitute for such non-conceptual awareness.  Analysis and reason alone are incapable of grasping the mystical truth of this primal ground of your being.


Yet in extricating you from the dead-end of annihilationism, the idea of buddhanature risks leading you to the dead-end of eternalism. In both cases you will miss the elusive and fluid middle way. If buddhanature is an eternal, transcendent, pure and self-existent consciousness, how does it differ from the Ātman of the Upanisads, the immortal Self that is the spark of God within you? The doctrine of buddhanature begins to sound like Buddhist theism in all but name. “Just as space, being all pervading, cannot be polluted because of its subtle nature,” says the Peerless Continuum, “similarly, abiding everywhere among living beings, buddhanature remains unpolluted by defilements.” Turn to the words of Lord Krishna in the Bhagavad Gita and you find almost exactly the same verse. The sole difference is that the Gita says “Self” instead of “buddhanature.”


How would a Zen master deal with this theistic turn? Six months after writing “Buddhanature,” Dōgen composed an essay called “Radiant Light” (Komyo). To illustrate the theme he cites a story about the tenth century Chinese Zen teacher Yunmen. “Every one of you without exception,” said Yunmen to a gathering in his monastery, “possesses the radiant light. But when you look for it, you see only a deep darkness. So what is your radiant light?” The audience remained silent. Yunmen answered on their behalf: “The monks’ hall, the Buddha hall, the kitchen pantry, the main gate.” Yunmen seeks to free his listeners from their moth-like fascination with ideas like “radiant light” and get them to embrace instead the sublime banality of their everyday existence.



In the Gelug school of Tibetan Buddhism, buddhanature is simply your emptiness of inherent existence. For Tsongkhapa, the school’s founder, this emptiness was the ultimate unfindability of a permanent essence or substance lying at the core of who and what you are. Instinctively, you may feel that beneath all your contingent physical and mental traits, there lies a non-contingent core of self or consciousness that exists inherently, independent of all conditions. Some Indian traditions believe that this constant sense of being a detached witness to experience is an intimation of one’s eternal soul. For the Gelugs, the most radical and counter-intuitive of Gotama’s teachings was his suspicion of all such intimations and beliefs.


Only in seeing the absence of such an inherently existent self are you freed to become the kind of person you aspire to be. Understanding the self’s emptiness of inherent existence does not deny your everyday sense of self. It enables you to appreciate how you are a contingent, changing, fluid, tragic, joyful process of continual becoming. Rather than an eternally radiant soul temporarily imprisoned by attachments and ignorance, you are a work in progress, a constantly unfolding project. Gotama’s revolutionary insight was to realize that men and women become enlightened not in spite of being contingent and impermanent creatures, but because of being contingent and impermanent creatures. When seen in this way, your very own humanity is your buddhanature.


The Gelug conception of buddhanature is ethical rather than ontological. It is based on an understanding of what you can become rather than what you essentially are. Your uniqueness as a person is due to all the myriad choices you have made, relationships you have formed, works you have accomplished, children you have raised. You individuate and flourish through having the courage to take risks that impact the world you share with others. This on-going fashioning of a contingent, evolving self rather than the presence of a transcendent, essential self is what constitutes your buddhanature.