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Is the concept of Buddhanature necessary for a secular approach to the dharma? If not, how else could we express the ideas it conveys?


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16. Buddhanature as a Fourfold Task



As part of my training as a Gelug monk monk, I studied the Overview of Buddhanature by Chökyi Gyaltsen, the sixteenth century author of the monastic textbooks of Sera-je Monastic College in Lhasa. I was surprised to learn in the Overview that the idea of buddhanature originated in the early canonical literature of “Hinayana” Buddhism.


As the source of this claim, Chökyi Gyaltsen cited an unidentified scripture (āgama), which many years later I located among the Numerical Discourses of the Pali Canon. The passage talks of the “family of noble ones” (ariya va). Those who belong to this family are characterized by four traits: they are content with their clothing, content with their food, content with their lodging, and they delight in letting go and cultivation.


Vamsa = race, lineage, family = “tradition”


[AN. IV. 28.] See Bodhi (2012), pp. 84-5.  It is also found in the Sangīti Sutta of the Long Discourses[DN. 33.] See Walshe (1995), p. 489. Also cf: In Tibetan ariya vamsawas translated as ‘phags pa’i rigs. The same word (rigs) is used to translate both gotra/gotta and vamsa. Possibly the lost Sanskrit original of this passage said arya gotra.]


The capacity to become a question for oneself and the intuitive yearning for transcendence can only be realized when the material conditions needed to support life are met. This account of buddhanature recognizes the indispensable role played by social and economic factors in providing the necessary conditions for awakening. No matter how sincere your aspirations to pursue an examined life, without adequate clothes, food or shelter you will be preoccupied with the challenges of physical survival alone. Even if you live in an affluent society where your basic needs are met, you may still be thwarted in your wish to practice the dharma if, for political or religious reasons, that society does not tolerate it.


            At the conclusion of his essay “Buddhanature,” Dōgen quoted Nanyang’s definition of the buddha mind as “fences, walls, tiles, and pebbles.” He highlighted the blunt fact that without the inanimate material conditions for sustaining life, the entire project of awakening would be a pipe dream. Yunmen’s comment about radiant light makes the same point. Instead of speculating about the innate luminosity of mind, Yunmen recognized the source of awakening to lie in the inert bricks and mortar around him: “The monks’ hall, the Buddha hall, the kitchen pantry, the main gate.”


Those who belong to the “family of noble ones” are people who delight in letting go (pahāna) and cultivation (bhāvanā). This refers to the practice of the four tasks, of which letting go of reactivity is the second and cultivation of the eightfold path the fourth. Once your material needs are met and social conditions are supportive, you have the opportunity to become the kind of person you aspire to be. The practice of letting go of reactive habits, emotions and fixed opinions leads to nirvanic moments of lucid stillness, which allow the space and freedom to cultivate a way of life no longer driven by narcissism, greed and hate. The tasks thereby provide a template for individual human flourishing. When practiced communally, they serve as a matrix for the emergence of a culture of awakening.


Not only is buddhanature our capacity to let go of reactivity and cultivate a way of life, it also lies at the heart of the third task: beholding the stopping of reactivity. To see this stopping is to see nirvana itself. For nirvana is nothing other than the free and open space of possibility disclosed each time the clouds of habitual reactivity disperse. In opening up a comprehensive path of human flourishing, such nirvanic space is also buddhanature.


            Buddhanature is called the womb (garbha) of the true person (tathāgata). A womb is a space that can be fertilized, bring an embryo to term, and give birth to a child. Nirvana too is a fertile space that can nurture the development of a new perspective on life, which then assumes concrete form through acts of speech and body in the world. The interdependence of families and wombs emphasizes the centrality of biological metaphors in imagining buddhanature. Both metaphors associate buddhanature with maternal qualities that nurture life and enable it to flourish.


In this way we arrive at a secular dharma reading of buddhanature as a fourfold task. It becomes a social project by including the need to provide the material necessities of life as a foundation for this ethical project.


Yet the Buddhist traditions that teach the doctrine of buddhanature rejected the womb metaphor. The Chinese translated the Sanskrit garbha as “treasure house” (zàng) while the Tibetans chose to render it as “heart-essence” (nyingpo). Since both languages have words for “womb” why, quite independently, did the Chinese and Tibetan translators not use it? It may have been due to their reluctance to employ the term for an intimate and sexual feature of a woman’s body to represent such a noble idea. For celibate monks trained to contemplate the female body as an object of disgust and revulsion, it may have bordered on obscene to describe buddhanature in this way.


            Only women have wombs. A treasure house is a sterile image associated with powerful and wealthy men. It preserves the idea of a space but one of cold stone, brick and metal rather than living flesh and blood. Heart-essence (nyingpo) preserves the connection to a bodily organ – the heart (nying) – shared by men and women alike. But the heart is incapable of giving birth to another life. In both cases, buddhanature is desexualized and defeminized. The capacity to wake up is no longer associated with the fertility of women. Indian Buddhists, familiar with the religious use of the word garbha from the “golden womb” (hiraya garbha) described in Vedic creation myths, would have found the metaphor less troubling.


The monastic suppression of the feminine creates the conditions for its disruptive return. The ninth century Chinese scholar-monk Deshan became incensed on hearing of the Zen doctrine of sudden awakening, which rejected the need to study the scriptures. He decided to travel to the far south of China to refute the proponents of these heretical ideas. On the way he came across an old woman selling dumplings by the roadside and stopped to eat. Noticing the books he was carrying on his back, she said: “I have a question for you. The Diamond Sutra says: ‘The past mind can’t be found, the present mind can’t be found, and the future mind can’t be found.’ So what mind are you displaying now?” Deshan was speechless. His certainties were shaken. Soon after, the Zen master Longtan gave him a lamp then immediately blew out its flame. At that moment, Deshan experienced a sudden awakening. “All these mysterious doctrines,” he admitted, “are but a speck of dust in a vast emptiness.” He then set fire to all his books.


Here is a man who has retreated from life into a world of abstract ideas and opinions. Snared in the binaries of right and wrong, Deshan had come to justify his existence in terms of doctrinal correctness. He would meet any threat to his certainties with anger and violence. “I’ll go drag them from their caves and exterminate their ilk,” he said of his opponents, “and thus repay the kindness of the Buddha!” Only when hungry and weary did he let down his defences, allowing the opening for an old woman to expose the shallowness of his convictions.


As the eleventh century Indian Buddhist scholar and abbot Nāropa was poring over his texts one day, a terrifying shadow fell over him. He swung round to see a hideous old woman standing in the doorway. “You understand what those books mean?” she asked. “Yes,” he answered. The hag broke down in tears, dropped her stick, and shouted: “Liar!” Shaken from his certainties, Nāropa asked her who did understand their meaning. She told him to go and see her brother Tilopa. When Nāropa finally tracked down the elusive Tilopa, he turned out to be “a dark man dressed in cotton trousers, his hair knotted in a tuft, with protruding bloodshot eyes.” Nāropa prostrated before him and became his disciple.


The re-emergent feminine forced Nāropa to recognize how he was stuck in the dead-end of intellectuality. One cannot live by reason alone. To be fully alive, Nāropa had to resuscitate those atrophied parts of himself from which he had become alienated. Human flourishing is achieved through integrating reason with feeling, imagination, creativity and intuition, not by denying them. The ugly hag (whose body has 32 hideous features) casting her shadow and the wild, unkempt Tilopa serve as counter-images to the serene, cerebral monk with shaven head and downcast eyes. Nāropa went on to develop yogic practices that integrated the energies of the body, dream experiences, and in-between states (bardo) into the practice of dharma.


[Both these stories can be read in Jungian terms as the integration of the anima, the shadow for men.]


When all is said and done, buddhanature has to do with human flourishing. Extending from our most private intuitions to our broadest civic responsibilities, it signifies our capacity to be wholly human. Buddhanature is the irrepressible force of life itself. To quote Nanyang again: “this benevolent nature can cause the raising of an eyebrow and the twinkling in an eye. It is employed when coming or going, and it pervades the body. If you tap your head, the head knows it. If you stamp your feet, the feet know it. … Aside from this there is no other buddha.”