1. Religion & Spirituality
Barbara O'Brien

Not Speaking of Buddha Nature

By July 30, 2012

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I've been working all week on an article on Buddha Nature. Buddha Nature is a Mahayana doctrine that defies explanation. English language syntax, the whole subject-verb-object thing, makes it very difficult to speak of Buddha Nature without getting it wrong.

For example, it's common to say that all beings have Buddha Nature. Beings (subject) have (verb) Buddha Nature (object). That's how English, and many other languages, work. It's just about impossible to say anything in English without falling into that pattern, somehow.

So there are beings, and Buddha Nature, but a being is not really a subject and Buddha Nature is not really an object, and "has" is just all wrong.

Mahayana says that Buddha Nature is the fundamental nature of all beings. Theravadins argue, with some justification, that Buddha Nature is just a means to sneak a self, an atman, back into Buddhism. I say "with some justification" because I have read essays about Buddha Nature that make it sound like the atman doctrine of the early Vedic religion, just with different labels.

The atman of the Vedic religions, and Hinduism today, was thought of as the essential nature of individuals that is also identical with Brahman, the absolute or source of reality. Some scholars of Hinduism describe the individual as a "pot" for the essence of Brahman. The Buddha explicitly denied this doctrine, teaching instead anatman, no self.

When you hear that all beings have Buddha Nature, it's really easy to conceptualize something just like atman, an essence that one possesses that is identical with some universal transcendent Buddha. But the Buddha rejected such a concept.

In Rinzai Zen, the koan Mu works to dissolve the "me and my Buddha Nature" dichotomy. Dogen, the great patriarch of Japanese Soto Zen, stressed that Buddha Nature is not something we have; it's closer to say it's what we are. See Dogen's Bussho, Buddha Nature, chapter 22 of the 95-Fascicle Shobogenzo, to see a real master take on the subject-verb-object barrier and smash it to bits.

This isn't easy. Anyone who thinks it is simple to understand doesn't understand it. The best most of us can do is to try hard to not get stuck in conceptualizations while staying open to realization. And practice, practice, practice.

July 31, 2012 at 1:39 am
(1) Hein says:

I take note of Dogen’s view that “Buddha Nature is something we are”, but I always understood Buddha Nature as a potential we as (specifically) human beings have to become enligtened? Gods, animals and hell beings do not have Buddha Nature as the Gods enjoy their being too much, animals are ignorant and Hellbeings suffer to much. Humans have an equal amount of suffering and enjoyment.
Perhaps “what we are” and the “potential to become Enligthened” is the same thing?

July 31, 2012 at 7:19 am
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

Hein, the “potential” versus “already present” views of Buddha Nature are among those things that some schools disagree about. All I can say is that Zen is firmly in the “already present” camp. In Bussho, Dogen pretty much trashed the “Buddha Nature as potential” view.

July 31, 2012 at 3:54 am
(3) Sean Robsville says:

My understanding is that animals, hell beings etc also have Buddha nature.

Buddha nature is what’s left in the mental continuum of a sentient being after all the delusions (including everything that gives a sense of ‘self’) have been negated and discarded.

July 31, 2012 at 4:35 am
(4) Hein says:

Ignorance/delusions seems to be so ingrained in animals and suffering for hell beings that they are unable to become enligthended. Nowhere as far as I am aware did the Buddha mention any animal, god or hell being that become enlightened in their respective life times. But I have not read all the sutras.

July 31, 2012 at 7:17 am
(5) Barbara O'Brien says:

Hein — Nobody said anything about “respective life times.” Also, don’t think of enlightenment as some attribute given to a physical body, whether animal or human.

July 31, 2012 at 7:57 am
(6) Padma says:

An excellent article on a complicated subject Barbara.

I remember reading about links between the concept of Buddha nature and the alaya vinana (storehouse consciousness)? And I seem to remember ‘garbha’ in ‘tathagatagarbha’ translates both as ‘womb’ and as ‘embryo’ – which feels more closely reminiscent of the idea of Buddha nature?

Anyway, I find this a fascinating subject. The relationship between Buddha nature and not-self is particularly tricky and a good one for reflection. The former can tip us over into eternalism, and the latter into nihilism – neither of which are Dharma.

July 31, 2012 at 11:09 am
(7) Yeshe says:

I think the true, ultimate nature of each being’s mind is like space or the sky. You can’t say that space or the sky is a self. For instance, the space above Washington D.C. is not the same as the space above Baltimore, but really, the space itself is no different. The Buddhanature of another sentient being is no different than mine, but we each have a different mindstream. Ultimately, our mind’s nature is the same, but like the sky, it is not a self. We tend to think of things as one or many, large or small. But such dualisms are not found under investigation. For instance, try to find the smallest particle. Logically, just an infinite regression, and scientifically one hasn’t been found.

August 1, 2012 at 5:15 am
(8) Hein says:

Thanks Barbara for the kind comments.
Just from a reading of your article and comments do I realise a need to reconsider my understanding (or grasp) of Buddha Nature. Time to do more working in that regard, I guess.

August 1, 2012 at 10:48 am
(9) Mila says:

I agree with Padma that this is a very nice presentation of what is, indeed, a hugely complex subject (at least when articulated conceptually): so many different views, from various traditions/lineages — all quite fascinating, & really gets to the heart of the issue, IMO.

Regarding the relationship between Buddha-nature (aka tathagata-garbha) and alaya-vijnana: As I understand it, there is a view according to which Buddha-nature is one of the “pure seeds” contained within the alaya-vijnana (the “storehouse consciousness”) — from which awakening emerges. However, this is not a commonly-held view.

A more common understanding, in the Tibetan tradition at least, is the one articulated by the 3rd Karmapa (Rangjung Dorje), via Thrangu Rinpoche’s translation/commentary Distinguishing Wisdom From Consciousness.

According to this view, the eight consciousnesses — including the alaya-vijnana (“storehouse consciousness”: a repository of the “seeds” i.e. bijas, samskaras, vasanas, which condition our relative-world experience) — transform into the Five Wisdoms, in the process of becoming a Buddha, i.e. fully realizing Buddha-nature.

(con’t below)

August 1, 2012 at 10:48 am
(10) Mila says:

In particular, the alaya-vijnana transforms into “mirror-like wisdom,” which — along with the other four wisdoms — is simply one quality or aspect of Buddha-nature.

At this point, the “subject” is no longer a deluded, dualistic ego, but rather is prajna — nondual wisdom-mind — whose spontaneous functioning is defined by the five wisdoms, one of which is this mirror-like wisdom: which is the fully awakened reincarnation, if you will, of what used to be the alaya-vijnana.

However …. the alaya-vijnana, as the supposed “container” or “repository” of various karmic imprints, is not something that is ever actually experienced, directly. It’s simply a metaphysical postulate, from which emerges the notion of a “mindstream” which allows us to talk about the seeming continuity of experience, from day to day (through the chasm of deep sleep) or from lifetime to lifetime.

August 1, 2012 at 1:27 pm
(11) Barbara O'Brien says:

This is a great discussion; I appreciate all the input. At some point in the unknowable future I do want to do an article on the eight consciousnesses, and if anyone knows of a particularly good text explaining them I would most appreciate it.

August 1, 2012 at 4:58 pm
(12) Padma says:

Thanks for your comments Mila – very interesting!

August 1, 2012 at 8:07 pm
(13) Mila says:

Barbara, Transcending Ego: Distinguishing Consciousness From Wisdom by Thrangu Rinpoche offers a nice discussion of the eight consciousnesses — and looks like it’s available online as a PDF :)

August 2, 2012 at 7:44 am
(14) Barbara O'Brien says:

I found it, Mila. Thanks!

May 15, 2013 at 9:27 pm
(15) AP says:

> However …. the alaya-vijnana, as the supposed “container” or “repository” of various karmic imprints, is not something that is ever actually experienced, directly.

This is an interesting comment. Alan Wallace periodically mentions that the alayavijnana is indeed experienced when one has access concentration to the first dhyana. Perhaps only a difference in terminology…

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