Tai Situ on Buddha-Nature
Tai Situpa, 12th (pad+ma don yod nyin byed). "Buddha Nature." Chapt. 1 in Awakening the Sleeping Buddha. Edited by Lea Terhune. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 1996.
The foundation of Lord Buddha's teaching is buddha nature. It is because of buddha nature that the Buddha taught at all. Every sentient being has the potential to improve and become enlightened. We can improve and overcome any defilements we have because of buddha nature, which is our pure and enlightened essential nature. The Buddha shared his insights about this not only to acknowledge the fact of buddha nature within every sentient being, but to guide individuals to awaken this innate and limitless potential to the point where they fully realize their own buddha nature and become enlightened buddhas themselves.
It is important to understand that buddha nature is not something we imagine or create from nothing. It is something that exists within each sentient being already, and the gradual method the Buddha taught is designed to awaken the everpresent buddha nature by instructing individuals at different levels of development exactly how to do this.
Although we all have buddha nature as our ultimate reality, in our ordinary reality, which might be called our relative world, there are many differences between individuals. For this reason the Buddha taught in different ways. Later, his teachings were divided into four main categories, the Vinaya, Abhidharma, Sutras, and Tantras. Each category integrates all the teachings, placing emphasis on a particular area. The Vinaya teachings deal primarily with discipline and present a moral code; Abhidharma is mainly concerned with science, the fine details of how the universe is formed and the laws that operate in it; the Sutras focus on teachings about compassion; and the Tantras present the methods of transformation by which gradual realization and finally enlightenment can be accomplished. The purpose of these teachings is simply to assist individuals to awaken their ultimate essence, their buddha nature.
Lord Buddha introduced the concept of buddha nature when he gave the Mahayana teachings, particularly in texts such as the Lotus Sutra, Lankavatara-sutra, and Dasa Bhumi-sutra. In his first teaching, the Buddha presented the Four Noble Truths. These truths are: life is pervaded by suffering; suffering has causes; there is a goal, because the causes of suffering can be destroyed; and there is a path, because a method exists to root out the causes of suffering. The Buddha explained that through discipline, mindfulness, and right actions we develop calmness and clearness. The final development of calmness and clearness is freedom from all things that obscure the clear, fresh nature within. This allows a deep and abiding inner peace. What remains when the defilements leave is buddha nature, the essence of which is peace. Even in the Four Noble Truths, the Buddha's first teaching, he expressed the principle of buddha nature.
In the Tantric teachings of the Buddha, buddha nature is the foundation, the path, and the fruition. Buddha nature is described as being ultimately unstained by any defilement. It is just like space, which cannot ultimately be stained by anything. Even the being who is suffering in hell has a pure buddha nature.
An important Mahayana teaching in which buddha nature is discussed in some detail is the Mahayana-uttara-tantra, one of the teachings of Lord Maitreya, which was transmitted to the great master Asanga. Lord Maitreya is a great bodhisattva who is not in human form, although he is able to teach human beings who are advanced enough to understand the level on which he teaches. Asanga was able to bring these teachings to the human realm. Maitreya's teachings are a sound introduction to the subject of buddha nature.
Lord Maitreya gave five teachings to Asanga, of which the Mahayana-uttara-tantra was the last. He specifically emphasized that his teachings were not those of a buddha, but a commentary on the teachings of the Buddha. Uttara-tantra has two meanings. It is uttara because it is the highest of the five teachings given by Lord Maitreya to his disciple Asanga, and it is the fifth and last teaching.
LORD MAITREYA'S EXPLICATION OF BUDDHA NATURE
In the teaching given to Asanga, Lord Maitreya provides comprehensive information about buddha nature under four headings. These are important to study and understand:
- The buddha nature of all sentient beings
- Qualities of buddha nature
- Obstacles that prevent sentient beings from recognizing buddha nature, and the means to overcome the obstacles
- Disadvantages of not knowing and benefits of knowing about buddha nature
ALL SENTIENT BEINGS HAVE BUDDHA NATURE
Sentient beings have buddha nature, whether they know about it or not. They may be totally ignorant of buddha nature, may have some awareness of it, or may be completely awakened, but in all three stages of development, sentient beings have buddha nature.
When a sentient being is ignorant of buddha nature, its essence is nevertheless ever present, as in a fertile seed, always ready to germinate. When a sentient being develops, buddha nature manifests as knowledge, wisdom, good thoughts, and good actions. When a sentient being attains enlightenment, enlightenment itself is buddha nature. The individual realizes his or her buddha nature completely—that is enlightenment.
It is on the ultimate level that every sentient being is buddha. There is no difference between the ultimate nature of an ignorant sentient being and the enlightened buddha. The essence is ultimately the same. The only difference is that the sentient being is ignorant of this, and a buddha completely embodies it. The sentient being is relatively unenlightened, and innately buddha, while a buddha is both relatively and ultimately enlightened. A buddha is, in fact, beyond relative and ultimate, which are dualistic designations.
Lord Maitreya explains that every sentient being has the potential for enlightenment. There is no sentient being who cannot improve and become enlightened eventually. This is so because every sentient being has buddha nature, regardless of which realm that sentient being belongs to. Every sentient being is ultimately perfect. Relatively, because of what are called, in Buddhism, defilements, sentient beings have countless imperfections. Defilements are things like anger, pride, and grasping. The purpose of Dharma practice is to apply the most effective method to overcome those imperfections. Wit h the right method, a person can gradually awaken and overcome all defilements that prevent recognition of inner truth and realization of buddha nature.
Lord Maitreya said that as far as the ultimate potential of a being is concerned, there is no difference between one who is a fully enlightened buddha and one who is totally ignorant. Such a statement might be confusing without a clear understanding of the nature of truth. Truth has two aspects: relative, or changeable truth, and ultimate, changeless truth. It is on the relative level that the obstacles arise. The ultimate level is pure. It is buddha nature. O n the relative level we are not yet buddhas, but on the ultimate level we are. On the relative level we encounter all sorts of problems; on the ultimate level there are no problems. Our understanding of the actual nature of truth must be through this contrast.
A good thing to remember is that there is a direct connection between the ultimate and the relative. The ultimate is the ultimate of the relative and the relative is the relative of the ultimate. They are not two different things. So when Lord Maitreya says that no matter how ordinary or negative a person might appear to be, that person has no limitation as far as his or her deeper essence is concerned, he is speaking about the relative and ultimate aspects of truth. Ultimately, there is no difference between sentient beings who are suffering in samsara and a buddha who is completely enlightened and free from all limitations. They are the same. It is good to contemplate this paradox.
QUALITIES OF BUDDHA NATURE
Lord Maitreya goes on to explain that buddha nature is limitless. It is beyond time, beyond size, beyond quality, beyond any limitation at all. Ultimately there is no limitation, but relatively, there is limitation, as an individual strives toward greater awakening.
Lord Maitreya states that buddha nature is utterly pure. It cannot be obscured itself, although relative perception of it can be obscured. Every sentient being is ready to be enlightened at every moment. The only hindrance is not recognizing the purity and limitlessness of buddha nature. We may have inklings of our limitless quality, but we don't fully recognize it, so we become focused on the relative I, the self. Every moment we are enlightened, but we don't recognize it. So every moment we are prevented from recognizing this, we cannot be fully enlightened. This sort of dualism creates all dualistic causes and conditions, which manifest as bad and good, light and dark, positive and negative. It is like a long dream.
To wake up from the dualistic dream, one must make certain efforts, which include right behavior, calming the mind through meditation, and other techniques that develop insight and realization. Individual practice takes many forms. It can be meditation or it can be action. The point is to improve our perceptions, experience, and expression of our own buddha nature. It is easy, however, to become attracted to something negative and become more ignorant and deluded as a result. Lord Maitreya said that until you reach the stage of first-level bodhisattva, you can improve or you can become deluded. After achieving the first-level bodhisattva stage, you cannot become deluded. Even though buddha nature is limitless, relatively it can be obscure.
FOUR PRINCIPLES OF PURIFICATION
The Mahayana-uttara-tantra shastra says that we must first develop a clear understanding that will allow us to respect and appreciate the right things, those things that benefit ourselves and others. Once we have that, the next step is to know how to practice, that is, how to go about our development. We need to know what is right, but we must also know the proper method of applying and expanding our understanding so that we do not go wrong. The third principle is the development of lovingkindness and compassion. Loving-kindness and compassion will allow our understanding and appreciation to be progressively more successful. If we don't have loving-kindness and compassion, our progress will stop. We may even become proud of ourselves and regress. We develop loving-kindness and compassion so that we will proceed forward rather than go backward.
The stages of development are described as stages of purification. We purify our defilements, and then we reach a higher level of realization. What is there to be purified? The defilements that obscure the reality of our buddha nature, ultimately already pure, are what must be purified. Ultimately there is nothing to purify. Relatively, we must purify the obscurations to realize the underlying purity.
The means for purification are many, and Lord Maitreya gives specific suggestions. To overcome ignorance, he advises strong aspiration. It can be a simple thing, as simple as the desire to do what is right, or do one's best. Even if we don't know how to go about it, if we have the aspiration, we will begin to discover the way to fulfill it. A result of aspiration is a gradual development of wisdom, wisdom that enables one to see clearly what is right, what is appropriate, and what is essential. When wisdom is developed, profound compassion and devotion foll ow naturally. Lor d Maitreya goes on to say that because of profound devotion and profound compassion, which are the products of wisdom, and which are in turn the product of aspiration, realization will take place.
If a sentient being misunderstands the truth and thereby moves farther and farther away from correct understanding, that sentient being is also far from recognizing his or her buddha nature. Methods are described in Asanga's text that create the causes and conditions for purification, which brings individuals closer to the correct view. These are given by Lord Maitreya in the form of four principles.
After cultivation of loving-kindness and compassion, Lord Maitreya described a fourth means of purification. He advised contemplation to transcend fear and greed.
After describing the condition of purification in four stages, Lord Maitreya describes the different levels of fruition, or the results of the application of the means of purification. He says that fruition simply means awakening of the ultimate essence, stressing the gradual process of realization. The awakening of a person's buddha nature, from the beginning to enlightenment, takes many lifetimes. According to Lord Maitreya, each stage of awakening, each moment, is a fruition of the previous moment. He gives an elaborate description of this.
He says that first we have to be able to acknowledge that we have defilements, we have negativity, we make mistakes. We have to be able to accept this instead of deluding ourselves that we don't make mistakes, that our actions are perfect or even almost perfect. We have to be able to accept that we're sometimes neurotic.
Once we know we have defilements, we can apply methods to overcome them. At the same time, we must know that ultimately we are perfect, ultimately we are not negative, ultimately we don't have defilements. This understanding will help us in overcoming the defilements and negativity.
We should realize the same thing about other sentient beings. We have to be able to see that these sentient beings are suffering. It is not only we ourselves who are suffering, but all sentient beings. An d we have to do something to help them whenever it's appropriate. We pray, "May I be able to do something for them." We must wish to be able to help other sentient beings. That has to happen first. While we apply effort to overcoming the suffering of others, to helping them, we also must recognize that all these sentient beings have buddha nature. Ultimately they are not neurotic or stupid, but perfect. All this suffering and neurosis is just relative truth. We must be able to see that.
These are the fruitions we reach in each stage. Then we gradually proceed toward becoming a bodhisattva. What is a bodhisattva? A bodhisattva is an individual who has gone beyond the ordinary sort of activity, and whose realization is so advanced that his or her actions are always purely motivated and positive. We progress through the levels of bodhisattva attainment, from the first to the tenth, until finally we become completely enlightened, a buddha. These are the stages of the awakening of our buddha nature.
THE FOUR WHEELS
Lord Maitreya explains some key methods for progressing along the path toward realization. These methods are known as the four wheels, because a wheel can take us from one place to another. These particular four wheels will take us from samsara to enlightenment.
The first wheel is guidance. We should follow proper guidance. If we don't have correct guidance, even if we have sincere aspiration, we have only our own judgment to rely on, and due to our ignorance, anxiety, and ego, that judgment can often be faulty. So accurate and truthful guidance is necessary.
Tibetan Buddhism strictly holds that everything we learn or teach should be the continuation of a lineage of transmission. A lineage of transmission, in Buddhist terms, may be explained simply. Lord Buddha's teaching is a teaching based on realization. Buddha's teaching came about as a spontaneous manifestation of this realization, and therefore it is a teaching of enlightenment, which comes from completely enlightened body, speech, and mind. It is an expression of compassion and wisdom. That is the beginning of the lineage.
Buddha taught spontaneously to his disciples. They practiced the method he taught them, and in turn they taught it to their disciples. Every teaching we pass on in Tibetan Buddhism is the continuation of the practice of the original teaching the Buddha taught, which his disciples practiced and passed on to their disciples, and so on. That is the lineage of transmission. It is also the source of correct guidance.
The teacher practices the teachings and shares them with whomever comes to receive teachings. This is done carefully, however. In the past, teachers put disciples through many tests before passing on the advanced teachings to be sure the teaching would help rather than harm the individual. A genuine teacher-disciple relationship is not something taken lightly. It is a commitment for both the teacher and the student.
The second wheel is living our lives according to the principles of Buddhist Dharma. When we practice Dharma, it is important to live a dharmic life. We should not practice diligently for a few hours and then run wild the rest of the day, leaving our calm and clear state of mind behind on the meditation cushion. When we meditate or chant mantras or do any kind of practice, we should take it seriously not only during the formal practice period, but outside of it as well. It should extend into all the activities of our daily life. We should live as closely to the teachings as possible. We might make mistakes—that is normal—but we do the best we can to live according to the teachings and to remain as centered in our daily activities as we are when doing formal meditation. In Vajrayana, everything becomes meditation. Everything is a source of realization. It can only really become so, though, when the mind is clear and calm at all times.
The third wheel is virtuous conduct. Intensive meditation can be a deep level of virtue. The external aspect of virtue is doing helpful things for others. It is very important for Buddhists to perform activities that are helpful for other people. We should not only develop the mind, we must also be aware of the needs of others and ways we might help fill these needs. Sometimes one small positive action on the part of an individual can have a great positive effect on others. Virtuous conduct can be anything from saving the lives of beings, giving direct aid to those who are suffering, or merely offering a kind word at the right time. This sort of activity should be practiced as much as possible.
The fourth wheel is profound aspiration toward enlightenment. This is very important to maintain, because it keeps us going through the worst difficulties. There is nothing wrong with ambitious aspiration to become enlightened. It should be a sincere and deep desire not only to attain enlightenment oneself, but for other sentient beings likewise to attain it. Lord Maitreya says the same thing that we find in the main Buddhist prayers: "May all sentient beings attain total liberation." When we look at our planet, or even at a single country, we see how much work there is to be done. People cannot even get along with each other in the same city. The prospect of enlightenment appears far away and unimaginable. H o w can we sincerely mean it when we pray that all sentient beings attain enlightenment? How can we think it is even possible? But it is possible. It is possible because every sentient being has buddha nature.
THE FULFILLMENT OF BUDDHA NATURE
Next, Lord Maitreya explains that the fulfillment and goal of our pure, perfect, and limitless buddha nature is enlightenment. All sentient beings, having buddha nature, will attain enlightenment ultimately. It may take some sentient beings a long time to purify their defilements and recognize their buddha nature, but others may become enlightened more quickly. It is based on how the individual being pursues the path to realization, and what choices are made. One thing is certain: all beings will be able to do this because their essence is buddha.
Lord Maitreya goes on to say that ignorant sentient beings are unaware of their buddha nature because of the dualistic aspect of their minds. The dualistic mind of a sentient being does not recognize the essence of his or her nature. Some degree of buddha nature is recognized in the dualistic mind of a bodhisattva or a developed individual. When a person becomes buddha, the dualistic aspect of mind is totally purified. Mind is beyond dualism. The fully awakened person becomes the embodiment of buddha nature, transcending all limitations. For that reason, a buddha's activity is limitless. A bodhisattva's activity is limited compared to a buddha's activity, and an ordinary sentient being's activity is extremely limited.
QUALITIES AND CHARACTERISTICS OF BUDDHA NATURE
Lord Maitreya elaborates on the characteristics of buddha nature. He says that buddha nature is unchangeable. No matter how ignorant we are, our buddha nature remains the same. No matter how enlightened we are, our buddha nature remains the same. It is the changeless nature. Enlightenment is the full embodiment of our buddha nature in all levels of our manifestation as sentient beings. All the qualities of the Buddha, such as the ten great strengths, and all the ways we describe and define the qualities of a buddha—these are all qualities of the buddha nature.
When we attain enlightenment, we realize the full extent of these qualities. The activity of a buddha is beyond dualism. In one sutra Lord Buddha said, " I never taught anything." What this implies is that all teachings passed down from Lord Buddha were spontaneous manifestations. It is not simply one person talking to another person. Spontaneous manifestation is like the shining of the sun, and it carries with it the real power to aid individual development. Sunlight does so many things. It warms the seed so the seed can develop into a shoot and take root in soil. Sunlight ripens fruit on the trees. It gives light. It warms the oceans, and the steam rises and forms clouds. All this is spontaneous manifestation, without a conceptual plan, just as a buddha's activity is spontaneous.
Because a buddha's activity is nondualistic, a buddha can aid others. The Buddha, who has transcended duality, is limitless, so that even if the whole universe recites the refuge prayer and asks for blessings at the same time, the Buddha's blessing will be given equally, according to each individual's capacity to receive it.
OVERCOMING THE OBSCURATIONS
When Lord Maitreya discusses obstacles and how to overcome them, he speaks of "temporary obscurations." There is no such thing as a permanent obscuration. Obscurations are always temporary. Lord Maitreya said there were endless obscurations, but he defined nine major ones: attachment, anger, ignorance, and six types of obstacles that concern bodhisattvas between the first and tenth levels.
The first obstacle that prevents an individual from recognizing buddha nature is attachment. Attachment is a very powerful obscuration, and it strongly reinforces dualistic thinking. Attachment simply means we are attached to the cycle of existence, or samsara. Lord Maitreya said that through methods of transformation, we must find a way to establish balance so that our attachment becomes first a reasonable attachment, rather than an unreasonable one. Then we slowly overcome that attachment and become not detached, but purely nonattached. Freedom from attachment must be developed.
One of the means for overcoming attachment, according to the text, is a clear and accurate understanding of the relative truth of everything. Lord Maitreya says that one truth about all existence is impermanence. Wherever we go in this world, we always find ruins of temples, palaces, houses, and other structures that were once new and in daily use, perhaps for centuries. People once worked hard to build these places and spent a lot of money on them, but now the buildings are no more than interesting historical monuments, or maybe not even that.
When we develop accurate understanding, we might still be involved in samsaric activities, such as building houses, careers, or relationships, but we won't be attached to them unreasonably and neurotically. We will understand that these things are not permanent. They have no ultimate value, but only relative value, because they exist interdependently and are always changing. That is an important first step, and it helps us avoid easily falling prey to negative thoughts and actions.
If we don't have clear understanding, we will become jealous if somebody builds a house that is bigger than ours. That may seem ridiculous, but it happens. One temple congregation will try to stop the other temple from developing, saying, " My Buddha is better than your Buddha. " All these things can happen because of attachment, combined with other negative factors.
Then Lord Maitreya taught about anger and aggression. He said that anger is powerful, although it is not as constant as attachment. It comes and goes. Attachment is continuous, especially in the human realm, which is described as the desire realm or the realm of attachment. Anger normally develops out of some disturbance that obstructs the fulfillment of our desires. We are attached to something, and something interferes with our having it, so we get angry, and sometimes we even become aggressive in our efforts to get what we want. One of the main methods for overcoming anger is to develop understanding of other people's suffering and defilements, and to have compassion for others.
Ignorance is one of the roots of obscuration, like desire, anger, and aggression. Ignorance is the result of not seeing things deeply, as they actually are, but merely seeing the surface. Most of the time we don't even see the surface accurately. In some of the Vajrayana practice instructions, great masters have written that most human beings totally misunderstand each other. They function with 100 percent misunderstanding. Even good practitioners, who are very learned and highly disciplined, can be affected by external circumstances from which attachment or anger can develop. It may not be obvious, but it is there at an unconscious level, ready to come up under appropriate stimuli. Until the attainment of the first-level bodhisattva, ignorance is present.
The fourth obscuration, karma, is the result of the combination of attachment, aggression, and ignorance. Karma, which is a Sanskrit word, is in such common usage that it appears in English dictionaries. Even so, not many people know precisely what it means, and they often misunderstand it. If their businesses are failing or marriages breaking up, people might ask, "Is it my bad karma?" According to the teaching of the Buddha, karma means causes and conditions. Of course, there are causes and conditions that create failures in business or marriage and other difficulties, so people assume "It's karma. " The unfortunate thing about this is that an idea becomes fixed in the mind that if it is karma, we are helpless; it is a fate that cannot be changed. That idea is wrong, because it is absolutely untrue. Bad karma can be improved and become good karma, and good karma can be destroyed and become bad karma. Mor e will be said about karma later. Karma does not exist as an entity. Karma is a word that describes the relative causes and conditions that create our lives.
Lord Maitreya described the fifth obscuration as "unconscious dualistic states of mind " (Tib. palcha). These are states that are dormant in the mind but that can manifest under certain circumstances and stimuli. It is like a sleeping monster if it is a negative state, or a sleeping angel if it is positive. It is almost like instinct. It is an unconscious habit we carry with us from lifetime to lifetime.
The next obstacle prevents recognition of buddha nature, that is, from becoming a first-level bodhisattva. We become a first-level bodhisattva when we realize our buddha nature and the true essence of everything for the first time. All the practice methods of a bodhisattva are aimed at overcoming the obscurations that prevent the individual from recognizing buddha nature. The state of recognizing buddha nature is the realization of the first-level bodhisattva.
The succeeding series of obscurations described by Maitreya refers to higher and higher levels of bodhisattva attainment. These are increasingly subtle dualistic obstacles that are overcome by the practice of bodhisattvas at those stages. This is a point where even the higher levels of wisdom and intellectual understanding become hindrances and must be purified. In the case of the seventh obscuration, for instance, it is the bodhisattva's realization of buddha nature that must be overcome.
When speaking about levels of bodhisattva realization, obviously we can explore it only theoretically. To understand exactly what a first level bodhisattva is, one must be one. If an ordinary person were to be confronted with a buddha and a first-level bodhisattva together, telling them apart would not be so easy. It would be easy to confuse them, because from our dualistic level, there is no way of discerning the difference. O n their level, however, a first-level bodhisattva and a buddha are quite different, but the distinctions are at a level too subtle for ordinary minds to recognize.
An ordinary person has meditative and nonmeditative states. But to an ordinary person, the nonmeditative state of a firstlevel bodhisattva is like realization, for a bodhisattva of the first level or beyond has transcended the difference between meditative and nonmeditative states. It is more accurate to speak of a postmeditative state, because the meditative state permeates the activity of a bodhisattva, even when the bodhisattva is not engaged in formal meditation practice. At this level of development there is nothing that is not understood or recognized. The bodhisattva's accomplishment is not intellectual; it is direct realization. The bodhisattva overcomes the difference between meditative and nonmeditative states, so that both become equal. Of course, to a second-level bodhisattva the accomplishments of a first-level bodhisattva are limited. A bodhisattva of a higher level of realization can perceive faults in the states of mind of bodhisattvas of lower levels. That is only natural. Until complete enlightenment, there is always room for improvement.
Only those who are approaching complete enlightenment can understand the nature of these hindrances, but descriptions are nevertheless given in the texts.
KNOWING BUDDHA NATURE
The last part of Lord Maitreya's teaching on buddha nature describes the disadvantages of not knowing buddha nature and the advantages of knowing buddha nature, each in five points.
The disadvantages of ignorance of buddha nature are dealt with first, and the first of these is self-inferiority. Without knowledge of our potential, we are likely to view our mistakes and faults as permanent and part of our essential nature, which is one of the biggest mistakes we can make. Any wisdom or realization we are fortunate to develop we may see as a form of self-delusion rather than what it truly is, an awakening of part of our ultimate potential. If we are unaware of buddha nature, we are easily convinced of our worthlessness and mistrust any good qualities we have. This is a wrong view.
The second disadvantage of not knowing about our buddha nature is ego. When we don't know about buddha nature, ego is easily developed. When we develop good qualities as a result of our positive effort, we may think we created them from nothing and in this way inflate our egos. We don't realize that we have buddha nature the same as every other sentient being, and that a good quality is a little bit of buddha nature manifesting in us, but that we are ultimately not superior to anyone else. If we don't see that others have the same potential as we do, we easily develop false pride in our small accomplishments.
Lord Maitreya describes the third and fourth disadvantages as "assert and deny." Fanaticism is an example of assert and deny. Lack of awareness of buddha nature leads to limited, narrow-minded perspectives that cause people to assert their limited views as being the only ones and deny the truth of other views. For example, if we look at Buddhist images and rituals, we might do so without ever seeing their essence, their underlying purpose. We get caught up in the outer forms. Without understanding, we deny the essence and assert the external image. If we are unable to differentiate between the external image and internal essence and make the connection between what is important and the paraphernalia around it, it can be a great disadvantage. If it does not lead to fanaticism, which can be harmful to others, it can cause the waste of a lot of time and energy due to stubbornly missing the point.
Self-attachment is the fifth disadvantage described by Lord Maitreya. When one is ignorant of buddha nature, there is a tendency to become attached to good fortune or any qualities one may develop and a reluctance to share these things with anyone. This means that whatever positive things develop in our lives will not be of benefit to others. We will become stuck in whatever we have gained, and we will eventually decline instead of improve.
Of the five advantages of knowing buddha nature, the first is joy. N o matter how miserable we are, no matter how much suffering we undergo, no matter what conditions we find ourselves in, we always have joy because we know our ultimate essence is perfect. Because we know we are developing toward final realization of buddha nature, we feel absolutely secure and happy. In some of the Tantric instruction texts, this is held to be a very important attitude. A maxim translated from Tibetan into English goes, "Even if we have to suffer, we suffer happily." Suffering happily means realizing that the suffering is external and impermanent. Our buddha nature can never suffer, so suffering happily is possible. Even if we cannot avoid suffering, we have a space where we can be happy in the most difficult situations.
The second advantage of knowing buddha nature that Lord Maitreya describes is respect. We are able to respect all sentient beings, and all human beings, because they all have buddha nature. We are able to respect the environment and nature as well, because they are manifestations of buddha nature through our own interdependent sense perceptions.
Intelligence is the third advantage. When we know about buddha nature, we know about relative truth. Knowing and understanding relative truth and how to use it is intelligence.
When we know buddha nature, we know about ultimate truth. Knowing and understanding ultimate truth is wisdom. Wisdom will guide us to make the choices that speed us toward enlightenment. Wisdom is the fourth advantage.
The fifth advantage that comes of knowing buddha nature is loving-kindness and compassion. We know all sentient beings can improve because they are ultimately perfect, and their efforts to progress—as well as our own efforts to help them—will be effective eventually. All sentient beings have buddha nature. That is an incentive for us, because unless there is potential for improvement, we cannot help ourselves or anyone else, and it would be useless to try. We have compassion because we are intensely aware of the suffering all sentient beings must endure. Because of buddha nature, we can take loving, compassionate action to help. When we say the Buddhist prayer, "May all sentient beings be free from suffering and the causes of suffering," our prayer is realistic, because we know everyone has buddha nature.
Buddha nature is the most practical, helpful, and truly essential principle of Vajrayana Buddhism. We say in our Buddhist prayers that we want to liberate all sentient beings. This is a very ambitious attitude. Can we really liberate all sentient beings? Yes, we can. Can we attain enlightenment? Of course. What makes us think this is possible? Buddha nature. It is our sound basis for carrying on. We are all inherently enlightened. We just have to awaken the sleeping buddha.