The Exoteric Perspective on Buddha-Nature

From Buddha-Nature

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The Exoteric Perspective on Buddha-Nature

Kyabgon, Traleg. "Buddha-Nature." In Mind at Ease: Self-Liberation Through Mahamudra Meditation, 121–36. Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2004.

We come now to a discussion of ground Mahamudra and some of the more philosophical elements of Mahamudra meditation. The notion of the ground—also called the basis—is a key concept for Mahayana and later forms of Buddhism. Ground of being refers to the Mahamudra itself, or to our true nature, our authentic state of being. In Mahayana Buddhism, this ground is also known as buddha-nature. I will begin with this more widely known concept from the perspective of the exoteric approach and then proceed to link the idea of buddha-nature to the mystical notion of the ground of being, or ground Mahamudra.


In Buddhism the stated aim of spiritual practice is to attain enlightenment, or buddhahood, which requires that we bring about a fundamental change in our state of being. It may seem obvious that in order to do this, we need to utilize and gain a deeper understanding of our awareness of the mind, yet the question arises:. How can our normal consciousness-our conceptual mind, which is far from perfect- attain a state of perfection? Our normal consciousness does not have the freedom to shift suddenly to a highly elevated state, for our ordinary consciousness is thoroughly habituated to delusory perception. But we do need to attain enlightenment. Where would the ability to do so come from? The answer, according to the Mahayana literature, is that it comes from our own authentic natural state of being, known as buddha-nature, which is fundamentally and innately free of conflicting emotions.

      As we have already discussed, buddha-nature is not confined to the normal functionings of our mind, so it be said to be a transcendental state, in that it is not contained by the thoughts, emotions, feelings, and egotism that define our conventional empirical reality. It is the undeluded aspect of our mind. Nevertheless, it is not itself a state of because it is fully immanent in our experience in the sense that it does not exist outside our mind. The most important point is that buddha-nature is not something hidden or beyond our reach.

      Buddha-nature is called tathagatagarbha in Sanskrit: tathagata literally means "thus gone," and garbha means "essence." In Tibetan, tathagata is translated as de sheg, which signifies "arriving at peace," and garbha is translated as nying po, which also means "essence." Tathagata therefore refers to someone who has gone beyond suffering and arrived at the seat of peace, a synonym for our own innate wisdom. It is this wisdom that enables us to leave the turmoil of the samsaric condition (our ordinary normal condition) and arrive at the state .of liberation (the state of peace). In other words, tathagatagarbha, or buddha-nature, refers to our innate spiritual nature. This spiritual nature must be understood as a given, something we already are in essence.


In the course of the development of Mahayana Buddhism, during its travel from India to Tibet, China, Japan, there have been many new and noble interpretations of buddha-nature.

      Despite the numerous ways in which the concept of buddha-nature has been assimilated into various Buddhist schools, one thing remains unchanged: buddha-nature has to be understood within the context of the middle view, whereby we do fall into either the extreme of complete indulgence in the worldly aspect of life or the extreme of singlemindedly focusing. on otherworldly, metaphysical concerns. This middle view is an alternative way to understand the human condition.

      Roughly speaking, throughout history there have been two principal ways of understanding the human condition. The first is empirical, whereby human beings are seen as the sum total of their physical and psychological constituents. That perspective leads to a particular kind of self-understanding without reference to the transcendental dimension, confining itself to the empirical domain. The other "way is to view the self or an of the self as in some way disconnected from the world. The self is thought to be an immutable, permanent, self-existing soul or metaphysical self. That perspective will obviously lead to a completely different type of self-understanding from materialistic one, and the focus here is firmly placed on the transcendental at the expense of the empirical.

      From the Mahayana point of view, the notion of buddha-nature, the indwelling of our spiritual nature, transcends both of these self-understandings. The empirical self cannot be a vehicle to transport us to the state of enlightenment because it is contingent on ever-changing psychophysical conditions. Alternatively, a psychic substance such as a soul or metaphysical self is equally unable to serve this purpose, it is defined as a fixed entity existing beyond dynamic processes. Hence the of buddha-nature has to be understood as the middle way that avoids these two extreme views. It is not reliant on something that is constantly changing, nor is it reliant on something that is unchanging and metaphysical. The Tibetan version of the Mahaparinirvana--sutra, which was translated from Chinese sources, makes this point:

This buddha-nature is not in reality atman [metaphysical self]. It is for the sake of sentient beings that the self is spoken of. Whereas by virtue of the existence of causes and conditions the Tathagata [Buddha] has spoken of not-self as "self," in reality there is no self. Though he has spoken thus, this was no untruth. It is because of the existence of causes and conditions that it is said that the self is not-self. Whereas saying that self exists, in reality it is with a view to the world of beings that it has been said that there is a self. But that was no untruth either. The buddha-nature is not-self, and if the Tathagata has spoken of self this is because a designation has been employed.

      To gain a proper understanding of ourselves,. we· need certain concepts to steer us in the right direction. In the Mahayana. scriptures, buddha-nature is presented as way of understanding ourselves. that does not fall into either of the two extremes: If we slo not understand this properly, buddha-nature could become just another version of atman theory. We would then become fixated on a fictitious concept that simply does not correspond to any real-life experience. Buddhanature is not a metaphysical self, nor is it reducible to the sum total of our physical and psychological states. It has a spiritual reality that goes beyond our everyday psychological states while still being something that is experienceable. We often talk about buddha-nature and see quotations from the scriptures such as "All sentient beings are in possession of buddha-nature." Taking this literally could be quite misleading. We do not have buddha-nature as we have other kinds of characteristics as part of our psychological makeup or personality. Buddha-nature is what we are in essence; it is our own primordial nature, which is in reality a spiritual one.

      Many popular books on Buddhism written for Western audiences speak about buddha-nature as if it were some psychic state that we can access during meditation. This explanation has to be viewed with suspicion, because it implies that we are nothing but mere permutations of physical and mental states. Again, that would be a foundation too precarious on which to build a spiritual practice. If we were a metaphysical self, on the other that would be too abstract and remote (and, from a Mahayana point of view; too fictitious) to be immediately accessible in meditation. Both these options, for different reasons, are too unreliable to serve as the basis for building spiritual insights. A humorous story illustrates the need to have an innate capacity in order to succeed at what we wish to achieve. A young composer once visited Mozart to consult him on how to develop his talent. "I would advise you to start with simple things," Mozart advised him. "But you were composing symphonies when you were a child!" protested the young composer. "That is true," replied Mozart, "but I didn't have to ask anyone for advice on how to develop my talent."


In traditional Buddhist literature, buddha-nature is often referred to as the working basis. For example, one of the early chapters of Gampopa's Jewel Ornament of Liberation devoted to buddha-nature is called "The Working Basis." Here Gampopa explains that we can become enlightened because we can rely on this basis. We cannot rely on the notion of a soul or some kind of metaphysical self because of its abstract nature. He argues that even if the soul· existed, according to Mahayana reasoning, since it is immutable and unchanging, we must have been born with it, and it must remain indissolubly with us. It is difficult to determine how such an unchanging entity would aid us in our self-transformation. To be functional, it would have to become involved with change. Furthermore, because everything we experience is subject to change, something that is unchanging and immutable cannot become evidently manifest our stream of consciousness and thus can have no impact on it. Asked whether the metaphysical self and buddha-nature are the same, the Dalai Lama replied:

No. The term atman has a different connotation; it refers to a self or person completely independent of the psychophysical aggregates. Atman is a self that can be identified apart from body and mind. This kind of self is refuted in Buddhism. The clear light or the buddha-nature itself is not the person or a being but the basis of such a being. It is part of the consciousness and is therefore the basis of a designation of a sentient being of the self or a person, but it is not the self itself.[1]

People say that the difference between buddha-nature and the soul or atman is all semantics and that in reality they are the same. A Buddhist would insist that it is not just a question of semantics or verbal and conceptual distinctions, because buddha-nature is not and has never been thought of as some kind of unchanging psychic substance. Buddha-nature is that element in the consciousness that remains resistant to the delusory workings of the mind. The notion of an essentially undeluded consciousness is not an invention of Mahayana Buddhism. The Buddha himself made references to this idea in his early discourses. For example, in the Pali sutta Nguttara-nikaya, the Buddha had this to say about the essence of consciousness being luminous and pure and immune to defiling tendencies:

This mind, monks, is luminous, but it is defiled by stains that come from without, but this the uninstructed folk do not understand as it really is. Thus for the uninstructed there is no cultivation of the mind. I declare that mind, monks, is luminous and is cleansed of taints that come from without. This the instructed noble disciple understands as it really is. Thus for the instructed noble disciple there is cultivation of the mind, I declare.

In this Pali sutta, Buddha refers to the nature of the mind as luminous and sees the defilements as adventitious, which means they are not intrinsic to the mind itself. The word for luminosity is pabhasar in Pali and prabhasvara in Sanskrit. It would be one extreme to say there is no self at all apart from the self-identity constructed on and around our psychophysical constituents. That would be a nihilistic view. To say that there is a metaphysical self is the other extreme and represents an eternalistic view. The concept of buddha-nature therefore offers the middle way between these extremes. It refers to that element of consciousness that is pure and has remained resistant to the delusory states of mind. This is the working basis that Gampopa takes as so essential for the spiritual path and the reason it is possible for us to attain enlightenment.


As our buddha-nature is not subject to rapid fluctuations (as our psychological states are), and as it is not elusive, mysterious, and completely impervious to change (as the metaphysical self is), it can serve as a stable foundation for spiritual insight. Buddha-nature, then, has to be understood as our indwelling spiritual nature. It is important to point out that just because the word "buddha" is included in the concept of buddha-nature, we should not infer that it applies exclusively to Buddhists. Of course, it originated as a Buddhist concept, but buddha-nature exists in every being.

      It is because our true nature is buddha-nature that enlightenment is possible. Without it, the aspiration to attain enlightenment would merely be wishful thinking. There is nothing in our ordinary physical and mental states to suggest that they have the capacity to lead us out of the murky world of samsara, for the vicious turning of cyclic existence is characterized by periods of temporary happiness and periods of extreme pain, suffering, and despair. In fact, it is our very psychological workings that perpetuate this cycle.

      The second reason we are able to aim toward enlightenment, according to the Mahayana teachings, is that it is the conflicting emotions, and nothing else, that prevent us from recognizing our innate spiritual nature. If there were no conflicting emotions, we would understand our own true nature already and would not have got lost in the fictitious pursuit of self-knowledge. All of our distorted and deluded thoughts and our emotional conflicts of anger, jealousy, greed, hatred, pride and ignorance serve to perpetuate the deluded consciousness.

      The Mahayana sutras compare buddha-nature to the sun and the conflicting emotions to clouds. The negative emotions are said to be black ominous clouds and the positive emotions to be white clouds. In both cases, they are only temporary obscurations that are unable to dim the brilliance of the sun. Likewise, our conflicting emotions do obscure our minds temporarily, yet they are· unable to cause any harm to the original purity of our mind, our buddha-nature or the ground Mahamudra.

      The third reason we can realize this nature is our innate capacity to develop saintly qualities and attributes that in turn empower our efforts to overcome defilements. They do not have to be newly transplanted and cultivated, as would something foreign introduced from outside of ourselves-they are native to ourselves. We already have all the redeeming, elevated qualities and attributes that we admire in highly evolved beings, although those qualities remain in a state of potential at this point. Naturally, with encouragement, we can learn to cultivate and develop that potential. Knowing this will boost our confidence and lessen doubts and uncertainties.

      If the qualities that we require for liberation needed to be imported from outside ourselves, we would always have a nagging suspicion that they might not take root. On the other hand, if they already exist in dormant form within ourselves, we can be assured that they will grow if we nurture them. The metaphor. used in the Mahayana sutras is the planting of a field. If one takes an exotic plant and attempts to grow it in the desert, there will be little likelihood of success. And yet one can grow any plant in a fertile area that is conducive to growth. It is the same with virtuous qualities.

      One could that say consciousness by nature tends toward enlightenment. Our spiritual practices are designed to encourage that tendency rather than introduce something new to consciousness. We should therefore think of spiritual practice as encouraging what it is already natural for us to do. It is not natural for us to exist in a deluded state- that is the aberration that leads us away from the luminous bliss of buddhahood.

      This is why we speak of samsaric existence as going astray and why buddha-nature is referred to as our original dwelling place, our original home. Our buddha-nature is where we belong, where we should be; it is not anything new or foreign. It is unnatural for us to have been thrown into a deep state of confusion. To use a Christian expression, spiritual practice is a way of responding to the "original calling" of buddha-nature. We are simply responding to that call of our spiritual nature and returning to it. We do not have buddha-nature; we are buddha-nature. Our essence is spiritual, and we need not manufacture it in any way; it is the given condition of our fundamental state of being. This is why it is said. that the defilements that obscure buddha-nature are only adventitious.


From the general Mahayana point of view, it is necessary to develop a sense of confidence in ourselves as we progress along the spiritual path. How we go about cultivating this is therefore very important and yet often misunderstood. In a pragmatic sense, the idea of buddha-nature is useful in counteracting our reliance on the empirical ego as the object or reference point of our self -perception. There is a danger in this as well, however: We can fall into the trap of thinking of buddha-nature as the "big self," or the "real self," and the empirical ego as the little self. From a Buddhist point of view, the notion of any kind of self is always problematic, and that word needs to be accurately defined.

      We think in terms of self -cultivation, but this is not about forming another self-image of who we think we are. We do need to self-confidence and a healthy sense of our own self-worth, but that confidence must stem from our own true spiritual home, our original dwelling place, for only that is reliable. Other attempts at boosting our self -confidence will always be undependable, because whatever self-image we form will always be vulnerable to the challenges posed by reality. This is because any· image is constructed; every little piece is required to stay in its place-and this is not possible. No doubt we temporarily feel better and stronger personally for having done some work on ourselves, but if we fail to examine our entrenched delusions and habitual tendencies, all such superficial efforts will reveal their cosmetic nature, and any positive effects will fade, or something will go wrong again and our confidence will be shattered. If we feel comfortable in ourselves in relation to our own true nature, whatever we think we are on a relative level is less likely to be affected by what happens to us. In this way, our buddha-nature has to be understood as something we can rely upon, something we can experience. It is not an abstract principle, hidden and inaccessible.

      In the West today, there is a tendency to psychologize everything, which I believe is a form of reductionism. This can be particularly destructive when applied to spiritual endeavors. When Buddhists refer to deluded and undeluded states of mind, for instance, this is meant in the context of the spiritual path. It is not simply a case of seeing how one's mind operates; we need to be led to a deeper understanding of self and ultimate reality. We generally assume that consciousness is a "thing," or at least a mental entity of some kind, and therefore a single entity. On the contrary, according to Buddhism, consciousness is something that has many elements and many dimensions. We are capable of having far greater experiences of it than we currently do. The idea of an "expansion of consciousness" is a reasonably good analogy here, especially if we remember that this thing called consciousness is not a unitary thing. In Buddhist thinking, all our psychological experiences are regarded as by layers of delusions. The things that.we think about and perceive, the emotions that we experience- even if they are altruistic -are never entirely free from delusions: Delusory states are much more than just neuroses or other forms of mental disturbance. They are spiritual maladies akin to the theistic notion of sin, although they not be defined in quite the same way. Nevertheless, as such, they require spiritual ministration rather than mental health treatment.

      According to the Buddhist view, psychological neuroses and emotional disorders arise from our delusions, but the delusory states themselves are more than mere psychological disturbances. Consequently, a well-adjusted, happy person would not be regarded as undeluded and beyond the need for spiritual ministration. Buddhist spiritual practices and meditation methods are not just designed for unhappy people; they are. for all of us who search for a deeper meaning in life. This is why spiritual insight is liberating. Everything else we experience on the delusory level is imprisoning because it narrows our vision and our capacity to perceive ourselves and the world. Mahayana texts often use the analogy of a person who has developed cataracts and perceives everything through a cloudy, obscuring film.

      The metaphor sometimes used in Western. psychology compares the self-image we create to a mask or persona that we project toward others, and this is understood to be the core of the problem with ego and attachment. But Buddhism has never suggested that we should dissociate from self-images completely or that this is even possible. Without any persona whatsoever, we would not be able to function. We all have to play multiple roles in our lives-as a parent, a wage earner, a friend and so on. The real problem arises when we think of our persona- the multiple roles we necessarily play as a member of our society -and then feverishly cling to it as being indistinguishable from ourselves. This close identification with our self-image is what we should be wary of. Yet to think that we should not be projecting any kind of image whatsoever in our interactions with others is idealistic and impractical.


The only way to· realize our buddha-nature is by overcoming our conflicting emotions. We therefore need to have a clear understanding of what conflicting emotions actually are. Our conflicting emotions are akin to, but should not be equated with, the idea of being in some way tainted by sin. Conflicting emotions are not related to any theological concepts in Buddhism, however, in either their nature or their origin. Nor are they neurotic states as understood in Western psychology.

      Conflicting emotions have to be seen as aberrations, a word that suggests something uncharacteristic and unnatural. An illness or disease is an aberration to health, for instance, and has to be overcome or removed. Our conflicting emotions are like ·this, a disturbance to our well-being, and are therefore aberrations that need to be corrected.

      The conflicting emotions are said to have two sources, known generally as the two veils, so called because they obscure or veil our ability to recognize things as they are-our true nature, the true state of affairs in relation to ourselves and others, and our ability to directly perceive ultimate reality. The first veil stems from unhesitating distorted ways of thinking and is primarily responsible for the development of our erroneous views and perspectives on things. Consequently, it is referred to as the veil of cognitive distortions. The other veil bears on the emotional aspects of our being and is labeled the veil of conflicting emotions.

      Everything we experience is obscured and overlaid by these defiling veils, which is why it is said we live in the illusion of samsara. If these conflicting emotions are unattended to, as is normally the case, they gradually become more virulent and insidious and subtly cause the progressive corrosion of our sense of awareness, leaving our mind listless and torpid. The conflicting emotions have a dimming effect and originate from ignorance. As the conflicting emotions begin to affect our consciousness, there is a growing loss of sensibility, awareness, and sharpness of the mind. Correspondingly, the power of consciousness is greatly reduced, becoming rigid and resistant to change.

      The varied ways in which we suffer from our deep-seated and constantly reinforced habitual patterns is an unmistakable indication of our loss of consciousness, and hence self-control, in our emotional life. The diminution of power of consciousness through conflicting emotions and delusions leads to well-established habits- usually negative and self-destructive ones -that become entrenched in our sense of who we believe ourselves tp be. Our habitual responses to others through our words, deeds, and demeanor will also have a beneficial,." detrimental, or neutral impact upon "both them and ourselves, depositing further traces and dispositions in our basic consciousness that then become converted into latent tendencies and dispositional properties.


Before discussing the ways in which our conflicting emotions are acquired, I would like to relate a famous Zen story that illustrates how mental projections function in the mind. The dying wife of a Japanese man told him she would come back to haunt him if he ever married or took a mistress after her death. Some months after her death, when he fell in love again, he was not surprised to see her ghost walk into the house and accuse him bitterly of infidelity. This went on night after night until he was at his wits end, and he went to consult a Zen master about what to do. The Zen master asked him, "What makes you so sure that it is a ghost?" The man answered, "She knows every single thing that I have ever done or said or felt." The master gave the man a bag of soybeans and told him not to open it. Then he instructed the man, "When she appears tonight, ask her how many beans there are in the bag." That night, when the man asked the ghost how many beans there were in the bag, it could not answer and fled, never to return. The man returned to the Zen master and asked him how this could be. The master replied; "Don't you think it is strange that your ghost knew only the things that you knew?"

      Our delusions are perpetuated by a lack of awareness that results from the fact that we are never fully conscious. Only a buddha is fully conscious. By removing the conflicting emotions, we will access the acuity and awareness of buddha-mind, becoming more like a buddha and less like an ordinary sentient being. According to the Mahayanuttaratantra, the classic fifth-century Mahayana text on buddha-nature there are four different avenues through which conflicting emotions become active as the traces and dispositions of our mind-stream.

      The first is the avenue of the senses and sense impressions. When certain delusory states of mind are entrenched in our stream of consciousness, everything we see, hear, smell, taste, touch, and cognize is already tainted by our traces and dispositions. Nothing enters our consciousness without being interpreted in some discriminatory manner. For example, when we see something, we do not simply see it for what it is. Rather, we immediately react to that object with attachment, aversion, or some other form of discrimination. We may be looking at a car, but we are thinking, "Oh, that is a beautiful car. I have to have it." If we see an attractive person, we immediately respond to him or her as an object of desire. It is a very personalized perception of things because it is all dictated by our well-defined likes and dislikes. It is the same with the other senses, such as what we are accustomed to finding appealing we hear as a pleasant sound; what we do not like to hear is rejected as a disturbing cacophony that we want to tune out.

      Second is the avenue of self-perception. This describes the fact that everything we experience is generally processed with reference to ourselves: It is seen as "belonging to me." We are always thinking, "I experienced this, I saw that, I thought this." Gradually and insidiously, this reinforces our thinking of ourselves as a particular kind of person, a unique discrete entity.

      Third is the avenue of the causes and conditions that prevail at a given time. This refers to one's natural and social environment, which one can influence and also is affected by. Nobody functions in a vacuum, so to speak. Environmental conditions and the internal conditions of our being are interrelated in a myriad of ways.

      The fourth avenue is the avenue of homogeneity. The idea of homogeneity basically means that our preceding physical and mental states will determine our subsequent physical and mental states. In other words, we will be able to find a clear causal relationship between what precedes and what follows in terms of our experience. For example, if we have been in an agitated, negative mental state, with harmful thoughts and the stirrings of violent emotions, then our mental state is likely to be similar.

      In order to achieve liberation from these unconscious stresses and dispositions that are responsible for our deep-seated habit patterns, we need to work with the conflicting emotions. This we can do through the practice of meditation. The word liberation (moksha in Sanskrit; tharpa in Tibetan) suggests we are imprisoned in a world that is created by our own deluded consciousness. The possibility of finding an escape from that world into a more expansive space implies other ways of being; there is more to what we call mind than we normally realize. This idea of attaining enlightenment by overcoming our adventitious conflicting emotions is a radical understanding of the spiritual process, and it has largely escaped or been ignored by many modern interpreters. For instance, a frequent criticism of Buddhist meditation is that it does not deal with emotional issues sufficiently to eradicate our psychological problems. We cannot regard meditative insights as the same as psychological insights; meditation would then have to address the meditator's specific psychological problems. But meditation has a different goal. Spiritual insights have to be viewed as illuminations of our own true nature, insights into the nature of our delusions.


Meditation takes pride of place in Buddhism, valued more than any other spiritual or religious activity (or nonactivity) because it is in and through meditation that we learn to become more conscious of how our minds function. There are many different meditative methods in Buddhism, but all. are designed to increase our awareness and to decrease our conflicting emotions, enabling our spiritual senses ·to reawaken. Again, the idea of reawakening the spiritual senses is not equated with flashes of psychological insight. They are of a different order. To experience our buddha-nature is to experience a breakthrough from the confinements of our ordinary consciousness.

      Some books on Buddhist meditation suggest that awareness is the key to awakening and that by simply being aware we can overcome delusory states of mind. Being aware is, of course, the first step, but it is certainly not the complete method of becoming fully conscious. When we practice being aware during meditation, we are engaging in a mental act. That mental act of awareness is just a convenient device; it is not in itself liberating. Unfortunately, some longtime practitioners of Buddhist meditation have labored under the misapprehension that psychological" awareness is itself the complete path. They complain that while their minds are more calm, all their emotional rubbish remains unprocessed and unresolved. They then feel disillusioned with meditation and become nihilistic and cynical. This is why I keep emphasizing the importance of insight meditation in Buddhism. Without this practice, we will not gain insight into our mind, and without insight our delusions will not lift. If our delusions do not lift, then emotional problems will always recur in one form or another. We may undergo therapy to address a particular psychological problem, but if later on we develop another problem, it also will need to be addressed by psychotherapy. Failure to appreciate this has led some practitioners to rush to therapists to discuss the trauma they have suffered because of meditation! Here again, one is reminded of the importance of learning and developing the correct view.

      Being aware and learning to connect spiritually in the context of is not about being aware in the ordinary sense. We are talking about an awareness that relates to a dimension of being of which we are normally oblivious. It is important to note this distinction, or we could end up practicing a psychological state of awareness rather than a meditative type of awareness. Disillusionment can occur when the meditator fails to connect with a deeper level of being. Meditation is not about being aware of our psychological states, nor about simply learning to be attentive and present.

      We have spoken at length about what the experience of our true nature is not: It is not an egotistic experience or a psychological experience·, and it requires removal of defilements. Hence we have defined it through a largely negative vocabulary. This is difficult to avoid, as our true buddha-nature is not a thing to be characterized and evaluated. According to the Mahayana teachings, being in touch with our own true nature is a transcendental experience, untainted by dualistic notions of perceiver and perceived, subject and object. It is an all-encompassing state within which one no longer distinguishes between self and other. This is liberating because there is no boundary; we have broken out of the egotistic shell. We arrive at that state of buddha-nature, ground Mahamudra, now, in the present. If we can allow ourselves to do that, without continuously being compromised by various delusory states of mind, even if only for a short time, then we are already there. We can then see that it is not something inaccessible, hidden, or far beyond our reach.

      That liberating experience is something we can attain. How deep and how stable that experience is will depend upon our own capacity. Fortunately, there is a kind of momentum involved, whereby the recognition of this more expansive reality in everyday life will become more emphatic and our thinking, experience, and actions will be steadily freed from egotistic needs and desires. They will come from a deeper level of being, which is more reliable and more consistent and therefore possesses the potential to uplift us.

      This is what is indicated by the term tathagatagarbha. As I said earlier, tathagata means "thus gone." Actually, it can imply both coming and going at the same time, so "thus come and thus gone" is a more accurate rendering. Garbha, as I said, means "essence." So tathagatagarbha is the intrinsically pure and incorruptible nature of all beings, which is both transcendent and immanent in our consciousness. Only when awareness leads us to become fully conscious of our own spiritual buddha-nature does awareness cease to be a mental act. According to the Mahayana teachings, it will then become a radiant expression of buddha-nature, which in the Mahamudra teachings is the realization of ground Mahamudra.


Having given a general overview of the Mahayana concept of buddhanature, I would now like to link this concept specifically to the understanding of ground Mahamudra. There are many different ways to understand buddha-nature within Buddhism, and many different methods are employed to achieve the reality that is described and formulated. The various perspectives all state that buddha-nature is a kind of reality, but they differ as to what that reality actually is and how we should best go about realizing it. We do not have to decide which of these diverse (or perhaps seemingly conflicting) perspectives is true. Different perspectives on buddha-nature bring about different experiences, all of which lead to the same goal.

      In Buddhism, it is openly conceded that having different terminologies and different concepts gives us a different understanding of something. Multiple perspectives are valued because particular perspectives will necessarily yield corresponding understandings. Sometimes people become annoyed by these· multiple perspectives and begin to question which one "is real and which ones are false. The Buddhist position is that they are all true within their given context. They are also necessary because in Mahayana Buddhism the teachings have to accommodate the needs of a diverse range of people, all potential beneficiaries of the Dharma. Any single perspective that is dogmatically thrust upon a multitude of diverse individuals will fail to inspire many and is unlikely to benefit than a few.

      Ideally, Buddhist teachings address our individual predicaments and spiritual needs and tally with our individual temperaments and outlooks on life. It is only natural to assume, given this imperative, that we will find some perspectives more suited to our overall worldview than others.

      A cautionary pause is in order at this point, lest we veer into a libertarian authorization of any and all interpretations and viewpoints. This cannot be the case. Different perspectives have to form a coherent whole with an underlying thematic link between the variations, otherwise they would cease to be perspectives on the same thing. For instance, a botanist deals with different classes of floras, and different experts may hold contradictory views about these classifications, but their opinions still have to remain within the discipline of botany. There is no point in drawing from geology to support a particular position (apart from the fact that geological conditions may affect the health of plants). In the same way, our different perspectives on buddha-nature have to have the commonality of the Buddhist notion of tathagatagarbha. If buddha-nature is to be interpreted as no different from the notion of a soul, it ceases to be a perspective on buddha-nature at all. One has to maintain a healthy balance between dogmatism and nihilism in this way.

  1. His Holiness the Dalai Lama, Self and Buddha-Nature.