Part I: The Prime Cause
Holmes, Ken, trans. "Part I: The Prime Cause." In Ornament of Precious Liberation, edited by Thupten Jinpa, 15–21. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2017.
1. Buddha Nature
The line "The prime cause is buddha nature" states the following. As mentioned above, you need to gain freedom from the deluded nature of samsara and to attain highest enlightenment. However, you might well wonder, "Even if we or other ordinary people like us were to try very hard, how could we ever possibly attain enlightenment?" In truth, anyone who practices with great effort cannot fail to reach enlightenment. Why? Because all forms of conscious life, including ourselves, possess its prime cause. Within us is buddha nature. The King of Meditation Sutra states:
Buddha nature totally permeates all beings.
The shorter Great [Passing into] Nirvana Sutra says:
All sentient beings possess buddha nature.
Further, the longer Great [Passing into] Nirvana Sutra says:
Just as butter, for example, exists in milk as something totally permeating it, so does buddha nature permeate all sentient beings.
The Ornament of Mahayana Sutras also states:
Suchness is the same
for all and everyone; it is that which is pure.
Since this is the Tathāgata,
all beings are endowed with this essence. MSA 10:37
If this is so, you may wonder why sentient beings are endowed with buddha nature. It is because: (1) dharmakāya, emptiness, pervades all beings. (2) the universal essence (dharmatā), suchness (tathatā), is without differentiation. (3) every sentient being has the potential to become a buddha.
This is just what is stated in the Uttaratantra, where it says:
Because the dharmakāya pervades all,
because suchness is without differentiation,
and because they possess the potential,
every living being at all times has buddha nature. RGV I:28
To explain the first reason, “dharmakāya, emptiness, pervades all beings,” here the Buddha is the dharmakāya, and the dharmakāya is emptiness. Since emptiness is something pervading all sentient beings, it follows that all those beings have the essence of buddhahood. The second reason, “the universal essence, suchness, is without differentiation,” means that whether it be in terms of good and bad, great and small, or higher and lower, there is no difference between the universal essence in buddhas and the universal essence in sentient beings. Thus sentient beings possess the buddha essence. That “every sentient being has the potential to become a buddha” is explained through the five ways in which they stand in respect to enlightenment potential. These are outlined in the following synopsis:
Those with enlightenment potential can be summed up as belonging to five groups: those with severed potential, undetermined potential, śrāvaka potential, pratyekabuddha potential, and those with the Mahayana potential.
Those with severed potential are characterized by six traits, such as lacking a sense of shame in public, having no dignity in private, lacking compassion, and so forth. The great master Asaṅga has said of them:
Though seeing what is wrong with samsara, they are not in the
least put off by it.
Though hearing about the qualities of enlightened beings, they
feel not the slightest faith in them.
Without conscience and shame, and devoid of even a little
compassion, they feel not the slightest regret for the unwhole-
some acts in which they fully indulge.
Through compounding those six shortcomings, they are far from
ready for enlightenment.
It also says, in the Ornament of Mahayana Sutras:
It is certain that some are solely engaged in what is harmful.
Some are constantly destroying whatever is good.
Others lack those virtues conducive to liberation.
They are devoid of anything that could in any way be
Although those who have the above traits are said to have severed potential, this refers to their having to pass an exceedingly long time in samsara and does not mean that they have definitively cut off any chance of achieving enlightenment. Provided that they make the effort, they can attain enlightenment. It says of this, in the White Lotus of Compassion Sutra:
Ānanda! Were someone lacking the fortunate circumstances for nirvana merely to cast a flower up in the sky, visualizing the Buddha, then that person thereby possesses the fruit of nirvana. I declare that person to be one who will reach nirvana and who will penetrate to its furthest end.
The lot of those with undetermined potential depends on the circumstances. Those who train under śrāvaka spiritual teachers, become involved with śrāvakas, or come across śrāvaka scriptures will place their trust in the śrāvaka way and, having entered that way, will actually become śrāvakas themselves. Likewise, those who encounter pratyekabuddha or Mahayana circumstances will embrace the pratyekabuddha or Mahayana ways.
Those with śrāvaka potential fear samsara, believe in nirvana, and have limited compassion. The scriptures say:
Seeing the sufferings of samsara, they are afraid;
they manifestly aspire for nirvana;
they are not interested in working for the welfare of sentient beings:
Those who bear these three characteristics have the śrāvaka
In addition to the above three characteristics, those with pratyekabuddha potential have enormous self-confidence, keep quiet about their teachers, and are loners. It is said:
Grieved by samsaric existence they are keen for nirvana;
weak in compassion they are exceedingly confident;
secretive about their teachers, and they love solitude:
These the wise should recognize as having the pratyekabuddha
Although the above two groups—those with śrāvaka and those with pratyekabuddha potential—may enter these two vehicles and attain their respective results, what they achieve is not true nirvana. At the time of their achievement they will, on account of a latent ignorance, acquire and exist in a subtle mental body brought about by their former untainted karma. They will be convinced that the state of untainted profound absorption they enjoy is nirvana and that they have attained nirvana.
One might object, "If this is not real nirvana, it would be inappropriate for the Buddha to teach these two paths." It is, in fact, entirely appropriate for the Buddha to teach them as he did. Let us consider the following example. Some merchants from Jambudvīpa set out to the far-off oceans to obtain precious gems. At one point in their journey, they felt so tired and downhearted while crossing a great wilderness that they began to think they would never manage to get the jewels, and they contemplated turning back. However, through his magical powers, their leader created a great illusory citadel where they were able to rest and recuperate.
Like the merchants in this story, beings of weak resolve will feel overwhelmed when they learn of the tremendous wisdom of the buddhas, and they may feel that the task of achieving it is too daunting and far beyond the capacity of the likes of them. On account of the awe they feel, they will either never undertake the task of enlightenment or they will give up easily. By teaching the two paths of the śrāvaka and pratyekabuddha, the Buddha enables them to attain the refreshing, healing state of a śrāvaka or pratyekabuddha. In the Lotus Sutra it says:
Likewise all the śrāvakas are
under the impression that they have attained nirvana.
The Buddha tells them that
this is not nirvana but a respite.
When they have rested and refreshed themselves in the state of a śrāvaka or pratyekabuddha, the Buddha knows it is time to encourage them to achieve full enlightenment. How is this done? The Buddha inspires them through perfect body, pure speech, and wisdom mind. Light rays stream from his mind. By these beams merely touching their mental bodies, śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas are awakened from their untainted meditative concentration. Then the Buddha manifests his own perfect physical presence and declares the following with his pure speech: “O monks! By merely doing what you have done, the task is not accomplished and the work is not yet done. Your nirvana is not nirvana. Monks! Now approach the Tathāgata and pay heed to what he says; understand his instruction.” That he motivates them thus is taught in the verses of the Lotus Sutra:
O monks! I therefore tell you today
that by this alone you will not attain nirvana,
and that for you to gain the pristine awareness of the omniscient
you must give rise to a noble and mighty wave of effort.
By so doing, you will achieve all-knowing pristine awareness.
Through being exhorted in this way, śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas will cultivate the great bodhicitta. Having conducted themselves as bodhisattvas for countless ages, they will become buddhas. Thus it is stated in the Sutra on Going to Laṅka as well. In the Lotus Sutra it states:
Those śrāvakas who have not attained nirvana will all, through
having practiced the bodhisattva way of life, become buddhas.
The synopsis for those with Mahayana potential is the following:
Mahayana potential is summed up through six topics: its categories, their essential characteristics, its synonyms, the reasons it is particularly outstanding, the forms it takes, and its signs.
First, there are two main categories: the potential as it exists naturally and the potential as something attained.
Second is an analysis of the essential characteristics of each of these. The potential as it exists naturally, since time without beginning, is the innate capacity of suchness to give rise to enlightened qualities. The potential as something attained is the capacity of one’s former cultivation of virtue to give rise to enlightened qualities. Both these aspects of Mahayana potential make a readiness for enlightenment.
The synonyms for this are potential, seed, element, and essential nature.
The reasons it stands far above the other forms of potential are as follows. The śrāvaka and pratyekabuddha potentials are lesser ones, because to realize them, only the afflictions need be eliminated. The Mahayana potential is outstanding because its total realization involves eliminating both obscurations. This makes the Mahayana potential peerless, better than all the others.
The different forms of Mahayana potential are its activated and dormant states. When the potential has been activated, its signs are manifest and “the results have been attained.” While it is dormant, the signs are not manifest and “the results have not [yet] been attained.”
What activates the potential? Freedom from adverse conditions and the support of favorable ones activate it. While their contraries prevail, it remains dormant.
There are four adverse conditions: (1) birth in an unfavorable existence, (2) a lack of good inclinations, (3) involvement in aberrant ways, and (4) being flawed with obscurations.
There are two favorable conditions: (1) externally, there are Dharma teachers, and (2) within, there is a proper mental attitude, aspiring to what is wholesome and so forth.
The signs [or evidence] of this potential are found in the Ten Dharmas Sutra, where it describes the indications of its presence:
Just as one infers the presence of fire through smoke
and that of water through the presence of waterfowl,
likewise the potential of the bodhisattva mentality
is detected by means of its signs.
What are these signs? Naturally and without contrivance, such beings are peaceful in what they do and say, their minds have little deceit or hypocrisy, and they are loving and joyful in their relations with others. As it says in the Ten Dharmas Sutra:
Never rough or rude,
beyond deceit and hypocrisy,
and full of love for all beings:
they are the bodhisattvas.
Further, they engender compassion toward all beings before entering into any activity. Genuinely aspiring to Mahayana Dharma, they undertake difficult tasks with forbearance that is never discouraged by the enormity of the undertaking, and they practice most properly and excellently that which generates virtue and has the nature of the perfections. It says in the Ornament of Mahayana Sutras:
Compassion prior to action,
aspiration as well as forbearance,
and engaging perfectly in virtues:
These should be recognized as signs of their potential. MSA 4:5
The above means that of the five types of potential, the Mahayana one is the most direct cause for buddhahood. The śrāvaka and pratyekabuddha potentials are also causes for attaining buddhahood but remoter ones. The undetermined potential is sometimes a direct cause, sometimes a remote cause. The disconnected potential is considered a very remote cause but not a total breach of the possibility of enlightenment; It is therefore an exceedingly far-removed cause for it.
Thus we have seen that, due to having one or another of these types of potential, sentient beings possess buddha nature, and this has also been demonstrated through the three reasons. The actual way they possess it can be exemplified by the way silver is present in silver ore, the way sesame oil is present in sesame, or the way butter is present in milk. Just as it is possible to obtain the silver that is in ore, the oil that is in sesame seeds, and the butter that is in milk, so it is possible to attain the buddhahood that is in all sentient beings.
This concludes the first chapter, concerning the prime cause, of this Ornament of Precious Liberation, a Wish-Fulfilling Gem of Sublime Dharma.
- The text says "lesser beings," but since that is comparing them with exalted beings, such as buddhas and realized bodhisattvas, the meaning is that they are regular, worldly beings.
- Samādhirājasūtra, 32a7
- Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra (shorter version), 112a4
- Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra (longer version), 111b1
- Asaṅga's discussion of the six shortcomings and how the convergence of them deprives one of the enlightenment potential is found in his Śrāvaka Levels (Śrāvakabhūmi), 7b5. It is difficult to determine whether Gampopa is here citing from another source or versifying this same citation.
- Mahākaruṇāpuṇḍarīkasūtra 87a7
- The source of this quote has not been identified.
- The source of this quote has not been identified.
- Jambudvīpa in this context refers principally to India.
- Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra, 54b1
- Ibid., 75a3
- The term bodhicitta, or "thought of awakening," can be used to describe the aspiration of the Hinayana paths. When such is the case, the more familiar bodhicitta of the bodhisattva is known as great bodhicitta.
- Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra, 40b1
- These synonyms are very helpful in understanding the connotations of rigs, the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit term gotra. It is a potential one is born with, if that term is seen through its meaning of "family," remembering that caste and profession were so closely linked to birth family. It is like a seed, containing from the outset the genetic information of its fruit; it is like the one prime element permeating all existence; and it is the essential nature of all things, once the veil of illusions has fallen.
- This is the first mention of the two obscurations (āvaraṇa) in this text, the afflictions obscuration (kleśāvaraṇa) and the knowledge obscuration (jñeyāvaraṇa).
- The Palpung edition has "a lack of care."
- Daśadharmakasūtra, 167b7.
- Ibid., 168a1