Dalai Lama, 14th, and Thubten Chodron. "Buddha Nature." In Saṃsāra, Nirvāṇa, and Buddha Nature, 291–317. Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2018.
All Buddhist traditions accept that excellent qualities can be cultivated and that defilements can be forever eliminated from the mind. What is the basis upon which this occurs? Each tradition describes it somewhat differently.
The Mind's Potential according to the Pāli Tradition
Although the term buddha nature is not used in the Pāli scriptures to describe the mind's potential to attain liberation, the Buddha identified certain characteristics that reveal spiritual practitioners' inclinations toward liberation. Characteristics such as having modest desire and a sense of contentment signify that a person is a genuine spiritual practitioner aiming for liberation. Practitioners endeavor daily to cultivate these virtuous characteristics that indicate their potential to gain realizations. In the sūtra Luminous, the Buddha spoke of the clear nature of the mind that is tainted by adventitious defilements that can be removed (AN 1.51-52):
This mind, O monastics, is luminous, but it is defiled by adventitious defilements. The uninstructed worldling does not understand this as it really is; therefore for him there is no mental development.
This mind, O monastics, is luminous, and it is freed from adventitious defilements. The instructed ārya disciple understands this as it really is; therefore for him there is mental development.
Ārya Disposition according to the Vaibhāṣikas and Sautrāntikas
The tenet schools put forth assertions about the disposition (trait, lineage, T. rigs) that accord with their general presentation of the basis, path, and result of practice. For Vaibhāṣikas, the ārya disposition (T. 'phags pa'i rigs) is the mental factor of nonattachment that acts as a cause for its own resultant ārya path. Since Vaibhāṣikas emphasize craving as a formidable cause of cyclic existence, it makes sense that they assert nonattachment as both the antidote to craving and the disposition in sentient beings that has the potential to bring the realizations of the ārya path and liberation. Contentment with what we have and lack ofgreed for what we do not have are the source of āryas' pristine wisdom. While nonattachment in the mindstream of an ordinary person is polluted in that it is associated with ignorance, when it is associated with an ārya's pristine wisdom, it is unpolluted. Guṇaprabha's Sūtra on the Code ofEthical Conduct (Vinayasūtra) explains that āryas with the disposition have four qualities: (1-3) They are satisfied with whatever food and drink, shelter, and robes they have. (4) They take joy in meditation and in overcoming what is to be abandoned.
The first three qualities are the means to actualize the ārya path, and the last is the actual cause to generate the realizations of the ārya path that bring true cessation. The first three are also the means to exhaust the sense of I and mine, while the last is the means to exhaust ignorance. Everyone seeking liberation or full awakening cultivates these four qualities in order to attain their goal.
According to Sautrāntikas, the disposition is the potential or seed for the arising of the unpolluted mind (T. zag med sems kyi nus pa), the pristine wisdom of the āryas. All sentient beings have this potential because all of them at one time or another have experienced happiness. Since happiness is the result of virtue, everyone has virtue and thus has the potential for the unpolluted mind. This potential is nourished through learning, reflecting, and meditating on the Dharma in the present life. However, if someone's roots of virtue are cut by his engagement in extremely destructive actions, this seed cannot grow and may even be destroyed.
In general, Vaibhāṣikas and Sautrāntikas assert that only sentient beings who will become wheel-turning buddhas—buddhas that initially teach the Dharma in a time and place where it is absent—will attain full awakening. All other sentient beings will attain arhatship. At the time they have completely abandoned all afflictive obscurations, arhats attain nirvāṇa with remainder—the remainder being their polluted bodies produced by afflictions and karma. When they pass away from that life and shed their polluted bodies, they attain nirvana without remainder. At this time, the polluted aggregates no longer remain and the continuity of the mental consciousness is severed, which precludes their entering the Bodhisattva Vehicle.
Buddha Nature according to the Cittamātra School
In Mahayana literature, buddha nature, or buddha disposition (buddhagotra), is discussed from three perspectives: the Cittamātra, Madhyamaka, and Vajrayāna. All three speak of the naturally abiding buddha disposition and the transforming buddha disposition.
According to Cittamātrins, as explained by Asaṅga in the Compendium of the Mahāyāna (Mahāyānasaṃgraha), buddha disposition is the latency, seed, or potency that has existed since beginningless time and has the potential to give rise to the three bodies of a buddha. A conditioned phenomenon, the buddha disposition is the seed of unpolluted pristine wisdom (T. zag med ye shes kyi sa bon). Saying the buddha disposition is a latency fits in well with the Cittamātra school's assertion that everything arises as a result of latencies on either the foundation consciousness or the mental consciousness. When this latency of the unpolluted pristine wisdom has not yet been nourished by learning, reflecting, and meditating, it is called the naturally abiding buddha disposition, because it is beginningless. When the same latency has been nourished by learning, reflecting, and meditating on the Dharma, it is called the transforming buddha disposition. It is the same latency, the difference being whether or not it has been activated by means of Dharma practice. Initially, as the naturally abiding buddha disposition, it is a simple latency that has three characteristics: (1) It has existed since beginningless time and continues from one life to the next uninterruptedly, (2) It is not newly created but is naturally present. (3) It is carried by the foundation consciousness according to the Cittamātra Scriptural Proponents and by the mental consciousness (the sixth consciousness) according to the Cittamātra Reasoning Proponents. This is so because sensory consciousnesses are unstable and only intermittently present.
When the naturally abiding buddha disposition is awakened and transformed by means of learning, reflecting, and meditating, it brings the realization of the ārya path and, at that time, it is called the transforming buddha disposition. In particular, when meditation on great compassion has progressed to the point where the great resolve that takes responsibility to work for the welfare of all sentient beings arises, the Mahāyāna disposition has been awakened.
Citing the Sūtra Unravelling the Thought (Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra), Cittamātra Scriptural Proponents assert three final vehicles—the Śrāvaka and Solitary Realizer Vehicles that culminate in arhatship and the Bodhisattva Vehicle that brings full awakening. The doctrine of three final vehicles states that once śrāvaka and solitary realizer practitioners attain arhatship, they will abide in meditative equipoise on emptiness forever and will not later enter the Mahayana and attain the full awakening of buddhahood. The Cittamātra Scriptural Proponents base this on their belief that there are five types of disposition (lineage)—śrāvaka, solitary realizer, bodhisattva, indefinite, and severed. Here "disposition" connotes a source of excellent qualities, and each sentient being has the latency for one of the five dispositions. This latency is an internal predisposition that exists naturally in each sentient being's foundation consciousness that inclines him or her toward a particular spiritual path.
People display certain signs that are indicative of their buddha disposition. Those with the śrāvaka disposition have strong determination to be free from saṃsāra; they avoid nonvirtue and purify destructive karma, are moved by teachings on the four truths, and live ethically. They take prātimokṣa precepts with the aspiration for their own liberation and dedicate all the merit from their practice for this goal.
Those having the solitary realizer disposition have few afflictions and weak compassion, so they dislike busyness and prefer solitude. Teachings on the twelve links of dependent origination touch them deeply and they meditate primarily on this. Like śrāvakas, they purify destructive karma, create constructive karma, and have strong determination to be free from saṃsāra. Their motivation and dedication are directed toward the liberation of a solitary realizer arhat.
Those with the bodhisattva or Mahāyāna disposition are naturally empathetic and compassionate. They purify and abandon nonvirtue, create virtue, and take prātimokṣa and bodhisattva precepts with the aspiration to attain the full awakening of a buddha. Seeking to work for the welfare of sentient beings, they practice the six perfections and have fortitude to engage in the bodhisattvas' deeds. Their motivation and dedication is for the attainment of buddhahood. Persons of these three dispositions are definite in their path. They will not change vehicles but will proceed to the attainment of their own vehicle. At present, it is uncertain which vehicle those of indefinite disposition will enter. Depending on the spiritual mentor they meet and the Buddhist teachings they learn in the future, they will develop an inclination toward one vehicle or another.
Those whose lineage is severed (icchantika) have engaged in extremely destructive actions or strongly adhere to pernicious wrongviews. They have little merit, great negativity, and lack integrity and consideration for how their actions affect others. Not wishing to abandon nonvirtue and lacking insight into the unsatisfactory nature of saṃsāra, they have no interest in liberating themselves or others. Even if they dabble in the Dharma, their motivation is one seeking the pleasures of saṃsāra. Having cut their roots of virtue, they are in a state where, either temporarily or perpetually, they cannot attain liberation or awakening.
This perspective on the buddha disposition and on three final vehicles is supported by Cittamātra tenets: Because a being's disposition is truly existent, it cannot change into the disposition of another vehicle. Since it can bring only the result of its respective vehicle, there must be three final vehicles.
Our buddha disposition may be impeded from manifesting when great attachment or strong afflictions overwhelm our minds and when we are too busy to be interested in spiritual practice or don't see the faults of the afflictions. Thinking our actions lack an ethical dimension and experiencing hindrances such as illness, poverty, or strong karmic obstructions also prevent our disposition from developing.
Certain activities can stimulate our buddha disposition: Learning and reflecting on teachings, living in an environment that is conducive to practice, and abiding near our spiritual mentor or sincere practitioners. Generating the aspiration for virtuous qualities, restraining our senses, abandoning nonvirtue, receiving monastic ordination, purifying obscurations, and so on also invigorate our buddha disposition.
Relying on the Lotus Sutra (Saddharma Puṇḍarīka Sūtra) and the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra, Cittamātra ReasoningProponents and all Mādhyamikas assert one final vehicle: all sentient beings can enter the Bodhisattva Vehicle and attain buddhahood. The Sublime Continuum by Maitreya and Asaṅga's commentary on it speak of four types of people whose buddha nature is defiled in that they are not yet ready to enter the Bodhisattva Vehicle, engage in the two collections, and progress on the path to full awakening: worldly people who are infatuated with saṃsāric pleasures, non Buddhists who hold wrongviews, śrāvakas, and solitary realizers. They also discuss the specific obscurations that block these sentient beings and explain their antidotes. Here Asaṅga writes from a Madhyamaka viewpoint that holds that all sentient beings have the buddha nature.
Buddha Nature according to the Madhyamaka School
The topic of buddha nature (gotra) is found in the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras, Ornament of Clear Realizations, Sublime Continuum (Ratnagotravibhāga, Uttaratantra) by Maitreya and its commentary by his disciple Asaṅga, Bodhisattva Grounds (Bodhisattva Bhumī), and other Mahāyāna texts. The Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra and Nirvāṇa Sūtra speak of buddha essence (garbha), using a more essentialist language. As a Mādhyamika, I prefer presentations that lack the essentialist meaning. Like Ngok Lotsawa, who translated the Sublime Continuum into Tibetan, in the Sūtrayāna context I believe buddha essence primarily refers to the emptiness of the mind. The Sublime Continuum defines buddha nature as phenomena that have the possibility to transform into any of the buddha bodies. It is of two types—the naturally abiding buddha nature (prakṛtisthagotra, T. rang bzhin gnas rigs) and the transforming buddha nature (samudānītagotra, T. rgyas 'gyur gi rigs). Both exist in all sentient beings whether or not they are on a path.
The naturally abiding buddha nature is the emptiness of the mind that is yet to abandon defilements and that is able to transform into the nature dharmakāya of a buddha. Sakya Paṇḍita described it as the unchanging nature of the mind. In Treatise on the Middle Way Nāgārjuna notes that whatever is the nature of a tathāgata is the nature of sentient beings (22.16).
Whatever is the essence of the Tathāgata,
that is the essence of the transmigrator.
The Tathāgata has no essence.
The transmigrator has no essence.
This empty nature of the mind is beyond the three times (past, present, and future), beyond the realms of cyclic existence, and beyond constructive and destructive karma. Neither virtuous nor nonvirtuous, it can act as the basis for both samsara and nirvana. The Eight-Thousand-Line Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra (Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra) says:
Thus that which is the reality of all things
is not past nor future nor present.
Whatever is neither past, future, nor present
is utterly free from threefold time,
cannot be transferred nor objectified
nor conceptualized nor cognized.
The existence of the naturally abiding buddha nature—the emptiness of inherent existence of ordinary beings' minds—means that mental defilements can be eliminated. Why? If phenomena existed inherently, they would be independent of everything else and thus would be unable to function, influence one another, or change. The fact that the ultimate nature of the mind is empty of inherent existence indicates that the mind can change.
In addition, all defilements are rooted in fundamental ignorance, the erroneous mental factor that grasps all phenomena as possessing an inherent reality. This erroneous grasping gives rise to attachment, anger, and all other afflictions and supports virtuous polluted mental states as well. From these spring our actions or karma, which cause us to take continual rebirth in cyclic existence. Cultivating insight into the true nature of reality, emptiness, initiates the process of undoing this causal chain. With the development of the wisdom that directly perceives reality—emptiness or suchness—this ignorance can be overpowered and completely eradicated from the mind. The defilements are not embedded in the ultimate nature of the mind. They too lack inherent existence, so when the antidote of the wisdom directly realizing emptiness is applied to them, they can be removed from the mind.
On the basis of recognizing the naturally abiding buddha nature—natural nirvāṇa, or the emptiness of the mind—we can attain the nirvāṇa that is the total pacification of mental defilements. A buddha's nirvana is nonabiding nirvāṇa, the full purification of the naturally abiding buddha nature.
In some texts the emptiness of the mind is called a cause of buddhahood in the sense that meditation on emptiness purifies the mind of defilements and leads to buddhahood. However, emptiness is not an actual cause because it is a permanent phenomenon that does not change or bring results.
The transforming buddha nature is the seed for the unpolluted mind. It consists of conditioned phenomena that can transform into a buddha's wisdom truth body. The transforming buddha nature includes neutral mental consciousnesses as well as virtuous mental factors, such as love, compassion, wisdom, and faith, and other virtuous mental states, such as bodhicitta, that are progressively developed as a bodhisattva progresses through the ten bodhisattva grounds. The transforming buddha nature also includes consciousnesses that form the collection of wisdom—the principal cause of the wisdom truth body—and the mind visualizing ourselves as a deity, which is a cause for a buddha's form body. It is possible to increase these virtuous qualities and mental states limitlessly because their base, the clear light mind, is stable and because no antidote exists that can eliminate them. At the time we become buddhas, our naturally abiding buddha nature will become the nature truth body of a buddha, and our transforming buddha nature will become the wisdom truth body of a buddha.
Which of the seven types of awareness can be included in transforming buddha nature? Wrong awarenesses, such as resentment, self-grasping ignorance, and the mind that fantasizes being a star athlete without creating the causes, are not buddha nature. Inattentive awarenesses are not buddha nature because they don't correctly know their object. Correct assumptions, doubt inclined to the correct conclusion, inferential cognizers, correct mental direct perceivers, and subsequent reliable cognizers are transforming buddha nature. The five paths of the śrāvakas, solitary realizers, and bodhisattvas are transforming buddha nature, as are the ten bodhisattva grounds. The emptiness of inherent existence of all these minds is the natural buddha nature.
In short, any neutral or virtuous mind that is not free from defilement and can transform into a buddha's wisdom dharmakāya is part of the transforming buddha nature. Mental consciousnesses accompanied by manifest afflictions cannot be transforming buddha nature because they are eliminated on the path.
As neutral or virtuous states of mind, the transforming buddha nature consists of impermanent phenomena. As the emptiness of the mind, the naturally abiding buddha nature is permanent. These two buddha natures are one nature. Although they are not exactly the same, one cannot exist without the other. Only the emptiness of neutral and virtuous consciousnesses can be the naturally abiding buddha nature because only the neutral or virtuous consciousnesses that are their bases are the transforming buddha nature.
Because the afflictions are empty of inherent existence, awakening is possible. However, the emptiness of the afflictions is not buddha nature. Since the afflictions are eliminated on the path and cannot be transformed into any of a buddha's bodies, their emptinesses will similarly cease and cannot become the nature truth body.
Some people speak of inanimate phenomena—rocks, trees, and so forth—as having buddha nature. I believe that they are referring to the fact that these phenomena are empty of inherent existence. Only sentient beings have buddha nature. That we can generate the determination to be free from saṃsāra, bodhicitta, and wisdom indicates that the buddha nature is within us. Because inanimate phenomena lack mind, they cannot generate these virtuous mental states and do not possess buddha nature.
Someone may wonder: Since the emptiness of the mind of a sentient being and the emptiness of the mind of a buddha are the same in being the emptiness of inherent existence, does that mean that sentient beings already have the qualities of buddhas or that they are already buddhas? No, it does not, because the minds that possess that emptiness differ. Tsongkhapa explains in Illumination of the Thought:
It is said, "The buddha nature is that which serves as the cause of āryas' qualities when observed; thus, here the absurd consequence [that all sentient beings would have the qualities of āryas] is not entailed." The mere presence of the nature of phenomena (dharmadhātu) does not mean that one abides in the buddha nature in terms of the path. When one observes and meditates on the nature of phenomena through the path, it comes to serve as the special cause of āryas' qualities. At that time one's buddha nature is regarded as special.
Emptiness is the "cause" of the wonderful qualities of āryas when we perceive it directly and use that realization to cleanse our minds of defilements. The fact that we have the naturally abiding buddha nature—the empty nature of the mind—does not mean that we have already realized it with a true path—a reliable cognizer that realizes emptiness directly. Only a direct realization of the empty nature of the mind will bring about an ārya's qualities. When this realization arises in our mind, the emptiness of our minds—our buddha nature—will be regarded as special.
The emptiness of inherent existence of our minds is a permanent phenomenon. It does not change moment by moment, as do conditioned phenomena. While emptiness in general is eternal, when we speak about the emptiness of a specific thing, that emptiness may not always exist. For example, the emptiness of a glass ceases when that glass shatters. An emptiness is posited in relation to an object that is empty; it is one nature with that object—the emptiness of the mind exists in dependence on the mind. The emptiness of an ordinary being's mind exists as long as that ordinary being does. Because that mind has defilements, its emptiness is together with defilement. When portions of the mind's defilements have been removed by the true path, the mind becomes an ārya's mind and its emptiness is the emptiness of an ārya's mind. When ordinary beings realize emptiness directly and become āryas, the emptiness of the ordinary being's mind no longer exists; now there is the emptiness of an ārya's mind. These two emptinesses are both the absence of inherent existence, and to an ārya's mind in meditative equipoise on emptiness, they are undifferentiable.
While it is true that sentient beings' minds are empty of inherent existence and that defilements are adventitious, we cannot say that sentient beings' buddha nature is the same as a buddha's nature truth body that has the twofold purity—being naturally pure of inherent existence and being newly purified of all adventitious defilements. That is because sentient beings' minds are still together with defilements.
No matter in which realm a sentient being abides, the naturally abiding buddha nature is always there. It does not decrease or increase. Gold may be buried in the ground for centuries, but it is still gold and it is always possible to access it. The gold may be covered with dirt, but it doesn't become the dirt. If dirt were its nature, it could never become clean. But because the dirt only obscures it, the gold can be cleansed so that its natural radiance can be seen. Similarly, the emptiness of our defiled mind is always there; when we realize emptiness, that wisdom cleanses the defilements from our minds, and in doing so, the emptiness of our minds will also be cleansed. Even though our minds have always been naturally pure of inherent existence, at that time we will have the additional purity of being free from all adventitious defilements.
Without the two kinds of buddha nature, there would be no way for the awakened activities of the Buddha to enter into us. Our minds would not be receptive to the Buddha's influence or to the teachings; nothing in our minds could germinate by coming into contact with these. Buddha nature is the basis of cultivation of the Mahayana; it is what enables our minds to be affected and transformed by the teachings. The fact that the Buddha taught the Dharma indicates that sentient beings have the potential to become Buddhas. If we didn't, it would have been useless for the Buddha to deliver 84,000 teachings.
Buddha Nature according to Tantra
Highest yoga tantra points to buddha nature in a unique way: it is the subtlest mind-wind that is empty of inherent existence and whose continuity goes on to awakening. All sentient beings have this subtlest mind-wind. In ordinary beings, it becomes manifest only at the time of the clear light of death and goes unnoticed. While the subtlest mind-wind is neutral in the case of ordinary beings, through special yogic practices it can be brought into the path and transformed into a virtuous state, a yogic state. Sentient beings' subtlest mind serves as the substantial cause for the wisdom dharmakāya—the omniscient mind of a buddha—and the true cessation and emptiness of a buddha's mind is the nature dharmakāya. The subtlest wind that is its mount is the substantial cause for the form bodies of a buddha—the enjoyment and emanation bodies. The Hevajra Tantra says:
Sentient beings are just buddhas,
but they are defiled by adventitious stains.
When these are removed, they are buddhas.
The first line indicates that sentient beings have the substantial cause for buddhahood, the subtlest mind-wind. It does not mean that sentient beings are buddhas, because someone cannot be both a sentient being and a buddha simultaneously. Through the practice of special techniques in highest yoga tantra, the continuum of this subtlest mind-wind can be purified and transformed into the three bodies of a buddha.
Nine Similes for Tathāgatagarbha
By using nine similes, the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra gives us an inkling of the buddha nature that has always been and will continue to be within us. Maitreya's Sublime Continuum and its commentary by Asaṅga explain these similes that point to a hidden richness inside of us—a potential that we are usually unaware of. Contemplating the meaning of these similes generates great inspiration and confidence to practice the path.
All afflictive and cognitive obscurations are condensed into nine obscurations spoken of in the nine similes. By applying the appropriate antidotes, all of these can be removed and full awakening attained. From beginningless time, the basic nature of the mind has been immaculate and has never been mixed with stains or afflictions. But it has been covered by these nine obscurations. As we progress on the path, the transforming buddha nature develops, the mind becomes purer, and the obscurations are gradually eliminated. When all obscurations have been removed such that they can never return, the purified mind becomes the wisdom dharmakāya and its emptiness becomes the nature dharmakāya. Maitreya says (RGV 1:80-81):
This [tathāgatagarbha] abides within the shroud of the afflictions,
as should be understood through [the following nine] examples:
Just like a buddha in a decaying lotus, honey amidst bees,
a grain in its husk, gold in filth, a treasure underground,
a shoot and so on sprouting from a little fruit,
a statue of the Victorious One in a tattered rag,
a ruler of humankind in a destitute woman's womb,
and a precious image under clay,
this [buddha] element abides within all sentient beings,
obscured by the defilement of the adventitious poisons.
1. The buddha essence is like a beautiful buddha image in an old, ugly lotus. When the petals close around a buddha image, we see only the old lotus and not the beautiful buddha image. Not knowing the image is there, we never think to open the petals and take it out. Similarly, the seeds of attachment obscure our buddha essence. While all beings who are not arhats are obscured by the seeds of attachment, this simile applies particularly to ordinary sentient beings in the form and formless realms. Although they have temporarily suppressed the coarse manifest afflictions of the desire realm by entering into deep states of meditative absorption, the seeds of afflictions still remain in their mindstreams. Ordinary beings in the form and formless realms are specified because āryas may also take rebirth in these realms. However, they have already eliminated some portion of the seeds of afflictions.
We beings in the desire realm, too, have the seed of attachment. When it explodes and becomes full blown, we have no awareness of our buddha essence, which is the source of all hope and confidence. Instead we become totally engrossed in the objects of our attachment. Just as the beautiful and fragrant lotus withers and becomes decrepit after a few days, the people and things we cling to age and decay. While they initially bring us happiness, later we become bored and cast them aside, as we would a withered flower.
A person with clairvoyance can see the buddha image inside the lotus and will open the flower and remove the buddha image. Similarly, the Buddha sees the buddha essence in each sentient being, even those in the hells, and thinks, "Who will liberate these beings from their obscurations, especially their attachment?" Because the Buddha has great compassion and is free from all defilements, he will guide us to discover the beautiful buddha image—the wisdom dharmakāya—hidden by our attachment.
2. The buddha essence is like honey with a swarm of bees surrounding it. The honey is like the ultimate truth—the emptiness of inherent existence. Just as all honey has the same taste, the ultimate nature of all phenomena is the same. Bees not only conceal the honey but also angrily sting someone who tries to take it, harming themselves as well as their enemy. Similarly, we cannot see our honey-like buddha essence because it is obscured by the seeds of hatred, anger, resentment, and vengeance. This obscuration pertains specifically to ordinary beings in the form and formless realms who do not experience manifest anger, but still have the seeds of anger in their mental continuums. We beings in the desire realm have the seeds of anger as well as coarse manifest anger. These seeds not only prevent us from seeing our buddha essence but also enable the destructive emotions related to anger and animosity to manifest in our minds, mercilessly stinging ourselves and those around us.
An insightful person knows that despite the bees around it, the honey itself is pure and delicious. She devises a skillful way to separate the bees from the honey, and then enjoys the honey as she wishes. Tasting honey, like realizing the emptiness of the mind, always brings joy. Similarly, the Buddha sees the buddha essence in each sentient being and with skillful methods, such as the teachings of the three turnings of the Dharma wheel, frees it from defilements.
3. The buddha essence resembles a kernel of grain in its husk. The husk obscures the grain. For the grain to become edible food, the husk must be removed. In the same way, the seed of ignorance obscures our minds so that we cannot realize the ultimate truth. As above, this obscuration applies particularly to ordinary beings in the form and formless realms, but those of us in the desire realm have it as well. The seed of ignorance makes self-grasping ignorance and the ignorance of karma and its effects manifest in our minds. By means of the above three seeds of the three poisons, sentient beings create karma that brings rebirth in samsara.
Just as the grain cannot be eaten when inside the husk, the deeds of a buddha cannot be displayed while the buddha essence is in the husk of defilements. A wise person knows how to remove the husk and prepare the grain so that it becomes nourishing food. In the same way, the Buddha guides sentient beings to remove their defilements, and the buddhas they will become will provide spiritual sustenance for others.
4. The buddha essence resembles gold buried in filth. If someone accidentally drops some gold in a pile of filthy refuse at the side of the road, we don't know it is there let alone think to take it out, clean it, and use it. Similarly, while our gold-like buddha essence is not mixed with defilements, the filth of the manifest coarse three poisons prevents us from seeing it. Manifest coarse afflictions are the chief obscuration hindering beings in the desire realm. They provide the condition through which we are reborn especially in the desire realm. Led here and there by powerful emotions that arise suddenly and dominate our minds and by strong wrong views that we stubbornly cling to, we do not even consider the buddha essence that has always been there. Like the filth, manifest coarse attachment, animosity, and ignorance are repugnant. We dislike ourselves when they rule our minds, and others are likewise repulsed by our behavior.
The gold is pure—it can never become impure—but we cannot see it or use it as long as it is sunk in the filth. Similarly, the emptiness of the mind can never be infiltrated by the afflictions, but it cannot shine forth when obscured by the troublesome manifest afflictions. A deva who possesses the clairvoyant power of the divine eye sees the gold, tells a person where to find it, and instructs him to make the gold into something worthy of being gold. Similarly, the Buddha sees the empty nature of our minds, teaches us how to purify it, and instructs us how to transform our minds into the minds of buddhas. These first four similes pertain specifically to ordinary beings who have not yet realized emptiness.
5. The buddha essence is like a treasure under the earth. Like a magnificent treasure buried under the earth in a poor person's yard, the buddha essence is obscured by the latencies of the afflictions. This obscuration pertains especially to śrāvaka and solitary realizer arhats, who have eliminated the coarse manifest afflictions and their seeds, but whose minds are still obscured by the latencies of afflictions, especially the latency of ignorance, that prevent them from becoming fully awakened buddhas. While these arhats have realized emptiness and overcome afflictions, the ground of the latencies ofafflictions are the condition through which arhats obtain a mental body and abide in the pacification of samsara that is an arhats nirvāṇa. After these arhats generate bodhicitta, they follow the bodhisattva paths and grounds. In doing so, when the ground of these latencies is removed, they will attain the ultimate true cessation, nonabiding nirvāṇa.
A treasure buried under the house of a poor family can free them from poverty, but they do not know it is there, even though it is right under them. The treasure does not say, "I'm here. Come and get me." Our naturally abiding buddha essence is like a treasure that has existed in our minds beginninglessly. This emptiness of the mind does not decrease or increase, it does not call out to us saying, "I'm here." But when the Buddha tells us about it, we learn how to uncover it, freeing it from even the ground of the latencies of ignorance that prevent full awakening.
6. The buddha essence resembles a tiny sprout hidden within the peel of a fruit. Beans have tiny sprouts inside but we cannot see them until the fruit and its peel have been shed. Similarly, for the path of seeing to be actualized, the objects of abandonment by the path of seeing must be destroyed. This simile applies particularly to ordinary beings on the paths of learning as well as Fundamental Vehicle āryas who are not yet arhats. Until they attain the path of seeing, the acquired afflictions, which are the objects to be abandoned by that path, obscure their buddha essence. While on the path of seeing, these learners have overcome the acquired afflictions but still have the innate afflictions and their seeds.
The transforming buddha essence is like a sprout that has the potential to grow into a huge tree that will offer shade for many people on a hot day. Just as the sprout needs good conditions to grow, we rely on the conditions of the collections of merit and wisdom to nourish the transforming buddha essence. Great compassion, wisdom, reverence for the Mahāyāna teachings and their goal, a great collection of merit, and samadhi are nourishing conditions that assist the transforming buddha essence to become the wisdom dharmakāya.
7. The buddha essence is like a buddha statue covered by a tattered rag. The innate afflictions and their seeds—the objects to be abandoned on the path of meditation—resemble a buddha image wrapped in a tattered rag. The dismantling of the afflictions began on the path of seeing, and now, on the path of meditation, they are in tatters and ready to be discarded completely. Similarly, ordinary beings and āryas on the learning paths (āryas who are not yet arhats) are still obscured by the innate afflictions and their seeds, but they are weak and will soon be overcome. Nevertheless, while present, they obscure the buddha essence.
A deva sees a buddha statue under a dirty cloth and explains to a person who wants to have a buddha statue that it is there and she should retrieve it. In the same way, the Buddha sees that the ultimate nature of his own mind—emptiness—is the same as the emptiness of the minds of all sentient beings, even animals, hungry ghosts, and hell beings. This beautiful nature is covered by the remnants of the eighty-four thousand afflictions. To free it from these, the Buddha teaches the Dharma. The nature dharmakāya is like a precious statue. Just as the whole statue comes out at once when the rag is removed, the nature dharmakāya appears in its entirety when the mind is freed from all defilements.
8. The buddha essence resembles a baby who will become a great leader in the womb of a poor, miserable, forlorn woman. In her womb a woman bears a baby who will be a great leader and do much good in the world. Not knowing that her child will one day be able to protect her, she knows only her present suffering. Similarly, ārya bodhisattvas on the impure grounds—grounds one through seven—have amazing potential that they are as yet unaware of owing to the womb-like confines of the afflictive obscurations. When they emerge from these on the eighth ground, their pristine wisdom becomes even more powerful, like the baby who has grown into a great leader.
Cyclic existence is like the homeless shelter in which this poor, miserable woman lives. There she is reviled by others and sinks into despair because she has no refuge or protector. Her child, as a great ruler, will soon be able to care for her, but she does not know this. Similarly, we do not realize that our ultimate protector is inside of us. But when the emptiness of our minds is revealed and becomes the nature dharmakāya, our problems are forever pacified. When we later actualize the enjoyment body, we will be like a wealthy monarch who can protect all beings in the land.
9. The buddha essence is like a golden buddha statue covered by a fine layer of dust. The buddha essence of the pure-ground bodhisattvas—grounds eight through ten—is still covered by a thin layer of cognitive obscurations that impedes their full awakening—the latencies of the defilements that bring about the appearance of inherent existence and prevent directly seeing the two truths simultaneously. Like a magnificent, golden buddha statue that was cast in a mold and now is covered by only a layer of fine clay dust remaining from the mold, their buddha essence will soon be fully revealed when the vajra-like concentration at the end of the continuum of a sentient being removes the last remaining obscurations from the mindstream, allowing the buddha essence to be fully revealed.
An expert statue maker recognizes the preciousness of the gold statue covered by clay dust and cleanses it to reveal its pure beauty for everyone to enjoy. Similarly, the Buddha sees our buddha essence and guides us on the path to reveal it, so that we will be able to manifest emanation bodies. These emanation bodies will appear in various forms according to the karma of the sentient beings who can benefit from them. By these means, the buddha we will become will compassionately instruct and guide sentient beings according to their disposition.
1. Contemplate each simile one by one.
2. Consider how it applies to you, the people you know, and all beings around you.
3. Seeing that each sentient being is impeded by obscurations that limit happiness and cause misery, let compassion arise for each and every sentient being.
4. With strong compassion, cultivate bodhicitta and determine to become a buddha in order to lead all beings to actualize their buddha essence.
Three Aspects of the Tathāgatagarbha
Maitreya asserts that each sentient being has the buddha essence and can attain buddhahood (RGV 1.27).
Because a perfect buddha's body is pervasive,
because suchness is without differentiation,
and because a [buddha] lineage exists, all embodied [beings]
are always in possession of a buddha essence.
He gives three reasons for stating that all sentient beings have the buddha essence and can attain full awakening: (1) The buddhas' bodies are pervasive so sentient beings can engage with the awakening activities of the buddhas. (2) The suchness (natural purity) of the buddhas' minds and of sentient beings' minds cannot be differentiated because both are the emptiness of inherent existence. (3) Sentient beings possess the transforming buddha nature that can develop all of a buddha's excellent qualities and transform into the three buddha bodies. These reasons, confirmed by the nine similes, indicate the following three aspects of the tathāgatagarbha.
1. The tathāgatagarbha has the nature of the dharmakāya of self-arisen pristine wisdom.
The tathāgatagarbha possessing the nature of the dharmakāya refers to the clear light nature of the tathāgatagarbha being called the dharmakāya. This is another case of giving the name of the result (dharmakāya) to the cause (tathāgatagarbha). Although the emptiness of the mind is permanent and is not an actual cause, it is called a cause because it is the foundation on which the dharmakāya is attained. The first three similes describe this.
The tathāgatagarbha is pervaded by the awakening activities of the dharmakāya. This means that sentient beings have the potential to be engaged with and influenced by the buddhas' awakening activities that will guide them to awakening.
Within this first aspect of the buddha essence, the dharmakāya, there are two parts: (1) The dharmakāya of realizations is the undefiled empty nature of a buddha's mind that is realized by that buddha's wisdom dharmakāya. This emptiness is the actual dharmakāya and refers specifically to the dharmadhātu that is totally free from defilements and has the nature of clear light. It is what is perceived and experienced by the wisdom dharmakāya of a buddha. (2) The dharmakāya of the teachings leads to the realization of this empty nature. These teachings consist of the profound teachings of the definitive sūtras that explain the ultimate truth, and the interpretable teachings of the provisional sutras that explain various veiled truths—such as the person, aggregates, grounds and paths—that are taught in accordance with the dispositions and interests of various disciples. The dharmakāya of the teachings is called the dharmakāya although it is not the actual dharmakāya. The actual dharmakāya is experienced by a buddha. The teachings are the conditions to attain this dharmakāya.
Just as the buddha image hidden in the closed lotus in the first simile cannot be seen, the wisdom dharmakāya—the ultimate, supreme meditative equipoise on emptiness—is not perceivable in the world. The honey (simile 2) resembles the profound teachings on the ultimate truth. Just as all honey shares the same taste of sweetness, all phenomena have the same "taste" of being empty of inherent existence. The grain (simile 3) corresponds to the vast teachings on the method side of the path. Just as the grain needs to be removed from its husk and cooked to become edible food, the vast teachings are provisional and require interpretation.
The definitive and interpretable teachings and the profound and vast teachings are given to disciples of all three dispositions—śrāvakas, solitary realizers, and bodhisattvas—as well as to sentient beings who are temporarily of uncertain disposition. This latter group consists of individuals who will later become disciples with one of the three dispositions, depending on the teachers they meet and the teachings they receive. By hearing, reflecting, and meditating on both the vast and profound teachings, sentient beings will attain the actual wisdom dharmakāya.
The chief way in which buddhas' awakening activities engage with and influence sentient beings is by means of the buddhas' speech—the teachings they give. This ability of the buddhas' awakening activities to influence sentient beings is always present, and in this sense sentient beings are pervaded by the awakening activities of the dharmakāya.
2. The tathāgatagarbha has the nature of emptiness, suchness. The tathāgatagarbha—the emptiness of sentient beings' minds—cannot be differentiated from the aspect of the natural purity of the dharmakāya. The gold buried in filth (simile 4) illustrates the emptiness of the mind. Just as pure gold does not change into a base metal, the emptiness of the mind does not change into something else. Like pure gold, the tathāgatagarbha is pure and faultless. The ultimate nature of sentient beings' minds and the ultimate nature or natural purity of the tathāgatas' minds cannot be differentiated in that both are emptiness. They appear the same and cannot be distinguished to the face of the meditative equipoise directly perceiving emptiness. In this sense it is said that the suchness of the Tathāgata is the essence of sentient beings. 3. The tathāgatagarbha has the nature of the buddha lineage or disposition. This disposition culminates as the three bodies of a buddha, thus accomplishing buddhahood. Encompassing the remaining five similes, this disposition has two parts: (1) The buddha disposition that has existed beginninglessly resembles a treasure under the ground (simile 5). Just as no one put the treasure there and its beginning is unknown, the naturally abiding buddha nature has existed beginninglessly. (2) The transforming buddha disposition that has the potential resembles a sprout (simile 6). Just as a tiny sprout, upon meeting the conditions that nourish it, will gradually grow into a tree, the transforming buddha disposition has the potential to accomplish buddhahood and the three buddha bodies when it encounters the right conditions, such as learning, reflecting, and meditating on the Dharma. The buddha statue covered by tattered rags (simile 7) represents the beginningless, naturally abiding buddha disposition. Just as a beautiful, precious statue shines forth when the impediment of the tattered rags is removed, the beginningless purity of the mind—its emptiness of true existence—is revealed when all adventitious defilements have been forever banished owing to the collection of wisdom. At this point the naturally abiding buddha disposition is called the nature dharmakāya of a buddha.
The transforming buddha disposition blossoms owing to the accumulation of merit. When it is fully evolved, it becomes the enjoyment and emanation bodies of a buddha. Just as a future great leader who is now in his mother's womb (simile 8) will come to enjoy majesty, the enjoyment body enjoys the majesty and wealth of the Mahāyāna Dharma. Similar to a golden buddha statue emerging from the dust that surrounds it (simile 9), emanation bodies, which represent the actual dharmakāya, appear in whatever forms are most conducive to subduing the minds of sentient beings.
In our practice, our buddha disposition is initially awakened through listening to and reflecting on the Dharma, especially teachings on the value and purpose of bodhicitta and the two methods of generating it. Upon generating bodhicitta, we have the strong aspiration to attain the three buddha bodies. To accomplish this, we engage in the bodhisattva deeds—the six perfections and the four ways of maturing disciples—and fulfill the collections of merit and wisdom. Cultivating the collection of wisdom leads to gaining the pristine wisdom directly perceiving the ultimate nature of all phenomena. When this wisdom is developed further and used to fully cleanse all obscurations from our mindstreams, our naturally pure buddha nature becomes the nature dharmakāya—the suchness of the mind that has the two purities: the natural purity of inherent existence and the purity from adventitious defilements. The cultivation of the collection of merit, done through practicing the method aspect of the path, leads to our transforming buddha nature becoming the two form bodies—the enjoyment body and the emanation body. In this way, the three bodies of a buddha are actualized and our pristine wisdom perceives all existents throughout the universe.
Three Aspects of the Buddha Disposition
1. The clear light nature of the tathāgatagarbha that will become a buddha's dharmakāya in the future.
- The dharmakāya of realizations: the undefiled empty nature of a buddha's mind that is realized by that buddha's wisdom dharmakāya; buddha image (1).
- The dharmakāya of the teachings that are the conditions to attain it.
- Profound teachings of the definitive sutras on the ultimate truth; honey (2).
- Interpretable teachings of the provisional sutras on veiled truths; grain (3).
2. The tathāgatagarbha's empty nature (suchness) that cannot be differentiated from the emptiness of a buddha's mind; gold (4).
3. The tathāgatagarbha that has the buddha lineage and accomplishes the state of a buddha.
- Beginningless buddha nature; treasure (5).
- Transforming buddha nature that has the potential to accomplish buddhahood; sprout (6).
- When purified, the beginningless, naturally abiding buddha disposition becomes the nature dharmakāya of a buddha; statue (7).
- When the transforming buddha disposition is fully evolved, it becomes the enjoyment body of a buddha; the future great leader in his mother's womb (8).
- The emanation bodies of a buddha; golden statue (9).
In summary, in his commentary to the Sublime Continuum, Asaṅga says:
The similes taught in the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra explain that the mind, which has existed without beginning in all realms of sentient beings, is empty by nature and therefore the afflictions are adventitious. Being empty by nature, this beginningless mind is inseparable from the innate development of the qualities of awakening.
Maitreya admits that some aspects of buddha nature are difficult for ordinary beings to understand (RGV 1.25).
[The buddha nature] is pure and yet has affliction.
[Awakening] is not afflictive and yet is purified.
Qualities are totally indivisible [and yet not manifest].
[Awakening activity] is spontaneous and yet without any thought.
Here are several puzzling points.
- From beginningless time buddha nature has been pure and free from defilements, yet it still has afflictions and defilements.
- The awakened mind is pure, yet it needs to be purified.
- The emptiness of buddhas' minds and sentient beings' minds are indistinguishable in that both are pure and empty of inherent existence, yet one belongs to buddhas and the other to sentient beings.
- Buddhas' awakening activity is spontaneous, yet it occurs without conscious motivation.
Initially these four statements may seem contradictory, but seen from the proper perspective, they cease to be paradoxical. The explanations below clarify their meaning. "We must think carefully to understand the explanations correctly; doing so will bring important and essential insights.
- Buddha nature is completely pure; the defilements are adventitious. They obscure the buddha nature but are not its essential nature.
- The awakened mind has no defilements, but prior to becoming a buddha, the mind's nature is covered by defilements. It is like gold hidden by stains. The gold is still gold, but its luster and beauty cannot be seen. Similarly, when the mind is immersed in defilements, the potential to develop a buddha's qualities remains; it is part of the mind's nature. However, this potential is covered and cannot yet function as the actual qualities of a buddha. Love and compassion are present in the unawakened mind; they cannot be forever extricated from the mind. But when anger overwhelms the mind, the seed of love is not apparent, although it is still there.
- In terms of their ultimate nature, both buddhas' minds and sentient beings' minds are empty of inherent existence, and any difference in these emptinesses cannot be discerned by the wisdom directly realizing emptiness. However, on the conventional level, the two minds are different: one is a mind with obscurations, the other is a mind that is completely free from obscurations.
- Buddhas' awakening activities are effortless; they occur spontaneously, without purposefully cultivating a motivation. A buddha is free from conception and has become so habituated with compassion over many eons that no motivation or thought is needed for that buddha's awakened activities to radiate out in the most flawless and suitable way according to the disposition of each sentient being. This is inconceivable to us unawakened beings because our virtuous deeds require deliberate effort.
As we practice the path, sometimes discouragement fills our minds. If we observe closely, we will see that discouragement is simply a mass of distorted conceptions that we believe to be true. Instead of following these proliferating perverted thoughts, if we challenged their validity we would easily see they are false. One distorted conception is particularly pernicious; it believes that buddha nature does not exist and thus eliminating duḥkha and attaining awakening is not possible. Maitreya banishes this noxious thought (RGV 1.34):
>If the buddha nature were not present,
there would be no remorse over suffering.
There would be no longing for nirvana,
or striving and devotion toward this aim.
If sentient beings truly lacked the possibility to be awakened and were doomed to irreversible saṃsāric suffering, no one would ever regret being in saṃsāra or long to be free from duḥkha and attain nirvāṇa. No one would aspire for full awakening or make effort toward that goal. This clearly is not true; the life stories of the Buddha and other realized beings disprove this. We see within ourselves the wish to be free from saṃsāra's duḥkha, the yearning for freedom from the grip of afflictions and karma. While we may not make as much effort as we would like toward this aim, we do take steps in this direction. This is based on trust that there is an alternative to saṃsāra and that an awakened state exists.
1. Contemplate the four puzzling points above and then reflect on the explanations that resolve them.
2. Feel your own yearning for spiritual awakening and your aspiration to free yourself from the obscurations that bind you. Realize that these indicate the existence of the buddha nature. Respect that aspect of yourself and determine to nourish it.
- Several other terms are also used in the discussion of buddha nature. In some circumstances they are used interchangeably, in others they have a slightly different meaning. In addition to the above terms, other terms include buddha essence (tathāgatagarbha, T. bde bzhin gsegs pa'i snying po) and element of sentient beings (sattvadhātu, T. sems can gyi khams), or simply element. Gotra (T. rigs), which is translated as nature or disposition, as in buddha nature or buddha disposition, may also be translated as lineage, trait, or family.
- The Cittamātra Scriptural Proponents is the only Mahāyāna tenet school asserting that not all sentient beings can attain full awakening. Some people postulate that speaking of icchantikas is done to warn practitioners not to become lax or negligent
- There are different views about whether the five sense consciousnesses are included in the transforming buddha nature. Some sages say they are not, because alone the sense consciousnesses do not have the ability to accomplish the path—they are neither stable nor continuous. Only the mental consciousness can practice and realize the path. The mental consciousness leads the sense consciousnesses, which alone are blind with respect to emptiness. Others say that because the sense consciousnesses go with the mental consciousness to awakening they are part of buddha nature. The mental consciousness generates bodhicitta and realizes emptiness, so the sense consciousnesses also attain awakening.
- These are the stages that spiritual practitioners actualize as they progress toward their spiritual goal.
- Tsong-kha-pa Lo-sang-drak-pa, "Extensive Explanation of (Chandrakīrti's) 'Supplement to (Nāgārjuna's) "Treatise on the Middle'": Illumination of the Thought," trans. Jeffrey Hopkins, unpublished manuscript
- Both Cittamātrins and Mādhyamikas agree that afflictions are adventitious, but they differ in explaining how they are adventitious. This affects their explanations of the clear light mind. Cittamātrins say the clarity and cognizance that are hallmarks of the conventional nature of the mind constitute the buddha nature. Because mental factors come and go while the nature of the mind remains clear and cognizant, they say the afflictions are not an inherent property of the mind. Nāgārjuna and the Prāsaṅgikas assert that because the mind is primordially pure of inherent existence, the afflictions derived from self-grasping ignorance are not an inherent property of mind. In short, whereas the Cittamātrins explain the undefiled nature of the clear light mind from the viewpoint of its conventional nature, Nāgārjuna does so from the viewpoint of its ultimate nature.
- Gyaltsap Darma Rinchen, "The Tathāgata Essence," trans. Gavin Kilty, unpublished manuscript, 170