From Buddha-Nature
Our Buddha-Nature

Buddha-nature is the capacity for enlightenment and freedom present in every being, a fundamental core of goodness, wisdom, and compassion that is hidden by clouds of ignorance—so hidden in fact that we might never even suspect its presence. It is like the sun that continues to shine regardless of the clouds that may cover it. By clearing away those clouds of greed, anger, and selfishness we uncover a state of perfection that is, and always has been, our own true nature.

Although it may be difficult to completely overcome all our limitations and clear away those clouds, the fact that our nature is fundamentally the same as a buddha's is what makes the whole path to enlightenment possible. We already have everything we need to begin walking a path that leads to true happiness. We simply need to have confidence in the presence of our buddha-nature and the courage to begin the journey to uncover it.

What Then?

Everyone has buddha-nature. The only difference between us and an enlightened being such as a buddha is that a buddha recognizes this nature and the rest of us do not. The goal of Buddhist practice is to allow our true nature to shine forth. We may not be perfect buddhas yet, but we have the capacity to develop wisdom and compassion and free ourselves from selfishness, greed, and hatred. Buddhist teachings and practices aim at revealing our true nature by cultivating the proper outlook and behavior, and by ceasing the negative habits that cause dissatisfaction and suffering. This website is focused on the teachings associated with traditions of training that lead to real liberation, and we hope that you can learn a great deal from reading and watching the content here. You can start by reading and watching the following introductory materials.

What is Buddha-Nature?

All Buddhist traditions claim that the nature of our mind is luminous—that is to say, the natural state of our mind is free, open, and pure awareness. Buddha-nature refers to this pure, natural, and luminous state of our consciousness which is free from any duality or defilement. All beings are said to possess buddha-nature, which is what makes enlightenment possible. The myriad Buddhist practices, from quiet sitting meditation to visualization of deities, chanting, and yogic endeavors, are diverse methods to shake off the temporary cloud-like obscurations veiling the sun of one's own nature.

Beyond the sun always shining behind the clouds, two other metaphors are traditionally used to describe buddha-nature: a golden statue encased in muck and the seed of a mango tree. The first suggests that our buddha-nature is already perfect and only needs to be revealed in order to manifest our enlightenment. The second presents buddha-nature as a potential that must be cultivated in order to attain enlightenment. A third, less common interpretation is that we acquire buddha-nature at a certain stage of spiritual accomplishment, like a fruiting tree. These three models—disclosure, transformation, and obtainment—are used by different traditions to define buddha-nature and describe the methods to fully actualize enlightenment.

Not all Buddhist traditions are comfortable with language that describes buddha-nature as the mind's fundamental state, suspecting that such descriptions promote the idea that buddha-nature is some kind of abiding individual self. The Buddha, of course, famously taught that such an idea of a self is wrong, a delusion we create but which causes us suffering. However, buddha-nature is not taught as an individual self but more like the natural characteristic of mind, akin to wet being the natural characteristic of water. Some Buddhist philosophers have rejected such a description of buddha-nature. They maintain that ultimate reality cannot be described by language because language is limited by dualism (self and other, good and bad, and so forth), whereas the ultimate is nondual. Such philosophers will only say what the ultimate is not—not permanent, not individualistic, not ignorant, and so forth. The limitations of such a position for teaching about experience are obvious; how can one describe anything without language? Still others have argued that buddha-nature is misguided because it undermines the drive to improve ourselves, as though we must think of ourselves as bereft of good qualities in order to become better people. On these pages and the other materials linked here, you will find details about fascinating debates from these different perspectives.

In Indian and Tibetan traditions, philosophers have also debated whether buddha-nature is a teaching that one should take literally or if it was meant to promote and encourage the student to move in the right direction. Some scriptures support the interpretation that buddha-nature is a provisional teaching given to those discouraged by the daunting project of attaining enlightenment. Other sources, however, present buddha-nature as a definitive teaching and take the position that the mind's natural luminosity is self-evident and need not be explained as a rhetorical trick. They maintain that if the mind were not already enlightened by nature, then enlightenment would have to be produced. This would contradict the definition of ultimate reality—that is, nirvāṇa—as unproduced and unconditioned.

The Questions

One of the most common questions about buddha-nature is whether it is the same as or similar to the Christian or Hindu notions of a soul. It is not. Buddha-nature is not an individual entity—there are not separate buddha-natures in each being. Christianity teaches that each person's soul exists independently and will survive that person's death. There is plenty of debate across traditions, but in general the soul is said to be fundamentally polluted by Original Sin and that it requires God's intervention to be saved. The Hindu notion of ātman is similarly understood to be real, but only in the sense of partaking in a universal divine presence called Brahman; the individuality of the ātman is believed to be illusory.

Buddha-nature, in contrast to both of these ideas, is neither individualistic nor a manifestation of a divine presence. Rather, it is the basic faculty of awareness—a natural luminosity that is unchanged no matter how ignorant or benighted we are. It is like water that has been muddied—the water is fundamentally clear, and it will return to that state when left to settle—or like a cloudy sky, where the clarity of the sky remains constant even as clouds pass through it. Because buddha-nature is empty of any conditioning, it is fundamentally pure, no different from the enlightened state of a buddha. For that reason, we all have the potential to cast off ignorance and suffering and achieve buddhahood, and we are solely responsible ourselves for doing so. Questions regarding what buddha-nature actually is, as well as several other questions, have been debated by Buddhist scholars from different traditions through the centuries. To learn more, navigate to the Questions page and the Topics page in the Explore section.

The History

The seeds of buddha-nature teachings were planted in some of the earliest Buddhist scriptures. Passages such as this one, from the Aṅguttaranikāya — "Luminous, monks, is this mind, but sometimes it is defiled by adventitious defilements"— suggest a natural state that is only temporarily obscured by the stains of saṃsāra. Buddhism before the rise of the Mahāyāna, however, focused as it was on the long and arduous transformation from delusion and suffering into enlightenment.

This changed in the early centuries of the Common Era, when scriptures teaching buddha-nature began to circulate and gain attention. These were the so-called buddha-nature scriptures, such as the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra, the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, and the Śrīmālādevīsūtra. Drawing on the Mahāyāna doctrine of the Buddha as a universal principle of enlightened mind, they taught that enlightenment is an essential factor of human existence. Rather than be transformed into a buddha, these scriptures taught, one need only reveal one's true nature to become free.

The buddha-nature teachings spread to China starting in the fifth century; there they inspired the composition of the Awakening of Faith and Chinese doctrines such as original enlightenment and sudden enlightenment, becoming part of the standard doctrine of all East Asian Buddhist traditions. Tibetans knew of buddha-nature theory as early as the seventh century, but the teachings spread widely only in the eleventh century, following the translation of the Ratnagotravibhāga, a fifth-century Indian treatise. Since then,buddha-nature has been a principal topic of philosophical interpretation, doctrinal debates and spiritual practice in Tibet.

The Texts

Buddhism has a vast trove of scriptures, known as sūtras and tantras, that are said to be the authentic word of the Buddha. Buddhists revere these books, although they are considered subject to interpretation, and there are an enormous number of commentaries elucidating and expanding on the teachings. The seeds of buddha-nature doctrine are sprinkled throughout this literature. A core group of scriptures that initially taught buddha-nature known as the tathāgatagarbha sūtras date between the second and fourth centuries CE. These include the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra, the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, the Śrīmālādevīsūtra, and several others. The famous Laṅkāvatārasūtra was also important for buddha-nature theory. In East Asia the Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna (大乗起信論) and the Vajrasamādhisūtra are the most influential treatises in spreading buddha-nature theory.

In Tibetan Buddhism, there exists a great number of writings on buddha-nature, which are either translated from Indic sources or original Tibetan compositions. However, there is a single core text studied in all Tibetan Buddhist lineages and in the current academic study of buddha-nature called The Treatise on the Ultimate Continuum (Gyü Lama in Tibetan, Uttaratantra in Sanskrit). Also known as the Ratnagotravibhāga, this text was originally composed in Sanskrit and translated into Tibetan sometime in the eleventh century, and many commentaries on it have been written right up to the present day. It is used as a fundamental source for buddha-nature teachings on this website.

In this short video Karl Brunnhölzl, translator of the Gyü Lama into English, discusses the questions about the origins and authorship of the text.

The Traditions

The doctrine of buddha-nature—the innate enlightened nature of mind—is found in all Mahāyāna Buddhist traditions, but explaining what that really means differs considerably across traditions.[1] All Mahāyāna traditions also teach that because all phenomena arise in dependence on other phenomena they are empty of any special nature. How to describe that emptiness and what it means for the Buddhist practitioner, however, is a matter of considerable disagreement and often defines key differences between traditions. Whereas Indian Yogācāra masters use positive language to describe the mind and the true nature of reality, in the ancient Indian Madhyamaka school of Nāgārjuna and his disciples, negative language is used to describe reality. "Because there are no phenomena that are not dependently arisen," Nāgārjuna wrote, "there are no phenomena that are not empty."[2] Thus while buddha-nature is generally accepted in Yogācāra, in Madhyamaka it is considered either provisionally (that is, not literally) true or as a synonym for emptiness.

Buddha-nature is a central doctrine in most East Asian Buddhist traditions with the Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna, a Chinese composition that introduced the concepts of original enlightenment and actualized enlightenment, as one of the most influential Buddhist scriptures. Original enlightenment refers to the fundamental nature of mind obscured by temporary stains, while the actualised state is that same innately enlightened mind freed of those obscurations. The Tiantai (Tendai in Japan), Huayan (Kegon in Japan), and Chan (Zen in Japan) and their offshoots all accepted buddha-nature, as did the tantric Shingon school in Japan, although they differ in terms of approaches and significance they attribute to these teachings. Dōgen, one of the founders of Japanese Zen, taught that meditation is practiced not to attain enlightenment but to express one's innate enlightenment. This is expressed in the famous Zen proverb "If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him." That is, if you think that the Buddha is someone or somewhere else, you're wasting your time; destroy that idea and realize your own innate enlightenment. In Pure Land there remains some disagreement, with some sects arguing that ordinary beings do not have buddha-nature but only acquire it upon being saved by the Buddha Amitābha and being born in the Pure Land.

Among dominant Tibetan and Himalayan traditions of Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, and Geluk, which are better understood as transmission lineages, there is a wide range of understanding and practical application of buddha-nature. Buddha-nature in Tibet is a common topic of debate and discourse, two points being whether buddha-nature teachings are provisional or definitive and whether buddha-nature is simply another word for emptiness or an innate nature with its own qualities. These conversations began in India but took on new life in Tibet through the analytic and meditative traditions of Ratnagotravibhāga exegesis. The analytic tradition largely relies on strict Madhyamaka presentations of emptiness and rejects any attempt to describe ultimate reality with positive characteristics. The meditative tradition encompasses a wide body of buddha-nature theory found primarily in the Jonang, Kagyu, and Nyingma traditions, usually, although not always, in some form of a unity of emptiness and luminosity. Great detail can be found on these positions and their counterparts throughout this website.

In the emerging Buddhist traditions of America and Europe, most Buddhist follow the tradition they received from Asia while some of them opt for a more eclectic approach to teachings and practices. Almost all of them embrace buddha-nature as a core tenet, explicitly or otherwise. Among those adopting the eclectic approach, Jack Kornfield, for example, has a teaching series called "Your Buddha Nature" and leads retreats on the topic. Sharon Salzberg uses the practice of loving kindness and mindfulness, through her Metta Hour series, to realise buddha-nature, the highest potential. Perhaps more than any other contemporary Western Buddhist, Joseph Goldstein models the modern Western synthesis of disparate Asian Buddhist traditions. His book One Dharma unites Tibetan Dzogchen and Zen with the Theravada Vipassanā tradition of the Burmese, Thai, and Bengali teachers that formed the major part of his training. Goldstein puts forward buddha-nature (or its synonyms) as the definition of wisdom in his One Dharma synthesis. He writes, "In Buddhism there are many names for ultimate freedom: Buddha-Nature, the Unconditioned, Dharmakaya, the Unborn, the Pure Heart, Mind Essence, Nature of Mind, Ultimate Bodhicitta, Nirvana."[3]

  1. The doctrine of buddha-nature in its full form was not present in early Buddhism and is not accepted by most contemporary Asian Theravada Buddhist traditions. In mainstream Theravada, consciousness is one of the five aggregates, the conditioned aspects of existence which are left behind upon the attainment of nirvāṇa. The notion of a mind that exists apart from the aggregates, which is primordially pure and somehow innately enlightened, would be heretical to most Theravada Buddhists. As the contemporary Western Theravadin teacher Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu has written, "The Buddha never advocated attributing an innate nature of any kind to the mind—good, bad, or Buddha." Not only are the buddha-nature teachings not true, he continues, but they hinder one's progress on the path: "If you assume that the mind is basically good, you'll feel capable but will easily get complacent." See "Freedom from Buddha Nature," para. 18–19, This is not a universal view; the Thai Forest tradition that began at the turn of the twentieth century espouses the view that the mind is "luminous" in the sense of being innately pure, nondual awareness, and that it continues to exist in nirvāṇa.
  2. Mūlamadhyamakakārikā XXIV, 19
  3. Joseph Goldstein, One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002), 4. See this book on the publisher's site.
The People

Writings on buddha-nature can be divided into two main categories: those that are said to be the word of the Buddha and those that were composed by the great masters to explain the doctrine. The sūtras discussing buddha-nature are generally attributed to the Buddha although modern scholars date the sūtras in their current form from the beginning of the common era. These works are collectively known as the tathāgatagarbha sūtras and they contain conversations between the Buddha and followers such as Śrīmālādevī and Dhāraṇïśvararāja. They lay out the foundation for buddha-nature philosophy and practice.

In course of time, Indian scholars began to produce treatises that systematized the received teachings. The earliest well known historical figure to write about buddha-nature is perhaps Nāgārjuna, who wrote his Dharmadhātustava and other hymnic writings which takes buddha-nature as the main topic. However, the most influential Indian commentarial writing on buddha-nature is the Ratnagotravibhāga, which became the main scriptural source for buddha-nature theory in Tibet. The Indian and Central Asian traditions, hold that the Ratnagotravibhāga was written by Maitreya. In the Tibetan tradition, it is believed that the bodhisattva Maitreya revealed the root verses of the treatise to the fourth-century founder of Yogācāra, Ārya Asaṅga, who then composed the prose commentary. It is not clear how the text was transmitted in centuries after Asaṅga but the Tibetan tradition has it that Maitrīpa rediscovered the text from a stūpa in the 11th century. Subsequent to this, the teaching of the text was passed down to the Kashmiri Pandita Sajjana taught the text to many people, but two stand out in the annals of history for their influence on the development of Buddhism in Tibet: Ngok Lotsāwa and Tsen Khawoche. These two studied around the same time with Sajjana, but returned to Tibet with two very different approaches to the text, which lead to two very different styles of study and practice which still exist today. The text itself was translated into Tibetan by six different teams, including one led by Atiśa Dīpaṃkara and another by Ngok Lotsāwa Loden Sherab, who worked directly with Sajjana. Many of the greatest Tibetan philosophers have written commentaries and synopses, including Ngok Lotsāwa, Pakpa Lodrö Gyaltsen, the Third Karmapa, Dölpopa, Gyalse Tokme Zangpo, Gyaltsap Je, Bodong Paṇchen, Gö Lotsāwa, Śākya Chokden, Tāranātha, Jamgön Kongtrul, and Mipam Gyatso, to name only a few masters from all traditions of Tibetan Buddhism. It should be noted that according to Chinese tradition, the author of this essential Buddha-Nature text was a man named Sāramati, a member of the kṣatriya caste from Central or Northern India. A northern Indian named Ratnamati is said to have come to China from Madhyadeśa between 498 and 508 and translated the Ratnagotravibhāga in Luoyang between 511 and 520. He may or may not have brought the manuscript with him, and he may have been assisted by Bodhiruci.

Buddha-nature in East Asian Buddhism is largely based on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna, another treatise whose author is not easily identified. The second-century Indian poet Aśvaghoṣa is considered by Chinese tradition to have been the author, but most scholars think that unlikely. The sixth-century Indian monk Paramārtha is credited with its translation, and he may well have composed it as well, in China, along with a team of Chinese scribes. The first commentary appeared in 580, written by the monk Tanyan (516–88), and was followed over the centuries by more than 170 others written in China, Japan, and Korea by some of the great religious leaders of East Asian Buddhism. These included Jingying Huiyuan of the Chinese Southern Dilun school, the Chinese Chan patriarch Shenxiu, the great Korean monk Wǒnhyo, the Chinese Huayan founder Fazang, and the Japanese founder of the Shingon school, Kukai.

The Japanese scholar D. T. Suzuki first translated the Awakening of Faith into English in 1900. Some of the most influential early-twentieth-century American converts used it in their promotion of Buddhism, most notably Paul Carus, the author of The Gospel of the Buddha, and Dwight Goddard, the author of The Buddhist Bible. Columbia University professor Yoshito S. Hakeda published a reliable translation in 1967. The Russian Buddhologist Eugène Obermiller first translated the Ratnagotravibhāga into English in 1931. Japanese scholar Takasaki Jikidō published a second English translation in 1966.

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