Buddha-nature is the capacity for enlightenment and freedom present within the mind of 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.
Everyone has the same 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 cease our commitment to selfishness, greed, and hatred. Buddhist teachings and practices are dedicated to revealing our true nature through retraining the mind and body, both 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, but please seek out an authentic teacher to engage in any specific practices discussed here.
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 obscurations which veil this nature and bring out the mind's natural perfection.
Although the teachings related to buddha-nature are vast and the ideas manifest throughout Tibetan Buddhist literature, there is a single core text for the Tibetan tradition, which is called The Treatise on the Ultimate Continuum or the Sublime Continuum in English (learn more about the translation of the title here) and often referred to as the Gyü Lama or the Uttaratantra. In Western scholarship it has become known as the Ratnagotravibhāga. This text was originally composed in Sanskrit and translated into Tibetan sometime in the eleventh century, and many commentaries followed from many traditions right up to present day. Textual sources for these ideas are extremely important to the Buddhist traditions, and you can learn more about the history, texts, and ideas associated with buddha-nature in the pages that follow. Here, too, are some articles that introduce the idea of buddha-nature for a general audience. For more advanced readings, take a look at the Explore page or browse the Library.
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 somehow produce buddhahood and thus acquire buddha-nature at a certain stage of religious accomplishment. These three models—disclosure, transformation, and production—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 buddha-nature simply because it uses positive language. 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 to take literally or if it was meant to promote and encourage the student to move in the right direction. Early scriptural evidence in fact points to the provisional interpretation: buddha-nature was offered to help those who were discouraged by the difficult philosophical teachings of emptiness or by the daunting project of attaining enlightenment. Most teachers, however, 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.
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 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, had little use for such a notion, focused as it was on the long and arduous transformation from delusion and suffering into enlightenment.
Only in the early centuries of the Common Era did scriptures teaching buddha-nature begin 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 unity of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa and the recasting 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.
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 and in the current academic study of buddha-nature, as well as in contemporary Buddhism in the West, the late-Indian treatise known as the Ratnagotravibhāga Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra, or Gyü Lama, is the fundamental source for buddha-nature teachings and subsequently for 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 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. 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 living traditions. Whereas Indian Yogācāra masters use positive language to describe the mind and the true nature of reality, in the ancient Indian Madhyamaka philosophy 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." 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 all East Asian Buddhism save for the Pure Land traditions. Almost all base their teachings on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna, a Chinese composition that introduced the concepts of original enlightenment and actualized enlightenment. The first is the fundamental nature of mind obscured by stains, and the second 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 embraced buddha-nature, as did the tantric Shingon school in Japan, although there are differences in their approaches. 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.
The dominant Tibetan and Himalayan tantric traditions of Nyingma, Sakya, Kagyu, and Geluk are better understood as loose categories of affiliation than as closed systems, and leaders often move between monasteries to pursue their education. There is therefore no buddha-nature position that can be said to belong to any one particular tradition. Rather, buddha-nature teachings in Tibet are debated in terms of provisional versus definitive and whether buddha-nature is simply another word for emptiness or has qualities of its own. That is, the issue is whether buddha-nature is empty of all qualities (a position known as "self-emptiness") or is empty of all but its own qualities ("other-emptiness"). These conversations began in India but took on new life in Tibet, where buddha-nature theory is largely built around the fifth-century treatise the Ratnagotravibhāga, popularly known in Tibet as the Uttaratantra or Gyü Lama. These two poles of self-empty and other-empty are traditionally defined in Tibet as 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 Western Buddhism few teachers seem overly concerned with maintaining a separation between their received tradition and the Buddhisms of other regions; collectively they have contributed to a new form of Buddhism marked by eclectic assortments of teachings and practices, all of which embrace buddha-nature as a core tenet, explicitly or otherwise. This is true even in the Vipassanā community, despite the objection of traditionalists such as the American monk Ṭhānissaro Bhikkhu mentioned at the beginning of this essay. For example, Sharon Salzberg wrote of a meeting in 1990 with the Dalai Lama during which she asked about self-hatred. The Dalai Lama responded with incredulity that any person would hate themselves: "But you have Buddha nature," he said. "How could you think of yourself that way?" Jack Kornfield has a teaching series called "Your Buddha Nature" and leads retreats on the topic. 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."
- 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, dhammatalks.org. 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.
- Mūlamadhyamakakārikā XXIV, 19
- The essay is available online in many places. See, for example, her piece entitled "Buddha Nature" on rebelbuddha.com.
- Joseph Goldstein, One Dharma: The Emerging Western Buddhism (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2002), 4. See this book on the publisher's site.
Buddhist scriptures 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 Buddha is said to have given as sermons a core group of buddha-nature scriptures, collectively known as the tathāgatagarbha sūtras.
Following the appearance of these discourses, which lay out the basic parameters of buddha-nature theory, Indian scholars began to produce treatises that systematized the received teachings. The earliest and most influential Indian commentary 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—either a man by that name or the bodhisattva. 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. In the 11th century, 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 are thought to have 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, 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.