What does it mean to have buddha-nature?
To have buddha-nature means that we are good by nature and that we have an inborn potential to be free from suffering and any negativity. All people are capable of attaining buddhahood, a state of enlightenment in which we have completely actualized our true nature and gained freedom from suffering through understanding the nature of reality. Learn more about the definitions of buddha-nature here, or explore the media below.
What would it mean if we did not have buddha-nature?
According to Maitreya, if we did not have buddha-nature, we would not wish for happiness and get tired of suffering. It would mean that we could not attain liberation or enlightenment. If we were not buddha by nature, we couldn't become one, just like a piece of charcoal cannot become white, no matter how hard we try. If we didn't have buddha-nature, we couldn't realise buddhahood, like we cannot get oil by squashing sand. The doctrine of buddha-nature is the codification of the idea that all people are capable of attaining the same enlightenment that Siddhartha Gautama, Śākyamuni Buddha attained.
Is buddha-nature like a soul? Is it the same as the Hindu ātman?
On this topic
"Soul" is a Greek-inspired teaching of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These traditions understand the concept in various ways, but on the basic level a soul is said to be a permanent individual entity that survives death. Indian religious traditions such as Hinduism or Buddhism do not have this idea. The Hindu ātman is individual, but it is more like the wave on an ocean than a truly separate entity. The individuality of the ātman is said to be illusory and is the cause of human suffering. The goal of Hindu practice is to therefore abandon that illusion and to experience the universal unity of existence, which is called Brahman— the ocean within which the waves dissolve. The Buddhists, however, generally do not accept the individual existence of anything - neither the wave nor the ocean. Both are dependent on causes and conditions to exist. Buddha-nature is neither an individual, permanently-existing entity nor a universal presence manifesting as individual entities. Instead, it is simply a basic characteristic of being: the innate capacity for wisdom. Buddhists believe that the soul and ātman are objects of conceptual thought. Buddha-nature transcends conceptual construction.
What does buddha-nature have to do with enlightenment?
Buddha-nature is the fundamental capacity of the mind to understand the world as it is. The mind is said to be like a glass of dirty water that is all shaken up by attachment, aversion and ignorance. When the water in the glass is distilled, the dirt is removed, revealing the basic purity of the water. So too, when the mind is fully transformed, the impurities vanish, and we perceive reality as it actually is, untainted by petty desires and impulses. In other words, buddha-nature theory teaches us that we are fundamentally pure, yet obscured with ignorance. Enlightenment is the state when this pure nature of the mind is fully actualised by freeing the mind from that ignorance and in so doing revealing our buddha-nature.
What is Tathāgatagarbha?
The Sanskrit term Tathāgatagarbha is sometimes translated as "buddha-nature." Literally it means the "womb/essence of those who have gone (to suchness)." It has the sense of the seed or essence of enlightenment. Tathāgata loosely translates as "one who has gone to a state of enlightenment," while garbha has the sense of "womb," "essence," and "embryo." Tathāgatagarbha thus suggests a potential or innate buddhahood possessed by all sentient beings that is either developed or revealed when one attains enlightenment.
Are there different types of buddha-nature?
From the perspective of buddha-nature understood as dharmakāya or emptiness, there are of course no "different" types of buddha-nature, but some Buddhist teachings present the ideas of different potentials, different dispositions, or different aspects of the concept of buddha-nature. A common presentation includes two types: natural and developing tathāgatagarbha. These terms are translations of prakṛtisthagotra (Tib. rang bzhin gnas rigs), or the naturally present "spiritual awakening gene", and samudānīta (Tib. yang dag par blang pa), the "acquired spiritual awakening gene". This distinction is made in the Ratnagotravibhāga I.149, in which they are compared to a treasure and fruiting tree. In Asaṅga's writings we also find the list of five types of spiritual genes (Skt. gotra, Tib. rigs) or five types of sentient beings with different dispositions, but these are not really different types of buddha-nature. They are distinctions made about the tendencies or proclivities of a person on the path to buddhahood.
The three aspects of buddha-nature
In addition to discussing two types of the naturally present and acquired spiritual gene, the verse I.28 of Ratnagotravibhāga also known as (Uttartatantra), presents buddha-nature through three perspectives: dharmakāya, tathatā, and gotra. Buddha-nature is dharmakāya or the Truth Body of the Buddha when it is fully realised and all adventitious defilements are completely removed. It is tathāta, i.e. suchness, thatness or reality in being the true nature of all beings, and it is the gotra — spiritual gene, disposition or lineage — as all beings have buddha-nature as their fundamental characteristic.
Sajjana, the teacher of both Ngok Lotsawa and Tsen Khawoche who brought buddha-nature teachings to Tibet, wrote one of the most important commentaries on the Ratnagotravibhāga, verse I.28 which teaches the threefold nature as the dharmakāya, suchness, and the spiritual gene, rendered as disposition by Karl Brunnhölzl (2014, 290) in the following passage:
- In particular, Sajjana (explicitly or implicitly) reveals the mutual correlations between the Uttaratantra 's key themes of "the threefold nature," the ten topics, the nine examples, and the nine afflictions illustrated by these examples. These correlations can be regarded as a brief contemplative manual for using the contents of the Uttaratantra (in particular its first chapter) as a soteriological path…. Besides the well-known twofold classification of the disposition for awakening (the tathāgata heart) into the naturally abiding disposition and the accomplished (or unfolding) disposition (verse 10), Sajjana also presents his own threefold classification as the disposition that is suchness, naturally abiding, and accomplished (verse 15). He says that, in general, those who gradually purify the tathāgata heart progress through the paths of accumulation, preparation, seeing, and familiarization (verse 6). However, the actual path in terms of the unfolding of the naturally abiding disposition begins only with the path of seeing (verse 10), when the tathāgata heart is directly seen for the first time.
In the analytical tradition of Ngok Lotsawa, the three aspects of buddha-nature are defined slightly differently. Kazuo Kano (2016, 279) writes: "rNgog redefines the three aspects of Buddha-nature, that is, the dharmakāya, tathatā, and gotra, as respectively resultant, intrinsic, and causal aspects of emptiness."
- While the RGV teaches Buddha-nature as displaying three aspects–dharmakāya, tathatā, and gotra–rNgog holds that all three are nothing but one or another form of emptiness: the dharmakāya is the completely pure emptiness found at the stage of a buddha; tathatā is the emptiness that pervades the stages of both a buddha and ordinary sentient beings; and the naturally present disposition (prakṛtisthagotra) is the emptiness that, in pervading every sentient being, serves to give rise to the Buddha-qualities. For rNgog, the evolved disposition (samudānītagotra) is not emptiness but wholesome seeds. Further, rNgog takes Buddha-nature as the mind as characterized by emptiness.
To learn more about these ideas, see pages 310–12 of Saṃsāra, Nirvāṇa, and Buddha Nature by the 14th Dalai Lama and Thubten Chodron (Wisdom Publications, 2019) and Karl Brunnhölzl's discussion on pages 290–91 of When the Clouds Part. On Ngok Lotsawa's perspective, see page 275–79 in Kazuo Kano's Buddha-Nature and Emptiness (Vienna: Arbeitskreis für Tibetische und Buddhistische Studien Universität Wien, 2016).
You can also learn more by watching a teaching from Zasep Tulku Rinpoche: "Buddha Nature: What is it? How is it different from soul?." (BuddhaWeekly Online Magazine. February 05, 2018).
How does one practice buddha-nature?
Different Buddhist traditions engage with buddha-nature in different ways. Some speak of revealing what is already perfect, others speak of perfecting what is now only a potential. For all advocates of buddha-nature, it is the very basic nature which makes spiritual pursuit and transformation possible. Thus, it is seen as the precondition for spiritual practice. Mahāyāna traditions present different instructions for meditation on buddha-nature as an empty luminous nature of awareness. In tantric Buddhism, one can find myriads of practices including deity yoga, visualisation, maṇḍala, mantras, bodily postures and practice of divine channels and fluids, all with the objective of revealing the latent buddha-nature. A common practical application of buddha-nature is also found in the eschatological teachings on the experience of clear light or luminosity at the point of death and of sounds and visions during the intermediate state. Below are links to media in which teachers and translators answer this question in various ways.
What does "luminosity" mean in this context?
Luminosity refers to the awareness that is naturally aware of itself. Other English terms used for the same concept include "clarity," but this word fails to evoke the active aspect of luminosity. The mind's natural state is not passive like a piece of glass but is actively engaging with the phenomenal world. In this video Karl Brunnhölzl discusses the concept of luminosity within the context of buddha-nature. He explains that while such an idea suggests a sense of light or something that is visual, it more accurately refers to the natural clarity of the mind that is there all the time.
Many sūtras define luminosity as the quality of being naturally pure and free from defilements. In tantric empowerment rituals, a crystal is often used to symbolise the natural purity or luminosity of the pristine wisdom. It is taught to be the clear, lucid, vivid nature of the mind, which is laid bare when all conceptual and emotional obscurations are removed.
For more on this topic, see Casey Kemp's entry for "Luminosity" on Oxford Bibliographies—Buddhism, or see the glossary entry for "luminosity" for links to featured videos and articles.
Is buddha-nature the same thing as a self?
Some scriptures expounded buddha-nature in positive terms such as essence, element or self to denote buddha-nature which is presented as an innate characteristic of a being. For this reason, some critics of the theory would say buddha-nature is the same as the non-Buddhist theory of self. Others argue that the buddha-nature teachings are provisional and not meant to be taken literally. According to them, the presentation of buddha-nature in positive terms has practical value, but is not meant to be taken as definitive in nature. Some scriptures support this position.
Yet, some Buddhist authors and teachers hold the buddha-nature teachings as definitive. They maintain that in no way is buddha-nature a doctrine of a self. Those who advocate for this view teach that buddha-nature is not an individual essence, but a universal reality. No one suggests that there are separate buddha-natures in each person. Individuals are subject to dependent origination. Our existence comes about through causes and conditions and therefore cannot be said to be truly individually existent. But buddha-nature is not conditioned. It is simply a basic characteristic of being and cannot be said to belong to u as an individual or personal thing. It is more like air—we all have it in our lungs, but it is not our own individual air.
From this standpoint, the notion of the self is considered to be in the realm of conceptual thought while buddha-nature is seen as a reality transcending conceptual thought.
Are buddha-nature teachings controversial?
Not all Buddhists accept the teachings of buddha-nature, and some actually disparage it as non-Buddhist. This is because of the similarities between buddha-nature and the "self," which the Buddha famously declared does not exist. The Buddha taught that all individuals are subject to "dependent arising," which simply means we exist because of causes and conditions. We are made up of parts in dependence on other things. According to mainstream Buddhism, we exist as pieces of a larger process that is constantly changing, and there is no underlying permanence to any of it; as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus said, the only constant is change. Because buddha-nature is described as our "essence" or our "innate nature," some teachers and scholars have argued that it is no different from the self and is therefore in contradiction with basic Buddhism. Thus, they dismiss the buddha-nature teachings as non-Buddhist.
Others do not outright dismiss it but argue that the teaching of buddha-nature is merely “provisional” and is not “definitive”. It is not literally true but useful for motivating people who might otherwise not take up the path to enlightenment. Some buddha-nature scriptures even use the word self (ātman) to describe buddha-nature, but they are understood to refer to a basic fact of reality shared by all beings rather than an individual essence. Thus, they relegate buddha-nature to a lower level of provisional teaching.
Yet other thinkers accept buddha-nature as an unconditioned nature of ultimate reality that is absolute and the only truth while all other phenomena are mere illusion and non-existent. Thus, to these Buddhist thinkers, buddha-nature teachings are the final and the only definitive teaching of the Buddha. Still others have argued that buddha-nature is not universal but rather restricted to certain categories of people, or that it is acquired as a result of practice or prayer. Given the diverse formulations and presentations of the ultimate truth and buddha-nature in the sūtras which gave rise to different interpretations and practical applications, the buddha-nature teachings have been a subject of much debate, contestations and controversies.
To learn more about these specific topics, view Karl Brunnhölzl's interview, in which discusses the debate over the teaching of buddha-nature and explains why buddha-nature is a radical teaching.
Thrangu Rinpoche's responses to questions about Buddha-Nature
What is 'luminosity'?
TR: When we say luminosity, in Tibetan salwa, it does not refer to light or the luminous quality of an electric bulb or the sun. It has little to do with that. Luminosity refers to the intelligent capacity of wakefulness–knowledge and wisdom, or prajna and jnana–the ability to 'know'. The Second Turning of the Wheel of Dharma emphasizes the emptiness of things, the absence of a self. "There is no I, no nose, no tongue, and so forth." Non-existence and space-like are mentioned a lot. If we understand emptiness as blank, void space without any qualities, then we've missed the mark. Dharmadhatu is not like that. In dharmadhatu, there is constant manifestation of relative appearances that arise due to the law of causation or dependent connection. It's certainly not just a blank or stupid space. It has the luminous quality which expresses itself as intelligent wakefulness. If, when practicing, you look into your mind you will find out what we mean by emptiness and luminosity. Then conviction that the mind is both empty and luminous will grow. (From Buddha-Nature by Thrangu Rinpoche, pp. 99-100)
What is the essence of the enlightened nature empty of?
TR: When we say 'empty', we usually mean 'without any concrete substance or matter.' When I strike the table with my hand, it makes a sound. That means it has some substance or concreteness. But the enlightened nature, the buddha nature, has no concrete substance whatsoever. Its essence is empty.
When we practice, we should look into the mind wondering, "How is the mind? What is it like?" Our mind gives rise to an inconceivable number of different thoughts and emotions. Most of what we see around us are constructs fabricated by the mind, but still when we sit down and look into the mind asking ourselves, "Where is my mind?" we discover that it is impossible to find anywhere. There is not a 'thing' to be seen or found. That's why it is said that the essence is empty, but is it only empty? No, it's not. Its nature is luminous. Clarity and wakefulness are present because it is possible to know, perceive, and think. At the final stages of enlightenment, inconceivably great virtues and wisdoms manifest. (From Buddha-Nature by Thrangu Rinpoche, pp. 27-28)
How does one know when one's experience of emptiness isn't just an intellectual construct?
First of all, ordinary beings who have not yet reached the first bodhisattva level are unable to truly perceive emptiness. What we have now is a conceptual understanding of emptiness arising from reasoning, discrimination, and so forth. We have an idea of emptiness.
For example, when looking at a hand, ordinary people have the immediate idea, "This is a hand." They don't have the immediate perception of emptiness. If they use reasoning or discrimination, then they can see that a hand is only called 'hand,' though it's actually composed of many things like fingers, skin, flesh, bones, and blood. To this conglomeration, the label 'hand' is appended. Analyzing like this, one can reach the conclusion that the hand is actually empty, but at present, this is still just an idea. However, slowly, slowly as one continues to practice, one grows closer and closer to the actual perception of emptiness. (From Buddha-Nature by Thrangu Rinpoche, p. 29)
I thought the Third Turning was the Vajrayana vehicle.
The final set of teachings, the Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma, is entirely connected to Vajrayana in that emphasis is placed on the wisdom and clarity aspect. In Vajrayana practices, such as the development and completion stages, the main focus is meditation on the clarity or wisdom aspect. Therefore, they are connected. The Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma is the foundation shared between sutra and tantra. The sutra teachings place greater emphasis on the prajna or the knowledge aspect. Through discrimination and investigation, one determines the true condition of things. But, in Vajrayana, the upaya or means is stressed. One is introduced directly to the real condition and then rests in meditation on that.
The sutra teachings are more extraverted, looking outwardly, examining things, and discriminating while the Vajrayana, or tantric teachings, introduce the empty essence and luminous nature directly after which one simply rests in that. Method is of utmost importance and, therefore, Vajrayana is very beneficial and very fast. The link between these two is called the view of the link between sutra and tantra. (From Buddha-Nature by Thrangu Rinpoche, p. 30)
It is said that in their basic condition, things are empty in essence and luminous in nature. There are not two separate entities. Essence and nature are undivided, so it is called nondual. (From Buddha-Nature by Thrangu Rinpoche, p. 45)
Please clarify what 'confusion' actually refers to.
At present, due to the overwhelming power of ignorance, we are mistaken about the nature of things. With confusion in our mind, we cannot clearly examine how things truly are. For example, while sleeping we may dream that we are in the jungle with a tiger chasing us. The tiger approaches and is about to eat us. We are terrified and want to run away. There isn't much we can do in the dream state because we are unable to block our experience, but if we could just investigate the situation at that time, we would discover that there is really no jungle and no tiger. In fact, none of what seems to be occurring is true, but we are too overwhelmed by our perceptions to stop and closely examine the real situation. Yet if a clairvoyant person were present who could see that we were dreaming about being lost in a jungle and pursued by a wild animal, that person could shake us and say, "Hey, wake up! Don't be afraid. It's just a dream." At that point, we would wake up and the confusing dream images would disappear. However, left on our own, we are too busy worrying about how to escape our ferocious 'dream tiger' to stop and realize how things really are. In the same way, sentient beings need to depend on the fully enlightened Buddha to convey to us our true condition. (From Buddha-Nature by Thrangu Rinpoche, pp. 98-99)
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- For Asaṅga's discussion, see the Śrāvakabhūmi, Toh 4036. Tengyur, sem stam, dzi, 7b. For content in English, page 124 of Stages of the Buddha's Teachings provides a translation of Gampopa's presentation in his Ornament of Precious Liberation (Tib. Dam chos yid bzhin nor bu thar pa rin po che'i rgyan, translation by Ken Holmes, edited by Thubten Jinpa): That "every sentient being has the potential to become a buddha" is explained through the five ways in which they stand in respect to enlightenment potential. These are outlined in the following synopsis: Those with enlightenment potential can be summed up as belonging to five groups: those with severed potential, undetermined potential, śrāvaka potential, pratyekabuddha potential, and those with the Mahāyāna potential. Pages 9-11 of Ringu Tulku’s book, Path to Buddahood: Teachings on Gampopa’s Jewel Ornament of Liberation (Boston: Shambhala Publications, 2003) also discuss the five castes or families and you can see the earlier translation mentioned on page 3 of Herbert Guenther's Jewel Ornament and notes 21-25.
- Kazuo Kano, page 275, Buddha-Nature and Emptiness (WSTB, 2016).