Topic of the week
Kyotön Mönlam Tsultrim and His Works
Kyotön Mönlam Tsultrim (1219-1299), a master of the acclaimed Narthang monastery, is the author of a number of short texts related to buddha-nature. He served as the abbot of Narthang from 1285 to 1299, when he passed away, and built the main temple and border walls of Narthang. He wrote many treatises, including exegeses on the Middle Way philosophy of Madhyamaka and the Perfection of Wisdom, or Prajñāpāramitā. Among his works dealing with buddha-nature are his Instructions on the Ultimate Continuum of the Mahāyāna, The Meaning of the Essence of Luminosity, Instructions for the Moment of Death, Essential Pith Instructions That Summarize the Quintessence of the Piṭakas, and Instructions on the Path of the Nature of Phenomena.
While these short works contain scholarly depth and rigor, Kyotön does not present them merely as doctrinal exegesis but rather takes the approach of homiletic discourse which is in alignment with the spirit of Kadampa masters and their pragmatism. Most of the texts contained here have recently been discovered in the Nechu Temple of Drepung Monastery. Find out more about these works and their author here.
The Buddha has taught that all sentient beings possess buddha-nature and the Buddha is permanent, eternal, unchanging, immovable and blissful.~ Mahāparinirvāṇamahāyānasūtra
The Four Noble Truths
The teaching on the four noble truths (Tibetan: བདེན་པ་བཞི་ bden pa bzhi, Sanskrit: catvāri āryasatyāni, Chinese: sìshèngdì) is perhaps the most well known of the Buddhist teachings. Delivered to his five friends in Deer Park seven weeks after the Buddha attained enlightenment, the four noble truths form the earliest set of teachings and the soteriological basis of the Buddha’s spiritual system. The Buddha proclaimed that,
- There is suffering.
- There is the cause of suffering.
- There is the cessation of suffering.
- There is the path to the cessation of suffering.
In today’s idiom, the Buddha declared that,
- Life has many problems.
- Problems come out of causes.
- There are solutions to the problems.
- There are paths to the solution.
After identifying the four noble truths in the first round of utterances, the Buddha is then said to have announced in the second round of utterances that,
- Suffering is to be recognized.
- The cause of suffering is to be eliminated.
- The cessation of suffering is to be attained.
- The path to the cessation is to be adopted.
The Sublime Continuum, Verse IV.52, succinctly captures this message using the common medical analogy.
- ནད་ནི་ཤེས་བྱ་ནད་ཀྱི་རྒྱུ་ནི་སྤང་བྱ་ལ། །
- བདེ་གནས་ཐོབ་བྱ་སྨན་ནི་བསྟེན་པར་བྱ་བ་ལྟར། །
- སྡུག་བསྔལ་རྒྱུ་དང་དེ་འགོག་པ་དང་དེ་བཞིན་ལམ། །
- ཤེས་བྱ་སྤང་བྱ་རེག་པར་བྱ་ཞིང་བསྟེན་པར་བྱ། །
- Just as a disease is to be known, the cause of the disease is to be relinquished,
- The state of well-being is to be attained, and medicine is to be relied upon,
- Suffering, [its] cause, its cessation, and, likewise, the path, respectively,
- Are to be known, to be relinquished, to be reached, and to be relied upon.
For more details, see the page on Verse IV.52.
What is buddha-nature? The primordial innate freedom of every mind that is blissful and full of wisdom and compassion itself.~ Karl Brunnhölzl
Among the many tathāgatagarbhasūtras, or sūtras on buddha-nature, the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra is the only one which goes by that name. It is also perhaps the earliest and most well-known sūtra on buddha-nature. Translated into Chinese by Buddhabhadra in the fourth century and Amoghavajra in the eighth century, and into Tibetan by Śākyabhadra and Yeshe De in the eighth century, this sūtra is one of the main sources used by the author of the Sublime Continuum, or Ratnagotravibhāga, which is the core text on buddha-nature.
The sūtra is set at Vulture Peak, ten years after the Buddha attained perfect enlightenment, among some hundred thousand monks and innumerable bodhisattvas, including many familiar names, and many other kinds of beings. The Buddha, after lunch, enters the Candanagarbha pavilion, and through his meditative power he manifests myriads of lotus flowers in the space above. A radiant buddha figure sits in calyxes of the lotus flowers sending forth rays of light. He then uses his power to make the flowers wilt into dark, putrid, unsightly forms, but the buddhas inside the flower remain radiant. The Buddha uses this to explain how, in the putrid and unsightly filth of negative emotions and thoughts, every sentient being has the true nature of a buddha.
The Buddha goes on to explain all nine similes to illustrate the presence of latent buddha-nature in all sentient beings.
- 1. Buddha figure in the wilting unsightly lotus
- 2. Honey in the beehive
- 3. Kernel of grain in the husk
- 4. Gold nugget in pile of excrement
- 5. Treasure underneath a pauper’s house
- 6. A mango seed ready to unfold into a tree
- 7. Precious statue of the Buddha in a rag
- 8. A universal monarch in the womb of a poor woman
- 9. Golden statue in a clay mould
All sentient beings possess buddha-nature; It remains obscured by myriad defiling emotions, like a lamp in a vase.~ Aṅgulimālīyam-nāma-mahāyāna-sūtra
Topic of the Week: Buddha-nature and Luminosity
The classic text on buddha-nature, Ratnagotravibhāga, Verse I.63 states:
The luminous nature of the mind
Is completely unchanging, just like space.
It is not afflicted by adventitious stains,
Such as desire, born from false imagination.
The innate nature of the mind is often described as luminous (Tibetan: འོད་གསལ་བ་ ’od gsal ba, Sanskrit: prabhāsvara, Chinese: guāng míng) in the sūtras and commentarial literature. The earliest sūtra to do this is perhaps Aṅguttaranikāya, I.10, which quotes the Buddha saying: "Luminous, monks, is this mind, but sometimes it is defiled by adventitious defilements." Among the Mahāyāna sūtras, the Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā is perhaps the earliest to describe mind as being naturally luminous. In Chapter I it states: "Mind is not mind; its nature is luminous." Later sūtras, tantras, and commentarial writings elaborate on the luminous nature of mind.
What does it mean for the mind to be "luminous" then? Karl Brunnhölzl, an authority on buddha-nature, warns that it should not be understood to be an experience of external light. Luminosity, in the context of the buddha-nature and the nature of mind, refers to its natural clarity, consciousness, and lucidity. It is the innate capacity of the mind that enables it to be aware, intelligent, and knowing. This essential quality of the mind forms the bedrock of spiritual transformation and enlightenment in Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna traditions of the Buddhist Himalayas. See more on this here.
Buddha-nature is the ultimate topic of both sūtra and mantra Buddhist teachings.~ Khenpo Namdol
Topic of the Week: The Life of the Buddha
The life of the Buddha is told in many sūtras and commentaries, and it is also presented in numerous art forms. Ever since the early days of Buddhism, it was used as one of the most common liberative tools to help inspire people on the path to enlightenment. Buddhists chant many prayers which recount the life of the Buddha. In the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the rich life story of the Buddha is often condensed in his twelve deeds (མཛད་པ་བཅུ་གཉིས་). These twelve deeds are also considered to be a defining characteristic of the supreme emanation body, or uttamanirmāṇakāya (མཆོག་གི་སྤྲུལ་སྐུ་). However, there are variations in the enumeration of the twelve deeds.
The Ratnagotravibhāga (Verse II.54-6), which is often cited as source for the enumeration of the twelve deeds, presents the following twelve:
1. Being born in Tuṣita heaven (སྐྱེ་བ་མངོན་པར་སྐྱེ་བ་)
2. Descent from Tuṣita (དགའ་ལྡན་གནས་ནས་འཕོ་བ་)
3. Entering the mother's womb (ཡུམ་གྱི་ལྷུམས་སུ་ཞུགས་པ་)
4. Being born (སྐུ་བལྟམས་པ་)
5. Becoming skilled in various arts (བཟོ་ཡི་གནས་ལ་མཁས་པ་)
6. Enjoying the company of royal consorts (བཙུན་མོའི་འཁོར་གྱིས་དགྱེས་རོལ་བ་)
7. Renouncing the world and going through austerities (ངེས་འབྱུང་དཀའ་བ་སྤྱད་པ་)
8. Proceeding to the heart of bodhi (བྱང་ཆུབ་སྙིང་པོར་གཤེགས་པ་)
9. Overcoming Mara's hosts (བདུད་སྡེ་བཅོམ་པ་)
10. Becoming fully enlightened (རྫོགས་པར་བྱང་ཆུབ་པ་)
11. Turning the wheel of Dharma (ཆོས་ཀྱི་འཁོར་ལོ་སྐོར་བ་)
12. Passing into mahāparinirvāṇa (མྱ་ངན་ལས་འདས་པ་)
Nāgārjuna, in his Praise of the Buddha through Twelve Deeds, contains a different list.
1. Descending from Tuṣita to enter mother's womb
2. Taking birth in Lumbini grove
3. Mastering the various arts and skills
4. Enjoying palace life in the company of consorts
5. Seeing futility of worldly life and becoming a renunciate
6. Undergoing austerities and reaching meditative states
7. Becoming fully enlightened under the Bodhi tree
8. Turning the wheel of Dharma at various places
9. Defeating his rivals and taming the opponents
10. Performing miracles and spreading the teachings
11. Passing into nirvāṇa
12. Leaving behind relics
However, the common enumeration of the twelve deeds of the Buddha in the Himalayan communities differs slightly from both of the above-mentioned Indian sources.
1. Descent from Tuṣita
2. Entering the mother's womb
3. Taking birth
4. Becoming skilled in various arts
5. Delighting in the company of consorts
6. Becoming a renunciate
7. Practicing austerities
8. Proceeding to the foot of the Bodhi tree
9. Overcoming the evil forces
10. Becoming fully enlightened
11. Turning the wheel of Dharma
12. Passing into nirvāṇa
Buddha-nature is not an object of intellectual enquiry.~ Laṅkāvatārasūtra
Topic of the Week: The Number Three
The use of the number three is very common in religious traditions. The ancient followers of Vedic religion had the three deities of Agni (the fire god), Vāyu (the wind god), and Sūrya (the sun god), and the ancient Greeks commonly grouped gods by triads or trinities. Hinduism is centered on the cosmic trinity of Brahmā, Viṣṇu, and Śiva. Christianity has the Holy Trinity, while Judaism has the three patriarchs, including Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. The Taoists have their Three Pure Ones and other triadic categories.
The most popular Buddhist triadic set is perhaps the Three Jewels, although there are many other sets of three, including the three poisons (དུག་གསུམ་), three baskets (སྡེ་སྣོད་གསུམ་), three trainings (བསླབ་པ་གསུམ་), etc. The Buddha presented a set of three objects of refuge which can protect an individual from the cyclic sea of suffering. They are the Buddha, to whom one takes refuge as the teacher, his teachings, the Dharma, in which one takes refuge as the path, and the Saṅgha, or the spiritual community in whom one takes refuge as the companion. But why these three?
A common explanation for this question, using a medical analogy, is that a person who is suffering from the disease of afflictive emotions needs the Buddha, like a physician, the Dharma, like medicine, and the Saṅgha, like a nurse. The Ratnagotravibhāga, however, the core text on buddha-nature, justifies the triadic enumeration by arguing that the three objects are for six kinds of individuals and three purposes. The Buddha Jewel is mainly taught for the bodhisattvas, the supreme beings seeking the state of the Buddha, and for those who are primarily interested in venerating the teacher. The Dharma Jewel is mainly taught for the pratyekabuddhas, or solitary sages, who seek enlightenment without a teacher by relying on individual realization of dharma, and for those who are primarily interested in venerating the teachings. The Saṅgha Jewel is mainly taught for the śrāvakas, or disciples, who focus on the support of the spiritual community, and for those who are primarily interested in venerating the spiritual community. The triadic presentation is also for the purpose of highlighting the qualities of the teacher, teachings, and the followers. See Verse I.19 for more on this.
While the triadic presentation of the objects of refuge have remained universal, the Tibetan Buddhist tradition added another element, especially in its universal chant for taking refuge. In addition to the Three Jewels, one commonly finds Tibetan Buddhists taking refuge in the lama, as the following popular verse shows.
I take refuge in the lama.
I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Saṅgha.
The path of awakening involves both transforming the mind/brain and uncovering the wonderful true nature that was there all along.~ Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius, Buddha's Brain, p. 19.
Topic of the Week: The Saṅgha
Saṅgha, the third of the Three Jewels, generally refers to the followers of the Buddhist path. The Sanskrit term saṅgha literally means a company, assembly, or association. The Tibetan translation for the word saṅgha, dge ’dun (དགེ་འདུན་), literally "interested in virtue," refers to the spiritual seekers who are often classified into the two communities of saffron-colored renunciates (རབ་བྱུང་ངུར་སྨྲིག་གི་སྡེ་) and the community of white-clothed, long-haired ones (གོས་དཀར་ལྕང་ལོའི་སྡེ་).
The Saṅgha Jewel originally referred to the followers of the Buddha who have entered the path. In the early sūtras, they are described as those who have properly entered (ལེགས་པར་ཞུགས་པ་), correctly entered (རིགས་པར་ཞུགས་པ་), ethically entered (དྲང་པོར་ཞུགས་པ་), and harmoniously entered (མཐུན་པར་ཞུགས་པ་) the path. They are further described as those who are worthy of veneration (ཐལ་མོ་སྦྱར་བའི་འོས་སུ་གྱུར་པ་), worthy of homage (ཕྱག་བྱ་བའི་འོས་སུ་གྱུར་པ་), worthy objects of merit (བསོད་ནམས་ཀྱི་ཞིང་), worthy of offering (ཡོན་ཡོངས་སུ་སྦྱོང་བ་), and worthy recipients of gifts (སྦྱིན་པའི་གནས་སུ་གྱུར་པ་). They mainly include the celibate monks and nuns, particularly the fully ordained bhikṣus and bhikṣuṇīs. Four such ordained persons are often believed to constitute a proper saṅgha.
In terms of a more technical explanation, the saṅgha in mainstream Buddhism comprises the four sets of spiritual persons, including the stream-runner (རྒྱུན་ཞུགས་), once-returner (ཕྱིར་འོང་), non-returner (ཕྱིར་མི་འོང་), and foe-destroyer (དགྲ་བཅོམ་). The first three are considered to be at different levels on the path to enlightenment, and the fourth one is considered to be an enlightened saint who has reached nirvāṇa. They are further divided into eight or twenty types of saṅgha. The great scholar Vasubandhu in his Abhidharmakośa (chapter IV.32) states that it is the inner spiritual realization and experience of the followers of the Buddha, not the physical or social person, which is the true saṅgha - the third object of refuge.
The classic literature on buddha-nature, the Ratnagotravibhāga, presents a unique Mahāyāna understanding of the saṅgha. In chapter I.15, it argues that a true Mahāyāna saṅgha is the assembly of bodhisattvas who possess the virtue of the inner vision of suchness and multiplicity and have reached an irreversible stage on the path to buddhahood. Later commentators elaborate that a Mahāyāna saṅgha is marked by the eight qualities of knowledge and liberation (རིག་གྲོལ་གྱི་ཡོན་ཏན་བརྒྱད་). A Mahāyāna saṅgha possesses the knowledge of suchness or reality (ཇི་ལྟ་བ་རིག་པ་), the knowledge of multiplicity of phenomena (ཇི་སྙེད་པ་རིག་པ་), and the knowledge of inner pristine wisdom (ནང་གི་ཡེ་ཤེས་རིག་པ་). Furthermore, they possess the liberation or freedom from the obscuration of attachment (ཆགས་པའི་སྒྲིབ་པ་), the obscuration of obstructions of knowledge (ཐོགས་པའི་སྒྲིབ་པ་), and the obscuration of inferiority (དམན་པའི་སྒྲིབ་པ་). The overall categories of knowledge (རིག་པ་) and liberation (གྲོལ་བ་) are added to these six to make eight qualities. For more on this, read Verses I.14–18
All sentient beings possess buddha-nature.~ Ārya-prajñāpāramitā-naya-śatapañcaśatikā
Topic of the Week: Buddha-Nature and Gender
Set in the male-dominated society of ancient India and given the physical difficulties faced in the life of a renunciate in old times, most Buddhist sūtras present the female body as being a lesser physical medium for spiritual practice than the male body. These sūtras often teach how a female seeker would move on to a male body as she advances on the spiritual path. This was exactly the assumption Mahāmeghagarbha had while talking about a female bodhisattva named Vimalaprabhā in the Great Cloud Sūtra. The Buddha berates Mahāmeghagarbha for having such a thought.
- གསོལ་པ། ལྷ་མོ་དྲི་མ་མེད་པའི་འོད་གང་དུ་བུད་མེད་ཀྱི་ལུས་ལས་ལྡོག་པར་འགྱུར་བ་བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས་དེ་བཞིན་གཤེགས་པས་ལུང་བསྟན་དུ་གསོལ།
- བཀའ་སྩལ་པ། སྤྲིན་ཆེན་སྙིང་པོ། བུད་མེད་ཀྱི་ལུས་ལས་གང་དུ་ལྡོག་པར་འགྱུར་ཞེས་དེ་ལྟར་མ་ལྟ་ཞིག །
- གསོལ་པ། བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས་འོ་ན་ཇི་ལྟ་བུ་ལགས།
- བཀའ་སྩལ་པ། འདི་ནི། བུད་མེད་མ་ཡིན་ཏེ༑ ལྷ་མོ་དྲི་མ་མེད་པའི་འོད་འདི་ནི། བསྐལ་པ་བྱེ་བ་ཕྲག་གྲངས་མེད་པ་ནས་བྱང་ཆུབ་སེམས་དཔའི་བྱ་བ་བྱེད་པ་ཡིན་ཏེ། སེམས་ཅན་འདུལ་བའི་དབང་གིས་བུད་མེད་ཀྱི་ལུས་འཛིན་པས་ན།
- འདི་ནི༑ ཐབས་ཀྱི་ལུས་ཡིན་པར་བལྟའོ། །
- [Mahāmeghagarbha] asked: O Blessed Tathāgata! Please prophesy where the goddess Vimalaprabhā will switch from the female body.
- [The Blessed One] said: Mahāmeghagarbha! Do not think of where she will switch from the female body.
- Mahāmeghagarbha: Blessed One! How will it be, then?
- The Buddha: This is not just a case of a woman. The goddess has engaged in bodhisattva activities for countless decamillion eons.
- She holds the female body for the sake of taming sentient beings. View hers as a form of expedience.
The Buddha praises the qualities of Vimalaprabhā in the sūtra and goes on to prophesy how Vimalaprabhā will take the form of an attractive and loving princess in the future to promote the teachings of the Buddha and benefit the world. We also find a similar account of female power in the sūtra called Lion’s Roar of Queen Śrīmālā. In this sūtra, the main interlocutor is Queen Śrīmālā, daughter of King Prasenajit of Kosala but married to King Yaśamitra of Ayodhyā. Queen Śrīmālā is described as a lady of high caliber and confidence. She makes ten pledges and three special prayers, and the Buddha gives the prophecy that she will become a buddha in the future.
The buddha-nature teachings generally underscore the fact that all sentient beings, irrespective of their diverse physical forms, are the same in their innate state of being. Whether male, female, or otherwise, beings possess the same potential and capacity for enlightenment.
Every being has the potential for perfection, just as every sesame seed is permeated with oil.~ Matthieu Ricard
Topic of the Week: The Four Misperceptions
Buddhist texts talk about four viparyāsa, or misperceptions. The most common enumeration of the four misperceptions include (1) perceiving what is impure as pure (མི་གཙང་བ་ལ་གཙང་བར་འཛིན་པ་), (2) holding what is dissatisfactory and suffering as blissful (སྡུག་བསྔལ་བ་ལ་བདེ་བར་འཛིན་པ་), (3) holding what is impermanent as permanent (མི་རྟག་པ་ལ་རྟག་པར་འཛིན་པ་), and (4) holding what is lacking in self as self (བདག་མེད་པ་ལ་བདག་ཏུ་འཛིན་པ་). In this context, our notion of things being pure, blissful, permanent, and self-existent is considered to be a wrong perception and contradictory to the way things are.
Yet in the Mahāyāna sūtras and the commentarial treatises, particularly those dealing with buddha-nature, we find the description of buddha-nature as pure, blissful, permanent, and self-existent. Purity, bliss, permanence, and self are ultimate qualities to be actualized. How do we, then, reconcile these two types of teachings dealing with the four viparyāsa?
The sūtra entitled Lion’s Roar of Queen Śrīmālā provides one clear explanation of what the Buddha meant in the divergent teachings.
- བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས། སེམས་ཅན་རྣམས་ནི་ཟིན་པའི་ཕུང་པོ་ལྔ་པོ་དག་ལ་ཕྱིན་ཅི་ལོག་པར་གྱུར་ཏེ། བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས། དེ་དག་ནི་མི་རྟག་པ་ལ་རྟག་པར་འདུ་ཤེས་པ་དང་། སྡུག་བསྔལ་བ་ལ་བདེ་བར་འདུ་ཤེས་པ་དང་། བདག་མ་མཆིས་པ་ལ་བདག་ཏུ་འདུ་ཤེས་པ་དང་། མི་གཙང་བ་ལ་གཙང་བར་འདུ་ཤེས་པ་ལགས་སོ། །བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས། ཐམས་ཅད་མཁྱེན་པའི་ཡེ་ཤེས་ཀྱི་ཡུལ་དང་། དེ་བཞིན་གཤེགས་པའི་ཆོས་ཀྱི་སྐུ་ནི་ཉན་ཐོས་དང་། རང་སངས་རྒྱས་ཐམས་ཅད་ཀྱི་ཤེས་པ་དག་པས་ཀྱང་སྔོན་མ་མཐོང་ལགས་སོ། །བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས། སེམས་ཅན་རྣམས་དེ་བཞིན་གཤེགས་པ་ལ་དད་པས་རྟག་པར་འདུ་ཤེས་པ་དང་། བདེ་བར་འདུ་ཤེས་པ་དང་། བདག་ཏུ་འདུ་ཤེས་པ་དང་། གཙང་བར་འདུ་ཤེས་པའི་སེམས་ཅན་དེ་དག་ནི་བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས་ཕྱིན་ཅི་ལོག་ཏུ་འགྱུར་བ་མ་ལགས་ཏེ། བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས། སེམས་ཅན་དེ་དག་ནི་ཡང་དག་པའི་ལྟ་བ་ཅན་དུ་འགྱུར་བ་ལགས་སོ། །དེ་ཅིའི་སླད་དུ་ཞེ་ན། བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས། དེ་བཞིན་གཤེགས་པའི་ཆོས་ཀྱི་སྐུ་ཉིད་རྟག་པའི་ཕ་རོལ་ཏུ་ཕྱིན་པ་དང་། བདེ་བའི་ཕ་རོལ་ཏུ་ཕྱིན་པ་དང་། བདག་གི་ཕ་རོལ་ཏུ་ཕྱིན་པ་དང་། གཙང་བའི་ཕ་རོལ་ཏུ་ཕྱིན་པ་ལགས་པའི་སླད་དུའོ། །
- Blessed One! Sentient beings have misperceptions regarding the five sentient aggregates. Blessed One! They are perceiving what is impermanent as permanent, perceiving what is suffering as blissful, perceiving what lacks self as self, and perceiving what is impure as pure. Blessed One! Even the pure cognition of śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas has not previously perceived the objects of pristine omniscient wisdom and the dharmakāya of the buddhas. Blessed One! Those sentient beings who, out of faith, perceive the Buddha as permanent, blissful, self, and pure are not mistaken in their perception. Blessed One! These sentient beings possess the right view, for the dharmakāya of the buddhas, Blessed One, has reached the perfection of permanence, perfection of bliss, perfection of self, and the perfection of purity.
If there were no buddha-element, one wouldn’t be unhappy with suffering.~ Maitreya
Topic of the Week: What is dharma?
Dharma is perhaps one of the most popular Indic Sanskrit terms that is used widely in religious philosophy and practice. There is no single word in the English language that renders dharma and its numerous meanings. It refers to existence and phenomena in its broadest sense, but in specific contexts it also designates objects of mental faculty, the law of nature, truth, virtue, duty, spiritual path, religion, and religious doctrine. In his work entitled Vyākhyāyukti, or Principles of Exegesis, Vasubandhu states that the term dharma can mean ten different things in the Buddhist context alone.
In its most common usage in Buddhism, dharma refers to the second object of refuge, the teachings of the Buddha. Again, Vasubandhu in his magnum opus, Abhidharmakośa, or the Treasury of Abhidharma, explains that the dharma of the Buddha is twofold: the doctrinal scriptures and experiential understanding. The Ratnagotravibhāga presents a more abstruse and sophisticated Mahāyāna definition of dharma in the context of its explanation of the Three Jewels. The Dharma Jewel is said to be inconceivable, nondual, nonconceptual reality, which is pure, luminous, and remedial in nature. It comprises the third and fourth truths out of the four noble truths: the truth of cessation, which is free from attachment, and the truth of the path to cessation, which helps bring about the freedom from attachment. Learn more about this Mahāyāna definition of dharma by reading Verse I.10.
Buddha-nature is taught to be the immutable reality that is unborn and unceasing like space.~ Asaṅga
Topic of the Week: Who is a bodhisattva?
The term bodhisattva is commonly used in Buddhism and has now entered most of the English dictionaries. Who, then, is a bodhisattva, or what makes someone a bodhisattva? In early Buddhism, a bodhisattva is considered to be a rare being of exceptional caliber who can become a buddha. Not many beings were said to have the bodhisattva spiritual gene and to possess the capacity to become a buddha.
The rise of Mahāyāna Buddhism changed this narrative. Some Mahāyāna traditions argued that those capable of seeking enlightenment would have one of the three dispositions to pursue a śrāvaka arhathood, pratyekabuddha arhathood, or buddhahood. Many beings of superior caliber and disposition became bodhisattvas, seeking buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings. As the opportunity to become a bodhisattva increased, the pantheon of bodhisattvas also grew. Thus, we find many names of bodhisattvas in the Mahāyāna sūtras. Other Mahāyāna traditions took this even further and argued that all beings have the capacity to become a buddha and would eventually become one if they followed the path. Thus, any sentient being could become a bodhisattva, and the bodhisattva disposition was not restricted to any specific type of being. Anyone who generated bodhicitta—the thought of enlightenment—and engaged in the practice of the six perfections was a bodhisattva. A bodhisattva, in brief, is a buddha in the making.
The Ratnagotravibhāga, the main text on buddha-nature, explains that a bodhisattva or an heir of the Buddha is someone who is born from the seed of faith in the Supreme Vehicle and the womb of blissful samādhi. Their mother is understood to be wisdom, and their nanny is compassion. To discover more on this, read Verse I.34.
Even those born as animals have the buddha-nature.~ Asaṅga
Topic of the Week: Buddha-Nature at Death
Can buddha-nature be instantly actualized at the time of death? Death, in Tibetan Buddhism, is seen as a powerful opportunity for enlightenment. As one’s bodily organs stop functioning and the support of the physical elements break down, one’s ordinary consciousness ceases to function. At this point one is said to go through a psychological and existential hiatus in which all thoughts, emotions, and activities momentarily come to a halt and the luminous nature of mind, the clear light, like a vast, clear sky, is laid bare and open. Those who become aware of this and rest in this state of the ground nature overcome the temporary obscurations and let their buddha-nature shine forth unobstructed and free forever. They are said to have actualized the pristine wisdom of the ground and remain in thugs dam, a meditative equipoise at death. Find more on buddha-nature and death in ’Da’ ka ye shes kyi 'chi kha ma’i man ngag by Mönlam Tsultrim, The Buddha: Death and Eternal Soul in Buddhism by the 14th Dalai Lama, and "Death, Sleep, and Orgasm: Gateways to the Mind of Clear Light" by Jeffrey Hopkins.
Thine own intellect, which is now voidness, yet not to be regarded as of the voidness of nothingness, but as being the intellect itself, unobstructed, shining, thrilling, and blissful, is the very consciousness, the All-good Buddha.~ The Tibetan Book of the Dead
Topic of the Week: The Parable of the Lost Son
In the parable of the Prodigal Son in the Bible (Luke, 15.11), we find the story of a son who was lost and found. The Buddha presents a similar parable about the reinstatement of a lost son in the Great Drum Sūtra. In this story a wealthy householder, who lost his son due to the carelessness of a nanny, finds his son many years later living an impoverished life. Worried that he may frighten the poor boy away if he reveals the whole truth of their relationship, he entices the boy with presents and expediently employs the boy to work as a servant. With gradual exposure to the rich life in the house, the boy becomes ready for the final recognition and reinstatement as the scion of the wealthy house.
The Buddha uses this parable to illustrate how the lower vehicles of the śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas are only expedient steps leading to the ultimate Mahāyāna goal of complete buddhahood. Sūtras related to buddha-nature such as the Great Drum Sūtra and the Lotus Sūtra teach that there is only one final enlightenment (i.e., buddhahood) and that there is only one vehicle (ekayāna) which represents this goal.
In the Dzogchen tradition, this story is used to illustrate that we are all buddhas by nature but are led astray from this nature by temporary incidents. Like a lost prince roaming in the state of an ordinary person (རྒྱལ་པོའི་བུ་དམངས་སུ་འཁྱམས་པ་) remains a prince to be eventually recognized and enthroned as a king, sentient beings remain in the state of the buddha-nature, although they wander aimlessly in the cycle of existence. The purpose of spiritual practice is to recognize and realize that our true nature is the same as the Buddha’s.
In a pregnant woman’s womb,
A child exists but is not seen. Just so, dharmadhātu is not seen, When it’s covered by afflictions.~ Nāgārjuna
Topic of the Week: Explaining the term Three Jewels
The Three Jewels form one of the fundamental concepts in Buddhism. The Buddha as the teacher, his teachings, or the Dharma, as the path, and his followers, or Sangha, as the companion are known as triratna in Sanskrit, triratana in Pali, and könchosum (དཀོན་མཆོག་གསུམ་, Wyl. dkon mchog gsum) in Tibetan. The Sanskrit term ratna and Pali ratana means jewel, gem, or treasure. The Tibetan word köncho literally means rare and supreme. Why are the Buddha, his teachings, and his followers considered to be jewels or to be rare and supreme? What is the reason behind the term Three Jewels or Triple Gem?
The Ratnagotravibhāga, which is a treatise on the spiritual gene of the Three Jewels, states in Verse l.22 that they are considered jewels or gems because they are rare, stainless, powerful, supreme, immutable, and ornaments of the world. Find more translations and explanations of this verse here.
The Buddha's teaching on the fundamental nature of the human mind has always been a great source of inspiration and hope for me.~ The 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso
Topic of the Week: Who or What is a Buddha?
Who or what is the "buddha" in buddha-nature? The word buddha comes from the Sanskrit verbal root √budh, to wake up and to know. Buddhist texts generally describe the Buddha as the one who is awakened or enlightened. A buddha has woken up from the slumber of ignorance and is in full awareness of the way things are. Tibetan translators used the term sangye (སངས་རྒྱས་, Wyl. sangs rgyas), in which "sangs" refers to being cleansed or freed from something and "rgyas" refers to flourishing. They explained that the Buddha is fully freed from ignorance and other impure things, and the Buddha flourishes with intelligence and wisdom.
The core classic text on buddha-nature, the Ratnagotravibhāga, defines the terms buddha or buddhahood as a state of enlightenment with eight qualities: unconditionality, spontaneity, incomprehensibility, wisdom, compassion, power, benefit to oneself, and benefit to others. Explore what these qualities mean and who or what is the ultimate "buddha" in the context of buddha-nature teachings by reading Root Verse I.5.
Mind, in essence, is luminous and pure buddha-nature.~ Laṅkāvatārasūtra