In Japanese Buddhism one of the terms used to convey the concept of enlightenment is jobutsu, which means “to become a Buddha” or “to uncover one’s Buddha-nature.” Jo means “to open” or “uncovering” and butsu means Buddha. In a word, Jobutsu sums up Buddha-nature. It means uncovering one’s potential. This is why we say that all people inherently posses Buddha-nature, because all people have potential or the capacity to realize wisdom and overcome sufferings.

Although the concept of Buddha-nature developed from Indian Mahayana thought, there is no exact Sanskrit term for it. The term “Buddha-nature” or fo xing originated in Chinese Buddhism. The Sanskrit term that most closely matches Buddha-nature is buddha-dhatu, which is regarded as both the nature (dhatu/dharmata) and the cause (dhatu/hetu) of Buddhahood.

The history of Buddha-nature is long and complicated, but I believe I can summarize its development, insofar as I understand the concept, with the following quotes. First, from Hui-ssu of the T’ien-t’ai school:

The Mind is the same as the Mind of Pure Self, Nature, True Thusness, Dharma-body, Tathagata-Womb, Dharma-realm, and Dharma-nature.”

Hui-ssu’s student, T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i later elaborated:

If one contemplates the Mind to be Buddha Nature and practices the Eightfold Noble Path, then one is capable of [attaining enlightenment]. With the understanding that all dharmas (things) originate from the Mind, [then] the Mind is the Buddha Nature.”

So, the expression “Buddha-nature” embraces many different Buddhist concepts and unifies them into a single term, which is identified with the mind. This understanding was not unique to the T’ien-t’ai tradition, for instance Ma-Tsu of the Ch’an school and Dogen of the Zen school, among others, held that “Mind is Buddha.”

Now, what is a Buddha? For that, I’ll borrow the Dalai Lama’s description from Part 3 of my transcript of his commentary on Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland: “a state that is said to be where all the positive aspects of our psyche or nature have been effective.” Buddha is a state of mind or a condition of life, attained when human beings overcome the negative aspects of psyche and human nature, or we could say when the positive aspects become more powerful than the negative ones.

Because Buddha-nature is the potential we possess to elevate our condition of life, it acts as a cause for Buddhahood. Everything arises from causes. Suffering has a cause. That’s one of the Buddha’s first teachings. The primary cause for suffering is ignorance. If suffering has a cause, then whatever is the opposite of suffering must also be caused, and this opposite thing is jobutsu-tokudatsu, “to become a buddha and obtain liberation” from suffering, which is also called nirvana. It’s cause is Buddha-nature, or you could call it nirvana-nature. The name is not important.

Both suffering and nirvana are innate within living beings. The potential for suffering is always present. Likewise, the potential to overcome suffering is also present, and it is in this way I feel Buddha-nature is best understood: as potential. We have the potential to experience wisdom and happiness, just as we have the potential to experience suffering. The concept of Buddha-nature is empowering, because it reminds us that we don’t have to remain in a state of ignorance and delusion, that we have the capacity, the ability to overcome our sufferings.

It’s easy to get stuck on the extravagant language often used in Buddhist literature. If we take some of the elaborate and fantastical descriptions of Buddha-nature literally, we might get the idea that it’s an entity or some sort of mystical force, or that becoming a Buddha entails the acquisition of something new, something outside of our lives. That would be a mistaken impression. All we are talking about is uncovering our human potential. We have to be able to see beyond the poetry and mythology, or, if you will, read between the lines. Then, when we can view subjects such as Buddha-nature through a more prosaic lens, they make perfect sense.

Of course, this is just my take on things. But I’m not the only one with this view of Buddha-nature. Thich Nhat Hanh says,

When he woke up at the foot of the Bodhi Tree, the Buddha Shakyamuni said, “How strange—all beings possess in themselves the capacity to understand, the capacity to love, the capacity to be free. Everyone has that capacity, but everyone allows himself or herself to be carried away on the ocean of suffering. How strange.” This is what the Buddha declared at the moment of his enlightenment under the Bodhi tree. He noticed that what we are looking for, day and night, is already there within oneself. What is beautiful, what is true, what is good, is already there in oneself. We can call it the Buddha-nature, the Buddhahood, the awakened nature, the true freedom, which is the foundation for all peace and happiness. This wonderful thing is in us, and a real teacher is someone who can help you to touch that thing in yourself, who helps give birth, to bring about the real teacher which already exists in yourself.

Here too, we should avoid a literal interpetation. No one actually knows what the Buddha said when he sat beneath the Bodhi tree. Thich Nhat Hanh is speaking metaphorically. Likewise, when we talk about “the true freedom” this does not mean one can ever escape suffering. Even buddhas experience suffering, because the potential for suffering is innate, just like the capacity for Buddhahood. Suffering does not magically disappear when you turn on the enlightenment switch. Yet we can experience freedom from the oppressive effects of suffering. We can take away the power suffering has to dominate our lives. That’s what “true freedom” means to me.

I should also mention that in the T’ien-t’ai traditon, Buddha-nature, Buddha, and Buddhahood, being three designations for the same state of mind, is “all-embracing” in that there is no duality, or discrimination in the ultimate sense. They “embrace” the negative aspects as well as the positive things. For example, a Buddha can also posses an “evil nature.”

In Thursday’s post, I mentioned that many people have some difficulty with Buddha-nature. To some, it is nothing more than another version of the God concept. I can understand to some extent how people could have that impression, but I think nothing could be further from the truth.

God has nothing to do with it. The only purpose the idea of God has in any discussion of Buddhist philosophy is to provide a contrast, which seems to be necessary because we (those of us in the West) have been indoctrinated with this concept and it is not easily dispelled. The ancient Buddhist philosophers, including the Buddha himself, had never heard of the God of Abraham or Jehovah, and it is very clear that the early Buddhists rejected the atman and absolute Brahman of the Upanishads. As the Theravada scholar Nyanaponika Thera, a Westerner, in his essay “Buddhism and the God-idea”, notes,

From a study of the discourses of the Buddha preserved in the Pali canon, it will be seen that the idea of a personal deity, a creator god conceived to be eternal and omnipotent, is incompatible with the Buddha’s teachings. On the other hand, conceptions of an impersonal godhead of any description, such as world-soul, etc., are excluded by the Buddha’s teachings on Anatta, non-self or unsubstantiality.”

Along these lines, I am also inclined to reject the idea of “Protestant Buddhism” when it is defined as the widespread pollution of Buddhism by Judeo-Christian ideas. While there is no question that the early Westerns scholars and translators used Christian terms – such as “sin” which technically would have no place in Buddhism since it refers to a transgression against God – the notion that the infusion of Christianity into Buddhism is so pervasive that it has changed or perverted the dharma is, I think, rather dubious. But that’s another subject for another time.

The message today is simply that understanding Buddha-nature means to know that Buddhahood or enlightenment is our capacity to achieve our highest potential, and it is a potential already inherent in life. By observing the mind, we can perceive this potential and realize it, thereby awakening our Buddha-nature.

One of the things that first attracted me to Buddhism was that it was a spiritual philosophy without a God, a supreme being. Sure, there are gods a plenty in Buddhist cosmology, but I’ve never taken them seriously, and frankly, I don’t think many of the astute Buddhist scholars from the past did either. I think they understood them as symbols. But that may just be wishful thinking on my part.

In any case, most other religious philosophies teach that all things come from an external force, often referred to as God, and several of these maintain that the sole purpose for the existence of human beings is to love and serve this God that is external to and independent to some extent from their own lives.

Buddhism, however, teaches that there is no difference between the ultimate reality and human nature. And of course, a Buddha or “Awakened One” is an ordinary human being. All livings beings posses a pure, enlightened nature which exists as a potential. Since this potential is universal, anyone can become a Buddha. We call it Buddha-nature.

Although the concept of Buddha-nature has it seeds in Indian Buddhism, one of the first to really advance the idea was Tao-sheng (360-434 CE), a Chinese monk and scholar.

Tao-sheng taught, among other things, that all sentient beings possess Buddha-nature and that there is no Buddha-world beyond the present. These were revolutionary teachings for his day and Tao-sheng was excommunicated from the Buddhist Sangha because of them. He was later vindicated when the complete Nirvana Sutra, which distinctly mentions Buddha-nature, was at last translated into Chinese.

Although, Tao-sheng did not use the actual term “Buddha-nature”, from statements like these found in his commentary on the Lotus Sutra, there is little doubt about what was getting at:

The sentient being’s endowment with [the potential for] great enlightenment leads all to succeed in becoming a Buddha . . . The sentient beings all possess the endowed [capacity] for great enlightenment; there is no one that is not a potential bodhisattva . . . All sentient beings without exception, are Buddhas, and all are also [already in the state of] nirvana.”

Even though we have this pure and enlightened nature, we are unaware of it. Another thing we can blame on ignorance. As I mentioned in Tuesday’s post, ignorance is a sort of mis-knowing, a misunderstanding about the nature of reality. One way to dispel ignorance is to realize intellectually that Buddha-nature exists originally within our life, and then to realize Buddha-nature spiritually through meditative practice.

While I tend to view this as a gradual process, Tao-sheng saw it as a “Sudden Awakening.” In his view, Buddha-nature could not be divided and one either realized it as a whole or did not realize it at all. He said,

By gaining freedom from illusion, one returns to the ultimate, and by returning to the ultimate, one attains the original.”

The state of attainment of the “original” is what we call the state of nirvana, which is neither external to nor different from this saha or mundane world we inhabit.

That’s another reason why in Mahayana Buddhism, we say “sufferings are nirvana.” This everyday world, filled with all manner of sufferings, is exactly the same as nirvana, enlightenment. The world is a realm of absolute happiness. There is no other place for us to aspire to than this one.

It seems simple, that this Buddha-nature is innate within our minds and that attaining Buddhahood lies in realizing the existence of Buddha-nature within our minds. Some people, however, have some difficulty with it. It’s not something that we take on faith. We don’t believe in Buddha-nature, we actualize it.

As Sallie King notes in her book, Buddha Nature,

Thus Buddha nature can be present now, in its fullness and purity, even though it is not an entity of any kind and even though one is enmired in the condition of delusion insofar as it is manifest in acts of practice, or in other words, insofar as, and no farther than, one’s actions bring that Buddha nature into the world of experiential reality.”

I’m trying to read The Girl with The Dragon Tattoo, the best-selling book by late Swedish author and journalist Stieg Larsson that has become quite a phenomenon in the world of crime and mystery fiction. I say trying because I’m not terribly impressed with the translation so I am finding the book to be a bit of a chore.

The title refers to one of the main characters, Lisbeth Salander, a young woman who is a troubled anti-social misfit and sports a tattoo of a dragon on her left shoulder blade.

In Eastern mythology, dragons represent wisdom, power, nobility, divinity, and benevolence.  In Western cultures, however, dragons are usually depicted as being rather ill disposed, symbolizing evil. Interestingly, the word “dragon” comes from the Greek word, drakon, formed from the verb drak which means “to see clearly.”

In any case, the title of this book reminds me of the story in the Lotus Sutra about the Naga Princess, also known as the Dragon King’s Daughter. Not that there are any strong parallels, although there could be, but I’m not that far along with it.

The Sanskrit word “naga” actually refers to the King Cobra snake, but the Chinese translated it as dragon. In Buddhism, the Nagas are supernatural beings who live on Mount Semuru and in the depths of the ocean. It was from the underwater Naga Kings that Nagarjuna (“dragon-tree”) is said to have received the Mahayana sutras.

The story of the Dragon King’s Daughter is the lone example in Buddhist literature of a mortal being becoming a Buddha, with the notable exception of the Buddha himself. It’s meant to convey the universality of Buddha-nature. And it’s about a woman becoming a Buddha, which is significant not only for the statement it makes but also because it came out of a patriarchal culture that tended to view women as inferior.

Here is an abbreviated version of the story:

There was once a daughter of Sagara (“Ocean”), one of the great Dragon Kings who lived at the bottom of the sea. When the Buddha was teaching the Lotus Stura on Vulture Peak, Bodhisattva Chishaku stood up and said, ‘It took eons of practicing austerities and accumulating wisdom for even our own Shakyamuni Buddha to realize awakening. Is it possible for anyone to quickly attain Buddhahood?’

To this Manjusri Bodhisattva said, ‘With the Awakened One’s permission, let me tell you about the Dragon King’s daughter. She is just eight years old, highly intelligent, and well-versed in Buddha-dharma. In just a single moment, just one instant of time, after having generated the thought of awakening, she entered into meditation and became a Buddha.’

Bodhisattva Chishaku replied, ‘There is not even a spot as small as a poppy-seed in this universe where the Bodhisattva has not made efforts for the sake of all living beings and only after such efforts was he able to realize awakening. I find it hard to believe that a mere girl could become a Buddha so quickly.’

It was at that moment when the Dragon King’s daughter arrived and Shariputra asked her, “The Buddha Path is long; I too, have difficulty understanding how you could so speedily become a buddha.’

The Dragon King’s daughter turned, bowed to the Buddha and offered him a precious jewel. When he immediately accepted this gift, she said to Shariputra, “Did you see how quickly the Buddha took the jewel I offered. Was this action speedy?

All agreed that was most speedy. Then she replied, “Now, watch as I become a buddha even more quickly than that!”

And in a flash, she completed all the bodhisattva practices and sitting down upon a thousand-pedaled lotus, became a buddha.

At this, all in the assembly made reverent salutation, silently believing.

There is a part of the story I left out, about how it was necessary for the Dragon King’s daughter to change into the form of a man before becoming a Buddha. Diana Y. Purl, in Women in Buddhism: images of the feminine in Mahayana tradition, says that “[The] transformation of sex from female to male is a prerequisite for the Naga princess’ entrance to the path of Bodhisattvahood, presumably at the irreversible stage (because of the five kinds of status excluding females).” I think she is referring to “The Five Obstacles” which state a woman cannot become a Brahma, a Sakra god, a devil (Mara) king, a wheel-turning king, or a Buddha.

I left it out because it’s not important. It’s a piece from the past we can let drop off. It doesn’t change the prime point regarding the universal buddha nature. It certainly didn’t stop the women of Heian Japan, where the Lotus Sutra was extremely popular, from embracing the story’s message. During that period, women were barred from entering most temples and it was thought that they could never escape the realm of enlightened existence.

Yet, there were some who contested this. In Songs to make the dust dance: the Ryojin hisho of twelfth-century Japan, Yung-Hee Kim presents a number of homon uta (songs of Buddhist sutras) based on the story of the Dragon King’s daughter. One in particular he says “challenges the Buddhist theories and prejudices against women by insisting that women do posses an inborn buddha nature”:

If the Dragon King’s daughter became buddha,
why can’t we, too, somehow?
A thick cloud, the five obstacles, yes
but buddha nature shines through like the moon.

It does, indeed.

By the way, the jewel given to the Buddha by the Naga princess represents her precious life.

Although Vesak (Pali: Vesakha; Sanskrit: Vaisakha) is often called the “Buddha’s Birthday”, it’s actually three celebrations rolled into one: the birth, enlightenment and death of Siddhartha Gautama, also known as Shakyamuni (Sage of the Shakyas), and of course, as the Buddha.

The date for Vesak differs according to tradition and country, but generally it’s held on the day of the full moon in the fifth month, which would be today. So happy Vesak day to everyone.

Of course, no one knows for sure when the Buddha was born or when he died, or even if there actually was such a person. Sometimes I am inclined to believe that the Buddha’s story was crafted from that of Mahavira, who was the real architect of Jainism as we know it today, or maybe it was the other way around. Or maybe there actually were two guys with nearly identical backgrounds who arrived on the Indian spiritual scene at basically the same time with very similar teachings. Maybe they’re both myths. It’s likely we’ll never know.

As far as Buddhism goes, it doesn’t matter. Edward Conze once said, “The existence of the Gautama as an individual is, in any case, a matter of little importance to Buddhist faith.” Because the Buddha is portrayed as a human being and not a god, his awakening represents the potential for awakening that exists within every human being. It’s not important whether one particular person was the first to awaken. Plenty of others awakened after him, and we can too. That potential is like a seed and when it sprouts in anyone, that person is, in the words of Jack Kerouac, “equally empty, equally to be loved, equally a coming Buddha.”

Tsung-mi (780-841), regarded as both a patriarch of the Flower Garland School and a Ch’an (Zen) Master, composed a work entitled Yuan Jen or “On the Original Nature of Human Beings.” It’s often used as a primer of Mahayana teachings. In this piece, he wrote,

All sentient beings posses the true mind of original enlightenment. From the beginningless beginning this mind has been constant, Pure, luminous, and unobscured; it has always been characterized by bright cognition; it is called the Buddha Nature or the Womb of the Awakened.

From the beginningless beginning the delusions of human beings has obscured it so that they have not been aware of it. Because they recognize in themselves only the ordinary person’s characteristics, they indulge in lives of attachment, increasing the bond of karmic power and receiving the sufferings of birth and death. Out of compassion for them, The Awakened One taught that everything is empty; then he revealed to all that the true mind of spiritual enlightenment is pure and is identical with that of the Buddhas.”

For Buddhists, then, the Buddha is the personification of all our ideals and values. He attained the highest spiritual achievement, but the same is never beyond our own reach. To me, Vesak is about commemorating that potential for Buddhahood. We are really celebrating ourselves. We are him and he is us. His day is our day.

The term ‘all Buddhas’ means Shakyamuni Buddha: Shakyamuni Buddha is synonymous with one’s very mind being Buddha. At that very moment when all the Buddhas of past, present, and future have become, do become, and will become Buddha, without fail, They become Shakyamuni Buddha. This is what “Your very mind is Buddha” means.

- Dogen, On ‘Your Very Mind Is Buddha’ (Soku Shin Ze Butsu)

We are Buddhas because the qualities of the Buddhahood are inherent within us. We have the potential to realize enlightenment. If we did not, then there would be no possibility of realizing anything close to enlightenment. We call this potential Buddha-nature.

When we say something like “we are Buddhas”, we’re speaking figuratively. It’s meant in the most fundamental sense and doesn’t mean that we have already attained anything and therefore there’s no need for practice, effort, or struggle. It just means that we have this potential, that the seed of Buddhahood is there.

But, in the end, it means attaining a state of mind where one sees that there is nothing to attain.

To Buddhas, there is no such thing as buddha. Buddha is just a concept, an idea, a mental representation that refers to the ability of a living being to realize something so subtle and deceptively simply that it defies adequate explanation. Nearly everything we think we know about buddhas belongs to the realm of appearance. Nagarjuna said that Buddhas “will stand outside appearance, outside sensation, outside concepts, outside forms, and outside consciousness.”  We call it breaking free.

To a Buddha, concepts and forms and so on are unreal, empty. A Buddha has achieved this understanding by breaking free from his or her own mind:

The Buddha taught the dharma of quieting the mind . . . The primary point of the Thus-Gone One’s method consists of realizing the non-existence of the self. If the self does not exist, ego disappears. When the notions of a self and ego are purged, the mind is in the state of nirvana. Thus all living beings quiet their mind and break free. As soon as all living beings are calm in nirvana, there is no need to seek Buddhahood. Thus the mind that used to seek something is still, and all desire to grasp and to let go will vanish. Because the internal mind and external objects are empty, the One Mind remains immutable. This is the method to quiet the mind.

A Commentary on The Diamond Sutra by Ch’an Master Han Shan

The definitive work on hongaku shiso or “original enlightenment thought” is without question Jacqueline I. Stone’s Original Enlightenment and the Transformation of Medieval Japanese Buddhism (Kuroda, 1999). In Chapter One, she succinctly captures the essence of this thinking:

The Buddhas who appear in sutras, radiating light and endowed with excellent marks, are merely provisional signs.  The “real” Buddha is the ordinary worldling.  Indeed, the whole phenomenal world is the primordially enlightened Tathagata [Thus-Gone One]. Seen in their true light, all forms of daily conduct, even one’s delusive thoughts, are, without transformation, the expressions of original enlightenment. Liberation is reimagined, not as the eradication of mental defilements or as achieving birth in a pure land after death, but as the insight, or even the faith, that one has been enlightened from the very beginning.

One must read beyond the introductory pages, however, in order to appreciate the full implications of this viewpoint. As Stone later remarks, “Hongaku (original enlightenment) thought is best understood not as a tightly organized philosophical system that rejected inconsistent elements, but as a broad perspective from which the entirety of the received [Buddhist] tradition could potentially be reinterpreted in immanentalist terms.” She goes on to say that this “perspective” traditionally did not exclude or dismiss various forms of Buddhist practice but rather they were seen in a different light.

Original enlightenment is essentially the product of Japanese Tendai Buddhism, the school based on the Chinese T’ien-t’ai sect. Where in T’ien-t’ai, original enlightenment is implied (as the innate potential for awakening possessed by all living beings orBuddha-nature), in Japanese Tendai, hongaku is nothing less than the original nature of all phenomena.

But no concept is born without antecedents. In the case of original enlightenment they are numerous and varied.  One source was Nagarjuna, the starting point for almost everything Mahayana. It was T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i who was perhaps the first to emphasize the thread of harmony and unity within Nagarjuna’s teachings. In particular, the idea that there was one essence or one nature of all things both stained and pure. This is articulated in Nagarjuna’s conception of the dharma-dhatu or dharma-realm.

K. Venkata Ramanan in Nagarjuna’s Philosophy notes,

Dharmadhatu is a reference to the ultimate reality, Nirvana, the ultimate nature of all that is conditioned and contingent. In dharmadhatu, “dharma” stands for Nirvana . . . “Dhatu” conveys the sense of the essential, intrinsic, inmost nature, the fundamental, ultimate essence . . . It is the primary aim of the wayfarer to realize the dharmadhatu.”

Ramanan quotes Nagarjuna as saying,

Even as it is the very nature of water to flow down by reason of which all waters return to the great ocean, blend and become of one essence, just in the same way all determinate entities, all natures general and particular, return ultimately to dharma-dhatu, blend and become of one essence with it. This is dharma-dhatu. Even as the diamond which is at the top of the mountain gradually settles down until it reaches its destination, the field of diamonds, and having got there it will have got back to its self-nature and only then does it come to a stop, this is the case with all things. Through knowledge, through discrimination, (the mind seeks the true nature of things and thus) gets to tathata [thusness]. From tathata, the mind enters its original nature, where it remains as it ever was, devoid of birth (and death) and with all imaginative constructions put an end to. This is the meaning of dharma-dhatu.

This one essence is, in actuality, all-essences or all the natures of all things. It is the totality of phenomena and experience and is said to be “one” in order to emphasize the interdependency of all things, or, as Tendai phrases it, the mutual possession of all natures. Dharma-dhatu should not be seen as a realm outside of our lives. To flow into the ocean of dharma-dhatu is to speak figuratively. Here, it is a sign for Nirvana, which, as the ultimate reality, is not separate from this very world of suffering.

Equally influential was the Buddha-nature (Buddha-svabhava) theory that evolved from the work, The Awakening of Faith, and the conception of the tathagata-garbha (realm of the Thus-Gone), which did a great deal to inform Tao-sheng’s assertions based on the Nirvana Sutra. This, in turn, influenced T’ien-t’ai/Tendai thinking, due in part, because of the relationship of the Nirvana Sutra to the Saddharma-pundrarika (“Lotus Stura”), although it could be the other way around.

Tao-sheng, an early Chinese Buddhist scholar, held that icchantika (beings too defiled and deluded to realize awakening) could attain Buddhahood. According to Junjiro Takakusu in The Essentials of Buddhist Philosophy, the followers of this line of thought do “not admit to the existence of the icchantika who are destined never to attain Buddhahood. Further study disclosed the theory that all beings without exception have the Buddha-nature.”

It is not that people with delusions do not exist, but they are not a category unto themselves, for all people are with delusions. Were the delusions not present, there would be nothing to transcend, thus no need for Buddhist teaching or practice or any need for Buddhas or attaining Buddhahood. It’s easy to see how this informed Chih-i in his teachings on the inherent nature of evil. Once again, the aim is to dispel any sense of dualism, which is perhaps the king of all delusions. Good and evil, pure and impure, deluded and Buddha do not exist from their own sides, unconnected to anything else. Just as in the case of the doctrine of “The Ten Life-conditions and their Mutual Possession” discussed in Pt. 1., all conditions of life co-exist with one another, penetrate and are possessed by all.

The primary influence for Tendai, was, of course, the Lotus Sutra, as the Tendai sect holds this sutra in the highest regard. Lines such as the following seem to point in the direction of inherent Buddha-nature, so providing a doctrinal foundation for original enlightenment, supposedly from the Buddha himself:

Among those who have heard the Dharma,
None will fail to become Buddha.
All Buddhas have taken the vow:
‘The Buddha-way which I walk,
I desire to enable all livings beings
To attain the same way with me.’

To reiterate from the words of Dr. Stone at the beginning of the post, Buddhas “are merely provisional signs.” Were we to imagine them as a class of beings who from beginningless time have appeared in the world, their only purpose then would be to bring enlightenment within the reach of all beings. They are the guides who point to the potential within which only can activate. Only we ourselves can realize our Buddha-nature. The Buddha empowers us, but the power does not come from the Buddha – it is our inner-power we tap into, which is of the same nature as Buddha.

Here I have presented just a few of the sources for original enlightenment. There are many others, but I thought it would be helpful to cite these in order to provide some background.

There will a third and final post on this subject (for now), but tomorrow’s post I think will be a sort of rebel yell . . .

With a rebel yell- “more, more, more”

The experience that took place as one man sat meditating under the Bodhi Tree was transforming – he was no longer an ordinary person, he was awakened. Yet, this was a very human experience, and one that is available to the ordinary person.

The message this awakening conveys is that all people have the potential to affect a similar transformation in their own lives.

What, then, did the Buddha become awakened to? The Pali suttas offer several explanations.  In one, it is the realization that the “self” (atman) was the source of human trouble. In a second account, it is the knowledge of the working of the law of karma, along with the truth of suffering, the arising of suffering, the conquest over suffering, and the path that leads to the conquest over suffering. In yet another version, it is the theory of “interdependent origination” (pratiya-samutpada) that is the focus of the Buddha’s enlightenment.

Laying aside the specifics, we can say that in general the Buddha attained the realization that human beings were deluded to the true nature of life, and that they create their own unhappiness and pain by thinking, speaking and acting based on this delusional understanding.

Buddha taught that the source of suffering lies within our own lives. At the same time, also existing within each individual life is the cause for overcoming suffering. We call it an awakened or Buddha-nature, which all beings posses. When we wake up to this Buddha-nature we are able to see reality as it truly is and develop the wisdom to transform sources of suffering into causes for a more enlightened condition of life.

The concept of Buddha-nature did not originate with the Buddha, rather it is inferred. The concept was developed within the philosophical tradition of Indian Mahayana. The Theravada school does not accept this idea. A rather well-known Theravada monk once told me that he was uncomfortable with the idea of Buddha-nature because the Buddha was “perfect” and that ordinary people should not see themselves as equal to him. I think it should be fairly obvious that this sort of attitude misses the point of the Buddha’s message completely, and this was the real mission of the Mahayana, to return to the original spirit of the Buddha’s dharma.

Buddha-nature as a term is derived from another term, tathagata-garba, compounded from the words tathagata, or “thus-gone-one, and garba, meaning embryo or womb. Tathagata is a name for the Buddha; specifically, the name the Buddha used in the sutras to refer to himself.

Tatha means “thus,” referring to “thusness” or “suchness” – reality as it actually is, and gata means gone, indicating movement in the direction of this understanding. A tathagata, then, is someone who sees the true nature of reality.  The meaning of tathagata-garba is that all dharmas (things), both stained and pure, are united in the nature of the Tathagata, and is therefore called the womb or the storehouse of the Tathagata.

The merits of all the dharmas are stored within the garba, the storehouse. This is also called the Dharma-body. Regarded as hidden, it is able to produce the Buddha Who Has Thus Gone, and thus the name tathagata-garba. Regarded as revealed, it is the ground of all dharmas, and so has the name Dharmakaya. It is further named Buddhata or Buddha-nature. The Buddha is awakened, and all beings have the potential for this same awakening.

Mahayana Buddhism asserts that all people inherently posses Buddha-nature. The Buddha swept away all troubles and afflictions and totally fulfilled his Buddha-nature. Therefore, he became a Buddha. Since all beings already have the Buddha-nature, they can cultivate themselves completely and fulfill their Buddha-nature, and they can become Buddhas.

Shunryu Suzuki said:

Buddha-nature is our original nature. When we have no idea of ego, we have awakened life, out egotistic ideas are delusion, covering our Buddha-nature. Everything has Buddha-nature, so something apart from Buddha-nature is just a delusion . . . So to be a human being is to be a Buddha. Buddha-nature is just another name for human nature, our true human nature.

Tsung-mi (780-841) was an immensely important figure in Chinese Buddhism. Regarded as both the fifth and final patriarch of the Flower Garland School and a Ch’an (Zen) Master of the Ho-tse School, he was a forgotten figure until about two decades ago. Today’s post is an excerpt from the Yuan Jen or On the Original Nature of Human Beings, often used as a primer of Mahayana teachings.

Revealing Directly the Original Nature

All sentient beings have been endowed with the true mind of original enlightenment. From the beginningless beginning this mind has been constant, pure, luminous, and unobscured; it has always been characterized by bright cognition; it is called the Buddha Nature or the Womb of the Awakened.

From the beginningless beginning the delusions of human beings has obscured it so that they have not been aware of it. Because they recognize in themselves only the ordinary person’s characteristics, they indulge in lives of attachment, increasing the bond of karmic power and receiving the sufferings of birth and death. Out of compassion for them, The Awakened One taught that everything is empty; then he revealed to all that the true mind of spiritual enlightenment is pure and is identical with that of the Buddhas.

Therefore, in the Flower Garland Sutra it is said: “O son of Buddha, there is not even a single sentient being who is not endowed with the wisdom of the Awakened, but, owing to delusion, beings are unable to realize this. Once freed from delusion, then transcendent wisdom, natural wisdom, and unobstructed wisdom will arise.”

Furthermore, the Sutra states that a particle of dust contains within itself one thousand volumes of the sutras. “A particle of dust” is compared to a sentient being, and the “Sutra” to the wisdom of Buddha. Still further in the Sutra, we read: “At that time the Buddha observed all the sentient beings in the phenomenal world and uttered these words, ‘Strange, strange, that these sentient beings, who are endowed with the wisdom of the Awakened, not realizing this wisdom are being misled. I must teach them the Noble Paths and free them forever from their delusions so that they can see in themselves the boundless great wisdom of the Awakened Ones, so that they may be no different from the Buddhas.’”

For a long time we have not met with the true doctrine and have been unable to understand how to reflect upon ourselves and search for the original nature ourselves. We have been deeply attached to the characteristics which appear though our illusions, being content with our baseness and unconcerned over being born sometimes as human beings and sometimes as beasts, but now on the basis of this last doctrine, we have traced our origin and realized finally that we are from the outset Buddhas. Therefore, we should carry out our deeds in accordance with those of the Buddha, and identify our mind with that of the Buddha.

Returning to and reinstating ourselves in the root and source, we should sever the habits we had as ordinary persons. We must give up these habits and further give up even the attempt at abandonment until in the end we reach the state of “non-action” [wu-wei] wherein we can be spontaneously active, accommodating ourselves to as many situations as there are gains of sand in the Ganges. Then we will be called Buddhas.

It should be known that both non-enlightenment and enlightenment are aspects of the same true mind. How great is this mysterious gate to the source! Here ends the search for the original nature of human beings.