Buddha nature is a term used frequently in Mahayana Buddhism, but its deep meaning is not easy to understand. Basically, Buddha nature is seen as the inherent nature of all sentient beings. Therefore, all sentient beings possess Buddha nature and are capable of attaining enlightenment.
We can find many interpretations and teachings on Buddha nature but most can be difficult for Buddhists to understand. That’s because Buddha nature is not an ordinary form of knowledge, and language cannot accurately describe it.
Some people argue that Buddha nature is just a metaphor to talk about human potential for enlightenment, rather than something that exists in all sentient beings. So what is Buddha nature? Let’s go with LotusBuddhas to find the answer!
Definition – What does Buddha nature mean?
Buddha nature is a concept in Mahayana Buddhism that refers to the innate potential for awakening or enlightenment that exists within all beings. It is also known as tathāgatagarbha, which translates to “buddha embryo” or “buddha womb.”
This inherent potential is not contingent upon one’s current condition or status; it is universally present. Buddha nature is often likened to a seed, which, when nurtured with the right conditions—ethical conduct, wisdom, compassion, and mindful practices—can blossom into full Buddhahood.
Scholars liken Buddha nature to the lotus or the sun. The lotus (Buddha nature) breaks through the dirty mud underneath (the impurities that cloud the mind) to rise up to catch the sun.
The sun is constantly present, even if we cannot always see it due to the clouds. However, because we are accustomed to the clouds, we may sometimes believe that the sun is absent. Similarly, when the afflictions, ignorance, and delusions of the mind dissolve, we become aware of the Buddha nature that resides within all sentient beings. Buddha nature is the clear and ever-present mind, regardless of whether we acknowledge its existence or not.
Buddha nature is also associated with the fundamental purity of all beings. While sentient beings may be influenced by defilements or afflictions (kleshas) such as desire, anger, and ignorance, these are seen as temporary and removable. The Buddha nature remains untainted beneath these transient states, embodying the enduring capacity for enlightenment.
In many interpretations, Buddha nature is linked with the concept of emptiness (sunyata), which signifies the interdependent and constantly changing nature of all phenomena. This association underscores the non-dual nature of reality, further deepening the understanding of Buddha nature.
Moreover, Buddha nature is not a personal soul or a fixed essence that belongs to an individual. Rather, it is a fundamental aspect of existence that underlies all phenomena. It is said to be beyond concepts and cannot be fully understood through intellectual analysis or language.
The concept of Buddha nature is central to Mahayana Buddhism, particularly in schools such as Zen, Pure Land, and Tiantai. It is believed that recognizing and cultivating this innate potential for awakening is the key to liberation from suffering and the attainment of enlightenment.
Origin of the concept of Buddha nature
The concept of Buddha nature has its roots in Mahayana Buddhism, particularly in the Tathagatagarbha Sutras. These sutras, composed between the 2nd and 5th centuries CE, present a positive view of human nature and emphasize the potential for awakening that exists within all beings.
In the Pabhassara Sutta – Anguttara Nikaya, there is a passage where Shakyamuni Buddha tells the monks about the nature of the mind. Many scholars believe that this may be the origin of the Buddha nature doctrine on which Mahayana Buddhism is based.
“Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements. The uninstructed run-of-the-mill person doesn’t discern that as it actually is present, which is why I tell you that – for the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person – there is no development of the mind.”
“Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is freed from incoming defilements. The well-instructed disciple of the noble ones discerns that as it actually is present, which is why I tell you that – for the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones – there is development of the mind.”
This passage has caused a great deal of controversy over the centuries. Many scholars believe that “mind” here refers to bhavanga-citta, mental state changes when interactive with an object of mind, and it gives rise to intention and perception.
Bhavanga-citta is present from the moment we are born, and it may be pure, but due to many interactions with external objects, it is “polluted”. The practice of Buddhism is to wash mind clean and pure as it was in the beginning.
The idea of Buddha-nature was further developed by the Chinese Buddhist teacher Zhiyi in the 6th century CE. Zhiyi saw Buddha nature as the essence of the Buddha’s teaching, and he emphasized the importance of recognizing this nature within oneself in order to attain enlightenment.
Although the scriptures of Theravada Buddhism refer to a concept similar to the Buddha nature doctrine of Mahayana Buddhism. Theravada monks did not put their faith in Buddha nature, because it contradicted another important doctrine, non-self (anatta).
What are the characteristics of Buddha nature?
The specific characteristics attributed to Buddha nature can vary between different Buddhist traditions. However, several common attributes can be broadly identified.
Inherent and universal: One of the fundamental characteristics of Buddha nature is its universality. It is viewed as being inherent in all sentient beings without exception. This means that every being, regardless of their current state, has the potential to awaken to the truth and attain enlightenment, just like a Buddha.
Unchanging and eternal: While sentient beings are subject to the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth (samsara), their Buddha nature remains unchanged and unblemished. It is considered an enduring essence that does not diminish or alter with the fluctuations of existence. It is a timeless potential that persists eternally, irrespective of the transient states of beings.
Latent potential for enlightenment: Buddha nature is often seen as a latent potential for achieving enlightenment. It is the seed of Buddhahood within all beings, which can be nurtured through mindful practices, moral conduct, wisdom, and compassion to attain full awakening. This potential may remain unrealized due to ignorance, but can be actualized through diligent practice.
Purity: Buddha nature is seen as inherently pure. It is untainted by defilements or afflictions (kleshas) such as desire, anger, and ignorance that sentient beings experience. These defilements are viewed as adventitious, meaning they are temporary and removable, while the Buddha nature remains pristine beneath these transient impurities.
Wisdom and Compassion: These are key qualities associated with a Buddha and are considered inherent in the Buddha nature. Wisdom in this context is the understanding of the ultimate truth of reality, including the interconnectedness and impermanence of all things. Compassion is the heartfelt desire to alleviate the suffering of all beings. The realization of Buddha nature involves manifesting these inherent qualities.
Emptiness: In Mahayana Buddhism, Buddha nature is often associated with the concept of emptiness (sunyata), which refers to the lack of inherent, independent existence of phenomena. It’s the understanding that all things exist interdependently, which leads to the realization of the non-dual nature of reality.
In essence, Buddha nature represents the inherent potential and capacity within all beings to attain the ultimate wisdom and compassion characteristic of a Buddha. Understanding these attributes facilitates a deeper insight into the teachings of Buddhism and a clearer path towards spiritual growth and enlightenment.
Is Buddha nature a self?
The doctrine of Anatta (non-self) is the central teaching that sets Buddhism apart from other religions. It asserts that nothing exists independently, intrinsically, or separately from other things, including the absence of a soul, self, or creator. Meanwhile, Buddha nature is described as an innate essence that is present in all sentient beings at all times. Is Buddhism contradicting itself by endorsing the doctrine of Buddha nature?
As we know, faithful Christians believe that after death, they will go to heaven to unite with God, the Creator, and enjoy blessings. In Hinduism, the individual self is referred to as Atman, and the goal of practice is to merge with the cosmic self (Brahman), similar to a drop of rain falling into the ocean. As the saying goes, “born from dust, return to dust.” Are religions describing the same thing in different ways?
According to LotusBuddhas, Buddha nature is a natural law of the universe, similar to how a pupa instinctively knows how to emerge from a cocoon even though it has never done so before. This is the inherent nature of nature. A newborn baby is pure and possesses a good nature, but as it grows up, it becomes contaminated, leading to suffering.
When discussing the self, we are referring to a separate object, which is distinct from the concept of Buddha nature that is present in all sentient beings. The Zen tradition also emphasizes that Buddha nature is synonymous with emptiness.
If not self, then what is Buddha nature?
The Mahayana Buddhist monks assert, Buddha nature is an essential nature of mind, but not a “self”. They cannot explain why. They can only say that Buddha nature is a profound and subtle concept that only enlightened people can understand.
So what is Buddha-nature? As we all know, language has its limits, it’s hard to use language to explain what we don’t understand and experience.
All sentient beings have Buddha nature, and this nature is the same. It is radically different from the idea of self, which distinguishes one thing from another. All religions believe that the universe is created by God. Buddhism does not believe in God, the formation of all things in the universe is a natural law, due to the convergence of natural conditions to form. This law is available in the pupa, so it knows how to get out of the cocoon to become a butterfly.
Do animals have Buddha nature?
Buddhism has a broad view of life that encompasses more than just the human realm. It recognizes the existence of various forms of life in a wide spectrum of realms, including those of animals. The interconnectedness of all life forms is a significant tenet in Buddhism, which promotes compassion and respect for all sentient beings.
This respect and recognition extend to animals, acknowledging their capacity for feeling and experience. Some Buddhist traditions even assert that animals, like humans, undergo the cycle of birth, death, and rebirth—known as Samsara—based on their karma. Hence, there’s an acknowledgement that animals are sentient beings, capable of experience and transformation.
In a Zen koan, a monk asked Chao-chou Tsung-shen (778–897), “Does a dog have Buddha nature?” Chao-chou Tsung-shen’s answer is “Not”! But in another question, His answered “Yes”! In a lecture on Buddha nature, the 14th Dalai Lama said: “All living beings, even insects also have Buddha nature.”
Given this backdrop, many Buddhist philosophies do indeed assert that animals have Buddha nature. Like a pupa that emerges from its cocoon to become a butterfly. Like a turtle that finds its way into the sea as soon as it is born. This is a law of nature, but since animals have no consciousness, so they don’t know it.
The Mahaparinirvana Sutra, one of the fundamental texts of Mahayana Buddhism, explicitly states that all beings, without exception, have Buddha nature. This includes animals, ghosts, hell-beings, and even the most wicked beings.
However, some interpretations suggest that while animals have Buddha nature, their current circumstances—driven by instinct and lacking in moral judgment—may make it difficult for them to realize this potential without being reborn in a different form, typically as a human. The human realm, according to Buddhism, provides the most favorable conditions for practicing the Dharma (Buddhist teachings) and realizing Buddha nature.
This is an important difference between humans and animals. The Buddha said that only human beings have the ability to become Buddhas, so human life is very precious. Because people are conscious, to realize that Buddha nature is always present, from there practice to realize and be enlightened. Enlightenment also means realizing the Buddha nature within.
Why is understanding Buddha nature important?
Understanding Buddha nature is of crucial importance in the practice and philosophy of Buddhism. It is a core principle that provides insight into human potential and the nature of existence.
Realization of innate potential: Buddha nature suggests that every sentient being has the inherent potential to attain enlightenment or Buddhahood. This concept breaks down the distinction between ordinary beings and Buddhas, suggesting that anyone can attain the state of complete awakening, irrespective of their current state. This realization can serve as a profound source of hope and motivation, inspiring individuals to strive for self-improvement and spiritual progress.
Promotion of compassion and equality: The Buddha nature doctrine underscores the interconnectedness of all beings and promotes compassion, kindness, and respect towards others. Since every being, including animals, is believed to possess the Buddha nature, it fosters an attitude of equality, emphasizing the fundamental dignity and value of all forms of life. This promotes a harmonious coexistence and discourages harm or violence towards any sentient being.
Understanding the nature of reality: Buddha nature is not just about potential; it’s also about the nature of reality itself. It points towards the concept of “emptiness” or “sunyata,” a key principle in Buddhism that describes the interdependent and constantly changing nature of reality. Understanding Buddha nature can lead to a deeper grasp of these profound philosophical concepts, shaping our perception of existence and reality.
Guidance in practice: Buddha nature acts as a guiding principle for various Buddhist practices. It informs the path to enlightenment, highlighting the necessity of mindfulness, ethical conduct, wisdom, and compassionate action. By recognizing our Buddha nature, we understand the ultimate goal of these practices—realizing our inherent enlightened nature.
Overcoming suffering: The realization of one’s Buddha nature is seen as the ultimate means to overcome suffering, a key concern in Buddhism. It is believed that once one fully awakens to their Buddha nature, they are liberated from samsara and no longer bound by ignorance, desire and aversion—the root causes of suffering in Buddhist philosophy.
How can one discover their Buddha nature?
The process of discovering one’s Buddha nature, the inherent potential for enlightenment within all sentient beings, involves diligent practice and profound understanding of Buddhist teachings.
Mindfulness and Meditation: Regular meditation is a core practice in Buddhism. Through mindfulness and meditation, one can calm the mind, sharpen awareness, and observe the nature of thoughts, feelings, and perceptions. Over time, this practice can lead to insights into the nature of reality and the self, helping to uncover the inherent Buddha nature.
Ethical conduct: Living by the precepts of ethical conduct (sila) is essential. This involves abstaining from harmful behaviors, such as killing, stealing, lying, and indulging in irresponsible sexual conduct. Ethical conduct helps purify the mind, making it conducive for the realization of Buddha nature.
Wisdom: Gaining wisdom (prajna) is crucial. This entails understanding the fundamental Buddhist teachings such as the Four Noble Truths, the Eightfold Path, and the concept of emptiness. Wisdom allows one to see beyond the illusions of the self and the world, aiding the recognition of Buddha nature.
Compassion and Loving-Kindness: Cultivating compassion (karuna) and loving-kindness (metta) towards all beings helps to manifest the qualities inherent in Buddha nature. Through acts of kindness and understanding the suffering of others, we can nurture our inherent capacity for boundless compassion, a characteristic of a Buddha.
Dedicated practice: Commitment to the path of enlightenment is key. Engaging in practices like chanting, reading scriptures, attending Dharma talks, and maintaining a spiritual community (sangha) can provide the necessary guidance and support in this journey.
Mind training: Some Tibetan Buddhist traditions recommend specific mind training (Lojong) techniques. These are a set of practices designed to cultivate wisdom and compassion, thereby revealing one’s Buddha nature.
Guru devotion: In some traditions, devotion to a spiritual teacher (guru) is emphasized. Through this devotion and the guidance of the guru, one can receive teachings and instructions tailored to their individual needs and capabilities, facilitating the discovery of their Buddha nature.
Similar to enlightenment, Buddha nature is a very confusing concept in Buddhism. Only those who are truly enlightened can experience it.
We know that everything in the universe works according to the laws, scientists find and prove things already in the universe. Scientists only look for what is available, not create anything new. Likewise, Buddha nature is what is already in us, so we seek Buddha nature just as scientists search for these laws of nature.
Buddha nature, nirvana or enlightenment are all very difficult to explain, because we cannot deeply interpret what we have not experienced, not verified. Finding something we don’t really know is an impossible task. But because we have right view, we know that the teachings on Buddha nature are true, and that it is always present within each person. Like the sun is always there, whether it’s day or night, even though a thousand clouds hide it.
– Reference: The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Translated into English by Kosho Yamamoto, 1973, from Dharmakshema’s Chinese version. (Taisho Tripitaka Vol. 12, No. 374) Edited, revised and copyright by Dr. Tony Page, 2007. http://lirs.ru/do/Mahaparinirvana_Sutra,Yamamoto,Page,2007.pdf