Buddha Nature

Each of us has been endowed with Buddha nature from the very beginning, though we may not know it. It is one of the saddest things about us that so many do not know themselves, nor can they recognize their original face. Every day, we are able to call out our friends’ names, but we do not know who we are.

We study Buddhism in order to know ourselves, to respect ourselves, and to affirm ourselves. The Buddhist sutras say that all beings have Buddha nature within, and that it cannot be sought outside of ourselves. When the Buddha attained awakening under the bodhi tree, he said, “Marvelous, marvelous! All sentient beings have the Tathagata’s wisdom and virtue, but they fail to realize it because they cling to deluded thoughts and attachments.”

Once the Buddha held an assembly on Vulture Peak, and held out a brilliant, wish-fulfilling mani pearl, and presented it to the four heavenly kings, saying, “Look at this mani pearl and tell me, what color is it?”

The four heavenly kings each answered differently: one said blue, one said yellow, one said red, and one said white.

The Buddha took back the mani pearl. Then he opened his hand again and asked, “What color is the mani pearl?”

The four heavenly kings did not understand. One said, “Lord Buddha, there is no mani pearl in your hand.”

The Buddha said, “When I showed you an ordinary pearl, you could all distinguish its color. But when the true mani pearl is before you, you do not see it.”

The wisdom and merit of the Buddha and the true mani pearl are both like our own Buddha nature—we live with it every day but do not recognize it even when it is right in front of our eyes.

Unchanging Nature

The Sanskrit word prakrti, “nature,” refers to what is unchanging. Nature, form, and cultivation are all related, but while form and cultivation are subject to change, nature is unchanging. Prakrti refers to something’s “intrinsic nature,” the original quality or essence of phenomena. Regarding phenomena with form, it refers to the innate quality of sentient beings.  Intrinsic nature is that quality that cannot be changed by external forces and is present throughout the universe. It is the root of all phenomena. It is also known as Buddha nature, the Dharma body, the pure body of intrinsic nature, Tathagata nature, the nature of awakening, and the inherent nature of the Buddha.

All phenomena in the universe lack an independent self, and as such are constantly changing. Just as the universe goes through formation, abiding, decline, and destruction; people have birth, aging, sickness, and death; and the mind has arising, abiding, changing, and ceasing. Only the original nature of phenomena and our own original face do not change.

Sentient beings travel throughout the ten dharma realms within the cycle of birth and death, transmigrating endlessly from the hell realm, hungry ghost realm, animal realm, human realm, asura realm, and heavenly realm, as well as the four noble realms of sravakas, pratyekabuddhas, bodhisattvas, and Buddhas. Each being’s form of existence continues to change, but the nature of the mind does not change. It is similar to how a single piece of gold can be made into rings, bracelets, or earrings: even though it may take on many different forms, the nature of the gold has not been altered. Even as sentient beings travel in the cycle of birth and death, their Buddha nature remains the same.

When the Sixth Chan Patriarch, Huineng (638-713), was near death, all of his disciples who heard this news wept. Only Master Shenhui (668-760) remained calm and composed. So Master Huineng said:

Only the young monk Shenhui understands wholesome and unwholesome. Unmoved by slander and fame, he is neither sad nor happy. The rest of you have yet to understand this. You have spent all these years here, what Way have you cultivated? For whom are you shedding your tears? If you are concerned that I do not know where I am going, I assure you that I know where I am going. If I did not know where I was going, I would not have notified you. You cry because you do not know where I am going. If you knew, you would not cry. Dharma nature is inherently without birth and death, or coming and going.

That is why Manorhita, the Twenty-second Indian Patriarch, said:

The mind turns, following all things;

Though this turning can be tranquil.

Recognize the nature of this flow

And be without joy and without sorrow.

Different Names for Buddha Nature

The Buddhist sutras use many different names for Buddha nature. Master Jizang (549-623), in his Treatise on the Profound Mahayana, said, “The sutras speak of ‘bright nature,’ ‘Dharma nature,’ ‘suchness,’ ‘reality,’ and so on. All of these are different terms for Buddha nature.” He also said, “Buddha nature has many names including ‘Dharma nature,’ ‘nirvana,’ ‘prajna,’ ‘one vehicle,’ ‘surangama samadhi,’ and ‘lion’s roar samadhi.’ It is said that the great sage follows conditions and applies skillful means. That is why there are so many names throughout the various sutras.”

The following is a short list of names for Buddha nature in the sutras:

  • The Bodhisattva Precepts Sutra calls Buddha nature the “mind ground,” for this “ground” can give rise to infinite goodness.

  • The Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra calls Buddha nature “bodhi,” which means “awakened.” It is because the essence of Buddha nature is awakening.

  • The Flower Adornment Sutra calls Buddha nature the “Dharma realm,” because Buddha nature unifies and embraces everything in the universe.

  • The Diamond Sutra calls Buddha nature “Tathagata,” which is usually translated as “thus come,” because Buddha nature comes from nowhere.

  • The Mahaprajnaparamita Sutra also calls Buddha nature “nirvana,” for nirvana is where all sages will return.

  • The Golden Light Sutra calls Buddha nature “Tathagata” because Buddha nature is truly eternal and unchanging.

  • The Vimalakirti Sutra calls Buddha nature the Dharma body, because it is what the other bodies of the Buddha, the reward body and the manifested body, rely upon.

  • The Treatise on Awakening of Faith in Mahayana calls Buddha nature the “true essence,” because Buddha nature does not arise and is not extinguished.

  • The Mahaparinirvana Sutra calls Buddha nature “the Buddha essence,” because Buddha nature is the essence of the three bodies of the Buddha.

  • The Complete Enlightenment Sutra calls Buddha nature the “universal embracing and upholding,” because all merits and virtues flow from Buddha nature.

  • The Lion’s Roar of Queen Srimala Sutra calls Buddha nature the “storehouse of the Tathagata,” because Buddha nature conceals, covers, and embraces all things.

  • The Sutra of Supreme Meaning calls Buddha nature “perfect awakening,” because Buddha nature can break through the darkness and illuminate all things.

Buddha nature is another case of “one teaching with a thousand names” so that it can respond to all circumstances.

The Chinese philosopher Mencius said, “The mouth turns to taste, the eye to form, the ear to sound, the nose to smell, the four limbs to peace and quiet. These are their natures.” When the eyes see, the ears hear, the nose smells, the tongue tastes, the body acts, or the mind knows, these are all functions of the true mind. Whether we are sitting or sleeping, speaking or staying silent, moving or standing still, carrying water or hauling firewood, receiving guests or sending someone off, all come from Buddha nature.

The Treasure Record of the Chan School says, “In the womb, it was the body. In the world, it was a human being. In the eyes, it sees. In the ears, it hears. In the nose, it smells. In the mouth, it speaks. In the hands, it grasps. In the feet, it moves. It appears throughout the dharma realms; it is contained in a speck of dust. Those who know call it Buddha nature. Those who do not know call it ‘spirit’ or ‘soul.’”

The Equality of Buddha Nature

The Buddha said, “All sentient beings will eventually attain complete awakening. That is why I have said, ‘All sentient beings have Buddha nature.’”

Master Huineng went from Xinhui in Guangdong Province to Huangmei in Hubei Province to ask Master Hongren to become his teacher. When Master Huineng first met Master Hongren, the first thing Hongren asked him was, “Where are you from? What do you seek?”

“I am a commoner from Xinzhou in Lingnan. I have traveled far to pay homage to you. I seek to be a Buddha and nothing else.”

The Fifth Patriarch asked, “You are from Lingnan and also a barbarian! How do you expect to be a Buddha?”

Huineng then said, “Though people may be northerners or southerners, Buddha nature has no north or south. While this barbarian’s body is different from yours, Venerable Master, what difference is there in Buddha nature?”

Although people are called northerners and southerners, wealthy and poor, Buddha nature does not have a south, north, wealthy, or poor. For all people, Buddha nature is equal. Buddha nature is found in all sentient beings just as both the tall trees and short plants are enriched by rainfall. All sentient beings have Buddha nature, and Buddha nature is equal in all.

The Mahayana Stopping and Seeing Method states:

If the essence of the mind is equal in all, there is no cultivation and no non-cultivation, achievement and non-achievement, or awakening and non-awakening. In order to understand the Buddha as he is, the word “awakening” is used. Again, if the essence of the mind is equal, there is no difference among sentient beings, Buddhas, and mind. Therefore, the verses in the sutra say, “The mind, the Buddha, and sentient beings are not different.” Since the mind creates dharma realms due to dependent origination and Dharma nature is not destroyed, this results in the truths of eternal equality and eternal differentiation. Because of eternal equality, mind, Buddhas, and sentient beings are the same. Because of eternal differentiation, when churning in the five realms of existence, our nature is called “sentient being.” When returning to the origin, it is called “Buddha.”

Master Daoxin (580-651), the Fourth Patriarch of the Chan School, lived on Mount Shuangfeng. On the mountain dwelled an old woodcutter who wished to become a monk under the Chan master. Master Daoxin told him, “You are already too old. If you want to become a monk, you can wait until your next life.”

The old man then left the master and walked to a stream where he saw a young woman washing clothes. The old man asked her, “Miss, may I stay the night?”

The young woman answered, “I have to ask my parents.”

“I just need your permission, and it’ll be all right,” the old man said.

Just like that, the young virgin became pregnant. Because her parents felt that she had ruined their reputation, they kicked her out of the house. The young woman survived by begging. Eventually, she gave birth to a son.

Some years later on Huangmei road, Master Daoxin encountered the little boy. This child requested to become a monk.

The Chan master said, “You are too young. How can you become a monk?”

“Master,” the child said, “in the past, you said I was too old. Now you accuse me of being too young. When are you willing to let me become a monk under you?”

The Chan master suddenly had a realization. He immediately asked, “What is your name? Where do you live?”

“I am called ‘the boy with no name.’ My home is on Shili Alley.”

“Everyone has a name,” the master said. “why do you not?”

The boy answered, “I take ‘Buddha nature’ as my name, so I do not have a name.” This boy without a name would later be known as Master Hongren, the Fifth Patriarch of the Chan School.

In Buddhism, the doctrine of “eternal differentiation” refers to karma operating in the past, present, and future, and rebirth among the five realms of existence. It is because of differences like this that the Chan master could say, “If you are too old, I don’t want you. If you are too young, it is not right.” However, when the “boy with no name” took Buddha nature as his name, he demonstrated that he understood the eternal and unchanging characteristics of nature. This is “eternal equality.”

In the Record of Wanling, Master Huangbo (d. 850) says, “The patriarch directly pointed out that the original mind of all sentient beings is the nature of the Buddhas, which does not need to be cultivated, does not have any levels, and is neither dark nor bright. The mind is the Buddha. From the Buddhas down to beings with less sentience, all possess Buddha nature and have the same essence of mind. Therefore, Bodhidharma came from the West and transmitted only one Dharma. He pointed out that all sentient beings are essentially Buddhas and do not need to cultivate. Today, aside from recognizing the mind and seeing one’s intrinsic nature, you must not seek from others.”

In the Lotus Sutra, whenever Sadaparibhuta Bodhisattva was bullied, hurt, insulted, or scolded by others, he not only did not get mad, but he would respectfully say, “I dare not disrespect you, for I regard you all as Buddhas.” From his example, we should understand that the equality of Buddha nature means that respecting others is the same as respecting oneself.

Awakening and Buddha Nature

The Treatise on Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana says, “The one Dharma is the one mind. This one mind embraces all mundane and supramundane teachings. It is the teaching of the one dharma realm embracing all phenomena. It is only because of delusions that there are distinctions. Away from delusion, all that is left are things as they are [suchness].” This means that as long as all sentient beings can stay away from and eliminate all delusions, they are Buddhas with pure intrinsic nature.

There was once a student monk who went to the home of National Master Nanyang Huizhong (d. 775) to study with him. He asked for instruction, saying, “The mind is not greater in the Buddhas and not less in ordinary people. The patriarchs changed the term ‘mind’ to ‘nature.’ Please Chan master, what is the difference between ‘mind’ and ‘nature’?”

National Master Huizhong said, “When we are ignorant, there are distinctions. When we awaken, there are no distinctions.”

The student monk then asked, “Buddha nature is permanent. The mind is impermanent. Why do you say that there is no difference?”

Huizhong said, “You are depending only on the words and not depending on the meaning. Consider water: when it is cold, water becomes ice. When it is warm, ice becomes water. When you are ignorant, your nature freezes into mind. When you awaken, your mind melts into nature. Mind and nature are one and the same. It is only due to ignorance and awakening that there is a difference.”

In the Diamond Sutra, the Buddha says, “Prajnaparamita is not prajnaparamita and that is what is called prajnaparamita.” This means that what is Dharma is not Dharma, and what is not Dharma is Dharma. This may sound like a contradiction, but whether something is the Dharma or not depends upon whether one is ignorant or awakened.

One day, Chan Master Danxia Tianran of the Tang dynasty stayed overnight at a Buddhist temple. It was winter, and it was very cold. Danxia took a wooden statue of the Buddha and threw it into the fire. When the discipline master saw this, he shouted, “You should die for that! How dare you take the Buddha statue and burn it to stay warm?”

Danxia said, “I am not burning it to stay warm. I am burning it to obtain relics.”

The discipline master said, “Nonsense! How could a wooden statue have relics?”

“Since it is wood and has no relics, why don’t you bring me more to burn?”

Chan Master Danxia already understood dependent origination and the emptiness of nature, so in his mind the Dharma body of the Buddha pervades the universe. The discipline master only recognized the Buddha as a wooden statue. Due to his one thought of ignorance, what was once the pure Dharma becomes impure mundane Dharma. Therefore, we say that Dharma is not Dharma.

Another Chan story illustrates this point. One day, Chan Master Panshan Baoji (720-814) of Youzhou Province was walking past a marketplace. Suddenly, he heard an exchange that caused him to awaken.

A patron said to a butcher, “Sir, cut me a piece of good meat!”

The butcher laid down his knife. Hands on his hips, he said, “Dear fellow, tell me, which piece is not good?”

All phenomena arise from dependent origination. They are all equal, without distinction or duality. With a single awakened thought, impure Dharma with outflows can become pure, supramundane Dharma without outflows. While the ignorant mind is mastered by the world, the awakened mind turns the world. The difference between ignorance and awakening can lie in a single transcendent thought. This is a matter of cultivating the mind, not oral debate. From something as mundane as selling meat, the Chan master was able to realize the truth that all phenomena’s nature is equal and without duality. In this way, what is not Dharma is Dharma.

While a young person was meditating, an old Chan master happened to walk by. The young man did not rise to greet him, so the Chan master said, “You saw me coming, and yet you ignored me? Such impoliteness.”

The young monk, imitating the Chan master’s tone of voice, said, “Sitting to greet you is the same as standing to greet you.”

When the old Chan master heard this, he immediately stepped forward and slapped the young man on each side of the face. After the young man was smacked, he held his face in his hands and protested, “Why did you hit me?”

The old Chan master, as if nothing had happened, said, “When I hit you, it is not hitting you.”

Another story illustrates how much emphasis Chan masters place on understanding Buddha nature. When Master Heze Shenhui first met the Sixth Patriarch Huineng, Huineng asked, “This Dharma friend has endured much to make the long journey here. Did what is inherent come as well? If you have what is inherent, you should know its master. Try to speak of it.”

Shenhui said, “I take non-abiding as what is inherent, as seeing is its master.”

The patriarch said, “What this novice said is so careless!”

Shenhui asked in return, “Master, when you sit in meditation, do you see it or not?”

The patriarch hit Shenhui three times with his staff and asked, “When I hit you, do you feel the pain or not?”

Shenhui said, “I both feel the pain and do not feel the pain.”

The patriarch said, “I both see and do not see.”

Shenhui asked, “What does it mean to both see and not see?”

The patriarch replied, “This is what I see: I constantly see my mind’s wrongdoing. I do not see others’ right and wrong or wholesome and unwholesome. This is seeing and not seeing. What do you mean when you claim both pain and no pain? If you do not feel pain, then you are the same as a piece of wood or stone. If you feel pain, then you are no different from an ordinary person who responds to it with anger. Your earlier reference to seeing and not seeing is dualistic; feeling or not feeling pain is arising and ceasing. Your intrinsic nature is yet to be seen, yet you play tricks on others.”

When a person who has yet to awaken imitates the speech of an awakened being, it is much like the above. Shenhui’s question of “seeing or not seeing” is simply two kinds of attachment. Pain and non-pain are simply arising and ceasing. Buddha nature is what transcends all. To sever the two sides, to not distinguish between the good and the bad, is to truly see nature. This is the difference between ignorance and awakening.

Why are sentient beings ignorant? Because their Buddha nature has been obscured by delusion. Buddha nature is like the openness of a clear, blue sky. It is like a perfectly clear mirror that has been covered by the dust of affliction and ignorance, and as such can no longer reflect a perfect image. When this occurs for each of us, we fall into the ocean of birth and death, and suffer.

See One’s Nature, Become a Buddha

The Platform Sutra says, “What is meant by ‘non-thought?’ It means to know all phenomena without attachment. Non-thought is using the mind to reach everywhere without being attached anywhere. Purify the inherent mind and allow the six consciousnesses to exit through the six sense organs onto the six sense objects without attachment or integration. Come and go freely, and circulate without obstruction; this is prajna samadhi, liberating and carefree, and is the practice of non-thought.”

These passages describe “non-thought,” an aim of Chan practitioners. When faced with anything they should not cling to it nor reject it. They should follow conditions naturally, so that they can enjoy freedom and liberation. This is what it means to “see one’s nature and become a Buddha.”

Chan Master Huangbo Xiyun said, “If practitioners want to attain Buddhahood, they do not need to learn all teachings. They only need to learn not to seek and not to attach. Without seeking, the mind does not arise. Without attaching, the mind does not cease. Non-arising and non-ceasing is the Buddha. We must understand that all phenomena are created in the mind. Today, learn no-mind, eliminate all conditions, do not give rise to delusions and distinctions, eliminate the distinction between self and others, be without greed or anger, be without hatred or love, be without winning or losing, and eliminate as many delusions as possible. Intrinsic nature is pure. This is the Way of cultivating bodhi. If you do not understand this and do not know the original mind, even if you widely study, diligently cultivate, and even if you eat rough food and wear coarse clothing, you are on the wrong path.”

When you can attain the state without seeking and attachments, and the state in which all delusions are eliminated, you will see your own nature and become a Buddha.