Daring to Speak about Our “Buddha Nature”

Daring to Speak about Our “Buddha Nature” May 27, 2015

Hotei from PixabayToday I am giving a short talk at a nearby Zen center as a visiting teacher. I asked ahead of time what they wanted me to talk about and one of the suggestions was “How to Realize Your Own Buddha Nature.”

Oh heck. The Buddhist concept of buddha nature is a doozy. “Buddha” means awakened, and in Buddhism it is a central teaching that all beings have buddha nature whether they realize it or not. The father of Soto Zen Buddhism, Dogen, turned that teaching on its head and said, “Living beings are all buddha nature.”(1) (Get that? They are buddha nature?)

And then I’m supposed to instruct people about how to realize their own buddha nature? Who am I to…

And yet. Something must be said. A response must be given, and the whole reason I’m a “Zen teacher” is because, presumably, I have some response to offer.

So I look within and ask myself: What do I know about buddha nature? Have I realized my own buddha nature? When did I do that, and how? Am I still in contact with it right now? For a little while I flounder and go back to check whether I’ve actually committed to speaking on this topic, or whether I might be able to wriggle out of it and speak about something much more innocuous and down-to-earth.

But no, this is the value of having to teach. You have to keep learning and deepening what you know. So I will say something about How to Realize Your Own Buddha Nature.

Oh, how we long to know for sure we have a “buddha” – or awakened – nature somewhere deep inside us. For most of us, this means some kind of redemptive quality – some innate goodness or wisdom that is a truer definition of us than our limitations and mistakes are. Even when we feel very low and out of touch, we try to cultivate faith that our case isn’t hopeless. We strive to uncover our pure inner nature in order to be a better person. We sustain ourselves with the hope that someday we can perceive our buddha nature directly and those sad, nagging doubts about ourselves will finally fall away.

The thing is, buddha nature is far beyond you and me, having and not having, pure and impure. As long as we want to have it, direct perception of it eludes us.

Direct perception of what eludes us? What is buddha nature? It is so easy to get lost in a thicket of words and forget that words can only point in the direction of experience, not provide it or explain it. Right here, right now, buddha nature is what manifests as soon as I stop looking anywhere for it. My fingers pause, coming to rest on the keyboard. Then I think, “Is that it?!” and its gone. But when I leap to that place of no doubt, awakened nature is breathing and sound and light and growing plants and sad people and struggling Zen teachers. Tears of pure joy spring into my eyes.

To call it buddha nature is completely unnecessary. Don’t think it is something special that special people have managed to experience by doing special things. In his essay “Bussho,” or “Buddha Nature,” Zen master Dogen quotes an even more ancient Zen master, Nagarjuna, as saying, “If you want to see buddha nature, first let go of your pride.”(1)

Our pride? Is that what is getting in the way? Not our lack of intelligence, spiritual ignorance, character flaws, bad habits, mental illness, or laziness?

In this case, I don’t think pride is about arrogance – that is, having an inflated view of our own merits. Arrogance is good thing to get rid of too, but it’s not the main obstacle for most of us. The kind of pride that prevents us from realizing buddha nature is about not being willing to surrender. It’s about trying to make it on our own – to find the answers and fix our life. It’s about making ourselves worthy of buddha nature  (or, to put it in Christian terms, of Christ’s unconditional love). It’s like we insist on earning our buddha nature somehow, because then it will be ours. We will be redeemed.

Of course, as the buddha said, “Living beings are all buddha nature” (emphasis mine). It is our very effort to grab a piece of the divine pie for ourselves that keeps us separate from it.

However – and this is very important – the refuge and reward of buddha nature does not exclude the personal. This is fortunate because longing to have a buddha nature is perfectly natural and human. This longing drives and inspires us. We can’t willfully get rid of it.

Eventually we see how buddha nature manifests in and through our unique life. Of course, it also manifests in rocks, trees, cars, stars, and our aunt Mabel. But it very definitely shines throughout our particularity; it could not and does not reside anywhere except in particular manifestations. It is not obstructed by, constrained by, or dependent upon our details. I look around at my life: These hands, this room, this house, this little sphere of reality I call mine – shining with buddha nature.

We do, in a sense, have a “deeper” awakened nature that defines us more than our limitations and mistakes do. We can experience it and rely on it as long as we don’t try to hold on to it – and sometimes we even end up trying to hold on to it as some thing we are willing to share with others, like a giant, pure, communal soul. Even this noble image takes an experience and makes it into a concept. There’s no sin in this except that it tends to make the experience itself more elusive.

It’s amazing that the personally redemptive quality of buddha nature is nonetheless real, despite how subtle the experience of buddha nature is. A growing conviction that buddha nature pervades the universe – and doesn’t stop when it reaches the boundary of our personal bag of skin – is profoundly healing to our sad, wounded, and doubtful selves. We are not denied buddha nature, no matter who we are. Without losing our individuality, we get to partake of boundless, luminous being-ness.

Although, again, once you conceive of some awesome boundless, luminous being-ness” that some lucky people have experienced, you’re lost in thought and miss the radiance right before your very (real) eyes.

And in case you think it’s just modern folks with low self-esteem who doubt their buddha nature and long for it? In one of the oldest and well-loved Buddhist scriptures, the Lotus Sutra (which dates back at least as far as the 3rd century CE), there are several chapters in which various disciples of the Buddha ask him for their own, personal predictions of buddhahood. Get this: the Buddha himself has just lectured at length about how all beings will eventually attain buddhahood (although it may not be for many lifetimes to come), but still his disciples stand up and ask him, “You mean me?”

The Buddha then proceeds to call each disciple by name and describe how, many eons in the future, he or she will be born as a practitioner with such-and-such a name, and how he or she will attain complete enlightenment and be called such-and-such buddha, and what the special features of their buddha realm will be. Even after he does this repeatedly and his disciples should be catching on the to the pattern, the sutra says:

“Then the mother of Rahula, the nun Yashodhara, thought: ‘In his assurances, the World-Honored One has left only my name unmentioned.’ The Buddha said to Yashodhara: ‘In future lives, in the midst of the Dharma of hundreds of thousands of billions of buddhas, by doing bodhisattva practice you will become a great Dharma teacher, gradually fulfilling the Buddha way…”(2)

Who has not thought, at times, that only their name will be left off the list of those with buddha nature – or at least those fortunate enough to be certain they have it?

It’s an inexplicable irony that realizing our buddha nature requires letting go of pride and accepting that we already have it. It’s also ironic that such surrender can actually require a great deal of effort. We struggle, let go, struggle again, and let go again. We find our way, slowly but surely, inspired by the promise of buddha nature.


(1) Translation of Dogen’s “Bussho” by Kaz Tanahashi and Mel Weitsman in “Treasury of the True Dharma Eye: Zen Master Dogen’s Shobo Genzo”
(2) “The Lotus Sutra: A Contemporary Translation of a Buddhist Classic,” translated by Gene Reeves


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