Thursday, July 16, 2009

Buddha Nature: Jewel in the Mud

Within the Mahayana and Vajrayana schools of Buddhism, it is said that the Buddha "turned the wheel of Dharma" three times -- i.e., that he unveiled his teachings in three major stages over the course of the four decades that he taught, progressively revealing with each turning an ever more refined and profound vision of reality. In the First Turning, he taught the basic, relative truths of suffering and the path to liberation from suffering. In the Second Turning, he taught the profound view of emptiness which is an antidote to our tendency to cling to any notion of the inherent reality of anything. In the Third Turning, he went even one step further than that, teaching on the awakened qualities of mind itself -- the inherent Buddha Nature of all sentient beings.

The essence of the teaching on Buddha Nature is that all beings possess the same potential for full awakening -- that the very nature of all beings is, in fact, enlightened mind itself, and that this enlightened mind which is common to all beings has simply been covered over and buried beneath lifetimes of bad habits, neuroses, and mental obscurations. Though hidden from view, our Buddha Nature is always there because it is what we most fundamentally are; no matter how thick or ugly the obscurations may be that cover it, like a radiant jewel caked in the blackest mud, Buddha Nature itself cannot be destroyed or changed by our obscurations.

We typically think of the spiritual path as being a process of acquiring and developing positive spiritual qualities that we don't yet possess -- yet, viewed from the perspective of the teachings on Buddha Nature, it is actually nothing more than the process of clearing away obscurations (the causes of our suffering) and revealing the radiant, awakened mind, full of positive qualities, that is already our essence. As Karl Brunnholzl puts it, "As long as there is suffering, that's called a sentient being. When there is no suffering, that's called a Buddha."

Just as ice does not function like water, Brunnholzl points out, but at the same time is not made of something different from water, in the same way sentient beings (which is to say, deluded beings) do not function like Buddhas but are not made of something different from Buddha nature.

One of the core obstacles to realizing and uncovering our Buddha Nature is that we believe so strongly in the solid reality of our obscurations. From our perspective on the ground looking up at a cloudy sky, the clouds obscure our view of the blue, open sky, and they seem so solid and real. Yet the blue, open sky itself is not affected in the slightest by the presence of those clouds, and the clouds themselves have no solid core. In the same way, the neuroses and obscurations of sentient beings are temporary and removable, while their Buddha Nature is beyond change.

Brunnholzl gives a very practical analogy for this. When we wash our clothes, we are not really purifying the clothes, we are purifying the dirt, which is adventitious. The natural state of the clothes is already pure.

In the Uttaratantra, Maitreya's seminal text on Buddha Nature, it is said that the Buddha gave the teachings on Buddha Nature to counteract five key obstacles that prevent us from recognizing our true nature: faintheartedness, arrogance, exaggeration, denial, and self-cherishing. (Ani Lodro, one of the nuns here at the Abbey, is currently teaching a class on the Uttaratantra. I'm grateful to her for clearly explaining these five obstacles and their antidotes.)

  • Faintheartedness is our habitual poverty mentality, our self-doubt, our depression, our laziness, our sense of lack, our conviction that we don't have what it takes to wake up. The antidote is to remind ourselves, constantly, that we have Buddha Nature already. This opens the door to a sense of joy and contentment.
  • Arrogance is our habitual contempt for what we perceive as inferior beings -- our tendency to look at others' faults and judge them, forgetting about their positive qualities and potential. The antidote is to remind ourselves, constantly, that *all* beings have Buddha Nature. This opens the door to developing Sacred Outlook, seeing one's entire world as sacred and regarding all beings as Buddhas, as teachers.
  • Exaggeration is putting too much emphasis on the relative, believing too much in the reality of our obscurations and neurosis and obstacles. The antidote is to remind ourselves, constantly, that our obscurations are like clouds, temporary and without any solid existence. This opens the door to relating to ourselves and our world with greater discernment and intelligence.
  • Denial is forgetting that our true nature is already here and now, and getting caught up in the search for fulfillment in dreams of the future or in external things -- the thought that maybe we'll be able to connect with Buddha Nature once we get such-and-such. The antidote is to remind ourselves, constantly, that there is nothing that could possibly be added to Buddha Nature to improve it, and nothing that needs to be done with it. This opens the door to develop strong motivation and enthusiastic effort.
  • Self-cherishing is clinging to personal comfort and sense pleasures as a substitute for relating to our true nature -- it's a basic sense of being stuck in materialism, and is rooted in a feeling of lack or need. The antidote is to remind ourselves, constantly, that we do not need anything. This opens the door to experiencing and radiating our inherent benevolence, generosity and warmth.

In our culture, which so heavily emphasizes the doctrine of Original Sin and the inherent neurosis and meaninglessness of human life (unless we believe we will be saved from damnation by an external being, a Creator God), the teachings on Buddha Nature are shocking in their positive vision of the potential of all sentient beings for awakening and enlightenment and sanity. The danger in hearing these teachings is that we might misinterpret them as an excuse for doing nothing -- after all, if our fundamental nature is already perfect, why bother meditating or exerting ourselves on the spiritual path?

Suzuki Roshi once looked out at a large audience of students and said: "You are all completely perfect...and you could use a little work."

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