Each Friday, we share three topical longreads in our Weekend Reader newsletter. This week Buddhadharma‘s deputy editor Koun Franz helps us to understand buddhanature. Sign up here to receive the Weekend Reader in your inbox.
In perhaps the most famous koan of all time, a monk asks Joshu, a Chinese Zen master, “Does a dog have buddhanature or not?” Joshu’s reply, “Mu” (which isn’t so easy to translate, but most definitely isn’t a “Yes!”) has had Zen students spinning for centuries. Mumon’s commentary on the koan ends with this verse: “Has a dog buddhanature? / This is the most serious question of all. / If you say yes or no / you lose your own buddhanature.”
Depending on who you ask, buddhanature is a kind of seed of buddhahood, or it’s a cause of it, or maybe it’s the foundation on which it all rests. Dogen, the founder of Soto Zen in Japan, wrote at length about how buddhanature is, ultimately, just everything — it’s a synonym for reality itself. Through that lens, it either means a lot or, well, nothing at all.
In “The Path of Gratitude,” Jeff Wilson steers us away from the question of individual buddhahood and toward a path of embracing all beings. Sheng Yen, in “Four Steps to Magical Powers,” explains that seeing into buddhanature is a critical step along the way — but just a step. And Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, in “You Already Have What You’re Looking For,” puts it at the very center: “The message that I think Buddhism has to offer the world in this troubled century is the Buddha’s insight that we all have buddhanature.”
How would you define it? Your answer reveals not only what you think this practice is, but also why you would take it up and what you believe you’re capable of. It’s a question that’s as big as they come — there’s a reason people can’t stop talking about that dog.
—Koun Franz, deputy editor, Buddhadharma
The goal of Shin Buddhism’s central practice, nembutsu, is not to attain buddhahood for ourselves, says Jeff Wilson, but to express gratitude for all we have received.
Shinran understood Amida as buddhanature. As he puts it, “Buddhanature is none other than Tathagata [Buddha]. This Tathagata pervades the countless worlds; it fills the hearts and minds of the ocean of all beings. Thus, plants, trees, and land all attain buddhahood.”
Liberation is therefore always naturally available and needn’t be chased after endlessly. Shinran taught that we must give up attachment to our ego-laden efforts to become enlightened and relax back into the embrace of inconceivable wisdom and never-abandoning compassion. In this way, we are freed from our anxieties and pettiness. Our practice, then, stops being about attaining buddhahood for ourselves and instead becomes about expressing gratitude for all that we have received. This is a way of life that deepens as the years pass; as Shinran put it, “My joy grows even fuller, my gratitude and indebtedness ever more compelling.”
Before you fully embark on the path of the bodhisattvas and buddhas, says Chan master Sheng Yen, you must first practice the four steps to magical powers. What are these steps and what are the magical powers you need?
Seeing one’s buddhanature, however, does not mean that one is liberated, nor does it mean that one’s practice is completed. Rather, it means that one has gained more faith and confidence in the practice and that one now clearly knows where the path is. This may be likened to traveling on a dark road on a very dark night. All of a sudden there is a bolt of lightning, and for a split second you see the road before you, bright and clear. But seeing the road is not the same as having finished the journey. You still need to travel on to the end.
Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche shares what he feels is the most helpful message Buddhism can offer in coming decades.
The message that I think Buddhism has to offer the world in this troubled century is the Buddha’s insight that we all have buddhanature.
In so many ways, we are just like the Buddha. We too find ourselves striving desperately to find meaning in our lives, to experience a little peace, pleasure, comfort, and security. We chase after fleeting experiences and place our full trust and confidence in them, with the hope that somehow, someday, they’ll lead us to lasting happiness. We try so hard to find success in worldly endeavors that never seem to pay off in the end.