Nagarjuna, Arya along with the disciple Aryadeva, retrieving the Prajnaparamita Sutra from the Naga Realm, Eastern Tibet, 1800–1899. Unidentified artist, Rubin Museum of Art. Item no. 174.

To Be or Not To Be? Be a Buddha!

Looking at the words of classical texts, Karl Brunnhölzl explores the notions of buddhanature and emptiness—how they may be understood as one and the same, and how they are not identical.

By Karl Brunnhölzl

Nagarjuna, Arya along with the disciple Aryadeva, retrieving the Prajnaparamita Sutra from the Naga Realm,

Looking at the words of classical texts, Karl Brunnhölzl explores the notions of buddhanature and emptiness—how they may be understood as one and the same, and how they are not identical.

Nagarjuna, Arya along with the disciple Aryadeva, retrieving the Prajnaparamita Sutra from the Naga Realm, Eastern Tibet, 1800–1899. Unidentified artist, Rubin Museum of Art. Item no. 174.
Nagarjuna, Arya along with the disciple Aryadeva, retrieving the Prajnaparamita Sutra from the Naga Realm,
Eastern Tibet, 1800–1899. Unidentified artist, Rubin Museum of Art. Item no. 174.

At first glance, one cannot find any more statements more at odds with each other than the two following emblematic stanzas. Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika XIII.7 says:

If there were anything nonempty,
there’d also be something “empty.”
There is nothing that is nonempty,
so how could there be the empty?

Maitreya’s Uttaratantra I.155 declares:

The basic element is empty of the adventitious,
which has the characteristic of being separable.
It is not empty of the unsurpassable attributes,
having the characteristic of being inseparable

Let’s explore the relationship between these stanzas, which seem to make arguments for what I’ll call here “not to be” and “to be.” Nagarjuna (considered to have lived during the second century CE) is of course most famous—or notorious—for his Madhyamaka approach of relentlessly nixing all phenomena, including even buddhahood. Most of his lesser-known praises also evidence this approach, discussing familiar notions such as emptiness, nonarising, lack of nature, no-self, and dependent origination. Even the Dharma­dhatustava (“Praise of the Dharmadhatu”), which otherwise presents the dharmadhatu (in the sense of mind’s luminous nature; often used synonymously with buddhanature) in a positive light, clarifies “not to be”:

As the dharmadhatu is not a self,
neither any woman nor any man,
free of all that could be grasped,
how could it be designated “self”?

The dharma purifying mind the best
consists of the very lack of a nature

But once we see the double lack of self,
the seeds of our existence find their end.

The nonbeing of all beings—
this nature is its sphere.

Such verses illustrate the underlying unity of Nagarjuna’s thought, as far as emptiness goes, in his Madhyamaka texts and praises.

However, some of Nagarjuna’s praises express phenomena’s nature and buddhahood in more affirmative terms, supporting “to be,” which are absent in Madhyamaka. His Niruttarastava states:

Your luminous singular wisdom
determines all knowable objects

His Niraupamyastava says:

O flawless one, you overcame afflictions
at their very roots, their latent tendencies.
At the same time you procured the nectar
that is the very nature of these afflictions.

Your body is eternal, immutable, peaceful,
consisting of the dharma, and victorious.

Nagarjuna’s Acintyastava even uses several terms as synonyms of ultimate reality that have a strong ontological flavor (super “to be”!) and are common in non-Buddhist systems, but also among sravakas (disciples) and Yogacaras (“yoga practitioners”):

It is said to be a nature of its own, the primordial nature,
true reality, the basic substance, and the real thing too

Nagarjuna’s Cittavajrastava says:

I pay homage to my own mind
that dispels the mind’s oblivion
by ridding the mind-sprung web
through this very mind as such.

As it is familiarization with the vajra of mind,
this is what is designated “supreme awakening.”

Such passages are reminiscent of the teachings on buddhanature in Maitreya’s Uttaratantra. The clearest example of this approach among Nagarjuna’s praises is his Dharmadhatustava, with its many similes of how the dharmadhatu—mind’s luminous nature, the sphere of ultimate reality—is obscured, but completely untainted, by adventitious stains and can be revealed. (Several similes are shared with the Uttaratantra). Dharmadhatustava 20–21 says:

A garment that was purged by fire
may be soiled by various stains.
When it is put into a blaze again,
stains are burned, the garment not.

Likewise, the mind that is so luminous
is soiled by stains of craving and so on.
It is the afflictions that burn in the fire
of wisdom, but its luminosity does not.

Verse 88 says that the final unobscured manifestation of this ever-present and unchanging luminosity with all its qualities, such as infinite compassion, prajna, and altruistic activity, is the dharmakaya (the ultimate dimension of a buddha’s awakened mind), which Nagarjuna calls the “fundamental change of state,” another classic notion of “to be” in Yogacara and tathagatagarbha (buddhanature) teachings but completely absent in Madhyamaka.

Like the Uttaratantra, the Dharmadhatustava declares that the Buddha’s teachings on emptiness are neither contradictory to, nor invalidate, mind’s luminosity:

The sutras that teach emptiness,
however many the victors spoke,
they all eradicate the afflictions,
but they never ruin this dhatu [= dharmadhatu]

Nagarjuna’s Kayatrayastotra praises the dharmakaya as being: neither one nor many; the ground of all beings’ welfare; neither being nor nonbeing; untainted, changeless, peaceful; and to be personally experienced. His autocommentary asks: “If the dharmadhatu is emptiness, how can it be the ground of beings’ welfare?” Through the power of the habitual tendencies of ignorance and delusion, the dharmadhatu looks as if it were beings and their worlds. Likewise, the dharmadhatu serves as the ground of all beings’ welfare, just as consciousness in dreams manifests in different ways. “Then the dharmadhatu’s nature would become the habitual tendencies of ignorance.” No, it is like a cloth imbued with an unpleasant odor; but by meeting spiritual friends and cultivating the path, ignorance’s adventitious habitual tendencies are removed and the dharmadhatu becomes completely pure. In this, there isn’t any adopting of qualities or relinquishing of flaws because it is said:

There is nothing to be removed from it
and not the slightest that is to be added
Actual reality is to be seen as it really is—
whoever sees actual reality is liberated

Associated with certain conditions, Nagarjuna continues, the dharmadhatu seems to be afflicted, but the unborn is never born. The dharmadhatu is untainted and peaceful since all afflictions are at peace; changeless since it does not shift from its own nature; and to be personally experienced, just as a young person’s first experience of sexual bliss.

It may seem strange, if not contradictory, that Nagarjuna, so famous—or notorious—for not sparing any of our cherished beliefs, employs such overtly “to be” terms or even seemingly “un-Buddhist” expressions. However, it should be clear that he doesn’t use such terms to indicate any absolutely existing entity, remaining as something to get stuck on after he has annihilated everything else through Madhyamaka reasonings. Far from being mutually exclusive, what Nagarjuna’s two approaches elucidate is that, though there is nothing to pinpoint in the dharmadhatu—again, mind’s true nature—it can still be experienced directly, in a nonreifying way. This is how the Sakya master Sakya Chogden’s Distinction of the Two Traditions of the Great Charioteers explains Nagarjuna’s Madhyamaka texts and his praises as complementary:

In the collection of reasoning, [the dharmadhatu] is [explained] in terms of cutting through superimpositions by studying and reflecting. In the collection of praises, it is [described] in terms of making this a living experience through meditation. Some say: “These two scriptural systems are contradictory. For, what is ascertained in the collection of reasoning is not explained as what is to be made an experience in the collection of praises, let alone what is explained in the latter as what is to be made a living experience being explained as ultimate reality in the collection of reasoning—even its sheer existence is refuted there.” There is nothing wrong here. For cutting through superimpositions by…studying and reflecting in the collection of reasoning is to stop conceptions of clinging to any characteristics of what is to be experienced [in meditation]. There is no flaw in teaching that the dharmadhatu is experienced once [such conceptions] have been stopped…. “Isn’t one thing then ascertained through the view and something else experienced through meditation?” No, since it is completely unreasonable that, once one meditates after all reference points have been stopped through the view, the meditating mind experiences something other than just dharmadhatu wisdom.

Thus the positive “to-be” terms in Nagarjuna’s praises are only used and make sense after mind has already been stripped of all adventitious obscurations of what these terms speak about—mind’s nature on its own, just as it is. As the above-cited lines from the Citta­­vajrastava illustrate, Nagarjuna describes what is encountered after his collection of reasoning has helped our mind to cut through the dense jungle of its own ignorance. This doesn’t mean to finally find something within that very jungle of delusive reference points, but to just “arrive” at what mind cleared of ignorance has naturally been all along. Thus, without anybody looking at anything, mind’s astounding panorama of inseparable spaciousness and luminosity enjoys itself. In brief, “be, see, let go, and relax.”

Like all Buddhist masters, Nagarjuna doesn’t regard buddhahood as some empty, dark nothingness, but as wide-awake awareness free from all illusory obscuration and suffering. Thus he never tires of speaking against any reifying tendencies that carry us away from the actual experience of mind’s nonreferential. However, on the plane of seeming reality, for Nagarjuna, realizing mind’s nature does not merely depend on sharp prajna seeing through all our hang-ups, but on its union with the proper means. No matter how sophisticated our reasonings or insights may be, as bodhisattvas, we must also open up to our own true heart, generate positive mental imprints (aka merit), and cultivate compassion. Therefore, praises from the depth of our heart, touching our innermost being—or being touched by it—serve as a skillful means to precisely these ends, just like the mahasiddhas’ spontaneously uttered songs of realization.

In a similar vein, the Uttaratantra’s commentary, ascribed to Asanga, explains that newcomer bodhisattvas distracted from empti­ness deviate from what emptiness means in the case of buddha­nature: some think emptiness destroys truly existing entities, while others see emptiness as a real entity to be cultivated and realized distinct from phenomena. But what emptiness really means in the context of buddhanature is explained in the Uttaratantra’s famous stanzas I.154–155:

There is nothing to be removed from this,
and not the slightest that is to be added.
Actual reality is to be seen as it really is—
whoever sees actual reality is liberated.

The basic element is empty of the adventitious,
which has the characteristic of being separable.
It is not empty of the unsurpassable attributes,
having the characteristic of being inseparable.

Asanga comments that there are no afflicted phenomena to be removed from naturally pure buddhanature because its nature is the emptiness of adventitious stains. Nor are any purified phenomena to be added, because its nature consists of inseparable pure attributes. One clearly sees that when something doesn’t exist somewhere, the latter is empty of the former. In accordance with actual reality, one understands that what remains there is really existent. This is the unmistaken definition of emptiness in the case of buddhanature because it is free from the extremes of superimposition and denial: “let what you truly are be as it is and don’t make up anything else.”

In brief, if emptiness is understood as being mind’s infinite spaciousness endowed with awakened qualities, it is equivalent to buddha­nature, but emptiness alone is just one aspect of buddha­nature, which also consists of all other buddha qualities, such as limitless compassion and omniscience.

Uttaratantra I.35 proclaims that the fruition—buddhanature revealed—consists of true purity, bliss, permanence, and self (again, super “to be”). The stanzas following, and Asanga’s commentary, explain that buddhanature’s true purity refers to the dharmakaya’s natural purity and its purity of adventitious stains. Its being true bliss means having eliminated any origin of suffering and perceiving the cessation of suffering in its entirety. Its permanence means avoiding the extremes of extinction and eternity by not denying impermanent samsara and superimposing permanent nirvana. Its being the ultimate self means being free from both the self of non-Buddhists and the no-self of sravakas. Nagarjuna’s Mulamadhyamakakarika XVIII.6 affirms this stance on the self:

The buddhas have conveyed “self”
and they have also taught “no self.”
In addition, they have taught that
there is neither any self nor no self.

Though the commonly accepted Buddhist hallmark is the absence of a self, for Madhyamikas like Nagarjuna and Candrakirti, neither of the mutually dependent teachings on “self” and “no self” is ultimate reality.

The Eighth Karmapa’s student Pawo Tsugla Trengwa’s Bodhicaryavatara commentary says that many positions on ultimate reality
exist, such as being a complete negation, a negation that implies a remainder, or something permanent and solid, but they all imply certain purposes. The ultimate may be explained as a nonimplicative negation to remove clinging to it as being really established in any way. Elsewhere, it may be explained as an implicative negation to dispel clinging to it as being a nonimplicative negation. Alternatively, it may be described as something permanent and solid, not empty of qualities, to remedy clinging to the ultimate as sheer nonexistence. Thus all such explanations are not contradictory. But if proclaimed by clinging to them, they are a far cry from the ultimate, since affirmations and negations are nothing but imputations by mind clinging to existence and nonexistence. From the perspective of the actual nature of phenomena, any clinging—no matter to what—is simply mistaken.

According to the Kagyu master Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche, the example of space, being used for both emptiness and buddhanature, means that the sky at day and at night is the same, but its experience is radically different. At night, without any moon or stars, nothing is seen, but on a cloud-free day, the sky is pervaded by light and various appearances are seen in it, such as rainbows. Thus the sky, its all-pervasive light, and rainbows illustrate the three essential features of mind’s nature: emptiness, luminosity, and unimpeded display. This means Nagarjuna and Maitreya always speak about seeing the same sky, but sometimes Nagarjuna simply does not mention its light and rainbows so as to avoid clinging to their beauty and thus not seeing the vast open sky in which they appear.In conclusion, buddhanature is not a reified or graspable thing, and emptiness is not nothingness. So the question is not really “to be or not to be?” Rather, the point is to discover our inner buddha sky, let this luminous sky be itself, and not make it into a trip.

Karl Brunnhölzl

Karl Brunnhölzl

Karl Brunnhölzl is a senior teacher in the Nalandabodhi community of Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche and was recently bestowed the title of khenpo. He is the author and translator of numerous texts, including Luminous Heart, Gone Beyond, Groundless Paths and, The Heart Attack Sutra, which was published by Snow Lion, 2012.