What Is the Buddha in You?

Sonam Kachru reviews C. V. Jones’ “The Buddhist Self.”

Sonam Kachru1 October 2021
“Buddha,” early 1900s China. Artist unknown. Director’s Contingent Fund. 1918.547 Cleveland Museum of Art

“I bow to the Buddha in you.”—this expression (and its variations) no doubt will be familiar to many Buddhists in America. It wasn’t always to me. I first heard it a few years after coming to the United States from India as a student when a kindly American uttered the words as she bowed to me, her palms together. I found the verbal expression as beguiling as I found the elegant hand gesture familiar. Overcome by literalism I pictured taking an X-ray and finding the silhouette of the figure of a buddha seated in meditation in the approximate area of my chest. Whatever was intended, it is nonetheless the case that there is a special variety of seeing implied by the phrase, a notable acknowledgment of the kinds of beings we are.

An important case of an amalgam of a way of seeing and thinking, as the philosopher Wittgenstein might have liked to put it, talk of acknowledging the buddhas we are, or buddhas within ourselves, is ultimately bound up with the history of a vast, revolutionary, labyrinthine, and influential world of Indian texts on buddhanature, early representatives of which may belong to the first three centuries of the common era. Inspired no doubt by the innovations made by the Lotus Sutra at the level of doctrine and literary genre, these inventive scriptures constitute nothing less than a revolution in seeing—literary experiments, if you will, in rethinking embodiment. But most of us cannot make sense of them on our own. C. V. Jones’ The Buddhist Self can be a guide.

Scriptural revelations of buddha-nature, orchestrating as they do intricate variations on the idea of the presence (and source) of buddhas or buddhahood within us using the concepts of buddha-dhatu and tathagatagarbha (among others) as motifs, demand learned and reliable guides. Buddhadhatu means something like the nature or quintessence of a buddha; tathagatagarbha can mean a chamber, womb, or embryo of a buddha within a person, though it can also be used to speak of people themselves being that chamber, womb, or embryo. An altogether marvelous expression, it can pivot in forward-looking ways to mean the buddhahood that is available to us while also keeping in view some actual feature of us or the source of our possibilities. Perhaps relevant to the amateur lexicographical X-ray fantasies of my youth is the following fact observed by the scholar Michael Radich: the expression in all likelihood developed as a complement to the idea of the abiding presence of the Buddha (via his relics) in a memorial or stupa. (Buddhas, moreover, were not thought to be present after death only within brick or through bones. Some Buddhists claimed that the presence of buddhas may be experienced in books as well—bodied forth, as he was, in his ideas and words.) And buddhas, the term tathagatagarbha now suggests, dwell in us, embodied in living beings, the extruded presence of reality concealed in all of us. There may be a history to a kind of Buddhist X-ray vision after all!

With its complex, interacting patterns of shadows (or records of absences, as it were), one has to learn how to read an X-ray. The visionary program advanced by Indian Buddhist texts on buddhanature may emphasize presence, not absence. But to see buddhas within oneself we must first be taught to see like buddhas, then taught to interpret what we see in accordance with what the Buddha taught. But just what did the Buddha teach in these texts? Details about this revolutionary corpus are contested. There are many texts, and their age, chronology, interrelation, and contents are all disputed by scholars and practitioners alike. What this exciting and moving frontier of knowledge—the subject of recent and intensive scholarly reappraisals (through the efforts Takasaki Jikido, Kazuo Kano, Michael Radich, Michael Zimmermann, and others)—has lacked is a perspicuous, user-friendly, and judicious overview. At least it did till now. The Buddhist Self more than meets this need. But don’t misunderstand me. Jones does not merely synthesize and introduce. He does do that—and for that alone he would have my thanks—but he does so much more. In coming to terms with the recent reappraisals of this body of texts, he has seen something truly provocative.

We have grown far too comfortable with our conception of Buddhism’s past: whether through praise or blame, Buddhism is often now presented as being far less diverse than it was (and often far less diverse than it is).

I’ll get to that in a moment. First, consider the thread that Jones (and others) see running through the Indian buddhanature texts. Allowing for subtle variations in individual texts, what holds things together is an orientation “that something proper to all sentient beings across their successive births and deaths is, at all times, that which is proper also to a Buddha.” The thirteenth-century teacher Nichiren once wrote to the wife of Ishikawa Shimbei Yoshisuke, “You may question how it is that the Buddha can reside within us when our bodies originate from our parents’ sperm and blood.” What’s on offer in these earlier texts is nothing less than a programmatic reformation of our sensibility to be able to see past such scruples.

As is a mode of attunement to a new style of seeing, the imaginative universe through which buddhanature (and a putative Buddhist self) is revealed is constituted of challenging ideas and revaluations of earlier teachings, expressed through parables, cryptic utterances, densely intertextual passages, and a battery of images. It’s like the image in the Tathagatagarbha Sutra in which the Buddha says that using his divine eye he can see hidden in the negative states of greed, desire, anger, and stupidity, augustly and unmoving, the qualities of knowledge, vision, and the body of a buddha. This, he goes on to say, is analogous to the statues of Buddha seated in the lotus position hidden in the calyxes of lotuses (no X-ray could show that!). This is an art of seeing normative and transforming presences. What matters most, what is valuable in this literature, is hidden: like honey in a cave or tree, protected by bees; or like a kernel of wheat in unremoved husk; or like gold buried in filth; or like the pit of a mango; or like a (male) child who will be valued borne in the womb of a woman reviled by society, and so on.

Analogies in Sanskrit depend on partial likeness: X is like Y only insofar as it has Z, some common feature, evident to certain people given certain conditions. As Longchenpa (basing himself on a meta-poetic moment in the work on buddhanature, the Ratnagotravibhaga, also known as the Uttaratantra) argues in his commentary, “Finding Rest in the Nature of Mind,” these texts argue using analogies on principle. They do so because literal description is impossible; they use a variety of similes because no one analogy will do justice to all the aspects and contexts needed to comprehend the nature in question. What a Buddha sees whole and steadily is only ever refracted in our imagination piecemeal.

Analogously, we may say that the origins and motivations behind the various versions of buddhanature are imperfectly refracted in the works we now possess. It takes an inventive and collective effort to fit things together and to bring these ideas and the sense they made in their original interpretive contexts into clear view. Jones, working with old-school Buddhist Studies virtuosity in at least four classical languages (I note Pali, Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan), patiently, with erudition and imagination across a wide variety of premodern and modern works, is more than up to the task. And he adds to his patient exploration and scrupulous exposition of this corpus a genuine frisson of discovery and controversy. He argues that the earliest articulations of buddhanature in this corpus advanced their visionary proposals as a version of an acknowledgment of self rather than a denial: notwithstanding what the Buddha appears to have taught, there can be such a thing as a true or real essence of beings, even as there can be value bodied forth in the stuff of this world, an extrusion of the highest reality within the compass of our very bodies. This self is buddhanature, or the presence of the tathagatagarbha within us. As Jones puts it, “Buddhist dharma has its own account of the self.”

Hold on. This is not the self of untutored opinion; nor does it exactly conform to the self as taught by rival Indian traditions. But it is in the same ballpark, so to speak. Iterations of buddhanature (as self) satisfy the conceptual as well as therapeutic criteria employed in the search for (a hidden) self in Indian religions, something permanent, unchanging, pure, precious, and valuable, and above all, sovereign, free from time and contingency—and thus something one ought to learn to see, to identify with, as bodying-forth reality within us. Or so, Jones argues, the earliest buddhanature texts would have us understand the Buddha to have taught as his considered view.

This, as I am sure you will appreciate, is heady stuff. To speak of one’s true or real nature is bad enough for many Indian Buddhists; to identify such nature with “self” appears to add insult to injury, particularly for a tradition that has long praised the Buddha as unique precisely for denying self (as in the work of the second-century poet Matrceta), or claimed that there is no way to get to felicity without seeing the truth of selflessness (Matrceta again, though this is a sentiment echoed later by many, including the formidable late fourth-century philosopher Vasubandhu). What’s key, such Buddhists have said, is the need to quit indulging in the habit of thinking or speaking in terms of the necessity or existence of a self. If the Buddha taught anything, he taught selflessness. Even later thinkers otherwise partial to conceptions of buddhanature, such as the fourteenth-century Tibetan master Longchenpa (or decades earlier, the thirteenth-century Japanese thinker Eihei Dogen), worked hard to argue against taking buddhanature (or concepts in orbit of buddhanature, such as buddha mind) as varieties of self. But if Jones is right, what these scholars (and many scholars since) have treated as being obviously later deviations of some true teaching more aligned with selflessness may actually prove to have been among the chief inspirations behind the innovations of buddhanature. Jones is teaching us how to reread literature we thought we knew, text by text, image by image, concept by concept.

Let’s put it this way. What’s involved in both the buddhanature literature as well as Jones’ patient exploration of it involves an art of seeing something anew, something constitutively intimate. Nichiren (in the same letter I quoted above) wrote, “We ordinary people can see neither our own eyelashes, which are so close, nor the heavens in the distance. Likewise, we do not see that the Buddha exists in our own hearts.” Either mesmerized by detail, or fatally drawn to dwell in the thin air of generalizations, it’s been hard for scholars to find the right scale to apprehend what really matters in talk of buddhanature as well. Or, at least, it has been hard to communicate it. Let’s not deny it—being a scrupulous work of scholarship, however lucid, this book too will make demands on the reader. In Buddhist cosmology there are beings who are said to possess a divine eye enabling them to see through flesh and opaque matter. The non-scholarly reader of this book will need a kind of divine eye, or at least a practiced form of overlooking. They will need it to see past the philological devices of abbreviations and parenthesis through which Jones shares with his colleagues his homework.

I hasten, however, to say: don’t let the bristling scholarly apparatus fool you. This book is intended to be as inviting as buddhanature is thought to be ubiquitous. Part of its invitational quality has to do with Jones’ masterful ability to read, as it were, at several scales of attention. In early chapters, the reader is led very, very close to the surface of details inside individual texts. But as the book goes on, Jones increasingly invites us to step back.

Here’s one breathtaking prospect you might not otherwise be able to see without the help of this book: using the concept of a Buddhist self as a key to the responsiveness of Indian Buddhists to their contexts of relevance and what Indian religions of the time held to be valuable, Jones—and I confess to finding this terribly exciting—has done nothing short of offering us the motivation and the means to acknowledge what one might call a second chapter in the long history of practices and conceptions of self in Indian religions and philosophy. If the first chapter involves the (now somewhat familiar) search for the self in the early Upanishads (and on the part of diverse ascetic traditions) and the concomitant rejection of the same in early Buddhist materials, the story goes on. Its second chapter may well begin with the later centuries of the first millennium and the richly intertextual world of the middle-period Upanishads, Brahmanical theologies of everyday life, and texts of the buddhanature tradition. These are worlds wherein learning to acknowledge the hidden self and its kinship with that which is held to be supreme animates practice and vision. But the art of seeing buddhanature (as self) echoes beyond India. I owe to the theologian Brendan Case, for example, the recognition that the discourse of a Buddhist self reverberates with the late sixth-century Christian Maximus Confessor’s belief of divine presence (“the logos”) concealed within beings, evident if only one could see through the womb of the world.

Jones’ guide to buddhanature will open doors for us. It has, as you see, already sparked conversations. It is sure to spark many more. A good thing, too. We have grown far too comfortable with our conception of Buddhism’s past: whether through praise or blame, Buddhism is often now presented as being far less diverse than it was (and often far less diverse than it is). That the history of Buddhism is a history of competing and often confounding scriptural revelations and revaluations is not a new thought. In a preface to a wildly popular Chinese treatise incorporating ideas of buddhanature, the Treatise on Awakening Mahayana Faith, Zhikai of Yangzhou (the purported author), speaks of how “for over six hundred years after the [Buddha’s] decease, various paths emerged in chaotic profusion and Mara demons vied to stir things up, incessantly maligning the true dharma of the Buddha.” Buddhanature is intricately bound up with such confusion (or is it creativity?); misunderstood to this day, when it is in view at all, talk of our embodying something precious in us has been celebrated as the true dharma by some and as the work of devils by others. Scholars can appreciate the diversity and confusion, of course, by setting aside “The True Dharma of the Buddha” (my emphasis) and debating the finer points of Jones’ thesis. But practitioners of Buddhism (and the self-identifying faithful) may also benefit from using this book, and Jones’ careful explication of the art of seeing and its history, to decide for themselves: is there room in today’s Buddhism for a Buddhist self as anything other than a provocation.

Sonam Kachru

Sonam Kachru

Sonam Kachru is an assistant professor of religious studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, where his research centers on the history of Buddhist philosophy in ancient South Asia. His first book, released this summer, is Other Lives: Mind and World in Indian Buddhism, a new interpretation of the Buddhist philosopher Vasubandhu.