Lotus flower photographed from below with sky in background.

Why Buddhanature Matters

Lopen Karma Phuntsho, writer-in-residence for Tsadra Foundation’s Buddha-Nature project, takes a look at the history and development of the Mahayana concept of buddhanature.

By Lopen Karma Phuntsho

Photo by Leo Chen.

Sometime in the 1990s, I attended a Zen retreat with Harada Sekkei Roshi at the Mahabodhi Society in Bangalore. It was a rare, perhaps even unique, event at that time where Buddhists from all three main traditions of East Asian, Tibetan, and Theravada Buddhism came together for a Zen retreat. As we sat around the Roshi to begin the first session, he stated in a loud and solemn voice: “You are all buddhas.” The statement, telling from the manner it was delivered, was meant to be rousing in a Zen sort of way, and it did stir some thoughts in the audience. Most participants in the retreat were Theravada members of the Mahabodhi Society, and they clearly appeared bemused. During the break, one member privately protested, saying that such a claim is a Mahayana aberration and that all ordinary beings cannot surely be Buddhas. Being a follower of orthodox Theravada, he found the claim preposterous and provocative.

Buddha­nature is our raison d’être to be good, seek happiness, and hope for awakening.

I was at that time a young monk engaged in studies on Buddhist hilosophy, particularly the course on the Ultimate Continuum, the main book on buddhanature in Tibetan Buddhism, at Ngagyur Nyingma Institute, Mysore. The concept of a universal buddha­nature is central to Tibetan Buddhist theory and practice and a very common topic in monastic education. I was familiar with the idea of buddhanature as a capacity for enlightenment and freedom present in all beings; the Nyingma and Kagyu traditions in which I received most of my training likened buddhanature to the bright sun that is temporarily obscured by clouds of samsara. When the clouds are fully cleared, the magnificence of the sun would become manifest in its full form. All Buddhist endeavors—from study, debates, rituals, art, yoga, chanting, and visualization to quiet meditation—are seen as paths to remove adventitious obscurations and reveal our true nature. Thus, the statement did not surprise me or have the intended effect of shock therapy that the Zen master perhaps hoped to achieve.

A Universal Topic

Many years after this Zen retreat, while studying at Oxford, I came across the well-known passage (i.vi) in Anguttaranikaya in the Pali canon in which the Buddha declares: “Luminous, bhikkhus, is this mind, but it is defiled by adventitious defilements.” This sentence and the passage in which it appears is today considered by scholars to be the earliest statement in a Buddhist scripture to discuss the pure and luminous nature of the mind. Since then, I have learned about presentations and practices of the luminous or radiant nature of the mind in the Theravada tradition, the most recent and notable one being the use of luminosity in the Samma Arahan or Dhamma­kaya tradition in Thai Buddhism.

In the Mahayana system, which developed in India about two thousand years ago and has since spread across Asia, the concept of luminosity as an intrinsic characteristic of the mind is featured in many sutras. One of the earliest statements to this effect can be found in the most popular Mahayana text, The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines, which claims that “the mind does not exist as mind but the mind is luminous by nature.” Thus, luminosity or clear light (pabhassara in Pali, prabhasvara in Sanskrit, ’od gsal in Tibetan, guang ming in Chinese, komyo in Japanese, and kwangmyong in Korean) was a fairly universal concept known to major Buddhist traditions by the turn of the Common Era. By luminosity, most sutras meant the innate purity and goodness untainted by emotional defilements and conceptual fabrications.

In the second century CE, an explosion of the teachings on the luminous nature of the mind presented as tathagatagarbha—the womb or essence of the Buddha—would take place. There are over a dozen “tathagatagarbha sutras,” whose main topic is the tathagata­garbha, or buddhanature, with the Mahaparinirvanasutra considered by some modern researchers to be the earliest one. This text, which became one of the most influential sutras on buddhanature in China and Tibet, discusses buddhanature as the true, eternal, blissful nature of the Buddha’s nirvana in contrast to the understanding of nirvana as the mere blowing out of emotional fires in early Buddhism. In the text, the Buddha advises Cunda, the last disciple, not to mourn his death, for the Buddha’s nirvana is not like a fire being extinguished but an undying, eternal state of supreme bliss.

The sutras on buddhanature also presented this womb or essence of the Buddha as the Buddha element (buddhadhatu) or Buddha’s spiritual gene (buddhagotra), which exists in the beings. While some sutras described this as a potential or seed that can be nurtured into a full-blown buddha with many sublime qualities, others claimed a full-blown state of the buddha endowed with the qualities of enlightenment to be latent in all beings and only in need of becoming manifest. To illustrate these points, the Tathagatagarbhasutra, another early and influential sutra on buddhanature, uses nine analogies to illustrate the presence of buddhanature in all beings:

  1. Buddha figure in the wilting, unsightly lotus
  2. Honey in the beehive
  3. Kernel of grain in the husk
  4. Gold nugget in a pile of excrement
  5. Treasure underneath a pauper’s house
  6. A mango seed ready to unfold into a tree
  7. Precious statue of the Buddha in a rag
  8. A universal monarch in the womb of a poor woman
  9. Golden statue in a clay mold

The diverse and lengthy accounts of buddhanature in the sutras found a fresh and concise exposition in the commentarial writings composed in India and China in the first millennium. One of the earliest is probably the Praise to Dharmadhatu by Nagarjuna, in which he compares the buddha element to cream in milk, and a lamp in a vase. Another text is the Awakening of Faith in Mahayana, attributed by tradition to the second-century Indian poet Ashvaghosa and translated into Chinese by Paramartha in the sixth century. This certainly became the most influential treatise on buddhanature in the East Asian Buddhist tradition, with over 170 commentaries written on it, and through this, the message of buddhanature or original enlightenment spread in the Sino-Japanese and Korean Buddhist schools. Yet, the most popular and thoroughly studied treatise summarizing buddhanature theories in the Indo-Tibetan tradition is the Ultimate Continuum, claimed by most Indian and Tibetan sources to have been composed by the future Buddha, Maitreya, although the Chinese tradition attributes it to one Saramati. The Ultimate Continuum, also known as Ratnagotravibhaga (Analysis of the Spiritual Gene of Three Jewels), and the first commentary on it by Asanga are claimed, by Tibetan accounts, to have been composed in the fifth century after Asanga had a vision of Maitreya. The text gained popularity only upon the eleventh century, when it emerged as the locus classicus of buddhanature theory in the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist tradition, so much so that at least six different translations were produced from Sanskrit to Tibetan in the following decades, with some sixty-five commentaries, outlines, and synopses written in the subsequent centuries.

Furthermore, the rise of tantric or Vajrayana Buddhism around the middle of the first millennium saw the emergence of another tier of theory and practice pertaining to buddhanature. Centered on the innate nature of wisdom and compassion, and numerous strategies and technologies to actualize it, the tantric systems took the application of buddhanature to a new level with claims of expediently utilizing the result itself as a path, thus earning the label “resultant vehicle.” In this system, buddhanature was not only a topic of meditation and practice, but came to be embodied in audiovisual expressions and forms such as mandalas, deities, mantras, light, religious implements, and other physical features. In addition to many existing terminologies used for buddhanature in the sutras and their commentaries, we see terms such as ground tantra (gzhi rgyud), innate mind (gnyug sems), union (zung ’jug), awareness (rig pa), etc. being used to refer to buddhanature in the context of different tantric systems and practices. In this way, we can see buddhanature permeating the diverse Buddhist traditions and forming a central topic of study and practice in many traditions.

A Point of Controversy

The philosophical theories and practical applications of buddha­nature, however, did not go without challenges. Like the Theravada participant at the Zen retreat mentioned earlier, many Buddhists questioned the authenticity of the buddhanature theories as the Buddha’s teachings. Teachings on buddhanature particularly drew criticism as it introduced into the Buddhist system a concept of unconditioned, eternal, and immutable entity, which closely resembled the Brahmanical notion of atman or self. This flew in the face of the Buddha’s general rejection and critique of a permanent and absolute entity, which the non-Buddhists espoused. Most of the sutras belonging to mainstream Buddhism and early Mahayana scriptures clearly rejected any ontological substratum for the empirical phenomena and taught impermanence, nonself, and emptiness as the true nature of existence. In contrast, some buddhanature sutras presented a permanent, eternal, unconditioned, and immutable buddhanature. The Mahaparinirvanasutra even referred to it as the “self,” and identifying it with the dharmakaya, the Ultimate Continuum reiterated the idea of buddhanature as a consummate form of purity, bliss, permanence, and self—the complete opposite of impurity, suffering, impermanence, and nonself as actualized in the mindfulness practice of early Buddhism.

Such a presentation was bound to raise questions and arouse criticism from other Buddhists, and they surely came even as the sutras were being disseminated. We see one such criticism rebutted in the Lankavatarasutra, in which the term “self” is used to refer to buddhanature, but the Buddha, in conversation with Mahamati, explains that “self” here refers to emptiness and signlessness, and that it is being used to prevent the fear of emptiness among people and to attract the non-Buddhists to the Buddha’s teachings. The Ultimate Continuum, continuing this defense, defines the great sublime “self” or buddhanature as a transcendence of the notions of self and nonself and, for that matter, all forms of conceptual construction and mental fixation.

The hermeneutic efforts to reconcile the discordant philosophical assertions did not end the disagreements, but led to rich and diverse philosophical discussions and debates on buddhanature. While most explained the buddhanature theory in the context of the two main Mahayana schools of thought, i.e., Madhyamika and Yogacara, some others even considered buddhanature doctrine to form a third Mahayana school of thought dubbed the tathagatagarbha school, which was in some quarters called the Great Middle Way or the Subtle Inner Middle Way. Many prominent Mahayana scholars relegated the buddhanature teachings to a lower provisional status and argued they do not teach the ultimate truth but merely serve as stepping stones to it. But many others construed buddhanature teachings to be definitive sutras showing the highest truth and nature of nirvana.

As buddhanature teachings were transmitted to Tibet through different lines of Buddhist texts, traditions, and masters, the differences in interpretation and emphasis became even more pronounced, leading to the different schools of thought. For instance, when Tsen Khawoche and Ngok Loden Sherub went to Kashmir to study under Sajjana and received teachings on the so-called five treatises of Maitreya, the older Tsen requested teachings with a practical approach while young Ngok, who would later become an intellectual star in Tibet, undertook a more rigorous study and translation of the Ultimate Continuum. When they returned to Tibet, Tsen started the contemplative tradition of Maitreya’s teachings with a focus on mystical and practical application while Ngok championed the intellectual approach and exegesis of the text. While one mainly saw buddhanature more in the context of luminosity to be experienced directly through contemplative procedures, the other interpreted buddha­nature as an epithet of emptiness, which can be rationally established through reductive analysis.

As these trends were passed down through different sects, the differences got further entrenched and the debates more heated, so much so that by the fifteenth century, Tibet saw two distinct strands of understanding buddhanature: namely, the proponents of rangtong, or self-emptiness, and zhentong, or other-emptiness. The proponents of zhentong took the buddhanature scriptures more literally and argued that it is the inherent luminous nature of the mind primordially endowed with all sublime qualities and not empty of its own intrinsic nature but only of adventitious phenomena, including the deluded mind and the ordinary world created by it. Thus, the advocates of zhentong, the strongest and most notable being the Jonang school which originated in Dolpopa Sherab Gyeltsen, accepted an ultimate being or truth, which is absolute, eternal, blissful, and free from all conceptual fabrications. The rangtong proponents, on the other hand, equate buddhanature with emptiness, which is characterized as a nonimplicative negation in philosophical terms, and those who accept buddhanature as the union of emptiness and luminosity. Both accept the nature of mind to be ultimately empty and illusory—something ontologically unobtainable if thoroughly searched, and yet conventionally existent. Many shades of philosophical tendencies can be found within this broad spectrum of thoughts ranging from mere emptiness of inherent existence, currently promoted by the Geluk tradition, to an absolute being free from all conceptual constructions espoused by the Jonang followers.

The controversies and debates on buddhanature are not limited to Indo-Tibetan Buddhist circles, although they are not carried out with the same degree of philosophical fervor and dialectical engagement. The East Asian Buddhist tradition saw its share of debates on the validity of buddhanature between Saicho, the founder of Japanese Tendai Buddhism, and Tokuitsu on the universality of buddha­nature in the early ninth century. In recent times, a similar debate was ignited by the scholars of Komazawa University, led by Hakamaya Noriaki and Matsumoto Shiro, arguing that tathagatagarbha thought is not Buddhism. This has provoked responses from leading scholars on buddhanature such as Jikido Takasaki and Hirakawa Akira.

Similarly—although not directly a debate on buddhanature—Thai Buddhism saw in the twentieth century a prolonged debate on the idea of nibbana as atta or self between the orthodox Theravada establishment, which claimed all phenomena to be anatta or without self and some leading monks who argued nibbana is the ultimate atta or self, which the Buddha did not negate. The Thammakai tradition, today embraced by many in Thailand, claims that dhammakaya is atta or self, permanent and blissful. As recently as 2018, a Nepali Buddhist leader, Sridhar Rana, distributed a booklet asking how the absolutist interpretation of buddhanature is different from the concept of self or atman in the Hindu Upanishads.

Relevance in Our Time

Whether buddhanature teachings are definitive teachings dealing with ultimate truth, which one must realize as the very essence of enlightenment, or merely expedient teachings that lead to realization of emptiness, the followers of the Indo-Tibetan traditions agree on the soteriological and sociospiritual purpose of buddhanature. Posing a hypothetical question as to why the buddhas, after teaching the “absence” of a real entity through the discourses on emptiness and illusoriness, again taught the “presence” of buddha-element, Maitreya gives five main reasons for the teachings on buddhanature. The Ultimate Continuum I.157 states:

They taught this so that those in whom they exist
May relinquish the five flaws of faintheartedness,
Contempt for inferior sentient beings, clinging to what is unreal,
Deprecating the real dharma, and excessive self-cherishing.
(Verse translation from Karl Brunnhölzl’s When Clouds Part.)

According to Maitreya, the buddhanature teachings were given as an antidote to five problems that afflict the world.

Lack of Confidence in Oneself

The buddhanature teachings encourage fainthearted and timid persons on the path to buddhahood by pointing out that they are by nature aligned to or endowed with the state of enlightenment. In the Mahayana soteriological context, the bodhisattva’s journey to enlightenment may appear long, arduous, and almost impossible, causing fear and diffidence in the ordinary person. Even experienced practitioners see their enthusiasm rise and fall. The buddhanature teachings help us remove inhibition and hopelessness, so that we may endure on the path. With the right amount of effort, even insects and flies, Shantideva remarks, can attain enlightenment, which seems so difficult to achieve. What then needs to be said for a human? When one goes through low self-esteem and self-hate, buddhanature teachings help us see the inherent positive nature and ability for love and happiness. Viewing oneself as buddha by nature, one eschews self-contempt and self-harm.

Contempt for Others

When people are out of the state of self-doubt and self-hate, they can fall to the opposite extreme of being self-conceited, self-righteous, and arrogant. This leads to an unchecked superciliousness and contempt for others. On the Mahayana path, a bodhisattva may rise beyond the state of self-depreciation and diffidence, but having entered the noble bodhisattva path, one may unwittingly assume a sense of self-importance, which could lead to looking down on others. Buddhanature teachings show how all beings possess the sublime nature and are deserving of respect, irrespective of their color, gender, social status, or political or economic position. It underscores the equality of all beings and thus helps us reduce the sense of moral or spiritual superiority, supremacist thinking, or other forms of bigotry and contemptuous attitude.

Falling for the Untrue

If one were self-conceited and arrogant, Asanga points out, one has lesser chances of learning and knowing the truth. According to its advocates, buddhanature forms the highest truth, the full realization of which can lead to awakening from ignorance and end of suffering. Whether buddhanature is understood to be emptiness, luminosity, or both, it is considered as the true nature of our existence and the actual way things are. It is the ultimate reality, whereas the material, social, and emotional world we are mostly engrossed in is unreal, conditioned, and conventional. As ordinary beings, we are constantly occupied with our pursuit of material or spiritual gains, which are by nature illusory, deceptive, and eventually lead to suffering and pain. Engagement with buddhanature helps one stay away from what is unreal, fake, vain, and useless.

Denying the Truth

Being preoccupied with what is fake and unreal shrouds our mind and puts us in denial of the real truth. People who are supercilious and preoccupied with ordinary mundane things often reject any higher truth. Even when someone follows the spiritual path seriously, the focus is on the contrived and conditioned practices rather than being in the natural state of the free, open and unfabricated nature of the mind, here and now. Buddhanature teachings help us focus on this ultimate truth instead of rejecting it.

Excessive Self-love

The root cause of suffering and our existence as a whole in the Buddhist system in general and Mahayana theory of origin in particular is the attachment to self. Leading thinkers demonstrate how from the notion of I arises notions of others as well as dualism, discrimination, afflictive emotions, negative actions, and rebirth. Narcissism and excessive attachment to the self obstruct spiritual growth and run counter to the Mahayana ethos of love and compassion, which is fundamental to well-being. Buddhanature transcends the ordinary individual self and highlights the immanent and sacred purity and goodness in all beings.

The Buddhanature teachings fundamentally shift our view of sentient beings and our outlook on the world from a negative, pessimistic perspective to an open and positive one. The early teachings such as the Four Noble Truths, which Tibetan Buddhists consider the First Turning of the Wheel, highlight the problems associated with the ordinary samsaric world and the power of our negative emotions and actions. The teachings on emptiness and Perfection of Wisdom, categorized as the Middle Turning of the Wheel, negate the true existence of things to demonstrate the emptiness and ultimate non­existence of all conceptual creations. The buddhanature teachings, classified as the Third Turning of the Wheel, underscore the immanence of our luminous, pure, and pristine nature, which unfolds as the Buddha’s awakening when all adventitious obscuration is fully removed. Buddha­nature is our raison d’être to be good, seek happiness, and hope for awakening. Without it, Maitreya claims, we would not be even tired of suffering, or desire happiness or a higher meaning in life. It is belief in such natural goodness that helps us build a society on the basis of trust and good faith, hold hopes for societal and spiritual progress, and act with genuine care and compassion—while also being vigilant of the malicious power of the temporary afflictions.

For more from Lopen Karma Phuntsho and others on this subject, visit Tsadra Foundation’s Buddha-Nature project online, here.

Lopen Karma Phuntsho

Lopen Karma Phuntsho completed his full monastic training before joining Oxford to pursue a DPhil in Oriental Studies. He has worked at Cambridge University, CNRS (Paris), the University of Virginia, and is a writer for the Buddha-Nature project of Tsadra Foundation. He teaches Buddhism and Bhutan studies and has written many books and articles. He is also the founder of the Loden Foundation, which promotes education and Buddhist entrepreneurship, and documents Buddhist texts and cultural traditions.