What is the Buddha Nature? The Buddha answers in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra

What is the Buddha Nature?

You have asked what the Buddha-dhatu  is, so listen with sincerity, listen with sincerity. I shall analyse and elucidate it for your sake.

“Nobly-born one, the Buddha-dhatu is termed:

– ‘Ultimate Emptiness[paramartha-shunyata], and

– Ultimate Emptiness is termed “Awareness / Knowingness” [jnana].

So-called ‘Emptiness’ is neither viewed as Emptiness nor as non-Emptiness.

The wise perceive:

1. Emptiness AND non-Emptiness,

2. The Eternal [nitya] AND the Impermanent [anitya], 

3. Suffering [duhkha] AND Bliss [sukha], 

4. Self [atman] AND non-Self [anatman]. 

(Dharmakshema)

What is Empty and What is NOT Empty?

– The Empty is the TOTALITY of samsara, and

– The non-Empty is Great Nirvana;

(Dharmakshema)

What is Non-Self and What is Self?

Non-Self is samsara, and

The Self is Great Nirvana [maha-nirvana].

(Dharmakshema)

What is NOT the Middle Way?

– “To perceive the Emptiness of everything and NOT to perceive non-Emptiness – is NOT termed the Middle Way;

To perceive the non-Self of everything and NOT to perceive the Self – is NOT termed the Middle Way.

The Middle Way is termed the Buddha-dhatu.

For this reason, the Buddha-dhatu is eternal and unchanging. Because beings are enveloped in ignorance, they are unable to perceive it. 

Sravakas [less advanced followers of the Buddha] and Pratyekabuddhas [solitary Buddhas who generally do not teach] perceive the Emptiness of everything, but do NOT perceive the non-Emptiness; they perceive the absence of Self in all things but do NOT perceive the Self. For this reason, they do NOT attain the Ultimate Emptiness. Because they do not attain the Supreme Emptiness, they do NOT walk the Middle Way. Because they lack the Middle Way, they do NOT perceive the Buddha-dhatu.”

(Dharmakshema)

Commentary by Dr Tony Page:

Some further highly significant statements by the Buddha on the Tathagata-garbha / Buddha-dhatu include the following (these are from Dharmakshema, and are translated here by Stephen Hodge). We note how the Nirvana Sutra does NOT TOTALLY cast aside the notion of Emptiness, but reveals it to be the Knowingness (jnana) that is characteristic of the genuine Middle Way, a Knowingness which sees both the non-Self AND the eternal Self:

  • The essence of the Self [atman] is the subtle Tathagata-garbha …”
  • The Buddha-dhatu of beings inheres / abides within the five skandhas.”
  • The Buddha-dhatu is the True Self and, like a diamond, for example, it cannot be destroyed”.

It is noteworthy that only seeing Emptiness and non-Self in every dharma (phenomenon) is NOT the way to Buddhic Knowledge (jnana – the Knowingness which is empty of suffering and of tangible graspability).

It is only when one also sees the COUNTERBALANCING reality of non-Emptiness and Self (atman) – the realm of Great Nirvana – that one penetrates through to Supreme Emptiness and thence has a vision of the Buddha-dhatu.

It is instructive to bear this teaching in mind, when:

  • Buddhist teachers of other traditions assert that one has to see absolutely everything as empty and nowhere and nowhen see non-Emptiness or Self. VS
  • The Buddha in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra DIFFERENTIATES between the emptiness of vain worldly phenomena (vain because they are always changing and thus lack true Selfhood in their constantly shifting modality) AND the full (although conceptually and physically ungraspable) immanent-transcendent sphere of Great Nirvana.

It is part of the vision of a Buddha, it would seem, to be able to perceive:

  1. What is impermanent AND what is Eternal;
  2. What is not-the-Self and what truly is the Self.

This is the genuine Middle Path between one-sided, unbalanced extremes.