An Introduction to the Buddha Nature – Part 1

The Buddha Nature is revealed by the Buddha in several Sutras like the:

  • Shurangama Sutra
  • The Tathagatagarbha Sutra
  • The Mahayana version of the Angulimaliya Sutra (NOT the Pali version of the Angulimala Sutta)
  • The Queen Srimala’s Lion’s Roar Sutra (Srimaladevisimhanada Sutra)
  • The Teaching on Non-Decrease, Non-Increase Sutra (Anunatva-Apurnatva Nirdesa Sutra)
  • The Lankavatara Sutra
  • The Nirvana Sutra (the Mahayana version of the Maha Parinirvana Sutra)

Rather than rely on modern day teachers projecting their own opinions on to the Buddha Nature (which I’ve seen well respected & well intentioned teachers do so incorrectly – as they don’t accord with the Buddha’s own descriptions of it), it’s best to study the Sutras themselves to see how the Buddha himself taught it to get the correct understanding of it.  If we can align our perspective with the perspective of the Buddha himself (Right View), then this will give us the proper context and understanding with which to approach the Buddha Nature.

These Sanskrit words are used to describe the Buddha Nature:

  • Tathagata-garbha (Buddha embryo) – I like this Buddha embryo idea because it implies that it’s the source from which all Buddhas are born.  It is the source of enlightenment itself – this is the reason why all sentient beings have the potential to become Buddhas.
  • Tathagata-dhatu (Buddha element, Buddha Essence, Buddha Matrix, Buddha Nature) – it is the substance of enlightenment.

In the Shurangama Sutra, the Buddha starts off by saying that the reason why people cultivate and yet, can’t open the unsurpassed enlightenment of the Buddhas is because, in their meditation, they don’t know the difference between:

  1. The false, small, ordinary, everyday thinking mind – which we mistake to be our “selves”.  An example of this kind of thinking is when Descartes says, “I think.  Therefore I am” – so people think that they are their thoughts.  In contrast to this, the Buddha said that thoughts are just thoughts (that arise and cease) and are not self.  Because we can sit back and observe those thoughts – those thoughts are separate from the observer.  And therefore those thoughts are not us, therefore we are not those thoughts.
  2. The True Mind of Bodhi Nirvana – the Buddha Nature.  This is the source of the thoughts.  It is the host of the thoughts.  It is that which is aware of the thoughts.  Thoughts come and go, but that which is aware of those thoughts does not come and go along within the Mind, but the Mind itself does not come and go along with the coming and going of those thoughts.

So people make the mistake of using the false thinking mind that arises and ceases in their meditative cultivation.  But they should actually be using the True Mind in the meditation, i.e., “That which is aware” of the arisings and ceasings.

This True Mind, this Bodhi Nirvana, this Buddha Nature does not arise nor cease, is not born and does not die and is the “essence of consciousness”.  It is this mind which should be used in your meditative cultivation towards Buddhahood – not the thoughts of the discriminative thinking mind.

If you confuse the false, small mind (little m), with the True Mind (big M), then it will be like boiling sand expecting to get cooked rice (i.e., it will be impossible).  You can boil sand for a billion years but it will never become cooked rice.

From the Shurangama Sutra:

“The reason those who cultivate cannot accomplish unsurpassed Bodhi, but instead reach the level of a Sound-Hearer or of one enlightened to conditions, or become accomplished in outside ways as heaven-dwellers or as demon-kings or as members of the retinue of demons is that they do not know the two fundamental roots and are mistaken and confused in their cultivation. They are like one who cooks sand in the hope of creating savory delicacies. They may pass through as many aeons as there are motes of dust, but in the end they will not obtain what they want. 1:231

”What are the two? Ananda, the first is the root of beginningless birth and death, which is the mind that seizes upon conditions and that you and all living beings now make use of, taking it to be the self-nature. 1:234

”The second is the primal pure substance of the beginningless Bodhi Nirvana. It is the primal bright essence of consciousness that can bring forth all conditions. Because of conditions, you consider it to be lost. 1:239

Living beings lose sight of the original brightness: therefore, though they use it to the end of their days, they are unaware of it, and without intending to they enter the various destinies. 1:242



7 thoughts on “An Introduction to the Buddha Nature – Part 1

  1. To show how important it is to start off your meditative cultivation correctly, the Buddha repeats this very same idea a little later on in the Shurangama Sutra, when starting to teach Ananda how to realize the Buddha’s enlightenment:

    The World Honored One then took pity on the Sound-Hearers and the Condition-Enlightened Ones in the assembly – all those who were not yet at ease with the Bodhi mind – and on all living beings to come after the Buddha’s extinction during the Dharma-ending Age. He revealed the wonderful path of cultivation of the unsurpassed vehicle. 4:142

    He proclaimed to Ananda and to the Great Assembly, “If you want to have decisive resolve for Bodhi and not grow weary of the Wonderful Samadhi of the Buddha, the Thus Come One, you must first understand the two resolutions regarding initial resolve for enlightenment. What are the two resolutions regarding initial resolve for enlightenment? 4:144

    ”Ananda, the first resolution is this: if you wish to renounce the position of Sound-Hearer and cultivate the Bodhisattva Vehicle, and to enter the knowledge and vision of the Buddha, you must carefully consider whether the resolve on the cause ground and the enlightenment on the ground of fruition are the same or different. 4:145

    ”Ananda, it is impossible while on the cause-ground to use the mind subject to production and extinction as the basis for cultivating in quest of the Buddha vehicle, which is neither produced nor extinguished. 4:146

    For this reason, you should realize that all existing dharmas in the material world will decay and disappear. Ananda, contemplate the world: what thing is there that will not waste away? 4:146

    But, has anyone ever heard of the disintegration of the void? Why not? It is because the void does not exist, and so it can never be destroyed. 4:147


  2. Here, the Buddha is teaching about how to open the Buddha’s enlightenment, which is “unsurpassed” – NOT the enlightenment of Arhats or Pratyekabuddhas (Sound-Hearers and Conditioned Enlightened Ones).

    So the Buddha is saying to Ananda – be careful which mind you use in your meditation – because they will yield VASTLY different results. Look at the causes and effects of each of the 2 different types of minds – the small, false mind vs the True Mind:

    – The small, false mind is subject to birth and death, arising and ceasing, production and extinction. It is part of the conditioned, compounded world. Anything in the conditioned realm will decay, waste away, disintegrate – and eventually, it will die. All your thoughts arise and cease – and they all eventually die. If you base your meditation on your ordinary thinking mind, the thoughts that you create there, no matter how vast and impressive they may be – will begin, grow larger but they will also have an end. So they too will end and disappear – and so they are not ultimate because even great thoughts are subject to birth and subsequent death – they are impermanent and therefore, they are unsatisfactory – they are not ultimate.

    – The True Mind (in contrast) is not produced or extinguished, not born and doesn’t die, not created nor destroyed, does not arise nor cease. Like empty space (i.e., the void), which is does not arise nor cease – this True Mind does not disintegrate and so, can never even be destroyed and will never die.

    It is IMPOSSIBLE to use the small mind that arises and ceases – to become something that does NOT arise nor cease (the True Mind). This is precisely why you absolutely NEED to start off on the right foot and use the right mind in your meditative cultivation – otherwise, you’ll be just wasting your time and your efforts will be fruitless. This is what the Buddha is saying here.

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