A few days ago, in a blog post about Shunryu Suzuki's book, Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, I said:
If you're unsure what Buddha nature consists of, join the club, because I feel the same way. But I have some ideas gained from re-reading Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind. I'll share them in an upcoming post.
This is that post. Of course, before launching into what I consider Buddha nature is all about, it bears saying that like so many other subjects in Zen, Buddha nature supposedly is beyond words and concepts.
OK, no argument there.
But so is love, and we humans write and say copious amounts about love, which remains a subjective sensation, not anything that can be dissected or analyzed in an objective fashion. So I have no problem with trying to describe Buddha-nature.
After all, while I embrace much of Buddhism, as long as it is stripped of its religious and supernatural aspects, I'm not a Buddhist. I'm just a guy who is trying to understand life and reality, and Buddhism has supplied some of the puzzle pieces that I've been able to put together so far in that quest.
After I'd published the post where I said I'd discuss Buddha nature in a succeeding post, I started to think about the most likely place Buddha nature would reside. It quickly dawned on me that an obvious place to look (really obvious) was in the core notion of Buddhism: emptiness.
OK, some would say that emptiness isn't the core notion, but a core notion. They can make that argument, but since they're not writing this post, and I am, I'm sticking with the core notion. I say that because emptiness is what distinguishes Buddhism from religions that assume there's an unchanging essence at the root of reality: God, Brahman, Spirit, whatever you want to call it. Or of us, an enduring soul or self.
Buddhism says, no, there isn't. Everything is marked by emptiness. Which includes emptiness. (I once had a book called The Emptiness of Emptiness, which Amazon tells me I bought in 1998; I loved the title but must have given it away, since I can't find it.)
However, I do have a pleasingly readable book about emptiness by Guy Newland, Introduction to Emptiness: Tsong-Kha-Pa's great treatise on the stages of the path.
I just saw that in the Amazon description of the book, it's noted that "Readers are hard-pressed to find books that can help them understand the central concept in Mahayana Buddhism—the idea that ultimate reality is emptiness." So this buttresses my contention that emptiness is the core notion of Buddhism.
Here's how Newland talks about emptiness in the first few pages of his book.
We suffer unnecessarily because we do not know ourselves. Like addicts fiercely clinging to a drug, we cannot let go of the sense that we are substantial, solid, independent, and autonomous.
...Of course, we do exist. We are living beings. We make choices and our choices make a difference, for ourselves and others. But at some level, for all of us, we cannot leave it at that. To be real, to be alive, we feel that we must deep down somehow exist in a solid and independent way.
Death tells us a very different story, but for that very reason we find a million ways to avoid hearing the message of death. The message is that we are impermanent. Our bodies are disintegrating moment by moment, right now.
And though we desperately want to believe otherwise, the truth is that beneath our ever-changing minds and aging bodies there is no eternal and essential self. We have no natural existence, no independent way of existing.
We exist contingently, interdependently. We exist, but only in dependence on our ancestors, our body parts, our food, air, and water, and the other members of our society. We could not and do not exist otherwise. Devoid of any independent or substantial nature, our existence is possible only because it is far less rigid, less concrete, than what we imagine it to be.
Rather than seeing things as they are, we superimpose upon ourselves -- and on things around us -- a false existence, a self-existence or essential reality that actually does not exist at all. In the Buddhist philosophy explained here, the ultimate truth is the sheer absence, the lack, of any such essence.
This is emptiness (stong pa nyid, shunyata).
While this may sound bleak, disappointing, or frightening, it is the very nature of reality. And it is reality -- not fantasy -- that is our final hope and our refuge. The path to freedom from needless misery, for ourselves and others, is through profound realization of this fundamental reality.
Thus Buddhism teaches that every human without exception lacks inherent existence or self-existence. Ditto for every other living thing. Ditto for every other non-living thing. Ditto for the Buddha. Ditto for Buddhism. All is marked by emptiness -- interdependence, impermanence, reliance on causes and conditions. Including emptiness itself.
This means that whatever Buddha nature is, it isn't something separate from the universal principle of emptiness. In other words, Buddha nature is marked by the sheer nonexistence of intrinsic nature, which is how Newland pithily describes emptiness in his glossary.
With this in mind, here's an excerpt from the "Nothing Special" chapter in Suzuki's Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.
If something exists, it has its own true nature, its Buddha nature. In the Pari-nirvana Sutra, Buddha says, "Everything has Buddha nature," but Dogen reads it this way: "Everything is Buddha nature." There is a difference.
If you say, "Everything has Buddha nature," it means Buddha nature is in each existence, so Buddha nature and each existence are different. But when you say, "Everything is Buddha nature," it means everything is Buddha nature itself.
When there is no Buddha nature, there is nothing at all. Something apart from Buddha nature is just a delusion. It may exist in your mind, but such things actually do not exist. So to be a human being is to be a Buddha. Buddha nature is just another name for human nature, our true human nature.
So Buddha nature is the same as true human nature. And we've seen that Buddhism teaches that this nature is emptiness. Meaning, an ever-changing nature, a nature that has no inherent existence, a nature that alters as the causes and conditions that cause us to act, think, and feel change.
Yet just as some people, or more accurately, most people, fail to understand that emptiness is the heart of reality, most people don't understand that Buddha nature is what they truly are. So something is preventing that realization.
What that something is, that's a big question for Buddhists. Different schools of Buddhism, and different schools of Zen, have a varying approach on how to achieve a realization of Buddha nature. This is how Suzuki describes his Soto Zen approach in the "Limiting Your Activity" chapter.
In our practice we have no particular purpose or goal, or any special object of worship. In this respect our practice is somewhat different from the usual religious practices. Joshu, a great Chinese Zen master, said, "A clay Buddha cannot cross water; a bronze Buddha cannot get through a furnace; a wooden Buddha cannot get through fire."
Whatever it is, if your practice is directed toward some particular object, such as a clay, a bronze, or a wooden Buddha, it will not always work. So as long as you have some particular goal in your practice, that practice will not help you completely. It may help as long as you are directed towards that goal, but when you resume your everyday life, it will not work.
You may think that if there no purpose or no goal in our practice, we will not know what to do. But there is a way.
The way to practice without having any goal is to limit your activity, or to be concentrated on what you are doing in this moment. Instead of having some particular object in mind, you should limit your activity.
When your mind is wandering about elsewhere you have no chance to express yourself. But if you limit your activity to what you can do just now, in this moment, then you can express fully your true nature, which is the universal Buddha nature. This is our way.
When we practice zazen [meditation] we limit our activity to the smallest extent. Just keeping the right posture and being concentrated on sitting is how we express the universal nature. Then we become Buddha, and we express Buddha nature. So instead of having some object of worship, we just concentrate on the activity which we do in each moment.
When you bow, you should just bow; when you sit, you should just sit; when you eat, you should just eat. If you do this, the universal nature is there.
If what Suzuki said above about Buddha nature doesn't make a lot of sense to you, here's some possibly easier-to-grasp excerpts from what Barry Magid said in "What is Buddha nature," which echoes my perspective about emptiness and Buddha nature.
What exactly is Buddha Nature? While we can talk about it many ways, it's probably best to start by saying there's no such thing as Buddha Nature. And the important word in there, of course, is thing. Because we don't want to use the word Buddha Nature to intentionally or unintentionally denote some kind of subtle, mysterious, esoteric essence that lies behind or inside who or what we otherwise seem to be.
Buddha Nature is not a seed or potential or latent capacity that we uncover and develop. It's not a separate true self that we uncover. So what is it? What's a way to talk about Buddha Nature that doesn't lead us down one of these confusing byways?
...To say that all things have Buddha Nature is in a way to simply re-describe or re-perceive what we and things in the world are actually like, as opposed to the description that we or our language can fall into when we talk about selves or chairs or objects as fixed, unchanging things.
Buddha Nature is saying that everything, as it is, rather than being permanent and solid, is actually impermanent and changing. And any permanence is a permanence that we conceptually or linguistically ascribe to it, more or less for our functional or emotional convenience.
That everything by its nature is in a constant state of interdependent flux. Everything is subject to being in relationship to something else, everything is changing over time, and that it is all empty of some fixed essence that is immutable while things around it change.
So to say that something possesses Buddha Nature is not to identify any separate inner quality to that thing, it's just to describe the thing as it already is, from a particular point of view. Or to describe it maybe more strictly from the absence of a usual point of view, that ascribes a certain permanence to it.
And if you're totally confused by everything said in this post, a cartoon provides maybe the best understanding of all about emptiness and Buddha nature.