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Buddha nature

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Buddha-nature (originally in Sanskrit, Buddha-dhatu - "Buddha Element", "Buddha-Principle", Chinese: 佛性 pinyin fó xìng) is a doctrine important for many schools of Mahayana Buddhism. The Buddha Nature or Buddha Principle (Buddha-dhatu) is taught to be a truly real, but internally hidden, eternal potency or immortal element within the purest depths of the mind, present in all sentient beings, for awakening and becoming a Buddha. In some Mahayana sutras it is equated with the eternal Buddhic Self, Essence or Soul (atman). However, Nagarjuna, the founder of Madhyamaka, presents a view that states that Buddha-nature is empty-nature. The Buddha-nature / Tathagatagarbha sutras insist, however, that what the Buddha-nature is empty of is not its own ever-enduring reality but impermanence, impurity, moral defects, and suffering - in other words, the painful constrictions and imperfections of samsara.

Central Tenets of Buddha-nature Doctrine

The Buddha-nature doctrine relates to the possession by sentient beings of the innate, immaculate buddha-mind or buddha-element (Buddha-dhatu), which is, prior to the attainment of complete buddhahood, not clearly seen and known in its full radiance. The Buddha-nature is taught by the Buddha to be incorruptible, uncreated, and indestructible. It is eternal bodhi ("Awake-ness") indwelling Samsara, and thus opens up the immanent possibility of Liberation from all suffering and impermanence.

No being of any kind is without the Buddha-dhatu. It is indicated in the Angulimaliya Sutra that if the Buddhas themselves were to try to seek for any sentient being who lacked the Buddha-nature, not one such person would be found. In fact, it is stated in that sutra that it is impossible for Buddhas NOT to discern the presence of the everlasting Buddha-nature in each and every being: "Even though all Buddhas themselves were to search assiduously, they would not find a tathāgata-garbha(Buddha-nature) that is not eternal, for the eternal dhātu, the buddha-dhātu (Buddha Principle, Buddha Nature), the dhātu adorned with infinite major and minor attributes, is present in all beings."

The eternality, immovability and changelessness of the Buddha-nature (often referred to as "Tathagatagarbha") is also frequently stressed in the sutras which expound this Buddha Element. The Srimala Sutra, for example, says:

"The Tathagatagarbha is not born, does not die, does not transfer [Tib: ’pho ba], does not arise. It is beyond the sphere of the characteristics of the compounded; it is permanent, stable and changeless."

The development of the Buddha-nature doctrine is closely related to that of tathagatagarbha (Sanskrit: "Buddha-matrix"). In the "Anunatva-Apurnatva-Nirdesa" sutra the Buddha links the tathagatagarbha to the Dharmadhatu (ultimate, all-equal, uncreated essence of all phenomena) and to essential being, stating: "What I call 'be-ing' [sattva] is just a different name for this permanent, stable, pure and unchanging refuge that is free from arising and cessation, the inconceivable pure Dharmadhatu."

This eternal refuge of the Dharmadhatu / Buddha-dhatu (transcendentally empty of all that is conditioned, afflicted, defective, and productive of suffering) is equated in the "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra" with Buddhic Knowledge (jnana). Such Knowledge perceives both non-Self and the Self, Emptiness (sunyata) and non-Emptiness, wherein (according to the Buddha of the "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra") "the Empty is the totality of samsara [birth-and-death] and the non-Empty is Great Nirvana".

A central aspect of the Buddha-dhatu (sometimes called the Tathagata-dhatu) is that it is utterly indestructible, invulnerable, and truly everlasting. It is the innermost, irreducible core within the being that cannot be eradicated or killed. The Buddha says so in terms in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra (Tibetan version):

"The Tathagata-dhatu is the intrinsic nature of beings. Therefore, it cannot be killed by having its life severed. If it could be killed, then the life-force (jivaka) could be annihilated; but it is not possible for the life-force to be annihilated. In this instance, the life-force refers to the Tathagatagarbha. That Dhatu [immanent Buddha Element, Buddha Principle] cannot be destroyed, killed or annihilated."

The Mahaparinirvana Sutra (Dharmakshema version) further makes clear that the act of seeing this Buddha-dhatu bestows upon the seer a body-and-mind [kaya] which is "without temporal limits, eternal." In this mode, life everlasting [nitya] is secured.

Buddha-nature is not at all accepted by Theravada Buddhism and was not universally accepted in Indian Mahayana, but did become a cornerstone of East Asian Buddhist soteriological thought and practice. The "Buddha Nature" remains a widespread and significant doctrine in much of Mahayana Buddhism today.

Development of Buddha-nature

The Buddha-nature doctrine may be traced back in part to the abhidharmic debate over metaphysics, which arose among the Nikaya schools as they attempted to reconcile various perceived problems, including how to integrate the doctrine of anatta, which stipulates that there is no underlying self, with Buddhist psychology (i.e., what is the subject of karma, suffering, etc.; how do these processes occur) and soteriology (what is the subject of enlightenment; (how) does enlightement occur?). Debates between different Nikaya schools at this time provided a context for the later origination of the Mahayana and Mahayana concepts. The concept of "seeds" espoused by the Sautrantikas in debate with the Sarvastivadins over the metaphysical status of dharmas is a precursor to the store-consciousness of the Yogacara school and the tathagatagarbha (Gethin, p.222), the latter of which is closely related to Buddha-nature and the former of which is identified with it in Yogacara. (Gethin, p. 252).

Buddha-nature vs. atman

Unlike the Western concept of "soul" or some interpretations of the Indian "atman", Buddha-nature is not considered an isolated essence of a particular individual, but rather a single unified essence shared by all beings with the Buddha himself. (This doctrine of essence unsettles many Buddhists as it strikes them as in violation of some interpretations of anatta, as for example that of Nagarjuna, which attacks all essences; similarly, a trans-personal self shared by multiple beings exists already within the Hindu context in some monistic and/or pantheistic interpretations of the atman, and such concepts are generally regarded as being rejected under anatta.)

However, in the Mahayana version of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Tathagatagarbha is equated with Atman in, for some, direct contradiction of the Buddhist doctrine of anatman and is actually spoken of as an inner Reality which "nurtures/sustains" the being. The Sutra, in the view of some, contains many Hindu / Brahmanist elements and is thought to have been compiled during the Gupta Period which coincided with a Hindu revival in India.

The "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra" is, however, generally accepted by Mahayana Buddhists as genuine "Buddha-word" and is not alone amongst Mahayana sutras in asserting the reality of an essential Self within each sentient being (including animals) and linking it to the Tathagatagarbha/Buddha-dhatu. Other sutras which mention the Self in a very affirmative manner include the Srimala Sutra, the Lankavatara Sutra (in the "Sagathakam" chapter - e.g."The Self characterised with purity is the state of Self-realisation; this is the Tathagata-garbha, which does not belong to the realm of the theorisers"), the Shurangama Sutra and the Mahavairocana Sutra (this list is by no means exhaustive).

The teaching on the Self which is attributed to the Buddha in the "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra" insists upon the True Self's ultimacy, sovereignty and immortality. The Buddha states (in the Tibetan version of the Sutra): "all phenomena ["dharmas"] are not non-Self: the Self is Reality("tattva"), the Self is eternal ("nitya"), the Self is virtue ("guna"), the Self is everlasting ("shasvata"), the Self is immovable("dhruva"), and the Self is peace ("siva")". In the Chinese versions of the Sutra, the Self is also characterised as "autonomous/sovereign" ("aishvarya"). The main concern in the "Mahaparinirvana Sutra" in contrasting this doctrine of the Self with that of the Astikas seems to have been to remove the reifying notion that the Self was a little person, the size of a grain of rice or of one's thumb, sitting in the heart of the being. This, the Buddha says, is a misconception of the nature of Self. The Self of which the Buddha speaks is said by him to be the "essential/intrinsic being" ("svabhava") or even "life-essence" ("jivaka") of each person, and this essential being is none other than the Buddha himself - "radiantly luminous" and "as indestructible as a diamond".

Thus, while there certainly are distinctions between the Brahmanist/Hindu notion of Self and that of even the most essentialist version of Buddha-nature, there are similarities too. What is certain is that to assert categorically that the Buddha (of the Mahayana) utterly and absolutely denied the Self is to fly in the face of very weighty Mahayana doctrinal statements by the Buddha across a number of highly respected sutras. As for the Buddhist Tantras, they also on occasion speak affirmatively of the Great Self, which is the Primordial Buddha ("Adibuddha") himself.



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The Spirit and Flesh World Religion and Spirituality Online Library: uniting seemingly opposed ideologies and vibrations into the true, pristine harmony of cosmic oneness.