June 13, 2011

True or False: Humans Have Innate Buddha-Nature

Noah Levine, from chapter 2 of his new book The Heart of the Revolution,

When we begin to care about others and ourselves in a deeper way, then the friendliness and love and generosity that are innate within each of us begins to surface. As we stop cultivating the unwholesome and unskillful mind-states, as they gradually fade away, we begin cultivating the wholesome. Slowly, over years of practice, a transformation happens. Cultivating the good doesn't mean taking on virtue from outside ourselves; it means uncovering our own innate potential for love and connection—a potential that has been deeply buried and obscured through a lifetime of of misinformation and not being taught the truth, through our own confused attempts to find happiness via sense pleasures, through hatred, through revenge, or through whatever our own particular top-ten confusions have been. Cultivating good means uncovering or recovering the wisdom and compassion that are present as potential in all of us.
    This means we begin to align our intentions, actions, and mind-states with a vision of the awakened heart—with what Mahayana Buddhists refer to as our "Buddha nature"—that is, the innate potential for awakening. There is a natural awakened aspect of the heart that is within all of us, though obscured. The good news is that is can be unobscured.

In his most recent post in the Tricycle Book Club discussion of The Heart of the Revolution, co-discussion leader Joseph Rogers asks,

I'm always curious, whenever the subject of uncovering the potential wisdom and compassion that are supposedly present in all of us (which is discussed in chapter 2, Training the Monkey), what others think of this idea. Do we have a Buddha nature? Do we all have the potential for awakening within that can be uncovered? I'd love to hear from the community about this idea.

I think this is a really good question. As someone who practices in a tradition where it is taught that people have innate Buddha-nature, I was surprised when I first learned that there is no mention of Buddha-nature within the Theravada tradition and that it is therefore said that the Buddha never spoke of such a thing. Because of this, teachings on Buddha-nature have long been the source of much debate among Buddhists. While I do not value "debating for debating's sake," I think that as long as people treat each other with respect and use what they learn to study, practice, and cultivate awakening, then there is much insight to be gained from examining the divergent views on this issue.

To cite an example from the Theravadan side, here are some passages from a piece titled Freedom From Buddha Nature on accesstoinsight.org by the vastly knowledgeable and prolific Theravadan monk, teacher, and translator Thanissaro Bhikkhu. He writes,

This is why the Buddha never advocated attributing an innate nature of any kind to the mind — good, bad, or Buddha. The idea of innate natures slipped into the Buddhist tradition in later centuries, when the principle of freedom was forgotten. Past bad kamma was seen as so totally deterministic that there seemed no way around it unless you assumed either an innate Buddha in the mind that could overpower it, or an external Buddha who would save you from it. But when you understand the principle of freedom — that past kamma doesn't totally shape the present, and that present kamma can always be free to choose the skillful alternative — you realize that the idea of innate natures is unnecessary: excess baggage on the path.

And it bogs you down. If you assume that the mind is basically bad, you won't feel capable of following the path, and will tend to look for outside help to do the work for you. If you assume that the mind is basically good, you'll feel capable but will easily get complacent. This stands in the way of the heedfulness needed to get you on the path, and to keep you there when the path creates states of relative peace and ease that seem so trustworthy and real. If you assume a Buddha nature, you not only risk complacency but you also entangle yourself in metaphysical thorn patches: If something with an awakened nature can suffer, what good is it? How could something innately awakened become defiled? If your original Buddha nature became deluded, what's to prevent it from becoming deluded after it's re-awakened?

He continues,

Freedom is not a nature, and you don't find it by looking for your hidden innate nature. You find freedom by looking at where it's constantly showing itself: in the fact that your present intentions are not totally conditioned by the past. You catch your first glimmer of it as a range of possibilities from which you can choose and as your ability to act more skillfully — causing more pleasure and less pain — than you ordinarily might. Your sense of this freedom grows as you explore and exercise it, each time you choose the most skillful course of action heading in the direction of discernment, truthfulness, relinquishment, and peace.

Please come by the Book Club to share your thoughts!

 

Image via Dr Craig

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