Buddha-nature (Classical Chinese: 佛性, modern pinyin fó xìng, literally corresponds to the Sanskrit, Buddha-dhātu - "Buddha Element", "Buddha-Principle", but seems to have been used most frequently to translate the Sanskrit Tathāgata-garbha, meaning "Buddha Womb", which would be more directly translated into Chinese as 如来蔵) is a doctrine important for many schools of Mahayana Buddhism. The Buddha Nature or Buddha Principle (Buddha-dhātu) is taught to be a truly real, but internally hidden immortal potency or element within the purest depths of the mindstream, present in all sentient beings, for awakening and becoming a Buddha. There are conflicting interpretations of the idea in Mahayanic philosophy. The idea may be traced to Abhidharmic thought, and ultimately to statements of the Buddha in the Nikayas. Other terms for the Buddha-nature are Tathāgatagarbha and Sugatagarbha.
Luminous mind in the Nikayas
There is a clear reference in the Anguttara Nikaya to a "luminous mind" present within all people, be they corrupt or pure, whether or not it itself is stained or pure. When it is "unstained," it is supremely poised for Arahantship, and so could be conceived as the "womb" of the Arahant, for which a synonym is tathagata. The Lankavatara Sutra describes the tathagatagarbha ("Arahant womb") as "by nature brightly shining and pure," and "originally pure," though "enveloped in the garments of the skhandhas, dhatus and ayatanas and soiled with the dirt of attachment, hatred, delusion and false imagining." It is said to be "naturally pure," but it appears impure as it is stained by adventitious defilements. Thus the Lankavatara Sutra identifies the luminous mind of the Canon with the tathagatagarbha. It also equates the tathagatagarbha (and alaya-vijnana) with nirvana, though this is concerned with the actual attainment of nirvana as opposed to nirvana as a timeless phenomenon. The Canon does not support the identification of the "luminous mind" with nirvanic consciousness, though it plays a role in the realization of nirvana. Upon the destruction of the fetters, according to one scholar, "the shining nibbanic consciousness flashes out of the womb of arahantship, being without object or support, so transcending all limitations."
Central tenets of Buddha-nature doctrine
The Buddha-nature doctrine centres on the possession by sentient beings of the supposedly innate, immaculate buddha-mind or buddha-element (Buddha-dhatu), which is, prior to the attainment of complete buddhahood, said to be not clearly seen and known in its full radiance.
The Buddha Nature is equated in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra with the changeless and deathless True Self of the Buddha. In the Lankavatara Sutra, however, it is said that the tathagatagarbha might be mistaken for a Self, which according to this sutra, it is not. This Buddha-nature is described in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra 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 (Buddha-nature). 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, unshakeability 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, 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 Nirvana Sutra with Buddhic Knowledge (jnana). Such Knowledge perceives both non-Self and the Self, Emptiness (sunyata) and non-Emptiness, wherein "the Empty is the totality of samsara [birth-and-death] and the non-Empty is Great Nirvana."
It is a recurrent theme of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra that the Buddha-nature is indestructible and forever untarnished. Professor Jeffrey Hopkins translates several passages from the sutra in which the Buddha speaks of this topic and defines the Buddha-nature as pure, eternal, truly real Self:
'... that which has permanence, bliss, Self, and thorough purity is called the "meaning of pure truth"'.
'Permanent is the Self; the Self is thoroughly pure. The thoroughly pure is called "bliss". Permanent, blissful, Self, and thoroughly pure is the one-gone-thus [i.e. Buddha]';
'Self means the matrix-of-one-gone-thus [i.e. the tathagatagarbha/ Buddha-nature]. The existence of the buddha-nature in all sentient beings is the meaning of "Self"'.
'The buddha-nature, by its own nature, cannot be made non-existent; it is not something that becomes non-existent. Just the inherent nature called "Self" is the secret matrix-of-one-gone-thus [i.e. tathagatagarbha / Buddha-nature]; in this way that secret matrix cannot be destroyed and made non-existent by anything.' (Professor Jeffrey Hopkins, Mountain Doctrine, Snow Lion Publications, New York, 2006, p. 129).
In explaining what it means by sentient beings' having the Buddha nature, the 'Mahaparinirvana Sutra' distinguishes three different ways of understanding the term "to have":
Good son, there are three ways of having: first, to have in the future, Secondly, to have at present, and thirdly, to have in the past. All sentient beings will have in future ages the most perfect enlightenment, i.e., the Buddha nature. All sentient beings have at present bonds of defilements, and do not now possess the thirty-two marks and eighty noble characteristics of the Buddha. All sentient beings had in past ages deeds leading to the elimination of defilements and so can now perceive the Buddha nature as their future goal. For such reasons, I always proclaim that all sentient beings have the Buddha nature.
Thus according to Heng-Ching Shih, the teaching of the universal Buddha nature does not intend to assert the existence of substantial, entity-like self endowed with excellent features of a Buddha. Rather, Buddha nature simply represents the potentiality to be realized in the future.
This type of interpretation of the Buddha-nature is not, however, universally accepted by Buddhists or scholars. Dr. Shenpen Hookham, Oxford Buddhist scholar and Tibetan lama of the Shentong tradition, writes of the Buddha-nature or True Self as something real and permanent, and already present within the being as uncompounded Enlightenment. She calls it 'the Buddha within', and comments:
'In scriptural terms, there can be no real objection to referring to Buddha, Buddhajnana [Buddha Awareness/ Buddha Knowledge], Nirvana and so forth as the True Self, unless the concept of Buddha and so forth being propounded can be shown to be impermanent, suffering, compounded, or imperfect in some way ... in Shentong terms, the non-self is about what is not the case, and the Self of the Third Dharmachakra [i.e. the Buddha-nature doctrine] is about what truly IS.' (Dr. Shenpen Hookham, The Buddha Within, State University f New York Press, 1991, p. 104, p. 353).
Buddhist scholar and chronicler, Dr. Merv Fowler, writes that the Buddha-nature really is present as an essence within each being. Fowler comments:
'The teaching that Buddha-nature is the hidden essence within all sentient beings is the main message of the tathagatagarbha literature, the earliest of which is the Tathagatagarbha Sutra. This short sutra says that all living beings are in essence identical to the Buddha regardless of their defilements or their continuing transmigration from life to life ... As in the earlier traditions, there is present the idea that enlightenment, or nirvana, is not something which has to be achieved, it is something which is already there ... In a way, it means that everyone is really a Buddha now.' (Merv Fowler, Buddhism: Beliefs and Practices, Sussex Academic Press, 1999, pp. 100–101).
Writer on Zen Buddhism, Peter Haskel, likewise indicates this idea of already and ever-present enlightenment (the Buddha-nature) within all beings. In his book, Bankei Zen, he shows how the Zen master, Bankei, taught that the Buddha Nature or Buddha Mind is inherent in each being from birth, is uncreated, unborn, and is of the same 'one substance' of past Buddhas and present beings, without any difference - just like the one water of the vast ocean (Peter Haskel, Bankei Zen, Grove Weidenfeld, New York, 1984, pp. 77–78).
In the Tibetan Book of the Dead, it is taught that at death there is an encounter with this true inner nature, sugatagarbha or Dharmata, when the veils of egocentricity tend briefly to drop away, and shining, unobstructed Awareness is disclosed to us. In line with Tibetan Nyingma doctrine, Tibetan lama, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, equates this radiant essence with the Buddha Nature. He writes:
"... all sentient beings already possess an enlightened essence, the sugatagarbha [i.e. the Buddha Nature]. This essence is present and permeates anyone who has mind, just as oil completely permeates any sesame seed ... The moment our ego-clinging falls apart, then our innate wisdom, the luminosity of dharmata, will vividly, nakedly appear. This ground luminosity is not just empty; it is also luminous - aware."
An important Sanskrit treatise, entitled the Ratnagotravibhaga, on the Buddha Nature sees the Tathagatagarbha (Buddha Nature) as "Suchness" or "Thusness" - the abiding Reality of all things - in a state of tarnished concealment within the being. The idea is that the ultimate consciousness of each being is spotless and pure, but surrounded by negative tendencies which are impure. Professor Paul Williams comments on how the impurity is actually not truly part of the Buddha Nature, but merely conceals the immanent true qualities of Buddha Mind (i.e. the Buddha Nature) from manifesting openly:
"The impurities that taint the mind and entail the state of unenlightenment (samsara) are completely adventitious ... On the other hand from the point of view of the mind's pure radiant intrinsic nature, because it is like this [i.e. pure and Buddhic], it is possessed of all the many qualities of a Buddha's mind. These do not need actually to be brought about but merely need to be allowed to shine forth. Because they are intrinsic to the very nature of consciousness itself they, and the very state of Buddhahood, will never cease."
Though not explicitly denied in any form of Indian Mahayana, some scholars, especially those associated with Madhyamaka, did not have an active interest in this doctrine. Nevertheless, the Buddha-nature doctrine did become a cornerstone of East Asian Buddhist and Tibetan Buddhist soteriological thought and practice. Buddha-nature remains a widespread and important doctrine in much of Far Eastern 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 enlightenment 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 Sautrāntika 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, the latter of which is closely related to Buddha-nature and the former of which is identified with it in Yogacara.
Varying interpretations of Buddha-nature
Schools and scholars of Buddhism have varying interpretations of what the Buddha Nature is. In Chinese Ch’an Buddhism the Buddha Nature tends to be seen as the essential nature of all beings. Writing from this tradition, Master Hsing Yun, forty-eighth patriarch of the Linji School of Ch’an Buddhism, equates (in line with pronouncements in key tathagatagarbha sutras) the Buddha Nature with the Dharmakaya, defining these two as:
"the inherent nature that exists in all beings. In Mahayana Buddhism, enlightenment is a process of uncovering this inherent nature … The Buddha nature [is] identical with transcendental reality. The unity of the Buddha with everything that exists."
In the Tibetan Kagyu tradition, Thrangu Rinpoche sees the Buddha Nature as the indivisible oneness of Wisdom and Emptiness:
"The union of wisdom and emptiness is the essence of Buddha-hood or what is called Buddha-nature (Skt. Tathagata-garbha) because it contains the very seed, the potential of Buddhahood. It resides in each and every being and because of this essential nature, this heart nature, there is the possibility of reaching Buddhahood."
In contrast to this, the 14th Dalai Lama, representing the Gelukpa School of Tibetan Buddhism, sees the Buddha Nature as the "original clear light of mind" but is at pains to point out that it ultimately does not really exist, as it is Emptiness:
"Once one pronounces the words emptiness and absolute, one has the impression of speaking of the same thing, in fact of the absolute. If emptiness must be explained through the use of just one of these two terms, there will be confusion. I must say this; otherwise you might think that the innate original clear light as absolute truth really exists."
In a similar vein, the Buddhist scholar, Sallie B. King, sees the Buddha Nature (tathagatagarbha) as merely a metaphor for the potential in all beings to attain Buddhahood, rather than as an ontological reality. She writes of the Tathagatagarbha Sutra in particular: "The tathagatagarbha [Buddha Nature] is here a metaphor for the ability of all sentient beings to attain Buddhahood, no more and no less."
Professor Paul Williams puts forward the Madhyamaka interpretation of the Buddha Nature as Emptiness in the following terms:
"… if one is a Madhyamika then that which enables sentient beings to become buddhas must be the very factor that enables the minds of sentient beings to change into the minds of Buddhas. That which enables things to change is their simple absence of inherent existence, their emptiness. Thus the tathagatagarbha becomes emptiness itself, but specifically emptiness when applied to the mental continuum."
"Dharmadhatu is adorned with dharmakaya, which is endowed with dharmadhatu wisdom. This is a brief but very profound statement, because 'dharmadhatu' also refers to sugata-garbha or buddha nature. Buddha nature is all-encompassing ... This buddha nature is present just as the shining sun is present in the sky. It is indivisible from the three vajras [i.e. the Buddha's Body, Speech and Mind] of the awakened state, which do not perish or change."
Dzogchen view of Buddha-nature
Independent lay yogi lineage of Dzogpachenpo by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche identifies and asserts the primordial non-dual awareness itself as the Buddha Nature, the only non-fabricated and pristine element of our existence.
Germano (1992: pp.viii - ix) in making reference to Madhyamaka, Yogachara and Abhinavagupta holds that:
...the Great Perfection represents the most sophisticated interpretation of the so-called "Buddha nature" tradition within the context of Indo-Tibetan thought, and as such, is of extreme importance for research into classical exoteric philosophic systems such as Madhyamaka and Yogacara, while also providing fertile grounds for future explorations of the interconnections between Indo-Tibetan and East Asian forms of Buddhism, as well as between Indo-Tibetan Buddhism and contemporary Indian developments such as the tenth century non-dual Shaivism of Abhinavagupta.
Buddha-nature vs. Atman
The "tathagatagarbha"/Buddha nature does not represent a substantial self (atman); rather, it is a positive language expression of "sunyata" (emptiness) and represents the potentiality to realize Buddhahood through Buddhist practices; the intention of the teaching of 'tathagatagarbha'/Buddha nature is soteriological rather than theoretical.
Some scholars favor one interpretation of the Buddha-nature over others. However, other scholars are prepared to take a more nuanced approach. Thus, in discussing the problems with and the inadequacy of much modern scholarship on Buddha-nature and the tathāgatagarbha, Sutton states, "one is impressed by the fact that these authors, as a rule, tend to opt for a single meaning disregarding all other possible meanings which are embraced in turn by other texts". He goes on to point out that the term tathāgatagarbha has up to six possible connotations. Of these, the three most important are:
- an underlying ontological reality or essential nature (tathāgata-tathatā-'vyatireka) which is functionally equivalent to an ātman in an Upanishadic sense,
- the dharma-kāya which penetrates all beings (sarva-sattveṣu dharma-kāya-parispharaṇa), which is functionally equivalent to brahman in an Upanishadic sense
- the womb or matrix of Buddhahood existing in all beings (tathāgata-gotra-saṃbhava), which provides beings with the possibility of awakening.
Of these three, only the third connotation has any soteriological significance, while the other two posit Buddha-nature as an ontological reality and essential nature behind all phenomena. According to Matsumoto Shiro and Hakamaya Noriaki, essentialist conceptions of Buddha-nature are un-Buddhist, being at odds with the fundamental Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination.
The Jonangpa School of Tibetan Buddhism, whose foremost historical figure was Dolpopa, sees the Buddha Nature as the very ground of the Buddha himself, as the "permanent indwelling of the Buddha in the basal state". Dolpopa comments that certain key Tathagatagarbha sutras indicate this truth, remarking:
"These statements that the basis of purification itself, the matrix-of-one-gone-to-bliss [i.e. Buddha Nature], is Buddha, the ground of Buddha, and the pristine wisdom of a one-gone-thus [Tathagata] also clear away the assertion by certain [scholars] that the matrix-of-one-gone-to-bliss [Buddha Nature] is not Buddha."
Other sutras which mention the Self in a very affirmative manner include 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, the Mahavairocana Sutra: "Those who have been initiated into the Mahayana Mandala Arising from Great Compassion, who are honest and pliant, and who always have great compassion ... They know their hearts to be the Great Self" and the Sutra of Perfect Wisdom called The Questions of Suvikrantavikramin:
"...one who wisely knows himself (atmanam) as nondual, he wisely knows both Buddha and Dharma. And why? He develops a personality which consists of all dharmas ... His nondual comprehension comprehends all dharmas, for all dharmas are fixed on the Self in their own-being. One who wisely knows the nondual dharma wisely knows also the Buddhadharmas. From the comprehension of the nondual dharma follows the comprehension of the Buddhadharmas and from the comprehension of the Self the comprehension of everything that belongs to the triple world. 'The comprehension of Self', that is the beyond of all dharmas."
The Mahaparinirvana Sutra specifically contrasts its doctrine of the Self with that of the Astikas in order to remove the reifying notion that the Self was a little person or homunculus, the size of a grain of rice or of one's thumb, sitting in the heart of the being, thus: "mundane [philosophers] mistakenly imagine it to be a person (puruṣa) the size of a thumb, the size of a pea or a grain of rice that dwells shining in the heart." This, the Buddha says, is a misconception of the nature of Self, for "that opinion of theirs is a mistaken opinion, one that is transmitted onwards from person to person, but it is neither beneficial nor conducive to happiness." 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".
Moreover, the Buddhist tantric scripture entitled Chanting the Names of Mañjusri (Mañjuśrī-nāma-saṅgīti), as quoted by the great Tibetan Buddhist master, Dolpopa, repeatedly exalts not the non-Self but the Self and applies the following terms to this ultimate reality:
- "the pervasive Lord" (vibhu)
- "the beginningless Self" (anādi-ātman)
- "the Self of Thusness" (tathatā-ātman)
- "the Self of primordial purity" (śuddha-ātman)
- "the Source of all"
- "the Self pervading all"
- "the Single Self" (eka-ātman)
- "the Diamond Self" (vajra-ātman)
- "the Solid Self" (Ghana-ātman)
- "the Holy, Immovable Self"
- "the Supreme Self"
In the Ghanavyuha Sutra (as quoted by Longchenpa) this immutable, universal and salvific Buddha Essence (the True Self of the Buddha) is said to be the ground of all things, but it is viewed by fools as something changeful and impermanent, whereas in fact it is stated by the Buddha to be the very opposite of such impermanence:
"... the ultimate universal ground also has always been with the Buddha-Essence (Tathagatagarbha), and this essence in terms of the universal ground has been taught by the Tathagata. The fools who do not know it, because of their habits, see even the universal ground as (having) various happiness and suffering and actions and emotional defilements. Its nature is pure and immaculate, its qualities are as wishing-jewels; there are neither changes nor cessations. Whoever realizes it attains Liberation ..."
The Buddha in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra insists that the Self of the Buddha (the Buddha Nature which is present in all beings) is everlasting, pure and blissful and is most definitely not transitory and impermanent:
"The Buddha-Nature is the Eternal, Bliss, the Self, and the Pure ... The Buddha-Nature is not non-Eternal, not non-Bliss, not non-Self, and not non-Purity."
The Buddha-Nature is in fact taught in such Tathagatagarbha sutras to be ultimate, conceptually inconceivable, immortal Reality. The Buddha-Nature concept remains an important doctrine in Mahayana Buddhism, especially in its Far Eastern manifestations.
The Rimé movement of Tibet
Ringu Tulku says "There has been a great deal of heated debate in Tibet between the exponents of Rangtong, (Wylie: Rang-stong) and Shentong, (Wylie: gZhan-stong) philosophies. The historic facts of these two philosophies are well known to the Tibetologists."
Jamgon Kongtrul says about the two systems:
Madhyamika philosophies have no differences in realising as 'Shunyata', all phenomena that we experience on a relative level. They have no differences also, in reaching the meditative state where all extremes (ideas) completely dissolve. Their difference lies in the words they use to describe the Dharmata. Shentong describes the Dharmata, the mind of Buddha, as 'ultimately real'; while Rangtong philosophers fear that if it is described that way, people might understand it as the concept of 'soul' or 'Atma'. The Shentong philosopher believes that there is a more serious possibility of misunderstanding in describing the Enlightened State as 'unreal' and 'void'. Kongtrul finds the Rangtong way of presentation the best to dissolve concepts and the Shentong way the best to describe the experience." 
In 2006 Khentrul Rinpoche Jamphal Lodro founded "The Tibetan Buddhist Rimé Institute" in Melbourne, Australia. It aims to propagate the Rimé view of harmony within all Buddhist traditions and to introduce the rare Jonang Kalachakra Tantra lineage teachings in the western world.
- Enlightenment (religious)
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- Kunjed Gyalpo Tantra
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- Yamamoto, Kosho (tr.), Page, Dr. Tony (reviser and editor), (1999–2000) The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra in 12 volumes. London: Nirvana Publications.
- Zimmermann, Michael, A Buddha Within: The Tathāgatagarbhasūtra, Biblotheca Philologica et Philosophica Buddhica VI, The International Research Institute for Advanced Buddhology, Soka University (2002) [PDF can also be downloaded from the Institute's website]
- The Buddha in the Robot: a Robot Engineer's Thoughts on Science and Religion, by Masahiro Mori, 1974
- "Tathagatagarbha Buddhism": key "Buddha Nature" sutras in full or in part
- On the Buddha-nature of Insentient Things
- "Nirvana Sutra": full text of "Nirvana Sutra", plus appreciation of its teachings.
- "Buddha Nature" talk (audio) by Stephen Batchelor
- The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra A Mahāyāna Text
- Theosophy in Tibet: The Teachings of the Jonangpa School by David Reigle
ja:仏性 pt:Natureza de Buda ru:Природа Будды tr:Buda-doğası vi:Phật tính zh:佛性