Do you believe that everyone has Buddha-nature?

Photo copyright © 2019 by David S Thompson

Do you believe that everyone has Buddha-nature?

For people in the Yogacara school of Buddhism, this is a really important point. Yogacara teachers thought there are two kind of Buddha-nature. One is Buddha-nature as a principal or idea, another is Buddha-nature as practice or actual life. As a principal, everything is Buddha-nature – all people have Buddha-nature, but as an actuality, there are some people who hear about dharma or Buddha’s teaching and it’s not attractive to those people. “Buddha’s teaching” means the teaching of emptiness, beyond any kind of self-and-other dichotomy. This doesn’t mean those people are evil or bad, but those people cannot see the emptiness of beings; so they can be a very moral person, or a very nice person, but their understanding or way of viewing things is dualistic – “I want to be a good person so I try to be generous or do something for other people.” This kind of attitude is not bad. Yet this is blind to the reality of emptiness, of no beings, no one who is doing good things, and no person who can be helped.

When we really look deeply into ourselves, we find this person, and we cannot believe this person has Buddha-nature. It’s really important to know that. It’s easy to just think or believe that all human beings have Buddha-nature, it’s a really nice thought. Yet if we honestly reflect on ourselves, even though we hear Buddha’s teaching, still we attach, and cling to this person. Still we think, “Me first.” Even though we understand Buddha’s teaching, and even though we practice zazen or Buddha’s teaching, still we try to protect this person before other people. If we really deeply see this selfishness or egocentricity, it’s more honest to say, “I don’t have Buddha-nature.“ There is no possibility for me to become Buddha. For the followers of Yogacara, it is more important to see this incompleteness or egocentricity and deep selfishness than to simply believe all beings have Buddha-nature.

That is the difference between Yogacara philosophy and tathagatagharba theory. In tathagatagharba theory, our life is Buddha-nature itself, and yet somehow it has been covered with dirt, or delusion/selfishness. Essentially our life is good, and yet our selfishness or delusion is like a guest. Somehow it comes from outside and clings to this, covers this Buddha-nature. Therefore, what we should do is see the Buddha-nature and take this dirt away from it and polish it. Then original Buddha-nature starts to be revealed. That is the basic idea of tathagatagharba theory. Yogacara is different. According to those teachers, our alaya consciousness is not Buddha-nature, it’s always neutral. So it can be good or bad depending upon our action. In that sense, this practice or teaching is more actual, it’s not an abstract thing. I think from this point of view, the theory of Buddha-nature or tathagatagarba is kind of abstract. Therefore, it’s an important point when we study Yogacara, to see things from this point of view. When we study tathagatagarba theory, we should see things from that point of view. Those two points can be contradictory. And yet another viewpoint, the Madhyamnika, is also different. Seeing our life from different perspectives, the important point is what this means for this person.

Of course we can say this is true, this is my way; we can take one of these points of view as my point of view. “This is most familiar to me, I think this is the best way.” And yet my attitude, or the so called zen attitude is that we don’t stand on either point of view, but see them as perspectives on this life, this person. We don’t stand upon, or take any view or any point of view. That is the basic attitude of “zen people,” zen practitioners. They study and yet they try to forget; they try not to use those theoretical or philosophical terms. Instead, zen people try to show the reality within reality without using those logical frameworks, or theory. That’s why zen stories, zen questions and answers, or zen expressions are really concrete. They don’t discuss what is Buddha-nature – they just show it. They don’t discuss whether we have Buddha-nature or not but just try to show it by direct action. So as a zen practitioner, it is important to study the systems of philosophy or theory in any of the schools in Buddhism; they can be the ground or soil of our practice. And yet we have to put any philosophical theory into our own lives at this moment, right now right here. Then – what do you do, how do we live based on any theory or philosophy? That is a characteristic point in zen.

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Commentary by Shōhaku Okumura Roshi

The Dōgen Institute offers an occasional series of questions from students with responses from Okumura Roshi  about practice and study. These questions and responses are from Okumura Roshi’s recorded lectures, and are lightly edited.

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For further study:

> Other Questions and responses

Copyright 2019 Sanshin Zen Community

2 thoughts on “Do you believe that everyone has Buddha-nature?

  1. erikleo

    I like this from Dogen’s Genjokoan: THose who greatly realize delusion are buddhas. Those who are gretly deluded in realization are living beings. Furthermore there are those who attain realization beyong realization and those who are deluded within delusion. (This seems to point to the paradox of training with delusion – delusion is somehow necessary for training! Acceptance of our humanity?)

  2. Pingback: Waterfall life | The Dōgen Institute

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