What is Buddha Nature Barry Magid May 8th 2010

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?

One way to begin is to hold Buddha Nature up against a corresponding phrase, self-nature. You could just say nature, but self-nature as the seeming paired opposite. And the usual sense of self-nature is of precisely a fixed, ongoing inner essence or substantiality that we recognize and identify and see persisting over time. And it doesn't refer simply to a personal inner self-nature but refers to the nature of anything whatsoever, in the sense that you would refer to the self-nature of your chair as its ongoing existence and function as a chair. And we would see it as something that is solid, and persistent and identifiable. A chair is a chair is a chair. We know what it is.

Now when we extend that sense of self-nature to our persons, or to the whole world, we would have a picture of clearly defined objects that can bump into each other and can interact, but which have a fixed identity. And Buddha Nature is not something any different from that, but it's a different perspective. It's a different way of saying something about people in chairs, as they used to say medium-sized dry goods objects in the room.

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.

We hear the same thing in the heart sutra in the lines "form is exactly emptiness, emptiness exactly form." When we use words like form and emptiness, we seem to be describing two opposites - two diametrically opposed states, form being something that has substance, emptiness the absence of substance, the absence of mass, of presence. That's how we think those words are usually used.

So what does it mean to say form is exactly emptiness? It's saying these are not, as we usually think, two diametrically opposed states, but are actually two ways of describing everything as it already is. That everything can be seen from the perspective of form or from the perspective of emptiness, and that these are two non-contradictory frameworks or experiences of things.

Everything to which we ascribe form or permanence or substance is also in fact always changing, always empty of a permanent essential nature. But everything that we can point to and say "what would we think of as empty" is not some other realm or void, but is nothing but the world we already live in.

Our practice in a way is about experiencing these two points of view in some kind of balance. But it usually begins with having some opening to the side that we call Buddha Nature or emptiness, that side of interdependency, flux, non-essential nature, because we tend habitually (habitually meaning again linguistically, conceptually, emotionally) to experience things in terms of permanence and form, or we can say we're trying to.

Now the level with that usual perspective is because it actually leaves out a big part of what reality actually is, changing, impermanent. We're always trying to hold onto something that's extremely slippery and uncontrollable. And the experience of trying to control the uncontrollable we usually call anxiety.

Buddha said something of that anxiety is suffering, or unsatisfactoriness, of life. It means what is the experience of trying to treat the world solely from the perspective of form, of permanence. And not coming to terms with the fact that the world is always also impermanent, interconnected, empty.

So when we reify Buddha Nature or emptiness we start imagining separate transcendental spiritual realms that practice is supposed to give us access to. And the language goes on holiday and starts conjuring up a lot of mystical hot air about what realization is, what enlightenment is, what it is to see things as they are. There is no realm other than the realm we're in. Our practice is about fully and honestly experiencing what's already the case.

But to do that is in fact quite transformational, precisely because trying to see the world solely from the side of form creates chronic dissatisfaction and anxiety. It leaves us in a position of trying to grasp the ungraspable. This is no fun.

So when we are able, one way or another, to allow the other side to be how we experience things, including ourself, there is this enormous relief, or release. This is the experience of taking off tight shoes. It's just unbelievably relieving, to be not chasing after something that is ungraspable.

In the Identity of Relative and Absolute, it says, "Ordinary life fits the absolute like a box and its lid." Box and its lid is supposed to be an image of two things that can't help but perfectly fit together. They're made to fit. And this is the image of saying form and emptiness are exactly the same. There's a perfect fit. They can't miss. They're two halves of the same thing. They are actually just the same thing, but two different ways of saying the same thing.

The other side is a little more unclear to me: "The absolute works with the relative like two arrows meeting in mid-air." That makes it seem like it's this miraculous conjunction that is so unlikely - it's amazing that it's happening at all. For me, what that means psychologically, what it really comes down to in the experience of our practice, is that when we experience this side of life that we call Buddha Nature or emptiness, the ungraspable part of life, it is not not neutral. It's joyous. It is that release of taking off the tight shoes. And there's something in a way that is quite miraculously special and delightful that we should have, just somehow as we are humanly constituted, that capacity to experience life as it is as joy! That our experience of sitting, when we truly leave ourselves alone, is joy. When we truly leave each other alone, in the sense of stop trying to fit the other person into a category or a function, that we stop looking at them in terms of what are they doing or not doing for me? How are they being or not being in terms of the way I want them to be? That's what I mean by leaving them alone. Really letting them fully just be who they are. Our experience is not neutral. Our experience is much more like a parent and a newborn baby - it's delight, it's love.

That side of things is the joy of this practice, not just the hard bad news of life is suffering, get used to it. Life is suffering is the description of trying to grasp the ungraspable, of seeing everything from just the perspective of form. And we will never be completely free of that, because that's also how things already are. But the other side is happening all the time too.

When we have something of that experience of simple joy at feeling the breath in our body, just being able to look at one another, being able to look out at the world, we can grasp for a language to express that wonder, and use language like Buddha Nature, or enlightenment, as if it's this special thing that we have now achieved.

But it's the most ordinary thing in the world.

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