It is important to realise that while everything you think is real is actually an illusion, there is not nothing. You are not the self you think you are, but you are not nothing.
What you are is unique and distinct, but its essence is the same as the essence of me, of your mother, of Stalin, of Jesus – and of course of Buddha. The Buddha stressed that he was not a God, or something intrinsically different from any other person – in fact this is why he taught, because we are of the same nature and therefore the enlightenment he realised is available to us too – his teaching applies universally.
We might assume, when this commonality with Buddha is mentioned, that of all the many possibilities we have, one is the possibility to develop into a Buddha, and that this ‘seed-potential’ is what’s meant by our “Buddha Nature”. But much more than that, the truth is that all that we really are is the same as Buddha’s discovery of what he really is. The rest we made up (and keep on making up) – the only true thing about us is Buddha Nature. Our ego-games are our way of hiding from this truth – though thankfully we hide in more caring ways than Stalin did.
try this now
If we could stop actively being anything, doing anything, what would happen? Try that now: let go of everything on the out-breath, and see what happens…
Was there nothing? Did you have to invent something to become aware of? No, awareness is already there. There is never nothing, even when we don’t make it something conceptual by adding an idea or assumption to it.
At every moment that we’re conscious, we are conscious of something. Consciousness is this, this knowingness-and-what’s-known, indivisible. We tend to see it as two things – a thing or experience known, and the knowing of it by our mind. But if you think about it, it couldn’t be reduced to either of those separately – there couldn’t be any experience without a knowing of it, and there couldn’t be any knowing without some quality of sensation known.
Take the example of a dream – you wake up and you know that what had seemed real was not the actual happening you took it for, it was just mental activity. But you don’t think that there wasn’t actually a dream: even if it was not what you took it for while dreaming, it was something. There was an awareness of something, although you cannot say what that something is. “Dream” is just a name for it, what is the actual thing being named here? Can you imagine a world where no-one knew what you meant by the word “dream”, they didn’t have that experience? You would be describing something which they’d see as nothing, which didn’t happen, which is not the real world.
Just like this, what is truly real is impossible to get a handle on, to be specific about to the point where we could grasp what it truly is – which would be to make a mental model of it that can be communicated to others who share this model in their ‘mental Lego kit’. And of course, if we could conceptualise it like this, we’d be dealing with the concept and no longer with the reality.
falling off the cliff
Lama Shenpen makes it the focus of her teaching to point out this Reality – for us to recognise it by its qualities of Openness, Clarity, Sensitivity, Confidence, Peace, Energy, Love, and so on. Such recognition protects us against the fear of nothingness, of annihilation, while we explore the cliff-edge of our worlds of thought. In this way we gain confidence that falling off this cliff is freedom, not the end. In fact, it is not even the beginning: we discover that we were already safe – we just thought there was a cliff.
Even the Heart Sutra’s outright dismissal of all our conceptual categories can be read with this Confidence, this growing trust that there is never nothing, there is really only ever the Truth of what we essentially are. We have Confidence that we cannot possibly lose that. This Essence, or Heart-Essence, is completely utterly absolutely indestructible. As we Awaken, we can only lose what we never really had.
This is true even in our everyday life, in the way we presently think of it. If you ever doubt this, just give up. Relax totally, stop doing, being, thinking, whatever. Leave behind all your ideas and interpretations and just be. Whatever else may drop away, there is always some indefinable thing or quality present – this is what you are. A caution: it can sometimes seem like nothing significant, as though “This cannot be It!”, but if we could open to it fully, open as it, we would want for nothing else.
Find Lama Shenpen’s teachings here
One thought on “What is Buddha Nature?”
Dear 5, this is a wonderful piece, especially the section about the dream –