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Stephen Batchelor - Buddha-nature 2007





A Talk by Stephen Batchelor 


given in Tenancingo, Edo. de Mex. 


March 19,  2007




“If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything will appear to man as it is: Infinite. For man has closed himself up till he sees all things through the narrow chinks of his cavern.” 




This is a verse from William Blake, who actually knew nothing about Buddhism -- Buddhism was not known in the early 19th century when he was writing this, but he catches very economically and very beautifully the point that I'm trying to communicate about the relation between Buddha and Mara. 


What it shows is that Buddha and Mara are not two things; they're two modalities of a single process. 


Perhaps a rather crude image, but the best one I can find, is a valve: a valve can be open, or a valve can be closed, and likewise our minds can be open, or our minds can be closed. But there are not two separate things required for that to happen. 


Unfortunately, as soon as we speak in mythological language, such as: "Buddha was sitting on a bank of a river, then Mara came up to him and said..." you have two personalities, two quite separate entities interacting. And I think this perhaps gave rise to the possibility of splitting Buddha and Mara apart. 


And so, as the Buddhist tradition developed, the Buddha becomes more and more perfect; and strangely, Mara begins to fade from the picture. Mara gets fragmented into psychological processes, into a god, into Death, into the aggregates (skandha), gets broken apart, becomes depersonalized. The problem with this is that Buddha becomes effectively more and more like God. Yet the early tradition seems to acknowledge that as long as the Buddha lived on this earth he was constantly enmeshed with Mara. Mara was not something separate. I would argue that Buddha and Mara, like life and death, are inseparable.  You cannot think of them intelligibly if you split them into two things.


If we think of Buddha as a metaphor for what life can optimally be, then that entails a constant on-going relationship with Mara, i.e. with Death. But human beings are very attached to life and they don't like death.  We are almost pre-programmed, it seems, to move toward dualistic positions. We like to think that some part of our self, something that we may call the mind or soul is eternal, while death only occurs to the body.  So your body dies, but you keep on going. Whereas I cannot understand what “life” would mean unless it is understood as a constant moving towards it's own end. 


In the philosophy of Heidegger, he talks of life as a “zur –Tode-Sein”  a “being-towards-death.” Likewise, we can think of the Buddha-Mara relationship as a relationship between Buddha-nature and what we may call Mara-nature.  Our Mara-nature is a possibility that is always there: whenever we close up, or shut down, whenever we fix things or grasp; while Buddha-nature is the coexisting possibility that in any moment we can be open, we can extend our awareness, open our hearts. 


There's a text of Hui-Neng the 6th Zen patriarch, that captures this very well.  He said: "When an ordinary being becomes awakened, we call him a Buddha; when a Buddha becomes deluded, we call him an ordinary being”. This kind of thinking cuts through that habit we have of wanting two things, dualism.


I'd like to explore more about what we mean, or what the Buddhist traditions have understood, by this idea of Buddha-nature.


Buddha-nature, at least in the English speaking world, has become one of the most used and most known terms associated with Buddhism. It's even a term you now find in use outside of Buddhist contexts. But there is a problem with this word.  There is no equivalent for it in any of the Indian languages, Sanskrit or Pali.  The reason it has entered into our Western Buddhist languages is to some extent an historical accident. I'm pretty certain that the word first started to appear in English in the translations of D. T. Suzuki in the early 20th century.  Suzuki was one of the great writers who introduced Buddhism, in particular Zen and Mahayana Buddhism, albeit from a Sino-Japanese perspective. In using the word “Buddha-nature,” Suzuki did not make a mistake in translation. He was translating the Chinese word Fo-shing (Japanese: Bu-sho), which literally means Buddha-nature.  It is a completely accurate translation. But the problem is that scholars have never found an equivalent to that word in the original Sanskrit texts, which served as the source of the Chinese translations.


The word Buddha-nature is very attractive for many of us, because it re-introduces the idea of a soul. And so the Western Buddhist can say: “Well I may not have a self or a soul, but thank God I have Buddha-nature.”  And there are texts in Sanskrit, also translated into Tibetan, that very much reinforced this idea of the Buddha-nature as some kind of spiritual essence. 


One of the best known of these texts is by Asanga, called the Ratnagotra vibhanga, in which one finds several metaphors to describe the Buddha-nature. The Buddha-nature is said to be like a seam of gold running through a piece of rock; or like the honey inside a honeycomb; or like a golden Buddha image wrapped inside a soiled cloth.


Now, such images can be very inspiring.  If one is depressed or confused, then you can at least have the thought: “Well those feelings are not really me, somewhere inside me a Buddha waiting to get out.”


But the difficulty with these images is that they are profoundly dualistic: the gold can be removed from the rock, the honey from the comb, the statue from the cloth: they are two different things.  That is the whole point of the image.  This brings us back very close to the kind of view of the person that the Buddha denied. This is a return to the atman, to the divine, eternal essence of the person that is neither the body nor the mind, but an entity separate from them.


This idea is attractive because deep down we all would like that to be true. But even the word Buddha-nature is problematic.  “Nature” here doesn't mean nature in the sense of  the birds and the bees, but it means nature in the sense of an essential reality, what we truly, essentially are. Yet Buddhist philosophy is non-essentialist. It says that there is no nature, there is no essence of things. 


Why then did the Chinese choose to use this word fo-shing: Buddha-nature? The text of Asanga I cited with those images, doesn't actually use the word “Buddha-nature. “ The word that is used in Sanskrit is Buddhagotra.  More commonly, though, one finds the term Tathagatagarbha.  Now, neither gotra nor garbha mean "nature".  Gotra means “lineage” or “family” while garbha means “womb.”


Now womb is a very different order of metaphor to the “essence” of something, or the “nature” of the self. One of the critiques of any notion of nature or essence is that it implies something fixed, something permanent, something eternal.


The idea of a womb, on the other hand, is of something profoundly life giving, fleshly, earthly, feminine. A womb is also an empty space. But not just any empty space: it is an empty space that can be fertilized, in which something can germinate. And once that fertilization has happened, then it becomes the environment for life to grow, and then at a certain point, when the gestation is complete, a new being is born. 


This is a metaphor of life, of a living person, something organic, something living. As a metaphor it suggests that the human organism is like a womb, it can be impregnated with new ideas and values.  Once we are impregnated with such ideas, once we engage in certain practices, we begin to experience and understand the world from a new perspective. Something within us begins to grow, the deluded human person is transformable into an awake being. As soon as we start to think of Tathagatagarbha in this way, the word “Buddha-nature,” I feel, becomes less and less useful.


The other word you find in Sanskrit is Buddhagotra.  Gotra means family or lineage. We can without much imagination see the connection between wombs and families and lineages.  Buddhagotra suggests that when you embrace and practice the Dharma, you become a member of a family or lineage. In Tibetan they translated Buddhagotra as Sangye kyi rig, which means exactly that, but, curiously, they translated Tathagatgarbha  as dezhin zhegpa’i nyingpo.  Nyingpo means “heart,” in the sense of the heart of something.  What I find strange is that there is a perfectly good word both in Tibetan and in Chinese for womb, but in both cases they chose to translate it with a non-womb word. I don't know why. Possibly the monks who did the translations felt a bit squeamish about those things.  


In any case, with gotra we find a link back to the early Pali tradition.  Often Buddha-nature is thought to be a uniquely Mahayana concept, but in fact its origins are found within the Pali texts.  There is a passage in the Anguttara Nikaya where the Buddha speaks of the ariya gotta (Skt: aryagotra), which means the lineage of the noble ones. This term is a direct progenitor of the idea of Buddhagotra, the lineage of the Buddha.


Clearly, the Buddha doesn't use ariya as a racial or ethnic idea, but he uses it nonetheless and transforms it into the idea of a kind of spiritual nobility.  To be an ariya for the Buddha meant to have internalized the four ennobling truths, the catuh ariya sacca.  Unfortunately, this is always translated as the four noble truths, which gives the impression that the truths themselves are noble. But what is noble about suffering or craving?  What it means is that the person who wholly knows suffering, lets go of craving, experiences cessation and creates a path, becomes dignified and noble.  That is why I prefer to translate them as the four ennobling truths. 


The Buddha is saying that all beings have the capacity to become noble, dignified in a spiritual-existential sense. Yet certain conditions are necessary in order for that process to be undertaken (it is in this sense that the term is linked to the idea of “Buddha-nature”).  The Buddha describes four conditions: the first is contentment with food, the second, contentment with clothing, the third, contentment with lodging, and the fourth, delight in bhavana.


Bhavana is often translated as “meditation,” but this is misleading. Bhavana  literally means “to bring something into being.” One can perhaps better translate this as to cultivate or to nurture something.  Moreover, bhavana is the injunction the Buddha gives to the fourth ennobling truth, i.e. the eightfold path. The eightfold path is something to be brought into being, to be cultivated, nurtured, created. 


What is striking about this notion of an ariya gotta is that it acknowledges the necessity of certain material conditions being realized before a spiritual practice can take place.  It implies a contentment with simplicity, the willingness to be able to do with what is sufficient to feed you, sufficient to clothe you, sufficient to house you. It thus suggests the beginnings of a kind of social theory or social awareness. If a society or a community is to see itself as “Buddhist”, i.e. as a society that seeks to allow people and to encourage them to engage in the eight-fold path, then there should be a responsibility to ensure the provision of basic material necessities in that society. Because if people have to spend their lives struggling to provide themselves with food, clothing and housing, they're not going to have the time, energy or contentment to then be able to reflect, to ask more deeply questions about what life is for.


It is likely that when many of us hear about the four aspects of the ariya gotta for the first time, we probably find it a little odd.  But if we are surprised by it, that shows that we probably have an assumption that the Buddha-nature  is some kind of inner spiritual quality. Although the concept certainly developed in such a way, at the outset the Buddha clearly had something else in mind that implied an awareness of social conditions and the importance of sufficiency and simplicity in meeting one’s material needs as the basis for cultivating a spiritual path.


To give a sense of how this idea of ariya gotta has evolved through Buddhist history, I'd like to give a couple examples, one from the Zen tradition and one from the Tibetan tradition.  Both of these examples, as we will see, go against the idea that the Buddha-nature is some kind of spiritual essence, tucked away inside us somewhere. 


The first example is from Dogen, the 13th century founder of the Soto school in Japan.  Dogen wrote a book called the "Shobogenzo." Of the hundred or so short essays that make up this work, one is called Bu-sho, i.e. Fo-shing or Buddha-nature. 


Dogen opens this essay by asking: “What is Bu-sho? What is Buddha-nature?” and he answers himself : “Buddha-nature is ‘What is this thing? How did it get here?’”


Dogen is quoting a well-known exchange between the Sixth Patriarch of Zen, Hui-neng, and his student Huai-jang.  Huai-jang was a young monk who was living in the north of China, who heard about Hui-neng and decided to go and see him. When he arrives at Hui-neng’s monastery, he's shown to the Zen master's quarters. Hui-neng asks the young man:  "Where have you come from?" and  Huai-jang replies: "I’ve come from Mount Song.”  Then Hui-neng says:  “But what is this thing? And how did it get here?” To this, Huai-jang was speechless.  The text says that he then spent eight years in the monastery.


This is a typical Zen move. First of all you're put off your guard with a rather conventional question: “Where do you come from?”  Then suddenly, you are dealt a rather low blow: “But what is this thing? And how did it get here?”  Imagine yourself at a dinner party and you're sitting next to someone you don't know.  The person says: "Hi! I'm Jack, and who are you?" “I’m Stephen,” I say, then Jack says: "Yes, but who are you really Stephen?" Fortunately, this doesn't happen very often, but you can imagine how you would feel if it did.  You would suddenly feel exposed, embarrassed, unsettled. Hui-neng's question to Huai-jang was unsettling, he suddenly threw him into the question of his own life and death.


When Dogen says: “Buddha-nature is ‘What is this thing? And how did it get here?’” he's suggesting that Buddha-nature is experienced when your life becomes a question for you. 

It reminds one of the four sights that the Buddha was supposed to have had, when he first saw a sick person, a dead person, an aged person, and a wandering monk.  Each of these sights reflected back to him the question of his own life. In other words, one of the conditions that is necessary for us to embark on any spiritual quest starts with our life becoming a question for us rather than remaining just a more or less interesting set of facts. Different people will have different ways of phrasing this: it may be “Who am I?” or “What is the meaning of it all?” or something like that.


Religious orthodoxies are very good at persuading us that they have got the right answer to such questions. This is appealing, because it suggests we can resolve the question by simply adopting the set of beliefs proposed by that orthodoxy. But in doing this, the urgency and vitality of the question is often suppressed and lost.


What is striking about the early Zen tradition is that it gives primacy to questions rather than answers.  The training, particularly in a Rinzai Zen monastery, consists of deepening and intensifying the sense of doubt or perplexity evoked by such questions.  The only practice I did in Korea was to ask myself: "What is this?"  The idea of getting an answer soon just burns off. Because the questioning opens you up more and more to the sheer mystery of life itself, and that mystery is not something you solve, but something you penetrate. In many ways, language is incapable of representing the sheer strangeness of being alive.  The more you go into this sense of mystery and strangeness, the more mysterious it becomes. Such questioning or perplexity is not an intellectual exercise but involves the whole body and mind. In the commentary to the Gateless Gate - a classical Zen text - it says: "You must question with the marrow of your bones and with the pores of your skin."


For Dogen, when we are in such state of mind, we connect with the very capacity we have to wake up.  There is a famous three line verse in Zen, which says: "Great doubt, great awakening/ Little doubt, little awakening / No doubt, no awakening."  In other words, there is a deep correlation between the quality of your questioning (i.e. doubt) and the quality of any resultant insight.


The example I will give from the Tibetan tradition comes from Tsongkhapa, whose Geluk school was the one in which I was trained as a monk. For Tsongkhapa, the idea of Buddha-nature  (Tib. Sanggye kyi rig = Buddhagotra)  is understood as the emptiness of the person.  Again the Buddha-nature is not understood as the positive or radiant presence of some spiritual essence, but rather the simple absence of the fixed ego that we think we are. 


For Tsongkhapa, Buddha-nature is an absence.  It is the absence of the conviction that we are a static, alienated, separate self.  In the kind of meditation called hlag-tong in Tibetan (i.e. vipassana), one is instructed to look inside one’s body and mind to try to find the self.  I don't have the time to go into all the aspects of this, but basically the aim is to discover that there is nothing within you or without you that you can point at and say: “That's me.”  Emptiness, in this sense, is not a state, it is not something that you somehow arrive at one day, nor is it a kind of cosmic void out of which all things appear and then return.  The emptiness of the person is the ultimate unfindability of the person.  The more you look, the more you can not find anything that you can pinpoint and say: "Well, that's my true nature, that's what I'm really am."  And every candidate for “self”, be it a thought or a perception or a physical sensation, likewise reveals itself also to be unfindable. 


This is a bit like the physicists who search for the ultimate constituents of matter.  First of all they thought that atoms were the ultimate constituents of matter, but then they realized that the atoms were actually a little more complicated that what they thought.  So they started breaking them down into electrons, neutrons, protons and so on.  Then they realized that the electrons etc. were a lot more complicated too.  This led to the discovery of leptons and quarks. Then they realized that that can't be the case either. So now they have come up with a theory of superstrings: they believe that inside the tiniest possible little lepton there's a whole universe of “strings” vibrating.  But in order to verify this empirically they would have to build a particle accelerator about the size of Texas. And, of course, governments who fund this kind of thing complain that that would be too expensive.  So humankind may have to remain ignorant for a few years more to come. But my hunch is that even should they find those superstrings, they would realize that they too are rather more complicated than they thought. 


This kind of analysis, in terms of exploring one's own inner experience, has been used in Buddhist philosophy and meditation for hundreds of years. And the end result of such inquiry is what is meant by the emptiness of the person. This doesn't mean that there is no one there at all.  It means that no matter how far you search, you will never reach a bottom line, you'll never get to some point where you can stop. In other words, emptiness is a metaphor for a certain kind of infinity.


As William Blake said: “If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is: infinite..."  This is not an infinity that extends outwards, but an infinity that goes down, in depth.  The implication of this is that there is no final point, no solid bit, no nature, no essence, no fixed self, no absolute ego.  There is just this endless pouring forth of life.


For the Buddhist thinker, Nagarjuna, emptiness, when understood in this way, is synonymous with conditionality, with dependent origination.  They are just two different ways of describing the same thing. And that, for Tsongkhapa, is what constitutes our Buddha-nature.  For by seeing ourselves in this way, we realize that this fixed "me" that seems and feels so real is not actually the case.  There is no such thing.  For if there were such a thing, and our true self or soul were truly unconditioned, then awakening, or any transformation, would be impossible. It is by deconstructing that fixed view of ego that we are free to become awake, alive, wise, loving and compassionate.


What I've tried to do here is to present this idea of Buddha-nature in non-essentialist language.  But in many ways I would prefer not even to use the word “Buddha-nature,” because the term itself is strongly suggestive of some spiritual essence.  Rather than “Buddha-nature,” I would prefer to say: “Buddha-nurture.”