Follow up to mention of Buddha Nature by HH Phakchok Rinpoche’s recent talk in Bkk. ‘Buddha Nature’ is an essential part of Mahayana teachings – does it have a place in Theravada? Or is it something new to the teaching of Buddhism?
Buddha nature is supposed to be a general background, underlying nature that we all share. It is not however, a shared consciousness in the Yungian sense, because there is no merging of people’s Buddha natures into one grand whole. We each have our own Buddha nature, though this essence is the same for each of us. Therefore it differs from the idea of an Atman, a permanent unchanging individual ‘Self’. The Atman is something that Theravada dismisses (or does it?), and Mahayana does not accept in name, even if it proposes it in nature. Indeed the Lotus Sutta, the heart of Mahayana, tells us that the Buddha and all the arahants are still existent in some other level, and we will meet them when we become enlightened. Therefore, our enlightened essence is eternal, even if it is not explicitly stated as being an ‘Atman’.
- So, an Atman is a permanent, individual soul, that does not change. And it is rejected by most Buddhist Schools in the ‘Non-self’ doctrine.
- Buddha Nature is a permanent unchanging essence, a ground of emptiness from which all appears. Though all beings have it, the Buddha Nature of each being is indistinguishable.
Theravada does not anywhere explicitly state that there is a Buddha nature. However, like most Mahayana concepts such as emptiness or the Bodhisattva path, the general concept appears in the Pali scriptures. Numerous times the Buddha states clearly that there is the Unconditioned – if there were not the Unconditioned, there would be no benefit or result of living the Holy LIfe. But since there is the Unconditioned, then living the Holy Life has a goal.
What is ‘the Unconditioned’? It is the goal of the practise, the nibbana element that does not change, that is not subject to birth, aging, or death. It is entirely free from Dukkha (suffering). This Unconditioned is real and can be experienced when the outflowings of the mind are brought to a halt (The end of the ‘asava’, or outflowings, of ignorance, becoming, desire, and sometimes a fourth category ‘views’). Another way it is described is ‘seeing and knowing the liberation of the heart’ (vimutthi nyanadassana). All Mahayana is doing is giving this experience a name – Buddha Nature. The Theravada uses only an adjective to describe the property of enlightenment – that is is Unconditioned, where Mahayana is giving it a proper noun.
Which brings us to consciousness. Theravada seems to reject any form of experience as simply something that is impermanent, and therefore dukkha. So how is it that the Unconditioned can be experienced? In fact there are numerous references in the Suttas to the fact that enlightenment arises as a direct experience, even if only temporary in the destruction of the asava or seeing and knowing liberation. Is this then an extra category of consciousness that is not impermanent, dukkha or non-self? And more importantly does this mean that some kinds of experience of the mind that arise in meditation should not be rejected as simply impermanent, dukkha and non-self? Good questions for the scholarly.
In the mean time we Theravadins can accept the Buddha Nature as an explicit understanding that enlightenment itself can be experienced directly here and now, without having to accept or creat the idea of a permanent abiding Atman or Soul.
For further discussion on the nature of Consciousness – from the modern psychological understanding of the term, to sense consciousness in Buddhism, and finally to the conscious experience of the Unconditioned (or Buddha Nature or whatever you want to call it), click here for a WORD document covering the topic in 20 or so short pages. 🙂