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Buddha-nature, Buddha-dhatu or Buddha Principle (Skt: Buddha-dhātu, Tathāgatagarbha; Jap: Bussho), is taught differently in various Mahayana Buddhism traditions. Broadly speaking Buddha-nature is concerned with ascertaining what allows sentient beings to become Buddhas. The term, Buddha nature, is a translation of the Sanskrit coinage, 'Buddha-dhātu', which seems first to have appeared in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, where it refers to 'a sacred nature that is the basis for [beings'] becoming buddhas.'
- 1 Etymology
- 2 Development of the concept of Buddha-nature
- 2.1 Early Indian Buddhism
- 2.2 Indian Mahayana
- 2.2.1 Prajna-paramita sutras
- 2.2.2 Avatamsaka Sutra
- 2.2.3 Tathāgatagarbha Sutras
- 2.2.4 Lotus Sutra
- 2.2.5 Trikaya
- 2.2.6 Tathagatagarbha and Alayavijnana
- 2.2.7 Tantra
- 2.3 Chinese Mahayana
- 3 Interpretation within Buddhist traditions
- 3.1 Indian Mahayana Buddhism
- 3.2 Tibetan Buddhism
- 3.3 Chinese Buddhism
- 3.4 Japanese Buddhism
- 4 Modern scholarship
- 5 See also
- 6 Notes
- 7 References
- 8 Sources
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
Buddha-nature (Classical Chinese: 佛性, modern pinyin fó xìng) literally corresponds to the Sanskrit Buddha-dhātu - "Buddha Element", "Buddha-Principle", but seems to have been used most frequently to translate the Sanskrit "Tathāgatagarbha". The Sanskrit term "tathāgatagarbha" may be parsed into tathāgata ("the one thus gone", referring to the Buddha) and garbha ("womb").[a] The latter has the meanings: "embryo", "essence"; whilst the former may be parsed into "tathā" ("[s]he who has there"[clarification needed] and "āgata" (semantic field: "come", "arrived") and/or "gata" ("gone").
For the various equivalents of the Sanskrit term "tathāgatagarbha" in other languages (Chinese, Japanese, Vietnamese), see Glossary of Buddhism, "tathagatagarbha"
Development of the concept of Buddha-nature
The idea of Buddha-nature originated in India, and was further developed in China, due to the different culture Buddhism had to adapt to. It was the result of an interplay between various strands of Buddhist thought, on the nature of human consciousness and the means of awakening.
Early Indian Buddhism
Nikayas - Luminous mind
The idea of the tathagatagarbha is grounded on sayings by the Buddha that there is an innately pure luminous mind (prabhasvara citta), "which is only adventitiously covered over by defilements (agantukaklesa)" This luminous mind is being mentioned in the Anguttara Nikaya:
Abhidhamma - The seed of awakening
One problem is how to integrate the doctrine of anatta with the idea of karma and rebirth. The anatta-doctrine stipulates that there is no underlying self, while the idea of karma and rebirth seems to implicate an underlying essence that's being reborn. A solution to this problem was the proposition of the existence of karmic seeds. The karmic effects of the human deeds lay dormant, as seeds, until they germinate in this or a next life. Not an individual self, but these karmic seeds are the base for the generation of a following life.
This concept of "seeds" was espoused by the Sautrāntika in debate with the Sarvāstivādins over the metaphysical status of phenomena (dharmas). It is a precursor to the ālaya-vijñāna, the store-consciousness of the Yogācāra school which contains all these seeds. Originally ālaya-vijñāna simply meant defiled consciousness: defiled by the workings of the five senses and the mind. It was also seen as the mūla-vijñāna, the base-consciousness or "stream of consciousness" from which awareness and perception spring.
According to Yogacara, awakening is the result of a seed that comes from outside the human psyche, namely by hearing the teaching.
The prajna-paramita sutras, which emerged from the 1st century BCE on, reject the idea of an eternal self or underlying essence. They emphasize the notion of emptiness. According to Kalupahana they are an early reaction to the "emergence of absolutist tendencies".
The Sutra of Perfect Wisdom, also called The Questions of Suvikrantavikramin, states its view on the self in this way:
[O]ne who wisely knows himself (atmanam) as nondual, he wisely knows both Buddha and Dharma. And why? He develops a personality which consists of all dharmas [...] His nondual comprehension comprehends all dharmas, for all dharmas are fixed on the Self in their own-being. One who wisely knows the nondual dharma wisely knows also the Buddhadharmas. From the comprehension of the nondual dharma follows the comprehension of the Buddhadharmas and from the comprehension of the Self the comprehension of everything that belongs to the triple world. "The comprehension of Self", that is the beyond of all dharmas.
The Avatamsaka Sutra does not contain a "singular discussion of the concept", but the idea of "a universal penetration of sentient beings by the wisdom of the Buddha (buddhajnana)" was complementary to the concept of the Buddha-womb.
The basic idea of the Avatamsaka Sutra is the unity of the absolute and the relative:
All in One, One in All. The All melts into a single whole. There are no divisions in the totality of reality [...] [I]t views the cosmos as holy, as "one bright pearl," the universal reality of the Buddha. The universal Buddhahood of all reality is the religious message of the Avatamsaka-sutra.
Each part of the world reflects the totality of the cosmos:
In each dust-mote of these worlds
Are countless worlds and Buddhas...
From the tip of each hair of Buddha's body
Are revealed the indescribable Pure Lands...
The indescribable infinite Lands
All ensemble in a hair's tip [of Buddha].
All levels of reality are related and interpenetrated. This is depicted in the image of Indra's net. This "unity in totality allows every individual entity of the phenomenal world its uniqueness without attributing an inherent nature to anything".
From the idea of the luminous mind emerged the idea that the awakened mind is the pure, undefiled mind. In the tathagatagarbha-sutras it is this pure consciousness that is regarded to be the seed from which Buddhahood grows:
When this intrinsically pure consciousness came to be regarded as an element capable of growing into Buddhahood, there was the "embryo (garbha) of the Tathagata (=Buddha)" doctrine, whether or not this term is employed.
Gregory comments on this origin of the Tathagatagarba-doctrine:
The implication of this doctrine [...] is that enlightenment is the natural and true state of the mind.
The early Buddha-nature concept as expressed in the seminal 'tathagatagarbha sutra' named the Nirvana Sutra is, according to Kevin Trainor, as follows:
'Sentient beings are said to possess a sacred nature that is the basis for them becoming buddhas ... this buddha-nature is in fact our true nature ... universal and completely unsullied by whatever psychological and karmic state an individual may be in.'
The earliest tathagata-garbha sutra is the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra. The most important of those sutras is The Lion's Roar of Queen Srimala. Another influential sutra, especially in Chinese thought, is the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra.
The Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra (200-250 CE) is considered...
... the earliest expression of this [the tathāgatagarbha doctrine) and the term tathāgatagarbha itself seems to have been coined in this very sutra."
The Śrīmālādevī Sūtra (3rd century CE), also named The Lion's Roar of Queen Srimala, centers on the teaching of the tathagatagarbha as "ultimate soteriological principle". Regarding the tathagata-garbha it states:
Lord, the Tathagatagarbha is neither self nor sentient being, nor soul, nor personality. The Tathagatagarbha is not the domain of beings who fall into the belief in a real personality, who adhere to wayward views, whose thoughts are distracted by voidness. Lord, this Tathagatagarbha is the embryo of the Illustrious Dharmadhatu, the embryo of the Dharmakaya, the embryo of the supramundane dharma, the embryo of the intrinsically pure dharma.
In the Śrīmālādevī Sūtra, there are two possible states for the Tathagatagarbha:
[E]ither covered by defilements, when it is called only "embryo of the Tathagata"; or free from defilements, when the "embryo of the Tathagata" is no more the "embryo" (potentiality) but the Tathagata (=the Dharmakaya)(actuality).
The sutra itself states it this way:
This Dharmakaya of the Tathagata when not free from the store of defilement is referred to as the Tathagatagarbha.
The Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra (written 2nd century CE) was very influential in the Chinese reception of the Buddhist teachings. This sutra was understood to postulate an underlying essence, 'the true Self', as it sometimes terms the Buddha-nature of all beings, though this sutra is ambivalent.
The Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra states that Buddha-nature is everlasting, pure and blissful, and is 'the Self of living beings'.
The self of which the Buddha speaks is said by him to be the "essential intrinsic being" (svabhava) or even "life-essence" (jīvaka) of each person, and this essential being is none other than the Buddha himself - "radiantly luminous" and "as indestructible as a diamond". The Buddha-nature is taught to be an ultimate, conceptually inconceivable, immortal reality.
But the Mahaparinirvana-sutra also contrasts its doctrine of the True Self with that of the Astikas. The Astikas were the orthodox teachings of India, embracing the idea of Atman. The sutra rejects the idea of the self as an indwelling miniature man, a homunculus:
This, the Buddha says, is a misconception of the nature of self, for:
That opinion of theirs is a mistaken opinion, one that is transmitted onwards from person to person, but it is neither beneficial nor conducive to happiness.... Worldly beings do not comprehend the reality of the Self (ātma-tattva); they fall under the sway of unwholesome friends, and do not understand the [Tathāgata’s] utterances with implicit meaning, they meditatively cultivate the notion that they lack the Self, even though there is the Self.
The Uttaratantra (5th century CE) is a sastra in which
[T]he various insights and developments of the above texts (all of which served as its sources) were to be comprehensively synthesised into the most authoritatively complete analysis of the Tathagatagarbha theory.
It gives an overview of authoritative tathagatagarbha sutras, mentioning the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra, the Śrīmālādevī Sūtra, Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra, the Angulimaliya Sutra, the Anunatva-Apurnatva-Nirdesa and the Mahābherīharaka-sūtra.
According to the Ratnagotravibhāga,
Thusness [tathata] defiled is the Tathagatagarbha, and Thusness undefiled is Enlightenment.
The tenth chapter emphasizes, in accordance with the Bodhisattva-ideal of the Mahayana-teachings, that everyone can be liberated. All living beings can become a buddha, not only monks and nuns, but also laypeople, shravakas, bodhisattvas, non-human creatures, dragon kings and centaurs. It also details that all living beings can be a 'teacher of the Dharma'.
The twelfth chapter of the Lotus Sutra details that Buddha nature is universal among all people. Even the historical Devadatta has the potential to become a buddha. The story of Devadatta is followed by another story about a dragon princess who is both a nāga and a female, whom the bodhisattva Mañjuśrī proclaims will reach enlightenment immediately, in her present form.
- The Nirmana-kaya, or Transformation-body,
- The Sambhogakāya, or Enjoyment-body,
- The Dharmakāya, or Dharma-body.
The Transformation-body is the earthly manifestation of the Buddha.
The Enjoyment-body is a subtle body, by which the Buddha appears to bodhisattvas to teach them.
The Dharma-body refers to both the ultimate nature of the Buddha, and to the ultimate nature of reality:
The first is the 'Knowledge-body' (Jnana-kaya), the inner nature shared by all Buddhas, their Buddha-ness (buddhata)
[...] The second aspect of the Dharma-body is the 'Self-existent-body' (Svabhavika-kaya). This is the ultimate nature of reality, thusness, emptiness: the non-nature which is the very nature of dharmas, their dharma-ness (dharmata). It is the Tathagata-garbha and bodhi-citta hidden within beings, and the transformed 'storehouse-consciousness'.
Tathagatagarbha and Alayavijnana
The Lankavatara Sutra "assimilates Tathagata-garbha thought to the Yogacara-viewpoint, and this assimilation is further developed in [...] The Treatise on the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana".
The Lankavatara Sutra (compiled 350-400 CE) synthesized the tathagatagarba-doctrine and the ālāya-vijñāna doctrine. The ālāya-vijñāna is supposed to contain the pure seed, or tathagatagarbha, from which awakening arises.
The Lankavatara-sutra contains tathagata-garba thought, but also warns against reification of the idea of Buddha-nature, and presents it as an aid to attaining awakening:
Is not this Tathagata-garbha taught by the Blessed One the same as the ego-substance taught by the philosophers? The ego as taught by the philosophers is an eternal creator, unqualified, omnipresent, and imperishable.
The Blessed One replied: [...] it is emptiness, reality-limit, Nirvana, being unborn, unqualified, and devoid of will-effort; the reason why the Tathagatas [...] teach the doctrine pointing to the Tathagata-garba is to make the ignorant cast aside their fear when they listen to the teaching of egolessness and to have them realise the state of non-discrimination and imagelessness
According to Wayman & Wayman, the equation of tathagatagarbha and ālāya-vijñāna in the Lankavatara fails:
It is plain that when the Lankavatara-sutra identifies the two terms, this scripture necessarily diverges in the meaning of one or both of the terms from the usage of the term Tathagatagarbha in the earlier Sri-Mala or of the term ālāya-vijñāna in the subsequent Yogacara school.
The Awakening of Faith
The Awakening of Faith (translated into Chinese 6th century CE) was very influential in the development of Chinese Buddhism. It tried to harmonize the ideas of the tathāgatagarbha and ālāya-vijñāna:
In the words of the Awakening of Faith — which summarizes the essentials of Mahayana — self and world, mind and suchness, are integrally one. Everything is a carrier of that a priori enlightenment; all incipient enlightenment is predicated on it. The mystery of existence is, then, not, “How may we overcome alienation?” The challenge is, rather, “Why do we think we are lost in the first place?”
The Mahāvairocana Sūtra (7th century) mentions the self in a very affirmative manner:
Those who have been initiated into the Mahayana Mandala Arising from Great Compassion, who are honest and pliant, and who always have great compassion [...] They know their hearts to be the Great Self.
When Buddhism was introduced to China, in the 1st century CE, Buddhism was understood through comparisons of its teachings to Chinese terms and ways of thinking. Immortality and emptiness, central notions in Taoïsm, gave a frame of reference for the understanding of reincarnation and sunyata.
In the Chinese thinking of that time reincarnation was only possible if there was a soul or essence to reincarnate. Early Chinese Buddhism therefore assumed that this was also the teaching of the Buddha. In the 6th century CE it dawned that anatman and sunyata are central Buddhist teachings, which make the postulation of an eternal self problematic.Template:Lai
Another point of confusion was the Two truths doctrine of Madhyamaka, the relative truth and the absolute truth. Chinese thinking took this to refer to two ontological truths: reality exists of two levels, a relative level and an absolute level. But in Madhyamaka these are two epistemological truths: two different ways to look at reality. Based on their understanding of the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra the Chinese supposed that the teaching of the Buddha-nature was, as stated by that sutra, the final Buddhist teaching, and that there is an essential truth above sunyata and the two truths.
Halfway through the 6th century CE the Awakening of Faith in the Mahayana took shape, in which a synthesis was offered of Chinese buddhist thinking. In the Awakening of Faith the 'one mind' has two aspects, namely tathata, suchness, the things as they are, and samsara, the cycle of birth and death. This text was in line with an essay by emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty (reign 502-549 CE), in which he postulated a pure essence, the enlightened mind, trapped in darkness, which is ignorance. By this ignorance the pure mind is trapped in samsara. This resembles the tathagata-garba and the idea of the defilement of the luminous mind. In a commentary on this essay Shen Yue stated that insight into this true essence is awakened by stopping the thoughts - a point of view which is also being found in the Platform Sutra of Hui-neng.
The joining together of these different ideas supported the notion of the Lotus ekayana, the one vehicle: absolute oneness, all-pervading Buddha-wisdom and original enlightenment as a holistic whole. This synthesis was a reflection of the unity which was attained in China with the united Song Dynasty.
Interpretation within Buddhist traditions
Indian Mahayana Buddhism
It is possible to do a Madhyamaka interpretation of tathāgatagarbha literature.
According to Kalupahana, the Madhyamaka of Nagarjuna, but also the Yogacara of Vasubandhu are a later reaction to the "emergence of absolutist tendencies". Nagarjuna's work is founded on the prajnaparamita-sutras, which reach back to the anatman doctrine.
Vasubandhu gives an analysis of the workings of the human mind and consciousness, based on the analysis of the working of the five skandhas. Vasubandhu's original analysis leaves ample room for the proposition of a transcendent essence[c], but was interpreted in an idealist way by later followers.
To account for the notion of Buddha-nature in all beings, with the Yogacara belief in the Five Categories of Beings, Yogacara scholars in China such as Tz'u-en (慈恩, 632-682) the first patriarch in China, advocated two types of nature: the latent nature found in all beings (理佛性) and the Buddha-nature in practice (行佛性). The latter nature was determined by the innate seeds listed above.
According to the Nyingma and Sakya schools, tathāgatagarbha is the inseparability of the clarity and emptiness of one's mind. According to the Gelug school, it is the potential for sentient beings to awaken since they are empty (i.e. dependently originated). According to the Jonang school, it refers to the innate qualities of the mind which expresses itself in terms of omniscience etc. when adventitious obscurations are removed.
Dharmadhatu is adorned with dharmakaya, which is endowed with dharmadhatu wisdom. This is a brief but very profound statement, because "dharmadhatu" also refers to sugata-garbha or buddha nature. Buddha nature is all-encompassing ... This buddha nature is present just as the shining sun is present in the sky. It is indivisible from the three vajras [i.e. the Buddha's Body, Speech and Mind] of the awakened state, which do not perish or change.
The Nyingma meditation masters, Khenchen Palden Sherab and Khenpo Tsewang Dongyal, emphasise that the essential nature of the mind (the Buddha-nature) is not a blankness, but is characterised by wonderful qualities and a perfection that is already present and complete:
The nature of the mind is not hollow or blank; it is profound and blissful and full of wonderful qualities... meditation practice reveals our true nature as being totally perfect and complete.
The true nature of mind is beyond conception, yet it is present in every object. The true nature is always there, but due to our temporary obscurations we do not recognize it ... The primordial nature is beyond conceptions; it cannot be explained ... cannot be encompassed by words. Although you can say it is clarity and vastness, you cannot see it or touch it; it is beyond expression.
In the Tibetan Kagyu tradition, Thrangu Rinpoche sees the Buddha nature as the indivisible oneness of wisdom and emptiness:
The union of wisdom and emptiness is the essence of Buddha-hood or what is called Buddha-nature (Skt. Tathagata-garbha) because it contains the very seed, the potential of Buddhahood. It resides in each and every being and because of this essential nature, this heart nature, there is the possibility of reaching Buddhahood.
The 14th Dalai Lama, representing the Gelukpa School of Tibetan Buddhism, and speaking from the Madhyamaka philosophical position, sees the Buddha-nature as the "original clear light of mind", but points out that it ultimately does not exist independently, because, like all other phenomena, it is of the nature of emptiness:
Once one pronounces the words "emptiness" and "absolute", one has the impression of speaking of the same thing, in fact of the absolute. If emptiness must be explained through the use of just one of these two terms, there will be confusion. I must say this; otherwise you might think that the innate original clear light as absolute truth really exists.
The Jonangpa School of Tibetan Buddhism, whose foremost historical figure was the Tibetan scholar-monk Dolpopa, sees the Buddha-nature as the very ground of the Buddha himself, as the "permanent indwelling of the Buddha in the basal state". Dolpopa comments that certain key tathāgatagarbha sutras indicate this truth.
Moreover, the Buddhist tantric scripture entitled Chanting the Names of Mañjuśrī (Mañjuśrī-nāma-saṅgīti), repeatedly exalts, as portrayed by Dolpopa, not the non-Self but the Self, and applies the following terms to this ultimate reality : 'The Buddha-Self, the beginningless Self, the solid Self, the diamond Self'. These terms are applied in a manner which reflects the cataphatic approach to Buddhism, typical of much of Dolpopa's writings.
Dolpopa further expressed the viewpoint that the Buddha-nature transcends the chain of dependent origination. It is not empty of its own ultimately real essence, but only of extraneous, transitory and relative phenomena.
Dr. Cyrus Stearns writes on Dolpopa's attitude to the 'third turning of the wheel' doctrines (i.e. the Buddha-nature teachings):
The Third Turning of the Dharma Wheel presented the teachings on the Buddha nature, which are the final definitive statements on the nature of ultimate reality, the primordial ground or substratum beyond the chain of dependent origination, and which is only empty of other, relative phenomena.'
In the Ghanavyuha Sutra (as quoted by Longchenpa) this Buddha essence is said to be the ground of all things:
... the ultimate universal ground also has always been with the Buddha-Essence (Tathagatagarbha), and this essence in terms of the universal ground has been taught by the Tathagata. The fools who do not know it, because of their habits, see even the universal ground as (having) various happiness and suffering and actions and emotional defilements. Its nature is pure and immaculate, its qualities are as wishing-jewels; there are neither changes nor cessations. Whoever realizes it attains Liberation ...
...the Great Perfection represents the most sophisticated interpretation of the so-called "Buddha nature" tradition within the context of Indo-Tibetan thought, and as such, is of extreme importance for research into classical esoteric philosophic systems such as Madhyamaka and Yogacara, while also providing fertile grounds for future explorations of the interconnections between Indo-Tibetan and East Asian forms of Buddhism, as well as between Indo-Tibetan Buddhism and contemporary Indian developments such as the tenth century non-dual Shaivism of Abhinavagupta.
The 19th/20th-century Tibetan Buddhist scholar, Shechen Gyaltsap Gyurme Pema Namgyal, sees the Buddha nature as ultimate truth, nirvana, which is constituted of profundity, primordial peace and radiance:
Buddha-nature is immaculate. It is profound, serene, unfabricated suchness, an uncompounded expanse of luminosity; nonarising, unceasing, primordial peace, spontaneously present nirvana.
The Rimé movement
Ringu Tulku says,
There has been a great deal of heated debate in Tibet between the exponents of Rangtong, (Wylie: Rang-stong) and Shentong, (Wylie: gZhan-stong) philosophies. The historic facts of these two philosophies are well known to the Tibetologists.
Jamgon Kongtrul says about the two systems:
Madhyamika philosophies have no differences in realising as 'Shunyata', all phenomena that we experience on a relative level. They have no differences also, in reaching the meditative state where all extremes (ideas) completely dissolve. Their difference lies in the words they use to describe the Dharmata. Shentong describes the Dharmata, the mind of Buddha, as 'ultimately real'; while Rangtong philosophers fear that if it is described that way, people might understand it as the concept of 'soul' or 'Atma'. The Shentong philosopher believes that there is a more serious possibility of misunderstanding in describing the Enlightened State as 'unreal' and 'void'. Kongtrul finds the Rangtong way of presentation the best to dissolve concepts and the Shentong way the best to describe the experience.
In 2006, Khentrul Rinpoche Jamphal Lodro founded "The Tibetan Buddhist Rimé Institute" in Melbourne, Australia. It aims to propagate the Rimé view of harmony within all Buddhist traditions and to introduce the rare Jonang Kalachakra Tantra lineage teachings in the western world.
In Chinese Ch’an Buddhism the Buddha-nature tends to be seen as the essential nature of all beings. But the Zen tradition also emphasizes that Buddha-nature is Sunyata, the absence of an independent and substantial "self".
The understanding of the tathāgatagarbha in Zen is connected to the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra. The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra presents the Chan/Zen Buddhist view of the tathāgatagarbha:
[The Buddha said,]
Now, Mahāmati, what is perfect knowledge? It is realised when one casts aside the discriminating notions of form, name, reality, and character; it is the inner realisation by noble wisdom. This perfect knowledge, Mahāmati, is the essence of the Tathāgata-garbha.
Chan/Zen masters from Huineng in 7th-century China to Hakuin in 18th-century Japan to Hsu Yun in 20th-century China, have all taught that the process of awakening begins with the light of the mind turning around within the 8th consciousness, so that the ālayavijñāna, also known as the tathāgatagarbha, is transformed into the "bright mirror wisdom". When this active transformation is complete the other seven consciousnesses are also transformed. The 7th consciousness of delusive discrimination becomes transformed into the "equality wisdom". The 6th consciousness of thinking sense becomes transformed into the "profound observing wisdom", and the 1st to 5th consciousnesses of the five sensory senses become transformed into the "all-performing wisdom".
Vajrasamadhi-sutra (685 CE)
In the Korean Vajrasamādhi Sūtra tathāgatagarbha is presented as being possessed of two elements, one essential, immutable, changeless and still, the other active and salvational:
This 'dharma of the one mind', which is the 'original tathagatagarbha', is said to be 'calm and motionless' ... The Vajrasamadhi's analysis of tathagatagarbha also recalls a distinction the Awakening of Faith makes between the calm, unchanging essence of the mind and its active, adaptable function [...] The tathagatagarbha is equated with the 'original edge of reality' (bhutakoti) that is beyond all distinctions - the equivalent of original enlightenment, or the essence. But tathagatagarbha is also the active functioning of that original enlightenment - 'the inspirational power of that fundamental faculty' .... The tathagatagarbha is thus both the 'original edge of reality' that is beyond cultivation (= essence) as well as the specific types of wisdom and mystical talents that are the byproducts of enlightenment (= function).
According to Heng-Ching Shih, the teaching of the universal Buddha-nature does not intend to assert the existence of substantial, entity-like self endowed with excellent features of a Buddha. Rather, Buddha-nature simply represents the potentiality to be realized in the future.
Master Hsing Yun, forty-eighth patriarch of the Linji School of Ch’an Buddhism, equates the Buddha-nature with the Dharmakāya in line with pronouncements in key tathāgatagarbha sutras. He defines these two as:
the inherent nature that exists in all beings. In Mahāyāna Buddhism, enlightenment is a process of uncovering this inherent nature … The Buddha nature [is] identical with transcendental reality. The unity of the Buddha with everything that exists.
Nichiren (1222–1282) was a Buddhist monk who taught devotion to the Lotus Sutra as the exclusive means to attain enlightenment, and the chanting of Nam(u) Myōhō Renge Kyō as the essential practice of the teaching. Nichiren Buddhism includes various schools with diverging interpretations of Nichiren's teachings.
Nichiren Buddhism views the Buddha nature as "The inner potential for attaining Buddhahood", common to all people.  Based on the Lotus Sutra, Nichiren maintained that "all living being possess the Buddha nature", being the inherent potential to attain Buddhahood:
The Buddha nature refers to the potential for attaining Buddhahood, a state of awakening filled with compassion and wisdom.
[T]the Buddha nature within us is summoned forth and manifested by our chanting of Nam-myoho-renge-kyo.
The potential for Buddhahood exists in the whole spectrum of the Ten Worlds of life, and this means that all people, including evil doers, have Buddha nature, which remains as a dormant possibility or a theoretical potential in the field of emptiness or non-substantiality until it is materialized in reality through Buddhist practice.
In his letter "Opening the Eyes of Wooden and painted Images"  Nichiren explains that insentient matter (such as trees, mandalas, images, statues) also possess the Buddha nature, because they serve as objects of worship. This view regards the Buddha nature as the original nature of all manifestations of life – sentient and insentient – through their interconnectedness:
This concept of the enlightenment of plants in turn derives from the doctrine of three thousand realms in a single moment of life, which teaches that all life—insentient and sentient—possesses the Buddha nature.
The founder of the Sōtō school of Zen Buddhism, Dōgen Zenji, held that Buddha-nature was simply the true nature of reality and Being. This true nature was just impermanence, becoming and 'vast emptiness'. Because he saw the whole universe as an expression of Buddha-nature, he held that even grass and trees are Buddha nature.
Therefore, the very impermanency of grass and tree, thicket and forest is the Buddha nature. The very impermanency of men and things, body and mind, is the Buddha nature. Nature and lands, mountains and rivers, are impermanent because they are the Buddha nature. Supreme and complete enlightenment, because it is impermanent, is the Buddha nature.
The Sōtō Zen teacher, Hakuun Yasutani also defined Buddha-nature in terms of the emptiness and impermanence of all dharmas:
Everything by its very nature is subject to the process of infinite transformation - this is its Buddha- or Dharma-nature.
What is the substance of this Buddha- or Dharma-nature? In Buddhism it is called ku (shunyata). Now, ku is not mere emptiness. It is that which is living, dynamic, devoic of mass, unfixed, beyond individuality or personality--the matrix of all phenomena.
Shenpen Hookham, Oxford Buddhist scholar and Tibetan lama of the Shentong tradition writes of the Buddha-nature or "true self" as something real and permanent, and already present within the being as uncompounded enlightenment. She calls it "the Buddha within", and comments:
In scriptural terms, there can be no real objection to referring to Buddha, Buddhajnana [Buddha Awareness/ Buddha Knowledge], Nirvana and so forth as the True Self, unless the concept of Buddha and so forth being propounded can be shown to be impermanent, suffering, compounded, or imperfect in some way ... in Shentong terms, the non-self is about what is not the case, and the Self of the Third Dharmachakra [i.e. the Buddha-nature doctrine] is about what truly IS.
Buddhist scholar and chronicler, Merv Fowler, writes that the Buddha-nature really is present as an essence within each being. Fowler comments:
The teaching that Buddha-nature is the hidden essence within all sentient beings is the main message of the tathagatagarbha literature, the earliest of which is the Tathagatagarbha Sutra. This short sutra says that all living beings are in essence identical to the Buddha regardless of their defilements or their continuing transmigration from life to life... As in the earlier traditions, there is present the idea that enlightenment, or nirvana, is not something which has to be achieved, it is something which is already there... In a way, it means that everyone is really a Buddha now.
According to Heng-Ching Shih, the tathāgatagarbha/Buddha-nature does not represent a substantial self (ātman). Rather, it is a positive language expression of emptiness (śūnyatā), which emphasizes the potentiality to realize Buddhahood through Buddhist practices. The intention of the teaching of tathāgatagarbha/Buddha nature is soteriological rather than theoretical.
Paul Williams puts forward the Madhyamaka interpretation of the Buddha-nature as emptiness in the following terms:
… if one is a Madhyamika then that which enables sentient beings to become buddhas must be the very factor that enables the minds of sentient beings to change into the minds of Buddhas. That which enables things to change is their simple absence of inherent existence, their emptiness. Thus the tathagatagarbha becomes emptiness itself, but specifically emptiness when applied to the mental continuum.
According to Matsumoto Shiro and Hakamaya Noriaki, essentialist conceptions of Buddha-nature are at odds with the fundamental Buddhist doctrine of dependent origination. Sallie B King objects to their view. She sees the Buddha-nature as a metaphor for the potential in all beings to attain Buddhahood, rather than as an ontological reality.
This view of the Buddha-nature as non-Buddhist is termed Critical Buddhism. Paul Williams has criticised this view, saying that Critical Buddhism is too narrow in its definition of what constitutes Buddhism. According to Williams,
We should abandon any simplistic identification of Buddhism with a straightforward not-Self definition".
Sutton agrees with this critique on the narrowness of interpretation. In discussing the inadequacy of modern scholarship on Buddha-nature, Sutton states,
One is impressed by the fact that these authors, as a rule, tend to opt for a single meaning disregarding all other possible meanings which are embraced in turn by other texts".
He goes on to point out that the term tathāgatagarbha has up to six possible connotations. Of these, he says the three most important are:
- an underlying ontological reality or essential nature (tathāgata-tathatā-'vyatireka) which is functionally equivalent to a self (ātman) in an Upanishadic sense,
- the dharma-kāya which penetrates all beings (sarva-sattveṣu dharma-kāya-parispharaṇa), which is functionally equivalent to brahman in an Upanishadic sense
- the womb or matrix of Buddhahood existing in all beings (tathāgata-gotra-saṃbhava), which provides beings with the possibility of awakening.
Of these three, Sutton claims that only the third connotation has any soteriological significance, while the other two posit Buddha-nature as an ontological reality and essential nature behind all phenomena.
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