Buddha Nature: Our Natural Capacity for Perfectibility

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“For Buddhists, the theory of Buddha nature—the notion that natural capacity for perfectibility lies within each of us—is a deeply and continually inspiring concept.” So writes The Dalai Lama in his 2005 book, The Universe in a Single Atom. (Broadway Books, p.149) Master Sheng Yen concurs with the Dalai Lama when he writes in his 2016 book, Liberated in Stillness and Motion, that “Buddhism believes that every human being, and in fact all sentient beings, have buddha-nature; this means we can all become buddhas. This is Buddhist faith and Buddhist belief.” (Dharma Drum Publishing, p. 132) We should note that The Dalai Lama uses the words “theory” and “notion,” and Master Sheng Yen the words “faith” and “belief,” in their statements about Buddha nature. In other words, they are not talking about the “fact” of Buddha nature, which is well established and widely accepted. To the extent that Buddha nature is not an established fact, it is up to us practitioners to confirm the validity of “the notion that natural capacity for perfectibility lies within each of us.”

Do we indeed possess natural capacity for perfectibility? If we do, how do we realize that perfectibility? To answer these questions, we need to know what perfectibility, or perfection, means for Buddhist practitioners. In the Theravada tradition, perfectibility would mean our natural capacity to find the path to enlightenment and attain liberation. The following words of the Buddha suggest the kinds of practices we should follow if we are to realize that state of perfection called enlightenment and liberation: “Concentration by mindfulness of breathing, Ananda, is the one thing which, when developed and cultivated, fulfills the four establishments of mindfulness. The four establishments of mindfulness, when developed and cultivated, fulfill the seven factors of enlightenment. The seven factors of enlightenment, when developed and cultivated, fulfill true knowledge and liberation.” (Samuyutta Nikaya 54:13)

A practitioner who has successfully reached that state of perfection is called an arahant in the Theravada tradition, which is the last of the four stages of accomplishment on the savakas path for the Buddha’s monastic disciples. At the first stage, one enters the stream and becomes a sotapanna, or a stream-enterer, who experiences the opening of the Dhamma-eye. At the second stage, one becomes a sakadagami, or a once-returner, in whom sensual desire and ill-will are greatly weakened. At the third stage, one becomes an anagami, or a non-returner, in whom sensual desire and ill-will are completely destroyed, and will be reborn in a higher world at death and will attain Nibbana without returning to this world. Finally at the fourth stage, one becomes an arahant, or a worthy one, by the destruction of craving, conceit, restlessness and ignorance, and will attain the final Nibbana without remainder at death. The notion of Buddha nature in the Theravada tradition thus means that we are endowed with natural capacity to become arahants, who attain enlightenment and liberation through our own efforts and practice.

With the development of Mahayana Buddhism, the notion of Buddha nature becomes more widely accepted, with a bodhisattva replacing an arahant as someone who embodies the state of perfection. In order to become a bodhisattva, a practitioner in the Mahayana tradition is asked to cultivate and develop bodhicitta. Thus, Nagarjuna, known as the founder of Madhyamaka school of Mahayana Buddhism, writes in his commentary on bodhicitta: “In Mahayana this bodhicitta is said to be the very best. So produce bodhicitta through firm and balanced efforts.” (Bodhicittavivarana 105) The Mahayana emphasis on the cultivation and development of bodhicitta comes from the recognition that the Buddha’s decision to turn the Dharma wheel was based on his great motivation to help all sentient beings. As the Dalai Lama points out in his 2014 book, Buddhism: One Teacher, Many Traditions, “Bodhicitta—the aspiration to attain full awakening for the benefit of all sentient beings—is the magnificent motivation that enabled Siddhartha Gautama to become a bodhisattva and then a buddha and to turn the Dharma wheel.”

It is in the context of helping practitioners to cultivate and develop bodhicitta that the Six Paramitas have emerged as one of the most important practices in the Mahayana tradition, which are often translated as the Six Perfections. As Thich Nhat Hanh explains, “The Six Paramitas are called the doors of action because this practice is the basis of the bodhisattva path. … The Six Paramitas are very concrete means for us to cross over the sea of suffering to the shore of freedom from craving, anger, envy, despair, and delusion.” (Peaceful Action, Open Heart: Lessons from the Lotus Sutra, Parallax Press, 2008, p.239) In Mahayana Buddhism, practicing the paramitas to cross over the sea of suffering to the shore of freedom is not just for our own benefit. As Master Sheng Yen emphasizes, “From the Mahayana standpoint, practicing the paramitas is to practice in accordance with selflessness and non-attachment, and for the dual benefit of self and others.” (The Six Paramitas: Perfections of the Bodhisattva Path, DDM, 2001, p.4)

There is no question that Buddha nature is an inspiring concept that serves as an encouragement for Buddhist practitioners as we practice daily to stay on the bodhisattva path by nurturing bodhicitta in us. What is most challenging for us to stay on the bodhisattva path is that there is so much suffering in the world around us driven by the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion—so much so that it is difficult to practice “in accordance with selflessness and non-attachment, and for the dual benefit of self and others.” But practice we must if we are to make the world a better place for all of us. It was Martin Luther King Jr. who drew our attention to the importance of community when he said: “Beloved community is our only salvation.” For Buddhists, “beloved community includes the whole planet of beings,” as Larry Ward reminds us in his latest book, America’s Racial Karma (Parallax Press, 2020, p.42). Indeed, our bodhisattva practice to develop beloved community must be extended to cover the entire regions of the Mother Earth as home to all sentient beings endowed with Buddha nature.