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. We should note that The Dalai Lama uses the word “theory,” or “notion,” when he talks about Buddha nature. In other words, he is 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.

When Things Fall Apart

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

“The Second Coming,” a poem WB Yeats composed in 1919 and published in 1920, is one of those poems whose influence was not limited to his contemporaries. Despite its shortness with only twelve lines, the poem has been a source of inspiration for successive generations of writers and artists with its apocalyptic message: Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. When Yeats composed this poem, the World War I was coming to an end, with negotiations for the peace agreement between the victorious Allies and the defeated Central Powers going on at the Paris Peace Conference in 1919 and 1920. While the Conference was going on, Europe and other nations of the world were still struggling to cope with the Spanish flu pandemic. As a matter of fact, US President Woodrow Wilson, who was at the Paris Peace Conference, was one of the notable individuals who came down with the Spanish flu in 1920, though he was spared from becoming a victim of the pandemic that is said to have caused some 40 million deaths around the world.

As the words describing a chaotic situation, many authors have adopted ‘things fall apart’ as the title of their books. Chinua Achebe, a Nigerian author, uses these words as the title of his novel published in 1958 to describe how the traditional way of life of a Nigerian tribe was disrupted and uprooted by the arrival of European colonialists and Christian missionaries. Daniel Byman and Kenneth Polack, both senior fellows at the Brookings Institution, use the same words in their 2007 book, Things Fall Apart: Containing the Spillover from an Iraqi Civil War, to describe the chaotic civil war that was threatening to spillover into neighboring countries. The same words were also used by Ramaa Vasudevan, an economics professor at Colorado State University, to describe the chaotic financial markets that followed the Great Crash of 2008 in her 2013 book, Things Fall Apart: From the Crash of 2008 to the Great Slump. Since ‘things fall apart’ for individuals as well as for communities, nations, and international organizations, it comes as no surprise that Pema Chodron, an American Buddhist nun who is the resident teacher at Gampo Abbey, also incorporates these words in her 2000 book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times, to describe individuals trying to cope with their chaotic lives.

What about the world of 2020, one hundred years after Yeats published his “The Second Coming”? Are not things falling apart amid the chaos and dread that are spreading around the world with the COVID-19 pandemic? There is no end in sight as far as the number of people afflicted with this disease, with the total number of patients worldwide exceeding 30 million and the death toll approaching one million. Ironically, one of those victims of COVID-19 was Cristina, an American pop singer who released a song titled, “Things Fall Apart,” in 1981 and died on April 1, 2020 due to complications from the disease at age 61. Indeed, we are reminded each day that things are falling apart on many fronts: the health care system, the transportation network, the supply chain of raw materials and goods, the mode of human contact and communication, and so on. The words, ‘things fall apart,’ are popping up here and there in commentaries and opinion pages to describe the chaotic situation of the world in the era of COVID-19.

What are we to do when things are falling apart all around us? Is the Second Coming at hand, as Yeats suggests? Looking at the societal tensions around the world caused by different groups of people exhibiting different patterns of behavior in response to the COVID-19 crisis and other crises like the racial conflict, the refugee problem, and the climate change, it is tempting to agree with Yeats that “The best lack conviction, while the worst/ Are full of passionate intensity.” There is no question that the post-COVID-19 world would be different from the pre-COVID-19 world in terms of the way we conduct our lives. We know, of course, that change and transformation, whether radical or gradual, are always taking place in the world around us. From the Buddhist perspective, what we need to do is to seek peace and happiness in the world of no-coming and no-going, as Thich Nhat Hanh puts it, namely, in the world of here-and-now. In other words, our spiritual journey is not about seeking the Promised Land in the East, or the Pure Land in the West, but about practicing in the present world full of chaos and fear. As Pema Chodron writes in her 2000 book mentioned above, “Sticking with that uncertainty, getting the knack of relaxing in the midst of chaos, learning not to panic—this is the spiritual path.” (Pema Chodron, p. 10) There is no need to look for signs of the Second Coming, for revelation is already within us, if we care to look deeply.