"You are your own saviour
- who else is there to save You ?"
Dhammapada, verse 160.
"The Dharmakâya of the Tathâgata is
named 'cessation of suffering', and it is beginningless, uncreate, unborn,
undying, free from death ; permanent, steadfast, calm, eternal ;
intrinsically pure, free from all the defilement store ; and accompanied
by Buddha natures more numerous than the sands of the Ganges, which are
nondiscrete, knowing as liberated, and inconceivable. This Dharmakâya of
the Tathâgata when not free from the store of defilements is referred to
as the Tathâgatagarbha."- Shrî-Mâlâ Sûtra (Wayman
& Wayman, 1974, p.98 - "Buddha natures" refers here to all enlightened
qualities of body, speech & mind of a Buddha).
"At that time, Mahâmati the
Bodhisattva-Mahâsattva said this to the Blessed One : Now the Blessed One
makes mention of the Tathâgata-garbha in the sûtras, and verily it is
described by you as by nature bright and pure, as primarily unspotted,
endowed with the thirty-two marks of excellence, hidden in the body of
every being like a gem of great value, hidden in the body of every being
like a gem of great value, which is enwrapped in a dirty garment,
enveloped in the garment of the Skandhas, Dhâtus and Âyatanas, and soiled
with the dirt of greed, anger, folly, and false imagination, while it is
described by the Blessed One to be eternal, permanent, auspicious, and
Lankâvatâra Sûtra, chapter 2, XXVIII.77-78.
To facilitate our escape from cyclic existence,
Buddhayâna rejects any kind of substantial (fixed, static,
self-powered) agent whatsoever. Objectively, no Divine Saviour, revealed
sacred text or magical procedure irreversibly ends suffering.
Likewise, on the inside, excelling in originality, Buddha Shâkyamuni,
while identifying consciousness ("vijñâna"), also rejects a substantial,
essentialist, self-sufficient self ("âtman").
Together with suffering & impermanence, this absence of a static,
self-powered subjectivity ("anâtman") is one of the three marks of all
what exists, ultimate reality included. However, this absence of a
substantial self does not preclude conventional subjectivity (and its
empirical ego), nor the presence of a very subtle mind, a
Indeed, according to the teachings of Buddha-nature, our mind-stream
or stream of consciousness ("citta-santâna") is, and this since
beginningless times, innately endowed with a pure (process-based),
everlasting & radiating Buddha-nature ("tathâgatagarbha"). The enlightened
qualities inseparable from this uncontaminated mind are strong enough to
penetrate the thickest, darkest clouds.
great optimism and belief in the innate capacities of the human being,
all sentient beings whatsoever (the Mahâyâna intent) equally possess
Buddha-nature, strengthens the highest soteriological intent of the Buddhadharma :
compassionate awakening for all sentient beings.
Considering the various scholarly renditions of the term Buddha-nature,
most authors (Suzuki, the Wayman's, Takasaka) opt for a single meaning,
disregarding other meanings and their possible higher integration. Here (as in Sutton), different historical
usages are identified.
Following distinctions pertain :
(1) supramundana Buddha-nature : the supramundane, enlightened
true nature of the
Nature Body of a Buddha, self-empty but inseparable from its countless enlightened properties,
and present in the mindstream of every sentient being. This is the "thusness"
of a Buddha, his or her enlightened way of mere existential existence or
true nature - the ontological sense as the view of a supramundane Dharma (not
to be confused
with the static, essentialist & substantial "âtman") ;
(2) hidden, potential Buddha-nature : not yet manifest,
but hidden, concealed in sentient beings like an "embryo", "germ", "seed",
to be set in motion by means of right practice, moving from
potential to actual Buddhahood - the soteriological sense of the dynamics
towards Buddhahood (path) ;
(3) actualized Buddha-nature : the fruit or
the end of the true path
on the basis of right practice ; the clearing (purifying) of the
adventitious defilements covering the Buddha Within with nothing left and the
complete actualization of the "mind of
a Buddha" ("Dharmakâya"), i.e. ever-enlightened Bodhi Nature
fully expressed as fully enlightened Wisdom.
From the side of the fruit of the path, i.e. its finality, the Dharmakâya
(or the fully enlightened mind of a Buddha) is synonymous with actualized
Buddhahood. From the side of the path, i.e. spiritual
emancipation, to attain full
awakening, right practice is necessary. Just like the properties of a
diamond hidden in dirt do not change after it is cleaned, the path itself
does not touch the true nature of the Buddhas, only their wisdom.
For Yogâcâra, the second branch of the Mahâyâna next to the Madhyamaka,
introducing "tathâgatagarbha" is the object
of the Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma. After the Second
and (self) emptiness
to the fore,
Buddha Śâkyamuni taught "tathâgatagarbha" as his final teaching.
This reading was inspired by the Samdhinirmocana Sûtra (2th to 3rd
Śrîmâlâdevî-simhanâda Sûtra (3rd), Lankâvatâra Sûtra,
Tathâgatagarbha Sûtra (3rd to 4th) & Ratnagotravibhâga
(4th to 5th).
The intent of the Third Turning is to extend Buddhahood
to all sentient beings, affirming all sentient beings possess
This teaching refers to three factors : (1) the ontic nature (or
supermundane, uncontaminated dharma) of Tathâgatahood (ontology of
Buddhahood), (2) the innate enlightement-potential of the mind, to be
activated & actualized through spiritual practice, generating fruits and
(3) the attainment of full awakening. These three factors are best
understood in the light of how a Buddha exists, traditionally known as the
Three Bodies of a Buddha ("trikâya").
Bodies of Existence of a Buddha|
very subtle mind
mounted on very subtle wind
actual cognition of a
stains of inherent existence
all planes of
existence except the physical
physical realm of
Direct, nondual, non-conceptual actual
prehension of the "dharmadhâtu" is what happens in the awake mind of a
fully enlightened Buddha, what happens in his or her "Dharmakâya" or Body
This "Truth Body" has two parts :
Nature Body & Wisdom Body.
Wisdom Body - true
The Truth Body ("Dharmakâya") is a
supramundane prehension -by way of true
cessation (ending all false ideation)- of the totality of existence
("dharmadhatu"), i.e. an supramundane act of cognition existing simultaneously
with the actual, present state of wisdom-mind, rising together along with
the living wisdom ("jñâna") of this Buddha, thereafter manifesting (by way
of Form Bodies) what this Buddha does (true path).
• The Nature
Body is the natural, spontaneous, just existing, effortless state of
enlightenment of the mind, its inhering salvic nature. It has no
production, duration or disintegration, no beginning, middle or end. It is
not a different entity from phenomena, and does not fall into the extremes
of existence or non-existence. Pure of all obstructions &
unconditional, it is unknowable by the conceptualizing, conditional
mind. It can not be apprehended, only prehended.
This is the
original, primordial, very subtle Clear Light mind (Tib. "rigpa")
unspotted, without a trace of
essentializing obscurations & hallucinations, without any
substance-obsession. In not a single moment of the mindstream of a Buddha
is inherent existence entertained. This original Nature Body is beyond any
sense of temporality, wholly supra-mundane & self-empty. It could be called the pure
space in which enlightened mental activity happens. It is shared by all
Buddha's, together constituting the transcendent sphere of
The Nature Body is of two types :
the naturally pure Nature Body and the adventitiously pure Nature Body.
The true nature of the Buddha within is not affected by absence of
right practice, obscuring its manifestation (like a diamond is not
affected by the absence of light). For Consequentialists ("prâsangika"),
the natural purity of the Nature Body only refers to the absence -since
beginningless time- of inherent existence in the transcendent sphere of
Buddhahood (the nature of mind always being naturally free from inherent
Accepting this, Yogâcâra, Mahâmudrâ, Dzogchen, Mahâmadhyamaka & Ch'an
add to this the absence of anything other than what a Buddha does on
the basis of the enlightened properties inseparable from the true
But for both, the adventitiously pure Nature Body is the absence of stains
(acquired & innate obstructions & obstructions to omniscience) through the
application of antidotes (the right practice of the Bodhisattvas).
• The Wisdom Body is living wisdom
("jñâna"), i.e. the
actual, temporal and active cognition of phenomena as their are here
and now, i.e. empty of inherent existence or substance, but, because a
Buddha is at hand, empty of all things other than his or her enlightened
properties. This wisdom is what a Buddha actually does, is active, engaged
and committed activity, endlessly. This is the "true path", the path of a
Buddha, the irreversible nature of the levels of
purification of the Bodhisattvas. Finally, as Buddhas this living wisdom
("jñâna") is present in the moment at hand, always actual, existing in an
absolute & mere existential way.
The complex interpretations given to Buddha-nature boil down to two
different views on the true nature of the Nature Body of the Truth
• on the one hand, this true nature is considered to be (a) an innately,
naturally existing nature
of enlightenment, (b) originally free from defilements, self-empty, (e)
possessed by all sentient beings and, on top of that (d) from the very
beginning endowed with (inseparable from) all Buddha-qualities (of enlightened body, speech,
mind & activity). This is the
view of Yogâcâra, Mahâmadhyamaka, Other-Emptiness (Jonangpa),
Nyingmas (Dzogchen), Kagyus & Ch'an (Zen) ;
• on the other hand, the true nature of a Buddha is only the potential
enlightenment. Buddha qualities are not actually already
somewhere in the mindstream. Only the potential to generate these is
present, nothing more. This potential to Buddhahood is just the emptiness
of the mind in the continuum of a defiled mind. This is the view of
Critical Madhyamaka (Tsongkhapa and his Gelugpa school). In this school,
the Third Turning is deemed mixed (both definitive & interpretative),
while the Second Turning is deemed definitive & final. Positing
enlightened properties inseparable from the mindstream is deemed a return
to the substantialist "âtman", "purusa", "jîvâtman", "pudgala" etc.
Considered by many yogis as the "highest logical truth"
("paramârtha"), the existence of this Tathâgatagarbha and its
supramundana Dharma is affirmed, while this is not accessible
neither to the imagination ("kalpana"), nor to discrimination ("vikalpa").
As the Śri-Mâlâ-Sûtra claims, it can only be understood by
faith & devotion !
And meditation. The "tathâgatagarbha" is described as the "supreme eternity"
("nitya-pâramitâ"), the "supreme bliss" ("sukha-pâramitâ"), the supreme
unity ("âtma-pâramitâ") & the "supreme purity" ("shubha-pâramitâ").
These are not to be understood as specific attributes, qualifying a
quintessential hypostasis, but refer to the absolute suchness of the
ultimate nature of phenomena ("tathatâ"), as directly experienced by
This, as the Ratnagotra says, cannot be explained,
for it is invisible, unutterable, immutable, unimaginable, indiscriminative &
Clarification of the View of Critical
All sentient beings, by nature of their sentience,
possess the capacity or potential to realize enlightenment ("bodhi") a
priori. This mere capacity is not a fully developed
true nature of a Buddha (with its co-relative Buddha-qualities) existing
innately from the very beginning (as the Jonangpas claim), but the
emptiness of the mind, i.e. its fundamental lack of inherent existence,
never existing in the mode of subsistence. This is the true nature of the
Nature Body established on the basis of its absolute negation of inherent
innate capacity or potential of the mind to realize its own emptiness, secundary conditions must be
created to generate or engender Buddhahood, i.e. to use this mere capacity to transform our
defiled condition into that of an Awakened One, a Buddha. To do so, nothing
more is needed than to end the false ideation brought about by the substantial
instantiation of objects of knowledge. To do so requires a long, gradual
process. While this
Buddha-potential is the primary cause or possibility of
Buddhahood, inalienable and present from the very beginning, secundary
conditions are needed to end the coarse & subtle defilements of the mind
obscuring the fruition of this capacity for enlightenment. These are given
by right practice.
These conditions involve the choice to do so and the joyous effort to bring this about.
Choice (free will) & joyous effort are only given to human beings. While all
other sentient beings also possess Buddha-potential, they lack the
capacity to generate it by absence of these secundary causes. Hell
beings hate & suffer continuously. Hungy ghosts constantly wander
unsatisfied & greedy. Animals, being stupid, lack mental bodies.
Demi-gods, due to their arrogance, abide in constant conflict. Gods are so
distracted by their good karma, they have no moment available to
concentrate on the ultimate nature of their proud minds. Human beings,
over-attached to objects of desire, have the free will to make the proper
choice, but mostly do not put in the effort necessary to find the true
meaning of their precious lives, etc.
Just like a
mustard seed is not identical with the tree, Buddha-qualities are not
given or fully developed from the start. Like water takes on the colour of
the glass, the emptiness of the mind abides in the defiled continuum. Just like we need exercise to
bring about our genetically given capacities, Buddhahood is generated as
the result of our conscious efforts to realize the ultimate nature of
the mind, i.e. by
emptiness, using the emptiness of the mind as object of placement. Without the latter, just like fully operational eyes cannot
process light in complete darkness, this capacity will remain unexpressed.
Being dormant, suffering continues.
The view of the Madhyamika in general, and of Tsongkhapa in particular, is
gradualist or path-oriented. These philosophers consider enlightenment
never to be sudden, but the end result of a long process of spiritual
evolution, moving through various stages. By accumulating compassion and
wisdom, the conditions for awakening arise. By prolonged meditation on
compassion Form Bodies ("Nirmânakaya & Sambhogakâya") are generated, and
by emptiness meditations the Truth Body ("Dharmakâya") arises.
When this happens, enlightened qualities are generated. So the two
"baskets" of compassion & wisdom act as "causes" leading to enlightenment,
and without them, suffering cannot be ended, for the fruit cannot be
Given this, Buddha-nature cannot be an ontological a priori
and the qualities associated with awakening cannot be considered to be
given from the very beginning. They must be caused or generated by the
efforts put in a posteriori.
Clarification of the View of
Although the logic of the Prâsangika argument
is clear-cut and powerful, it
differs from the direct, nondual, non-conceptual yogic experience of the
masters of Mind-Only,
these minds, focusing on meditative experience rather than
on conceptual logic & philosophy, on phenomenological experience
rather than on conceptual teaching, enlightenment is a pure (self-empty), uncompounded,
continuous & radiant state. They ask how compounded, impermanent conditions may act
as "causes" producing the permanent ? How can the impure ever produce the
pure if the latter is not somehow already somehow a given ? Were it not
lured by the awake, actual enlightened properties of its mindstream, why
would any sentient being be drawn to happiness ?
These yogis relentlessly stress all sentient
beings are enlightened sui generis, implying that to realize
awakening, nothing more has to be done than to uncover this intrinsic
Buddha-nature and its enduring, sempiternal qualities ... This uncovering
or unveiling may happen suddenly, merely by pointing out this luminous, clear
nature of mind, for ever united with the primordial ground. Once
pointed out, the process of clearing away may start ...
The enlightened qualities of a Buddhas are
dynamical (differential) translations of the supreme remedial antidote
("pratipaksa") : emptiness ("śûnyatâ") ; a Buddha never self-exists (is
self-empty), nor does a Buddha exist as anything else than how a Buddha
exists (other-empty). The profound nondual, non-conceptual cognition of
the emptiness of all phenomena (self-emptiness or
"prajñâ"), gained by a non-affirmative logic, is complemented by the
other-emptiness recognizing (affirming) Buddha-nature as it exists here &
"jñâna"). This occasions the perfect joy of the supreme bliss ("prajñâjñâna"), the Great Mirror Cognition ("mahâdarsha-jñâna"). The
supreme unbounded wholeness apprehended by the wise is the
insubstantiality of the dwelling-place of ignorance hand in hand with the
full direct experience of the nature of Buddhahood. The latter is not a
substantial self-existence, but the mere existential existence of an
uncontaminated, absolute & pure
To realize full enlightenment, only right practice is needed. Removing the
obscurations, the Nature Body of the Dharmakâya, the cognitive stream of a
Buddha, is the living wisdom of the path.
Sentient beings suffer. They are
dissatisfied and lack "inner space" (an open, spacious mind). So they are
unable to appreciate their existence fully. Because their innate,
unalienable Buddha-nature calls them to exist in the highest possible
supramundane bliss, they -at times- are poignantly aware of their
pervasive suffering and then seek ways to escape this woe, mostly by
changing outer circumstances, like increasing worldly attachments &
aversions, trying -in vain- to solve the mind's innate supramundane
longing with mundane trivialities, or by turning to wrong views blocking
out the mind's natural clear light.
Moreover, this constant call from the "true nature" of their mindstream is
mostly muffled, concealed and lasts but a few moments. Most people
continue to suffer because they do not adequately address the causes of
suffering ; the affective afflictions & mental obscurations. The image
here is that of the Sun hidden behind a thick, dark canopy of clouds. For
some, like hell beings, hungry ghosts and animals, these black clouds very
rarely open up. At times, some see them momentarily break up a little,
bringing in a ray of hope. Because of their enduring afflictive state of
mind, this quickly stops. Humans, demi-gods & gods actually experience the
radiance of the Sun more often, but misrepresent what they see or are too
distracted to actually consider the opportunities offered to realize true
peace. They do not take heed of the level of suffering co-relative to
their mental state, nor undertake action to eliminate it.
But all sentient beings and all Buddhas share an identical, full-empty
"true nature". The latter is empty of inherent existence (self-empty) and
full of supramundane properties (other-emptiness). Although still a
bodhi-seed (and not functional like a fully enlightened Buddha), this
"true nature" is inseparable from an infinite number of enlightened
properties of body, speech, mind & action.
Note the paraconsistency at hand : the "true nature" is potential, a seed,
a mere possibility of awakening, but, at the same time, endowed with
properties needing no alteration whatsoever (an actuality-in-potency !),
only realized through recognition. The "true nature" is supramundane and
so beyond the formal, classical logic of the "catuskoti" of yes,
no, both & neither. It is
self-empty. In terms of the Second Turning, more cannot be said. Only the
non-affirmative negation exhausts reification. Absolute truth is
ineffable. This does not imply it is non-existent, for absolute reality is
also a dependent-arising, albeit uncontaminated.
Buddha-nature is more than merely a self-empty "true nature" of a given
mind. On top of lacking inherent existence, it is inseparable from an
infinite number of enlightened properties. In classical logic, both
conditions (potential & action) cannot be attributed to the same object in
the same set of conditions. But can this extraordinary phenomenon be
otherwise conceptualized ? How can a mere seed actualize anything ? Try to
sit in the shade of the seed of an oak-tree. Only paraconsistent logics
are able to identify and operationalize the contradiction. In quantum
logic, atomic phenomena exist in a "superimposed" state and only become
"particles" or "waves" after observation. The supramundane
properties of the "true nature" of this Buddha within every mindstream are
actual and fully present, but remain mostly passive, unexpressed, blocked
in its capacity to fully manifest, while retaining the possibility
to lure, inspire & wonder.
This is the image of this perfectly cut, big clear diamond you were told
about by someone you really trust,
deeply buried somewhere in your garden. Although its innate capacity to
splendidly shine never changes, it cannot, due to the absence of light -at
this point- radiate out. Once the dirt from lifetimes without number
cleared, the diamond immediately manifests its properties. This metaphor
tries to reconcile the idea of a mere potentiality (the "true nature" as a
seed) with actuality, albeit a passive one (a perfect diamond concealed).
The image is not really adequate, for the "true nature" is inseparable,
like someone beautifully singing somewhere on a busy, noisy market-place,
from this weak capacity to "call" the sentient being to order and inspire
to seek true peace (cf. the so-called "everyday" mystical experiences).
Mostly the sentient being "hears" the call, but is immediately distracted,
misplacing its origin or wrongly identifying the caller. Nevertheless,
Buddha-nature is the uninterrupted background of the mind of every
When sentient beings encounter the Dharma and, due to the passive,
background actuality of the "true nature", feel prompted to start walking
the path on the basis of "right practice", the process of spiritual
emancipation is initiated. From this point onward, the baskets of
compassion and wisdom are filled, eventually generating the causes for the
generation of the two Form Bodies ("rûpakâyâ") and the one Truth Body
("Dharmakâyâ") respectively. This activity, this walking of the "true
path", leads to the full development of the Truth Body. This is the image
of the clouds slowly dissipating, allowing the Sun to actually touch the
skin, or of the seed given all the secondary causes needed for it to fully
mature and exist as a fully enlightened Buddha.
Ontologically, Buddha-nature points to
the extraordinary existence of a Buddha, not a substance, but a process,
not a fixed self-powered entity, but a dynamic other-powered set of
relationships, not a dependent-arising like the others, but an
uncontaminated, pure, unspoiled, untained, pristine, original, etc.
For the yogis, this Buddha-nature is present in every mindstream. It is a
1989) endowed with extraordinary properties, a perfect form-on-the-move.
On the basis of this, sudden awakening is possible.
Tsongkhapa's philosophical view (Prâsangika-Mâdhyamaka) represents the pinnacle of
what can be achieved by way of the conceptual mind based on the
traditional, linear view on causality & formal (Aristotelean) logic. If so, one may wonder whether
another interpretation of logic, process and change may be helpful in solving the
tension between gradualists & suddenists ?
beings are dynamical, dissipative, non-linear systems able to
self-structure, auto-regulate and trigger autopoiesis (cf. Prigogine &
chaos-theory). Instead of viewing Buddhahood as the end result, as
gradualism demands, we could understand awakening as the fundamental state
or self-empty ground-state of the system and our suffering, sentient condition as a
lower energy-state of the same system, i.e. as an exception caused by
defilements & ignorance caused by a reduced level of negentropy within the
system (entropy taking over).
A Buddha, so this view goes, continuously wipes out what needs to be
dissipated, unfolding the totality of qualities of his or her
ground-potential. A Buddha is "gone-unfolded" (Guenther,
1989), constantly destroying the substantial instantiation of objects.
This implies a sapient dynamism relating to continuous
self-(re)structuring, a system dissipating entropy, and in doing so
"unfolding" Buddhahood because of the ongoing dissipation of
excitability and the delusion or the ignorance attributing substance to
phenomena. In this view,
Buddhahood is a dynamic non-unfolded totality of qualities as
pure potential. Because this totality is an unbounded wholeness, this
dynamism is endless.
Viewing sentient beings from the side of a
Buddha, is understanding the causes & conditions of their lack of
entropy-dissipation. Instead of seeing sentient beings as the rule and
Buddhahood as the exception, we understand awakening as the "ordinary"
state and mere sentience as the exception to the rule. This philosophical
view begins by positing Buddhahood as a system dissipating igorance and
sentience as a symmetry-break away from this natural state.