Our True Nature is Buried Behind Suffering
By John M. de Castro, Ph.D.
“In Buddhism, we say every sentient being has the ability to be awakened, and to understand deeply. We call this Buddha nature. The deer, the dog, the cat, the squirrel, and the bird all have Buddha nature. But what about inanimate species: the pine tree in our front yard, the grass, or the flowers? As part of our living Mother Earth, these species also have Buddha nature. This is a very powerful awareness which can bring us so much joy. Every blade of grass, every tree, every plant, every creature large or small are children of the planet Earth and have Buddha nature. The Earth herself has Buddha nature, therefore all her children must have Buddha nature, too. As we are all endowed with Buddha nature, everyone has the capacity to live happily and with a sense of responsibility toward our mother, the Earth.” – Thich Nhat Hahn
Siddhartha Gautama realized his true nature 2500 years ago. It was called his enlightenment and he became the Buddha, the enlightened one. This true nature that he realized he called Buddha Nature. Millions of followers and practitioners over the centuries have studied and practiced the teachings of the Buddha in the quest to attain the enlightenment that the Buddha realized. But their quest is misguided as he taught that there is actually nothing to attain.
The Buddha, when asked what he gained from enlightenment, what he had attained, had a simple one-word answer “nothing.” How could this be? He got nothing! All of the seekers over the centuries have been attempting to attain a state that doesn’t exist. If that’s true then Buddhism is the greatest spiritual hoax of all times. This leads to the conclusion that the notion of enlightenment itself is a delusion? Practitioners and believers have been pursuing a state that simply doesn’t exist!
In an extremely important teaching, that is rarely talked about, taught, or studied, the Buddha clarified what he realized. As it turns out the key is the word ‘realized’, and not ‘attained’. There’s a tremendous and crucial difference.
The Buddha laid out what he realized in the teaching called the Tathagatagarbha Sutra. The word ‘Tathagatagarbha’ is a Sanskrit tongue twister that can be translated as ‘Buddha Nature’. So, the Tathagatagarbha Sutra is simply a teaching on Buddha Nature, a teaching on what he realized upon his enlightenment. He taught:
“when I regard all beings with my buddha eye, I see that hidden within the klesas [negative mental traits] of greed, desire, anger, and stupidity there is seated augustly and unmovingly the Buddha’s wisdom, the Buddha’s vision, and the Buddha’s body.”
This statement is quite remarkable! He is saying that Buddha Nature, what he realized, is hidden by our bad desires. In other words, it’s already there, just covered up!
He further teaches:
“Good sons, all beings, though they find themselves with all sorts of klesas, have a Buddha Nature that is eternally unsullied, and that is replete with virtues no different from my own. Moreover, good sons, it is just like a person with supernatural vision who can see the bodies of Buddhas seated in the lotus position inside the flowers, even though the petals are not yet unfurled; whereas after the wilted petals have been removed, those Buddhas are manifested for all to see. In similar fashion, the Buddha can really see the Buddha Nature of sentient beings. And because he wants to disclose the Buddha Nature to them, he expounds the sutras and the Dharma, in order to destroy klesas and reveal the buddha nature.”
He teaches that this true nature is exactly like his own. In other words, we all share the same nature as the Buddha. We’re effectively all Buddhas. We just haven’t realized it yet.
The Buddha also teaches that this true nature is eternally present. It doesn’t come and go, but has always been there and always will. A little thought should reveal that something that is the true nature of an individual must always be there. It is the core of existence. If it can go away, then it cannot be true nature. This constancy and ever-present characteristic of Buddha Nature is a clear clue as to how to identify it. To realize our true nature, we need to look at ourselves and identify what is always there and always has been. When we find it, we will have realized our true nature.
The teaching states that this true nature is present in all sentient beings. In the teachings, sentient beings include humans and non-human animals. So, the true nature is common to man and all animals. This, by itself, is remarkable and suggests that killing an animal is destroying a being with Buddha Nature. This clearly suggests that humans should not kill animals and eat meat, but rather choose to sustain themselves with non-animal, vegetarian, food sources. This, as it turns out is more difficult to do than apparent. This issue will be revisited in a later chapter.
The Buddha expounds in the Sutra that his teachings are simply there to help us eliminate these negative desires, so we can see what’s behind, our true nature; the same nature as his, the unchanging and eternal nature, the true nature of all sentient beings. The teaching indicates that we do not realize this true nature because we are blinded by our baser nature, by our greed, desire, anger, and stupidity. So, all we need to do to realize our true nature as a Buddha is to do is destroy these negative mental traits. But, as we will see, this can be very hard to accomplish.
The Sutra continues:
“Good sons, such is the Dharma of all the buddhas. Whether or not buddhas appear in the world, the Buddha Nature of all beings are eternal and unchanging. It is just that they are covered by sentient beings’ klesas. When the Buddha appears in the world, he expounds the Dharma far and wide to remove their ignorance and tribulation and to purify their universal wisdom.”
The teaching here becomes redundant. The repetition suggests that the Buddha believes that this is a very important point that bears repeating. But, again he points to the fact that our true nature is, has been, and always will be present whether or not there is a great teacher like the Buddha to see it. It doesn’t depend upon an enlightened being to reveal it. It’s simply always there, just hidden by our bad desires. The presence of a Buddha is simply that of a teacher to spread the teachings to help everyone who is willing to listen and practice to realize their own true nature.
The Sutra continues:
“Good sons, if there is a bodhisattva who has faith in this teaching and who practices it single-mindedly, he will attain liberation and true, universal enlightenment, and for the sake of the world he will perform buddha deeds far and wide.”
In this teaching, he reiterates that we need to follow the teachings in order to remove the bad desires and reveal our Buddha Nature, not attain it, simply realize it! Once realized, the individual becomes a Buddha who should continue to spread the teachings by word and example. The optimistic message here is that everyone can realize their true nature and become a Buddha. We need just need to practice them single-mindedly, with determination and dilligence.
This Tathagatagarbha Sutra is a hidden gem of the Buddha’s teachings. It reveals to us a fundamental flaw in most people spiritual endeavors. We believe that we are trying to find something that is not already there, to attain a state that we don’t already have, to fundamentally change. The Sutra clearly states that this is the wrong path. We already have what we are seeking. We already have true, Buddha, nature. We simply need to realize it. In addition, the Sutra reveals that we don’t see it because of our greed, desire, anger, and stupidity, our baser tendencies. Get rid of them and all will be obvious. So, the Sutra shows us the way to realize our enlightened nature.
“Even in the midst of suffering, it is possible to bring your awareness to the good qualities within yourself and allow them to manifest in your consciousness. Practice mindful breathing to remind yourself of your Buddha nature, of the great compassion and understanding in you.” – Thich Nhat Hahn
CMCS – Center for Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies
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