Friday, April 16, 2010

What is Buddha Nature?

If you search the term "Svabhava" in wikipedia, you will be able to read that in many traditions, including Hinduism, they do mention this word. It means many things to many different traditions. And it is the subject of philosophical debates on which of this definition is the actual meaning of svabhava and whether one actually exists. "Svabhava" or a common English term "Buddha Nature" has been the goal that Buddhists strive to attain. Nagarjuna mentioned it in his Madhayamika texts. It is interesting that in the Abhiddhamma, it is mentioned in wikipedia that the term is also mentioned:

From wikipedia:
"In the post-canonical Abhidhamma literature, sabhāva is used to distinguish an irreducible, interdependent, momentary phenomena (dhamma) from a conventionally constructed object. Thus, a collection of visual and tactile phenomena might be mentally constructed into what is conventionally referred to as a "table"; but, beyond its constituent elements, a construct such as "table" lacks "intrinsic existence" (sabhāva)."

The last sentence there seems to indicate that they have a similar understanding of emptiness as the Gelugpas....but only as far as "constituent elements. The Abhiddhamma scholars however believed that the "dhamma" (momentatry phenomena) does exist. Refer to the wikipedia footnote 9 for this particular reference. In all the Madhayamika schools, however, even phenomena are said to be non-inherently existent. I wonder if this is the reason why in Mahayana tradition, it is said that only when we could see the emptiness of phenomena do we achieve Omniscience. Otherwise, we only achieve liberation if we achieve to see the emptiness of self alone. In other words, even if you are in the Vajrayana tradition, if you only achieve the latter, you are only considered to achieve the Hinayana liberation. In means you have not yet achieve omniscience. In Mahayana, I guess that's why even great Bodhisattvas are just called "bodhisattvas" because they have not yet achieved omniscience.

You should know that even though Nagarjuna mentions that term "Svabhava", it had been the subject of many interpretations of what exactly he meant by it. That's the subject of many debates and that's why within Madhyamika (the Middle Way) school, it is divided into many sub-schools, each with their subtle difference. Even we say "subtle", it does matter at the end, because the end is the answer to "what does the final state of nature is?" It is the answer to what do we achieve when we achieve enlightenment? Many masters of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions from Mipham, Gorampa, Longchenpa, Gampopa, Tsongkhapa, the previous Karmapas, etc including those masters of the Dzogchen and Mahamudra traditions were said to ahve had achieved some state of understanding of what this final nature is. But the thing is (and I mention it because many Buddhists do not yet realise that we are not yet united on what this final "nature" is): that these Buddhists masters came to different and various conclusions. Of course, there are also those who disregard all these differences and tell us that whatever you call it, be it Great Perfection (Dzogchen), Great Seal (mahamudra), Madhyamika, Svabhava, Tathagatagarbha, Suchness, etc etc etc, are all the same.

Ultimately, we ourselves got to seek that final answer for ourselves. The Buddhists scriptures are not that clear in that sense on this particular "Final answer", and I guess there is a valid reason for this. The Buddhas have spoon-fed us throughout the Buddhist path, if they were to spoon-feed us in the final leg of the race, liberation and omniscience will have no meaning. There would have been no determination on our part to seriously understand it and learn it. And to have genuine Bodhicitta, one must strive for liberation of ourselves and others. Without this effort to seek and study and practice, sorry, no genuine Bodhicitta.

For me, I have my own leaning on what the final state is but I do not impose this on others. I will leave it at that. I have had some understanding on my own on what buddhanature is, and much later, I found out a text by one of the Masters above that supports my understanding of it. So, I am happy my understanding is not something I make up. Actually this is important. You must always check if what you have realised is in accord with what the ancient masters and the Buddha have realised. This is what I have written in the past as "spiritual risk management". Check those previous blogs if you have not read those.

Let me end this with a tip from one of the famous Zen koans.

A monk asked Chao-chou:"Does a dog have Buddha-nature or not?" Chao-chou replied: "No."

My remark would be: "Of course, not!" In order to understand that and also many more Zen gestures (such as when the Buddha held up the flower and only Maha Kassapa understood it), at least intellectually as did I, without falling into the extreme views of nihilism and eternalism, you need to study the doctrine of emptiness or Buddha nature or interdependent arising... or whatever it is called. With that understanding, together with the completion of the renunciation and development of Bodhicitta, one's training in the general aspects of the path or preliminaries is considered complete. And one would have been a suitable vessel to enter the tantric path, which is supposed to be the path to quickly develop the genuine wisdom of the Buddha nature. I think it would be wiser to leave you to do your own study on this topic. And I have elaborated enough to the extent that I can with the tips above. Another last tip, read the Madhayamika texts and the commentaries. To check your own understanding of emptiness and attainments, there is no escape from checking with the classicial texts and sutras.

Last but not least, see if you can answer this question:

Does a dog have the potential to realise Buddhahood?

If you answer "No", you'll get beatings with this Zen rod. If you answer "yes", you'll have to explain why your answer is different from Chao-chou's. If you cannot explain, you'll get beatings. If you donot answer me this instant, you'll get beatings too.

So, what's your answer? You have 3 seconds.

Read the question carefully and compare and contrast the questions. Cheers and have a good day! All the best!


s said...

please do elaborate... this is a impt topic.

Mahabodhiyana said...

look at the words in bold. You should also be familiar with Lam Rim Chen Mo and Chandrakirti's Madhayamakavatara.