Freedom from Buddha Nature

Concluding this week’s theme of iconoclasm and “outside the Buddha-box” insight, I offer this essay by one of my favorite dharma teachers, Thanissaro Bhikkhu.  The provocative title says it all: Freedom from Buddha Nature.

What? A Buddhist teacher who says that there is no innate, inherent Buddha nature?  Isn’t that a cornerstone of  Buddhist teaching?  No, actually, this concept of a Buddha nature is not universal in Buddhism.  The term is not even found in the Pali canon, the earliest teachings attributed to the Buddha.  Nor is the idea of an inherent Buddha nature part of the Theravadan understanding of what the Buddha taught as the way to Awakening.

From the Theravadan viewpoint, there are problems with the metaphysical assumption of a Buddha nature:

If you assume a Buddha nature, you not only risk complacency but you also entangle yourself in metaphysical thorn patches: If something with an awakened nature can suffer, what good is it? How could something innately awakened become defiled? If your original Buddha nature became deluded, what’s to prevent it from becoming deluded after it’s re-awakened?

I’ve read dozens of incredibly erudite Buddhist philosophical tracts trying to answer these inevitable questions from the standpoint of an innate Buddha nature.  Maybe you have too.  But the point of this post is not to get into a philosophical debate!  My own personal view on the subject is utterly pragmatic—is a view or concept skillful, or not?   Does a view help bring about an end of suffering, or not?  I am always open to whatever appears in practice—including whatever shows itself to be unfabricated and permanent.  My heart teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh, uses the view of a Buddha nature very skillfully and takes the idea as a “given” of his tradition.

On the other side of the issue, if your tradition and personal practice includes the view of that there is an inherent or innate Buddha nature, does this mean non-belief in an innate Buddha nature is not as “advanced” or  a “lesser” teaching or way?   Does it mean this non-belief in a Buddha nature is, ispo facto, wrong?

Well, does a dog have Buddha nature?  This is a favorite koan of the Zen practitioners.  When you can answer that koan, you can know if the Theravadan view on Buddha nature is right, wrong, right and wrong, or neither right nor wrong!

Seriously, folks, “Can’t we all… just… get along?” Can’t all Buddhist agree that a cornerstone of the Buddha’s teaching is what is skillful? If you find the concept of a Buddha nature skillful in your practice, then who is to say this is “wrong?”  Likewise, if someone else finds the concept of a Buddha nature a hindrance, then maybe we might want to see why someone thinks that, given their obvious dedication to dharma practice.

So, defenses down, minds open, let’s have a listen to what this teacher has learned from his own skillful practice of the dharma.  What is there to lose, except our own unexamined preconceptions?

Freedom from Buddha Nature

by Thanissaro Bhikkhu

“What is the mind? The mind isn’t ‘is’ anything.”—Ajaan Chah

“The mind is neither good nor evil, but it’s what knows good and knows

evil. It’s what does good and does evil. And it’s what lets go of good and lets go of evil.”—Ajaan Lee

A brahman once asked the Buddha, “Will all the world reach release [Awakening], or half the world, or a third?” But the Buddha didn’t answer. Ven. Ananda, concerned that the brahman might misconstrue the Buddha’s silence, took the man aside and gave him an analogy: Imagine a fortress with a single gate. A wise gatekeeper would walk around the fortress and not see an opening in the wall big enough for even a cat to slip through. Because he’s wise, he would realize that his knowledge didn’t tell him how many people would come into the fortress, but it did tell him that whoever came into the fortress would have to come in through the gate.

In the same way, the Buddha didn’t focus on how many people would reach Awakening but he did know that anyone who reached Awakening would have to follow the path he had found: abandoning the five hindrances, establishing the four frames of reference, and developing the seven factors for Awakening.

What’s striking about the Buddha’s knowledge is the implied “if ”: If people want to gain Awakening they will have to follow this path, but the choice as to whether they want Awakening is theirs. The Buddha’s knowledge of the future didn’t mean that the future was preordained, for people are free to choose. They can take up a particular course of action and stick with it, or not, as they see fit.

Freedom of choice—foundation of the Buddha’s teaching

The Buddha thus based all his teaching on freedom of choice. As he said, if everything were predetermined by things already established in the past, there would be no point in teaching a path to Awakening. The number of people who would reach Awakening would already have been determined a long time ago, and they would have no need for a path or a teacher. Those preordained to awaken would get there inevitably as a result of a long-past action or an essential nature already built into the mind. Those preordained not to awaken wouldn’t stand a chance.

But these things are not preordained. No one is doomed never to awaken, but—until you’ve had your first sight of the deathless at stream-entry—neither is Awakening assured. It’s contingent on intentional actions chosen in each present moment. And even after stream- entry, you’re constantly faced with choices that will speed up final Awakening or slow it down.

Nibbãna, of course, is independent and unconditioned; but the act of awakening to nibbãna depends on a path of practice that has to be willed. It happens only if you choose to give rise to its causes. This, as the Buddha noted, involves determining to do four things: not to neglect discernment, to preserve truth, to develop relinquishment, and to train for peace.

Assumptions about the Mind

To stick with these four determinations, the mind has to make some assumptions about itself: its power to do the necessary work and to receive the anticipated benefits. But one of the central features of the Buddha’s strategy as a teacher was that even though his primary focus was on the mind, he nowhere stated any assumptions about what the mind is. As he said, if you define yourself, you limit yourself. So instead he focused his assumptions on what the mind can do.

To begin with, the mind can change quickly. Normally a master of the apt simile, even the Buddha had to admit that he could find no adequate analogy for how quickly the mind can change. We might say that it can change in the twinkling of an eye, but it’s actually faster than that.

And it’s capable of all sorts of things. Neither inherently good nor inherently bad, it can do a huge variety of good and bad actions. As the Buddha said, the mind is more variegated than the animal kingdom. Think of the many species of fish in the sea, birds in the sky, animals on the land and under the ground, whether extant or extinct: All of these species are products of minds, and the mind can take on a wider variety of forms than even that.

Kamma (karma) doesn’t determine everything

This variety comes from the many different choices the mind makes under the influence of ignorance and defilement. But the mind doesn’t always have to be defiled. Past kamma is not entirely deterministic. Even though past kamma shapes the range of options open to the mind in the present, it doesn’t have to determine present kamma—the intentions by which the mind chooses to fabricate actual experiences from among those options.

Thus present kamma can choose to continue creating the conditions for more ignorance, or not, because present choices are what keep ignorance alive. Although no one—not even a Buddha—can trace back to when the defilement of ignorance first began, the continued existence of ignorance depends on conditions continually provided by unskillful kamma. If these conditions are removed, ignorance will disband.

This is why the Buddha said that the mind is luminous, stained with defilements that come and go. Taken out of context, this statement might be construed as implying that the mind is inherently awakened. But in context the Buddha is simply saying that the mind, once stained, is not permanently stained. When the conditions for the stains are gone, the mind becomes luminous again. But this luminosity is not an awakened nature.

As the Buddha states, this luminous mind can be developed. In the scheme of the four noble truths, if something is to be developed it’s not the goal; it’s part of the path to the goal. After this luminosity has been developed in the advanced stages of concentration, it’s abandoned once it has completed its work in helping to pierce through ignorance.

The Buddha’s most important assumption about the mind

The fact that the mind’s own choices can pierce its own ignorance underlies the Buddha’s most important assumption about the mind: It can be trained to awaken, to see the causes of ignorance and to bring them to an end. The primary step in this training is the first determination: not to neglect discernment. This phrase may sound strange—to what extent do we consciously neglect discernment?—but it points to an important truth.

Discernment is insight into how the mind fabricates its experiences. This process of fabrication is going on all the time right before our eyes—even nearer than our eyes—and yet part of the mind chooses to ignore it. We tend to be more interested in the experiences that result from the fabrication—the physical, mental, and emotional states we want to savor and enjoy.

It’s like watching a play: We enjoy entering into the make-believe world on the stage, and prefer to ignore the noises made by the back-stage crew that would call the reality of that world into question.  This ignorance is willed, which is why we need an act of the will to see through it, to discern the back-stage machinations of the mind.

Discernment thus has two sides: understanding and motivation. You have to understand the mind’s fabrications as fabrications, looking less for the what—i.e., what they are—than for the how—how they happen as part of a causal process. And you have to be motivated to develop this discernment, to see why you want it to have an effect on the mind. Otherwise it won’t have the conditions to grow.

The importance of insight into patterns of cause and effect

The understanding comes down to the basic insight of the Buddha’s Awakening, seeing things as actions and events in a pattern of cause and effect. It also involves seeing how some actions are unskillful, leading to stress and suffering, while others are skillful, bringing stress to an end; and that we have the freedom to choose skillful actions or not. This understanding—which forms the basic framework of the four noble truths—is called appropriate attention.

The motivation to develop appropriate attention grows from combining good will with this understanding. You set your sights on a happiness that is totally harmless. You see that if you make unskillful choices, you’re going to cause suffering; if you make skillful ones, you won’t. This motivation thus combines good will with heedfulness, the quality that underlies every step on the path. In fact, heedfulness lies at the root of all skillful qualities in the mind.

Thus, in encouraging people to want to awaken, the Buddha never had to assume that they were already good or already awakened by nature. He simply assumed something very basic and ordinary: that people like pleasure and hate pain, and that they care about whether they can gain that pleasure and avoid that pain. It was a mark of his genius that he could see the potential for Awakening in this very common desire.

Building on Discernment

When you stick with the understanding and motivation provided by this first determination, it sets in motion the other three. For instance, the determination to preserve the truth grows from seeing the mind’s capacity to lie to itself about whether its actions are causing suffering. You want to be honest and vigilant in looking for and admitting suffering, even when you’re attached to the actions that cause it.

This truthfulness relates to the path in two stages: first, when looking for unskillful actions that keep you off the path; and then, as the path nears fruition, looking for the subtle levels of stress caused even by skillful elements of the path—such as right concentration—once they have done their work and need to be let go for the sake of full liberation.

The determination to develop relinquishment can then build on this truthful assessment of what needs to be done. Relinquishment requires discernment as well, for you not only need to see what’s skillful and what’s not; you also need to keep reminding yourself that you have the freedom to choose, and to be adept at talking yourself into doing skillful things you’re afraid of, and abandoning unskillful actions you like.

The determination to train for peace

The determination to train for peace helps maintain your sense of direction in this process, for it reminds you that the only true happiness is peace of mind, and that you want to look for ever-increasing levels of peace as they become possible through the practice. This determination emulates the trait that the Buddha said was essential to his Awakening— the unwillingness to rest content with lesser levels of stillness when higher levels could be attained. In this way, the stages of concentration, instead of becoming obstacles or dangers on the path, serve as stepping-stones to greater sensitivity and, through that sensitivity, to the ultimate peace where all passion, aversion, and delusion grow still.

This peace thus grows from the simple choice to keep looking at the mind’s fabrications as processes, as actions and results.  But to fully achieve this peace, your discernment has to be directed not only to the mind’s fabrication of the objects of its awareness, but also at its fabrications about itself and about the path it’s creating. Your sense of who you are is a fabrication, regardless of whether you see the mind as separate or interconnected, finite or infinite, good or bad. The path is also a fabrication: very subtle and sometimes seemingly effortless, but fabricated nonetheless. If these layers of inner fabrication aren’t seen for what they are—if you regard them as innate or inevitable—they can’t be deconstructed, and full Awakening can’t occur.

No Innate Nature

This is why the Buddha never advocated attributing an innate nature of any sort to the mind—good, bad, or Buddha. The idea of innate natures crept into the Buddhist tradition in later centuries, when the principle of freedom was forgotten. Past bad kamma was seen as so totally deterministic that there seemed no way around it unless you assumed either an innate Buddha in the mind that could overpower it, or an external Buddha who would save you from it. But when you understand the principle of freedom—that past kamma doesn’t totally shape the present, and that present kamma can always be free to choose the skillful alternative—you realize that the idea of innate natures is unnecessary: excess baggage on the path.

And it bogs you down. If you assume that the mind is basically bad, you won’t feel capable of following the path, and will tend to look for outside help to do your work for you. If you assume that the mind is basically good, you’ll feel capable but will easily get complacent. This stands in the way of the heedfulness needed to get you on the path, and to keep you there when it creates states of relative peace and ease that seem so trustworthy and real.

If you assume a Buddha nature, you not only risk complacency but you also entangle yourself in metaphysical thorn patches: If something with an awakened nature can suffer, what good is it? How could something innately awakened become defiled? If your original Buddha nature became deluded, what’s to prevent it from becoming deluded after it’s re-awakened?

These points become especially important as you reach the subtle levels of fabrication on the more advanced stages of the path. If you’re primed to look for innate natures, you’ll tend to see innate natures, especially when you reach the luminous, non-dual stages of concentration called themeless, emptiness, and undirected. You’ll get stuck on whichever stage matches your assumptions about what your awakened nature is. But if you’re primed to look for the process of fabrication, you’ll see these stages as forms of fabrication, and this will enable you to deconstruct them, to pacify them, until you encounter the peace that’s not fabricated at all.

Exploring the present possibility of freedom

So instead of making assumptions about innate natures or inevitable outcomes, the Buddha advised exploring the possibility of freedom, as it’s immediately present each time you make a choice. Freedom is not a nature, and you don’t find it by looking for your hidden innate nature. You find it by looking at where it’s constantly showing itself: in the fact that your present intentions are not totally conditioned by the past. You catch your first glimmer of it as a range of possibilities from which you can choose and as your ability to act more skillfully—causing more pleasure and less pain—than you ordinarily might.

Your sense of this freedom grows as you explore and exercise it, each time you choose the most skillful course of action heading in the direction of discernment, truthfulness, relinquishment, and peace. The choice to keep making skillful choices may require assumptions, but to keep the mind focused on the issue of fabrication the Buddha saw that these assumptions are best kept to a bare minimum: that the mind wants happiness, that it can choose courses of actions that promote happiness or thwart it, that it can change its ways, and that it can train itself to achieve the ultimate happiness where all fabrications fall away.

Testing the limits of freedom

These assumptions are the Buddha’s starter kit of skillful means to get you on the path of good will, heedfulness, and appropriate attention. As with any journey, you do best to take along only the bare essentials so that you don’t weigh yourself down. This is especially true as you test the limits of freedom, for the closer you come to ultimate freedom, the more you find that things fall away. First the nouns of natures and identities fall away, as you focus on the verbs of action and choice. Then the verbs fall away, too.

When the Buddha was asked who or what he was, he didn’t answer with a who or what. He said simply, “Awakened”: a past participle, a verb that has done its work. Similarly, when the suttas describe the Awakening of an arahant, they say that his or her mind is released from fermentations. But when they describe how this release is experienced, they simply say, “With release, there is the knowledge, ‘Released.’” No comment on what is released. Not even, as it’s sometimes translated, “It is released.” There’s no noun, no pronoun, just a past participle: “released.” That’s all, but it’s enough.


Thanissaro Bhikkhu (Geoffrey DeGraff) has been a Theravadan monk since 1976. The abbot of Metta Forest Monastery in San Diego County, CA, he is a prolific translator of Pali texts and Thai meditation guides. He is the author, among other books, of Wings to Awakening, Mind Like Fire Unbound, and Meditations.


About Steven Goodheart

"I have made a ceaseless effort not to ridicule, not to bewail, not to scorn human actions, but to understand them." Spinoza

12 Responses to “Freedom from Buddha Nature”

  1. Of course I know you are not a foundamentalist neither TB. My scandalous overreaction contains some provocation for my own mistake. I’m sorry.

    However, to close the point, I want to add: What TB says about the Buddha nature must be other thing of the Buddha Nature notion of Mahayana. And probably we can think that he explain a teaching about the risks of assuming an innate atman in his own Theravada teaching world. I don’t know. Of course, I respect a lot Thanissaro in the Theravada teaching. But in Mahayana obviously he is not a reference.

    In any way, it can be good to remember that also some Theravada masters they called nibbana a “natural element” of the mind, and from the first moment we arise in this world. As in example, Buddhadhasa Bhikkhu.

    “Natural” and “innate” are words with a philosofical dimension to be explored. In Buddhism we arise with innate characterístics and trends because the patticasammupada is a process beyond our life and time. Probably TB would agree that the capacity to realize nibbana is something natural to the human being, and then any person can follow Dhamma expecting progress as same Buddha teached.

    If we don’t agree but we think such capacity must be acquired from the “outside”, or maybe only few people can do it, obviously the contradiction with the Buddha teaching would be clear and it wouldn’t be in accordance with kamma and patticasammupada.

    Regarding what you says about Mahayana as “the creation of other people’s mind”, be aware the mind of an enlightened being is not different of a Buddha. I think there is a Sutta inside Pali Canon in where Buddha tells the same thing to Sariputta.
    Mahayana is focused in the way and the fruits of teaching, and the History becomes another impermanent device from be dettached. Many times the baroquism of some Mahayana schools contains a practical esoteric purpose. We can remember here that there is also some esoterism in several Pali Suttas.

    In short, Mahayana is a interpretation of the same core teaching. As TB do. As I do. As you do. As everybody do. This discussion is similar to the Hinayana problem. There is not a hinayana Dhamma. There is dukkha and the freedom of dukkha. There is nibbana and there is anatta. The rest is an amount of words.

    nice blog, btw

    • Hey Devala. Thanks for your gracious follow-up comment. You make some good points. You make me think! And this is good – LOL! And I think we have more in common than not, and we both clearly love the dharma. Let’s close this spirited conversation with metta and well-wishes to each of us in our practice and following of the Eightfold Path that joins all Buddhists in wisdom and loving-kindness.


  2. a rectification: thorough the discussion there is a mixture between what Thanissaro says and what the blogger says. Thanissaro talks about the belief in a n inner nature without (maybe) implying nothing about the Buddha-nature notion of mahayana. At least not in an explicit way. I was looking about Thanissaro words of mahayana Buddha-nature but there is nothing on internet.

    So I fear is the blogger who uses the Thanissaro words to assume that he makes a critique against the Mahayana, and then he uses the koans, etc.. Is the blogger who uses the Thanissaro words to mix Zen koans, mahayana.etc..

    • Devala, please see my longer answer. You won’t find what you are looking for, because TB isn’t about criticizing or putting down Mahayana beliefs!

      Secondly, you keep making assumptions about my intent and motives that are totally wrong and that come from your utter misreading of the article, the issues, and what I said.

      Finally, surprise, surprise, I wasn’t and am not making a critique against Mahayana! I’m not about debate, about metaphysical points, about views and concepts, but about what is skillful. Your surprise at my talking about koans and quoting people I deeply admire like Mahayana teacher Seung Sahn show that you totally don’t get what this blog is about, or what I’m about, and that you’ve been battling your own projected misconceptions about me and about the article in question.

      The fact is that in Zen, there isn’t a uniform “view” on Buddha nature. Some schools seem to accept the Mahayana idea, and others see the very concept (and it is a concept) as a hindrance to awakening. And some Zen seem to just play with the idea, using it, and koans about it, as a skillful means to awakening.

      Devela, I’m not the Theravada “fundamentalist” you have created in your mind by misreading and misunderstanding this article. I’m totally open-minded. If my Buddha nature shows up at some point, I’ll welcome it with open arms! LOL! I quote many people at this blog whose views I may not totally agree with, like J. Krishnamurti, but who I feel still have something to say that’s skillful. You’ve been battling your own straw man if you think I’m some big critic of Mahayana. If you actually take some time to understand, read more of my posts, and not jump to conclusions, you might see that for yourself, and understand that I’m a friend, and love anyone and everyone who strives in the path of awakening.

  3. Hi Steven,

    I know well who is Thanissaro but it’s difficult to understand those comments about other Dhamma practices.

    Pali Canon is closer to historical facts but it doesn’t mean the Pali Canon lacks of manipulations. You can sum the Suttas devoted to the talks with bhikkhunis, despite Buddha teached to both men and women and he had male and female disciples. You can read the episode of Ananda asking Buddha, and check how the narrator seems to knows the thoughts of Buddha, despite it is nos possible.

    However, it will important about the role of women ordination, not about Dhamma. Because it is a mistake pursuing the historical facts instead the liberation teaching of Dhamma. Mahayana Sutras recognized women in a very early moment (read in example Queen Srimala Sutra). So even when that Mahanya Sutra is not “historical” we find the message is closer to Buddha teaching than the other Pali Sutta.
    So? What to do?

    The potentiality of people to realize anatta was recognized by the same Buddha, and for this same reason he started to teach. This potentiality is recognized thorough the Pali canon not just in the dialogue with the compassionate Brahma after the Buddha’s Enligtenment.

    Note also, the Buddha never used the word “emptiness” or “meditation”, which is an invention of western translators. However, modenr Pali commentators including Thanissaro they uses these words. Why is so?. Because there si communication. Because the only problem is knowing the meaning of the words in other people instead we fill other words with our own meanings.

    Therefore, it is only your own mistake and also a Thanissaro’s mistake, if you are taking the word “nature” as some atman. The only possible answer to this, is that you and Thanissaro ignores what the Buddha Nature notion means inside Mahayana. Starting a critique of other dhamma practices always is a risk and still more from the surface and without reading about that.

    According the actual poor state of this materialistic world, it is quite sad seeing a monk loosing his time in critizing the rest of the few people engaged in a Dhamma search. I think it is not good.

    best wishes,

    • Hello again.

      Don’t really want to get into a long, involved debate here, especially since we could spend pages just defining our terms so we even begin to have an intelligent discussion or exchange.

      First, TB isn’t making comments about or criticizing other dhamma practices; he’s simply saying he doesn’t find certain concepts (like Budddha nature) in the Pali canon. Even Mahayana scholars say this is so, for heaven’s sake! And all note that these developed ideas came much later on in the Chan/Zen/Tibetan outgrowth. (And could you please stop saying that TB (or I) don’t understand the what Mahayana teaches about Buddha nature, such as asserting that I think Mahayanans believe Buddha nature is like atman? I’ve studied Mahayana Buddhism for at least as long as I have Theravadan, (over 35 years) and I know all the intellectual subtleties and explanations of this Mahayana concept. OK? So, please, stop telling me I need to learn or don’t understand what Mahayana teaches! Been there, done that!)

      You seem to keep confusing what TB says about “Buddha nature” with your idea that we all have the potential to realize anatta. Those aren’t the same thing insofar as I understand them. According to Mahayana, one is an inherent, self-existing, pre-existing nature or essence. It’s something that is there and that we can find, reveal, uncover, or remember. From the Theravadan standpoint, the ability to realize anatta or unbind isn’t a “thing” or “nature” at all but the something that happens as the result of skillful action. Because we “samsara” — it’s a verb; not a place or thing — we can stop “samsara-ing” by unbinding ourselves from the causes of suffering. No “Buddha nature” required!

      We will argue forever and go nowhere if terms aren’t defined, and if defined, agreed upon. I’m not saying the Buddha didn’t teach that everyone can unbind; what I’m saying is that in his original teachings he did make this ability dependent upon our believing in some pre-existing, inherent, discoverable Buddha nature (and again, please, I DON’T mean an atman! I mean exactly what Mahayana teaches about Buddha nature! Jeez, that’s Buddhism 101! If you can’t understand this point, there’s no reason to discuss the issue further, because we won’t even be arguing about the same thing!

      As for the Pali canon, I don’t make it my “god” nor say it’s infallible scripture or anything of the sort. I am very aware of all the scholarly problems inherent in the Pali canon, and anyone can get a quick overview just by visiting Wikipedia on “Pali Canon.” The power of the Pali canon is that whatever is there probably has some actual relationship to the original and real Buddha, whereas all the stuff about Buddha natures, and cosmic Buddhas, and deity worship, all the other baroque ideas borrowed from indigenous religions and philosophies of Tibet and China (Bon and Taoism), are to me clearly the creations and interpretation of people’s minds.

      If you, or others, find truth and skillful means in these later ideas, more power to you. All I’m saying is that these baroque ideas and terms aren’t to be found in the teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha, the real Buddha. I don’t know any Buddhist scholars who say differently, even if they see merit in these later ideas and additions, or from their standpoint, “advanced” revelations about the nature of the Buddha. If a scholar want to look back at the historical Buddha and Pali canon and claim that Mahayana ideas are “really” there, then that’s a scholarly/intellectual argument, and I have no desire to debate that point.

      You say, “Therefore, it is only your own mistake and also a Thanissaro’s mistake, if you are taking the word “nature” as some atman.” No, as I said above, repeatedly, actually, I don’t take it as that, and you’re not hearing or understanding what TB (or I) am saying at all if that’s what you think. When you say this, it makes me think you didn’t understand the article at all. TB is not making any statement about “Buddha nature” as “atman” because the Buddha himself rejected this idea of atman, fully, completely, and without qualification. That’s what TB is saying! That’s what “anatta” means, so I don’t even get the point you are making. And yes, TB is “ignoring” what Mahayana says about “Buddha nature” because from the standpoint of the Pali canon, it’s absolutely irrelevant and unnecessary for following the Buddha’s path. Historically, it’s a later addition, irregardless of what Mahayana believes about it.

      Maybe you can understand why your objections make no sense to me if I can give you an analogy. If we were Christians, it would be like you telling me I don’t understand the nature of Christ because I don’t understand what, for example, St. Augustine said about the nature of Christ. If I’m a Protestant, I could care less what this Catholic saint says about the nature of Christ, and I can care less about understanding how Augustine believes his ideas shed light on the original gospels.

      In fact, all I have to do is go to original words of Jesus in the Bible, and see what they say themselves. (And of course, I understand all the scholarly and historical problems and issues with the authenticity of those original gospels, but that’s not the point.) The point is, your arguments about Buddha nature are like a Christian saying St. Augustine’s highly developed and intellectualized ideas about the nature of Christ are right there in the gospels, spelled out in full and complete terms, but, in fact, they are not. No scholar thinks this! And in fact, from the Protestant standpoint, Augustine’s ideas are irrelevant to one being a practicing Christian.

      Of course, if you are Catholic, and want to use Augustinian ideas in your approach to scripture, well and good. I’m not criticizing that! Just don’t tell me that I need those ideas to practice being a Christian. And don’t tell me that those Augustinian ideas were taught by Jesus, when Jesus clearly said no such thing in the simple, humble words of the gospel. Ditto with “Buddha nature” (as understood in Mahayana) and the Pali canon.

      Finally, TB is not spending his time “criticizing the rest of the few people engaged in Dhamma search” and if you think that, you simply don’t even get what the article is about, nor what the life of this dedicated monk has been about. Such sweeping generalization are indeed a sad commentary, but on you, not him. What’s he’s saying is that the concept of a “buddha nature” (and yes, he understands what this concept means in Mahayana!) was not taught by the Buddha and is not *necessary* for unbinding. Indeed, the article argues that the concept becomes something to be let go of as untenable as “me” or “mine.” Agree, or disagree, this isn’t attacking other schools of Buddhism. Zen and Tibetan scholars have their critique of what they see as the limitations of the Theravadan view. Does that mean they are “attacking” Theravada? No, it just means they want to be clear on what the Mahayana way is, and how they see it as more “advanced.” It’s what people do; no problem!

  4. It is obvious Thanissaro Bhikkhu doesn’t understand the topic. Reading what he says, I wonder if he have read essential books about that.

    Buddha-nature concept is not other thing that capacity to realize anatta nature, emptiness. He can read “Buddha-nature”–Sallie B. King, and “The Buddha nature: a study of the Tathāgatagarbha and ālayavijñāna”–Brian Edward Brown.
    Honestly, I think quite impossible the arising of these claims after reading both books.

    Assumption of Buddha-nature means the assumption of an existing potentiality in everyone to realize nibbana. This teaching also is present in the Pali Suttas. And in fact we supposes same Thanissaro and any others follower becomed Buddhists under a similar assumption.

    best wishes,

    • Hello Devala!

      I almost laughed out loud when you wondered if “he have [sic] read any essential books about that.” Well, yes, he had, actually– the Middle and Long Discourses of the Buddha, as well as what’s called the Wings to Awakening, most of which he’s translated from the original Pali! He’s been a Theravadan monk for over 30 years, and is probably one of the foremost translators in the world of the Pali canon, and if you visit Access to Insight Theravada website, you’ll see his wonderful, beautiful work there.

      What could be more “essential” than what the Buddha himself said in the earliest and most authentic teachings that exist? Sallie King and Brian Brown may (or may not) be fine Buddhist scholars, I’m not familiar with them, and if they love the dharma as taught by the historical Buddha, then may they find happiness and the causes of happiness. Also, if they find belief in or the necessity of an inherent Buddha nature a helpful and skillful means to awakening, then by all means, they should follow that belief to the end and see where it takes them, but clearly, that is the Mahayana path, a path I investigated thoroughly and deeply, and which I respect, but which did not find skillful for my progress in the the Buddha’s way.

      The Buddha did indeed teach that anyone could use the 4 Noble Truths to find the way to unbinding, to release, but in the Pali canon, happily, he did so without the need of us assuming anything about ourselves in terms of a “Buddha nature” or an inherent anything.

      You seem to speak with great authority about the Pali Suttas, and I’m happy for you that you are so familiar with him. Could you please direct me to the suttas where the Buddha teaches we have a “Buddha nature” or some “existing potentiality?” I’ve been studying them for a few years myself, and I seem to have missed these passages, so I appreciate your help in awakening.

  5. First, thanks for the article and maintaining this blog! Seung Sahn is being remembered here and that is wonderful !!!

    Here is my comment, for what it is worth:

    /Well, does a dog have Buddha nature?/

    This koan is about “having” or “not having” as a mental construct. We think we know what “having something” is but we don’t. If you say you have money, do you mean your bank has it, or your pocket has it, or maybe you swallowed it? Maybe it has you, if it is chained to your wrist and dragging you down to the sea bottom? Does a dog have fleas? That question points to the same thing. It would be just as valid to say the fleas have the dog.

    After a thoroughly frustrating search for “have”, through god only knows how many back breaking sesshins and douksans, we move on to “Buddha-nature”. Where is it? What is it? Where does one keep it? If one has it, can it be taken away? Is it worth fighting for? And who’s idea was it to give it to the dog?

    So, some monk, some place, lays this all this on poor Jo Ju and he yells “Mu”! Or, nonsense, stop, cease, enough, silence, katz or whatever it takes to get the monk to reflect on what it is he is asking.

    Koans take years to answer because it takes us years to rid ourselves of enough baggage for us to connect with them. Like the rich man standing with his camels outside the eye of a needle. Outside he is a rich man, inside the city he is who he is. The identity he knows is no more. Which is better? Is it more attractive to chop all that off and enter the city? Or stay outside, as a rich man, trying to become a rich man, or trying to stay a rich man? …with all the fear and uncertainty that entails.

    Simply put, Buddhism provides answers we don’t want. Yes, we want to go through the eye of the needle, but we also want to sneak in a few bags of gold as well and that is what dooms our effort.

    Keep your Buddha nature if you want, but sooner or later you will get stuck defending a concept with more concepts. Like the guy who brings in a hammer and crow bar to free his gold from the eye of the needle after it gets stuck. Use your imagination…

    • Hey Jon! Thanks for the wonderful comment. It’s a brilliant and very helpful addition to the posting, and I’m really grateful to have it sitting here in the comments.

      I found Seung Sahn fairly early in my Buddhist studies and escape from Christianity, and his teaching really resonated with me. I think had I been physically near to him, I would have sought him out as a teacher, but instead, I found my way to Thich Nhat Hanh, who often visited and taught in New England, so became my heart teacher.

      I still read and ponder the many wonderful articles I found downloaded from the Primary Point Zen Archive and consider Master Sahn’s teaching a treasure of true dharma.

      The process you describe felt so familiar, the sitting, watching, and letting go. And I love your description of how koans work and how to use them skillfully. Again, I think visitors will find it very useful, so thanks.

      I do think that for some people, koans are a hurdle they just can’t get over, and this says nothing about the use of koans, but that each of us has to find what’s skillful for our particular hearts and minds.

      >>Simply put, Buddhism provides answers we don’t want. Yes, we want to go through the eye of the needle, but we also want to sneak in a few bags of gold as well and that is what dooms our effort.<<

      Oh, man, that's so true! Happens again and again. It takes real courage to really see what's there, or not there, and let go of our human hopes or expectations, and see "just this.” On the other hand, I always find that as I do this, that there is an “end of suffering” in some degree, so it’s not a spiritual death (though it can feel death, sometimes!) but actually a waking up to life and all its richness.

      You last paragraph is a great summary of Thanisarro Bhikkhu’s article, and in fact, your “use your imagination” is something he talks about again and again in terms of skillful awakening, and especially in working with the breath.

      Thanks again for stopping by and for sharing from your practice.


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