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Buddha Nature

by Kamalashila

Buddha Nature

by Kamalashila

Talk given on Wesak, Cambridge 2006

I said I’d talk on Buddha Nature, because today we are celebrating the Buddha’s own
complete realisation of it. The Buddha Sakyamuni completely realised his Buddha
Nature. This is something really worth celebrating.

My talk today is about what that means. I’d like us to think more about the concept of
Buddha Nature. It is basically just a way of expressing the fact that Enlightenment is
somehow in our nature as human beings. That it’s wired in somehow, that it’s somehow
in our genes. It doesn't mean we’re somehow already Enlightened. But it does mean that
Buddhist awakening isn’t something alien, or added on. I think that to feel that
Enlightenment is part of our potential as human beings is incredibly important for our
whole attitude to our Dharma life.

It means that in a certain sense, Enlightenment is something natural. Even, in a way, that
it’s is the most natural thing of all. Being genuinely natural, being truly ourselves, is not
at all easy for us. In this way of thinking, if only we could be completely natural, we’d be
Enlightened. To understand this properly, we have to go into what Buddhism means by
‘natural’. That is a whole discussion which I hope I’ll be able to address a bit later.

Generally it seems to me that to see the goal of our practice as a kind of naturalness
would be very helpful for us, simply because we in the west very easily think of
Enlightenment as something unnatural. It is sometimes actually expressed in that way.
It’s sometimes said that in practising Dharma we’re going ‘against nature’. Nature can be
identified with samsara. Nature can be seen solely in terms of plants and animals. That
idea of nature then gets contrasted with the world of spiritual attainment. It is seen as
something we all need to get beyond, something to be transcended.

Well of course there is a certain truth in that way of looking at the issue, but there’s
something very false in it as well. Words and concepts are tricky. We have to use them,
but we need also to watch out, because they can tie us in knots!

The Tibetan Wheel of Life illustrates this problem quite well. In case you don't know it,
the Wheel of Life is a graphical image of the Buddha’s realisation, a kind of picture of
what he saw on the night of his Enlightenment. It’s a great circular image, a bit like a
wheel, and a bit like a mirror. It’s not a pleasant sight – it’s in the grip of a demon, and
it’s a picture of our imprisonment in samsara.

Round the outside of this ‘mirror’ is a circle of images like a filmstrip, showing the
progression of all the unsatisfactoriness in life. It shows our body and mind conditioned
by our past. It shows body and mind emerging into a present reality of pleasure and pain.
It shows us reacting with emotions. It then shows these emotions conditioning how our
mind and body manifest in the future. The strip goes round and round. It’s a cycle of
reaction. Then inside the filmstrip, round the hub of the wheel, you see all the different
worlds that all the different kinds of beings inhabit. There are human and nonhuman
worlds, heavenly worlds, hell worlds, and it shows them in detail. Then inside that, close
to the hub of the Wheel, you see the raw essence of every world: see beings going up,
getting high, getting happy; or going down, getting unhappier and unhappier. Life in the
raw is either black or white, its down or up. Then finally, right in the centre, at the hub of
the wheel, you see images of a cock, a snake and a pig. Greed, hatred and delusion: the
basic reactions to pleasure and pain. And it’s this reactivity at the hub that’s continually
making unenlightened existence so dissatisfying.

It’s not hard to see life like that, is it? To have quite a dark view of existence. But the
Buddha sees a bigger picture. He’s shown standing outside the wheel, and he’s pointing
to something else. He’s pointing to the Dharma. The Dharma is depicted symbolically as
the full moon. Just like the full Wesak moon we’ve been experiencing the last few days.

And this is really what the Buddha saw on the night when his awakening happened. He
certainly saw the wheel of Samsara, but he also saw, very clearly, the full moon of
Dharma. And there’s such a difference between these two images. The Wheel held by the
demon is a dark, complex, unhappy image. The full moon is something simple, joyful,
abundant, brimming over with light and positive energy.

But we sometimes think that the dark Wheel represents Nature. It seems just to go round
and round, there seems no way out. You’re born and you react, you get more and more
deeply enmeshed in samsaric reactions, then you die and are reborn even more enmeshed.
Whereas Buddhist insight offers escape from samsara. It offers escape from Nature, it
seems. Certainly, if we look at it in that way, Enlightenment has no connection with

But it seems to me this idea chimes too much with our Christian inheritance that Nature is
bad and that the Good is somehow outside nature. When this is not the case in Buddhism.
For Buddhism, nature is not the same as samsara. Nature includes what is beyond
samsara. Nature includes Enlightenment. in other words the Buddha did not transcend
Nature – he completed it, he fulfilled it. After his Enlightenment the Earth goddess bore
witness to his attainment of Enlightenment. She’d been there all along, she’d seen his
efforts and she’d supported them.

So the Wheel of Life represents nature only in a very limited sense. The full Moon
represents nature in the sense of complete fulfilment of our nature. The full moon
represents the spiral, progressive aspect of nature. The wheel represents the cyclical
aspect of nature.

Because Nature is not just the birds, the bees, the flowers and the trees. Nature is not just
the outer form of things. It is also what is unseen. Nature is also the way of action, the
behaviour, the attitude, the thought, the hidden inner life of things. It’s in everyone’s
nature to act in certain ways. The earth supports, water flows, fire consumes, and wind
moves. So flowers, trees, you and me all have our ways, we all have a nature of our own.
And that nature, essentially, is Buddha Nature. Because if one’s nature is completely
fulfilled, it will be Enlightened. No doubt that nature can only fully be fulfilled under
certain circumstances. But where there’s motivation and will, there’s potential to fulfil
the Buddha Nature to some degree. And as human beings, we have the power to fulfil it

So when we celebrate the Buddha’s Enlightenment, it’s the Buddha Nature within us all
that we are essentially rejoicing in.

However, the idea that wisdom, or Enlightenment, is already within us in some way, so
that what we have to do is to uncover it, is like the proverbial water snake. It’s difficult to
grasp correctly. In fact it’s quite easy to grasp it incorrectly – to mean that we are literally
already enlightened. We naturally like the idea that there’s something already there in us,
just waiting to be woken up. It rings true in a certain kind of way. It also makes the
spiritual path appear an easy, simple matter: relax, let go the hindrances, and just let the
Buddha nature shine forth!

Well, doesn't the idea have a certain ring of truth? Isn't it so that when we manage to
relinquish an obstacle, something positive arises? When we’re in a tricky philosophical
mood we can start wondering if that ‘something’ was there already. And if it was indeed
already there, what need could there have been to let anything go? Why did we need to
make that effort in the first place?

We can get rather knotted up in logical problems like these, and it’s important that we
recognise that they arise because we are trying to describe something that cannot
adequately be described. This is why we have the perfection of wisdom teachings which
insist that reality cannot be described AT ALL. So when we get to these illogicalities,
these antinomies of reason, we have to meditate on the perfection of wisdom, let go into
the Buddha Nature – trust the Buddha Nature – in other words go for refuge to the

Of course the Buddha nature wasn’t there already in a literal sense. Yet nonetheless, the
Buddha nature is there in all beings, all the time.

It’s easier to understand this issue if we apply it something other than Buddhahood.
Because you get just the same semantic problem when trying to describe anything that
exists in potential. For example, an entire oak tree is potential in an acorn, isn't it? Now
obviously the great big oak tree isn’t literally there, in the seed, which is a widdly little
thing. Nice, but not actually a tree. But at the same time it’s obvious that the entire tree is
there in the seed. Because in the right conditions we know that an entire oak tree will
definitely grow from the tiny acorn. We don't fully understand how it happens, but we
know it will. The nature of an acorn is to grow ...

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