Buddha Nature and Buddhahood: the Mahayana and Tantrayana

by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche

The attitude of the bodhisattva, the Mahayana practitioner, is not being concerned just for oneself, but feeling the same concern for everyone. The reason a bodhisattva has unbiased love and compassion is that when we identify with a certain group and concentrate on its benefit, there is the danger we might harm others outside the group.

Therefore, the Mahayana path cultivates a completely unbiased love and compassion, caring equally for every being including nonhuman beings such as animals. Normally, we care for our friends and relatives and helping them may set others against us. Or we care for our race and set ourselves against other races or cultures. Or we care for humans and subjugate animals in order to make life better for mankind. All of this is the usual way of biased thought.

The Mahayana approach is to care equally for any sentient being (which is any being who has a mind). This is because we realize that since beginningless time, each and every being has had the same basic wish to find happiness and to be free from suffering. In that respect, all beings are the same and therefore we try to help them equally.

Buddha Nature

The union of wisdom and emptiness is the essence of Buddha-hood or what is called Buddha-nature (Skt. tathagatagarba) because it contains the very seed, the potential of Buddhahood. It resides in each and every being and because of this essential nature, this heart nature, there is the possibility of reaching Buddhahood. Even though it is in everyone, it is not obvious nor does it manifest because it is covered up by the various thoughts and defilements which are blocking the Buddha-nature.

That Buddha-nature is present in each and every being but does not always manifest. This is exemplified in the Uttara Tantra by an image of a lotus flower, which is an ugly flower when it is a bud. But inside it there is a small and perfect Buddha statue. At first one only sees this homely flower. Yet, when the flower blossoms one can see the form of the Buddha, which has always been there. Similarly, full Buddha-nature is in everyone’s mind, yet its radiance and presence is covered up.

Another example given in the Uttara Tantra is of honey surrounded by many bees. Honey is quite sweet and tasty but as long as it is surrounded by bees, one can’t taste that sweetness. The example shows again that there is something at the very heart, yet because of these swarms of bees which represent our defilements, one can’t gain access to something which has been there all the time.

The third example is of grains of rice inside their husks. To get the nutritional value from the grains one has to remove the shell, the husk. Whether one dehusks the grain or not, there is always that same grain inside and as far as the grain is concerned there is no difference. But if one wants to have access to the nutritive value, one must remove the shell.

The example of the statue of the Buddha inside the lotus shows how buddha essence is inside beings but is covered up by desires, attachments, and involvements. One has many different defilements. The first main defilement (Skt. klesha) of attachment is represented by the lotus because when one finds something very attractive, one wants to be involved with it.

The lotus flower at one stage is very beautiful and has a nice shape and color which is associated with beauty and attractiveness. Actually, when one considers it, the lotus has a very limited use apart from its beauty. Also that beauty changes—one day it very beautiful, the following days it wilts, fades and rots and the beauty is gone. This is the very nature of desire—at one point things seem very attractive but very quickly one realizes that they are not so useful or lasting as they seemed.

In the example of the lotus it is not until the petals of the flower open and fall away that one can see the form of the Buddha that was there all the time. And it is the same with desires—until one’s desires have been eliminated, one cannot see the Buddha-nature which has been inside sentient beings all the time.

The second example of honey points to the covering or blocking presence of the second defilement of aggression or anger which is characterized by bees. Honey in itself is very sweet and tasty. This is like Buddha-nature which is very useful and beneficial for everyone. Yet, around the honey are all those bees whose nature is the very opposite. The bees sting and are very aggressive. As long as the bees are there, the situation is very difficult. So it is with the nature of aggression and anger which is also very unpleasant; it stings and hurts. The honey is there all the time and one can’t get to the honey because the bees are all around it. If one can find a way of gradually getting rid of the bees, one can get the honey.

Likewise, when one eliminates anger and aggression, one can develop this really beneficial Buddha-nature.

The third example of grains of rice inside their husks is used to point to the nature of the third main defilement which is ignorance or stupidity. The husk is very tough and difficult to separate from the grain which makes it a good example of ignorance which is also thick, strong, and difficult to get rid of. This ignorance stops us from having access to Buddha-nature.

Generally speaking, beings have a great deal of ignorance. Compared to animals, of course, humans are more clever in many respects and have more wisdom. But the wisdom of humans is quite limited. For instance, humans like ourselves can’t see what is happening beyond the walls of this room; they can’t see what is happening in the rest of the world. Knowledge stops where the wall stops. Even though humans can see other people inside the walls, they have no idea apart from a few vague indications what’s happening inside of people because human perception doesn’t stretch that far.

Even when we think we perceive other’s thoughts, we often make mistakes. If we have a friend, for instance, the friend goes out and we may start thinking, “I wonder what he is saying about me” and we develop a whole train of thought and become convinced that he is saying bad things about us. By the time he comes back there can even be a fight just because we have guessed the person’s intentions wrongly. Or we may think an adversary is changing his intentions towards us by acting in an open way which can also cause a lot of trouble if the enemy in fact is still an enemy. It is hard for us to see things as they really are.

When we learn about the Buddha’s teachings, we learn about the nature of desire, the nature of aversion, and so on. It takes a long time for us to understand what is really being taught. Even though we may know about the shortcomings of desire, yet due to our habitual patterns it takes a long time to act in a way which corresponds to our knowledge. The perception of the deeper aspects of truth is very hard for us to quickly understand because ignorance is so pervasive. That is why it is compared to the husk of a grain: It is tough, hard, and takes a lot of effort to remove. These three examples show how Buddha-nature is like a precious essence or jewel inside us, which is covered up by desire, aggression, and ignorance. The Buddha taught the dharma to show us how to have access to this precious Buddha-nature.

There is another example in the Uttara Tantra which illustrates this. There’s a very precious statue made of gold which ages ago had fallen and became covered with dirt. Because no one knows it’s there, for generations and generations people leave their rubbish there and it becomes more and more covered because no one realizes it is underground.

One day a man who is clairvoyant comes along and sees this precious golden statue under the ground. He then tells someone, “Do you know that there is a precious and beautiful golden statue there under the ground. All you need to do is dig it up, clean it, and you will own this extremely valuable thing.” Someone with sense would heed the man, take the statue out of the ground, clean it, and possess what has been there for such a long time.

This example is very vivid: Since the beginning of time this precious Buddha-nature has been in all beings, yet it has been covered with the dirt of the defilements. Because one doesn’t realize one has this precious nature within, defilements build up. But then the Buddha who is like the man with clairvoyance tells us, “You know, there is Buddha-nature within you. All you need to do is uncover and clean it so all the exceptional qualities it has will manifest.”

Those who heed the Buddha’s teachings can discover this incomparable thing which has been within us all the time and which we never knew was there until we were told. For that essence to be revealed we need to meditate on the truth, on the essence of phenomena, the way things really are. If we do that, we clean away all the delusions and defilements which have been covering up that essence. So we meditate on the essence of everything which is emptiness. Through that meditation we will discover this emptiness has within it wisdom and clarity. Through the process of becoming used to the emptiness and clarity which is the universal essence or dharmata we will automatically eliminate all of the delusions which have been blocking that vision.

Once we see the truth of everything, all the deluded aspects can’t exist at the same time. So to clear away the obscurations and blockages to Buddha-nature, we need first to know about the essence of emptiness and clarity. Once we know it exists, we meditate on it to become closer and closer to Buddha-nature.

Buddahood: The Fruition

Now we will move on to fruition which is Buddhahood. The word for Buddha in Tibetan has two syllables, sang gey. These show the two main qualities or principle aspects of this highest goal of Buddhahood. The first is the aspect of purity which means one is free from all the impurities of the defilements, from ignorance, and from all the obscurations.

The syllable sang means “awakened,” “awakened from that sleep of ignorance,” or “purified from that ignorance.” The second syllable gey means “blossomed” because being free from impurities, all of the deep wisdom of the Buddha becomes present and this clarity and knowledge has completely blossomed and is completely free from obscurations. So Buddhahood is the complete blossoming of the highest wisdom and purity.

Now, the teachings of the Buddha can be divided into three main levels or vehicles which are the Hinayana, the Mahayana, and the Vajrayana. Another way of analyzing them is to look at them in terms of the sutra and the tantra level of teaching.

The Sanskrit word sutra was translated into Tibetan as do which means “teachings” or “explanation.” Generally, the sutra level of teachings contains all of the explanations, all the ways of presenting the vast meaning that the Buddha gave in his life of teachings. So the sutra tradition is a way of presentation of the Buddha’s teachings.

The other aspect is the tantra. When this Sanskrit word was translated into Tibetan, it became ju which means “continuum.” Sometimes it is called mantra which in Tibetan is nga.

This word tantra or “continuum” shows that there is this presence of Buddha-nature or Buddha-essence in all sentient beings that they had have from the very beginning of existence and will possess until they reach Buddhahood. So, by gradually working on the path, step by step, one develops one’s full potential and reaches Buddhahood. This constant or continuous presence within us is what is worked with in the tantric teachings. (The Tantra path is also called the Vajrayana)

The Three Vehicles of Buddhist Practice

Namo Buddha Publications