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in Buddhadharma

On Buddha-nature

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"You are your own saviour - who else is there to save You ?"
Dhammapada, verse 160.

"The Dharmakâya of the Tathâgata is named 'cessation of suffering', and it is beginningless, uncreate, unborn, undying, free from death ; permanent, steadfast, calm, eternal ; intrinsically pure, free from all the defilement store ; and accompanied by Buddha natures more numerous than the sands of the Ganges, which are nondiscrete, knowing as liberated, and inconceivable. This Dharmakâya of the Tathâgata when not free from the store of defilements is referred to as the Tathâgatagarbha."- Shrî-Mâlâ Sûtra (Wayman & Wayman, 1974, p.98 - "Buddha natures" refers here to all enlightened qualities of body, speech & mind of a Buddha).

"At that time, Mahâmati the Bodhisattva-Mahâsattva said this to the Blessed One : Now the Blessed One makes mention of the Tathâgata-garbha in the sûtras, and verily it is described by you as by nature bright and pure, as primarily unspotted, endowed with the thirty-two marks of excellence, hidden in the body of every being like a gem of great value, hidden in the body of every being like a gem of great value, which is enwrapped in a dirty garment, enveloped in the garment of the Skandhas, Dhâtus and Âyatanas, and soiled with the dirt of greed, anger, folly, and false imagination, while it is described by the Blessed One to be eternal, permanent, auspicious, and unchangeable." - Lankâvatâra Sûtra, chapter 2, XXVIII.77-78.

To facilitate our escape from cyclic existence, the Buddhayâna rejects any kind of substantial (fixed, static, self-powered) agent whatsoever. Objectively, no Divine Saviour, revealed sacred text or magical procedure irreversibly ends suffering. Likewise, on the inside, excelling in originality, Buddha Shâkyamuni, while identifying consciousness ("vijñâna"), also rejects a substantial, essentialist, self-sufficient self ("âtman").

Together with suffering & impermanence, this absence of a static, self-powered subjectivity ("anâtman") is one of the three marks of all what exists, ultimate reality included. However, this absence of a substantial self does not preclude conventional subjectivity (and its empirical ego), nor the presence of a very subtle mind, a base-consciousness ("mûla-

Indeed, according to the teachings of Buddha-nature, our mind-stream or stream of consciousness ("citta-santâna") is, and this since beginningless times, innately endowed with a pure (process-based), everlasting & radiating Buddha-nature ("tathâgatagarbha"). The enlightened qualities inseparable from this uncontaminated mind are strong enough to penetrate the thickest, darkest clouds.

Thus conveying great optimism and belief in the innate capacities of the human being, affirming
all sentient beings whatsoever (the Mahâyâna intent) equally possess Buddha-nature, strengthens the highest soteriological intent of the Buddhadharma : compassionate awakening for all sentient beings.

Considering the various scholarly renditions of the term Buddha-nature, most authors (Suzuki, the Wayman's, Takasaka) opt for a single meaning, thereby disregarding other meanings and their possible higher integration. Here (as in Sutton), different historical usages are identified.

Following distinctions pertain :

(1) supramundana Buddha-nature : the supramundane, enlightened true nature of the Nature Body of a Buddha, self-empty but inseparable from its countless enlightened properties, and present in the mindstream of every sentient being. This is the "thusness" of a Buddha, his or her enlightened way of mere existential existence or true nature - the ontological sense as the view of a supramundane Dharma (not to be confused with the static, essentialist & substantial "âtman") ;
(2) hidden, potential Buddha-nature : not yet manifest, but hidden, concealed in sentient beings like an "embryo", "germ", "seed", to be set in motion by means of right practice, moving from potential to actual Buddhahood - the soteriological sense of the dynamics  towards Buddhahood (path) ;
(3) actualized Buddha-nature : the fruit or the end of the true path on the basis of right practice ; the clearing (purifying) of the adventitious defilements covering the Buddha Within with nothing left and the complete actualization of the "mind of a Buddha" ("Dharmakâya"), i.e. ever-enlightened Bodhi Nature fully expressed as fully enlightened Wisdom.

From the side of the fruit of the path, i.e. its finality, the Dharmakâya (or the fully enlightened mind of a Buddha) is synonymous with actualized Buddhahood. From the side of the path, i.e. spiritual emancipation,
to attain full awakening, right practice is necessary. Just like the properties of a diamond hidden in dirt do not change after it is cleaned, the path itself does not touch the true nature of the Buddhas, only their wisdom.

For Yogâcâra, the second branch of the Mahâyâna next to the Madhyamaka, introducing
"tathâgatagarbha" is the object of the Third Turning of the Wheel of Dharma. After the Second Turning, bringing compassion and (self) emptiness to the fore, Buddha Śâkyamuni taught "tathâgatagarbha" as his final teaching.

This reading was inspired by the Samdhinirmocana Sûtra (2th to 3rd century), Śrîmâlâdevî-simhanâda Sûtra (3rd), Lankâvatâra Sûtra, Tathâgatagarbha Sûtra (3rd to 4th) & Ratnagotravibhâga  (4th to 5th).

The intent of the Third Turning is to extend Buddhahood to all sentient beings, affirming all sentient beings possess Buddha-nature.

This teaching refers to three factors : (1) the ontic nature (or supermundane, uncontaminated dharma) of Tathâgatahood (ontology of Buddhahood), (2) the innate enlightement-potential of the mind, to be activated & actualized through spiritual practice, generating fruits and (3) the attainment of full awakening. These three factors are best understood in the light of how a Buddha exists, traditionally known as the Three Bodies of a Buddha ("trikâya").

The Bodies of Existence of a Buddha

Formless body



Truth Body
very subtle mind mounted on very subtle wind

actual cognition of a Buddha

true cessation
empty by

true nature
absence of the
stains of inherent existence

right practice
Wisdom Body
true path
secret Guru

Form Bodies



Enjoyment Body

all planes of existence except the physical
Emanation Body

physical realm of actual manifestation

Direct, nondual, non-conceptual actual prehension of the "dharmadhâtu" is what happens in the awake mind of a fully enlightened Buddha, what happens in his or her "Dharmakâya" or Body of Truth.

This "Truth Body" has two parts : Nature Body & Wisdom Body.

Truth Body
Nature Body
true cessation
true nature
right practice
Wisdom Body - true path

The Truth Body ("Dharmakâya") is a Buddha's actual supramundane prehension -by way of true cessation (ending all false ideation)- of the totality of existence ("dharmadhatu"), i.e. an supramundane act of cognition existing simultaneously with the actual, present state of wisdom-mind, rising together along with the living wisdom ("jñâna") of this Buddha, thereafter manifesting (by way of Form Bodies) what this Buddha does (true path).

The Nature Body is the natural, spontaneous, just existing, effortless state of enlightenment of the mind, its inhering salvic nature. It
has no production, duration or disintegration, no beginning, middle or end. It is not a different entity from phenomena, and does not fall into the extremes of existence or non-existence. Pure of all obstructions & unconditional, it is unknowable by the conceptualizing, conditional mind. It can not be apprehended, only prehended.

This is the original, primordial, very subtle Clear Light mind (Tib. "rigpa") unspotted, without a trace of essentializing obscurations & hallucinations, without any substance-obsession. In not a single moment of the mindstream of a Buddha is inherent existence entertained. This original Nature Body is beyond any sense of temporality, wholly supra-mundane & self-empty. It could be called the pure space in which enlightened mental activity happens. It is shared by all Buddha's, together constituting the transcendent sphere of Buddhahood.

The Nature Body is of two types : the naturally pure Nature Body and the adventitiously pure Nature Body.

The true nature of the Buddha within is not affected by absence of right practice, obscuring its manifestation (like a diamond is not affected by the absence of light). For Consequentialists ("prâsangika"), the natural purity of the Nature Body only refers to the absence -since beginningless time- of inherent existence in the transcendent sphere of Buddhahood (the nature of mind always being naturally free from inherent existence).

Accepting this, Yogâcâra, Mahâmudrâ, Dzogchen, Mahâmadhyamaka & Ch'an add to this the absence of anything other than what a Buddha does on the basis of the enlightened properties inseparable from the true nature.

But for both, the adventitiously pure Nature Body is the absence of stains (acquired & innate obstructions & obstructions to omniscience) through the application of antidotes (the right practice of the Bodhisattvas).

The Wisdom Body is living wisdom ("jñâna"), i.e. the actual, temporal and active cognition of phenomena as their are here and now, i.e. empty of inherent existence or substance, but, because a Buddha is at hand, empty of all things other than his or her enlightened properties. This wisdom is what a Buddha actually does, is active, engaged and committed activity, endlessly. This is the "true path", the path of a Buddha, the irreversible nature of the levels of purification of the Bodhisattvas. Finally, as Buddhas this living wisdom ("jñâna") is present in the moment at hand, always actual, existing in an absolute & mere existential way.

The complex interpretations given to Buddha-nature boil down to two different views on the true nature of the Nature Body of the Truth Body :

• on the one hand, this true nature is considered to be (a) an innately, naturally existing nature of enlightenment, (b) originally free from defilements, self-empty, (e) possessed by all sentient beings and, on top of that (d) from the very beginning endowed with (inseparable from) all Buddha-qualities (of enlightened body, speech, mind & activity). This is the view of Yogâcâra, Mahâmadhyamaka, Other-Emptiness (Jonangpa), Nyingmas (Dzogchen), Kagyus & Ch'an (Zen) ;

• on the other hand, the true nature of a Buddha is only the potential for enlightenment. Buddha qualities are not actually already somewhere in the mindstream. Only the potential to generate these is present, nothing more. This potential to Buddhahood is just the emptiness of the mind in the continuum of a defiled mind. This is the view of Critical Madhyamaka (Tsongkhapa and his Gelugpa school). In this school, the Third Turning is deemed mixed (both definitive & interpretative), while the Second Turning is deemed definitive & final. Positing enlightened properties inseparable from the mindstream is deemed a return to the substantialist "âtman", "purusa", "jîvâtman", "pudgala" etc.

Considered by many yogis as the "highest logical truth" ("paramârtha"), the existence of this Tathâgatagarbha and its supramundana Dharma is affirmed, while this is not accessible neither to the imagination ("kalpana"), nor to discrimination ("vikalpa"). As the Śri-Mâlâ-Sûtra claims, it can only be understood by faith & devotion ! And meditation. The "tathâgatagarbha" is described as the "supreme eternity" ("nitya-pâramitâ"), the "supreme bliss" ("sukha-pâramitâ"), the supreme unity ("âtma-pâramitâ") & the "supreme purity" ("shubha-pâramitâ"). These are not to be understood as specific attributes, qualifying a quintessential hypostasis, but refer to the absolute suchness of the ultimate nature of phenomena ("tathatâ"), as directly experienced by the yogi.

This, as the Ratnagotra says, cannot be explained, for it is invisible, unutterable, immutable, unimaginable, indiscriminative & unthinkable ...

Clarification of the View of Critical Mâdhyamaka

All sentient beings, by nature of their sentience, possess the capacity or potential to realize enlightenment ("bodhi") a priori. This mere capacity is not a fully developed true nature of a Buddha (with its co-relative Buddha-qualities) existing innately from the very beginning (as the Jonangpas claim), but the emptiness of the mind, i.e. its fundamental lack of inherent existence, never existing in the mode of subsistence. This is the true nature of the Nature Body established on the basis of its absolute negation of inherent existence only.

Given this innate capacity or potential of the mind to realize its own emptiness, secundary conditions must be created to generate or engender Buddhahood, i.e. to use this mere capacity to transform our defiled condition into that of an Awakened One, a Buddha. To do so, nothing more is needed than to end the false ideation brought about by the substantial instantiation of objects of knowledge. To do so requires a long, gradual process. While this Buddha-potential is the primary cause or possibility of Buddhahood, inalienable and present from the very beginning, secundary conditions are needed to end the coarse & subtle defilements of the mind obscuring the fruition of this capacity for enlightenment. These are given by right practice.

These conditions involve the choice to do so and the joyous effort to bring this about.

Choice (free will) & joyous effort are only given to human beings. While all other sentient beings also possess Buddha-potential, they lack the capacity to generate it by absence of these secundary causes. Hell beings hate & suffer continuously. Hungy ghosts constantly wander unsatisfied & greedy. Animals, being stupid, lack mental bodies. Demi-gods, due to their arrogance, abide in constant conflict. Gods are so distracted by their good karma, they have no moment available to concentrate on the ultimate nature of their proud minds. Human beings, over-attached to objects of desire, have the free will to make the proper choice, but mostly do not put in the effort necessary to find the true meaning of their precious lives, etc.

Just like a mustard seed is not identical with the tree, Buddha-qualities are not given or fully developed from the start. Like water takes on the colour of the glass, the emptiness of the mind abides in the defiled continuum. Just like we need exercise to bring about our genetically given capacities, Buddhahood is generated as the result of our conscious efforts to realize the ultimate nature of the mind, i.e. by meditations on emptiness, using the emptiness of the mind as object of placement. Without the latter, just like fully operational eyes cannot process light in complete darkness, this capacity will remain unexpressed. Being dormant, suffering continues.

The view of the Madhyamika in general, and of Tsongkhapa in particular, is gradualist or path-oriented. These philosophers consider enlightenment never to be sudden, but the end result of a long process of spiritual evolution, moving through various stages. By accumulating compassion and wisdom, the conditions for awakening arise. By prolonged meditation on compassion Form Bodies ("Nirmânakaya & Sambhogakâya") are generated, and by emptiness meditations the Truth Body ("Dharmakâya") arises. When this happens, enlightened qualities are generated. So the two "baskets" of compassion & wisdom act as "causes" leading to enlightenment, and without them, suffering cannot be ended, for the fruit cannot be produced.

Given this, Buddha-nature cannot be an ontological a priori and the qualities associated with awakening cannot be considered to be given from the very beginning. They must be caused or generated by the efforts put in a posteriori.

Clarification of the View of Mahâmâdhyamaka

Although the logic of the Prâsangika argument is clear-cut and powerful, it differs from the direct, nondual, non-conceptual yogic experience of the masters of Mind-Only, Mahâmudrâ and Dzogchen. To these minds, focusing on meditative experience rather than on conceptual logic & philosophy, on phenomenological experience rather than on conceptual teaching, enlightenment is a pure (self-empty), uncompounded, continuous & radiant state. They ask how compounded, impermanent conditions may act as "causes" producing the permanent ? How can the impure ever produce the pure if the latter is not somehow already somehow a given ? Were it not lured by the awake, actual enlightened properties of its mindstream, why would any sentient being be drawn to happiness ?

These yogis relentlessly stress all sentient beings are enlightened sui generis, implying that to realize awakening, nothing more has to be done than to uncover this intrinsic Buddha-nature and its enduring, sempiternal qualities ... This uncovering or unveiling may happen suddenly, merely by pointing out this luminous, clear nature of mind, for ever united with the primordial ground. Once pointed out, the process of clearing away may start ...

The enlightened qualities of a Buddhas are dynamical (differential) translations of the supreme remedial antidote ("pratipaksa") : emptiness ("śûnyatâ") ; a Buddha never self-exists (is self-empty), nor does a Buddha exist as anything else than how a Buddha exists (other-empty). The profound nondual, non-conceptual cognition of the emptiness of all phenomena (self-emptiness or "prajñâ"), gained by a non-affirmative logic, is complemented by the other-emptiness recognizing (affirming) Buddha-nature as it exists here & now (or "jñâna"). This occasions the perfect joy of the supreme bliss ("prajñâjñâna"), the Great Mirror Cognition ("mahâdarsha-jñâna"). The supreme unbounded wholeness apprehended by the wise is the insubstantiality of the dwelling-place of ignorance hand in hand with the full direct experience of the nature of Buddhahood. The latter is not a substantial self-existence, but the mere existential existence of an uncontaminated, absolute & pure dependent-arising.

To realize full enlightenment, only right practice is needed. Removing the obscurations, the Nature Body of the Dharmakâya, the cognitive stream of a Buddha, is the living wisdom of the path.


Sentient beings suffer. They are dissatisfied and lack "inner space" (an open, spacious mind). So they are unable to appreciate their existence fully. Because their innate, unalienable Buddha-nature calls them to exist in the highest possible supramundane bliss, they -at times- are poignantly aware of their pervasive suffering and then seek ways to escape this woe, mostly by changing outer circumstances, like increasing worldly attachments & aversions, trying -in vain- to solve the mind's innate supramundane longing with mundane trivialities, or by turning to wrong views blocking out the mind's natural clear light.

Moreover, this constant call from the "true nature" of their mindstream is mostly muffled, concealed and lasts but a few moments. Most people continue to suffer because they do not adequately address the causes of suffering ; the affective afflictions & mental obscurations. The image here is that of the Sun hidden behind a thick, dark canopy of clouds. For some, like hell beings, hungry ghosts and animals, these black clouds very rarely open up. At times, some see them momentarily break up a little, bringing in a ray of hope. Because of their enduring afflictive state of mind, this quickly stops. Humans, demi-gods & gods actually experience the radiance of the Sun more often, but misrepresent what they see or are too distracted to actually consider the opportunities offered to realize true peace. They do not take heed of the level of suffering co-relative to their mental state, nor undertake action to eliminate it.

But all sentient beings and all Buddhas share an identical, full-empty "true nature". The latter is empty of inherent existence (self-empty) and full of supramundane properties (other-emptiness). Although still a bodhi-seed (and not functional like a fully enlightened Buddha), this "true nature" is inseparable from an infinite number of enlightened properties of body, speech, mind & action.

Note the paraconsistency at hand : the "true nature" is potential, a seed, a mere possibility of awakening, but, at the same time, endowed with properties needing no alteration whatsoever (an actuality-in-potency !), only realized through recognition. The "true nature" is supramundane and so beyond the formal, classical logic of the "catuskoti" of yes,
no, both & neither. It is self-empty. In terms of the Second Turning, more cannot be said. Only the non-affirmative negation exhausts reification. Absolute truth is ineffable. This does not imply it is non-existent, for absolute reality is also a  dependent-arising, albeit uncontaminated.

Buddha-nature is more than merely a self-empty "true nature" of a given mind. On top of lacking inherent existence, it is inseparable from an infinite number of enlightened properties. In classical logic, both conditions (potential & action) cannot be attributed to the same object in the same set of conditions. But can this extraordinary phenomenon be otherwise conceptualized ? How can a mere seed actualize anything ? Try to sit in the shade of the seed of an oak-tree. Only paraconsistent logics are able to identify and operationalize the contradiction. In quantum logic, atomic phenomena exist in a "superimposed" state and only become "particles" or "waves" after observation. The supramundane properties of the "true nature" of this Buddha within every mindstream are actual and fully present, but remain mostly passive, unexpressed, blocked in its capacity to fully manifest, while retaining the possibility to lure, inspire & wonder.

This is the image of this perfectly cut, big clear diamond you were told about by someone you really trust
, deeply buried somewhere in your garden. Although its innate capacity to splendidly shine never changes, it cannot, due to the absence of light -at this point- radiate out. Once the dirt from lifetimes without number cleared, the diamond immediately manifests its properties. This metaphor tries to reconcile the idea of a mere potentiality (the "true nature" as a seed) with actuality, albeit a passive one (a perfect diamond concealed). The image is not really adequate, for the "true nature" is inseparable, like someone beautifully singing somewhere on a busy, noisy market-place, from this weak capacity to "call" the sentient being to order and inspire to seek true peace (cf. the so-called "everyday" mystical experiences). Mostly the sentient being "hears" the call, but is immediately distracted, misplacing its origin or wrongly identifying the caller. Nevertheless, Buddha-nature is the uninterrupted background of the mind of every sentient being.

When sentient beings encounter the Dharma and, due to the passive, background actuality of the "true nature", feel prompted to start walking the path on the basis of "right practice", the process of spiritual emancipation is initiated. From this point onward, the baskets of compassion and wisdom are filled, eventually generating the causes for the generation of the two Form Bodies ("rûpakâyâ") and the one Truth Body ("Dharmakâyâ") respectively. This activity, this walking of the "true path", leads to the full development of the Truth Body. This is the image of the clouds slowly dissipating, allowing the Sun to actually touch the skin, or of the seed given all the secondary causes needed for it to fully mature and exist as a fully enlightened Buddha.

Ontologically, Buddha-nature points to the extraordinary existence of a Buddha, not a substance, but a process, not a fixed self-powered entity, but a dynamic other-powered set of relationships, not a dependent-arising like the others, but an uncontaminated, pure, unspoiled, untained, pristine, original, etc. dependent-arising.

For the yogis, this Buddha-nature is present in every mindstream. It is a holomovement (Guenther, 1989) endowed with extraordinary properties, a perfect form-on-the-move. On the basis of this, sudden awakening is possible.

Tsongkhapa's philosophical view (Prâsangika-Mâdhyamaka) represents the pinnacle of what can be achieved by way of the conceptual mind based on the traditional, linear view on causality & formal (Aristotelean) logic. If so, one may wonder whether another interpretation of logic, process and change may be helpful in solving the tension between gradualists & suddenists ?

Suppose sentient beings are dynamical, dissipative, non-linear systems able to self-structure, auto-regulate and trigger autopoiesis (cf. Prigogine & chaos-theory). Instead of viewing Buddhahood as the end result, as gradualism demands, we could understand awakening as the fundamental state or self-empty ground-state of the system and our suffering, sentient condition as a lower energy-state of the same system, i.e. as an exception caused by defilements & ignorance caused by a reduced level of negentropy within the system (entropy taking over).

A Buddha, so this view goes, continuously wipes out what needs to be dissipated, unfolding the totality of qualities of his or her ground-potential. A Buddha is "gone-unfolded" (Guenther, 1989), constantly destroying the substantial instantiation of objects. This implies a sapient dynamism relating to continuous self-(re)structuring, a system dissipating entropy, and in doing so "unfolding" Buddhahood because of the ongoing dissipation of excitability and the delusion or the ignorance attributing substance to phenomena. In this view, Buddhahood is a dynamic non-unfolded totality of qualities as pure potential. Because this totality is an unbounded wholeness, this dynamism is endless.

Viewing sentient beings from the side of a Buddha, is understanding the causes & conditions of their lack of entropy-dissipation. Instead of seeing sentient beings as the rule and Buddhahood as the exception, we understand awakening as the "ordinary" state and mere sentience as the exception to the rule. This philosophical view begins by positing Buddhahood as a system dissipating igorance and sentience as a symmetry-break away from this natural state.


© Wim van den Dungen
philo@sofiatopia.org l Acknowledgments l SiteMap l Bibliography

Mistakes are due to my own ignorance and not to the Buddhadharma.
May all who encounter the Dharma accumulate compassion & wisdom.
May sentient beings recognize their Buddha-nature and find true peace.



initiated : 29 XI 2008 - last update : 10 III 2015 - version n°1