Each one of us has the seed to be unshakeably happy and peaceful; and you don't have to be a Buddhist to have it.
(Alternate Title: Connecting with your inner-goodness cultivates happiness)
In this article, we will cover what Buddha Nature is, how to recognise it, nurture it, cultivate it, and leverage it for happiness and Enlightenment.
Buddha nature is not extensively covered in most popular Dharma books and many practitioners have only a loose understanding of the topic.
As with all of the "big" topics in Buddhism, Buddha nature is deep and profound and entire volumes are written on this topic. This article serves to introduce and re-enforce the concept for those who are newer to the idea or would like to learn a bit more about it and how it can benefit their practice. The more you practice, the more you will come to recognise the qualities of Buddha nature flowing from you and the clearer and more practical your Buddha nature will be to you.
So what is "Buddha Nature"?
From a very high-level each one of us is said to have the seed of Enlightenment already within us, the potential to become fully Enlightened (e.g., to become Buddhas); that is what is referred to when people talk about our Buddha nature. But the notion is taken even further to include the affirmation that within each of us is an unlimited and inexhaustible source of Buddha-like qualities, such as kindness, compassion, peacefulness, and equanimity. Buddhism takes a very positive approach to life: that with skilful practice of meditation and learning to cultivate the qualities we hold so dear (e.g., patience, courage, understanding, resilience, etc), anyone, anyone, can become Awakened and eventually become fully Enlightened in this lifetime.
This quote from an accomplished teacher-monk sums up Buddha nature nicely: "The Buddha compared our Buddha Nature to a gold nugget in dirt, for, no matter how disgusting a person's delusions may be, the real nature of their mind remains undefiled, like pure gold. In the heart of even the cruellest and most degenerate person exists the potential for limitless love, compassion, and wisdom. Unlike the seeds of our delusions, which can be weakened and eliminated over time, this positive potential is utterly indestructible and is the pure, essential nature of every living being."
Buddha nature; pfft! I know some people who don't have any of that Buddha stuff in them. At all.
It can be really difficult to see those qualities in others, especially when they are subtle and haven't been nurtured or developed, and even less so when we can hardly recognise those qualities within ourselves, such as after we've behaved in ways that we regret, for example.
Part of the discovery process involved in understanding this teaching is analysing the validity of the concept of an inner Buddha nature by thinking about it and recognising that often, based on varying circumstances such as how we feel, whom we are around, or the situations we are in, we seem to act like at least two different people :
Person #1 is Kind and Peaceful.
This is the person we are when we are with those whom we love; or when we feel safe and at-peace; or when we are being genuinely mindful and present. The person we are when we are at-peace is generally loving, understanding, patient, compassionate, and kind. This is our true nature and can be experienced any time we are calm and present. It's that feeling of peace and tranquillity we experience when we lose ourselves in a beautiful sunset or in the glow of an active aquarium. This is our Buddha Nature and it is universally who-and-how we are when we are not afflicted by negative thoughts and unskilful emotions. We know this is our true nature and good, because the increased sense of peace, harmony, and equanimity we enjoy confirm it to be. (suggestion: get a good teacher and you can learn to cultivate your Buddha Nature and extend that feeling into everything you do and experience.)
Person #2 is Distant and Restless.
This is the person we are when we are not with those who belong to our "in-group;" or when we are feeling upset, mistreated, or unsafe; or when we are caught up in our whirlpools and eddies of our mental chatter and inner-stories. The person we are when we are not at-peace is generally ego-centric, distrustful, impatient, and sometimes distant or unkind. We know this to not be our true nature, because of the general sense of unease and agitation we feel when we are like this confirm it not to be. Rather it's a reflection of the habit-energy that we've conditioned ourselves to feel and act on in response to our experience of situation-after-situation, and one that has formed over a lifetime of misunderstanding where peace and happiness are found. This habit-energy leads us to many of the misguided attempts at self-defense and self-clinging in our never-ending pursuit to attain some peace-of-mind and a sense of freedom from life's problems and the people who get in the way of our happiness. (If you fall into this category, please know that it doesn't have to be this way, life can be much easier and this negative habit-energy can be quickly reversed and happiness can be reconditioned back into your day-to-day experience.)
Recognising and greeting your inner Buddha nature.
Even when we do bad things, we know we aren't bad people. Most of the time when we act unskilfully and harm others, we don't feel good about having done so. We may feel remorse, regret, or even shame. This suggests that what Buddhism teaches about our true nature has merit, that, because within each of us, is the seed of Buddha nature, and we have a sense of our innate potential to be kind, compassionate, and peaceful.
I've come to see that much our "bad behaviour" and many of our problems are manifestations of our conditioned habit-energy. What I mean by that is that when we act unskilfully, that is to say, in ways that result in harming ourselves or others, we are rarely present for the decision to do so: we act and react on habit, reflex, or the expected-patterns of our behaviours; or, we react just plain old emotionally. Regardless of the reason for not being present and mindful, many of our our thoughts, exclamations, and reactions take place on a habituated auto-pilot level, reinforced by years of responding to things in an ever-increasingly similar and narrow way.
(Many people choose to accept these negative patterns as "that's just me, it's who I am." That's a very limited way of thinking and likely the result of a lifetime of struggling with these patterns. I wish I could effectively convey in a blog post that life doesn't have to be so hard and that we don't have to believe the autobiographical stories we've come to recite about ourselves--that, it's those narrow stories that we continuously tell ourselves that hold us back more than anything else anyone else can say or do to us.)
Nurturing and cultivating your inner Buddha nature.
When we are present and mindful, we have the opportunity to choose how we act in real-time, and when we cultivate that skill through meditation and dharma practice, we find ourselves acting less-harmfully more often, naturally. This is a reflection of our Buddha nature shining through our practice and one of the many reasons we meditate and work so diligently to be mindful and present in the each moment: at first, working at becoming aware of our motivations, intentions, and trying to choose skilful thoughts, words, and actions to follow them; and eventually, working with those motivations and intentions directly. This is the stuff of Karma, and why as meditation, mindfulness, or Buddhist practitioners, it's so important get a good grasp on what is and what isn't Karma. (Karma applies to everyone and has nothing to do with one's spirituality, religion, or dogma.)
Why is this important as a meditator/dharma practitioner?
At its core, the Buddhadharma is about (1) discovering that genuine peace and happiness are actually attainable, (2) understanding how to cultivate those qualities, and (3) how skilfully cultivating your peace-of-mind and happiness, coupled with various meditation techniques will definitely lead to a life-changing Awakening and eventually to actual Nirvana, which in Buddhism is considered our true resting-state.
At the moment, our minds are clouded by disturbing attitudes (e.g., anger, jealousy, impatience, etc) and it can be difficult to see or even recognise the Buddha nature within ourselves, let alone within those with whom we interact on a daily-basis.
Fortunately, it is said that all beings are just Buddhas, but they are obscured by temporary stains. When these stains are removed though the practical application of meditation and the dharma, they become Buddhas; or, in more practical terms: they become fully Awakened, fully Enlightened, and have attained actual Nirvana.
The more directly we practice the path to Enlightenment, the more our Buddha nature, our awakened-good qualities, start to touch everything we think, say, and do as the negative qualities of our mind begin to diminish naturally. These good qualities, which exist within us at this very present moment, will evolve as we follow the path and start to understand them. Along the journey, you will cultivate and strengthen them, and at the end of the path, they will have transformed into fully-flourished qualities of the Buddha that you will become. Congratulations, you will then be fully Enlightened!
(hang in here, you're doing great, we're about to bring this all back down to Earth.)
Is it really possible to cultivate one's Buddha nature and attain actual Enlightenment?
The elimination of our negative patterns and our misunderstanding of Happiness is entirely possible since they rest on top of, and only cloud, the pure nature that is already there. Those negative patterns are conditioned qualities and a result of the many unwanted and unpleasant experiences in life, and not knowing that it doesn't have to be this way. All conditioned qualities can be unconditioned and if it wasn't possible to cultivate these qualities into actual Enlightenment, then Buddhism wouldn't exist today. It's one of the defining principles of the doctrine and it is at the very root of why we meditate.
The wonderful part of Buddhism is that all of the techniques and teachings are there to help us realise that every single one of the qualities we have that cause us so much strife can be recognised, reduced, and replaced. And, when we couple the power of mindfulness with our practice in skilful conduct, and cultivating our wisdom, we can start to work on transforming our habits that cause suffering to those that create genuine harmony, and do so in real-time. This can be a great source of motivation for our practice and be an unshakeable source of happiness and peace-of-mind that propels us to continue to develop and strengthen our meditation and dharma practice.
Every single one of us can become unshakeably patient, peaceful, and calm. And even more important than that, these new qualities can replace unskilful old habits with skilful new habits permanently. Permanently, as in, without any conscious or applied effort to make them happen. That's Enlightenment.
And, this is life changing stuff.
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If you liked this, you may also enjoy...
What is Karma? What isn't Karma?
Pity v Compassion: How to spot the difference - Buddhism Explained Q&A
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The Sagacious Buddhist Blog
Michael Turner is a pre-monastic Buddhist Ariya-puggala and a deeply accomplished enlightenment trainer and dharma life coach. He emphasises and teaches the practical application of Buddhism in our everyday lives to make real progress toward enlightenment and is particularly adept at explaining them in ways that can be easily understood and practiced by Western Buddhists. He has been meditating and cultivating the techniques to generate indestructible resilience and inner-strength for more than 25 years and has helped countless numbers of people enhance their practice to make clear progress along the Path.