What is Buddha-Nature?
This weekend we’re going to be talking about the five Buddha wisdoms, but I prefer to call them the five types of deep awareness. The reason why I don’t find it too accurate or helpful to call them the five types of wisdom is because everybody has these, including the worm and the cockroach, so it’s a little bit weird to say that the cockroach has five types of wisdom, isn’t it? So we have to ask ourselves what really is the topic here, and the topic is within the general subject matter of Buddha-nature.
Now what do we mean by Buddha-nature in Buddhism? What we’re talking about is, in general, those factors that will allow each and every one of us to become a Buddha. They will allow us, more specifically, to attain the various different types of Bodies of a Buddha. Now there’s a great deal that we could discuss about the different Bodies of a Buddha, and there are many different types of Buddha-nature factors that will allow us to achieve them, but this is not a weekend on either of those topics so we won’t go into them at all. But let’s just look in very general terms at Buddha-nature.
For example, everybody has faculties of body, speech, and mind. We have some sort of body so that we can do things. We have some sort of – it’s really called speech but, even if we are mute and we can’t make any sounds, we are referring to the faculty that allows us to communicate with others. And we all have some type of mind, even the worm. So we all have some sort of ability to understand things and some sort of ability to emotionally feel things. An insect has fear. For example, you stick your finger in front of it and it runs away, so obviously the insect has some fear: an ant, for example. So we all have that ability to understand something. The ant understands that there’s something in the way that’s threatening, and has fear and runs in the other direction. So although these various faculties might not be very highly developed – a coral, which is a type of animal, can’t do very much with its body – but, nevertheless, we all have a body, speech, and mind.
Now because we have a body, speech, and mind, these are things that – whatever level we have them at – we can develop further. And if we develop them to the fullest, fullest possible level of evolution – if we want to look at it that way – then we will have a body, speech, and mind of a Buddha, because, after all, a Buddha also has a body, speech, and mind. So this is what we mean, in very general terms, when we talk about Buddha-nature. There are things like just the faculties of body, speech, and mind that we all have that will enable us to develop the various features of a Buddha. So it has nothing to do with nature. That word Buddha-nature is used for some reason in our Western languages.
Okay? We’ll go slowly, so take a few minutes – a few moments, I should say – so that we digest and have a little bit of understanding of what we mean by these Buddha-nature factors.
What Is Mind?
Now within mind, as one of these Buddha-nature factors, we have many subdivisions. Concerning mind, we’re not talking about some sort of thing inside our heads. What we’re talking about when we speak about mind is mental activity. It is the individual subjective experiencing of something, if we speak about it in very general terms. It’s individual. Everybody has his or her individual mental activity: my seeing is not your seeing. And it’s subjective: what I enjoy is not necessarily what you enjoy. And it is the experiencing, just the experiencing of something. For instance, I can experience seeing this object on the table and not know what it is. Not knowing what it is – that’s a way of experiencing it, isn’t it? So we’re talking in the most general terms here about experiencing something. Of course we can get more technical than that in terms of the actual definition of mind, but I think that also it is not necessarily for our topic this weekend, so we’ll leave it just on a very general level.
What Is Deep Awareness?
How do we actually experience objects? What is the most fundamental basic mechanism or structure with which we experience objects? Well, we call these the five types of deep awareness. Awareness, here, we’re using as a very, very general term meaning to experience something. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we know what something is or understand it. If you look at ways of knowing things: you could know that you don’t understand something, or you could not know that you don’t understand it. But, in any case, we have these various ways of knowing something – it’s a very broad category – of being aware of something or experiencing something. And we call them deep awarenesses – that word is there in the Tibetan translation – because they are very deep; they underlie all the various ways of cognizing things, of knowing things, and they’re there with no beginning. We talk about beginningless mental activity – beginningless mental continuum – it’s always been there. So that’s the connotation of the word deep here in kinds of deep awareness. Another way in which some people will translate this word deep is primordial. And everybody has it; has these types of awareness.
Basis, Pathway and Resultant Levels
And when we talk about Buddha-nature, we always speak about it in three situations; with three levels. The basis level is the level that we all have, including the worm. This is the level that provides the working materials for becoming a Buddha. We work with these things. We don’t have to look outside ourselves to find these working materials: everybody has them within. So it’s very important to be able to recognize this basis level of these various factors for us all to become encouraged that we have the working materials and, second of all, that we can then access and use them.
The second level is known as the pathway level. It’s the level in which we are working with these materials – with these factors – as a pathway that will lead to liberation and enlightenment. This is a very large level because it expands all the different levels of development between where each of us is now and where people become a Buddha. So they describe – these levels of the pathway mind – describe basically a course of evolution. But not natural evolution. It’s not going to happen just naturally by natural selection, as we would have in Darwinian theory, but we have to work on it ourselves in order to progress through ever-higher levels of evolution.
And the third level is the resultant level, which is the result of this evolutionary process – this self-evolutionary process – which is the level of a Buddha.
So when we look at these different ways of being aware – these five types of deep awareness – they have a basis, pathway, and resultant level. We also need to understand that when we speak about these five, we always have all five of these. It’s not that you can have only one or two of them. You have all five and they network together.
Let’s look at the basis level of these five so that we can start our discussion here by trying to recognize them in ourselves. And when we do this, we always have to remember that we are looking for something in ourselves, in our way of experiencing things that we share in common with the worm. So we’re not talking about something terribly sophisticated; we’re talking about something totally basic.
Basis-Level Deep Awareness That is Like a Mirror
The first of these five types of deep awareness is literally called the deep awareness that is like a mirror. Now mirror is just used as a very general analogy here; it’s not precise at all. What would be more precise would be a camera. What we’re talking about is taking in information. In other words, we’re not talking about a mirror in the sense of something that reflects an image; we’re talking about just taking in information. And we’re not speaking here just about visual information; we’re talking about information from any of the senses, and mental as well.
We’re taking in information in terms of sounds, information in terms of smells, tastes, physical sensations. In the mental realm, we’re taking in information about emotions, how we’re feeling, what we’re thinking. These types of things. This is one of our Buddha-nature factors; this is something that we all have, including the worm. The worm takes in information as well, doesn’t it? That’s something that we can work with; we could develop this faculty more and more. Let’s think about that for a moment.
This is a very basic feature of how the mind works, isn’t it? In order to experience something, you have to take in the information. We all have that faculty. Our minds do that. To call that a wisdom is a little bit strange. So it’s a deep awareness; something that’s deep, that everybody has.
Basis-Level Equalizing Deep Awareness
The second type of deep awareness – I’m just going through them roughly now, then obviously we’re going back into each of them in more detail; but just to present the topic – the second type of deep awareness is called equalizing deep awareness. What this is doing is putting together information. In other words, we take in information and, in order to be able to understand it, we have to put together this information with something that we experienced previously. In other words, we have to put it together into a category or a pattern in order to know what something is.
I see this object. And so I take in the information of this object, and I put it together with other objects that look similar to it – so that’s equalizing it with other objects that look similar with it – in order to know that it’s a table. If we didn’t do that, we could never know what anything is, could we? We’re doing that automatically. The earthworm does that. How can the earthworm possibly be able to know that something is food when it sees it, if it doesn’t put it together with other similar objects, other instances of food? So it’s very, very basic. Just putting things together that fit together. Just as with taking in the information, we don’t have to know what the information is; we don’t have to know what it means – that’s another type of awareness. Similarly, with the equalizing we don’t have to know how they’re equal or what category they fit in. That’s another type of awareness. We are just talking about the very basic activity of putting things together; equalizing. Like with the mirror: even if you don’t know the information, you don’t know what it is; it’s just taking in the information. So this is just putting things together.
Let’s think about that so we understand what we are talking about. This is very, very basic type of mental activity that goes on whenever we experience anything. It’s not conscious, but it just goes on automatically. If we see this object, we don’t then bring up a menu in our mind with every possible thing that it could have, and go through that menu and then choose which one it’s going to fit into; it just happens automatically. It’s quite amazing that actually happens automatically, but we won’t get into the physiology of that because I’ve no idea how that actually works on a physiological level. It’s amazing. So think about it for a moment so that we understand this type of deep awareness. Equalizing deep awareness.
I’d like to be a little bit more precise here. After all, I love precision; that’s probably why I live in Germany. But we’re not talking about an awareness of equality. If you are aware of an equality, that implies that there is an equality that is some sort of knowable thing and that you know that equality. We’re not talking about that. We’re talking about an activity that equalizes; that puts things together. Those are quite different, aren’t they? There are many of us that perhaps have not studied philosophy or metaphysics, so we’re not so sensitive to these types of distinctions. But if it’s explained simply enough, then these distinctions are not so difficult to understand, and they’re really quite significant in terms of understanding something more precisely.
Our minds are incredibly complicated sophisticated machines. If you want to fix a watch – we’re not talking about these ones that just work on a chip – but if we want to fix a watch, the old watches with lots and lots of tiny little moving parts, you have to know everything very precisely, what’s going on, in order to be able to discover what’s wrong and fix it. Our minds are like that; our mental activity. The mind is not a machine. When we talk about mind in Buddhism, we’re talking about the activity. So this mental activity is very, very complex. Very sophisticated. So we have to understand it with great precision in order to be able to do what we’re doing in Buddhism, which is to fix it. Because if it’s not running very well, that causes us a lot of problems.
Basis-Level Individualizing Deep Awareness
The third type of deep awareness – we’ve had mirror-like awareness and equalizing awareness – the third type is individualizing awareness. It’s the awareness that individualizes some item. It’s not that it knows the individuality of something; it’s individualizing. I take in the information of all these colored shapes that I see in front of me, and I equalize some of them. What I would equalize it into is the category, let’s say, of women if we were just putting them together. So I put some together that will be in the category of women. It’s putting it together by equalizing; it’s putting it together into a group – putting some of that information into a group. Now within that group I’m individualizing one item, so that I know that they’re not all the same woman – clones of the same woman – but that it will allow me to know that this one is Gabi and that one is Alice. It’s individualizing; it’s just individualizing – it’s another awareness that knows who she is. As I said, these five network together. This is just the one that is individualizing one item within a group.
I don’t know if you saw this documentary film. There’s this fantastic documentary film that is about the life of the penguins in Antarctica. In this film it’s amazing because the partners, the males, go off to the ocean and eat fish and stuff like that, and they come back – and then there’s this flock of maybe a hundred thousand penguins, which to us all look totally identical, and yet each of these penguins that comes back can individualize within that flock which one is their mate. That’s quite extraordinary, isn’t it? This is individualizing awareness. Actually it’s even more amazing if you thought of that in terms of human beings. We can tell the difference between different human beings quite easily. I mean, I imagine the penguins can as well. But if we came back after going away and our mate was in a crowd of a hundred thousand people, to find that mate – that would be quite valuable, wouldn’t it? – we would utilize our individualizing awareness in order to do that. Let’s digest that for a moment.
And obviously individualizing awareness and equalizing awareness don’t work only with visual information; it works with the sound of people’s voices and smells – the dog uses this with a smell – and so on. We do that with taste, don’t we? We taste a fruit, for example, and so we take in that information, we equalize it with other tastes that we’ve had, and we know that it is a papaya, and we individualize it so that we know that this papaya was not very ripe. Nothing terribly shocking here; we’re talking very basic – how the mind works.
Basis-Level Accomplishing Deep Awareness
The fourth type of deep awareness is called the accomplishing deep awareness. It’s the awareness with which we can accomplish something or do something with an object. For example, I take in the visual information of this object on the table, then I equalize it with other similar objects that I have perceived. It’s on the basis of that that I will know that it is a glass of water. Then I am aware of it with individualizing awareness. It’s on the basis of that that I individualize this glass as my glass of water not my translator’s glass of water. The accomplishing awareness is the awareness to relate to that object, to do something with that object. Now it’s another awareness to know what to do with it. We’re talking about just the awareness that goes out to do something with it. What to do with it would be to lift it up and put it to my mouth and turn it a little bit upwards, so that I can drink water out of it. But there has to be first the awareness to engage with it to do something with it.
So it’s the awareness with which our energy goes out to the object so that we will actually do something with it or to it. Even if it’s to do nothing to it; to leave it alone. That’s very, very basic. Everybody has it, including the worm. It couldn’t eat something without this awareness: it wouldn’t know what to do with the object that it sees. Very basic, isn’t it? So let’s think about that. This is called accomplishing awareness.
Basis-Level Deep Awareness of the Sphere of Reality
The fifth type of deep awareness is called, technically, the deep awareness of the sphere of reality; dharmadhatu in Sanskrit. For short I call it reality awareness, awareness of reality. This type of deep awareness has several levels. The most basic level is the awareness of the conventional reality of things; that everybody has, including the worm. This is the type of awareness with which we know what something is when we take in the information. So it’s always working with the other types of awarenesses.
We take in the information and then, with this reality awareness, we know what that information is. We don’t have to have a word for it – the worm doesn’t have a word for it – but it would, in a sense, just know that it’s an object, for example, when it takes in the information. And it knows just in general: it’s an object, or that it’s a sound, or that it’s a smell, or that it’s a taste. It’s all very general.
Remember we have been speaking about this when we spoke about the aggregate of consciousness. That if you think in terms of a computer: a computer only knows zeros and ones, and yet there has to be some function that differentiates that the zeros and ones mean a picture on the screen or it means a sound or something. Our brain does the same thing. Electrical impulses come in and we know that this is visual information or sound information or smell information.
So here we’re just talking about what goes together with the mirror-like awareness. The reality awareness is just, in general, what it is. Then together with the equalizing awareness, we’re equalizing it: we put this information together with other sounds. With awareness of reality, we would know that it’s a voice, not the sound of a truck. With individualizing awareness, it’s individualizing that sound information, and with the awareness of reality, we would know that it’s the sound of my mother’s voice, not just a voice in general. Then, with accomplishing awareness, we would know to relate – to engage to do something – with respect to that sound. And with the reality awareness, we would know what to do, which would be to speak to it; to say something in response to it. If it was the sound of a truck – we wouldn’t speak in response to the sound of a truck, would we? So we know what to do in relation to this sound.
It’s amazing that our brains actually can do all of this. But, as I said, the actual physiological mechanism in which the brain does that is beyond the scope of my knowledge. But in Buddhism we speak about the mind; the mental activity certainly does all of this. It’s very, very basic, as I said. I keep on repeating: it’s very basic. There’s nothing special about this. Let’s try to take a moment to reflect so we understand what we mean by reality awareness.
Then, as I said, this reality awareness has many levels. The most simple level is what something is, and the deeper level is how something exists. Now the most profound understanding here would be the awareness of the voidness of something. Obviously we don’t have that, and the worm doesn’t have that either, but we just have the basic level. There are deeper levels of the basic level that we have as well: for example, the reality that things change. Now of course we might imagine that our youth (and our good looks and things) will never change. We’re not speaking of that level. But, on a more easy level, we know the reality of things changing when we engage in a conversation with somebody. If we didn’t know that they said something else and the mood has changed, and things have changed in the interaction with somebody, we wouldn’t really be able to have a conversation with them, would we? So this is quite important for our basic social skills of being able to relate to each other – it’s to know the reality of things changing. Plans change, lots of things change. So this is also here in the sphere of reality; the awareness of reality.
Let’s think about that a moment. It’s very basic, if you think about it. Somebody says something and then two minutes later they say something else; and when we take in that information, we know that they’ve changed their mind about something. How do you know they changed their mind? That’s this type of awareness. Otherwise, it’s just disconnected. We all have that, don’t we?
These are the five types of deep awareness, and these are the working materials that we have for becoming a Buddha – for developing the type of awareness that a Buddha has. Therefore we need to recognize how, on the basis level, these five types of awareness that we have are limited. And we have to understand a pathway of practice – how we could develop it further and further, these five, so that they have less and less limitations. And we need to also understand the resultant level of how these five would work in the case of a Buddha so that they are unlimited. When we know this, then we know what we’re doing in our Buddhist practice.
Well, this will be the topic of our weekend. We’ll look to see how these five are limited now, we’ll learn some exercises that we can do to develop them more and more, and we’ll try to understand what is it that we’re working toward – what is the highest state of evolution that we could expect with these five.
What questions do you have?
Question: It’s very clear for her that the first two deep awarenesses work on all six senses; six sensory fields. But she wonders about the third and fourth – the individualizing one and the accomplishing one – if they also operate at the mental level or only at the sensory level (without the mental level).
Alex: Individualizing awareness certainly can work on the mental level. We take in some information about our emotional state, for example, we put it together with other information, and we would know the reality of it – that it is a depression or a sad mood. And then, individualizing it, we would individualize it and know that it’s not just every single sadness that we feel is exactly the same – or depression that we feel is exactly the same – it’s this one that I’m having now. And then, with the accomplishing awareness, we would want to relate to this individual sadness that we have now – which has arisen from this cause and that cause and so on – not just in general. And we would know how to relate to this particular one. If our individualizing awareness was not very well developed, then we would always apply the same remedy, the same solution, every single time we are sad. Let’s take the example of being hungry. We’re hungry, so we could always eat the same thing, but because we individualize it, we know that now I would like to eat this kind of food or that kind of food. We relate to it in an individual way.
Question: If we have been in existence since beginningless time then we can say that we have had the opportunity to experience all possible kinds of different experiences. So, in a sense, nothing would be totally new because there is always a possibility of equalizing it to some previous experience. Is that so?
Alex: If we look at that superficially that might seem so, but that doesn’t allow for people to do different new things that they didn’t even do before. In every conversation that we hear – we might have heard those words before, but does it mean that we’ve had to have heard those exact sentences sometime before, in the past? That seems a little bit unlikely. I don’t know. If you take infinite time, maybe that’s possible, but that seems highly unlikely. I don’t know. If we use a computer, does that mean – there’s infinite time – that we must have used a computer sometime in the past in some other universe? I don’t really know. You’ll have to really do quite a mathematical analysis of that.
You could say, in general, we’ve experienced everything. It’s very clear in the teaching that everybody’s been our mother and we’ve been the mother of everybody else, and that we’ve been kings and queens and every life form. I think in general you could say that, but I don’t know if you could say that specifically. For example, we’ve never experienced being a Buddha before. That’s a good example. And you can develop bodhichitta for the first time. So there are things we can experience new. I don’t know if everything, but certainly there are some things.
Question: Did I understand this okay? Equalizing deep awareness is not so much work – or a mental activity – of categorizing or a classification process; it’s something automatic.
Alex: Well, I would say that it is the process of classifying and categorizing things, but it’s only the reality awareness that would know which category and which classification. It’s putting things together into groups. But it doesn’t work just exclusively as the basis for conceptual cognition; it can also be a basis for nonconceptual cognition. Like, for instance, having love equally toward everybody. So sometimes it puts things into categories and classifications, other times it doesn’t. Like with the example of equal love toward everybody. To have equal compassion for everybody, you have to put everybody together into an equal group.
Participant: The category of the others.
Alex: The category is the category of living beings who want to be happy and don’t want to be unhappy. That would be a category. The rock doesn’t fit into that category. But we could put the rock and the person into another category, together, into the category of “things that if you bump into in the dark, you’ll bang your foot.”
Question: He has a question because he freaks out at something. Understanding the five deep awarenesses that you just explained, he thought of an example of a machine that – according to his understanding – can do those five activities. And he’s talking about a machine that learns. There is a designed machine that can play chess, right? It can take in the information, it can individualize every single piece on the board, and it can decide what to do. So, according to his understanding, that machine has those five deep awarenesses. And that freaked him out.
Alex: In order to solve your dilemma, we have to go to the definition of experiencing something. If you remember from our discussion of the five aggregates, the aggregate of feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness is defined as the mental factor with which we experience results of our karma. And so to experience something means to feel a level of happiness or unhappiness together with these five types of deep awareness. The computer doesn’t feel happy at winning the game or unhappy at losing it.
Go back to my favorite example, Star Trek, where we have the android Data. Data doesn’t feel – I mean, it’s done very cleverly – Data does all the things that you said, but Data has no feelings. He can’t feel happy or unhappy. He’s only a machine.
That is the basic difference between a machine – a computer – and a living being. Living beings experience things with happiness and unhappiness; machines don’t.
So we end with a dedication. We think whatever understanding, whatever positive force has come from this, may it go deeper and deeper and act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.