Buddha-nature (sangs-rgyas-kyi rigs) – as discussed by Maitreya in Uttaratantra (rGyud bla-ma; The Furthest Everlasting Continuum) – is basically those factors that are responsible for everybody to become a Buddha. Why is it possible that we and everybody can become Buddhas? Well, the factors that make it possible are Buddha-nature factors. We are not talking about one thing when we talk about Buddha-nature; we’re talking about many, many, many different aspects and factors.
There are three types of factors. One is called an evolving factor (rgyas-’gyur-gyi rigs), something that will develop and grow. Another one is an abiding factor (rang-bzhin gnas-rigs), which is the basic situation that is there all the time, something that remains always the same. The third one is the fact that the mind can be inspired and uplifted in order to help us to change.
Qualities of the Clear Light Mind That Are Related to Buddha-Nature
What is the relation of the clear light mind (’od-gsal)? The clear light mind is the subtlest level of mind. That’s what actually continues moment to moment to moment and what continues all the way into enlightenment. The clear light mind has the qualities that we would call Buddha-nature. What are some qualities of it? There are some qualities that are going to abide, remain the same. For instance, the main thing is that the clear light mind has the ability to understand, to know things. That’s always going to be the same. Because it can understand and because we can know things, we can become a Buddha. If there wasn’t mind, if there wasn’t that aspect of being able to know, how could we become a Buddha? How could we help anybody?
The other thing that remains all the time is the voidness (emptiness) of the clear light mind: It doesn’t exist in some impossible way. Voidness means an absence of impossible ways of existing. It doesn’t exist encapsulated in plastic, as a thing that never will change, that belongs to “me,” “my” clear light mind, this type of thing. Because it doesn’t exist in an impossible way when we are in samsara, it also doesn’t exist in an impossible way when we are enlightened. The voidness is the same. Because it is voidness, it can be developed into a Buddha-mind.
Now, what develops? What are the evolving factors? There are many ways of discussing this. We have basic factors, for instance, clear light’s ability to understand. Well, that understanding can be developed more and more and more. We all basically have the ability to understand; that ability is there all the time, but it can be developed more and more and more. We have a certain amount of positive force (bsod-nams), which is sometimes translated as “merit,” but that’s a strange word. There’s positive force there, and that positive force can be developed more and more and more so that we have the positive force to actually help everybody.
We can also speak in terms of body, speech and mind. With that clear light mind, there is a certain type of energy that supports it. Because there is subtlest life-supporting energy, which is some physical component, we have a body, a samsaric body. We could have a body as a Buddha. It’s a basic factor. There’s some physical aspect that can develop, that can grow more and more. That energy radiates out; it communicates – that’s communication, that’s speech, in the most general sense. Because that energy radiates out, as a Buddha, we will be able to communicate with everybody in the fullest way. We will be able to help everybody in the fullest way because that energy – the basic factor is that the clear light mind has some energy – and that energy radiates out.
The clear light mind has the ability to understand, and then it becomes the mind of a Buddha – it can understand everything. Further, that clear light mind is something that can be uplifted, it can be inspired, which will help to develop all these aspects further and further. That is an important point. How can a Buddha help us? How can a teacher help us? Buddha can’t pull out our suffering like pulling out a thorn from our foot (a classic line from one of the sutras). A Buddha can only help us by showing us the way, by inspiring us. That inspiration of the example of a Buddha, the kindness of a Buddha, uplifts the mind, helps to give that energy a boost. That is part of Buddha-nature, the fact that our clear light mind can be inspired – this cup can’t be inspired, but our mind can be inspired – and it can be positively influenced. All of these are Buddha-nature factors. They are qualities and aspects of the clear light mind because everybody has them, including when we are in an insect rebirth, including when we are in any rebirth, the mind still has these.
How the Mind Works
We can also speak of the different types of how the mind works. These are also Buddha-nature aspects. The mind takes in information. Well, the worm takes in information too. The fact that the mind takes in information means that we can be aware of everything; we can take in the information of the whole universe. The mind is capable of – this is the way it works – seeing the equality of things; in other words, putting things together. If we couldn’t put things together, we wouldn’t be able to know that each of these objects are all living beings, that they are all human beings. The mind is able to do that, to put things together, to see what’s common. The worm can also do that; otherwise, how does a worm know food? It sees different things that are all food, and it knows that they are all food.
Further, the mind is able to know the individuality of things. This is an individual thing: “This is my barn” (the cow knows that), or “this is my child” (the cow knows that). Mind knows how to accomplish things, how to do things. A worm sees a piece of food, and it knows what to do with it, knows to eat it. Mind has that ability to know how to do things, and mind has the ability to know what something is: This is food. We don’t have to have a word for it, but the worm knows this is food or that this is a rock, a little pebble. A worm can do that. These are all Buddha-nature factors, namely the five types of deep awareness (ye-shes lnga), sometimes called the five “Buddha-wisdoms.”
As a Buddha, we are able to take in all the information of everything, everybody. We can see the equality: everybody wants to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy. We have equal love for everybody. We know the individuality of this person’s karma and the effect of teaching this person or that person this thing. We know the individuality. We know how to accomplish what to teach the person in order to help them, and we know what things are and how they exist.
Because we have these aspects of how the mind works – the clear light mind works – that enables us to become a Buddha, because we can develop the qualities of these so that they function fully like that of a Buddha. That’s Buddha-nature. However, these things are clouded over with our confusion, with our thinking in a limited way: me, me, me. Because they’re clouded over with confusion, they don’t function in their fullest way, but that confusion is like the clouds in the sky. If we clear away the clouds… clouds aren’t part of the sky; they are just temporary, and they pass. This is what we work on with the four noble truths to get rid of those clouds because the basic nature has all these qualities, and if the clouds weren’t there, they would function fully. We have to give them a boost.
Please don’t get confused when we speak about these evolving Buddha-nature factors in the mind of a worm. First of all, we are talking about a mental continuum that happens, in this particular lifetime, to have a worm body. It is not a worm forever. Now, as a worm, it is very limited. It has Buddha-nature, so it is able to tell food from a rock – it’s able to see the information of a colored shape and know that it is food – but that doesn’t mean that its mind is clear. It knows its job in the sense that it knows how to eat; it knows how to produce babies; it knows how to run away if there’s danger. That’s much simpler.
Does the worm have disturbing emotions? Probably, yes. We’d have to say that it does. From a Buddhist point of view, it certainly has naivety; it certainly doesn’t understand on a deep level what is going on. We can’t teach the worm to meditate. Does the worm have anger? I don’t know. A worm certainly has fear; otherwise, it wouldn’t run away if there is danger; for instance, when we try to pick it up, it curls and does all sorts of things to try to get away.
From the Buddhist point of view, it is only on the basis of a precious human rebirth that we can attain liberation or enlightenment, because with a precious human rebirth, with all the qualities of it, we don’t have too much suffering or too little suffering. If we have too little suffering, we don’t care, we don’t have any motivation, as in one of these heavenly realms. If we have too much suffering, like in the hell realms or starving in a war zone, we can’t think to do spiritual practice; we just want to survive. It is only a precious human life that has that ability.