Uttaratantra: General Presentation of Buddha-Nature

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What do family-traits mean?

A family-trait is “gotra,” which is family or caste. The traits are characteristics of someone who belongs to a certain family or caste. It can be the family or caste of those who can become Buddhas, so the Buddha-family. There are others as well that we will get to shortly.

The text continues with first a general presentation of the last four vajra points – that is the source (Buddha-nature), enlightenment, its qualities, and the enlightening activity. The text explains how the Three Gems derive from these last four points, and the four reasons why these four points are beyond imagination. Then the rest of the chapter, from verse 27 to 169, is all about the source of enlightenment: Buddha-nature. So it shows how the Three Gems come from the last four, and the four reasons why the four points are beyond imagination.

Buddha-nature is called by many different names, it is the source for clear evolvement for Buddhahood or for the Buddhas. It is also the essential nature, or the womb, that allows for tathagata (accordant progress) and for the Tathagatas, and for blissful progress – the Sugatas and their attainment. It includes various types of family-traits or caste traits. Now we can look at the different presentations in the different tenet systems of these Buddha-nature aspects. Buddha-nature is a topic that is discussed only in Mahayana, and we find a different presentation in each of the tenet systems.

The Chittamatra system says that there are three types of family-traits, three castes, that one could belong to. They are the family-traits of a shravaka, the family-traits of a pratyekabuddha, and the family-traits of a bodhisattva, that will allow each of them to reach their goals of one type of state of bodhi, of purified growth.

When we talk about these family-traits in general, we always have two kinds. We have the naturally abiding family-traits (rang-bzhin gnas-rigs) (the ones that have always been there), and then the evolving family-traits (rgyas-‘gyur-gyi rigs) (these are the ones that will grow). According to Chittamatra the naturally abiding ones are the seeds that are without a beginning, that are imputable on the basis of the stained mind of each limited being, and which serve as the factors for each of these respective castes – for the beings in them to attain one of these states of bodhi. So they are the seeds that have always been there. The evolving family-traits are the seeds that are gained new, newly, by listening, thinking, and meditating on Buddhist teachings; and which, similarly, are imputable on the basis of the stained mind of each limited being, and serve as the factors that will allow them to become an arya of each of these castes.

So we have seeds that have always been there that allow them to achieve three different types of arhatship, and the seeds that are gained newly through hearing, listening, and meditating on the Dharma, which will grow, which will allow them to become aryas of each of these three castes. That’s the Chittamatra presentation. So here it is quite clear that it is talking about potentials. The Chittamatra presentation is very reminiscent of what we have in tantra when we have an initiation or an empowerment. An empowerment does two things in terms of seeds: it stimulates the seeds that are already there to grow, and it plants new seeds through the actual experience during the initiation. It’s dealing with Buddha-nature. So we have a similar type of structure there.

Now according to Svatantrika, the naturally abiding family-traits are the voidness that is imputable on this basis of the stained mind of each limited being. That’s responsible for Svabhavakaya. The evolving family traits are the factors imputable on the basis of the stained mind of each limited being – it’s always the same – that are fit to become the essential nature of a deep awareness Dharmakaya. What that’s referring to is just the enlightenment-building network of deep awareness which is built up through total absorption on voidness – which is how we built up this network of deep awareness. When we talk about networks of positive force and deep awareness, there are those that build up samsara, those that can build up liberation, and those that build up enlightenment. So we are talking about only the ones that build up enlightenment, dedicated with bodhichitta, and the actual one is in terms of what is built up when you are totally absorbed on voidness.

According to Prasangika, the naturally abiding family-traits are the same as Svatantrika. That’s the voidness imputable on the basis of the stained mind of each limited being. Obviously the understanding of voidness is different between Svatantrika and Prasangika, but it is still the same – it is referring to the voidness that’s responsible for the Svabhavakaya. Then the evolving family-traits are the factors (again) imputable on the basis of the stained mind of each limited being, that are fit to become the essential natures of the Buddha Bodies that are affected phenomena. In other words in Svatantrika we had just the ones that are fit to become the nature of the mind of a Buddha (the Jnana-dharmakaya), but here it has for all the Form Bodies as well as the Dharmakaya, the Deep Awareness Dharmakaya. So this is quite different. What that’s referring to, then, are the enlightenment-building networks – not only of deep awareness, but also positive force that everybody has once they have attained the Mahayana path of building up (in other words, the path of accumulation) when you actually have bodhichitta. So then you actually do have the enlightenment-building networks.

We need both networks in order to obtain either of these two bodies: the Form Bodies of a Buddha or the mind of a Buddha. So the network of positive force, the enlightenment-building one, is the obtaining cause for the Form Bodies of a Buddha. Obtaining cause (nyer-len-gyi rgyu), remember, is what transforms into the result. And although the network of positive force transforms into the Form Bodies of a Buddha, you need as a simultaneously acting condition (lhan-cig byed-pa’i rkyen) (in other words, what goes along with it) this enlightenment-building network of deep awareness. Then for the mind of a Buddha it is just the reverse – the obtaining cause is the enlightenment-building network of deep awareness, and what the simultaneously acting condition is for that would be this network of positive force.

You can say, in one sense, that we have both of these networks with no beginning, but not the enlightenment-building ones – we have the samsaric-building ones of positive force. And deep awareness, you have the deep awareness – it’s not the deep awareness of voidness, but the five types of deep awareness: mirror-like, equalizing, individualizing, accomplishing, and dharmadhatu (or the deep awareness of reality). That we have with no beginning, so that would be parallel to what Chittamatra speaks about in terms of the abiding – these being abiding traits – and then they’re together with compassion and the various qualities of the mind and so on. And then there are certain evolving traits that you gain new here, which would be when you actually achieve bodhichitta – that’s attained for the first time. Or something like achieving the path of accumulation: there’s building a pathway mind where you actually do get the enlightenment-building one – that’s attained for the first time. So we still have this structure here of certain ones that have been there with no beginning, and certain ones which can be obtained newly, for the first time. And of course the abiding traits being the voidness of the mind, that’s something that’s there with no beginning as well.

There’s a third Buddha-nature factor which is discussed here in the text. I’m not sure if all the tenet systems accept this, but it is the aspect of the mental continuum that it can be affected by the enlightening influence of a Buddha. It is not like a rock. Because our mental continuums can be influenced by this enlightening influence, then these various potentials and so on can be stimulated to grow. It is why we can be affected by the teachings of the Buddha, for example.

Many commentaries are going to include as the naturally abiding trait also the clarity and awareness aspects of the mind. When we would look at the defining characteristics of mind, we have three. There’s the – what is usually translated as “clarity” (gsal): that’s the making of appearances, the making of mental holograms. There is awareness (rig), which is referring to cognition. The making of these appearances is equivalent to cognizing something: the arising of a thought and the thinking of the thought are the same. And the third characteristic is “mere” (tsam), it is merely that, which means that it’s happening without there being a solid “me” that’s making it happen, or observing it, or controlling it, or out of control; but also it is devoid of any true existence as well. So if you look at these characteristics of the mind, of mental activity, the “mere” aspect – that’s referring to its voidness, in a sense. That of course is a naturally abiding trait, but some commentaries will say that the clarity and awareness are also a naturally abiding trait. This gets back to what we were discussing earlier, that clear light here can refer to either the voidness of the mind – as a naturally abiding trait, which would be object clear light – or it could refer to the clarity and awareness aspect of the mind – clear light as a cognizer.

That is why when the text talks about voidness, it speaks about it in terms of various synonyms that are all usually translated with the word “nature”: essential nature (ngo-bo), identity-nature (bdag-nyid), self-nature (rang-bzhin), and real nature (de-nyid, suchness), and the very nature of its reality (de-kho-na-nyid), its actual nature (chos-nyid), accordant nature (de-bzhin-nyid, thusness), self-begotten nature (rang-byung-nyid) – there are all these synonyms, what are usually translated as “thusness,” and “suchness,” and all these sorts of words. And so, then, the issue is: is that referring to a self-voidness nature (the voidness of the mind), or an other-voidness nature of the mind (this clarity and awareness). It is because of terminology like that, that one can get various types of interpretation.

When the text talks about the source for Buddhahood, the source for clear evolvement, then when it is discussed in general it is presented as a static unaffected phenomenon that lasts forever. So whether it is the voidness of the mind, or the clarity and awareness nature of the mind, that doesn’t have any – it is not affected or changed by anything. That is sometimes referred to as the sphere of reality encompassing everything (that is dharmadhatu chos-dbyings) or the uncontaminated sphere (sphere unassociated with confusion) (zag-med-kyi dbyings), in other words – there again, there are many different names for that source.

This starts to become incredibly complicated in terms of the logical pervasions, because the clarity and awareness aspect – the non-Gelugpas will consider it an abiding nature, that’s constant and forever, not affected by anything. The Gelugpas will say that it is an evolving trait, which has been there forever, but it is that which turns into the wisdom Dharmakaya, the Deep Awareness Dharmakaya. And then what about these family traits which are referring to the evolving ones? Does the term “the source for the abiding one” cover both of them. When His Holiness taught this in Bodhgaya many years ago, then he had a big debate from the throne with the top geshes and abbots from the monasteries about the logical pervasions here. So it is obviously something – they couldn’t come to a definite decision; and the textbooks differ, even within the Gelugpa tradition of it – so it is a very complex topic.

When the text is referring to various Buddha-nature factors as being constant, it always gives these four qualities of it: it is constant (rtag) (which is another word for permanent or eternal); it is stable (brtan) (not affected by anything); it is serenely still (zhi) – so you can say that it’s still or purified of true existence which was never there, or it is still and purified of these fleeting stains of the disturbing emotions which don’t stain it from the beginning; and it is (here’s an interesting term) auspiciously immutable, which is this word “yungdrung” (g.yung-drung) which is always used in Bon, in the Bon teachings. It is equivalent to swastika, swastika just means good luck or auspiciousness. It means that it’s not something that will change in terms of being auspicious for reaching enlightenment. So when one really delves into Buddha-nature as a topic it becomes incredibly complex. If you want to see a little bit of that, I have that on my website in the sutra section level six, on the actual Indian text in Uttaratantra. I translated the first day of His Holiness’s teachings on it. I have the debate that he had with the geshes about this topic. This gives you a taste of the depth with which His Holiness approaches texts and topics like this.

Clarity and awareness, is that an abiding trait or is it an evolving trait?

The text says this abiding nature – and it can be understood either as the voidness of the mind, or the clarity and awareness – it’s the sphere encompassing everything (the dharmadhatu). But it is constant (which is the word “permanent”); it’s stable; it’s serenely still and auspiciously immutable. Those are the four qualities. “Serenely still” means that it’s still of the stains of true existence, so that’s referring to the voidness side. And it’s still or quieted of all the fleeting stains, so that would be the clarity and awareness side.

Do these definitions appear in the text?

The root text just gives these words. Then you have all the commentaries. It keeps on using words like dharmadhatu, the sphere of reality, or the sphere that encompasses everything, and so on. It uses all these synonyms. Now this becomes the big problem, because it’s most unintelligible just on the basis of the root text. And it has such rich vocabulary that it can be interpreted in many different ways, and if you don’t represent each of these different terms differently in English, in a way that will open it up to these many commentaries, then you lose the richness of the text. That’s why it’s a very difficult text to translate. It uses so many synonyms for all the different things. It’s really quite rich.

You see the problem here? Clarity and awareness: is it an abiding trait, or is it an evolving trait? It can be interpreted both ways. And what does it mean that it is constant? Well that can be understood in different ways depending on whether you are calling it an abiding trait or an evolving trait. When they give these characteristics (of “constant,” and so on) does it refer to both kinds of traits or does it refer to only one? Which ones do you put in which category? Of course, almost every possible position is held by some commentary. The reason for explaining it like this is because you will read books and hear commentaries that sound quite different, and if you know why they’re different, you’re not confused.

Concluding Remarks

I think that this is enough material for today. Mind you, it’s just an introduction to this topic of Buddha-nature and the way that it’s discussed in this text. But I think it’s helpful to try to digest and think, well, what do we really mean by Buddha-nature, this source that will allow for us to become a Buddha, these essential factors, this womb (to use the term that is there) that puts us all in the family of those who could become Buddhas. And so what is it? If we look at it from the Prasangika point of view, there are these factors on the mental continuum (that can be imputed on the mental continuum) of us as limited beings, that are still stained, that will allow for these various Buddha Bodies. So we have the voidness, the fact that our mental continuum does not have any impossible ways of existing, that it is not established from its own side, and so on. Well that’s the same as the Svabhavakaya of a Buddha. The fact that it is like that now will allow for the fact that it will be like that as a Buddha as well, so it’s sort of the foundation, the basis. Then the fact that the mental continuum makes appearances of things, and that’s what knowing things means – well this is likewise a factor that’s going to be the case when you are a Buddha as well. So it was always there and it’s never been stained by anything, and so that also gives us a great deal of hope.

Then in terms of what will evolve and what will grow into these various Buddha Bodies, those are affected phenomena – in other words, their nature doesn’t change, but they take different objects and different appearances at different times. Then we have these two networks, these are the basic aspects here. These two networks, positive force and deep awareness, well everybody has that beginninglessly in terms of the samsaric-building aspects of this (mixed with grasping for true existence, and so on). But if we can add onto it bodhichitta, then that will make them into enlightenment-building ones.

When we think about it, the network of deep awareness is when we are focused on voidness itself, the deepest truth. And the network of positive force is when we are helping others, and so on, focused on the apparent (or conventional) truth of things. So we always speak in terms of these two truths. And because we have this awareness of the two truths and we’re working to help others in terms of the conventional truth in terms of appearances, aimed at enlightenment, then you get the two truth aspect of Buddhahood – which is the appearances of a Buddha (that’s the conventional truth) and the voidness of a Buddhas mind (which is the deepest truth). Or if we take the non-Gelugpa thing, also the clarity and awareness, which would be the deep awareness Dharmakaya. So it’s in this way that we think more and more about this, and we can understand that we do have the source, the womb, the essential factors that will allow us to have the various corpuses (or bodies) of a Buddha. Plus all of these things can be affected by the enlightening influence of a Buddha to grow; they can be stimulated – these aspects of Buddha-nature.

In particular, what we really need to put together here is these Buddha-nature factors as the source for the Three Gems. In other words, the ultimate source of refuge: the source for the body and mind of a Buddha, that is the ultimate Buddha refuge, and the source for the true stoppings and the true paths of mind on the mind-stream of a Buddha, and the networks of those true stoppings and true pathways of mind on the mind of a Buddha. These are ultimate sources of direction. Now the voidness of the mind, these two networks of positive force and deep awareness, clarity and awareness of the mind, and so on – these are the source that will allow for our becoming the Three Gems ourselves, as a Buddha, the ultimate source of refuge. Obviously that takes a long time to think about and try to put it all together. But that is the direction in which this type of meditation practice is going in. And once we really have gotten it digested, then we have much more confidence in the path, and it strengthens our bodhichitta that we can actually become enlightened.

Buddha-Nature Is Not Like an Atman

I don’t know how to differentiate this Buddha-nature from an atman. This is something that Buddhism is accused of doing, to reintroduce some kind of atman through the back door. How is this differentiated from atman, if it is some fixed substance that is unchanging?

When we speak about atman (the soul) in Buddhism, what is being refuted is first of all a person, or a soul, or a self – whatever way you want to translate it – that is static: not affected by anything and eternal. That is one aspect of it – but so is space and so is voidness. Space and voidness are not the villains here, the things that need to be refuted. So just because it is static and unchanging doesn’t make it a troublesome thing. In addition it is partless, it is a monad – and certainly Buddha-nature isn’t that. And it is something that is separate from the aggregates, independent of the aggregates. And all these Buddha-nature factors, they keep on saying over and again with the definitions of all them, that they are imputable on the mental continuum, so they are not separate from the aggregates.

Also another characteristic of an atman is that it can be known self-sufficiently, by itself, without having to know its basis for imputation – and certainly Buddha-nature is not like that. You can’t know these various aspects of Buddha-nature without also knowing the mind, the mental continuum on which it is imputed. Also if we go into the Madhyamaka description or refutation in terms of the soul, then Buddha-nature is certainly not something that has its existence established from its own side, because of voidness – so it is very different from an atman. Atman has true existence, and here Buddha-nature certainly doesn’t have true existence established from its own side. So the only feature that it has in common with an atman is that, in general, these abiding nature features are unaffected by anything and static (they’re forever). But as I said, there are many other things that are like that as well, including space.