Buddha-Nature and the Five Buddha Wisdoms

What Is Buddha-Nature?

Our topic for this seminar is the five Buddha wisdoms, or as I prefer to call them, the five types of deep awareness. I find the term five types of wisdom to be less accurate and helpful because everybody has these, including the worm and the cockroach. It’s a little bit peculiar to say that a cockroach has five types of wisdom, isn’t it? Our topic, these five types of deep awareness, is actually contained within the general subject matter of Buddha-nature.

Now what do we mean by Buddha-nature? In general, we are referring to those factors that will allow each and every one of us to become a Buddha. More specifically, they allow us to attain the various different types of Enlightening Bodies or Corpuses of a Buddha. There’s a great deal that we could discuss about the Bodies of a Buddha, and the many different types of Buddha-nature factors that allow us to achieve them, but this isn’t the focus of our seminar.

Let’s begin with a general overview of Buddha-nature. Everybody has the faculties of body, speech and mind. We have some sort of body that enables us to do things. Coral, which is actually a type of marine animal, can’t do very much with its body, but it can at least eat. We have some form of speech; and even if we are mute and can’t make any sounds, speech refers to the faculty that allows us to communicate with others in some manner.

We all also have some type of mind: we all have some ability to understand things and to emotionally feel things. Even an insect has fear. For example, you stick your finger in front of an ant, it runs in the other direction. Obviously, the ant has some fear of potential danger and understands that there’s something threatening in the way. We can see that although these various faculties might not be very highly developed; nevertheless, we all have a body, speech and mind.

Because we have some level of a body, speech and mind, we can develop these further. If we develop them to the fullest possible level, then we will have a body, speech and mind of a Buddha. After all, a Buddha also has a body, speech and mind.

This is what we mean, in very general terms, when we talk about Buddha-nature. They are things like the faculties of body, speech and mind that we all have that will enable us to develop the various features of a Buddha. Buddha-nature has nothing to do with nature; yet, that terminology is used for some reason in our Western languages.

Take a few moments to digest this and gain a little bit of understanding of what we mean by these Buddha-nature factors.


What Is Mind?

Within the mind as one of these Buddha-nature factors, we have many subdivisions. It’s important to note that we’re not talking about some sort of physical object or even some immaterial thing inside our heads. When we speak about mind, we are referring to mental activity. If we discuss it in very general terms, it is the individual subjective experiencing of something. Thus, it’s highly individual. Everybody has his or her individual mental activity.

For example, my seeing a movie is not your seeing of the movie. It’s subjective in that what I enjoy is not necessarily what you enjoy. It is just the experiencing of something. For instance, we can experience seeing this object on the table and not know what it is. Not knowing is also a way of experiencing, isn’t it? We’re talking here in the most general terms about experiencing something. Of course, we can get more technical when discussing the actual definition of mind, but this also isn’t the focus of this seminar.

What Is Deep Awareness?

How do we actually experience objects? What is the most fundamental mechanism or structure with which we experience things? We can describe that structure in terms of five types of deep awareness. Awareness is a very broad-spectrum term, meaning to experience something. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we know what something is or understand it. If we examine ways of knowing things, for example, we could know that we don’t understand something, or we could not know that we don’t understand. As you can see, this is a very broad category.

However, in any case, we have these various ways of being aware of something or experiencing something. The word deep is added to the term in the Tibetan translation of the Sanskrit term to indicate that they are fundamental. Some people translate this word as primordial. With either translation, the connotation is that these five types of awareness underlie all the various ways of cognizing or knowing things and they exist with no beginning. Beginningless mental activity or a beginningless mental continuum means that they have always been there. That’s the actual connotation of the word deep; we all have these types of deep awareness.

Basis, Pathway and Resultant Levels

Buddha-nature is always discussed in terms of three levels. The basis level is what we all have now. This first level provides the working materials for becoming a Buddha. We don’t have to look outside ourselves to find these working materials, as everybody has them within, even insects and worms. Recognition of this basis level of these factors offers us some encouragement. We can see that we actually have the working materials and that we can access and use them.

The second level is known as the pathway level. It’s the level in which we work with these factors as a pathway that will lead us to liberation and enlightenment. This level is very expansive because it includes all the different stages of development between where we are now and Buddhahood. The stages of pathway minds basically describe a course of evolution. This is not, however, a natural evolution and isn’t similar to the Darwinian theory of natural selection. We have to work on these pathway minds ourselves in order to progress through ever-higher phases of evolution.

Finally, the third level is the resultant level, the result of this self-evolutionary process. The eventual outcome is reaching the level of a Buddha.

Therefore, when we look at the different ways of being aware of something – 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 types of deep awareness, we always have all five of them and they network together. It’s not that we can only have one or two.

Let’s examine the basis level of each of these five very roughly now and then we will address each one in more detail later. First, we begin by trying to recognize them in ourselves. At this level, remember that we are looking for something in our way of experiencing things that we share in common with everybody. We’re not talking about something terribly sophisticated, but rather a very basic aspect.

Basis-Level Deep Awareness That Is Like a Mirror

The first of these five types of deep awareness is called the deep awareness that is like a mirror. Now, “mirror” is used as a very general analogy here. It’s not precise at all; a more precise word would be “camera.” We’re talking about taking in information. The analogy of a mirror isn’t being used in the sense of something that reflects an image, but in terms of taking in information. We’re also not speaking only about visual information. We are actually referring to information from any of the senses, and from the mental realm as well.

We’re taking in information in terms of sights, sounds, smells, tastes and physical sensations. In the mental realm, we’re taking in information about emotions, how we’re feeling and what we’re thinking, these types of things.

This first type of deep awareness is one of our Buddha-nature factors, something that we all have, including the worm. The worm takes in information as well, doesn’t it? In order to crawl, it needs to take in the information of what is in front of it. Mirror-like deep awareness is something that we can work with, developing this faculty more and more. This is a very basic feature of how the mind works, isn’t it? In order to experience something, we have to first take in the information. Our minds do this. To call that a wisdom sounds a little bit strange.

Basis-Level Equalizing Deep Awareness

The second type of deep awareness is called equalizing deep awareness, which is the ability to put together information. We take in information and, in order to be able to understand it, we have to put this information together with other similar information, for instance from our previous experience. In other words, we have to put it into a category or a pattern in order to know what something is.

As an example, we see an object and take in the information of that object and put it together with other objects that look similar to it. That’s equalizing it with other objects that look similar with it in order to know, in this example, that it’s a table. If we didn’t do that, we could never know what anything is, could we? Further, we’re doing this automatically. The worm also does this. How can the worm possibly know that something is food when it sees it, if it doesn’t put it together with other similar objects, other instances of food? Again, this is a very basic process. We are just putting things together that fit together.

On the basis level, when we first take in the information, we don’t have to know what the information means – we know that with another type of deep awareness, the fifth one, which we will discuss in a moment. Similarly, with the equalizing deep awareness, we don’t have to know how they are equal or what the category they fit into means and so on – it’s again the fifth type of deep awareness that knows this. Here, equalizing deep awareness merely refers to the very basic activity of putting things together.

What I’ve described is a very basic type of mental activity that goes on whenever we experience anything. It’s not conscious; it just goes on automatically. If we see an object, we don’t just bring up a menu in our mind with every possible thing that it could be, and then choose which category it’s going to fit into. It’s quite amazing that it actually happens automatically; however, we won’t get into the physiology of this because I’ve no idea how that actually works on a physiological level.

To be a little bit more precise about equalizing deep awareness, we’re not talking about an awareness of equality, as if there is an equality that is some sort of solid knowable thing and that we know that equality. We’re not talking about that. Rather, we’re referring to an activity that puts things together, and thereby equalizes them. Those two types of awareness are quite different, aren’t they? There are many of us that perhaps have not studied philosophy or metaphysics, so we’re not sensitive to these types of distinctions. However, once explained, these distinctions are not so difficult to understand, and they’re really quite significant in terms of helping us to understand more precisely.

Our minds are incredibly complicated and the way they work is extremely sophisticated. For example, if we want to fix an old-fashioned mechanical watch that has lots of tiny little moving parts, we first have to know everything about it very precisely, in order to be able to discover what’s wrong and know how to fix it. Our mental activity, our minds, are like that. The mind is not a machine, however. When we talk about mind in Buddhism, we’re talking about a mental activity that is very complex and sophisticated. We have to understand it with great precision in order to be able to fix it, which is what we aim to do in Buddhism. When our mental activity isn’t running very well, it causes us a lot of problems.

Basis-Level Individualizing Deep Awareness

The third type of deep awareness, individualizing deep awareness, is the type of deep awareness that individualizes some item. It’s not that it knows the individuality of something; it’s individualizing the equalized information that is taken in. Our mental activity takes in the information of all these colored shapes that we might see in front of us and equalizes some of them. It equalizes some of the visual information into a category, which the fifth type of deep awareness would identify, for example, as the category of women. But with equalizing deep awareness, we are simply aware that these colored shapes and pixels fit together into a category. It’s equalizing and putting some information together into a group.

Now, within that group, our mental activity can individualize one item. This ability allows us to specify one member of the category as different from the others. In the case of the category of women, again it’s the fifth type of deep awareness that knows who she is, Gabi as opposed to Alice. As I said, these five types of deep awareness network together and operate simultaneously. Within that network, this particular deep awareness individualizes one item within a group.

There’s this fantastic documentary film about the life of penguins in Antarctica. The film documents how the male partners venture off to the ocean to eat fish and then, after some time, come back. There is this flock of about a hundred thousand penguins, which to us all look totally identical, and yet not to a penguin. Each of these male penguins can individualize within that flock and identify which one is their mate. That’s quite extraordinary, isn’t it? This ability is an example of individualizing deep awareness.

Actually, it’s also amazing if we examine this in terms of human beings. We can tell the difference between different human beings quite easily; however, if we came back after going away and our partner was in a crowd of a hundred thousand people, we would need to utilize our individualizing awareness to find him or her.

Obviously, individualizing deep awareness and equalizing deep awareness don’t only function with visual information. They also function with the sound of people’s voices. The dog uses them with the sense of smell. We do that with taste, don’t we? We taste a fruit, for example, and take in that information. We equalize it with other similar tastes that we’ve had, so that with the fifth deep awareness, we know that it is a papaya. We can then individualize it so that we know, again with the fifth deep awareness, that this papaya is not very ripe. Nothing terribly shocking here; we’re talking very basically about 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, my mental activity takes in the visual information of this object on the table and equalizes it with other similar objects that I have previously perceived. It’s on the basis of this that, with the fifth deep awareness, I will know that it is a glass of water. Next, I am aware of it with individualizing awareness. It’s on the basis of this awareness that I individualize this glass and, again with the fifth deep awareness, know that it is my glass of water and not my translator’s glass of water. Further, accomplishing deep awareness is the awareness to relate to that object, to do something with it. Again, it’s the fifth type of awareness that knows what to do with the object. Here, accomplishing deep awareness is only the awareness that goes out to do something with it. In this example, with the fifth deep awareness we know to lift it up, put it to our mouth and turn it a little bit upwards, so that we can drink water out of it. However, before we do that, there has to be the awareness to engage with the object, to do something with it.

Therefore, more specifically, accomplishing deep awareness is the awareness with which our energy goes out to an object so that we will actually do something with it or to it, even if it’s to do nothing and leave it alone. Again, this type of deep awareness is very basic. Everybody has it, including the worm. The worm couldn’t eat something without this awareness because it wouldn’t know what to do with the object that it sees.

Basis-Level Deep Awareness of the Sphere of Reality

The fifth type of deep awareness is technically called the deep awareness of the sphere of reality, dharmadhatu in Sanskrit. For convenience, let’s refer to this as reality deep awareness or the deep awareness of reality. This type of deep awareness has several levels. The most basic level is the awareness of the conventional reality of things. It always works together with the other four types of deep awareness.

When we take in information with mirror-like deep awareness, with this reality deep awareness we know what that information is. As with a worm, we don’t have to have a word for it; but a worm would, in a sense, just know in general that it’s a visual object. In this general way, we take in information and know that it’s a visual object, or a sound, a smell, or a taste.  

If we think in terms of a computer that only knows zeros and ones, there still has to be some function that differentiates that the zeros and ones mean a picture on the screen or a sound, or something else. Our brain does the same thing. Electrical impulses come in and we know that something is visual, sound, smell, or taste information. Here, we’re just talking about the deep awareness of reality that goes together with mirror-like deep awareness to know what the information taken in is, for instance, a sound.

With equalizing deep awareness, we’re putting this information together with, for example, other sounds. Deep awareness of reality, networked together with this, knows that it’s the sound of a voice. With individualizing deep awareness networked with deep awareness of reality, we would know that it’s the sound of our mother’s voice, for instance, not just a voice in general. With accomplishing deep awareness, we would know to relate and engage with that sound. With reality deep awareness, we would know how to relate, so what to do; in this situation, it would be to speak and say something in response to our mother’s voice.

It’s amazing that our brains can actually do all of this. However, as I said, the actual physiological mechanism involved with brain function is beyond the scope of my knowledge. However, in Buddhism we speak about the mind, and the mental activity certainly does all of this. Again, it’s very basic. There’s nothing special about this ability of the mind.

Take a moment to reflect on what we mean by deep awareness of reality.


As I mentioned, reality deep awareness has many levels. On the simplest level we have awareness of what something is, and on the deeper level, we know how something exists. The most profound understanding would be the deep awareness of the voidness or emptiness of something. Obviously, most of us don’t have that now, and the worm certainly doesn’t have that either. But we could have some simpler levels of deeper awareness of the reality of things.

For example, we might have the deep awareness of the reality that things change. Now of course we might imagine that our good looks and such things will never change; we’re not, however, speaking of that level. For example, we can simply know the reality of things changing when we engage in a conversation with somebody. If we weren’t aware that someone said something else, or the mood shifted, or that things changed in the interaction with somebody, we really wouldn’t be able to have a conversation with anyone, would we? Knowing the reality that things change is quite important for our basic social skills in being able to relate well to each other. Plans change, lots of things change. This is all a part of the sphere of reality, the deep awareness of reality.

Think about this for a moment. Somebody says something and then two minutes later they say something different. When we take in that information, we know that they’ve changed their minds about something. How do we know they changed their mind? It is through using this type of reality deep awareness. Otherwise, the information we hear would be disconnected.  



These are the five types of deep awareness. They’re the working materials that we all have for becoming a Buddha and for developing the resultant level of these five types of deep awareness that a Buddha has. They are aspects of our Buddha-nature. But we also need to recognize that now, on the basis level, the five types of deep awareness we have are limited. We need a pathway of practice so that we can develop these further with less limitations. We need to also understand the resultant level of how these five would work in the case of a Buddha when they are unlimited. When we know all of this, then we will truly understand what we’re doing in our Buddhist practice.

Over the course of this seminar, we’ll investigate our current limitations within these five types of deep awareness, and we’ll learn some exercises to help us develop them more and more. Basically, we want to understand what we’re working toward, which is the highest state of evolution that we can attain.


It’s very clear that the first two types of deep awareness work on all six sensory fields, but do individualizing and accomplishing awareness operate only at the sensory level (without the mental level)?

Individualizing deep awareness can certainly work on the mental level. We take in some information about our emotional state, for example, and put it together with other information. Together with that, we would know the reality of it being a depression or a sad mood. Then, individualizing it, we would know that not every moment of sadness or depression that we feel is exactly the same and that it’s just this one that we’re having at the moment. With accomplishing deep awareness, we can relate to this individual moment of sadness that we might be experiencing and, with reality deep awareness, know that it arose from specific causes and conditions, not just in general. With reality deep awareness, we would also know how to relate to this particular sadness or depression. 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.

As another example, let’s look at being hungry. Feeling hunger, we might always eat the same thing; however, because we individualize it, we know that now we would like to eat a certain kind of food. We relate to our feeling hungry in an individual way.

If we have been in existence since beginningless time, then we have had the opportunity to experience everything. In a sense, nothing would be totally new because there is always a possibility of equalizing it to some previous experience. Is that so?

Superficially, that might seem so, but that doesn’t allow for people to do different and new things. In every conversation that we hear, we might have heard those words before, but does it mean that we’ve heard those exact sentences expressed in the exact same way sometime before in the past? This seems a little bit unlikely, even if we take into account infinite time. For example, if we use a computer, does that mean, since infinite time, that we must have used a computer sometime in the past in some other universe? I don’t really know that this is the case.

In general, we could say we’ve experienced everything. It’s very clear in the teachings that everybody’s been our mother and we’ve been the mother of everybody else, and that we’ve also been kings and queens and every type of life form. In general, we can say this, but I don’t know if we can say this in a more specific sense. For example, we’ve never experienced being a Buddha before. That’s a good example. There are also things we can newly experience, such as developing bodhichitta and then never giving it up for the first time.

Did I understand correctly that equalizing deep awareness is something automatic and not a mental process of categorizing?

Equalizing deep awareness is the process of classifying and categorizing things, but it’s only the reality deep awareness that would know which category and which classification. Equalizing deep awareness is putting things together into groups; however, it doesn’t work exclusively as the basis for conceptual cognition. It can also be a basis for non-conceptual cognition. For instance, we can equally have love toward everybody. Therefore, sometimes equalizing deep awareness puts things into categories and classifications, and at other times it doesn’t. Like with the example of equal love toward everybody, or to have equal compassion for everybody, we first have to put everybody together into an equal group. This group is the category of living beings who want to be happy and don’t want to be unhappy. For instance, a rock doesn’t fit into this category. However, we could put the rock and the person together into another category, such as the category of “things in the dark that we can bump our foot into.”

According to my understanding of the five types of deep awareness just explained, it seems that even an advanced computer can do those five activities. For example, 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. Can that machine have those five deep types of awareness? That freaks me out.

In order to solve your dilemma, we have to review the definition of experiencing something. In terms of the five aggregates, there is the aggregate of feeling a level of happiness or unhappiness. This is defined as the mental factor with which we experience the results of our karma. Therefore, to experience something means to feel a level of happiness or unhappiness together with these five types of deep awareness. The computer might be able to perform the functions of the five types of deep awareness, but it doesn’t feel happy at winning the game or unhappy about losing it. In that sense, the computer does not have mental activity in the way that Buddhist defines mental activity, although it has computational activity.

Let’s use my favorite example, Star Trek, where we have the android called Data, as it’s done very cleverly. Data does all the things that you describe, but Data has no feelings. He can’t feel happy or unhappy. He’s only a machine and, as a machine, he longs to be human. This is the basic difference between a machine and a living being. Living beings experience things with happiness and unhappiness and machines don’t.