Overview of Buddha-Nature

What does Buddha-nature (sangs-rgyas-kyi rigs) mean? It is not speaking about some sort of singular nature that we all have of being Buddhas already, or having the one singular factor that will enable us – like a potential – to become a Buddha. But rather it’s speaking about a whole network of many different factors that will enable us to become a Buddha.

When we look at these factors, we need to regard them free of the two extremes. These are extremes which are explained in terms of the explanation of the voidness of results: It isn’t that a result arises from nothing. And the other extreme is that it isn’t that a result already exists inside the cause and it’s just waiting to pop out. So it isn’t that Buddhahood – this is the result that we’re talking about – comes from nothing, that there’s no basis or foundation for it and no causal nexus of many, many different factors that will bring it about. And it’s not that it comes from absolutely nothing, that it was nonexistent and then – pop! – it turns from a nothing into a something. And it’s not that that result, Buddhahood, is already sitting inside us and we just don’t recognize it, and if we recognize it then there it is.

So we have all these causal factors on a basis level, which are already there in absolutely everybody, which then, when combined with many, many other causes and so on, will bring about the attainment of Buddhahood. So what are these factors that we all have? They are divided into three groups:

Evolving Factors

We have the evolving factors. That’s the first group. And these are things that transform into the nonstatic Buddha-bodies. As a Buddha, we are going to have what’s usually translated as different bodies (sku, Skt. kaya). Body is a little bit awkward here as a translation. But in English at least – I don’t know about in Russian – there’s another word, called corpus, which is used like a corpus of literature, a corpus of knowledge, and so we’re talking about a network of many different things. So there are these various networks of a Buddha that are nonstatic, which means that they change from moment to moment: first it can be this type of thing, then that type of thing, and so on, although they would go on forever.

So we have two corpuses, two networks, two groups, which are forms of physical phenomena, the so-called Form Bodies (gzugs-sku, Skt. rupakaya). These consist of two groups. One is the Sambhogakaya (longs-spyod rdzogs-pa’i sku, Corpus of Full Use). This word sambhoga is a difficult word; it has many, many different meanings, as does the Tibetan translation for it. One meaning of it is “to enjoy,” so many people translate this as Enjoyment Body. It could also be translated as “eating”; nobody translates it as the Eating Body. But the other meaning is “to make use of something,” and that’s actually the meaning here: it is the “corpus of subtle forms that make full use of the Mahayana teachings.” So these are subtle forms that teach arya bodhisattvas – these highly realized bodhisattvas – in pure lands, and can teach them the full scope of the Mahayana teachings forever. So that’s what Sambhogakaya is. And they appear in the full form of a Buddha, with all the various physical signs.

And the Nirmanakaya (sprul-sku) is a Corpus of Emanations of this Sambhogakaya, that can teach ordinary people (not just these arya bodhisattvas) in our ordinary situations. And, in addition, another nonstatic corpus of a Buddha is called the Deep Awareness Dharmakaya (ye-shes chos-sku, Skt. jnanadharmakaya, Corpus of Deep Awareness Encompassing Everything).

We’re talking about the evolving traits. Evolving traits transform into the nonstatic corpuses, or bodies, of a Buddha, and there are three of them. So two are Form Bodies – Sambhogakaya, Nirmanakaya – and one is the Deep Awareness Dharmakaya.

Dharmakaya is a corpus that encompasses everything. Dharma here in this context means “all phenomena,” so all things. And that’s referring to the deep awareness (ye-shes, Skt. jnana) – so the omniscient mind of a Buddha – that encompasses everything (and we can also think in terms of the all-loving type of mind of a Buddha; that also extends to absolutely everybody equally) and is aware of the two truths about everything, the deepest truth and conventional truth, simultaneously. And that also is nonstatic, in the sense that although a Buddha is aware of everything simultaneously – nevertheless, at one moment a Buddha is aware of this one and helping this one, and that one, and so on. So within that context of awareness of everything all the time, slightly changing. It’s not so easy to understand.

Those are the evolving bodies of a Buddha (we’ll use the word body; it’s easier to say).

Abiding Factors

Then there is the abiding factor. That’s the second of the three types of Buddha-nature factors. So evolving factors, and now abiding. Abiding means “stays the same all the time,” and this refers to the voidness of our mental continuum, and that is what allows for the static bodies of a Buddha. And the static body of a Buddha is referring to what’s called in Sanskrit the Svabhavakaya (ngo-bo-nyid sku). That can be translated as Essential Nature Body (or Corpus). It’s also a type of Dharmakaya: it extends, encompasses everything. And it’s the voidness of the mind, the omniscient mind of a Buddha; it encompasses everything.

Now, mind you, what I just explained is the Gelugpa explanation of this. In the other Tibetan traditions there are slight variants, particularly in terms of Dharmakaya, but no need to go into that. And from the tantra point of view, when we speak about Sambhogakaya it usually is explained in terms of the speech of a Buddha; so that’s a subtle physical form of a Buddha. And the Kalachakra explains it as both these subtle forms and the speech. Anyway, no need to go into all the variants here. There are variants; you should at least be aware of that, so don’t be shocked when you come across a slightly different explanation. Buddhism is filled with variants of almost everything, variant explanations, which actually is very helpful because then we view this material from many different points of view and each variant gives us a different insight.

So we have these evolving traits, or facets, Buddha-nature facets. We have the abiding ones. So the voidness of our mental continuum is responsible for the voidness of a Buddha’s mental continuum. That is static: it doesn’t change. Remember, voidness means an absence of impossible ways of existing. Because our mental continuum doesn’t exist in some impossible way, that allows for the transformation into being a Buddha; and that continues to be the case – the mental continuum of a Buddha as well doesn’t exist in any impossible way.

Factors that Can Be Stimulated to Grow

Evolving traits, abiding traits, and then the third type of Buddha-nature factor is a certain facet, or aspect, of our mental continuum that allows for the factors which are imputed on it, which are sort of carried along with it, to be stimulated or to increase. And that ability to be stimulated and to increase is due their ability to be affected by inspiration. Inspiration (byin-gyis rlabs, Skt. adhishthana); that’s usually translated as blessing, which I find a very misleading translation. In Sanskrit the word implies “uplifting,” in Tibetan the term implies “brightening,” so perhaps inspiration covers these meanings. So Buddha and great spiritual masters are very inspiring, and that inspiration can stimulate us, uplift us, so that the various qualities that we have – compassion, energy, and so on – get strengthened; this is a Buddha-nature factor. This is why the role of the spiritual teacher is always emphasized, particularly in the Indian and Tibetan traditions of Mahayana, in all aspects of the Buddhist teachings. And when we speak about an initiation (dbang, Skt. abhishekha) in tantra, an empowerment, that actually is a ceremony in which this inspiration, this uplifting – a sort of activation of these Buddha-nature factors – occurs.

Evolving Factors: The Two Networks

Now the evolving factors; let’s look at those more closely. The main factors that are usually presented are what are known as our two networks (tshogs-gnyis): the network of positive force (bsod-nams-kyi tshogs, Skt. punyasambhara) and the network of deep awareness (ye-shes-kyi tshogs, Skt. jnanasambhara). Network (tshogs) other translators usually translate as “collection” – so the two collections – but these are not just collections like a collection of stamps; these are various factors that interact with each other. That’s why I call it a network. And positive force (bsod-nams) is usually translated as “merit,” but merit is a very vague term, difficult to really understand. And this network of deep awareness is often translated as a collection of wisdom, I think it’s usually called, but “wisdom” is also a very vague word in English.

Now this might be quite surprising to hear – that we all have, as part of these Buddha-nature factors, these two networks. We might say, “Well, I’ve never done anything positive in my life. So how do I have any network of positive force? Or what about this cockroach on the floor – what kind of merit or positive force does it have?” It’s a good question, isn’t it? Well, we can be confident that we have a network of positive force as human beings; otherwise, we never would have been born as human beings, particularly as human beings with a precious human rebirth. So that clearly demonstrates that we have a network of positive force. And what about our friend the cockroach on the floor? Well, from a Buddhist point of view we can say that, [because of] infinite past lives, at some point this cockroach has been my mother, etc., a human being. But for many of us that’s not terribly convincing. But the fact that that cockroach is still alive and walking around on the floor and hasn’t been stepped on yet, or been exterminated with some insecticide, demonstrates that it has some positive force that is allowing it to still be alive, to have a so-called long life. I hope you appreciate the fact that logical analysis on the basis of Buddhist principles is very important for being able to gain some sort of conviction in the assertions of Buddhism, like “everybody has a network of positive force.”

Then what about this network of deep awareness? To become convinced of that, we need to look at one way of dividing it, which is the system of the so-called five types of deep awareness (sometimes called the five Buddha wisdoms, but that’s really obscuring what’s going on here). Without going into great detail about these five, but one of them is the mirror-like deep awareness (me-long lta-bu’i ye-shes), to take in information; equalizing (mnyam-nyid ye-shes), to be able to put things together; etc. I won’t go through the whole list of five – we don’t have the time – you can read about them on my website. But that cockroach is able to take in information; it’s able to put things together, like for instance this item and that item as food; it has accomplishing deep awareness (it knows what to do with it: to eat it); etc. So we all have a network of deep awareness; it’s a Buddha-nature factor.

Now, positive force, this network of positive force, is built up from constructive behavior. Now I’m speaking in general. And the deep awareness, if we look at it from a technical point of view, it comes from apprehension of the sixteen aspects of the four noble truths or, more specifically, apprehension of voidness. I’ll explain what the word “apprehension” means. “Apprehension” means a correct and decisive cognition of something. So although it’s the same word as “understand” in Tibetan, nevertheless it has a very specific meaning: it’s correct and it’s decisive. And this is looking, then, at this deep awareness from a technical point of view and not necessary from the system of the five types of deep awareness that I was just referring to.

Now remember the evolving factors – these two networks – are what will transform into the nonstatic bodies of a Buddha. Positive force is the obtaining cause (nyer-len-gyi rgyu) for the Form Bodies, so Nirmanakaya and Sambhogakaya (I’ll explain what an obtaining cause is). And the network of deep awareness is what is known as the simultaneously acting condition (lhan-cig byed-pa’i rkyen) for these Form Bodies. And for the Deep Awareness Dharmakaya, it’s just the reverse: the network of deep awareness is the obtaining cause for this, and the network of positive force is the simultaneously acting condition. So now that we’ve seen the technical definitions, the technical statement, what do these terms mean?

An obtaining cause: it’s the cause from which you obtain the result; that’s why it’s called an obtainer or obtaining cause. It is a type of natal source (rdzas) that gives rise to something as its successor in a continuum and which ceases to exist once the result has finished completely arising. Easy example: a seed and a sprout. It’s the natal source. So the sprout comes from the seed, it gives rise to the sprout as its successor, and it’s in a continuum; and once that sprout has completely arisen, the seed ceases to exist. So from the seed you obtain the sprout. That’s what an obtaining cause is.

And a simultaneously acting condition is something that exists prior to the arising of something and it assists in making the arising happen, it helps it happen. So it’s simultaneously acting with the obtaining cause, but it itself doesn’t transform into the result.

So this network of positive force is going to give rise to a result. If we think in terms of a Buddha, it will be the Form Bodies. It will transform into that and, once it has finished transforming into that, it no longer exists, we no longer have a network of positive force (a Buddha doesn’t have a network of positive force; a Buddha has Form Bodies). And for that positive force to transform into these Form Bodies, it has to be accompanied with this network of deep awareness.

So think about that. What that means is that we’re doing a lot of positive things, right? Constructive behavior. It builds up a lot of positive force. And doing all of that as a not-yet Buddha is what will transform into Buddha-bodies, in which we’re doing this as a Buddha – physical ways, helping others, Form Bodies. We no longer have that network of stuff that was associated with not being enlightened, because now we’re enlightened; so that has ceased to exist. But just helping everybody, building up a lot of positive force, that’s not enough, because it has to be helped by this deep awareness of voidness. Without the understanding of voidness, all that constructive behavior is not going to lead to the physical bodies of a Buddha. You’ll just be able to help people more and more and more, but not as a Buddha; because we are grasping at truly established existence – of what we’re doing, and of us as the person that’s helping.

Turning this around, vice versa, then that network of deep awareness – always having apprehension, correct understanding, decisive understanding of the four noble truths, voidness, etc. – that is going to transform into the omniscient mind of a Buddha. Right? The omniscient mind of a Buddha. And that non-omniscient – it’s not extending to everything – network of deep awareness will cease once it becomes an omniscient network (it’s no longer non-omniscient). But it has to be assisted with building up positive force; otherwise it’s just some intellectual thing.

The only difference between sutra and tantra in this respect has to do with the methods for building up positive force that will be the obtaining causes for becoming a Buddha; in other words, visualizing ourselves as a Buddha-figure (yi-dam). So imagining ourselves as a Buddha in tantra – the so-called “deity yoga” – is done of course on the basis of building up a lot of constructive force. Doing positive things. It’s not that you just sit there and “I’m a Buddha!” and you don’t help anybody, you don’t lift a finger to help anybody – in fact, you hurt people. It’s not like that.

So those are the evolving factors.

Abiding Factor: The Voidness of the Mental Continuum

The abiding factor – the voidness of the mental continuum, which allows for the transformation – this is static; it remains the same before we’re enlightened, after we’re enlightened. Because of the voidness of the mental continuum, an unenlightened state – that allows for the transformation. And even as an enlightened being, the mental continuum will still be devoid of impossible ways of existing. (Now this is the Gelugpa presentation of that.) And the voidness of the mental continuum is referring to, on a Buddha level, the Essential Nature Body (Svabhavakaya), the voidness of a Buddha’s omniscient mind. [The abiding Buddha-nature factor, this voidness, is what is responsible for the Essential Nature Body, the voidness of the mind of a Buddha.] It’s not that one transforms into the other; it’s the same. The voidness of the mental continuum is not affected by the various things that are carried along with that mental continuum, imputed on. And as I hinted before, in some of the non-Gelugpa traditions they have, in addition to this, some further explanations, some more variants, and probably it is best not to bring that up; it might be a little bit too confusing.


So let’s take a few minutes to digest what we have covered so far. What have we covered? We’re talking about what are the factors that are responsible for us – that allow us all – to become Buddhas, including the cockroach, including that being who in this particular lifetime happens to have built up the karma to be a cockroach. Remember, in terms of rebirth, nobody is going to be a cockroach forever, and nobody (including ourselves) is going to be a human being forever, in all our lifetimes, unless we do something about it.

So how is it that it’s possible that I and the cockroach are going to become enlightened? It’s not that there is no basis for that as part of our mental continuum, so it isn’t that our enlightenment comes from nothing. And it isn’t existing already in our mental continuum there and just waiting to pop out if we just could realize it, that it’s there. But rather there are many, many factors that we all have that are part of our mental continuum – some that transform into certain bodies of a Buddha, some that are just responsible for the nature of these bodies of a Buddha. And with inspiration from a spiritual teacher, these can be stimulated to grow. And they grow not only by that stimulation, but also we have to build up various causes that will strengthen these networks. These are the networks of positive force and deep awareness. These are the evolving traits.

So let’s digest that and try to think of that to understand that correctly and decisively.

How Do We Build Up the Network of Positive Force?

The positive force, network of positive force, that we all have – as demonstrated by the fact that we’re humans – is responsible for the fact that we have a physical body as a human, and from that we will obtain a physical body of a Buddha if we build this network up with more and more positive force, but assisted by the understanding of voidness of why we’re doing it, who is doing it, etc. And that network of deep awareness that we all have – because we’re able to take in information and see patterns and know what to do with things, etc., know what things are (and it’s pretty efficient now as a human being, because we have human intelligence, we’re able to distinguish between what’s beneficial and what’s harmful in the long term) – we can strengthen that so that it becomes the omniscient mind of a Buddha. We can do that by focusing, meditating more and more, on the four noble truths and the voidness of the four noble truths. The four noble truths are

  • True suffering
  • True causes of suffering (true causes are our unawareness of voidness of how things exist)
  • True stopping (it is actually possible to get rid of suffering and its causes so that they never recur)
  • True pathway of mind (the true understanding of voidness, etc., that will get rid of causes of suffering, therefore get rid of the suffering).

So meditating on this with apprehension of the four noble truths… In another words, we know these four correctly and decisively. Decisive. “I’m absolutely convinced that it is possible to get rid of suffering and its causes. I’m absolutely convinced that the understanding of voidness will get rid of it, and I understand voidness correctly.” Meditating on these with these five types of deep awareness – taking in information, seeing that everything is equally void, etc. – all of that will transform into the omniscient mind of a Buddha, the so-called Deep Awareness Dharmakaya (Jnana Dharmakaya in Sanskrit), if it’s assisted by building up more and more positive force. And I can be stimulated to build up more positive force and to have more deep awareness by influence – inspiration – of spiritual teachers, the Buddhas, etc.

Let’s digest that for a few moments.

The only thing that differentiates sutra and tantra with respect to what we’ve just discussed is that tantra has special additional methods for building up this network of positive force which will transform into the physical bodies of a Buddha – namely, so-called deity yoga, in which we first imagine that we are in the form of these Buddha-figures already. And in anuttarayoga tantra, the highest class of tantra, on the basis of having mastered the visualization process of imagining that we have the body of a Buddha, we’re able to actually mold or manifest our subtle energy into the shape of these Buddha-figures, with so-called illusory bodies (sgyu-lus). That’s one difference. And also in anuttarayoga tantra we have further methods, which will enable us to get to the subtlest level of mind, which will then enable us more easily to have exactly the same understanding of voidness as we have in sutra. So more on the method side. Network of deep awareness – it’s always the same understanding of voidness, it’s just in terms of more methods to build up positive force, more efficient methods to transform into the bodies of a Buddha, and more efficient methods that will help us get that non-conceptual cognition of voidness.

The important point, then, being that tantra fits totally within the context of sutra. It’s not something separate in any way, in terms of how it helps us or enables us to attain the enlightened state of a Buddha. It’s all based on these Buddha-nature factors, these two networks, the voidness of the mind, and inspiration from Buddhas and the spiritual masters.

Let’s digest that.

Discerning Meditation

I suppose that it’s helpful for me to explain what it means to digest this in meditation. I’m sorry if I just said, “Digest it” in a very glib way, assuming that we all know what to do. What we do – so-called analytical or discerning meditation (dpyad-sgom) – is repeat the basic outline of what I just explained, the so-called topic, repeat it in your head. Obviously that requires having paid attention and remembering. And having gone through that material – in this case it’s not a logical argument, but similar to a line of reasoning – then we reach an apprehension of this material, that we understand it correctly and decisively. We are convinced that this is what was explained, and hopefully, having thought about it, we’re convinced that it’s correct, that this is in fact what happens in terms of how we gain enlightenment. And then with an active state of mind, we try to discern – “discernment” (dpyod-pa) that’s a technical term – we try to discern ourselves in terms of this decisive understanding. Discern means to understand ourselves in the terms of this explanation: “Yes, I have Buddha-nature. Yes, if I develop it this way and that way, and so on, it will become Buddha-bodies. This is how I attain enlightenment.” So it’s to – what we say in English – to see that, to understand that actively. And then after that, we spend a period of time on so-called stabilizing mediation (’jog-sgom), we stay focused on that certainty and that understanding with certainty.

This is very important to understand, what we actually mean by meditation. It is not that you’ve heard all this explanation and then you just sort of just sit there spaced out, your mind blank, not quite knowing what to do, and hoping that maybe, by just sitting there in a passive sort of way, it will somehow sink in.

Try that for a few moments in terms of what you can recall and have understood about Buddha-nature. “I have positive force. I have intelligence. I can use them, can develop them further and further, to not just get a precious human rebirth and an intelligent mind, but to obtain the bodies of a Buddha, through a lot of hard work and the inspiration of my teachers.” Even if it’s just that much, it can be very beneficial. If you start to space out and your mind starts to go blank, then you review again, in your mind, the understanding.


What’s the difference between the human being and the cockroach in this example (that each of us, the human and the cockroach, has the five types of deep awareness)?

At one level, both the human and cockroach have the same working materials. However, as a human being, particularly or specifically having a precious human rebirth, we have more ability and more opportunities to develop this working material further. The cockroach doesn’t have that opportunity, that circumstance. And in the case of the cockroach, the functioning of these five types of deep awareness is much more limited than as a human being; so it’s obscured by limited intelligence, etc., naivety – stronger naivety – about everything.

When we are working to build up more positive force by being constructive, and assisting that with more deep awareness, understanding of voidness, and vice versa, where is – or what is – the role of purification?

As in the example of the cockroach, the cockroach’s ability to understand things – to take in information, to see patterns, and so on – is limited. It is obscured by many things. It is obscured by unawareness – just not knowing how things exist, not knowing cause and effect, etc. – obscured by self-centeredness, etc., just concerned with a very small aspect of life. And this is also the case with us as humans – obscured by lack of intelligence, lack of clarity, laziness, forgetfulness. Building up positive force is obscured by our disturbing emotions, and attachment, and anger and jealousy, etc., selfishness. And so what we need to do is both build up positive force and deep awareness and purify away the obscuring factors. So it’s a dual process that we engage in: building up and purifying.

Are the factors that we use to build up positive force the same as the factors that we use for purification?

There are many levels of answering that question, of course. When we think of purification, then there is provisional purification and ultimate, final purification. Provisional is with openly admitting our mistakes and shortcomings, feeling regret, promise not to repeat them. Does that build up positive force? Probably. Then the next opponent force is reaffirming our foundation, which is refuge (the safe direction in life) and bodhichitta. Does that build up positive force? Yes. Applying an opponent force, like to counteract the negative things that we’ve done – well, if we think of that in terms of being constructive instead of destructive, that certainly helps to build up positive force. Doing prostration, Vajrasattva meditation… Would you say that prostration is so-called virtuous, constructive? I would think that most explanations would say so. So those are the provisional methods for purification; and I think that although the emphasis is on purification, it also builds up some positive force. But the ultimate purification is with the focus on voidness, so that builds up the deep awareness.

When we do preliminary practices – it’s called ngondro (sngon-’gro) in Tibetan – there are four standard practices. Gelugpa has nine. There are many, many variants of the preliminary practices, but four are quite standard. But prostration and Vajrasattva are usually thought of in terms of purification; mandala offering and guru-yoga, in terms of building up positive force. So we have the dual process here. But I think that if we analyze, this is speaking about what the emphasis is for these four practices. I think that each of them has an aspect which builds up positive force and which purifies.

Original Audio from the Seminar