Buddha stated emphatically that we can all become Buddhas, but what does it actually mean? A Buddha is someone who’s removed all of their shortcomings, corrected all of their deficiencies, and realized all of their potentials. Every Buddha started out just like us, as ordinary beings experiencing recurring difficulties in life due to confusion about reality and unrealistic projections. They came to realize that their stubborn projections didn’t actually correspond to reality, and through a strong determination to be free of their suffering, they eventually stopped automatically believing in the fantasies their minds projected. They stopped experiencing disturbing emotions and acting compulsively, freeing themselves of all suffering.
Throughout this, they worked to strengthen their positive emotions like love and compassion, and helped others as much as they could. They developed the kind of love that mothers have for their only child, but toward everyone. Powered by this intense love and compassion for everybody and their exceptional resolve to help them all, their understanding of reality became stronger and stronger. It became so powerful that their minds eventually stopped even projecting the deceptive appearances that everything and everyone exist on their own, disconnected from everything else. Without any impediment, they saw clearly the interconnectedness and interdependency of all that exists.
With this achievement, they became enlightened: they became a Buddha. Their bodies, their abilities to communicate and their minds became free of all limitations. Knowing the effect on each person of anything they would teach them, they were now able to help all beings as much as is realistically possible. But not even a Buddha is omnipotent. A Buddha can exert a positive influence only on those who are open and receptive to their advice and who follow it correctly.
And Buddha said that everyone can achieve what he did; everyone can become a Buddha. This is because we all have “Buddha-nature” – the fundamental working materials that enable Buddhahood.
Neuroscience speaks of neuroplasticity – the brain’s ability to change and develop new neural pathways throughout our life. For instance, when the part of the brain that controls our right hand becomes paralyzed, training with physiotherapy can cause the brain to develop new neural pathways enabling us to use our left. Recent studies have shown that meditation, such as on compassion, can also create new neural pathways leading to more happiness and peace of mind. So just as we speak of the brain’s neuroplasticity, we can likewise speak of the plasticity of the mind. The fact that our minds, and therefore our personality traits, are devoid of being static and fixed, and can be stimulated to develop new positive pathways is the most fundamental factor enabling us all to become enlightened Buddhas.
On a physiological level, whenever we do, say or think anything constructive, we strengthen a positive neural pathway that makes it easier and more likely that we’ll repeat the action. On a mental level, Buddhism says this builds up positive force and potential. The more we reinforce a network of such positive force, especially when we benefit others, the stronger it becomes. Positive force, directed at the ability to help all beings fully as a Buddha, is what enables us to reach that goal of being universally helpful.
Similarly, the more we focus on the absence of anything real corresponding to our false projections of reality, the more we weaken the neural pathways, first of believing in this mental nonsense and then of projecting it at all. Eventually, our minds become free of these delusional neural and mental pathways, and free as well of the pathways of the disturbing emotions and compulsive behavioral patterns that depend on them. Instead we develop strong pathways of deep awareness of reality. When these pathways are empowered by the force of aiming for the omniscient mind of a Buddha that knows how best to help each and every limited being, this network of deep awareness enables us to attain the mind of a Buddha.
Because we all have a body, the facilities to communicate with others – primarily speech – and also a mind, we all have the working materials for attaining the body, speech and mind of a Buddha. These three are likewise Buddha-nature factors. We all have some level of good qualities – our instincts for self-preservation, preservation of the species, our motherly and fatherly instincts, and so on – as well as the ability to act and affect others. These too are Buddha-nature factors; they’re our working materials for cultivating the good qualities, such as unlimited love and care, and the enlightening activities of a Buddha.
When we examine how our minds work, we discover further Buddha-nature factors. All of us are able to take in information, group things together that share some quality, distinguish the individuality of things, respond to what we perceive, and know what things are. These ways in which our mental activity works are limited now, but they too are working materials for attaining the mind of a Buddha, where they will function at their peak potential.
Since we all have the working materials for becoming a Buddha, it is just a matter of motivation and sustained hard work before we become enlightened. Progress is never linear: some days will go better and some days worse; the road to Buddhahood is long and not easy. But the more we remind ourselves of our Buddha-nature factors, the more we avoid becoming discouraged. We just need to keep in mind that there’s nothing inherently wrong with us. We can overcome all obstacles with a strong enough good motivation and by following realistic methods that skillfully combine compassion and wisdom.