Cultivating the seed of Buddha Nature
This week we're going to take another look at a fundamental teaching of Mahayana Buddhism, the idea of 'Buddha Nature'.
In a nutshell, the idea is that we each possess a kind of seed within our hearts, the seed of enlightenment or awakening, and if that seed is cultivated appropriately, it will grow and flourish until we ultimately become living Buddhas.
This 'seed' imagery conveys two important messages. One, enlightenment is not something that we need to 'get' from outside ourselves - it isn't something that someone can give us. It's already inside us. Whereas Catholicism has a doctrine of 'original sin', Mahayana Buddhism instead suggests 'original enlightenment'. However, that doesn't mean that there's no need to practise! For most of us, it needs some help to come forth fully into the world, in the same way that we might cultivate a garden. (We can probably all think of people whose seed of Buddha Nature is pretty well hidden.)
But what actually is it? Why should we believe in something that we can't see or touch? Isn't this just another kind of empty religious promise of 'cake tomorrow'?
Well, I'm going to make a few observations, based both on the classical teachings and my own experiences. I may be wrong about some of this (that's always true!). But if you're on the fence about the whole Buddha Nature thing, then consider what follows to be something that you can explore for yourself in your own practice, to see what you make of it.
Life is positively oriented
Whatever form it takes, life seems to have an instinctive sense of 'good' and 'bad', and an urge to move toward the good. Even an amoeba, the simplest form of life we know about, will move toward a food source and away from acid. Flowers turn toward the sun. Some birds and animals seem to do things simply because they're fun, not because they have any kind of survival function. And, given the choice, I will choose chocolate over aniseed ten times out of ten.
From this we can see two key aspects of life - awareness and responsiveness. I must say I'm not up on the current scientific consensus on what constitutes life, so maybe there are some exceptions to this (let me know in the comments if that's the case, I'd be interested!), but it seems to me that a key quality of life is to be in some way sensitive to what's going on nearby - to have some kind of receptive mechanism which can detect incoming signals and then adapt accordingly. In our case, we have our sense organs (in the classical Buddhist analysis, the six senses of sight, sound, smell, taste, touch and thought; modern science has identified a few more), but as we know, different creatures have different ranges and types of sensitivity (bats can echolocate, dogs have very sensitive noses and so on). So living things have the capacity to receive information, but that wouldn't be much use unless they were also able to respond to it - and so I consider responsiveness to be another defining feature of life. And, as I commented above, that responsiveness seems to be basically oriented toward what's positive, and away from what's negative.
Here, we can see the raw material for wisdom and compassion, which we might say are the two defining qualities of Buddha Nature. Awareness, when suitably refined, can become wisdom - a deep knowing of what's going on which sees clearly and without delusion; and responsiveness, when purified of self-centred motivation and oriented toward the universal good, can manifest as compassion. We can see both of these qualities, in embryonic form, even in an amoeba - how much more so in ourselves?
Moment by moment, every living thing is doing its very best to sense what's going on around it and act accordingly, in a way which improves the situation. In fact, viewed that way, it doesn't even seem like so much of a stretch to acknowledge what mystics have been saying for thousands of years - that we live in the best of all possible worlds, a world which is the product of everything that exists trying its hardest to make this the best it can be.
Wait a second - this is the best of all possible worlds? Are you being serious right now?
I know this is a lot to swallow. Honestly, if it's true, in some ways it's a bit upsetting that the best we can collectively do is to create a world of injustice, war, plague, famine, climate change and all the rest of it. Bad things happen every single day, and I'm not trying to airbrush any of that away, or to say that we shouldn't work to address our collective problems but instead just throw in the towel and say 'Well, this is as good as it gets.' I'm sure we could do better in the future if we put our minds to it.
But rather than simply throwing out the ideas above because the supposedly 'best possible' reality is pretty awful at times, I'm going to suggest that it's worth looking a bit more closely at how the bad stuff comes into the world. And - unless you have developed the siddhis to the point that you can know the minds of others - it's probably easiest for us to start by examining our own less-than-spotless actions. (Believe it or not, I do have some myself. One or two.)
When I look at my own experience of life, it's clear that my mind/body system has the capacity to learn from experience. Things happen, and I remember at least some of them; when something really bad happens, it leaves a strong memory with a big flashing neon sign saying 'Don't do that again!' - especially when the memory is laid down early in life, when we're at our most impressionable. In my own case, I wasn't a particularly socially astute child, and made a lot of mistakes which caused others to make fun of me - and so my system learnt that, basically, 'people are scary'. In adult life, this manifests as a mild social anxiety, a dislike of large groups, and a kind of clumsiness when dealing with unfamiliar people. On a pretty primal level, something in me doesn't want to take the risk of getting hurt again, and so tries to steer me away from the kinds of situations where I used to get hurt a lot as a kid. Now, unfortunately the experience of the anxiety is actually pretty unpleasant for me, and it has negative consequences for my life as well, making it harder to meet new people and establish friendships. But it's still coming from a basically good place - from the desire to protect myself from what seems like the worse emotional pain that would result from yet another unsuccessful social encounter.
Another part of the developmental process also contributes to the twisting of our basically good nature into something less desirable. When we're born, we're totally dependent on others for support. It takes time to learn how to function independently, and part of that process is learning to focus our attention on this particular mind and body, separating it out from the rest of the world at large. That sense of separation comes to feel very strong and real, and as a result the needs of 'me' may become considerably more important than the needs of 'not me'. This isn't the case for everyone - if you grew up in a family situation where you always came last, you may feel the opposite, that everyone else is more important than you. But hopefully you get the broader point - that this journey toward independence sets up a situation where our initial impulse toward 'good' becomes strongly funnelled toward 'good for a particular person or group of people', rather than 'good for everyone'. Basically, we learn how to be selfish.
So what I see when I look at my worst moments is a situation where some kind of stress, pressure or pain had become so unbearable that something had to be done to try to escape the situation, and a kind of tunnel vision had developed in which my needs were all that mattered. In a situation like that, our actions can't help but be coming from a place of ignorance (because the tunnel vision cuts off the broader context of the needs of the people around us), and it's an easy setup for greed and/or hatred to be in the mix as well (to get the pleasant thing that we think will ease our pain, or to destroy the hated thing that we regard as the source of our pain).
Thus, injustice of all sorts - my group is much more important than your group, and so it's OK for my group to subjugate, exploit or kill yours, and so on.
Unclogging the hose pipe
I've done a couple of retreats at the beautiful Cloud Mountain retreat centre in the U.S., and one time I had a job which involved using a hose pipe to wash out the compost buckets each day. The trouble was, the retreat was in February, and it was incredibly cold, so most days the hose would be frozen solid when I came to take out the compost. I could turn on the tap as much as I liked, but no water came out. What I would have to do was work my way painstakingly along the length of the hose, flexing it back and forth in my hands to break up the ice into small pieces. This was a pretty painful process - it took a long time, and like I said it was really cold - but eventually I'd get to the point where the ice was broken up enough that I could turn on the tap, and little bits of ice would start to spit out of the end of the hose pipe. After a while, more and more ice would start to flood out of the hose, until finally the last of the ice would come rocketing out, and finally the water would flow freely.
Cultivating the seed of our Buddha Nature is a bit like unclogging that frozen hose pipe. The water is that pure, benevolent impulse at the very heart of life - and the ice is all of those twisted, frozen coping mechanisms and self-centred habits that we've learnt over the course of our lives, so tightly packed into the hose that the water doesn't seem to flow at all at first. But as we practise, we begin to break up the ice, and little by little, drip by drip, the water starts to make its way out of the hose. That process of purification can be pretty uncomfortable at times, but as the hose gets more and more cleared out, the water can flow more and more freely.
In actual practice, we find a couple of things starting to happen. One is a gradual 'broadening' of our awareness - we become more sensitive to the big picture, more aware of what's going on in the whole present moment rather than just the bits that affect us most. And, over time, we confront and release our defence mechanisms - as we sit with difficult emotions and memories, allowing them to be fully experienced without either suppressing them or allowing ourselves to be overwhelmed by reactivity, they gradually work themselves out and let go of their icy grip on our hearts. (In many cases, we find that those defence mechanisms were trying to protect us from something which may well have been totally overwhelming when we were children, but which we can now handle as adults, even if we still don't enjoy the feeling much.)
And so, little by little, the ice begins to melt, and our Buddha Nature can flow forth freely.
Matt teaches early Buddhist and Zen meditation practices for the benefit of all. May you be happy!