Sunday, March 11, 2012

Buddha Nature is not a THING

Buddha nature has been one of the most puzzling Buddhist teachings for me. Very often it and Tathagatagarbha literature sounds suspiciously like Atman/substantialist language. Words like "eternal," "pure," "unchanging," are all reminiscent of the Upanishadic soul principle--teachings that the Buddha repeatedly challenged.

Sallie B. King's Buddha Nature, the first full-length study dedicated entirely to this subject, does a lot to clarify this confusion. In this meticulous exploration of the Buddha Nature Treatise (not to be confused with the Uttaratantra Shastra /Ratnagotravibhāga Sutra), King sets out to prove through exhausting analysis that Buddha Nature is in fact consistent with Buddhist doctrine, e.g. anatman and sunyata. In my opinion, she was very successful. In fact, King does a very persuasive job of explaining how Tathagatagarbha and Buddha Nature thought represents an extension and completion of Prajnaparamita doctrine. For according to the Buddha Nature Treatise, Tathagatagarbha doctrine represents the highest Buddhist teachings--the Absolute, non-dual reality revealed only after one has experienced Emptiness. For instance, the BNT states, "Buddha nature is the Thusness revealed by the twin emptiness of person and things...If one does not speak of Buddha nature, then one does not understand emptiness" (787b). Viewed in this light, emptiness is a vehicle or upaya (skillful means) that leads to Thusness, the Dharmakaya, Dharmadhatu, or Buddha nature. I find this very interesting.

King also differentiates non-dualistic Buddha Nature from Brahmanic monism, as well as placing the development of Buddha Nature within an East Asian context. Buddha Nature doctrine appealed especially to the Chinese mind, already familiar with "this world"-oriented Taoism and Confucianism. My favorite observation of King's is when she compares Indian to Chinese Buddhism: the former, expressed in an apophatic Madhyamaka sense, is freedom from suffering; while the latter in a unique Chinese Mahayana sense, is more of a freedom to... We can see the immediate connection to Chan Masters with their emphasis on non-obstruction and spontaneous, uninhibited action. Very cool. That's what I love about earthy, gritty Zen/Chan/Seon.

Admittedly, Buddha Nature is not an easy read, but it's well worth the effort because it's a very important book. It contributes immensely not only to Western Buddhist scholarship, but to practitioners' understanding as well. Which is how it interests me, because in my mind understanding Buddha nature itself is necessary for any student of Mahayana Buddhism.

When I was given the chance to read and review the book, I leaped at the opportunity; and I'm glad that I did. Buddha Nature provides invaluable perspective and insight into this often thorny subject, and if you're at all like I was--confused and uncertain about how an Atman-sounding Buddha nature fits into the larger Buddhist context--then you'll benefit enormously from the book. Without a doubt, give it a read.

Thanks to Suny Press for allowing me to review this book.


  1. Do you know where one might find a translation of the actual Buddha-nature treatise? I also read Sallie King's book, but I would like to read the actual text.

  2. Unfortunately, I don't. I was hoping to find one too. I posted it on FB and Twitter, but didn't get any responses. I don't think one exists in book form; all I can find is the translation of the Uttara tantra Shastra. I did, however, find this blog where the author is translating the BNT one chapter at a time on his blog:

    Check it out.

    Also, a friend suggested "The Buddha Within" by S.K. Hookham. I'll be reading and writing a post about it soon.

    Thanks for visiting.