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When you are living in darkness, why don’t you look for the light?
—The Dhammapada, translated by Eknath Easwaran
In order to explain this more clearly I have to cheat a little bit, bringing up a subject that the Buddha never explicitly mentioned in his teachings of the first turning of the wheel. But as a number of my teachers have admitted, this subject is implied in the first and second turnings.
It isn’t as if he was holding back on some great revelation that would only be passed on to the best and brightest of his students. Rather, like a responsible teacher, he focused first of all on teaching basic principles before moving on to more advanced subjects. Ask any elementary school teacher about the practicality of teaching calculus to children who haven’t yet mastered the basics of addition, subtraction, division, or multiplication.
The subject is buddhanature—which doesn’t refer to the behavior or attitude of someone who walks around in colored robes, begging for food! Buddha is a Sanskrit term that might be roughly translated as “one who is awake.” As a formal title, it usually refers to Gautama Siddhartha, the young man who achieved enlightenment twenty-five hundred years ago in Bodhgaya.
Buddhanature, however, is not a formal title. It’s not a characteristic exclusive to the historical Buddha or to Buddhist practitioners. It’s not something created or imagined. It’s the heart or essence inherent in all living beings: an unlimited potential to do, see, hear, or experience anything. Because of buddhanature we can learn, we can grow, we can change. We can become buddhas in our own right.
Buddhanature can’t be described in terms of relative concepts. It has to be experienced directly, and direct experience is impossible to define in words. Imagine looking at a place so vast that it surpasses our ability to describe it—the Grand Canyon, for example. You could say that it’s big, that the stone walls on either side are sort of red, and that the air is dry and smells faintly like cedar. But no matter how well you describe it, your description can’t really encompass the experience of being in the presence of something so vast. Or you could try describing the view from the observatory of the Taipei 101, one of the world’s tallest buildings, hailed as one of the “seven wonders of the modern world.” You could talk about the panorama, the way the cars and people below look like ants, or your own breathlessness at standing so high above the ground. But it still wouldn’t communicate the depth and breadth of your experience.
Though buddhanature defies description, the Buddha did provide some clues in the way of signposts or maps that can help direct us toward that supremely inexpressible experience. One of the ways in which he described it was in terms of three qualities: boundless wisdom, which is the capacity to know anything and everything—past, present, and future; infinite capability, which consists of an unlimited power to raise ourselves and other beings from any condition of suffering; and immeasurable loving-kindness and compassion, a limitless sense of relatedness to all creatures, an open-heartedness toward others that serves as a motivation to create the conditions that enable all beings to flourish.
Undoubtedly, there are many people who fervently believe in the Buddha’s description and the possibility that, through study and practice, they can realize a direct experience of unlimited wisdom, capability, and compassion. There are probably many others who think it’s just a bunch of nonsense.
Oddly enough, in many of the sutras, the Buddha seems to have enjoyed engaging in conversation with the people who doubted what he had to say. He was, after all, only one of many teachers traveling across India in the fourth century B.C.E.—a situation similar to the one in which we find ourselves at present, in which radio, TV channels, and the Internet are flooded by teachers and teachings of various persuasions. Unlike many of his contemporaries, however, the Buddha didn’t try to convince people that the method through which he found release from suffering was the only true method. A common theme running through many of the sutras could be summarized in modern terms as, “This is just what I did and this is what I recognized. Don’t believe anything I say because I say so. Try it out for yourselves.”
He didn’t actively discourage people from considering what he’d learned and how he learned it. Rather, in his teachings on buddhanature, he presented his listeners with a kind of thought experiment, inviting them to discover within their own experience the ways in which aspects of buddhanature emerge from time to time in our daily lives. He presented this experiment in terms of an analogy of a house in which a lamp has been lit and the shades or shutters have been drawn. The house represents the seemingly solid perspective of physical, mental, and emotional conditioning. The lamp represents our buddhanature. No matter how tightly the shades and shutters are drawn, inevitably a bit of the light from inside the house shines through.