Our inborn goodness
We’ve seen that our situation is one of constantly recurring problems. We’ve also determined its causes: ignorance, the disturbing attitudes it gives rise to and the ractions motivated by these disturbing attitudes. Now we may wonder, “Can people who are confused, attached and angry ever attain Buddhahood? Is there a way out of cyclic existence? If so, what is it?”
Yes, it is possible to free ourselves from this cycle of constantly recurring problems. We can attain a state of lasting peace and joy, in which we’re able to utilize all our good qualities for the benefit of others. This is possible because we have within us the Buddha nature, our indestructible goodness. In addition, we have precious human lives which give us the opportunity to actualize our Buddha nature. These are the topics of the next two chapters.
Have you ever stood on a mountain and looked at a completely clear and empty sky? The feeling of space, calm and clarity is awesome and inspiring. But when we peer up at the sky from the middle of a city, our view is limited by the highrises around us, and we can’t see the sky because the clouds and pollution obscure it. From the point of view of the sky, nothing has changed. The sky is still pure, empty and filled with light. However, we aren’t able to see it; our outlook is narrow and the sky is obscured by the clouds and smog.
The nature of our minds is similar. Ultimately, it’s pure and defiled. The clouds that prevent us from seeing this real nature of our minds are the disturbing attitudes like attachment, anger and ignorance, as well as the imprints of the actions done under their influence.
The sky and the clouds aren’t the same entity. They aren’t inseparably united. The clouds and pollution are temporary obscurations which can be dispelled, revealing the clear, empty sky. Similarly, our disturbing attitudes and the imprints of the actions created by them are not the ultimate nature of our minds. They can be purified and removed forever, letting us perceive and be unified with our own spacious nature.
How do we know the disturbing attitudes and imprints of actions are not the nature of our minds? If anger, for example, were the nature of our minds, we would always be angry. But that is not the case: our anger comes and goes. The karmic imprints are also not the nature of our minds because they can be purified and removed.
Is it possible to eliminate our anger forever? Yes, it is, because anger is a false mind, an attitude based on a misconception. Anger is generated when we project negative qualities onto people and things. We misinterpret situations so they appear harmful to us. Absorbed in our own projections, we mistake them for the qualities of other people and get angry at what we ourselves have superimposed on them. The tragedy is that we’re not aware of this process, and mistakenly believe the rude, insensitive person we’re perceiving really exists out there.
Through the development of wisdom, we’ll come to recognize that an external enemy is an exaggerated projection of our own mistaken minds. At this time, our anger will automatically vanish, for wisdom and ignorant anger can’t be manifest at the same time. Through constantly developing our wisdom we can totally eliminate our anger.
Disturbing attitudes such as anger, jealousy and conceit are based on the faulty foundation of wrong projections and thus can be eliminated. Positive qualities such as love and compassion have a valid basis, because they recognize the good qualities all other beings have. Thus, such attitudes can never be extricated from our mindstreams. Rather, they can be developed limitlessly.
Each being has the possibility to become a Buddha because each of us has two kinds of Buddha potential. One is the ultimate nature of our minds, the way in which our minds exist. This phenomenon is a negation, an absence or lack of our minds existing in fantasized ways. The other is an affirmative phenomenon. It is the conventional nature of our minds, the qualities of our minds.
The ultimate nature of our minds is called the natural Buddha potential. It’s like pure and vast empty space. That is, our ultimate nature is empty of all fantasized ways of existence. It’s empty of all false projections of being unchanging or independent. Our minds are free from inherent existence. This will be explained in the chapter on wisdom.
The ultimate nature of our minds is untainted by the disturbing attitudes. It’s without beginning or end. Nothing can destroy it. No one can take it away from us. This empty nature of our minds is our birthright. Knowing this, we’ll have self-confidence, for we can become Buddhas.
At the moment our natural Buddha nature is obscured by the disturbing attitudes. As we clear them away through practicing the path, our Buddha nature will become more apparent to us.
The second type of Buddha potential is the evolving Buddha potential. This includes both the conventional nature of our minds-their clarity and awareness-and the positive mental states such as compassion.
The mind is a formless entity, not composed of atoms or material substance. It’s clear in that it illuminates or makes objects clear. It’s aware because it has the ability to cognize or perceive objects.
Both anger and compassion are states of mind and thus are clear and aware. This nature of clarity and awareness is one of our evolving Buddha potentials. However, anger itself isn’t part of our Buddha potential because it’s based on false conceptions that can be eliminated.
Compassion, on the other hand, isn’t based on false projections and thus can be developed infinitely. Similarly, the other mental states that perceive things accurately-love, patience, confidence, non-attachment, consideration for others, joyous effort and so on - can be increased limitlessly. These good qualities, existing in us at this present moment, will evolve as we follow the path. At the end of the path, they’ll transform into the minds of the Buddhas that we’ll become. For this reason, they’re also called the evolving Buddha nature.
The great Indian logician and sage, Dharmakirti, said:
The nature of the mind is clear light.
The obscurations are temporary.
Dharmakirti is reaffirming our possibility to become Buddhas by asserting that the nature of our minds is clear light. This has two meanings, corresponding to the two types of Buddha potential. First, our minds are clear light in that they are empty of all fantasized ways of existence. When our wisdom directly perceives this clear light, the emptiness of inherent existence, then we’re capable of totally eliminating our disturbing attitudes from their root.
Second, our minds are clear light because their nature of clarity and awareness is always there. Our disturbing attitudes and karmic imprints aren’t mixed with this clear and cognizing nature of our minds. In other words, we aren’t our anger; we aren’t our bad qualities. These are obscurations that can be removed.
The topic of Buddha nature is a profound one, so we may not understand it well at the beginning. But we can get a sense of our inner potential and inner beauty, our Buddha nature which is temporarily obscured by the clouds of anger, attachment and other disturbing attitudes. As we start removing the clouds, the meaning of our two Buddha natures will become clearer. The Hevajra Tantra says:
Sentient beings are just Buddhas
But they are obscured by temporary stains.
When those are removed, they are Buddhas.
The first line doesn’t mean we are already Buddhas, for then we would be ignorant Buddhas! It means we have the two types of Buddha nature. When we clear away the obscuratiorns from our mindstreams, the continuation of our present minds transforms into the minds of the Buddhas we will become.
Thus, Buddhism takes a very positive and optimistic view of life and of human nature. Each of us has within us the seeds of perfection, the natural and evolving Buddha potentials, and these seeds can be neither stolen or destroyed. There is no reason for us to ever feel hopeless and helpless. Because our Buddha potential is inseparably within us, there is always a basis for self-confidence and positive aspiration.
At the moment, our Buddha potential is dormant within us, covered by the clouds of our disturbing attitudes and karmic imprints. Sometimes our Buddha potential is compared to honey surrounded by angry bees, or pure gold wrapped in impurities. The bees and the impurities, just like our disturbing attitudes and the imprints of actions, are temporary obscurations.
How do we remove them? By following the path described by the Buddha: cultivating wisdom and compassion. The wisdom realizing emptiness enables us to perceive our natural Buddha potential, which is empty of fantasized ways of existence. Compassion is a realistic attitude wishing everyone to be free from all unsatisfactory and miserable conditions. Determining to be free from our constantly recurring problems is the first step of the path. It sets the stage for developing our compassion and wisdom, thus allowing our Buddha potential to blossom. We can learn the techniques to purify and develop our minds by studying the teachings of the Buddha.