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Buddha nature and precious human life

Buddha nature and precious human life

A multi-part course based on Open Heart, Clear Mind given at Sravasti Abbey’s monthly Sharing the Dharma Day from April 2007 to December 2008. You can also study the book in depth through the Sravasti Abbey Friends Education (SAFE) online learning program.

Seeing our potential and the conducive circumstances we have to actualize it

  • Aspects of buddha nature
  • Facing our self-centered mind
  • How our human life is precious
  • Expanding our positive potential and transforming mental afflictions

Open Heart, Clear Mind 07: Buddha nature and precious human life (download)

Questions and answers

  • The continuity of the mindstream after death
  • Buddha nature versus atman
  • Whether déjà vu is from past lives

Open Heart, Clear Mind 07: Q&A (download)

We have a big topic for today. Kind of two topics: one is Buddha nature, the Buddha potential. The other is precious human life. They are both described in chapters in the book Open Heart, Clear Mind, which is a resource book for our Sharing the Dharma Day sessions. You can also catch up by reading those chapters.

Recognizing our potential

Both of these topics are designed to help us to really appreciate what we have going for us in our life, to really see our potential and the conducive circumstances we have for actualizing it.

Both of these topics are the antidotes to depression, to putting yourselves down, and feeling hopeless and worthless and all that fun stuff we like to get ourselves stuck in. Instead, they help us to see everything that we have going for us in our lives, so that we have a sense of enthusiasm and energy about the possibility that our life affords us.

I think a lot of times, and this is something we’d explore soon [inaudible] the discussion this afternoon.

Lacking purpose and meaning

I think, a lot of times, we feel emotionally low because we don’t have a sense of purpose in our life. The society and the American dream gives us one message of how we are supposed to use our lives and what the meaning is, which is basically to make money and to be nice to our friends and hate our enemies.

But that doesn’t really give you a good feeling about the purpose of your life. You make money but then when you die it all stays here. So what? The purpose of making it, of worrying so much about it. If we hold the purpose of our life to be being nice to our friends and hating our enemies, well, as one of my teachers pointed out, the animals do that.

I mean, yes, if you look at our cats inside [inaudible], your pet dogs at home. Your dogs love you if you’re their friend, which means you get them food. If you don’t do nice things, they bark. Human beings are kind of the same way. You’re nice to me and I wag my tail [laughter], I’m nice back, and you’re mean to me and I bark. I bark in words and say all sorts of nasty things. Dogs are at least a little bit more civilized about it.

Sometimes we don’t have a feeling of what is the long-lasting benefit and purpose of our lives. Where am I going? I’m running around busy all day, but for what? I think this is because of a lack of spiritual purpose and spiritual direction in our life.

Because of that underlying confusion and lack of spiritual content, a lot of people have spiritual anxiety and wind up in a state of spiritual angst that they then medicate with drugs and alcohol, or TV, internet and all this kind of stuff. We medicate our minds in a lot of ways.

Finding meaning in life

These Buddhist topics are pointing out that our life has some long-term and far-reaching meaning and benefit that can be enacted from that.

We just have to see that and see what we have going for us, so then that we can act upon it. A lot of times we have no idea of our potential.

Buddha nature

When we talk about Buddha nature, or Buddha potential, we’re talking about those aspects of us that can be transformed into the aspect of fully enlightened beings.

A fully enlightened being, a Buddha, is somebody who has eliminated all the mental afflictions such as ignorance, clinging, attachment, anger, pride, jealousy, laziness, rationalization, denial, justification, all this kind of stuff. Eliminated all those things that keeps us mentally oppressed.

A Buddha is also a fully awakened one and is someone who has taken the good qualities that are in our mind and enhanced them limitlessly. The ability to have equal heart of love, equal heart caring and concern for everybody. To have love and compassion, wisdom, generosity, ethical conduct, patience and so on. So many excellent abilities. A Buddha is somebody who has developed those to the fullest extent.

Limiting our own potential

So often, we hear about a Buddha, and we say, “Well, that’s very nice for other people, but I’m just little old me.” It’s like, “I can’t understand algebra very well, I just barely got by,” or “I can’t write very well,” “I mastered algebra but I can’t spell,” or “I don’t know how to do anything. I’m just little old me, semi-incapable here.”

We box ourselves in so much by this very narrow, limited conception of human potential. In theistic religions, you’re not allowed to think that you could become God or Allah, or whoever it is, because there is this irreparable gap between you and the higher spiritual figures.

Embracing our potential

Whereas in Buddhism, it’s basically a continuum. There isn’t this chasm between us, there’s just a continuum. In other words, all the beings who are fully enlightened now haven’t always been fully enlightened. They were once ordinary, confused people like us.

They had all these mental afflictions that we did, and all the neuroses we have and everything like that. But the thing is, that they practiced the path, and through practicing the path, then they purify their heart, mind, they develop the good qualities.

The continuum, the mental continuum, was then transformed into the mental continuum of a fully enlightened one. They started out where we were. They practiced and they became fully enlightened ones. There’s no reason why we can’t either. If we understand that potential and possibility, then it’s like, “Oh wow, I can do something new and meaningful with my lives.”

Countering wrong views

A Buddha, somebody who has purified all aspects, works continually for the benefit of all living beings. A Buddha has completely overcome any kind of selfish desire.

That seems kind of impossible for us, doesn’t it? Especially with the scientific view that we have now, that we are innately and inherently selfish. It’s survival of the fittest, and we just look out for ourselves and conquer everybody else, and destroy them and then we reign supreme. This started out as a scientific theory and it spread into all the different fields in our society.

I really think it’s quite erroneous and it’s very limited. If we grow up thinking, “Oh I’m inherently selfish,” then we never try to do anything about the selfishness. As a result, the selfishness torments us. Then, because we think that we are inherently selfish, we develop all sorts of philosophies advocating the benefits of selfishness.

I was telling people a few days ago, that there was a certain period in my life when I was reading a lot of Ayn Rand. I don’t know if you did that. I did that in ninth grade, and I became such a horror. [laughter] I cannot tell you how completely awful I became.

Reading that book was saying, be as selfish as you want, people who can’t keep up, “Eeehh! ahhh!” Just throw them out the window. Remember Atlas Shrugged. That was a big book. I am looking back now, “My goodness, what kind of mental state did I get into?” Thinking that all selfishness is good, and be as selfish as possible, and it’s going to benefit everybody, especially me of course. [laughter]

Survival of the cooperative

Coming in contact with His Holiness’ teachings, I brought this up yesterday, I see where His Holiness talks not so much about survival of the fittest, but survival of the most cooperative.

Especially with human beings, we have to cooperate if we’re going to sustain ourselves. So we do have the ability to cooperate, to be kind to each other, to overcome the self-centeredness that plagues our mind.

Following in their footsteps

Because those beings who are buddhas now, they started out just as self-centered as we are. There’s a technique and method to practicing the path, whereby we can shed all of these useless attitudes and emotions and instead cultivate the beneficial ones.

The reason this can be done is that all of the afflicted emotions and wrong views that we have are based on misperception, whereas the beneficial emotions and views and attitudes are based on perceiving reality as it is.

The opposing power of wisdom

It makes sense if anger, for example, is based on misperception. Then if we see the nature of things as they are, then all these layers of misperception and the mental afflictions can be completely decimated. They have no foundation to stand on.

Other emotions, like equal-hearted care and concern for everybody, and love and compassion, generosity, and so forth are not based on wrong perceptions, on wrong views. We can continue to cultivate them because there is no opposing power that can make them go out of existence.

There is the opposing power, the mind of wisdom, that can cut the ignorance and therefore completely eradicate the mental afflictions from our mindstream. We have that potential to do that.

I think it’s nice to have that view of ourselves and that view of others. Otherwise, we look at other people and we look at their faults, and we categorize them: “That one’s an idiot, that one’s a jerk, that one’s a nincompoop,” and we have all the names that we call everybody. The result of our whole investigation is that, “I’m the best one in the world.” Then of course we don’t like ourselves very much either, and so we just like, “Arrggh!” That worldview does not lead us anywhere productive.

Whereas if we develop a good view of others, saying, “Wow, they have the potential to become fully enlightened buddhas just like me.” “Okay, they are confused right now,” or “Okay, their mind might be overcome by anger right now or overcome by greed right now.” But those mental afflictions are not their basic nature. They can be removed from their mind, and still they have innate goodness and purity that can be developed.

That helps us so much that we can start looking at other living beings in that way. Then, there’s always a sense of hope and optimism in our life. We see that suffering is not a given, and there are antidotes to suffering and the mental afflictions that cause it.

Aspects of buddha nature

There are two aspects to buddha nature. One is called natural buddha nature. Another is sometimes translated as transforming buddha nature or evolving buddha nature. There might be other translations as well. But what do they mean?

When we talk about our natural buddha nature, we’re talking about—and we have a little bit of technical terminology here—the emptiness of inherent existence of our mind. The fact is that our mind or heart, people, everything in the world, does not have its own permanent inherent nature. Because our mindstream doesn’t have a permanent inherent nature, that means that the mind can change.

If we have some kind of permanent soul, if you call our mind a permanent fixed soul, some kind of essence of me-ness, then we could never change because something permanent doesn’t change, does it? Which would mean that we’re always stuck being the way we are. And actually we couldn’t even grow up from a baby to an adult if we were permanent. And we couldn’t change from one part to another if we were permanent and inherently existed.

There’s no fixed soul, or person, or essence of me-ness that limits and traps who we are or what our mind can become. That emptiness or that lack of inherent existence is just the nature of the mind. It’s not an added factor, it’s just the ultimate nature, the underlying mode of existence of our heart and mind. That means that everybody has it, and it also means that it can never be taken away.

We need to be careful here and not start thinking of this potential that we have to become a buddha, the emptiness of the mind—not start thinking of that as some kind of soul. We’ll talk about this in a few more minutes. I say this because we have the tendency to reify everything. Reify means to make it solid and fixed.

The natural buddha nature is this basic nature of the mind, the deeper mode of existence of the mind. The transforming buddha nature is all the aspects of us that can be developed and increased and transformed until they become the omniscient mind of the fully enlightened one.

Right now, we have the seeds of love. We have some love. Love is the wish for others to have happiness and its causes. We have love within us now. Our love is sometimes a little bit narrow because it focuses just on a few people. But because we have that seed of love in our mind, we can gradually extend the field of beings that we love, so that it goes beyond our own family and friends to strangers, to people who have harmed us, to all living beings who are in whatever part of the universe they reside in. We have that potential to expand that love.

The same way with compassion. Compassion is the wish for someone to be free of suffering and its causes. We have compassion now, but again it’s not limited to a few people, and we want to expand and we have the ability to expand it. Same with generosity. We have it, we can expand it. Same with ethical conduct, we have it, we can expand it. Same with patience and endurance. We have it, we want to expand. Same with joyous effort. Same with concentration. Same with wisdom. Same with all the good qualities that a fully enlightened being has.

We have those abilities within ourselves as seeds. And you see them come out in some way in our everyday life. But because our mind is all so covered with defilements, these abilities have not been able to be increased and transformed to the capabilities of a fully enlightened one.

Still they are what we call the transforming Buddha nature, because again these things cannot be removed from the mind. If we practice, we can make them evolve or transform or increase, so that they become the qualities of a fully enlightened being.

Transforming our own mind

The thing is for us to learn how to practice and develop these abilities and then to actually sit down and do it. In Buddhism, we have to be responsible for ourselves. It’s true that we make prayers and requests to the buddhas and bodhisattvas, but we have to to do the work.

There’s this thing that we learned as kids, that you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. The horse has to drink by itself. In the same way, the buddhas and bodhisattvas guide us, but we’re the ones who have to learn and practice. Nobody else can do it.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama emphasizes this a lot. You can’t just sit there and pray “Oh, Buddha Buddha Buddha, help me to generate love and compassion, help me to become free of arrogance and pride. Buddha Buddha Buddha, you do it!” Meanwhile, we go and have tea, surf the internet, wait for the Buddha to do what Buddha supposed to do. That’s not going to work. We have to exert the energy. If we exert it, because cause and effect work, then results will come.

The sky analogy

There’s one analogy that’s very helpful in thinking of our buddha nature, and this is the analogy of the sky and clouds. Today is a very good example. There are lots of clouds here. Has the sky gone out of existence? No, the sky still exists. We just can’t see it because the clouds are covering it. Is there anything that can make the sky go out of existence? No, the sky is just empty space, nothing can cancel it out. So the sky, the luminous wide spacious sky, is always there. But when the clouds are here, we can’t see it.

In a similar way, if we take the natural buddha nature as being like the wide open spacious sky, and then all of our ignorance, anger and attachment, resentment and grudges and all of our mental rubbish, they become like the clouds covering the pure buddha nature.

Some days, we may feel very confused or our mind might be under the influence of afflictions. But that’s not the nature of our mind. That’s not, when we get down to it, all that there is in the mind. It’s like the clouds, it just obscures the nature of the mind temporarily. They’re called adventitious afflictions. Because when we apply the antidotes of wisdom and so forth, these afflictions can be chased away. They are eradicated, and the pure nature of the mind remains.

I think that’s a very helpful analogy so that we can get a sense that we have some kind of basic goodness or basic purity in there that cannot be removed. We all go through ups and downs in life, times when our minds are overwhelmed by something, then we can just say, “Oh, these are like clouds in the mind. They are not the essence of who I am. They’re just temporary clouds.” All this sadness or all this grief or this anger—whatever it is—is just temporary in the mind and it can be completely eliminated.

Hope and meaning

That’s the whole topic of buddha nature. When we think about it, it gives us a lot of energy in our lives. It gives us some sense of hope, and where we can go. We don’t have to be limited by all the conditioning that we’ve received in our life. We don’t have to be limited by even the mental afflictions that have come with us from previous lives. All these things can be eliminated.

Knowing that, we get a vision of becoming something meaningful. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could have love and compassion for every living being equally? Not partial love and compassion. Not being like the dogs who have love and compassion for the ones who they like and not for everybody else. But really fulfill our human potential, and have love and compassion for everybody. Even people we don’t like, even people we disagree with, even people who harm us.

Because when we see them, we’re seeing that they have that buddha potential and that they aren’t just who they appear to be to our misconception mind right now. They also have pure nature and so do we. That gives us the ability to look beyond and to have a view of what we can become that is really very meaningful. Imagine what we could do if we had infinite love and compassion for everybody. Not only that, but if we had wisdom to know how to help, and skillful means to know what to do. If we weren’t hampered by our self-centeredness because we have the compassion, then we can do so much, couldn’t we?

Precious human life

We have this buddha nature, this buddha potential. We also have a precious human life, which means that we have the ability right now to actualize this precious buddha nature and this precious potential. We have the ability with the various conditions we have in this very life to cleanse our mind, to develop our good qualities, to transform into a fully enlightened being.

We may take our life very much for granted. We just kind of wake up in the morning, “Okay, it’s just me sitting here. What else is new? Planet Earth, big deal.” But if we began to have a bigger mind that understood what cyclic existence was about, or what the universe was really about, we would understand that there’s a lot of different life forms in this universe, not just planet Earth. A lot of different life forms.

Most of the beings who abide in these different realms or different life forms do not have the same ability to open up their buddha nature that we do. Take our kitties, they’re sweet and adorable and cuddly. One of the causes for actualizing our buddha potential is keeping good ethical conduct.

We talk to our cats a lot about not killing mice and not chasing chipmunks. Just a few days ago, someone was going out the back door and a mouse, a foolish mouse, was standing right at the back door and the cat was standing on the other side of the door and went “zip!” and as for as many times as we have told the cat not to kill living beings and that the mice really don’t want to be bit and chewed on. Just like he doesn’t want to be bit and chewed on. He doesn’t have the capacity to understand.

Instead, when we try to keep him from chasing a mouse, he thinks we’re being mean and he hisses at us. When he gets his mouse, and we take it away, then he’s even madder. So you can see, here he is, very close to hearing the Dharma teachings but can’t understand even the first precept about not to kill. [laughter]

When you look at it that way, hey, we’re born as human beings. At least we can understand when somebody explains to us why not to kill. We can understand the words. We can understand the reason behind the meaning that those words are conveying. The cats can’t. There are lots of different life forms.

On this one piece of land we have 240 acres. Think of how many different living creatures there are. We have our moose that comes by, and some deer, and sometimes raccoons and skunks. Those are the big ones. How many stink bugs? You’ll see them all on the house all come out this season. Lots of stink bugs. How many ants? Oh, my goodness. You should see it in the spring and summer, I don’t know if you live in the countryside. So many ants, and bees, and wasps.

If you just count numerically, or even if you take the area around the house, not even all 240 acres. Actually, if you have a democracy, the house belongs to the insects. [laughter] And they are very kind to let us human beings live there. Compared to them, we’re not very many.

You think, here are all these living beings. They have minds, they have the buddha potential. But they don’t have the circumstances to actualize the buddha potential, because they don’t have a human body with a human brain that gives us the human intelligence, and the ability to understand language and communicate meanings and think about them.

Our kitties think, but they mostly think about food. They think about food and finding a nice comfortable place to go to sleep. They don’t have the ability that we human beings do. This is a special thing about being a human being we should cherish and not take for granted, just having human intelligence.

Spiritual yearning

Also, we have some kind of spiritual yearning and spiritual inclination and we’re taking steps to act on it. I think that’s a part of ourselves that is very special, that we really need to respect in ourselves—the spiritual aspect.

I know, in general, American society does not encourage that. But if we have it, we should respect and value that part of ourselves and really let it out and act on it. That’s the thing that’s going to enable us to search out teachers, and teachings, and a system of practice, to go ahead and practice and do things. It’s that spiritual interest.

We shouldn’t assume that everybody has [inaudible] in equal ways or in equal levels. I go sometimes to Bodh Gaya, which is a place in India that, in the Buddhist world, is held to be the most sacred, where the Buddha sat down and meditated and attained full enlightenment. There are lots of people who come there to meditate and offer aspirations, and they all have that spiritual yearning. Yet at the same time, there are all these people who come to Bodh Gaya to do business. Because you can make good business when there are all these spiritual pilgrims there. You can sell pictures of the Buddha, you can sell bodhi leaves, you can have a hotel, you can sell tea.

There are so many people there that come just for the tourist business. And here they are in one of the most sacred special places on the entire planet, but they never think about the Buddha, except to sell an image of him. They never think, “Oh, what qualities does the Buddha have? Do I have those qualities? Where’s my spiritual heart? What can I do with it?” They don’t think like that.

The fact that we do, that we have that spiritual yearning, it’s not something that we should get arrogant and conceited about and look down on others. That’s not suitable to do. It’s something in ourselves that we should really appreciate and respect and not just take for granted, but really put some energy into nourishing it.

Access to teachings

We also live at a historical time where the Buddha has manifested on our Earth where he gave the teachings, where those teachings still exist. Where we have the ability to contact teachers, and read books, and practice together and meet the monastic community. Not everybody on this planet has that ability. You think of the countries without religious freedom. There was a time in Tibet that if your lips were moving while saying a mantra, they would arrest you and throw you in prison.

One of my friends, Alex Berzin, he’s going to be teaching on November 8th at NIC, anyway, Alex, many years ago, before the fall of the communist countries he used to go to some of them to teach. He told me one time, I think it was in Czechoslovakia, when they wanted to have teachings, they had to have it at somebody’s flat, somebody’s apartment. You couldn’t rent a place, because you weren’t allowed to have spiritual events. There was no religious freedom. Everybody had to come at different times, you couldn’t all come at 10 o’clock, otherwise you attract too much attention.

The flat was very small, it had just one room, like a front room and then one back room. In the front room, they had a table and they set it all up as if they were playing cards. They had drinks set around the table, and snacks, and everybody had their dealt hands around there. They left that in the front room and then they went into the back room to have the teachings. In case they heard people, like if the police were to come up and knock on the door, they could very easily rush in, sit around the table with cards and be playing cards when the police came.

Imagine having to go through that in order to even hear a teaching like what we’re hearing today. You didn’t have to go through that. You just got into a car, drove up here, very comfortable. No fear, no nothing.

While we have this religious freedom, we should really cherish it, not let it be taken away from us, and take full advantage of it because it’s very, very precious. Can you imagine trying to learn anything about the Dharma when you can’t even meet together? And when you do meet somebody, you’re afraid of getting arrested and beaten. That’s really rather scary, isn’t it? These kinds of opportunities that we have, we shouldn’t take for granted, but we should really, really use.

There’s a whole meditation on precious human life detailing all of these. I didn’t speak about all of them now, but you can learn about them later. It really makes us appreciate who we are.

Intact faculties

I think the fact that we have all of our faculties intact is a great blessing. There are many people on the planet whose faculties are not intact and it makes a big hindrance for meeting the Dharma. I remember one time, many years ago, I went to Denmark to teach. One of the people who invited me, she worked in a home for, I don’t know what the politically correct word is.

Audience: Disabled adults?

Venerable Thubten Chodron (VTC): This was children, so mentally disabled children.

Anyway, Denmark’s quite a rich country, and I said I want to go. I want to meet the kids, and so she took me to the place she worked. I remember walking into this room and there was a huge big room with all these colorful toys, and it was like a kid’s dream, just colorful toys and different things.

I was just struck by the color, the vibrancy of color when I first walked in. I was looking for children and I started hearing these kinds of groans, “urrrggghhh”, these very strange sounds. I’m looking for kids and then I realize that amongst all these colorful toys, they were lying, these disabled kids. Some of them were lying on little boards with wheels to kind of paddle themselves along. Some of them couldn’t even move to that extent. They were lying, quite large kids, big kids, in kind of cribs.

It was so sad seeing this, because here they have all this incredible wealth but because of karma, they didn’t have the faculties to be able to use language and to hear and understand and to move. It really made me appreciate just the kind of fortune that I have to have the faculties intact. Because very easily, I could have been born like that. Again it’s nothing to get arrogant about, and dismiss other beings about. It’s to say, “Wow, I’m just incredibly lucky and fortunate, and I should make use of this fortune, and really do something meaningful with my life since I have this buddha nature, this potential, and this ability to become a fully enlightened being.”

Realizing our fortune

When we think about all these different aspects of our present, precious human life, then we come to see how much we have going for us. What that does is cancel out the mind that likes to bellyache. Because we always like to bellyache. “Ah, everybody else has it better than me, I’m deficient in this area.” “Poor me, nobody loves me.” “Poor me, my eyes are bad,” or “Poor me, this that and the other thing.”

We can sit and get stuck in the glass is half empty mentality and just complain and make ourselves very depressed. To some extent, our consumer culture emphasizes that, and the pharmaceutical companies too. The people who make gin and bourbon teach us to hate ourselves. We all go out and buy things trying to make it better. But if we really look, we have so much going for us in our lives.

So we should have some self-confidence and some self-respect for not only our buddha nature, but also the fact that we have this spiritual interest and ability to meet the teachings. The capacity to understand and practice. In that way, we won’t waste our time on the few small things that we would like to be improved, but really make use of all the good things we have going for us.

So that is precious human life and buddha nature [laughter] in 45 minutes.

Venerable Thubten Chodron

Venerable Chodron emphasizes the practical application of Buddha’s teachings in our daily lives and is especially skilled at explaining them in ways easily understood and practiced by Westerners. She is well known for her warm, humorous, and lucid teachings. She was ordained as a Buddhist nun in 1977 by Kyabje Ling Rinpoche in Dharamsala, India, and in 1986 she received bhikshuni (full) ordination in Taiwan. Read her full bio.