Also see: Dalai Lama on Anatta and Emptiness of Buddha Nature in New Book

While discussing with Yin Ling just now I re-read a passage in Dalai Lama's book. Pretty good so wanted to share.


Dzogchen and Mahāmudrā

According to Sūtra, meditation on the clear and cognizant nature of the mind or on the transforming buddha nature alone will not eradicate afflictions. However, it does lead us to have more confidence that afflictions are not an inherent part of the mind and therefore that becoming a buddha is possible. This, in turn, leads us to question: What defiles the mind and what can eliminate these defilements completely? Seeking the method to purify the transforming buddha nature, we will cultivate the wisdom realizing the emptiness of inherent existence and eradicate ignorance.

According to Dzogchen and Mahāmudrā, meditation on the clear and cognizant nature of the mind could lead the coarse winds to dissolve and the subtlest clear light mind to become manifest. When this happens, practitioners who have previously cultivated a correct understanding of emptiness then incorporate that understanding in their meditation and use the innate clear light mind to realize emptiness and abolish afflictions.

It is important to understand the Sublime Continuum correctly from a Dzogchen and Mahāmudrā point of view. Some people take it literally, leading them to incorrectly believe that primordial wisdom is permanent, inherently existent, independent of any other factors, and does not rely on causes and conditions. They then make statements such as, “If you unravel this secret, you will be liberated.”
Dodrup Jigme Tenpai Nyima (1865–1926) and his disciple Tsultrim Zangpo (1884–c.1957), who were great Dzogchen scholars and practitioners, said that the mere presence of this primordial wisdom within us alone cannot liberate us. Why not? At the time of death, all other minds have dissolved, and only the primordial mind remains. Even though it has manifested in all the infinite number of deaths we have experienced in saṃsāra, that has not helped us attain buddhahood. These two sages say that in order to attain buddhahood, it is necessary to utilize the primordial wisdom to realize emptiness; only that will liberate us. This is consistent with Tsongkhapa’s view.

Some commentaries on Dzogchen and Mahāmudrā say: This wisdom that abides in the afflictions is the true wisdom, and on this basis every sentient being is already a buddha. Although we have been buddhas from beginningless time, we have to be awakened again. The wisdom that we have now is the omniscient mind of a buddha, and the three bodies of a buddha exist innately in each sentient being. Sentient beings have a basis of essential purity that is not merely emptiness but is endowed with three aspects. Its entity is the dharmakāya — the mode of abiding of pristine wisdom; its nature is the enjoyment body — the appearance aspect of that mind; and compassion is the emanation bodies — its radiance or expression. In short, they say that all three buddha bodies are present, fully formed in our ordinary state, but since they are obscured we are not aware of their presence.

Such statements taken literally are fraught with problems. While some people are partial and unfair in their criticism and refute misconceptions in only some traditions, Changkya Rolpai Dorje (1717–86) was unbiased and pointed out incorrect interpretations in all four Tibetan traditions, including his own Geluk tradition. In his Song of the Experience of the View, he says, “I say this not out of disrespect to these masters, but perhaps they have had less exposure to rigorous philosophical investigation of the great treatises and were unable to use certain terminology appropriately.” That is, the difficulty in their assertions lies in a broad use of terminology that is not grounded in the authority of the great treatises. Of course, Changkya’s comments do not apply to Dzogchen and Mahāmudrā masters such as Dodrup Jigme Tenpai Nyima and his teacher Awa Pangchu, who have done serious philosophical study and examination of the great treatises and who ground their understanding of Dzogchen in them. Their interpretations and writings are excellent.

All four Tibetan traditions teach practices that search for the mind — where it came from, where it goes, what its shape and color are, and so forth. Speaking of this shared practice, Changkya said that after searching in this manner, we find that the mind is not tangible, lacks color and shape, and does not come from one place or go to another. Discovering this, meditators experience a sensation of voidness. However, this voidness is not the emptiness of inherent existence that is the ultimate reality of the mind; it is the mere absence of the mind being a tangible object. Although someone may think this voidness is ultimate reality and meditate in that state for a long time, this is not meditation on the ultimate nature of the mind. There are two ways to meditate on the mind. The first is as above, examining whether the mind has color, shape, location, tangibility, and so forth. This leads to the sense that the conventional nature of the mind lacks these qualities. The second is meditation on the ultimate nature of the mind, in which we examine the mind’s ultimate mode of existence and discover its emptiness of inherent existence. People who confuse these two ways of meditating on the mind and think that the mind’s absence of tangibility, color, and so forth is the mind’s ultimate nature may criticize masters such as Dignāga and Dharmakīrti for their precise expositions on debate, logic, and reasoning, saying these only increase preconceptions. Gungtang Konchog Tenpai Dronme (1762–1823), another master who was impartial in his critical analysis of Tibetan Buddhist traditions, said he found this amazing.

Some people believe there is no need for reasoning or investigation on the path, that simply by having faith and receiving the blessing of a guru primordial wisdom will arise. In this light, I have been very happy to see the establishment of more shedras — academic institutes — that teach the classical philosophical texts from India and Tibet.

Some Westerners similarly do not value Dharma study and investigation, perhaps because Buddhadharma is relatively new in the West. Without a comprehensive understanding of the Buddhadharma, people tend to seek the easiest and shortest path to awakening, a path that does not require giving up their attachments. Such an attitude exists among Tibetans as well. Tsongkhapa said that many people think that the Buddha’s qualities are wonderful, but when a spiritual mentor explains through reasoning and scriptural citations how to attain them, they become discouraged and say, “Who can actually achieve such realizations?”

Are We Already Buddhas?

In the Tathāgatagarbha Sūtra, the Buddha explained that each sentient being possesses a permanent, stable, stable, and enduring tathāgatagarbha that is a fully developed buddha body (kāya) replete with the thirty-two signs of a buddha. Questions arise: If an already realized buddha existed within us, wouldn’t we be ignorant buddhas? If we were actual buddhas now, what would be the purpose of practicing the path? If we were already buddhas and yet still needed to purify defilements, wouldn’t a buddha have defilements? If we had a permanent, stable, and enduring essence, wouldn’t that contradict the teachings on selflessness and instead resemble the self or soul asserted by non-Buddhists? Mahāmati expressed these same doubts to the Buddha in the Descent into Lanka Sūtra:
The tathāgatagarbha taught [by the Buddha in some sūtras] is said to be clear light in nature, completely pure from the beginning, and to exist possessing the thirty-two signs in the bodies of all sentient beings. If, like a precious gem wrapped in a dirty cloth, [the Buddha] expressed that [tathāgatagarbha] — wrapped in and dirtied by the cloth of the aggregates, constituents, and sources; overwhelmed by the force of attachment, animosity, and ignorance; dirtied with the defilements of conceptualizations; and permanent, stable, and enduring — how is this propounded as tathāgatagarbha different from the non-Buddhists propounding a self?88

Some Tibetan scholars accept the teaching on a permanent, stable, and enduring buddha nature literally, saying it is a definitive teaching. Sharing the doubts expressed above by Mahāmati, Prāsaṅgikas say this is an interpretable teaching. They say this, not on a whim, but by examining three points.

(1) What was the Buddha’s final intended meaning when he made this statement? When speaking of a permanent, stable, and enduring essence in each sentient being, the Buddha’s intended meaning was the emptiness of the mind, the naturally abiding buddha nature, which is permanent, stable, and enduring. Because the mind is empty of inherent existence and the defilements are adventitious, buddhahood is possible.

(2) What was the Buddha’s purpose for teaching this? The Buddha taught a permanent, stable, enduring essence complete with the thirty-two signs, in order to calm some people’s fear of selflessness and to gradually lead non-Buddhists to the full realization of suchness. At present, these people, who are spiritually immature, feel comfortable with the idea of a permanent essence. The idea of the emptiness of inherent existence frightens them; they mistakenly think it means that nothing whatsoever exists. They fear that by realizing emptiness, they will disappear and cease to exist. To calm this fear, the Buddha spoke in a way that corresponds with their current ideas. Later, when they are more receptive, he will teach them the actual meaning. This is similar to the way skillful parents simplify complex ideas to make them comprehensible to young children.

(3) What logical inconsistencies arise from taking this statement literally? Accepting this teaching on a permanent, stable, and enduring buddha nature at face value contradicts the definitive meaning of emptiness and selflessness explained by the Buddha in the Perfection of Wisdom sūtras. In those sūtras, the Buddha set forth many reasonings that refute this view. Furthermore, if this statement were accepted literally, the Buddha’s teachings would be no different from those of non-Buddhists who assert a permanent self.

The emptiness of inherent existence — which is the ultimate reality and the natural purity of the mind — exists in all sentient beings without distinction. Based on this, it is said that a buddha is present. But the ultimate reality of a buddha does not exist in sentient beings. While buddhas and sentient beings are the same in that the ultimate nature of their minds is emptiness, that ultimate reality is not the same because one is the ultimate reality of a buddha’s mind — the nature dharmakāya — and the other is the ultimate reality of a defiled mind. If we said that the nature dharmakāya existed in sentient beings, we would have to also say that the wisdom dharmakāya, which is one nature with it, existed in sentient beings. That would mean that sentient beings were omniscient, which certainly is not the case! Similarly, if the abandonment of all defilements existed in ordinary sentient beings, there would be nothing to prevent them from directly perceiving the natural purity of their minds. They would directly realize emptiness. This, too, is not the case.

Some people say the dharmakāya with the two purities — the natural purity and the purity of the abandonment of all defilements — exists in the mindstreams of sentient beings, but because sentient beings are obscured, they don’t perceive it. If that were the case, then whose mind is purified and who attains the freedom that is the purity of all defilements? If sentient beings already possess the dharmakāya, there is no need for them to practice the path and purify their minds, because from beginningless time their minds have been free of adventitious defilements.

The assertion that a buddha complete with the thirty-two signs exists within the continuums of all sentient beings echoes the theistic theory of an eternally pure, unchanging self. If the thirty-two signs were already present in us, it would be contradictory to say that we still need to practice the path to create the causes for them. If someone says that they are already in us in an unmanifest form and they just need to be made manifest, that resembles the Sāṃkhya notion of arising from self, because even though existing, this buddha would need to be produced again in order to be made manifest. Nāgārjuna and his followers soundly refuted production from self.

The sūtra continues with the Buddha’s response:

Mahāmati, my teaching of the tathāgatagarbha is not similar to the propounding of a self by non-Buddhists. Mahāmati, the tathāgatas, arhats, the perfectly completed buddhas indicated the tathāgatagarbha with the meaning of the words emptiness, limit of complete purity, nirvāṇa, unborn, signless, wishless, and so forth. [They do this] so that the immature might completely relinquish a state of fear regarding the selfless, [and to] teach the nonconceptual state, the sphere without appearance.89
Here we see that the Buddha skillfully taught different ideas to different people, according to what was necessary at the moment and beneficial in the long term to further them on the path. We also learn that we must think deeply about the teachings, exploring them from various viewpoints and bring knowledge gained from reasoning and from reading other scriptures to discern their definitive meaning. The purpose of learning about buddha nature is to understand that the mind is not intrinsically flawed and that, on the contrary, it can be perfected. It is not just that the mind can be transformed; there is already part of the mind that allows it to be purified and perfected. Understanding this gives us great confidence and energy to practice the methods to purify and perfect this mind of ours so that it will become the mind of a fully awakened buddha.


What does it mean to say that pristine wisdom abides in the afflictions?
Are we already wise buddhas but just don’t know it?
Do buddhas have afflictions?
The Buddha said there is a permanent, stable, and enduring buddha nature in each of us. What was his final intended meaning in saying this? What was his purpose for teaching this?
What logical inconsistencies arise from taking this statement literally?

Lama, Dalai; Chodron, Thubten. Samsara, Nirvana, and Buddha Nature (The Library of Wisdom and Compassion Book 3) (p. 372). Wisdom Publications. Kindle Edition.
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