OPL4: Chapter 1: The cause: buddha nature

In truth, anyone who practices with great effort cannot fail to reach enlightenment. Why? Because all forms of conscious life, including ourselves, possess its prime cause. Within us is buddha nature.” ~ Gampopa OPL, translated by Ken Holmes.

We got the bad news right off the bat in Gampopa’s introduction to OPL: the confusion and suffering of samsara will never clear up without hard work on our part. Fortunately, he leads off the first chapter with the good news: if we do that work, the result is guaranteed. In this chapter, “we” includes not only present students of the dharma, but all humans whatever their material situation or belief system; and not only humans, but all beings, from the highest gods to our cherished pets to the earthworms in our garden to the most miserable denizens of literal or psychological hell. We all meet the first and most important of the three prerequisites for buddhahood. We all have the potential to wake up.

Why should we believe this? Gampopa backs up his guarantee with three categories of evidence:

Scriptural authority: The Buddha himself taught this, and it is quoted in many sutras.

Logical deduction: If, as Gampopa explained at the very beginning of OPL, samsara (sentient beings) and nirvana (buddhas) have the same nature, which is emptiness, this is already a statement that sentient beings have buddha nature, so I think you could really stop there. Gampopa further explains that emptiness is equated with the dharmakaya aspect of buddhahood, so if emptiness is dharmakaya, then by sharing the nature of emptiness with buddhas, sentient beings automatically share the dharmakaya aspect of buddhahood, aka buddha nature.

Empirical proof: By simply observing other beings, we can see, as Ringu Tulku says, “However bad, however evil, every being has some minimal amount of love, kindness or compassion, at least for themselves or for one other being . . . and some understanding . . . of what is right or wrong.” Since buddha nature consists of compassion and wisdom, this means that every being shows at least some rudimentary sign, in some context, of possessing buddha nature.

Gampopa further breaks this empirical evidence down into five degrees of proximity to buddhahood, or five stages of realizing our buddha potential. This information is worth bearing in mind as we go through our lives encountering people (and animals) we might otherwise be inclined to dismiss. You can get the details from OPL or Path to Buddhahood, but here’s a brief synopsis, starting from the least obvious potential:

Disconnected: Beings who behave in ways that are completely contrary to the buddhadharma are said to have disconnected or severed potential. Gampopa says such beings can still wake up and realize their full potential, it will just take a very long time. I personally find it comforting to remind myself that no matter how destructive a person’s conduct, and we can all think of examples, they are still buddha by nature, and they absolutely have the potential to wake up one day and act like it.

Indeterminate: I sometimes call this wishy-washy potential. Ringu Tulku says that for these beings, “their buddha nature manifests according to the circumstances.” They fall under the influence of whatever companions they meet, good or bad. They have no clear path but follow whatever spiritual path they happen to meet.

Hearers and self-made buddhas: This is a description of the basic vehicle paths, authentic Buddhist paths that from the Mahayana point of view are not yet complete paths, because the focus is on personal peace, and has not yet widened to include an equal emphasis on compassion. “They manifestly aspire for nirvana; they are not interested in working for the welfare of sentient beings.” The focus on personal peace is further discussed as one of the four obstacles to full awakening in chapter 4. There is a lovely passage in OPL on page 19 describing why the Buddha created these incomplete paths, and how he rouses its practitioners from their peaceful meditation and encourages them to go the distance.

Mahayana / bodhisattva path: At this closest stage to realization of our buddha nature, practioners work not only to free themselves from confusion and suffering like the hearers and self-made buddhas, but also to free other beings. According to the seven points of mind training as explained by Lama Karma Samten at PTC a few years ago, this path can be summed up in two words: “Others first.” The Ten Dharmas Sutra says, “Just as one infers the presence of fire through smoke and that of water through the presence of waterfowl, likewise the potential of the bodhisattva mentality is detected by means of its signs.” Gampopa continues, “What are these signs? Naturally and without contrivance, such beings are peaceful in what they do and say, their minds have little deceit or hypocrisy, and they are loving and joyful in their relations with others . . . Further, they engender compassion toward all beings before entering into any activity . . . they undertake difficult tasks with patience that is never discouraged by the enormity of the undertaking, and they practice most properly and excellently that which generates virtue and has the nature of the perfections [six paramitas].”

Metaphors for buddha nature: Gampopa ends this chapter with several analogies to help us understand how buddha nature exists within us: “. . . the way silver is present in silver ore, the way sesame oil is present in sesame, or the way butter is present in milk. Just as it is possible to obtain the silver that is in ore, the oil that is in sesame seeds, and the butter that is in milk, so it is possible to attain the buddhahood that is in all sentient beings.”

This is the exact work we are setting out to accomplish, and after first discussing the remaining two prerequisites for doing that work effectively, Gampopa will spend the rest of OPL instructing us in precisely how to cash in our guarantee of buddhahood, and what to do when we get there.

Class recording 10.25.2018: click here or under blogroll.

Next: Chapter 2: The support: a precious human existence