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Overview of Uttaratantra
(The Furthest Everlasting Continuum)

Alexander Berzin
Berlin, Germany, October 2005

Session Two: The Sangha Gem and Buddha-Nature

Unedited Transcript
Listen to the audio version of this page (0:49 hours)

The Sangha Gem

We were speaking about the seven diamond-strong points, which are first outlined in chapter one. We’ve covered the Buddha Gem and the Dharma Gem, and now we are up to the Sangha Gem.

The Sangha Gem here is referring to the arya bodhisattvas specifically, and they are called by several names in the texts – the usual one is “the spiritual offspring of the triumphant ones” (rgyal-sras, Skt. jinaputra). Spiritual offspring in the sense that they are born from the Buddha’s teachings, but also the ones that will grow up to become Buddhas themselves. So that is not an easy one to translate. Another name for them are “those with a knowing attitude” (blo-ldan, Skt. dhiman). They have the attitude of bodhichitta which is together with the understanding of voidness; so they have the knowing attitude.

Again we have the same structure: the homage with eight adjectives, the eight qualities, then the explanation which puts those two sets of eight together.

The first three qualities are summarized with the seventh, which is realization. Realization here is the result of some of the first three; it doesn’t have to be with all of them. The second set of three are liberation as a result of some of the last three – that’s the eighth quality, which summarizes the last three.

So the first three, which are summarized by realization as a result of these: There’s deep awareness of how everything exists – so the arya bodhisattvas have some of that. They have, secondly, deep awareness of the extent of what exists, so we are talking here about the two truths of how things exist and the extent of things that exist (that’s conventional truth). And the third one is deep awareness that is internal – that is referring to realization of the Buddha-nature.

Then in terms of liberation they have liberation from or separations from obscurations that are attachments – that is referring to the first set of obscurations, those that prevent liberation. And they have separation from obscurations that impede – this is referring to the obscurations that prevent omniscience of all phenomena, the obscurations that prevent enlightenment. So the arya bodhisattvas have not necessarily all of this, it depends on the tenet system when you start to get rid of those that impede enlightenment.

Then the third one that they have in this set of three is separation from the lesser obscurations. The lesser obscurations are referring to the obscurations that prevent samadhi, full concentration, absorbed concentration. Those are the eight qualities of the Sangha Gem, referring here specifically to the arya bodhisattvas, although in general we would include in the Sangha Gem all aryas.

Further Points about the Three Sources of Safe Direction

Then the text speaks about the reasons for there being three sources of safe direction, or three sources of refuge. This is because there is a teacher, the Buddha; and what he teaches, that’s the Dharma; and those who learn, that’s the Sangha. But then it also goes into a more specific reason, and it says that there are Three Jewels, three sources of safe direction, because there are three vehicles of mind that bring one to this bodhi, this state of purification and growth. Those who follow it have three different types of fervent regard (mos-pa) (strong regard, admiration and deep conviction) in three types of activities. It explains that the bodhisattvas, the bodhisattva vehicle of mind, have this strong regard and admiration for the Buddhas and their activities. The pratyekabuddhas have their strong regard for the Dharma, referring to the twelve links of dependent arising and the activity of the Dharma, which we need to reverse the twelve and gain liberation. And the shravakas have fervent regard and strong admiration for the Sangha and the activity of the Sangha, which is to listen to the teachings. So these are the reasons that are given for why there are three sources of safe direction.

Then the text presents what are known as the provisional (gnas-skabs) and the ultimate (mthar-thug) sources of safe direction, and it explains why the Buddhas are the only ultimate source of safe direction. To understand this we need to understand the difference between what’s called the apparent (kun-rdzob) and the deepest (don-dam) level Gems (apparent, that’s the conventional) and the provisional and ultimate sources of safe direction. These are different sets.

[See: Identifying the Objects of Safe Direction (Refuge).]

Let’s speak first about the apparent and the deepest level gems. The apparent gem of a Buddha – apparent means what appears, that’s the conventional truth of something – that would refer to the Form Bodies of a Buddha, the Corpus of Form Bodies. “Corpus” means a collection of bodies, Rupakaya. This includes the Sambhoghakaya, this is the Corpus of Appearances That Make Full Use (“sambhogha” means to make full use) of the Mahayana teachings. These always have five certainties: these always appear with the thirty-two and eighty sets of physical features of a Buddha’s body, they always teach in pure lands, they always teach Mahayana teachings, and they always teach them to arya bodhisattvas, and they remain forever. These are the Sambhoghakaya.

Then Nirmanakaya is a corpus, or a whole collection of emanations from Sambhoghakaya, and these appear in three forms. We have the supreme ones, which also appear with the thirty-two major and eighty minor signs of a Buddha, like Buddha Shakyamuni. Then we have those that appear as an artisan, like the heavenly musician who, through playing music, was able to tame one very proud heavenly musician. They had this contest in which they played on a sitar, and the contest was to see who could continue playing with removing one string at a time. And so they kept on going back and forth, and the heavenly musician was pretty good and was able to keep up with Buddha, but then the Buddha removed the last string and continued to play with no strings. At that point the heavenly musician gave up and lost his pride. Then the third type of Nirmanakaya is an emanation in the form of a holy person, like His Holiness the Dalai Lama or an ordinary type of person. This is actually very interesting because it indicates that you can teach others not only through words, but you can also teach others through art. That is a point that a lot of people sometimes underestimate: art and music. So all of those are the apparent gem of a Buddha.

Then the deepest gem of the Buddhas is referring to the two types of Dharmakaya of a Buddha, there’s the Jnana-dharmakaya – Dharmakaya is a corpus that encompasses everything – so the Jnana-dharmakaya is the deep awareness of a Buddha that encompasses everything (that’s the omniscient mind of a Buddha). And the Svabhavakaya is the corpus of essential nature, which is referring to the voidness of the mind of a Buddha. And that voidness pervades everywhere; it’s the same as the voidness of everything. So that’s the deepest Gem of a Buddha.

And the nominal Gem, what’s just given the name of the Gem of a Buddha, is referring to the paintings and statues of Buddhas, just representations. So these represent the Buddha Gem but are not the actual Buddha Gem.

You should know that presenting the Svabhavakaya as the voidness of the Buddha’s mind is the Gelug position. The position of the other schools of Tibetan Buddhism is that it’s usually presented as the inseparability of the other Buddha Bodies. What does that mean? That means the inseparability of the two truths. So rather than speaking just in terms of the voidness, the deepest truth, of the mind of a Buddha and the Bodies of a Buddha, it refers to the two truths of the body and mind of a Buddha. So in a sense it comes down to pretty much the same thing.

According to Gelugpa, the Svabhavakaya is not only the voidness of a Buddha’s mind but also the true stoppings, the total separations from all the obscurations. This refers to the double purity: that the mind is naturally pure of true existence and the mind of a Buddha is also pure of all the stains. It was never stained anyway and so it comes down to the same thing. It’s referred to as the double purity of the mind of a Buddha and of the mind in general.

Question: So it is not part of the functional nature. Is it Svabhavakaya? Does the normal being have the stains?

Alex: The normal being? The mind-stream was never stained by the fleeting stains. It was just fleeting – it wasn’t stained by its nature. The first one, everybody has. The second one – everybody hasn’t achieved a parting, a separation, from these fleeting stains. But when you get that parting from the fleeting stains, you realize that they never actually stained the mind at all. They were just fleeting, like the clouds don’t stain the sky.

Question: How do we demonstrate that the stains are fleeting? And the nature of the mind is free of these stains?

Alex: I can answer this briefly. Well, we can say that basically it comes down to – the deepest reason why you can say this is that the clear light mind, when this is actualized, say at the time of death or in meditation, that clear light mind neither has grasping for true existence nor does it have the appearance-making of true existence. And so because there are certain situations in a mental continuum in which you don’t have grasping for true existence and you don’t have the appearance-making of true existence, even for ordinary beings – I am not talking about only aryas that get this in meditation in their nonconceptual cognition of voidness – but because ordinary beings experience it as well, in terms of death existence, then you can say that these stains are fleeting. Now, obviously, as ordinary beings we would not be aware of that. But Buddhas have seen that this is so and that during this clear light consciousness you don’t have that.

Now the reason why you would [not] say “well, that (the clear light consciousness) is fleeting, that actually that state where it (clear light consciousness) is not there is fleeting and the stained state is its natural state” is that through seeing reality, focusing on reality, and so on, the situation in which it’s unstained becomes more and more stable and lasting, and the stained state gets weaker and weaker. And so the state without stains has support and can be strengthened, whereas the other cannot be. Then that becomes a problem because you could say “well if I meditate more and more on anger I can strengthen my belief in anger and true existence and so on,” but then this is contradicted by the force of logic, so then you have to believe in logic and reason.

Participant: The reasons are a bit hidden.

Alex: The reasons are a bit hidden, but this explanation in terms of the clear light mind is how His Holiness the Dalai Lama explains it.

Participant: So one finds support in reality, and the other one…

Alex: One [the nature of the mind is stained] finds support in [ordinary, deluded] experience and the other [the nature of the mind is unstained] finds support in reason.

Participant: With near death experience, people tell about big love, there’s no hate there.

Alex: The near death experience – people experience love and light and things like that. But this can still be with grasping for true existence.

Participant: The natural state is love and not hate.

Alex: That the natural state is love and not hate? This can be a certain sign. I think what is usually taken more as a sign is the survival instinct and the instinct for the preservation of the species. Survival instinct is the wish for happiness, but for oneself; and for the survival of the species is for survival of the species, of the offspring. So parents take care of their children. So even in the example, the famous example His Holiness quotes, of the sea turtle that lays its eggs in the sand and then goes back to the ocean and never takes care of the baby. Nevertheless that mother sea turtle made a tremendous effort to come out of the sea and go up on the land and lay the eggs. So you have to say that there was some care there.

In terms of the Dharma Gem, the apparent Dharma Gem (in other words, what we see), the conventional Dharma Gem, are the twelve categories of the scriptural pronouncements of the Buddha. Various teachings of the Buddha can be classified into twelve categories. The deepest Dharma Gem is the true stoppings and true pathway minds on the mind-stream of an arya, any arya. The nominal Dharma Gem, what represents it, are the Dharma texts.

The apparent is the content and the nominal is the texts. You would have to say that the apparent one is the teachings of the Buddha, divided into twelve categories. That would refer to the content of the teaching. Whether you would say the sound of the word is the representation of that I don’t know. It is the scriptures. They did not have recordings, such as tape or MP3. I would think that in the modern day we could make the distinction between the content of the teaching and what conveys them. Sounds, after all, are just sounds. It could be audio, visual, Braille. We have all the senses here.

In terms of the gem of the Sangha, it’s the intent community (but community can also mean a network), and they’re intent on the goal of bodhi, one of the purified states, that apparent gem of an arhat or a Buddha. And the apparent gem of a Sangha is an individual person, just one, of any arya (lay or ordained). The deepest one is the community, or network, of the true stoppings and true pathway minds on the mind-stream of an arya. And then the nominal gem, what represents it, is any group of four persons with robes. That can be a novice monk or nun, or a fully ordained monk or nun, and they don’t have to be all four from the same category, and it doesn’t have to be one from each category. Four minimum. Even four novices.

Sangha means collection or network in Sanskrit, but the way that the Tibetans translate it is “gendun” (dge-‘dun). “Dge” is constructive, meaning constructive or positive goal, which is of one of the three types of bodhi (purified states). And “dun,” what is intent on that, “dunpa,” it’s the intention to achieve that. Because the apparent Sangha Gem is just the person of an arya, it doesn’t have to be more than one. Why that is considered an apparent Sangha Gem, I have no idea. It is the one that you see.

Now this differentiation between apparent and deepest level gems is different from the differentiation that is made between provisional and ultimate sources of direction. The ultimate ones are the ones that are free from all mental obscurations, both sets of obscurations, and so they are not equivalent to the deepest gems. The ultimate Buddha source of direction would be both the apparent and deepest Buddha Gem; in other words, both the bodies and the mind and the nature of a Buddha. The ultimate Dharma source of direction would be the true stoppings and true pathway minds on the mind-stream of a Buddha (an arya needing no more training, so a Buddha). And the ultimate Sangha source of direction would be the network, or community, of true stoppings and true pathway minds of a Buddha.

So because of that, once we know that differentiation here, then it explains that only the Buddhas are the ultimate source of direction, because we can see that the Buddhas have all three of the Jewels of Refuge that are spoken about. The others don’t have all three. The Buddhas have the body, speech and mind of a Buddha (the Buddha Jewel). They have the true stoppings and the true pathway minds of a Buddha (the Dharma Jewel). And they have the network of those two as well. And the text explains that the Dharma Jewel is not the ultimate one because the words of them are something to be left behind, to be abandoned, to be left behind like the finger pointing to the moon. When you want to reach enlightenment, they are just vehicles that help us get to the final goal. The Dharma realizations are not the ultimate source of direction because they are – the text uses the word “fallacious.” In other words, the various realizations that you get in the stages of the arya are things that you have to get rid of in order to get to the next higher realization, and then the next higher realization, and so on. So those aren’t the stable, ultimate source of direction, and neither are the true stoppings, it says, because the true stoppings are absences – an absence is not something that you can take safe direction from. The Sangha is not the ultimate source of direction because they still have fear, the text says; in other words, they have fear of the obscurations that prevent enlightenment. So because of that, the ultimate source of safe direction are the Buddhas themselves.

Question: [question about true paths]

Alex: A path is a mind that understands reality, basically. So the true paths refer to, on the path level, what leads up to the mind of a Buddha. And then Buddha himself has a pathway of mind, a true pathway of mind that understands reality. That is why “true path” is a little bit misleading – it’s a mind.

Question: But why is it not a true cessation?

Alex: There is also a true cessation, but it is saying that only the ones that a Buddha have are the ultimate ones. The ones that are earlier than that are not ultimate, because the earlier ones have to be replaced – the pathway understandings have to be replaced as you go higher. And the stoppings themselves – they don’t explain why, but it’s an absence of something and they say an absence can’t be a source of direction.

Participant: Is this the casual vehicle? How would the resultant vehicle fit in with this?

Alex: The source of direction that acts as a cause would be the persons or phenomena that have already become the Three Gems. And the resultant vehicle – the source of direction that’s taken from our own future results, results that we will achieve that we haven’t yet achieved – that’s referring to the results that we are aiming for. So the causal and resultant.

Participant: Is there a projection of being that way?

Alex: There is a projection of being that way, but that’s not the source of direction. The source of direction is the not-yet-happened enlightenment that can be imputed on the mental continuum on the basis of Buddha-nature. So it is a knowable phenomenon but it hasn’t happened yet, and it is not presently happening either. What is presently happening is the not-yet-happening of it. We have had a long weekend on this, it is quite complex.

That’s why in tantra we say that the guru has all Three Jewels. It’s the ultimate in the sense of the mind of the guru is the Buddha Gem, and the speech is the Dharma Gem, and the body is the Sangha Gem. So it is coming from the same idea. As we said in the beginning, one can say that the Uttaratantra points to tantra. It is not tantra itself but it points in the direction of what we get in Tantra.

And the last point about the Three Jewels is why they are called the “Rare and Supreme Gems.” The Sanskrit only has “ratna” but the Tibetans say “konchog” (dkon-mchog). “Kon” means rare and “chog” means supreme. And so it’s because their occurrence is rare – there are six reasons – they are stainless; they have strength like a jewel; they become adornments for the worldly, those who have a perishable basis (“jigten” [‘jig-rten] means those who have a perishable basis in samsara); they are what is supreme; and they are inalterable (they don’t change). For those reasons they are called the Rare and Supreme Gems. These are all the points that the text gives in its discussion of the Three Gems.

So let’s have our tea break.

Buddha-Nature

Let’s begin again. There was a question about what do family-traits mean? A family-trait is “gotra,” which is family or caste. The traits are characteristics of someone who belongs to a certain family or caste. It can be the family or caste of those who can become Buddhas, so the Buddha-family. There are others as well that we will get to shortly.

The text continues with first a general presentation of the last four vajra points – that is the source (Buddha-nature), enlightenment, its qualities, and the enlightening activity. The text explains how the Three Gems derive from these last four points, and the four reasons why these four points are beyond imagination. Then the rest of the chapter, from verse 27 to 169, is all about the source of enlightenment: Buddha-nature. So it shows how the Three Gems come from the last four, and the four reasons why the four points are beyond imagination.

Buddha-nature is called by many different names, it is the source for clear evolvement for Buddhahood or for the Buddhas. It is also the essential nature, or the womb, that allows for tathagata (accordant progress) and for the Tathagatas, and for blissful progress – the Sugatas and their attainment. It includes various types of family-traits or caste traits. Now we can look at the different presentations in the different tenet systems of these Buddha-nature aspects. Buddha-nature is a topic that is discussed only in Mahayana, and we find a different presentation in each of the tenet systems.

[See: Buddha-Nature According to Gelug-Chittamatra, Svatantrika, and Prasangika.]

The Chittamatra system says that there are three types of family-traits, three castes, that one could belong to. They are the family-traits of a shravaka, the family-traits of a pratyekabuddha, and the family-traits of a bodhisattva, that will allow each of them to reach their goals of one type of state of bodhi, of purified growth.

When we talk about these family-traits in general, we always have two kinds. We have the naturally abiding family-traits (rang-bzhin gnas-rigs) (the ones that have always been there), and then the evolving family-traits (rgyas-‘gyur-gyi rigs) (these are the ones that will grow). According to Chittamatra the naturally abiding ones are the seeds that are without a beginning, that are imputable on the basis of the stained mind of each limited being, and which serve as the factors for each of these respective castes – for the beings in them to attain one of these states of bodhi. So they are the seeds that have always been there. The evolving family-traits are the seeds that are gained new, newly, by listening, thinking, and meditating on Buddhist teachings; and which, similarly, are imputable on the basis of the stained mind of each limited being, and serve as the factors that will allow them to become an arya of each of these castes.

So we have seeds that have always been there that allow them to achieve three different types of arhatship, and the seeds that are gained newly through hearing, listening, and meditating on the Dharma, which will grow, which will allow them to become aryas of each of these three castes. That’s the Chittamatra presentation. So here it is quite clear that it is talking about potentials. The Chittamatra presentation is very reminiscent of what we have in tantra when we have an initiation or an empowerment. An empowerment does two things in terms of seeds: it stimulates the seeds that are already there to grow, and it plants new seeds through the actual experience during the initiation. It’s dealing with Buddha-nature. So we have a similar type of structure there.

Now according to Svatantrika, the naturally abiding family-traits are the voidness that is imputable on this basis of the stained mind of each limited being. That’s responsible for Svabhavakaya. The evolving family traits are the factors imputable on the basis of the stained mind of each limited being – it’s always the same – that are fit to become the essential nature of a deep awareness Dharmakaya. What that’s referring to is just the enlightenment-building network of deep awareness which is built up through total absorption on voidness – which is how we built up this network of deep awareness. When we talk about networks of positive force and deep awareness, there are those that build up samsara, those that can build up liberation, and those that build up enlightenment. So we are talking about only the ones that build up enlightenment, dedicated with bodhichitta, and the actual one is in terms of what is built up when you are totally absorbed on voidness.

[See: The Two Enlightenment-Building Networks (The Two Collections).]

According to Prasangika, the naturally abiding family-traits are the same as Svatantrika. That’s the voidness imputable on the basis of the stained mind of each limited being. Obviously the understanding of voidness is different between Svatantrika and Prasangika, but it is still the same – it is referring to the voidness that’s responsible for the Svabhavakaya. Then the evolving family-traits are the factors (again) imputable on the basis of the stained mind of each limited being, that are fit to become the essential natures of the Buddha Bodies that are affected phenomena. In other words in Svatantrika we had just the ones that are fit to become the nature of the mind of a Buddha (the Jnana-dharmakaya), but here it has for all the Form Bodies as well as the Dharmakaya, the Deep Awareness Dharmakaya. So this is quite different. What that’s referring to, then, are the enlightenment-building networks – not only of deep awareness, but also positive force that everybody has once they have attained the Mahayana path of building up (in other words, the path of accumulation) when you actually have bodhichitta. So then you actually do have the enlightenment-building networks.

We need both networks in order to obtain either of these two bodies: the Form Bodies of a Buddha or the mind of a Buddha. So the network of positive force, the enlightenment-building one, is the obtaining cause for the Form Bodies of a Buddha. Obtaining cause (nyer-len-gyi rgyu), remember, is what transforms into the result. And although the network of positive force transforms into the Form Bodies of a Buddha, you need as a simultaneously acting condition (lhan-cig byed-pa’i rkyen) (in other words, what goes along with it) this enlightenment-building network of deep awareness. Then for the mind of a Buddha it is just the reverse – the obtaining cause is the enlightenment-building network of deep awareness, and what the simultaneously acting condition is for that would be this network of positive force.

You can say, in one sense, that we have both of these networks with no beginning, but not the enlightenment-building ones – we have the samsaric-building ones of positive force. And deep awareness, you have the deep awareness – it’s not the deep awareness of voidness, but the five types of deep awareness: mirror-like, equalizing, individualizing, accomplishing, and dharmadhatu (or the deep awareness of reality). That we have with no beginning, so that would be parallel to what Chittamatra speaks about in terms of the abiding – these being abiding traits – and then they’re together with compassion and the various qualities of the mind and so on. And then there are certain evolving traits that you gain new here, which would be when you actually achieve bodhichitta – that’s attained for the first time. Or something like achieving the path of accumulation: there’s building a pathway mind where you actually do get the enlightenment-building one – that’s attained for the first time. So we still have this structure here of certain ones that have been there with no beginning, and certain ones which can be obtained newly, for the first time. And of course the abiding traits being the voidness of the mind, that’s something that’s there with no beginning as well.

There’s a third Buddha-nature factor which is discussed here in the text. I’m not sure if all the tenet systems accept this, but it is the aspect of the mental continuum that it can be affected by the enlightening influence of a Buddha. It is not like a rock. Because our mental continuums can be influenced by this enlightening influence, then these various potentials and so on can be stimulated to grow. It is why we can be affected by the teachings of the Buddha, for example.

Many commentaries are going to include as the naturally abiding trait also the clarity and awareness aspects of the mind. When we would look at the defining characteristics of mind, we have three. There’s the – what is usually translated as “clarity” (gsal): that’s the making of appearances, the making of mental holograms. There is awareness (rig), which is referring to cognition. The making of these appearances is equivalent to cognizing something: the arising of a thought and the thinking of the thought are the same. And the third characteristic is “mere” (tsam), it is merely that, which means that it’s happening without there being a solid “me” that’s making it happen, or observing it, or controlling it, or out of control; but also it is devoid of any true existence as well. So if you look at these characteristics of the mind, of mental activity, the “mere” aspect – that’s referring to its voidness, in a sense. That of course is a naturally abiding trait, but some commentaries will say that the clarity and awareness are also a naturally abiding trait. This gets back to what we were discussing earlier, that clear light here can refer to either the voidness of the mind – as a naturally abiding trait, which would be object clear light – or it could refer to the clarity and awareness aspect of the mind – clear light as a cognizer.

That is why when the text talks about voidness, it speaks about it in terms of various synonyms that are all usually translated with the word “nature”: essential nature (ngo-bo), identity-nature (bdag-nyid), self-nature (rang-bzhin), and real nature (de-nyid, suchness), and the very nature of its reality (de-kho-na-nyid), its actual nature (chos-nyid), accordant nature (de-bzhin-nyid, thusness), self-begotten nature (rang-byung-nyid) – there are all these synonyms, what are usually translated as “thusness,” and “suchness,” and all these sorts of words. And so, then, the issue is: is that referring to a self-voidness nature (the voidness of the mind), or an other-voidness nature of the mind (this clarity and awareness). It is because of terminology like that, that one can get various types of interpretation.

When the text talks about the source for Buddhahood, the source for clear evolvement, then when it is discussed in general it is presented as a static unaffected phenomenon that lasts forever. So whether it is the voidness of the mind, or the clarity and awareness nature of the mind, that doesn’t have any – it is not affected or changed by anything. That is sometimes referred to as the sphere of reality encompassing everything (that is dharmadhatu [chos-dbyings]) or the uncontaminated sphere (sphere unassociated with confusion) (zag-med-kyi dbyings), in other words – there again, there are many different names for that source.

This starts to become incredibly complicated in terms of the logical pervasions, because the clarity and awareness aspect – the non-Gelugpas will consider it an abiding nature, that’s constant and forever, not affected by anything. The Gelugpas will say that it is an evolving trait, which has been there forever, but it is that which turns into the wisdom Dharmakaya, the Deep Awareness Dharmakaya. And then what about these family traits which are referring to the evolving ones? Does the term “the source for the abiding one” cover both of them. When His Holiness taught this in Bodhgaya many years ago, then he had a big debate from the throne with the top geshes and abbots from the monasteries about the logical pervasions here. So it is obviously something – they couldn’t come to a definite decision; and the textbooks differ, even within the Gelugpa tradition of it – so it is a very complex topic.

When the text is referring to various Buddha-nature factors as being constant, it always gives these four qualities of it: it is constant (rtag) (which is another word for permanent or eternal); it is stable (brtan) (not affected by anything); it is serenely still (zhi) – so you can say that it’s still or purified of true existence which was never there, or it is still and purified of these fleeting stains of the disturbing emotions which don’t stain it from the beginning; and it is (here’s an interesting term) auspiciously immutable, which is this word “yungdrung” (g.yung-drung) which is always used in Bon, in the Bon teachings. It is equivalent to swastika, swastika just means good luck or auspiciousness. It means that it’s not something that will change in terms of being auspicious for reaching enlightenment. So when one really delves into Buddha-nature as a topic it becomes incredibly complex. If you want to see a little bit of that, I have that on my website in the sutra section level six, on the actual Indian text in Uttaratantra. I translated the first day of His Holiness’s teachings on it. I have the debate that he had with the geshes about this topic. This gives you a taste of the depth with which His Holiness approaches texts and topics like this.

[See: Buddha-Nature, Day One of a Discourse on Uttaratantra, Part Two.]

Question: Clarity and awareness, is that an abiding trait or is it an evolving trait?

Alex: Well it says this abiding nature – and it can be understood either as the voidness of the mind, or the clarity and awareness – it’s the sphere encompassing everything (the dharmadhatu). But it is constant (which is the word “permanent”); it’s stable; it’s serenely still and auspiciously immutable. Those are the four qualities. “Serenely still” means that it’s still of the stains of true existence, so that’s referring to the voidness side. And it’s still or quieted of all the fleeting stains, so that would be the clarity and awareness side.

Question: Do these definitions appear in the text?

Alex: The root text just gives these words. Then you have all the commentaries. It keeps on using words like dharmadhatu, the sphere of reality, or the sphere that encompasses everything, and so on. It uses all these synonyms. Now this becomes the big problem, because it’s most unintelligible just on the basis of the root text. And it has such rich vocabulary that it can be interpreted in many different ways, and if you don’t represent each of these different terms differently in English, in a way that will open it up to these many commentaries, then you lose the richness of the text. That’s why it’s a very difficult text to translate. It uses so many synonyms for all the different things. It’s really quite rich.

You see the problem here? Clarity and awareness: is it an abiding trait, or is it an evolving trait? It can be interpreted both ways. And what does it mean that it is constant? Well that can be understood in different ways depending on whether you are calling it an abiding trait or an evolving trait. When they give these characteristics (of “constant,” and so on) does it refer to both kinds of traits or does it refer to only one? Which ones do you put in which category? Of course, almost every possible position is held by some commentary. The reason for explaining it like this is because you will read books and hear commentaries that sound quite different, and if you know why they’re different, you’re not confused.

Concluding Remarks

I think that this is enough material for today. Mind you, it’s just an introduction to this topic of Buddha-nature and the way that it’s discussed in this text. But I think it’s helpful to try to digest and think, well, what do we really mean by Buddha-nature, this source that will allow for us to become a Buddha, these essential factors, this womb (to use the term that is there) that puts us all in the family of those who could become Buddhas. And so what is it? If we look at it from the Prasangika point of view, there are these factors on the mental continuum (that can be imputed on the mental continuum) of us as limited beings, that are still stained, that will allow for these various Buddha Bodies. So we have the voidness, the fact that our mental continuum does not have any impossible ways of existing, that it is not established from its own side, and so on. Well that’s the same as the Svabhavakaya of a Buddha. The fact that it is like that now will allow for the fact that it will be like that as a Buddha as well, so it’s sort of the foundation, the basis. Then the fact that the mental continuum makes appearances of things, and that’s what knowing things means – well this is likewise a factor that’s going to be the case when you are a Buddha as well. So it was always there and it’s never been stained by anything, and so that also gives us a great deal of hope.

Then in terms of what will evolve and what will grow into these various Buddha Bodies, those are affected phenomena – in other words, their nature doesn’t change, but they take different objects and different appearances at different times. Then we have these two networks, these are the basic aspects here. These two networks, positive force and deep awareness, well everybody has that beginninglessly in terms of the samsaric-building aspects of this (mixed with grasping for true existence, and so on). But if we can add onto it bodhichitta, then that will make them into enlightenment-building ones.

When we think about it, the network of deep awareness is when we are focused on voidness itself, the deepest truth. And the network of positive force is when we are helping others, and so on, focused on the apparent (or conventional) truth of things. So we always speak in terms of these two truths. And because we have this awareness of the two truths and we’re working to help others in terms of the conventional truth in terms of appearances, aimed at enlightenment, then you get the two truth aspect of Buddhahood – which is the appearances of a Buddha (that’s the conventional truth) and the voidness of a Buddhas mind (which is the deepest truth). Or if we take the non-Gelugpa thing, also the clarity and awareness, which would be the deep awareness Dharmakaya. So it’s in this way that we think more and more about this, and we can understand that we do have the source, the womb, the essential factors that will allow us to have the various corpuses (or bodies) of a Buddha. Plus all of these things can be affected by the enlightening influence of a Buddha to grow; they can be stimulated – these aspects of Buddha-nature.

In particular, what we really need to put together here is these Buddha-nature factors as the source for the Three Gems. In other words, the ultimate source of refuge: the source for the body and mind of a Buddha, that is the ultimate Buddha refuge, and the source for the true stoppings and the true paths of mind on the mind-stream of a Buddha, and the networks of those true stoppings and true pathways of mind on the mind of a Buddha. These are ultimate sources of direction. Now the voidness of the mind, these two networks of positive force and deep awareness, clarity and awareness of the mind, and so on – these are the source that will allow for our becoming the Three Gems ourselves, as a Buddha, the ultimate source of refuge. Obviously that takes a long time to think about and try to put it all together. But that is the direction in which this type of meditation practice is going in. And once we really have gotten it digested, then we have much more confidence in the path, and it strengthens our bodhichitta that we can actually become enlightened.

Do you have any questions or comments?

Question: I don’t know how to differentiate this Buddha-nature from an atman. This is something that Buddhism is accused of doing, to reintroduce some kind of atman through the back door. How is this differentiated from atman, if it is some fixed substance that is unchanging?

Alex: Well first of all when we speak about atman (the soul) in Buddhism, what is being refuted is first of all a person, or a soul, or a self – whatever way you want to translate it – that is static: not affected by anything and eternal. That is one aspect of it – but so is space and so is voidness. Space and voidness are not the villains here, the things that need to be refuted. So just because it is static and unchanging doesn’t make it a troublesome thing. In addition it is partless, it is a monad – and certainly Buddha-nature isn’t that. And it is something that is separate from the aggregates, independent of the aggregates. And all these Buddha-nature factors, they keep on saying over and again with the definitions of all them, that they are imputable on the mental continuum, so they are not separate from the aggregates.

Also another characteristic of an atman is that it can be known self-sufficiently, by itself, without having to know its basis for imputation – and certainly Buddha-nature is not like that. You can’t know these various aspects of Buddha-nature without also knowing the mind, the mental continuum on which it is imputed. Also if we go into the Madhyamaka description or refutation in terms of the soul, then Buddha-nature is certainly not something that has its existence established from its own side, because of voidness – so it is very different from an atman. Atman has true existence, and here Buddha-nature certainly doesn’t have true existence established from its own side. So the only feature that it has in common with an atman is that, in general, these abiding nature features are unaffected by anything and static (they’re forever). But as I said, there are many other things that are like that as well, including space.

Everybody seems to be super tired. So why don’t we end here with a dedication: Whatever positive force has come from this, whatever understanding has come from this, may it act as a cause for reaching enlightenment for the benefit of all.

Thank you.