Buddha: No Nature?
by Dr. Tony Page
(Please also read major article on Buddha Nature on this website entitled, ‘The Buddha Nature is Not Mere ‘Skilful Means’).
It is often claimed by Mahayana Buddhists that the ultimate truth about the Buddha is that he has no nature at all and does not in fact exist.
Firstly, one needs to be very careful about the phrase, “does not exist”. The original Sanskrit verb, bhu, in such formulations as encountered in the prajna-paramita literature is linked to the term bhava, which vitally connotes changeful existence, the becoming of one thing out of another. It can – and usually does – refer to existence marked by the qualities of samsara (the reincarnational cycle with all its ebb and flow of change and suffering); that is to say, conditioned, mutable and painful. If it really meant that the Buddha and Dharma as Absolute Truth were not real, then the whole purpose of Buddhism would collapse into pointlessness: why spend millions of lifetimes striving to become a Buddha if, in fact, there is basically no such thing after all and one’s fate – and that of all others whom one has striven to help to attain Buddhahood – is to realise that one has been following a path into ultimate nihility? The contestation by some Buddhists that not Nothingness but an awareness of universal “momentariness” (one thing causatively giving rise to another, moment after moment) is what makes up a Buddha might not be particularly attractive or persuasive to many. What, it might be asked, is so spiritually or philosophically enticing about gaining a full-frontal look at unbounded changefulness and the lack of any Essence if nothing transcendent to such instability can be found?
Secondly, the terms which are usually translated as “no nature” are nihsvabhava, alakshana and animitta. The first of these words literally means “no own-being/ no own-becoming” and again it is needful to note that rejection of any form of bhava does not automatically preclude a higher Reality beyond bhava – indeed, the Buddha’s teachings pre-suppose and posit it. The second and third terms, alakshana and animitta,express the idea of the absence of “defining characteristics” or “perceptual images”. There is also a sense of lakshanas and nimittas constituting internally engendered percepts of what is construed to lie outside oneself. So to deny that Nirvana or the Buddha is marked by these percepts does not necessarily mean that Nirvana and the Buddha (which are coterminous) are wholly without any nature whatsoever. They may ultimately be without externally visible “features” or exteriorised “characteristics”, but that does not mean that they have no nature at all.
What, however, do the Mahayana sutras state and intimate on the nature or character of the Buddha? This question lies at the heart of the matter of the nature of Reality. The following short essay intends to look at whether the Buddha truly has no nature, no disposition or character of any kind, or whether certain key qualities can be discerned at the heart of this remarkable and highest of beings whom Buddhism venerates as “Buddha”.
The All-Decisive Question: Can the Buddha Do Deliberate Evil?
One of the key doctrines of the prajna-paramita sutras is that all phenomena – including the Buddha and Nirvana – are empty. They are empty of defining signs and of a roped-off, sharply delineated and isolated existence or nature of their own.
In the Prajna-paramita Sutra of 18,000 lines, the Bodhisattva Subhuti comments on the difficulty involved in knowing all dharmas (things, phenomena). He receives a characteristically prajnaparamita-style answer from the Buddha:
Subhuti: “Hard to know fully are all dharmas.”
The Buddha: “Because they have the essential nature of Buddhadharmas [Buddha-phenomena]. Their nature is a no-nature. May a Bodhisattva thus cognize and see the essential nature as a non-nature which has not been brought about.” (The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom, tr. by Edward Conze, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London, 1975, p.301).
But does this seeming denial of a nature – an “arisen”, effectuated nature, one notes – mean that the Buddha has no nature of any kind? The main question which needs to be posed in order to supply a decisive answer is the following: if the Buddha has no inherent qualities or nature, then is it possible for him to do evil? If he had no fixed nature, or no nature at all, then it would be perfectly conceivable that the Buddha might on occasion choose to perform an evil act, might undergo an upsurge of desire to inflict harm or injury on others; he could momentarily descend into a decision to take pleasure in inflicting suffering on other beings. So the question remains: Can the Buddha deliberately harm and hurt beings, out of an urge for sadistic selfish enjoyment?
Without doubt, the answer is, of course, an emphatic “no!” The Buddha has no selfish “drives” and no inclination towards maleficence.
Yet this incontestable affirmation of the Buddha’s severance from all evil-doing entails a vital conclusion: it must mean that the Buddha does have a nature which is in one sense circumscribed or free from certain qualities, since it is remote from all evil. The Buddha’s nature can, therefore, at the very least, be defined in negative terms as a nature which is disassociated from all malevolence and selfish desiring.
To emphasise the point: is it conceivable that the Buddha would encourage beings – or even one single being – to practise unwholesome acts, to cultivate all the kleshas (mental and moral negativities), to become icchantikas (the most spiritually blinded of beings) and thus knowingly lead them into the hells? Again, the answer is an unequivocal “no”.
Once more, it becomes evident that the Buddha, while not fixed in a particular form, appearance, or methodology of teaching, is fixed in a moral or spiritual modality which eschews evil and encourages only the Good (kushala). This can quite legitimately be termed his “nature” – or an aspect of his nature. There are many other aspects which one might briefly like to consider to gain a fuller portrait of the “nature” of the Buddha.
The Positive Qualities of the Buddha’s Nature
First and foremost, the Buddha is the very embodiment of Knowledge (jnana) or Awake-ness (bodhi). There is nothing (according to the Mahayana understanding of the Buddha) which can remain obscured from his all-seeing eye: whether it be the past and future lives of each and every sentient being, or his own past trajectory through samsara – he knows them all.
Next, the Buddha is living, active and deathless Loving-kindness and Compassion. Allied to this is his empathetic joy in others’ felicities, and his viewing of all beings as though they were his sole child. The Mahaparinirvana Sutra (Dharmakshema version) makes this explicit when it characterises the Self and the Buddha–dhatu (the innermost essence of the Buddha) in the following terms:
“The constant presence of the Tathagata is called ‘the Self’.
The Dharmakaya [ultimately Real mode of the Buddha] is
unbounded, unimpeded, neither arising nor perishing, and
endowed with the eight sovereignties [aishvarya]. This is
called ‘the Self’ …
“Great Loving-kindness and Great Compassion are the
Buddha-dhatu [Essence of the Buddha]… The
Buddha-dhatu is the Tathagata.
“Great Empathetic Joy and Great Equality-of-Regard
[upeksha] are the Buddha–dhatu… The
Buddha–dhatu is the Tathagata.”
(The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Vol. 9, tr. by
Kosho Yamamoto, edited and revised by
Dr. Tony Page, Nirvana Publications 2000, p. 59).
It is essential that whenever one is tempted to claim that the Buddha has no nature that this passage from the final and most definitive (according to its own lights) of all Mahayana sutras be brought into the equation: it provides a powerful refutation of the notion that the Buddha has no inherent qualities. He does. They are the qualities of salvifically caring for all beings and viewing them with an all-equal eye. This lies at the heart of what a Buddha is and what he does. Without these qualities there is no Buddha. Without this “nature” there is truly no Buddhic nature at all.
What, however, are the eight aishvaryas of which the Buddha speaks? These are the eight “sovereignties” or “masteries” of which the Buddha is characteristically possessed and which indicate specific active aspects of his nature. They tell of his supreme freedom, his unconfined autonomy. Specifically, they are:
1) The Buddha’s ability to project innumerable bodies throughout the universe.
2) The Buddha’s ability to have his one body fill the
3) The Buddha’s ability to fly through the air to all
Buddha-worlds without obstruction.
4) The Buddha’s ability to manifest countless forms,
each endowed with a mind and projected for the
salvational benefit of sentient beings, while retaining his own unwavering one-pointedness of mind.
5) The Buddha’s complete sovereignty over his sense
6) The Buddha’s acquiring of all dharmas
[phenomena], without having the notion of
7) The Buddha’s ability to expound all meanings
for countless aeons, yet without having the notion
of “I speak and they listen”.
8) The Buddha’s pervading all places – without
exception – just like the air. No place or person lacks the presence of the Buddha.
(The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, op. cit.,
Vol. 7, pp. 29-30).
The common characteristic of all these abilities is that of boundless freedom – not for freedom’s sake, but for the sake of emancipating all beings and guiding them into Nirvana. The Buddha knows no obstruction or hindrance in his entire raison d’etre of liberating all beings from unhappiness. Indeed, the Buddha is as open, limitless and all-pervasive (and as unattached – as free from obsessional grasping) as is empty air or empty space (akasha). In this sense, he is Emptiness (shunyata) itself – yet an Emptiness replete with all-embracing Awareness, Benevolence and Compassion.
There are many other elements which make up the nature of the Buddha – e.g. his incapacity for error and his knowledge of what each being needs for his or her spiritual advancement – but perhaps the key qualities which constitute his final hypostasis are his Eternity, Bliss, utter Purity, and true Selfhood – as the Mahaparinirvana Sutra is constantly at pains to point out. That which is the True Self is the Buddha – and that is Nirvana. Furthermore, one of the most important of the Buddha’s features is that of his Knowing combined with that of his inaccessibility to mundane thought. He remains ultimate Mystery – “the One Alone, with no equal” (as the Mahaparinirvana Sutra terms him – op. cit. Vol. 10, p. 11) . The Buddha knows all, is all (he is, according to the Nirvana Sutra, the “boundless dharmadhatu”), yet unawakened ordinary beings cannot encompass him within their limited thought processes. He is ultimately supreme and beyond all worldly comprehension. This dimension of “the All-Knowing One” (sarvajna) is intimately linked to prajna-paramita (perfected insight), and in the Prajna–paramita Sutra of 8,000 Lines one reads the following characterisation of the Buddha’s nature and its transcendence:
“… Buddhahood is insuperable, and so is
Tathagatahood, the state of the Self-Existent,
the state of all-knowledge … nothing can be
equal to the Tathagata, to the fully Awakened
One, to the Self-existent, to the All-knowing,
how much less can anything be superior to him?”
(The Perfection of Wisdom in Eight Thousand Lines
and its Verse Summary, tr. by Edward Conze,
Sri Satguru Publications, Delhi, 1973, pp. 238 and
In the final analysis, the Buddha is free from all natures that are unwholesome, painful, imprisoned, attached, and constricting. But he is that ineffable nature which is active Goodness, Kindness and Awareness in a state of freedom everlasting.
He is “Buddha” (the Knower). Nirvana. The blissful and eternal Immortal itself.