Buddha-Nature and Ignorance
by Venerable Sheng Yen

Buddha-nature is pure and unchanging. However, we may ask, if sentient beings are originally Buddhas, how did we become impure and how did we fall into ignorance? When we say that sentient beings are originally Buddhas we are stating a universal principle that everyone has the potential to discover their innate Buddha-nature. We often hear the saying, “Anyone can become president of the United States.” This means that any native-born citizen of the United States has the potential to become president. But that does not mean everyone is president. Similarly every sentient being is capable of becoming a Buddha, but not every sentient being has realised Buddhahood.

How did sentient beings originate in the first place? No religion or philosophy has yet answered this question to everyone’s satisfaction. Certainly it would be nice if we began as Buddhas and did not suffer vexation. But Buddhism does not address these questions of origin, and will say only that there is no fixed point in time when sentient beings were created. If we say that God made sentient beings, then many questions arise: Why did He create heaven and hell? Why did He create suffering? Why do sentient beings do evil? Buddhism does not seek to answer these questions; it only tries to answer the question of why sentient beings suffer, and how suffering can be alleviated.

In one of the sutras, the Buddha tells the story of a man wounded by a poison arrow. This man begins to ask all kinds of questions about how he came to be wounded by a poison arrow. The Buddha said that it would be wiser for the man to remove the arrow and begin healing, rather than ask a lot of questions about what kind of poison was used, the lineage of the man who shot him, and so on. Similarly, Buddhism tries to cure the disease of suffering, not to answer philosophical questions.

As to why we do not now have the purity of a Buddha, it is because over countless lifetimes, we have accumulated karma, doubts, and vexations that have clouded our minds with ignorance, or in Sanskrit, avidya. Our inability to recognise our own original Buddha-nature is a result of this ignorance. What then is avidya? Buddhism regards phenomena as occurring in time and space, impermanent, and changing. These qualities are interdependent. For example, a movement in space takes place over time, and both conditions result in a change to our physical and psychological environment. Something that is universal and eternal, however, is unchanging. It is impossible for it to exist “here” and not “there.” Thus, when we say that sentient beings are originally Buddhas, we are referring to their unchanging Buddha-nature, not the local, temporary, and changing vexations that manifest as experience.

Let’s use the analogy of space: space is originally unchanging but when enclosed by a container — round or square, large or small — the space seems to take on the shape of the container — it becomes round or square, large or small. Actually, the space itself remains unchanged; it just temporarily takes on the appearance of the container. Similarly, when the ordinary mind responds to a stimulus in the environment, its mental content changes accordingly and there is a potential for vexation to arise. This is avidya, a mental state of moment-to-moment change, which remains ignorant of the real nature of phenomena.

Ignorance has been present since time without beginning, causing sentient beings to continue the cycle of birth and death. But ignorance itself is not eternal, universal, or permanent. It is a space-time phenomenon that is continually in flux. When we use our practice to bring our minds to an unmoving state, avidya — in the form of greed, hatred, and ignorance — will not have a chance to arise. In this state, our unchanging Buddha-nature has a chance to be revealed. When our minds are not excited or tempted by the environment, ignorance does not exist for us. There is only Buddha-nature.

Until we completely remove all ignorance, we continue to discriminate and use a mind limited by avidya to contain that which has no limits. When ignorance and its containers are removed, only the universal, unchanging Buddha-nature, also called tathagata, remains. Ignorance, on the other hand, has no original existence; it can only exist conditionally. If it had true existence, it would not be in a state of constant change.

The analogy of water and waves is used in the sutras to illustrate this point. In the absence of wind, water is still and calm but when the wind blows, waves form. The waves are the same substance as the water, but originally they did not exist. In this same way ignorance did not originally exist, until blown by the winds of the individual’s karma. In this analogy, water is the ever-existing tathagata; waves are ignorance. Water can exist without waves but waves must have water to exist.

As I said earlier, when we say that sentient beings are originally Buddhas, we are speaking in terms of principle and potential. If we say that Shakyamuni was the Buddha, and he died twenty-five hundred years ago, we are speaking of the historical Buddha who took on the appearance of ignorance to help sentient beings. The real Buddha, the tathagata, is eternal. He never came, and he never left. The Buddha took a human form so that he could speak on the level of the sentient beings. Free from avidya, the Buddha only reflects the ignorance of sentient beings.

To reach the universal, eternal and unchanging requires a great deal of faith and practice. On the basis of faith, people can say that they have met the Buddha. This is also true when we have gained some benefit from practice. However, when most people make such a statement, they only have an intellectual understanding of what it means to meet the Buddha. Unless your religious convictions are strong, you won’t be able to directly experience Buddha-nature. Most Buddhists seek a spiritual life but don’t necessarily want to see the Buddha. Those who want understanding will only see the Buddha as light or sound. Those whose religious faith is strong will definitely see the Buddha.

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