Recently I wrote about the concept of a person’s “Buddha nature.”1 I defined this as “the core person, the undefiled person, the being that lives deep in our consciousness, beneath our changing opinions, random ideas, and restless seeking after advantage. This deep being is naturally attuned to the universe and its ways. It is receptive to ideas of reciprocity, balance, acceptance, peace, loving kindness, and other elements of ‘the good.’ This is the person we were meant to be before we became enmeshed in the chaotic disturbances and passions of life and went off to pursue vain and fanciful things. Buddha nature allows any human being to reach enlightenment.”
But now, given what I wrote more recently about personal honesty,2 I wonder if it’s even possible for any human being to find, let alone acknowledge and identify with, this deeper nature.
It would be nice if, buried deep within our minds, our brain’s circuitry, and our everyday interactions, each of us were to harbor an innocent soul. This would be a child of unblinking objectivity, looking out on the world without favor or fear, living in undaunted expectation of balance and harmony, ready to take things and people as they come, having no preconceptions, and passing no judgments. This child would be practically selfless in its approach to the world, giving and taking easily and effortlessly, and not bothering to count its change.
But what am I saying? That’s not a child! As anyone knows who has raised a baby, socialized a toddler, or attempted to correct a teenager, the child is all about itself. The fresh-born human is at the focus of its own universe. Its hungers and needs are paramount. Its disappointments are earth-shattering. Its likes and dislikes are finite and final. Yes, the baby can be distracted long enough to smile at a rainbow or a butterfly—once it has learned to focus its eyes, of course, and to recognize anything beyond its mother’s face—but as soon as the baby’s stomach rumbles or its diaper becomes wet, the center of attention returns to the child’s own life and needs.
Babies and small children have no “Buddha nature” in the sense of being ready to receive enlightenment. If by “enlightenment” we mean gaining a profound sense of the interrelationship of every object in the universe of things and of every perception and intention in the sphere of conscious beings, if we mean seeing past the illusions and misconceptions of the mind and finding peace, harmony, and reciprocity, then the childlike state is the polar opposite of enlightenment. It takes a dozen years filled with either gentle or harsh parental correction, followed by many bruising playground collisions, jarring disappointments, and unanswered cries for attention before a child learns that he or she is not the center of the universe. It takes a dozen more years of braggadocio and ridicule, blunders and embarrassment, unrequited loves and jealousies, and similar social abrasions before the teenager learns that his or her enthusiasms and opinions are not shared by the entire world—sometimes not even by one’s closest friends—and that the way things were done by his family, in her school and church, and in his hometown or state are not the standard of reason, comportment, and commerce for the rest of humanity. And some people, despite all the knocking about they get, never learn this.
Perhaps we have no “Buddha nature” at all. Perhaps the naked human has no enlightenable “deep core” being. I’m reminded of a cartoon I saw while working at the engineering firm, where the deadlines came quick and fast, orders and opinions often clashed, and crisis was always imminent. The cartoon depicted a man in profile with a frenzied look on his face. The side of his skull had been cut away, showing his brain and the rest of his head held down by coil springs that were near the breaking point. And the caption read: “Don’t be silly! Tension is the only thing holding me together!”
Perhaps the only forces driving some people are their passions and fancies. Or their seeking after personal, social, political, or economic advantage. Or their sense of duty, instilled in them by a demanding parent, an impressive teacher, or an intimidating drill sergeant. Or they are impelled by their fears and angers. Or their sense of moral or ethnic superiority. Perhaps we are all just surface, and what we are thinking, feeling, wanting, and imagining right now is all that is real or meaningful in our world.
As a sidelight … I have done battle with two great addictions in my life: one to tobacco, the other to alcohol.3 I was finally able to kick both habits—although some dozen years apart, and after many false starts in either case—and in the process I learned a powerful lesson. Until the drug of choice had fully left my system and I had developed other habits that did not depend upon its consolations, I would find myself making random, offhand propositions to myself in order to get the smoke or booze back into my mouth. Out of the blue, perhaps from the subconscious, maybe from the limbic system—the brain’s seat of emotions, motivations, and behaviors—would come a preverbal suggestion. “You’ve had a rough day. You deserve a drink to make you feel better!” Or, “You’ve had a great day. You deserve a drink to celebrate!” Or, “You’re stressed out now. You need a smoke to relax!” Or, “You’ve got some time on your hands. Wouldn’t a smoke taste wonderful now?”
What finally occurred to me—and so saved my resolve—was that, no matter the situation, consuming the drug of choice always appeared to be the right answer. Luckily, I had enough logic and sense of proportion left in my mind to realize that these random notions—“You need a drink!” “You need a smoke!”—were foreign and inimical to my decision not to drink and smoke. From this reasoning, I understood a basic truth: the mind is a monkey when the body wants its candy.
We have long been taught that logic, reason, and our perceptions of the truth are things external to human ideas and emotions. We believe these patterns stand alone and represent something solid and reliable as an expression of some kind of absolute reality. But I learned in fighting my addictions that it is the body itself and its hungers which represent the deeper truth. The baby still lurks down there, wanting its candy and awaiting the execution of its imperious will. And logic and truth are simply a form of camouflage, sand to dash in your mind’s eye, shiny objects to distract your intelligence and determination, while the hand reaches for the pipe and tobacco pouch—I was a pipe rather than cigarette smoker—or for the corkscrew and wine glass. The mind is a monkey when the baby is not getting what it wants.4
If we have a “Buddha nature,” then it is not some integral part of the human body, or the central nervous system, or the natural, undeveloped mind. It does not exist from before we were born, representing some undiluted or pure state of being. It is not a sweet child waiting deep in our minds, wanting to look out on the world with charity and compassion. Instead, Buddha nature is a mental construct. Like most good habits and desirable states of mind, it must be perceived, nurtured, and adopted through careful practice.
Like everything else that is aspirational in the human condition, “Buddha nature” is a conscious desire and a learned response.
1. See A God I Can Believe In from October 19, 2014.
2. See The Truth About Personal Honesty from July 5, 2015.
3. Which leaves Snickers® bars and caffeine as the fights of my old age. Eventually, I will probably give up the candy—but the coffee, never!
4. Conversely, one might argue that the resolve not to give in to addiction was an aspect of my “Buddha nature.” If so, it was a part of me that had to be manufactured decision by decision, in real time, and with constant vigilance. This resolve was an act of conscious will and not something natural to any deeper being.