By Kellie Schorr
I believe all sentient beings have the nature of a Buddha, an inherent goodness that issues in compassion, joy, and equanimity, as their natural state of being.
That’s how I usually answer the question, “What do you believe?” that inevitably bubbles up when I tell someone that I am a Buddhist.
I like starting with the understanding of Buddha Nature instead of the Four Noble Truths (where many people start) because it feels more direct. Beginning the conversation with the life story of the Buddha or “All life has suffering…” and going through the Four Truths is a little like answering the question, “Where did you get that omelet?” with, “When a chicken and a rooster love each other very much…”
Talking about inherent goodness I’ve noticed the facial expressions I get back are either a patronizing smirk (“I have an ocean-front property in Ohio for you…”) or wide-eyed astonishment followed by a skeptical eyebrow dip (“Really? You think that?”). I admit looking at the world around us with its 24/7 new cycle and cacophony of comment section call-outs makes believing in Buddha Nature seem like the middle road between foolishness and insanity.
Yet, there I am.
To accept the idea of tathāgatagarbha, Buddha Nature, or as Chögyam Trungpa called it, “basic goodness” is not a requirement of Buddhism but it is a major element in Mahayana thought. Some schools think of it as a seed within all of us that “can develop” into Buddhahood like a lotus blooming as we practice the dharma, and others such as mine, the Nyingma lineage, believe you already are a Buddha, you just don’t know it. Either way, it is a life changing understanding to accept that each being has a core that is pure and good.
But What About…
Hitler? Stalin? The Boston bombers? The guy who invented Lawn Darts? George Soros? Trump? It seems everyone has someone on their list who couldn’t possibly have the nature of a Buddha. What about them? What about people who abuse animals, or children, or the elderly, or anyone? Why do we have hunger, war, rape, loneliness, bullying and fear if the world is populated by current or potential Buddhas?
Because we are asleep.
In our sleep, we are living with nightmares, illusions, sweet dreams, impossible feats and mysterious elements. In our sleep, we walk and talk, run and fall. In our sleep, we create and destroy, play and love. We toss and turn, hugging our loved ones like a pillow and kicking off the blankets of reality when it gets too hot in the room. We live our lives, generation after generation, in the house of sleeping Buddhas.
Sometimes an alarm goes off and one of us—or a group of us—wake up for moment. That alarm could be a diagnosis, a first kiss, a spiritual revelation, a picture of a dead refugee child lying on a beach, a story about an athlete achieving something once thought impossible or cat poking our nose at three in the morning. The evidence of this clarity can be seen in acts of love, compassion, beauty and advocacy that swirl around us. Goodness doesn’t tend to shout the way harm does, but it’s always there, in everyday ways, whether we see it or not.
Then, we drop back into the warm cocoon of sleep until the next alarm rings. Some of us are easy to wake, or spend more time awake, but every single one of us has the same potential for opening our eyes.
Infinite Degrees of Separation
What causes our sleepy distance from the wellspring of light that defines our very nature? Everything, or anything. Each and every one of us is a collection of experiences, messages, culture and impulses. We are a compound phenomena of causes and conditions that can serve to separate us from or wake us to our good being.
Those people who seem to have the hardest time finding or functioning from a solid core are usually those who are confused or who have never been told they have anything good about them at all. Let’s face it, if we haven’t been given unconditional love, we will never believe you can meet all of the conditions to be loved at all. If we’re taught that money, status, superiority, education, or “winning” are what we need to be happy, we’ll struggle to understand happiness is already inside us. We’ll just join the other sleep walkers on their hamster wheel of life, working hard to earn something we already have.
Buddha Nature does not mean that people aren’t responsible for the wrongs they do to themselves or others. We all have choices. We all face the natural consequences of our actions good and bad (that’s karma). It does mean that before we get the pitchforks and torches to go storm someone else’s house, we stop for a moment to consider that they are not “evil people;” they are good beings who have lost touch with that reality and even as we call for their accountability, we need to remember it too.
Believing in inherent goodness isn’t some cotton-candy, sweet puffy cloud way of living. It’s really challenging to look at some folks through a lens that remembers the worth and nature of all beings. It’s hard when we are awake, and nearly impossible in our sleep. Yet, if we’re going to stay connected and aware of our own good core we’ll have to keep trying. We are interconnected beings. We all live in the same house, even when we don’t agree.
There are people who have been in some part of my life journey that I have difficulty even using the word “good” in the same sentence as their name. I don’t have to like them. I don’t have to forgive them. I don’t have to redeem them. I don’t even have to understand them. What I have to do, in order to sustain my own waking moments, is admit that no-matter what disconnected them from their own goodness, it is still their nature, just like me.
It’s tough, but the truth is, if we aren’t challenged by the dharma, then we aren’t practicing the dharma. We’re just practicing our own projections, in our sleep, over and over again.
So yes, there are evil acts, and homeless children, and cruel words and bleeding open wounds filing the world we inhabit. Still, I believe all sentient beings have the nature of a Buddha, an inherent goodness that issues in compassion, joy, and equanimity, as their natural state of being.
What do you believe?
Editor: Dana Gornall