Buddha Nature
and the concept of person

By Sallie B. King
Philosophy East and West
Volume 39, no. 2 April 1989
 P.151-170  (C) by University of Hawaii Press

    Buddhism has a profound and thoroughly developed set of teachings on human being.  One might well argue that the question of human being is the question par excellence with which the Buddhist tradition as a whole struggles. According to the traditional account, for example, the point of departure for the Buddha's own search, discoveries, and teachings was the dilemma of the human condition. Moreover, vast numbers of Buddhist texts speak out of or address human experience as such, consciously focusing upon it as the source of both question and answer. Nonetheless, many questions a modern Westerner asks as a matter of course about human being are not directly addressed in the Buddhist texts. There are of course important reasons for this. Our concept of and assumptions about human individuality are profoundly different from Buddhist views of the same. Our two worlds of discourse about the value and meaning of finite bodily existence, the course of history, the meaning of suffering, and the nature of possible human greatness are set up on entirely different foundations. Thus, for a contemporary Westerner to ask the question "What is a person? What is a human being?" of a Buddhist text is to set oneself up to receive an answer that does not satisfy the intent of the question. Yet, while Buddhist views and assumptions differ so markedly from our own, Buddhist texts reveal in their own way a preoccupation with the human condition as intent as that of our own hyperindividualistic, anthropocentric culture.

    With such a shared fixation, it is inevitable that persons on both sides of the cultural boundaries will attempt to gain light from the other side on this subject, despite the incommensurability of each other's questions and answers. The present essay is one such attempt: not an East-West comparison, but an effort to address a Buddhist text from the perspective of cross-cultural philosophy (still, despite the name, a thoroughly Western enterprise). Herein I will engage in dialogue the Buddha Nature Treatise (Chinese: Fo Hsing Lun (a); hereafter, BNT), a text representative of the Buddha nature tradition that contains an extensive discussion of the concept of Buddha nature, a crucial component, if not the most crucial component, of the East Asian Buddhist concept of human being. I will attempt to wrest from the text answers to two categories of questions--its view of the ontological nature of human being and its view of the existential status of human beings. In the course of the discussion I will ask such questions as: What roles do individuality and freedom play in the view of human being portrayed in this text? What value, if any, does an individual human personality possess? Is there anything of value in human history? Clearly, the text itself does not speak in these terms; these are the questions of a twentieth-century, philosophically inclined American. In order to bridge the cultural gap, I will first give a summary account of the text's concept of Buddha nature in its own terms and in its own format. Then, acknowledging that the text itself neither speaks this language nor shares my concerns, I will put my questions to the text and attempt to extract from the text its implications for the subject of my concern. In other words, I cannot claim that the author of the BNT does make the statements I will give as responses to my questions about human being, but I do claim that these views are implicit in and follow from the statements he does make about Buddha nature. Granting that human freedom requires us to expect the unexpected, nonetheless, I believe that if the author of the BNT were here today and could engage in dialogue with me, as long as my interlocutor remained consistent, something close to the views I will articulate in the course of this essay would emerge.


    The Fo Hsing Lun is attributed to Vasubandhu (T'ien-ch'in (b), fourth century) and translated into Chinese by Paramaartha (Chen-ti (c),sixth century).(1) Only the Chinese translation is extant; neither a Tibetan translation nor a Sanskrit original survives. While it is not suspected that the text might be a purely Chinese original, as it contains an extensive refutation of several non-Buddhist Indian philosophical schools, there is a considerable degree of doubt as to whether Vasubandhu actually wrote the text. Takasaki and Hattori, for example, are convinced that the text was not translated, but actually written, by Paramaartha, on the basis of his knowledge of the Ratnagotravibhaaga.(2) I tend to agree with this view, although it cannot be regarded as definitive. The BNT does share much of its text with the Ratnagotravibhaaga, but also contains extensive other material which is of keen interest in its own right. It is largely this latter material, unique to the BNT, that is the source of this article.

    We should also note in passing that there are other difficulties concerning our text. The circumstances of the text's composition, translation (if it was translated), and transmission are all very little known. There is no record of the date and place of translation on the manuscript. Ui dates the text between 557 and 569, and Takemura places it at approximately 558.(3) The text is four chuan (d) in length.

    The subject of the entire BNT is the concept of Buddha nature. We shall begin with a summary of the concept of Buddha nature as presented in the BNT in its own terminology. With that in place, we shall proceed to probe this material from the perspective of cross-cultural philosophy.

    The author begins defensively with three points intended to ward off incorrect interpretations of his views.

(1) It is incorrect to say either that Buddha nature exists or does not exist. though it is correct to say that Buddha nature aboriginally exists (pen yu(e)), as long as this is understood as an affirmation of each person's ability to realize Buddhahood and not as a kind of existence which can stand in contrast to nonexistence.

(2) Buddha nature is not an own-nature; an own-nature cannot be found where a phenomenon, such as a person, is in process. The idea of an own-nature is therefore to be discredited and thoroughly distinguished from the notion of Buddha nature.

 (3) Emptiness is not merely a matter of negation; supreme truth does not merely negate worldly truth. The contents of emptiness or supreme truth cannot be so limited as to be exhausted by functioning in a destructive manner; there must also be a positive revelation in emptiness. Therefore, since emptiness is not exclusively negative, it need not conflict with a Buddha nature which, though not an own-nature, is affirmed as existing aboriginally.(4)

    Our author then proceeds to discuss Buddha nature in a constructive fashion, explaining it in terms of three other concepts: the three "causes,'' the trisvabhaava, and tathaagatagarbha. Let us take these in turn. The three Buddha nature "causes" are three aspects of Buddha nature in its function as cause of the attainment of Buddhahood. The three are given as the cause of attainability, the prayoga cause, and the complete fulfillment cause. They are discussed as follows.

    The cause of attainability is the Thusness revealed by the dual emptiness [of persons and things]. Because of this emptiness, one 'can attain' bodhicitta, prayoga, and so forth, up to the dharmakaaya at the end of the Path. That is why this cause is called 'can attain'.

    The prayoga cause is called bodhicitta. With this mind, one can attain the thirty-seven limbs of enlightenment,(5) the ten stages (da`sabhuumi) of the bodhisattva, the ten perfections (paaramitaa), the auxiliary aids to practice, and, at the end of the Path, the dharmakaaya. This is called the prayoga cause.

    The complete fulfillment cause is prayoga. With this prayoga, one attains complete fulfillment of both the cause and the fruit [of Buddha nature]. By fulfillment of the cause is meant virtuous and wise action. Fulfillment of the fruit is constituted by the three virtues of wisdom, the cutting-off of delusion, and loving-kindness.

    Of these three causes, the essential nature of the first is unconditioned Thusness. The essential nature of the latter two causes is conditioned resolution and action. (794a)

    According to this passage, Buddha nature should be understood as three kinds of cause. These three, however, all stem from the first cause, the cause whose nature makes possible the attainment of Buddhahood and whose essential character is unconditioned Thusness. This constitutes the text's first direct statement as to what the Buddha nature is: Thusness actuating one's efforts to attain Buddhahood. As the description of the three causes proceeds, we can see that this initial urge towards the self-realization of the Buddha nature is the basis which progressively develops into bodhicitta, prayoga, and fulfillment, in turn. The latter two causes, which are based in the first, are simply constituted by various aspects of Buddhist practice, or "conditioned resolution and action."

    The author next moves on to a discussion of the three natures, that is, the trisvabhaava of Yogaacaara theory: the discriminating nature, parikalpita svabhaava (fen-pieh hsing(f)); the relative nature, paratantra svabhaava (i-t'a hsing(g)): and the true nature, parini.spanna svabhaava (chen-shih hsing(h)). He first defines the general meaning of each term:

    The discriminating nature is established on the basis of the use of the language of provisional speech. If there were no such terms, then the discriminating nature would not come into being. Therefore vou should know that this nature is merely a matter of verbal expression; in reality it has no essence and no marks. This is what is called the discriminating nature.

    The relative nature is the principle (tao-li(i)) which manifests as the twelve-fold chain of conditioned origination (Pratiityasamutpaada) . Because it serves as a basis (i-chih(j) )for the discriminating nature, it is established as the relative (i-t'a(k)) nature.

    The true nature is the Thusness (chen-ju(l)) of all things. It is the nondiscriminating wisdom realm of the wise. For the sake of purifying the [first] two natures, realizing the third [that is, liberation], and cultivating all virtues, the true nature is established. (794b)

    Despite this quite orthodox initial presentation of the trisvabhaava, the author of the BNT expresses the view that ultimately the three natures reduce to two. After discussing each of the three natures in turn, the text continues:

    The relative nature is of two kinds: pure and impure. The impure relative nature comes into being on the basis of discrimination. The pure relative nature comes into being on the basis of Thusness. (794c)(6)

    This scheme functionally supplants the standard tripartite scheme of the trisvabhaava. According to this analysis, the relative nature, or conditioned origination, is the only reality. Insofar as one experiences it in the mode of discrimination, the discriminating nature is operative; insofar as one experiences Thusness, the true nature is operative. In this way, we can see that the Buddha nature, which is constituted by all three natures, is represented in a nondistorted fashion by the pure relative nature, or, what is equivalent, the true nature. The Buddha nature, then, qua parini.spanna svabhaava, is known by its functions: purification of the other two natures, liberation, and the cultivation of all virtues. Its nature is equated with Thusness: the reality of things as they are and knowledge of that reality.

    The final component of the Buddha nature is the tathaagatagarbha (ju-lai-tsang(m)), which is itself, of course, a close synonym of Buddha nature. It is stated in the following quotation and repeated many times in this text that all sentient beings "are" the tathaagatagarbha in the sense that they are all beings whose true nature is Buddhahood. The author stresses the point that the tathaagatagarbha in the causal stage of the person who has not yet begun to practice Buddhism is identical with the tathaagatagarbha in the fruition stage of the Buddha. The tathaagatagarbha in the causal stage is concealed from the individual, but it is in no way diminshed. An analysis of the three component terms of the compound tathaagatagarbha is given, two of which are of interest to us here. The garbha of tathaagatagarbha is represented as constituted by three categories. 'Garbha' (tsang(n)) has three meanings. The first shows the incomparability of the true realm (cheng ching(o)), since apart from this realm of the Thusness of Thusness (ju-ju ching(p)), there is no other realm which surpasses it. The second shows the incomparability of the true practice (chen hsing(q)). since there is no other superior wisdom which may surpass this wisdom (chih(r)). The third makes manifest the incomparability of the true fruit [of practice], since there is no fruit which surpasses this one. This is why we speak of incomparability. Since this fruit encompasses (neng she tsang(s)) all sentient beings, we say that sentient beings are (wei(t)) the tathaagatagarbha. (796a)

    The first component of the garbha is the realm of the Thusness of Thusness, or all of reality truly experienced. The second component is Buddhist practice, which is equated with wisdom. Finally, the third item is the fruit of practice, namely, realization of the Buddha nature together with its virtues.

    The analysis of the tathaa (ju(u) ) of tathaagatagarbha (ju-lai-tsang(m) ) is also instructive for our purposes.

    All sentient beings are (shih(v) ) the tathaagatagarbha. There are two meanings of 'Thus' (ju(u) in ju-lai-tsang(m) ) . The first is the knowledge of the Thusness of Thusness (ju-ju chih(w)), and the second is the realm of the Thusness of Thusness (ju-ju ching(x)). Since the two stand together, we speak of the Thusness of Thusness (ju-ju(y)).(795c)

    We will return below to the significance of the special concept of the Thusness of Thusness given here. For now, the point is to recognize that Thusness is here represented as the essential nature of the tathaagatagarhha. This exegesis of tathaa, when combined with that of garhha, produces a notion of tathaagatagarbha which parallels the explanation of Buddha nature as three causes. In each, Buddha nature or tathaagatagarbha is portrayed as in essence Thusness, while Thusness is given as inherently linked with Buddhist practice. When we combine these passages, we get the following. The essential nature of tathaagatagarbha and of Buddha nature is Thusness. Thusness is the ground of the possibility of our (successfully) practicing Buddhism. The ultimate outcome of Buddhist practice, of course, is realization of the goal of Buddhism, or the fruit of practice. Buddha nature and tathaagatagarbha, then, as Thusness are reality and the correct apprehension of reality; as portrayed in this tripartite scheme, they are the foundation of the possibility of practice in Thusness, the doing of the practice itself, and the successful fulfillment of that practice. Much the same conclusion resulted from the analysis of the trisvabhaava.

    In a separate part of the text, the author further elucidates the BNT's concept of Buddha nature by attaching to it the concept of aa`srayaparaav.rtti (chuan-i(z)). The author of the BNT introduces the aa`srayaparaav.rtti into his discussion by describing it as the supreme purity which is revealed when all limitations on the understanding have been removed; it is the "purity of the original nature'' (pen hsing(aa)), that is, the Buddha nature (801b).

    The central point of the BNT's exposition of aa`srayaparaav.rtti is that it represents Buddhist practice. This is expressed in four senses.

(1) As the "productive basis" it is the basis of the Buddhist Path, a synonym for Buddhist practice. The term "basis'' (aa`sraya, Chinese i(ab)) does not refer here to a substantive basis, but to the basis or foundation of a particular form of action, Buddhist practice.

(2) AA`srayaparaav.rtti as the destructive basis accounts for the negative aspect of Buddhist practice, the extinction of defilements. In accordance with tathaagatagarbha thought, the text states that the extinction of defilements is constituted by the realization of their ultimate unreality.

(3) The third characteristic, the "fruit of well-matured contemplation, " represents the positive aspect of Buddhist practice: practice as the realization of Buddhist truths. This characteristic, which represents the heart of Buddhist practice as such in all of its stages, emphasizes the Path of Buddhism and Buddhist practice as inherently positive: one attains profound and extensive reverence for and knowledge of Thusness. We should note in passing that the negative aspect of overcoming delusion is so far deemphasized that it is said that actually no such thing is done, while the positive aspect is emphasized to the extent that it is identified with Buddhist practice as such.

(4) Finally, the aa`srayaparaav.rtti represents the culmination of Buddhist practice in the supreme realization of ineffable Thusness. In this way, the four characteristics represent aa`srayaparaav.rtti as Buddhist practice from its beginnings to its culmination (801).


    Thus far we have worked through a substantive discussion of the Buddha nature, an analysis of it as "cause" and of its synonyms. Being familiar with all this, we now need to take the difficult step of relating this material to a concept of the person. First, let me specify that I am using the word "person" as an equivalent of "human being,'' or "human individual." Thus what I seek in the text is a systematic account of its philosophical anthropology.(7) This raises an important preliminary issue. Insofar as I am seeking to discover what the text has to say about the nature of human being, there is, at first glance, a somewhat poor fit with the concept of Buddha nature. The bottom-line statement in the Buddha nature textual tradition is: "all sentient beings (sattva, Chinese chung-sheng(ac) ) possess the Buddha nature.'' Entailed by the Buddha nature concept in particular and the Buddhist perspective in general is the view that human beings as a class belong in the larger world of sentient existents, and should not be singled out as special or unique and thus deserving to be regarded as a class unto ourselves. This is a very important and well-known point in Buddhist thought. Human beings are not a separate class, distinct from animals, gods, and so forth. On the other hand, Buddhism has always recognized that there is a unique feature of the human condition which, while it does not put us in an entirely separate class, does make the human race special with respect to Buddhist soteriology. This special feature is the fact that we are capable of understanding our condition and responding in such a way as to alter radically the parameters of our existence. This may account for the fact that in the BNT, the text repeatedly speaks in terms of the three categories of ordinary persons (fan fu(ad)), bodhisattvas or sages (p'u sa(ae) or sheng jen(af)), and buddhas (fo(ag)) (see, for example, 806b). Thus, in the mind of our author too, it is necessary to single out human beings (or at least anthropomorphic beings) in order to speak of our condition and our potential. Since the text does repeatedly use this framework for its analysis, there is no great gap between its perspective and my question, "What is a (human) person?"

    The purpose of the present section of this article is to step back from the immersion in technical Buddhist terminology which dominated our discussion of the Buddha nature and to ask questions of that material from the perspective of cross-cultural philosophy. With the basic data now available in the language and from the perspective of the BNT, we now want to ask in our language and from our perspective such questions as: What is a human being, a person? What roles do individuality and freedom play in this concept? What value, if any, does an individual human personality possess?

    What is a person, according to the Buddha Nature Treatise? There are two dimensions to this question, an existential dimension and an ontological-metaphysical dimension. (8) To discover what a person is according to the latter dimension requires of us that we clarify what it means to say that a person "exists." What is the nature of this existence? What is the meaning of the word "person" in the phrase "personal existence"? To ask what a person is in an existential sense is to ask what behaviors--in the broad sense of all physical and psychological acts--are characteristic or paradigmatic for human persons. How would we characterize the essence of human character? What possibilities intrinsically belong to human beings and in what way are these possibilities actualized? Of course, since the text does not pose these questions in this way, it also does not answer them in an explicit manner. What follows is my own interpretation of the implications of the textual material for these questions posed from outside, by a person who lives in a culture dominated by another world view.

A. The Ontological-Metaphysical Dimension It is amply clear that, like other forms of Buddhism, the Buddha nature thought of the BNT is a form of process philosophy. There are no entities of any sort recognized in the text; there is no-thing which simply "is." Moreover, the process philosophy of the BNT expresses the author's most basic concerns, namely, to promote Buddhist practice and to explain philosophically the human transformation engendered by that practice.

    There are two main points to the BNT's understanding of the ontological nature of a human person: first, a person is not an entity of any kind, but consists of actions; and second, a person does not exist in contradistinction to a world, but is correctly conceived as inseparable from that world. We will begin with the first point.

    When I say that the author of the BNT speaks of the ontological nature of a human being as a series of acts, I mean that he identifies the person with a particular series of physical and psychological acts and indicates that this is the entirety of the person; there is no entity which performs the acts. This, of course, is the classic Buddhist position from very early times.

    The following examples will give the reader an idea of the way in which the BNT conveys this perspective. I can do no more than give a handful of examples: if one were to read the BNT itself, one would find that this perspective pervades virtually every line of the text. Moreover, the text does not struggle towards this position as towards a conclusion, but speaks out of this perspective as a starting point.

    First example: above, Buddha nature as "cause" was explained as Thusness actuating human effort to attain Buddhahood. As human beings, then, our essential character is found in this deep-seated urge, whose character is clearly verbal, or active, rather than entitative. This is ontologically significant, since we possess this character by virtue of our participation in reality. This reality of Thusness itself, from which we are not separate, expresses itself in an active, nonentitative fashion.

    Second example: the true nature, as another term descriptive of Buddha nature and hence of human being, is explained in terms of three kinds of action: purification (of the deluded and relative natures), liberation, and the cultivation of the Buddhist virtues. It is not a thing, but these acts.

    Third   example: the second component of tathaagatagarbha is given  as  Buddhist practice, which is equated  with wisdom.  Note here that since wisdom is employed as interchangeable  with Buddhist practice, it cannot  be interpreted as representing any kind of static or substantial basis of subjectivity (such as a pure mind or self). Practice y (such as a pure mind or self). Practice is a kind of doing, and wisdom is a particular practice--acting or doing wisely.

    Fourth example: aa`srayaparaav.rtti is defined as Buddhist ractice. As such, it is consistently portrayed as being of an active character. Any idea that the "transformation of the basis" refers in some literal sense to the transformation of a substantive thing must be rejected in the light of this direct identification of aa`srayaparaav.rtti with the doing of Buddhist practice. "Buddhist practice" here does not mean any set rituals, meditations, or ethical observances, but rather the process of the self-transformation of the individual progressing from a self-centered and ignorant mode of being-behaving to the selfless, awakened, and compassionate mode of a Buddha. The "transformation of the basis," then, means the transformation of the person.

    In this text, then, aa`srayaparaav.rtti is best interpreted as:

(l) the radical transformation of the person;

(2) Buddhist practice;

(3) the transformation of the person's relationship to the Buddha nature. AA`srayaparaav.rtti demonstrates that the affirmation of the Buddha nature is an affirmation of every person's ability radically to transform him- or herself. The Buddha nature, then, is not that which lives the Buddhist life; it is the active, verbal doing or living of the life.

    Fifth and final example: the text identifies the Buddha nature with the four gu.napaaramitaa, or supreme perfections, one of which is aatmapaaramitaa, perfection of self. While this sort of language makes the Buddha nature sound like an entity par excellence, the text removes the possibility of such an understanding by explaining aatmapaaramitaa as the active realization of the emptiness of all things; in other words, it simply gives the name aatmapaaramitaa to experiential praj~naapaaramitaa.

    All the heterodox perceive and grasp a self within the five skandhas. Overturning that attachment to self as vacuous and cultivating praj~naapaaramitaa, one realizes the supreme not-self which is identical to the self-paaramitaa (wo p'o-lo-mi(ah)). This is the fruit [of the practice of praj~naapaaramitaa]. (798c)(9)

    The second important theme concerning the ontological nature of the preson is the view that a person does not exist in any way separate from a world. The perspective of the BNT is plainly opposed to any such subject-object split. In the BNT, personal being, is always continuous with the being of a world. The trisvabhaava are three ways (actually two, according to the author's interpretation) in which the person experiences what is given (the world), and in which what is given (the world) presents itself to the person. In fact, even this way of speaking fails to do justice to the continuity between person and world. A person is a series of events which, in the language of subjectivity, are called experiences. But experiene, in fact, is not a matter of pure subjectivity. Experience is always "experience of" something. Experience is ordinarily conceived as the point of contact between a subject and an object. But in the BNT these two are portrayed as a single, primitive given, unified in itself, and only divisible upon secondary analysis. Ontologically. then, a person is this primitive given: an experiential world or a personal world.

    The inseparability of subject and world is conveyed rather nicely in the following passage, mentioned above.

   All sentient beings are (shih(v) ) the tathaagatagarbha (ju-lai-tsang(m)). There are two meanings of 'Thus' (ju(u) in ju-lai-tsang(m)). The first is the knowledge of the Thusness of Thusness (ju-ju chih(w)) and the second is the realm of the Thusness of Thusness (ju-ju ching(x)). Since the two stand together, we speak of the Thusness of Thusness (ju-ju(y)). (795c)

    While the exposition offered in this passage is circular, its meaning is nonetheless clear. The author unpacks the meaning of Thusness (the single ju(u)) by identifying it as the sum of two elements: the knowledge of the Thusness of Thusness and the realm of the Thusness of Thusness. The term translated here as "knowledge" (chih(r)), is a standard term for the subjective, while "realm" (ching(ai)) is a standard term for the objective. Ordinarily the chih is the cognizer and the ching the cognized. In the case of the knowledge of the Thusness of Thusness (ju-ju chih(w) and the realm of the Thusness of Thusness (ju-ju ching(x)), the former is the knowing which accords with the principle of Thusness, and the latter is the known which accords with that principle. Since, the author says, the two "stand together," the term Thusness as ju-ju(y) is coined to embrace them simultaneously. As such it represents the unity of their mutuality. All of this--the ju-ju(y) Thusness of Thusness with both its subjective and objective constituents--is given in explanation of the single "Thus'' of tathaagatagarbha (the ju(u) of ju-lai-tsang(m)). We could not ask for a more direct statement of subject-object unity in Thusness.

    In a section devoted to the elucidation of the Middle Path, the author of the BNT provides an example which is intended to discredit the practice of "discriminating the grasper and the grasped and taking them really to exist." In other words, the intention here is to discredit the idea of discrete subjects and objects.

    Discriminating grasper and grasped and taking them really to exist: in the suutra, the Buddha uses a magician as an illustration to draw us away from these two extremes.(10) "Kaa`syapa, it is like a magician who conjures magical images. The tigers which he makes turn around and devour the magician. Kaa`syapa, when bhik.sus whose method of contemplation is like this contemplate an object, what appears [to them] is merely empty. Hence, there is nothing to the 'real' and no reality to the false."

    How then can one escape the extremes [of grasped and grasper] and by relying on the manovij~naana (i-shih(aj))(11) create consciousness-only wisdom? Consciousness-only wisdom (wei-shih chih(ak)) is the wisdom [constituted by the understanding that] all sense data [gu.na] lack an essence. When this consciousness-only wisdom is perfected, it turns around and extinguishes its own root, namely, manovij~naana. How is this? Since the sense data lack essence, manovij~naana is not produced. With the manovij~naana not produced, consciousness-only wisdom self-destructs. Manovij~naana is like the magician; consciousness-only wisdom is like the magical tiger. Since manovij~naana produces consciousness-only wisdom, when the contemplation of consciousness-only is perfected it can turn and destroy manovij~naana. Why? Because sense data lack being (wu(al)). Thus manovij~naana is not produced, just as in the example the magical tiger turns and devours the magician. As AAryadeva (T'i-p'o(am)) says in verse,

    Throughout the three realms,(12) the origin of manovij~naana Is always to be found in sense data. When one perceives that sense data have no essence Seeds of existence are naturally extinguished. (809b-c)

    This example demonstrates the text's assertion of the nonduality of the grasped "object" and the grasping "mind.'' The argument adheres closely to Yogaacaara doctrine. Yogaacaara agrees with Madhyamika that all sense data are inherently unreal, that is, lacking in any nature of, their own, and that a Buddhist should practice in order to realize this. The peculiarly Yogaacaara point is that sense data are unreal since they are produced by the mind. It is crucial to realize, though, that the mind likewise is produced by the sense data. If there were no sense data "objects," there would be no cognizing of sense data and hence, immediately, no cognizer qua separate self.

    Thus we rely on the manovij~naana, or ordinary consciousness, to produce so-called "consciousness-only wisdom, " the knowledge that sense data or phenomena lack essence, and hence ultimately lack reality. In other words, starting from the stage of ordinary consciousness in which the practitioner finds him- or herself, as a skillful means one engages in unspecified meditative practices which enable one to see the nonexistence of essences in phenomenal reality. Once one has done that, however, this new awareness which one has engendered possesses the power to turn on that which produced it, ordinary consciousness, and destroy it. Why? Consciousness-only wisdom sees there are no object-things "out there.'' In effect, it directs manovij~naana to see this. With no objects from which to separate itself, manovij~naana, in turn, becomes incapable of discriminating itself as a separate thing with its own selfcontained essence-identity, In other words, if there are no objects, there can be no subject, the existence of each is completely dependent upon the existence of the other. Thus manovij~naana, as a sense of a separately existing self, is destroyed. Once this happens, though, the so-called "consciousness-only wisdom" self-destructs. Why? First, it was simply a skillful means for the purpose of undoing the self-delusion of manovij~naana. Second, its existence was derived from manovij~naana; the latter produced it.

    What, then, is the nature and status of the subject in this theory? It is clear that with sense data as its cause, the manovij~naana consists totally in cognizing activity. That is: no sense data, no cognizing; no cognizing, no cognizer. The cognizing, then, is the cognizer; in other words, there is no entity-cognizer here, only acts of cognizing which produce an illusory sense of self. As for "consciousness-only wisdom,'' it is plain that this is far from an ultimate in this text. It is no more than a skillful means which self-destructs once its task is accomplished. Moreover. the very words "consciousness-only" (which are the words the text uses) are misleading as used in the BNT. Though the phrase is appropriate inasmuch as the sense data "objects" lack an independent essence and hence are unreal, or do not exist, the real teaching of this passage is that the cognizer and the cognized, subject and object, are interrelated even to the extent of being mutually dependent. They arise and disappear together. Hence, "consciousness-only" does not mean simply "consciousness-yes, objects--no" (and certainly not "mind--yes, matter--no"), but rather it implies "cognition only" or "cognizing only," with both "consciousness" qua mind and sense data qua objects of consciousness negated.

    As an illustration of the ontological status of a human person, this example indicates several things.

(1) It manifests the nonduality of cognizer and cognized, or subject and object. It does not reduce objects to an ultimate subjective base, but asserts the absolute dependence, relativity, and ultimate unreality of both.

(2) It demonstrates the active nature of the person; there is no "mind" here, but certain kinds of cognitions and wisdom.

(3) The practical consequences of "consciousness-only wisdom" consist in the elimination of delusion.

    Thus, as an illustration of Buddha nature, we see again in this example an emphasis on the teaching that Buddha nature means the practice (or engagement in the activity) of becoming Buddha. This activity, again, is what a person is.

B. The Existential Dimension

    Let us now take up the question of human personhood in the existential dimension. A little reflection will quickly reveal that in the view of the BNT's author, one cannot speak of the human character or of paradigmatic human behavior as such without one preliminary point. Existentially human beings are of two basic types: deluded and enlightened. Once one has divided humanity (in which category I include the BNT's three divisions of ordinary beings, sages, and Buddhas) into these two camps, one can then proceed to make meaningful statements about characteristic human behaviors.

    As evidence of this, recall the author's treatment of the classic Yogaacaara concept of the trisvabhaava, the three "natures" which, as we have seen, represent three ways in which persons perceive worlds and worlds present themselves to persons. In working through these three natures, our author divided the middle nature, paratantra, into two subcategories, an impure and a pure paratantra. The former was identifiable with the nature of delusion, parikalpita, while the latter was identified with the pure parini.spanna. In this way he transformed the tripartite trisvabhaava theory into a theory which divided humanity into two categories.

    The characteristic which assigns persons to one or the other category is so-called purity and impurity, or delusion and enlightenment. Our author has in mind a model of human being in which deluded beings transform themselves into enlightened beings upon the pivot of aa`srayaparaav.rtti, which we earlier translated as "the transformation of the person." but which we can now translate as "conversion, "(13) in the sense that it is the aa`srayaparaav.rtti which converts the person from a deluded being into an awakened being. Thus we have two categories of person, before and after aa`srayaparaav.rtti.

    1. Before "conversion, " then, we have the "impure" or deluded existential mode of human being. What characterizes human being in this mode? In whichever existential mode a person finds him- or herself, a human being is always identifiable with Buddha nature. The significance of this for the deluded person is twofold. There is the universally valid promise of eventual Buddhahood. More interesting for present purposes are the implications of the doctrine of Buddha nature for a theory of human nature. If the Buddha nature is the essential nature of a human being, then there is, on this level and in this context, a universal sameness shared by humanity at the core of our identity. We are all intrinsically enlightened and compassionate beings, and not just in potential but always and already in present reality, although all appearances and self-knowledge may be to the contrary while in the deluded existential mode. To the extent that this hidden reality is not yet manifest, though, the sameness which it implies is all the greater. We can speak of it only as wisdom and compassion and cannot specify its character further; active manifestation is required for that.

    On the other hand, what does distinguish us one from another is our individual karma and kle`sa, the past history and defilements which together are responsible for the creation and constitution of our bodies as well as what we, from a very different perspective, call our various personalities. To the extent that a person exists in the deluded existential mode, that person's individual character traits, beliefs, habits, tendencies, values, mannerisms, and so forth simply are kle`sa. They are all based upon a fundamentally deluded or warped perspective of oneself and reality and could not exist as they are without that foundation. They also, from the perspective of Buddha nature thought, are unreal and ultimately nonexistent. The text tells us many times that the kle`sa have no basis in reality.

    We therefore have a situation in which persons in the deluded existential mode can only be differentiated one from another by virtue of the kle`sa which constitute their personalities and have constructed their bodies, but the kle`sa themselves are unreal and therefore cannot serve as any real basis of differentiation. The kle`sa, therefore, have no value in constituting a person's identity. In the existential mode of delusion, then, a person can truthfully be identified with the universally identical Buddha nature but cannot truthfully be identified with the distinctive kle`sa which constitute that person's individuality.

    The implications of this are as follows. Within the purview of Buddha nature thought, the person in the deluded existential mode is ahistorical and lacking in individuality. History and individuality are comprised by the kle`sa which constitute a person's personality; since these are simply negligible, so are history and individuality as pertaining to persons in the deluded existential mode. Second, autonomy and freedom are largely, though not entirely, negligible for the deluded person. Most of the deluded person's actions are driven by karma and as such identifiable with the realm of kle`sa and utterly lacking in real freedom. However, there is one important exception to this statement. Buddha nature is Thusness impelling one towards Buddhahood. The drive to spiritual freedom impelled by the Buddha nature is an act of authentic freedom. Buddha nature and Thusness, having nothing to do with the realm of karma and kle`sa, can serve as the basis of acts of real freedom. Hence, to the extent that one acts in such a way as to free oneself of karma and kle`sa, one's act is free. To the extent that one's actions are the product of past karma and kle`sa, those actions are not free. By definition, though, the deluded person has not yet undergone "conversion." Such a person will therefore be largely defined by unfree acts.

    In sum, as presented in the BNT, the person (human being) in the deluded existential mode is not a person as we ordinarily use the term in the popular Western sense. There is no real historicality or individuality accruing to the "person" and precious little freedom, What we consider to be the basis of individual personhood is written off as unreal. What is real is the universal sameness of Buddha nature; in this sameness, individual personhood, as we ordinarily use the term, cannot be found, Thus, before "conversion" and while in the existential mode of delusion, a person is not a person.

    2. What, then, of the person after "conversion," the "pure" or enlightened person? Again we must begin by stating that the person is the Buddha nature. Thus, also in the existential mode of enlightenment there apparently is this degree of universal sameness. But how far, in this mode, does this sameness extend? The fact that we are all the Buddha nature means that we are all characterized by clear seeing and altruistic behavior. But persons in the enlightened existential mode, unlike persons in the deluded mode, have made this Buddha nature manifest in real acts of clarity and altruism. This manifestation in action, therefore, brings the Buddha nature into the realm of particularity and individuality. No two acts of clarity or of compassion are alike. Hence, once the Buddha nature moves into the realm of manifestation, it is no longer appropriate to speak of universal sameness, since the Buddha nature is no more than those particular acts of clarity and altruism and no entity of any kind.

    In other words, the person is the Buddha nature as manifest in particular actions and only as manifest in those actions. Thus, history and individuality, which were lacking in the deluded existential mode, enter the constitution of the person now, in the enlightened existential mode. The particular behaviors, mannerisms, and even the personality of the person now possess reality and value. Moreover, the actions of the person now possess complete autonomy and freedom. What the person does (physically, psychologically) has no relation to the world of karma and kle`sa, but is entirely a spontaneous manifestation of the always free Buddha nature. The person, then, is really and fully a person at this stage, after "conversion" and upon entry into the enlightened existential mode.

    We must emphasize this remarkable point: "conversion" and enlightened behavior not only do not rob a person of individuality, but in fact constitute its very possibility for the first time. Compare this with the classic position of the Hindu Upani.sads, in which, upon enlightenment, the person loses whatever individuality he or she had by merging into the Oneness of Brahman-AAtman, "as when rivers flowing towards the ocean find there final peace, their name and form disappear, and people speak only of the ocean."(14) The position of Buddha nature thought is the precise converse of this. Buddhist practice constitutes the possibility for discovering and actualizing individuality for the first time. One becomes a person upon enlightenment. One gains freedom. The history which one constructs with one's particular actions is a real thing.

    This, in the end, is the result of the position epitomized in the Buddha Nature Treatise's line which states that Buddha nature is manifest in Thusness; one realizes it.

    Attachments are not real; therefore they are called vacuous. If one gives rise to these attachments, true wisdom will not arise. When one does away with these attachments, then we speak of Buddha nature. Buddha nature is the Thusness (chen-ju(l)) revealed (hsien(an)) by the dual emptiness of person and things.... If one does not speak of Buddha nature, then one does not understand emptiness. (787b)

    In the view of the BNT, Buddhist practice gains one something, and that something is reality: one finds reality in oneself and in one's world. And this reality possesses absolute value. Just as the logic of Buddha nature thought compelled the author ultimately to speak of an aatmapaaramitaa in which the negativity of anaatman and `suunyataa was simultaneously inverted and fulfilled, so here the negativity of the karma and kle`sa-based realm of historty and individuality is inverted and transformed into a realm in which history and individuality are real and valuable. Here, though, unlike the anaatmanaatmapaaramitaa inversion, the history and personhood which one creates are something new. AAtmapaaramitaa is simply the completely adequate undersranding of anaatman. The free acts of a real individual creating him- or herself, moment by moment, are the construction of a historical world which never before existed, even in potential.

    3. We need now to consider the existential status of the pivot between the two existential modes of delusion and enlightenment, namely, aa`srayaparaav.rtti or conversion. The status of aa`srayaparaav.rtti is not worked out as fully in the text as one would prefer, but in the end it falls into the category of the existential mode of enlightenment. AA`srayaparaav.rtti, it is said many times, is "pure": it is the purity of the dharmadhaatu, the purity of the Buddha nature. As pure, it falls squarely on the side of enlightenment. It is also, however, identified with Buddhist practice: it is the basis of the Buddha Way; the foundation of the extinction of delusion; the fruition of practice as manifest in goodness. reverence, and knowledge; and it is the attainment of Thusness. In these respects, its nature might at first seem to be one that is transitional between delusion and purity, but that in fact is not the case. When, as the text says, one is "on the Way," aa`srayaparaav.rtti is the cause. When one has "completed the Way," it is called "fruit." Nonetheless, this aa`srayaparaav.rtti must finally be understood as belonging totally on the side of purity and enlightenment, in short, of fruition. It is cause in the same way that the Buddha nature is cause: it is always fully complete with all its virtues intact. It serves as cause of one's being. "on the Way," or, in other words, as cause of the Buddha Way in the sense that, like Buddha nature, it is the purity of Thusness impelling one to practice Buddhism, impelling one to seek freedom and the realization of personhood. AA`srayaparaav.rtti is capable of serving as a pivot between the two existential modes precisely because it is purity in the act of causing one to be on the Buddhist Path. Like hodhicitta, which is also identified with the Buddha nature, it can be a first act on the Buddhist Path. But even as a first act, it is already completely pure; it is purity that moves one to perform that first act of stepping onto the Path, and the act itself is constituted of purity.

    There is in this notion that aa`srayaparaav.rtti is identifiable both as purity and as Buddhist practice an anticipation of Dogen's later concept of Buddhist practice as realization, To be sure, this idea is in no way developed in the BNT the way it is in Dogen, but the germ of Dogen's view is latently present here. In the BNT, aa`srayaparaav.rtti is called "pure'' in its role both as cause and as fruit. But, as we have seen, as cause it is already in full possession of its character as fruit. We have here, then, a notion in which every authentic act of Buddhist practice is itself of the nature of fruition, the nature of the end of the Path, of purity or realization. A genuine act of Buddhist practice, whether the first awakening of the desire to practice, an advanced state of samaadhi, or the dedication of oneself to the salvation of others in perpetuity, is always a manifestation of Buddha nature as such, which is always of the character of full and complete clarity and altruism. Purity and Buddhist practice, then, are alike. Thus aa`srayaparaav.rtti while always of the nature of purity and fruition, can nevertheless be identified with Buddhist practice.

    Now insofar as the crucial event which separates the deluded existential mode from the enlightened existential mode is the act of conversion, aa`srayaparaav.rtti, this conversion itself must be crucial to the concept of personhood embraced by the BNT. This act of conversion which engenders real personhood is in effect the foundation of personhood. If there is any statement which can apply to both modes of the existential dimension, and thus epitomizes the existential nature of human beings as such, it is that we are beings whose nature it is to transform ourselves, to undergo radical transformation at the very foundation of personhood, namely, at the foundation of act-genesis. The deluded existential mode is the drive--however convoluted--towards that event, while the enlightened existential mode is the dynamic manifestation of that event, the ongoing manifestation of free personhood.

A Final Question

    A final, and important, question remains to us. When we combine our insights on the existential and ontological aspects of human personhood as suggested by Buddha nature thought, one apparent inconsistency remains. Buddha nature thought universally affiirms, "all sentient beings possess the Buddha nature.'' If, though, as I have argued above, Buddha nature is not an entity, but rather certain kinds of acts, and if in the deluded existential mode such enlightened acts by definition do not appear, what is the status of Buddha nature for the person in delusion? If, in short, Buddha nature is not an entity and if it is not manifest in acts while one is deluded, in what sense can it be said to be there at all for that deluded person? It would seem that Buddha nature could not be present under such conditions. Yet the Buddha nature tradition specifically asserts that the deluded also possess Buddha nature. How can this be?

    The beginning of an answer to this question is the acknowledgment that in the deluded existential mode Buddha nature is really just a promise. When, from time to time, the deluded person acts freely out of Buddha nature, then, in that act of "purity,'' Buddha nature is fully manifest, fully realized. Outside such moments, it is only a promise. That this must be so can be seen when one places Buddha nature thought in the larger context of Buddhist philosophy. In Buddhism, "reality" always means "experiential reality." To ascribe reality to anything outside experience would certainly violate the most basic Buddhist principles. So to the extent that, in delusion, Buddha nature is outside experiential reality (our experiential reality is the concealing kle`sa), it is not in any real way present. It is present only as promise. In this light, we can look once again at the passage quoted above from the BNT:

    Attachments are not real; therefore they are called vacuous. If one gives rise to these attachments, true wisdom will not arise. When one does away with these attachments, then we speak of Buddha nature. (787b)

    While the attachments are experientially present, we do not speak of Buddha nature. Only when wisdom is experientially present do we speak of it, or claim it.

    A parallel to this reading of the text is found in Sung Bae Park's study of doctrinal and patriarchal faith in Zen. He writes:

    Whereas doctrinal faith is the commitment that "I can become Buddha, " patriarchal faith is the affirmation that "I am already Buddha.'' Therefore, patriarchal faith is not to be regarded as a ''preliminary" to enlightenment, as is doctrinal faith, but as equivalent to enlightenment itself. To arouse patriarchal faith is to become instantly enlightened.(15)

    Thus, insofar as the patriarchal faith that "I am already Buddha" is equivalent to the realization of enlightenment, one cannot authentically affirm "I am
already Buddha" until one is enlightened, that is, until one experientially knows one's Buddhahood. This is the language of Zen, and the BNT does not speak quite this way. I believe, though, that the BNT's affirmation, "I, a deluded person, possess the Buddha nature," must be understood to function authentically only within the same limits. The statement can only be made by a person who knows experientially that it is true.

    These statements take us close to the solution of our problem. While in the deluded existential mode, Buddha nature is present as promise in two senses, which must be distinguished. First, of course, there is the promise of future Buddhahood affirmed for all. Second, and more imporrant for the present question, there is the promise that Buddha nature is present to the deluded person now in the sense that it can and will appear in its fullness and purity now if only the deluded person will open his or her eyes and see it. Thus, to say that Buddha nature is present "only" as a promise while in the deluded existential mode is not to negate that it is, in fact, present and real at all times and in all conditions. But it is up to the deluded person to see that reality, to "realize" the reality of the Buddha nature for him- or herself now, in the present moment.

    In this context, we should recall that in the BNT the Buddha nature is consistently identified with Buddhist practice. Thus, all appearance of contradiction or inconsistency is removed when we think of Buddha nature as equivalent to the Buddhist practice of those still enmired in the existential dimension of delusion. Thus, Buddha nature can be present now, in its fullness and purity, even though it is not an entity of any kind and even though one is enmired in the condition of delusion insofar as it is manifest in acts of practice, or, in other words, insofar as, and no farther than, one's actions bring that Buddha nature into the world of experiential reality.


    The present essay is an exercise in cross-cultural philosophy and, moreover, a demonstration of the fact that cross-cultural philosophy is today a Western enterprise. I have taken an ancient Chinese Buddhist text. attempted to explain it in its own terms, and then lifted it whole and dropped it into the world of Western philosophical inquiry. What has emerged from this process is something new: something that is neither a Chinese Buddhist artifact, nor something that fits entirely comfortably into contemporary Western philosophy.

    The views expressed above on the concept of person, and especially on the existential aspects of this concept, are only implicit in the text from which I have derived them, but they are there in potential; they can be deduced and made explicit when the relevant questions are applied. They follow directly from the textual material and are consistent with the general philosophical perspective of East Asian Mahaayaana Buddhism. I suggest that many Buddhist (and other Asian) texts should be searched, as I have searched the BNT, with the questions which a modern Westerner cannot help asking help in hand, rather than tucked away. To approach a text with questions derived from a variety of perspectives (including culturally alien views) is to offer that text the opportunity to unfold its potential. To be sure, something new is created in this process, which should not be confused with the original text itself, but without this process, the text is relegated to past history.

1. The author wishes to thank Professor Leon Hurvitz for checking the Chinese translations and making a number of important suggestions for improvement. Any remaining errors are of course mine alone.
2. Takasaki Jikido(ao) , "Structure of the Anuttaraa`srayasuutra (Wu Sbang I Ching(ap) ), " Indogaku Bukkyogaku kenkyuu 8 (March 1960): 35 (his citation of Hattori).
3. Ui Hakuju(aq), Hoshoron kenkyuu(ar) (Tokyo. Iwanami Shoten), 1960, p. 366. Takemura Shoho(as), Busshoron kenkyuu(at) (Tokyo: Hyakkaengan, 1978. p. 6.
4. Fo Hsing Lun(a) , in Tarsho shinshuu daizokyo(au) 31, no. 1610: 787-794. Future references to the Buddha Nature Treatise will be given parenthetically in the text of the article. The author gratefully acknowledges the support of the National Endowment for the Humanities, in the form of a 1985 Summer stipend, which furthered her research on the Buddha Nature Treatise, resulting in the present article as well as a future book-length study of the same subject.
5. The four subjects of contemplation, the four kinds of right effort, the four steps to super powers, the five spiritual faculties and their five associated powers, the seven levels of bodhi (wisdom) , and the eight constituents of the Eightfold Noble Path.
6. As will be explained below, the Thusness of Thusness represents, in this text, the mutuality of the subjective and objective facets of Thusness.
7. In other words, this section of the article is an inquiry into what would formerly have been called the text's "concept of man.'' With the discovery that the term "man" is a false generic, this phrase is no longer appropriate. Unfortunately, no phrase has yet been found to serve as an adequate replacement, although "philosophical anthropology" probably comes closest in meaning. In what follows. in place of the question "What is man?'' I will ask. "What is a person?"
8. For the idea of these two dimensions I am indebted to Joaquin Perez-Remon. Self and Non-Self in Early Buddhism, Reason and Religion. no. 22 (The Hague: Mouton, 1980).
 9. For a more detailed discussion of this passage as well as further elaboration of the nonentivative, active quality of the Buddha nature, see Sallie King, "The Buddha Nature: True Self as Action.'' Relipious Studies 20 (June 1984): 255-267.
10. The author refers to the text as Pao ting ching(av), but it should be Pao chi ching(aw). (Takemura Shoho(as), Busshoron kenkyuu(at) (Tokyo: Hyakkaengan, 1978): 157.
11. The sixth consciousness of Yogaacaara thought, which is responsible for discriminating between "self' and "not-self."
12. The realms of desire, form, and the formless.
13. I take this translation from Aramaki Noritoshi's paper presented at the U.S. -Japan Conference on Japanese Buddhism, Madison, Wisconsin, in 1985. I do not wish to convey any sense of a Christian conversion experience by my use of this term; however, I do intend the connotation of a fundamentally life-altering experience, a connotation which is present in the Chinese use of the term.
14. Juan Mascaro, trans., The Upanishads (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1965), Pra`sna Upani.sad, p. 74.
15. Sung Bae park, Buddhist Faith and Sudden Enlightenment (Albany: SUNY Press, 1983), p. 19.