Buddha-Nature and the Clear Light Mind
Alexander Berzin, Berlin, Germany, October 2006. Unedited Transcript
Alex: It is a question about the relation of clear light mind (’od-gsal) and Buddha-nature (sangs-rgyas-kyi rigs).
Buddha-nature – as discussed in another Indian text by Maitreya called Uttaratantra (rGyud bla-ma; The Furthest Everlasting Continuum) – Buddha-nature is basically those factors which are responsible for everybody to become a Buddha. Why is it possible that we can become Buddhas and that everybody can become Buddhas? Well, those factors that make it possible are Buddha-nature factors. We are not talking about one thing when we talk about Buddha-nature; we’re talking about many, many, many different aspects, many different factors. There are three types of factors. One is called an evolving factor (rgyas-’gyur-gyi rigs). These are things that will develop and grow. Another one is an abiding factor (rang-bzhin gnas-rigs), which is the basic situation that is there all the time, something that remains always the same. And then the third one is the fact that the mind can be inspired and uplifted in order to help us to change.
Now we’ll talk about the clear light mind. The clear light mind is the subtlest level of mind. That’s what actually is continuing moment to moment to moment. It is not a thing. It is like a movie: one moment after another moment. That’s what continues all the way into enlightenment. What are the qualities of this? The clear light mind has the qualities that we would call Buddha-nature. So what are some qualities of it? There are some qualities that are going to abide, remain the same. For instance, the main thing is that it has the ability to understand, to know things. That’s always going to be the same. Because it can understand, because we can know things, we can become a Buddha. If there wasn’t mind, if there wasn’t that aspect of being able to know, how can you become a Buddha? How can you help anybody?
The other thing that remains all the time is the voidness of the mind: it doesn’t exist in some impossible way. Voidness means an absence of impossible ways of existing. It doesn’t exist encapsulated in plastic, as a thing that never will change, that belongs to “me,” “my” clear light mind – this type of thing. It doesn’t exist in some impossible way. Because it doesn’t exist in an impossible way when we are in samsara, it also doesn’t exist in an impossible way when we are in nirvana. It is the same. The voidness is the same. Because it is voidness, it can be developed into a Buddha-mind.
Now, what develops? What are the developing features? I mean, there’s many ways of discussing this. We have basic factors here which are, for instance – first of all, we go back to this understanding. Well, that understanding can be developed more and more and more. We basically have the ability to understand; that ability is there all the time, but it can be developed more and more and more. We have a certain amount of positive force (bsod-nams) – sometimes translated as “merit,” but that’s a strange word. There’s positive force there, and that positive force can be developed more and more and more, so we have the positive force to be able to actually help everybody.
We can speak also in terms of body, speech, and mind. With that clear light mind, there is a certain type of energy that supports it. Because there is energy, which is some physical component, we have a body. We have a body, a samsaric body. We could have a body as a Buddha. It’s a basic factor. There’s some physical aspect that can develop, that can grow more and more. That energy radiates out, it communicates – that’s communication, that’s speech, in the most general sense. So because that energy radiates out, as a Buddha we will be able to communicate with everybody in the fullest way. We will be able to help everybody in the fullest way, because that energy – the basic factor is that the clear light mind has some energy and that energy radiates out.
And the clear light mind has the ability to understand, and then it becomes the mind of a Buddha – it can understand everything. And that clear light mind is something which can be uplifted, it can be inspired, which will help to develop all these aspects further and further. That is an important point. How can a Buddha help us? How can a teacher help us? Buddha can’t pull out our suffering like pulling out a thorn from your foot (a classic line from one of the sutras). A Buddha can only help us by showing us the way, by inspiring us. That inspiration of the example of a Buddha, the kindness of a Buddha, uplifts the mind, helps to give that energy a boost. That is part of Buddha-nature, the fact that our clear light mind can be inspired – this cup can’t be inspired, but my mind can be inspired – it can be positively influenced.
So all of these are Buddha-nature factors. And they are basically qualities and aspects of the clear light mind, because everybody has that, including when you are in an insect rebirth, including when you are in any rebirth – the mind still has this.
We can speak of the different types of how the mind works. These are also Buddha-nature aspects. The mind takes in information. Well, the worm takes in information too. The fact that the mind takes in information means that we can be aware of everything; we can take in the information of the whole universe. The mind is capable of – this is the way it works – seeing the equality of things; in other words, putting things together. If I couldn’t put things together, I wouldn’t be able to know that each of these objects are all living beings – they are all human beings. The mind is able to do that: put things together, see what’s common. The worm can do that, otherwise how does a worm know food? It sees different things that are all food. He knows that they are all food. The mind is able to know the individuality of things. This is an individual thing – this is my barn (the cow knows that), this is my child (cow knows that). Mind knows how to accomplish things, how to do things. A worm sees a piece of food and it knows what to do with it, knows to eat it. Mind has that ability to know how to do things. And mind has the ability to know what something is. This is food. We don’t have to have a word for it – the worm knows this is food. This is a rock, a little pebble. A worm can do that.
So these are all Buddha-nature factors. As a Buddha we are able to take in all the information of everything, everybody. And we can see the equality: everybody wants to be happy, nobody wants to be unhappy. We have equal love for everybody. We know the individuality, this person’s karma, the effect of teaching this person this thing – or that person. We know the individuality. We know how to accomplish what to teach the person in order to help them. And we know what things are and how they exist.
Because we have these aspects of how the mind works – the clear light mind works – that enables us to become a Buddha, because we can develop the qualities of these so that they function fully like that of a Buddha. That’s Buddha-nature. And now these things are clouded over with our confusion, with our thinking in a limited way: me, me, me. And because it’s clouded over with confusion then they don’t function in their fullest way. But that confusion is like the clouds in the sky. If you clear away the clouds – clouds aren’t part of the sky, they are just temporary, they pass. So this is what we work on with the four noble truths – to get rid of those clouds, because the basic nature has all these qualities, and if the clouds weren’t there they would function fully. So we have to give it a boost.
Question: Does the worm know its job? That would mean its mind is much clearer than ours, and the worm can get enlightenment before us.
Alex: The question is, does the worm know its job – so its mind is clearer than ours and can gain enlightenment before us?
First of all, we are talking about a mental continuum that happens, in this particular life time, to have a worm body. It is not a worm forever. Now, as a worm, it is very limited. It has the Buddha-nature, so it is able to tell food from a rock – it’s able to see the information of a colored shape and know that it is food – but that doesn’t mean that its mind is clear. It knows its job in the sense that it knows how to eat, it knows how to produce babies, knows how to run away if there’s danger. That’s much simpler.
Does the worm have disturbing emotions? Probably, yes. We’d have to say that it does. From a Buddhist point of view, it certainly has naivety; it certainly doesn’t understand on a deep level what is going on. We can’t teach the worm to meditate. Does the worm have anger? I don’t know. A worm certainly has fear, otherwise it wouldn’t run away if there is danger – when we try to pick it up and it curls and it does all sorts of things to try to get away from it.
From the Buddhist point of view, it is only on the basis of a precious human rebirth that you can attain liberation or enlightenment, because with a precious human rebirth, with all the qualities of it, we don’t have too much suffering or too little suffering. If you have too little suffering, you don’t care, you don’t have any motivation – one of these heavenly realms. If you have too much suffering, like in the hell realms or starving in a war zone, you can’t think to do spiritual practice – you just want to survive. So it is only precious human life that has that ability.