369. Buddha Nature (1)

The term  ‘Buddha Nature’ first appears in the  Tathagatagarbha  Sutra  and in a number of subsequent sutras, most famously the Nirvana Sutra and thence, via the Lankavatara Sutra,  into  Zen, hence the most  famous koan about whether or not a dog has Buddha Nature

The Tathagata Sutra  is a really interesting sutra. It’s very short  and it’s not discursive. It has an instruction, then eight  similies  for Buddha Nature.

  The introduction was apparently added  later.  In it, the Buddha is giving  a talk to a large number  of  named  bodhisattvas. He performs a kind of conjuring trick, miraculously creating the appearance of a multitude of beautiful lotus flowers in the sky. Within each lotus flower,  there’s a Buddha.

After the initial vision, the lotus flowers suddenly wither, giving off a  foul stench. 

The  similes used are interesting  too:
The first is  honey  in a cave or a tree  surrounded by  a swarm of  bees;
The second  is a kernel of wheat  that has not had the husk removed;
The third  is gold in a pit of waste;
The fourth  is an unknown treasure underneath a poor person’s house;
The fifth  is the core of a fruit which  can then develop into a  magnificent tree;
The sixth  is a gold statue  wrapped in filthy rags;

The seventh, which probably gives the  sutra its name,  is (and I’m quoting) ” an impoverished, vile and ugly woman, hated by others, who bears a king  in her womb”; 

The last one is a golden statue which has been in a  foundry, so has a dark casing.

All of these similes refer to the kleshas. ‘Klesha’ literally means poison  and in this context means  a mental state that clouds the mind. There’s lots  of them: ignorance,

self-centeredness,  attachment, avoidance,  and fear, and many others.

Klesha is often translated as ‘adventitious  defilements’.  This is typical of an elevated way of translating which, focusing on apparent accuracy of meaning,  distances us  from the emotional  sense  of the term translated.  In a similar way, is-ness is often rendered as thusness, and we lose the sense of “well, it doesn’t (independently and separately) exist but it doesn’t not exist either, so what do we call it?”; a human sense, that you can imagine real people actually saying. This does seem to happen in  translation quite a lot. For example, when Ernest Jones translated Freud he rendered ‘Ich’ (‘I’)  as ‘Ego’, with predictable consequences. 

Given the ubiquity of euphemism, my  guess is that the pit of waste is really a pit of shit. The  dirty robes/rags are probably something similar. Despite that, the emotion in these similes remains clear: 
the angry swarm of bees protecting the  honey is  anger; 
the kernel of wheat inside the husk that is unknown is ignorance, 
the the pit of shit is disgust; 
the treasure beneath the poor person’s house is ignorance again,  
the core of the fruit, ignorance again; 
the gold statue wrapped in filthy  rags, disgust again;
the impoverished  vile woman, disgust;
a golden statue  wrapped within a dark casing,  ignorance;
and the initial  image  that  we have about these flowers giving off a foul stench is obviously disgust as  well.

These are emotions that we  generally don’t want to go anywhere near—just like we wouldn’t want to go near a  pit of shit, we don’t want to go near our disgust, our  anger and  so on. 

If we pay  attention to the emotions which are invoked by these similes  then I think we can understand  how the Tathagata,  far from being some  quaint  Chinese medieval  device, is actually a very  good  description  of Zazen.

When we’re sitting we’re aware of this  kind of  dynamic  emptiness – this treasure – at our centre.We’re also  aware of all our surrounding  nonsense: our  fluctuating thought babble, emotions, images and all the rest. All of which  are just coming and going  and which  we can see  doesn’t  really  exist. That’s where  the introduction is  helpful, because it is saying  that  these stinking  lotus flowers,  these  kleshas don’t exist either, because they’re  all taking place within the Buddha’s  conjuring trick. 

If you  understand all of that,  then it seems to me that the Tathagatagarbha is a  very helpful and practical way  of looking at  our practice  and  our experience  in Zazen.