This is the foundation from which we say that we are born with Buddha nature inside us, but that it then gets buried under the reactions of our ego-mind to our life experiences … the five skandhas. Scholars may debate whether the etymology of the word’s origin means “embryo” or “essence” or a variety of translations, but the end effect is the same.
So if the mind we are born with is pure and luminous, or true Buddha nature, where does that come from? It would be logical to say that when we are born, our minds are a blank slate. But this is not what the Buddha taught. Instead, the mind has qualities that we associate with the Buddha.
But the Buddha is not a God or a deity. He was a great teacher, nothing more nor less. He was not a creator; we are not made in his image. So if we are born with this luminous, pure mind . . . again, where does it come from? Why do we not just have a blank slate? Indeed, where did the Buddha’s luminous mind come from? He did not create his pure mind; he uncovered it.
Some might suggest that this is a result of evolution. Yet it seems hardly likely that that would be the case. Yes, evolution developed the brain of man, his ability to think. But as we well know, thinking is mostly not a luminous or pure process. Quite the contrary.
So if we are indeed all born with this luminous, embryonic mind within us, the seed of true Buddha nature, it must come from a source other than evolution. And the only other possible source is the Divine.
By that I am not referring to God, or at least not God in the traditional sense used in the three Abrahamic faiths. There is no God who controls the actions of man, there is no God to listen to our prayers, there is no God to grant us salvation. That God, the God of our forefathers, is indeed dead.
But there is instead the god that exists inside us – the divine essence, as it is referred to in the mystical traditions … Kabbalah, Sufism, and Gnosticism. Sounds like true Buddha nature. This is of course quite the opposite of the belief of much of Christianity in original sin, that man is born a sinner and must look to God/Christ for salvation.
But if one doesn’t believe in the big God in the sky, the creator who made man in his image (what egocentric nonsense), where does this divine essence, this luminous, pure mind come from? It must come from whatever power in the universe oversaw the creation of sentient beings.
Perhaps it would help our understanding if we asked the question, is only man born with Buddha nature, with a luminous mind? Most people would assume, given their perception of man’s stature in the hierarchy of sentient beings, that the answer must be, “yes.” Indeed, some in our society would probably say that only white men are born with this faculty.
Yet Buddhist teaching is to the contrary. Here’s what the Dalai Lama has said. "Every sentient being—even insects—have Buddha nature. The seed of Buddha means consciousness, the cognitive power [the power to know, not necessarily to think]—the seed of enlightenment.” Indeed, animals are often thought of as being pure, unburdened by thought.
I even wrote a post once, “The Wisdom of Chickens.” Looking back at that post now, I realize that what I thought at the time was cute commentary is really the truth. If nirvana is seeing things as they are, observing all things with dispassion, without the intervention of the five skandhas, then my chickens and all animals are not only born with that perspective, but mostly maintain it throughout their life. The only psychic disturbance they suffer is from the hands of man; man can make an animal neurotic in a way that no natural disaster that they suffer can.
Man on the other hand was burdened by evolution with an evolved brain, with the ability to think and analyze. And rather than being a universal source of strength, of luminosity, it has been a universal source of weakness. It is the exceptional person that is not caught up in the ego-mind and doesn’t suffer. Man's ego-mind overpowers his luminosity.
The revelation of the Buddha and Buddhism 3500 years ago is that man is seen as inherently pure and good, as are the animals. There is no mention of the Divine in Buddhism, there is no God, no creation story. But the Buddha taught that man, human beings, are endowed at birth with a purity, a goodness, a luminosity. One could say that with its emphasis on humans as being both the cause of suffering and the solution, that Buddhism was the earliest example of humanism.
But the question still remains, in the Buddhist view, if all mankind and animals are born with Buddha nature inside them, where does it come from? Where does the self that is revealed when man frees himself from the conceit, “I am,” come from?
The answer is unknowable. I’ve ruled out God and evolution, at least regarding man. As for animals, the concept of purity, goodness, and luminosity seems to go against the process of natural selection, the violent fight for survival that is an integral part of nature and animal life. So evolution would seem to not be the answer as regards animals as well.
That leaves one with the “or.” And that is an unknowable divine. Whatever force in nature oversaw the evolution of the universe, which includes the evolution of Earth into a life-bearing planet, saw fit to have all creatures, all sentient beings, born with an inherent purity, goodness, and luminosity … what we Buddhists refer to as Buddha nature, but since Buddha was not a God or Divine, we should probably refer to it as divine essence.
One reason not to reach this conclusion is because the word “divine” brings to mind the God of the Old Testament and the three Abrahamic faiths. And that is something that many Buddhists, as well as many others, no longer believe in.
But there is no reason for that connection to be made anymore. As I said earlier, we speak today of god, meaning the divine, being in each of us. I heard this concept first when I went to a Hillel program when I was in law school 50+ years ago. This is consistent with what we Buddhists refer to as Buddha nature. And the fact that the mystical traditions of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity talk of that divine essence with reference to their God should make no difference. As my mother used to say, “Each Jew makes his own Sabbath.” Likewise, each person I think makes his own accommodation with the divine.
The other reason not to accept this conclusion is that modern man is not comfortable with faith in something unknowable, that doesn’t fit in the scheme of scientific reasoning. Yet there are many things in this world, especially pertaining to matters spiritual or paranormal, that are beyond scientific reasoning.
For example, for me personally, I do not question the general validity of astrology (as opposed to using astrology to decide whether to do something on a particular day). The first time I had my natal chart drawn, by someone who did not know me, I was astonished at the detail it provided about the type of person I am. I have no idea why being born at a specific time on a specific date in a specific place with the planets aligned in a specific way should influence my basic personality characteristics, but that appears to be the case, irrefutably. And so I have no problem believing in the unknowable, that which flies in the face of scientific knowledge or reasoning.
The reason why all sentient beings are endowed with a luminous, pure mind at birth … true Buddha nature or divine essence … is unknowable, but it is the truth. Man, the “highest” form of life, who was gifted by evolution with a brain that can think and analyze, became in fact burdened by this development and so most of mankind has been deprived of the knowledge of his luminous, pure mind and the peace and happiness that flows from it.
Man is, however, able to choose to believe in his true self and find peace and happiness in the midst of the world’s dysfunction and cruelty. Which is empowering. But because the challenge to have that awareness is so great and thus comes to so few, animals (at least those not under the control of man) really have it better. They are one with their divine essence.
Bottom line, Buddhism, which sees mankind, human beings, as being both the source of suffering and the solution, which looks to no God for salvation, is nevertheless inextricably connected to the unknowable power in the universe, the divine force. Buddha nature and divine essence are in fact one.