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The Strikingly Optimistic Agency of the Doctrine of Buddha Nature

A modern koan -- Question:  Do you have Buddha Nature?  Answer:  Well, duh.

The concept of "Buddha Nature" is often difficult to understand, but it is a radically optimistic doctrine.  It says that not only are we responsible for our lives, but that we already have everything we need to liberate ourselves from suffering.  If we compare it to many other religions, it is surprising how much agency this doctrine grants each of us individually. 

For example, consider the doctrine of original sin in Christianity – we somehow personally are separated from Grace because of something we didn’t do (eating the “apple” in the Garden of Eden).  Unfortunately we are also unable to heal this separation by ourselves.  We need an intermediary (Jesus) or two (and a priest) to bridge the gap for us.  That is, we had no agency over our own fall, nor do we have it over our salvation.  In contrast, Buddhism agrees that we fall from grace, but it’s because of something we did. In fact, we fall from grace regularly every time we do something harmful.  More importantly, however, we have the agency to fix the problems we create.  Indeed, we are really the only ones who can.

The great poet Ann Onymous once said, “A lot of growing up takes place between ‘it fell’ and ‘I broke it.’”  I personally believe that a mark of spiritual maturity is taking responsibility for one’s mind and actions.  The Buddhist project to me, therefore, is one of growing up – learning to see clearly the connected causes and conditions and to take responsibility for what we can when we can.  If “enlightenment” is some mystical state, then we are not granted agency over our own lives.  The Pali texts do not describe enlightenment as paranormal or external, but that enlightenment rises up in the individual, “as though he recognized it – had always known it” (Armstrong, 2001, p. 104).  That is, our own natures are sufficient, and we have full agency over our own salvation. 

Perhaps even more strikingly positive is the reason for the fall from grace/awakening/Nirvana/union with God.  In Christianity the reason is the inherent sinfulness of man (actually, since the Biblical texts were written by men, most of the blame is shifted to women).  In Buddhism, the reason for our bad behaviors is because of ignorance and confusion covering over our inherently good nature (Buddha Nature or Basic Goodness).  Thus we do not need an external agent or savior – we just need to see through the confusion and uncover our basic nature.  This is a powerfully optimistic doctrine.  We already have everything we need to awaken.  As noted by Thich Thien-An (p. 146), “Zen holds that reality is to be gotten hold of, not externally, but inwardly.  The truth is to be found in our own nature and nowhere else.  Every living being has within himself the Buddha nature, the principle of enlightenment.”


            Armstrong, K. (2001).  Buddha. New York: Penguin Group.

           Thien-An, T. (1975). Zen philosophy, Zen practice. Berkeley, CA: Dharma Publishing.

Painting: Adam and Eve by Tintoretto 

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