No Self, No Buddha Nature

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One of the Buddha’s most important, most original teachings is that we don’t have a self, or at least a self that can be pointed to in any way. No soul. No essence. No unchanging identity. This was a direct contradiction of the Vedic religion as well as just about every other religious and philosophical teaching of the time and of any other time.

It’s so hard to avoid the idea that we have a self, that teachers keep trying to smuggled it back into Buddhism under other guises. One of the most seductive is the idea of Buddha Nature. The idea is that we don’t have a self in a “conventional sense”, but in a deeper way, oh! it turns out we have a self after all!

If you take Buddha Nature to mean that we all have the deep possibility of enlightenment, great! It doesn’t really teach us much, but it’s a good affirmation. If, on the other hand, you take it to mean that we are all really Buddhas once your scrape off the grime of the hindrances, then it’s just another version of the Self doctrine.

It’s not true that we have a Buddha Nature. This is a mistake that arose centuries after the death of the Buddha. The Buddha taught very clearly that the mind is conditioned. It was important to him for us to understand this. Conditioned means that there IS NOT AN ORIGINAL MIND. Neither a beautiful clear glowing perfect mind nor a permanently sinful mind. A false dichotomy is sometimes drawn: well, either we have a perfect mind already, or else we’re just screwed. Or perhaps that we are doomed to eons of work perfecting ourselves.

The Buddha never taught any of those things. We have the ability, indeed the perfect once-in-many-eons opportunity, to do all the work that needs to be done right here in this life. We don’t have a perfect glowing mind. It is conditioned, right through. But we can achieve a perfected beautiful glowing mind if we do the work to make it so.

It’s not a matter of just accepting ourselves as we are without judgement. Quite the contrary! It’s about engaging our intellect, our emotions, all of our skills and abilities to become who we want to become! Not accepting things as we are! And this is true right from understanding, to behavior, to breath, to meditation, to mind.

For more on the Buddhist understanding of the nature of the self, check out my posts Why Is It Again I’m Not My Body? and Why Is It Again I’m Not My Mind?

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