Ornament of Precious Liberation - Selections
A welcome new translation of Gampopa’s classic overview of the Buddha’s teachings.
1. Buddha Nature The line “The prime cause is buddha nature” states the following. As mentioned above, you need to gain freedom from the deluded nature of samsara and to attain highest enlightenment. However, you might well wonder, “Even if we or other ordinary people like us were to try very hard, how could we ever possibly attain enlightenment?” In truth, anyone who practices with great effort cannot fail to reach enlightenment. Why? Because all forms of conscious life, including ourselves, possess its prime cause. Within us is buddha nature. The King of Meditation Sutra states: Buddha nature totally permeates all beings. The shorter Great [Passing into] Nirvana Sutra says: All sentient beings possess buddha nature. Further, the longer Great [Passing into] Nirvana Sutra says: Just as butter, for example, exists in milk as something totally permeating it, so does buddha nature permeate all sentient beings. The Ornament of Mahayana Sutras also states: Suchness is the same for all and everyone; it is that which is pure. Since this is the Tathāgata, all beings are endowed with this essence. MSA 10:37 If this is so, you may wonder why sentient beings are endowed with buddha nature. It is because: (1) dharmakāya, emptiness, pervades all beings, (2) the universal essence (dharmatā), suchness (tathatā), is without differentiation, and (3) every sentient being has the potential to become a buddha. This is just what is stated in the Uttaratantra, where it says: Because the Buddha’s body pervades all, because suchness is without differentiation, and because they possess the potential, every living being at all times has buddha nature. RGV 1:28 To explain the first reason, “dharmakāya, emptiness, pervades all beings,” here the Buddha is embodied in the dharmakāya, and the dharmakāya is emptiness. Since emptiness is something pervading all sentient beings, it follows that all those beings have the essence of buddhahood. The second reason, “the universal essence, suchness, is without differentiation,” means that whether it be in terms of good and bad, great and small, or higher and lower, there is no difference between the universal essence in buddhas and the universal essence in sentient beings. Thus sentient beings possess the buddha essence. That “every sentient being has the potential to become a buddha” is explained through the five ways in which they stand in respect to enlightenment potential. These are outlined in the following synopsis: Those with enlightenment potential can be summed up as belonging to five groups: those with severed potential, undetermined potential, śrāvaka potential, pratyekabuddha potential, and those with the Mahayana potential. Those with severed potential are characterized by six traits, such as lacking a sense of shame in public, having no dignity in private, lacking compassion, and so forth. The great master Asaṅga has said of them: Though seeing what is wrong with samsara, they are not in the least put off by it. Though hearing about the qualities of enlightened beings, they feel not the slightest faith in them. Without conscience and shame, and devoid of even a little compassion, they feel not the slightest regret for the unwholesome acts in which they fully indulge. Through compounding those six shortcomings, they are far from ready for enlightenment. It also says in the Ornament of Mahayana Sutras: It is certain that some are solely engaged in what is harmful. Some are constantly destroying whatever is good. Others lack those virtues conducive to liberation. They are devoid of anything that could in any way be wholesome. MSA 4:11 Although those who have the above traits are said to have severed potential, this refers to their having to pass an exceedingly long time in samsara and does not mean that they have definitively cut off any chance of achieving enlightenment. Provided that they make the effort, they can attain enlightenment. It says of this in the White Lotus of Great Compassion Sutra: Ānanda! Were someone lacking the fortunate circumstances for nirvana merely to cast a flower up in the sky, visualizing the Buddha, then that person thereby possesses the fruit of nirvana. I declare that person to be one who will reach nirvana and who will penetrate to its furthest end. The lot of those with undetermined potential depends on the circumstances. Those who train under śrāvaka spiritual teachers, become involved with śrāvakas, or come across śrāvaka scriptures will place their trust in the śrāvaka way and, having entered that way, will actually become śrāvakas themselves. Likewise, those who encounter pratyekabuddha or Mahayana circumstances will embrace the pratyekabuddha or Mahayana ways. Those with śrāvaka potential fear samsara, believe in nirvana, and have limited compassion. The scriptures say: Seeing the sufferings of samsara, they are afraid; they manifestly aspire for nirvana; they are not interested in working for the welfare of sentient beings: those who bear these three characteristics have the śrāvaka potential. In addition to the above three characteristics, those with pratyekabuddha potential have enormous self-confidence, keep quiet about their teachers, and are loners. It is said: Grieved by samsaric existence, keen for nirvana, weak in compassion, exceedingly confident, secretive about their teachers, and loving solitude: these the wise should recognize as having the pratyekabuddha potential. Although the above two groups—those with śrāvaka potential and those with pratyekabuddha potential—may enter these two vehicles and attain their respective results, what they achieve is not true nirvana. At the time of their achievement they will, on account of a latent ignorance, acquire and exist in a subtle mental body brought about by their former untainted karma. They will be convinced that the state of untainted profound absorption they enjoy is nirvana and that they have attained nirvana. One might object, “If this is not real nirvana, it would be inappropriate for the Buddha to teach these two paths.” It is, in fact, entirely appropriate for the Buddha to teach them as he did. Let us consider the following example. Some merchants from Jambudvīpa18 set out to the far-off oceans to obtain precious gems. At one point in their journey, they felt so tired and downhearted while crossing a great wilderness that they began to think they would never manage to get the jewels, and they contemplated turning back. However, through his magical powers, their leader created a great illusory citadel where they were able to rest and recuperate. Like the merchants in this story, beings of weak resolve will feel overwhelmed when they learn of the tremendous wisdom of the buddhas, and they may feel that the task of achieving it is too daunting and far beyond the capacity of the likes of them. On account of the awe they feel, they will either never undertake the task of enlightenment or they will give up easily. By teaching the two paths of the śrāvaka and pratyekabuddha, the Buddha enables them to attain the refreshing, healing state of a śrāvaka or pratyekabuddha. In the Lotus Sutra it says: Likewise all the śrāvakas are under the impression that they have attained nirvana. The Buddha tells them that this is not nirvana but a respite.19 When they have rested and refreshed themselves in the state of a śrāvaka or pratyekabuddha, the Buddha knows it is time to encourage them to achieve full enlightenment. How is this done? The Buddha inspires them through perfect body, pure speech, and wisdom mind. Light rays stream from his mind. By these beams merely touching their mental bodies, śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas are awakened from their untainted meditative concentration. Then the Buddha manifests his own perfect physical presence and declares the following with his pure speech: “O monks! By merely doing what you have done, the task is not accomplished and the work is not yet done. Your nirvana is not nirvana. Monks! Now approach the Tathāgata and pay heed to what he says; understand his instruction.”