Once the Buddha Shakyamuni was teaching on the famous Vulture Peak, a low mountain in Bihar that has the shape of a vulture. Today there are the ruins of a monastery on that location and the stone road built by the king so as to be able to visit the Buddha is still walkable. At the time of the Buddha’s teaching, there appeared in the sky above innumerable Buddhas sitting on lotus flowers all aglow. Although the lotus flowers were incredibly beautiful and fragrant, giving off rays of light, in an instant they all withered, blackened, smelled like rotten vegetation and completely enclosed the Buddhas and all their glory.
This is the opening image from the Tathagatagarbha Sutra to illustrate the fact that you, with all of your supposed impurities, with impure body and mind, are really the glorious Buddha full of wisdom and compassion. The rotten flowers did not hinder in any way the glory of the Buddhas inside. Just like your body and mind, even if impure, does not hinder your real Buddha nature.
Are you surprised to hear this? In Buddhism it is common to listen to talks or to read about how we are impure and need to do many practices to purify ourselves. For example, some forms of Buddhism teach that because you have desire you are impure. To purify this, you need to become a monk or nun and renounce the life of desire. Some of the lower tantras teach that a yogi must maintain ritual physical purity like eating off of gold plates. But this sutra says that even if you have mental or physical impurities they do not really obscure your real Buddha nature.
You can think of it like a prostitute who is considered low and vile by society. One night in disguise a king comes to her and that evening she conceives. Because society says that she is lowly, she thinks of herself as low and vile, impure in a thousand ways, driven by her desires to perform such acts. But inside, unknown to her, is a noble child. So in fact, she is not lowly. You are no different. You should not think of yourself as low or inferior in any way to the Buddha. You are no different. You are the Buddha. The defilements are accidental not part of your real nature.
The Tathagatagarbha Sutra also states that this Buddha nature is like a treasure store in the house of a poor man who has forgotten about it. But the Buddha sees the store and can help the poor man find it within. This store is inexhaustible and consists of wisdom and compassion. To find this treasure store, you must have confidence in the Buddha’s teachings.
What is the Buddha nature? It is none other than wisdom and compassion, the greatest virtues in the Buddhist tradition. What is wisdom? It is the ongoing insight into the nature of reality which is shunyata of shunyata. What is compassion? When one realizes there really is no self and this becomes the base of one’s activity, then all actions are for the sake of others, helping end their suffering. How do we come to find this great treasure within? We need to have confidence in the teachings of the Buddha.
The Nirvana Sutra in speaking about the ultimate true reality and the one vehicle says that the term “ultimate,” in the mundane realm means the perfections of giving, discipline, patients, energy, meditation, and wisdom. In the supramundane realm, the “ultimate” is the one vehicle. This one vehicle is the Buddha nature. The sutra also states that true reality is the single way, pure and undefiled—there simply is no other! This true reality is the Buddha nature –there simply is no other! What is this Buddha nature? The Nirvana Sutra says it is compassion, equanimity, and confidence.
So through coursing in confidence in the teachings and particularly the teachings on Buddha nature, through coursing in the activity of giving, discipline, patience, energy, meditation and wisdom that is insight into shunyata of shunyata, through coursing in compassion, through coursing in equanimity, one realizes Buddha nature which is none other than liberation itself. How do we come to course in this way?
Again the Nirvana Sutra informs us that a person does not give birth or produces the Buddha nature, rather he or she produces its opposite –blind passions. If the person only did not give birth to blind passions then they would see the Buddha nature. We can accomplish this by taking refuge in the Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. The Buddha represents the ultimate reality of non-duality and was the great teacher. The Dharma is the teachings that allow us to move away from all self-indulgent thoughts and actions. The Sangha are the group of followers who will walk with you as your course. By taking refuge you can course in the non self-indulgent way coming to rest naturally in the Buddha nature.
The Srimaladevi Sutra says that the Buddha nature is in the domain of the Tathagata that is in the realm of the non-dual, the locus of the Four Noble Truths, samsara and nirvana are based on Buddha nature. How surprising! Yet it could not be otherwise. If Buddha nature is the non-dual then the duality of samsara and nirvana both have to arise from it. The significance here is this. First, take refuge and stop your self-indulgence in your body acts, mental acts, and speech acts. You are manufacturing blind passions moment by moment. If you rest in the pure awareness of Buddha nature, then you can stop manufacturing your samsara. After seeing the stopping of samsara then you can even stop the duality of samsara and nirvana. This is resting in Buddha nature the non-dual liberation. Each moment Buddha or devil. Awakening at your fingertips!