Dharma Transmission Through Nature and Culture

by Kooi F. Lim, The Buddhist Channel, 17 August 2023

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia -- Within Buddhism, the term "tathāgatagarbha" carries the profound concept of "Buddha nature," signifying the inherent potential for any sentient being to attain Buddhahood. Rooted in linguistic origins, tathāgatagarbha denotes the "womb" or "embryo" (garbha) of the "thus-gone" (tathāgata), suggesting an essence containing the potential of a Buddha.

The interpretation of Buddha nature spans a spectrum of meanings across Indian, East Asian, and Tibetan Buddhist literature. In essence, it signifies the luminous mind, the untarnished and genuine state of the mind - purified (visuddhi) and free from defilement (Sanskrit: kleshas, Pali: kilesas). This state is believed to inherently exist within every sentient being, unchanging and eternal, awaiting emergence once cleansed of defilement and recognized for its true nature.


The philosophy of Buddha nature inspires practitioners to nurture mindfulness, wisdom, compassion, and ethical conduct, acknowledging their innate alignment with the qualities of a Buddha. This perspective fosters optimism about human potential and the attainability of enlightenment for all.


It is crucial to note that while emphasizing enlightenment potential, these concepts do not negate the necessity of dedicated spiritual practice. Just like nature, tathāgatagarbha requires cultivation. The roots of enlightenment demand nourishment, encompassing the mastery of three foundational aspects of learning: sīla (ethics), samādhi (concentration), and paññā (wisdom). These responsibilities interact symbiotically, supporting one another on the path to spiritual awakening.


Ethical conduct forms the basis for clarity of mind and focus, which, in turn, facilitates the development of insight and wisdom. Wisdom reciprocally refines ethical conduct and meditation practice. Through harmonizing these three pillars of training, Buddhists aim to liberate themselves from suffering and achieve the enlightened state of nirvana.


Buddha nature mirrors the cycle of nature, paralleling the inter-connectedness of biodiversity's intricate web of life. While not identical, both emphasize interdependence and inter-connectedness, emphasizing that no element in a system stands in isolation. These notions underscore how alterations or perturbations within one aspect of the system reverberate throughout the entirety. This perspective highlights a holistic comprehension of existence, applicable to both spiritual growth (Buddhism) and ecological sustainability (the biodiversity web concept).


Comprehending Buddha nature necessitates engaging the intellectual facet of our being. Without the capacity for understanding and contemplation, our actions lack informed intention. Just as a farmer studies soil composition and weather patterns to foster robust plant growth, understanding our body and mind's training requirements is essential for attaining heightened states of awareness. Just as the farmer tills the land, Buddha nature demands diligence, knowledge, and effort, encouraging practitioners to realize their true nature and achieve awakened awareness.


Another pivotal aspect of humanity crucial for learning and sharing the Dharma is the interplay of intellect, awareness and creativity. With innate intellectual faculties and self-awareness, humans are bestowed with the extraordinary gifts of art and language.


Language serves as the universal spellbook of humanity, weaving words into meaningful incantations that traverse temporal and spatial boundaries. Dharma's language embodies this gift, and art—born from the convergence of imagination and dexterity, encompasses a spectrum of human experiences that words alone struggle to capture. Both serve as conduits to the self, enabling introspection, communication, and the expression of intangible sentiments.


However, language and art transcend mere tools; they are windows to our inner world. Language interlaces thoughts, permitting exploration of the profound recesses of our minds and their sharing with others. Art bridges intention and inspiration, translating the inner realm into the external. The language of emptiness, or sunyata, necessitates the faith akin to art, manifesting through mantras' sounds, igniting a cosmic spark within and awakening the inherent Buddha nature.


The Buddha imparts the necessity of balancing faith and wisdom within the five spiritual factors of awakening. Excessive faith begets blind adherence, while an overabundance of wisdom leads to convoluted ego-driven intellectualism. This harmonization underscores the requirement to meld nature with culture. Buddha nature's wisdom must be complemented by the faith rooted in human creativity to express the Dharma, encapsulated within culture.


The fruition of attainment stems from sowing seeds of learning and practice, allowing one's Buddha nature to radiate. Yet, restricting this attainment to the personal realm inadvertently negates the spirit of the bodhisattva, who seeks to alleviate suffering by sharing knowledge. Dharma attainment necessitates Dharma transmission. Mastery through study, practice and realization remains incomplete without sharing the Dharma.


Consequently, introspecting on both nature and culture fosters the illumination of "non-self" understanding, enabling the manifestation of Buddha nature. Sharing this awakening multiplies merits, cultivating potential awakenings in others. Dharma transmission thrives when nature and culture balance each other, much like the middle way teaching — a fulcrum wherein both find equilibrium.

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