Does the Hinayana have Buddha Nature?

“Does a dog have Buddha Nature?” a monk asked.
“Mu (No),” replied Master Joshu.

This is usually given as a first koan to Zen practitoners. It is the first koan in the Wu Men Kuan (Japanese: Mumonkan), one of the most important collections of its kind. A koan is a short example of sayings by Zen masters which reveal something of the truth. They are used as an aid to bring about Enlightenment. Zen students, particularly of the Rinzai School of Zen, are given koans to help them attain Enlightenment.

In a teisho (Dharma Talk) by Yamada Roshi he states that the answer should be obvious: all things have Buddha Nature (Buddhata). But here Joshu denies this when asked by a monk. Why? Because the monk is fixated on the answer and not the truth, to use a Zen analogy, mistaking the reflection of the moon in the water for the moon itself. Joshu was trying to “wake” the monk up from his delusion. And in this way Zen is a truly profound.

But the history of Buddha Nature has bothered me for some time now.

The school closest to the historical Buddha, Theravada (also called Hinayana) does not teach Buddha Nature nor is it a concept not within its discourse. The Pali Canon, the oldest writings based on the Buddha’s teaching, does not include this concept. It is only in the later works, the Mahayana writings, that we begin to find this concept. In other words, there is a probability that the concept was a later formulation. I say probability because there is also the probability that the Pali Canon may have ignored this teaching for reasons unknown. We can never be sure of this as we have lost important sources of information about the formation of the sutras.

All Mahayana schools believe that Buddha Nature (Buddhata) is inherent in all beings. However, some schools extend this to cover all things unconditionally. So to summarize there are three three possible views on this:

  1. Buddha Nature does not exist.
  2. Buddha Nature is inherent in all beings but not things.
  3. Buddha Nature is inherent in all being and things.

Given that there is no agreement among Buddhists some doubt then must be entertained as to its authenticity. This questioning must not be done out of one-upmanship but out of the true spirit of enquiry as to what the true nature of the self is. This idea is something akin to Dogen’s simultaneous acceptance and denial of Buddha Nature. It is a paradox but a paradox worth pursuing in order to come closer to Enlightenment, the highest ideal of the Buddha’s teaching which all schools do agree upon.

So does a dog have Buddha Nature? Well, the answer depends entirely on whether you are a Hinayana Buddhist, Mahayana Buddhist or non-Buddhist. If you are a Hinayana Buddhist the answer is, “What is Buddha Nature?” If you are a Mahayana Buddhist the answers is “Yes and no, but only if you are unenlightened, and you have to think about it, or if you have to ask”. If you are non-Buddhist the answer is “Who is this Buddha guy?”

8 thoughts on “Does the Hinayana have Buddha Nature?”

  1. I was discussing the whole Mahayana/Hinayana, Greater Vehicle/Lesser Vehicle (mighty judgemental & dualistic, but I digress) concept with my girlfriend in advance of the whole fearless Bodhisattva standing on nothing while partaking in the great karmic “after you” of saving all sentient beings and forsaking nirvana for the sake of others. She asked, so what constitues a “sentient” being? To which I replied, having an awareness of self. To which she asked, is a dog a sentient being? To which I replied, “WU!” After her initial look of bewilderment at having someone shout WU! at her for no apparent reason, her first reaction to it was, “Is that the monk barking?.” Which summed it all up for me as well as anything.


  2. Hello 103, That is a funny question! Yes it does as it pertains to the nature of mistakes. Mistakes depend on mental factors and mental factors lack inhearent permanent existence, the
    factors that allowed me to correct my errors are also of the same mental essence, in that they also lack an inhearent permanent existance. I guess it can be said that my mistake also has the Buddha nature in that I realize that I make them and that they are not permanent. The ones that I do not realize, well that would be just Mu. Thanks for the humor, is it not funny how we can justify our mistakes.


  3. I on the other hand should be more mindful on the nature of spelling errors and correct them before I commit them to the ultimate nature of this “conventional” mistake.


  4. The question, depends how far you want to take the question, from a conentional point of view
    a Dog has the Buddha nature, but will not be able
    to realize that nature, so from a practicle point of view, the answer would have to be no it does not have the Buddha nature, since if you could not realize it, it would contradict, the pursuit of Buddhahood and the question would lose it’s purpose.From an ultimate nature point of view, everthing even space has the Buddha nature owing to it’s own nature and dogs to there
    own nature of lacking an inhearent permenant existence, so from ths point of view yes they do.


  5. That is interesting about Pure Land. It would make sense from the point of view of tariki.

    And I think you are right about inherent-ness. While Zen places a lot of emphasis on Buddha-nature they also reject it in the same breath. This, I think, is where most people cannot comprehend Zen, where they mis-take it to be hypocritical or illogical. To fathom Zen one must see that logic is what it has always been challenging.


  6. Hello,

    It should be noted that in Mahayana Japanese Pure Land schools, the concept of Buddha-nature is also denied. Shinran explicitly denied it in his writings. There Mahayana view on the subject is more complex than one might think.

    For my part, I think Buddha-nature, as the potential for Enlightenment, is perfectly sensible, but once people start saying its inherent, it veers on the side of some kind of permanent essence, which Buddhism generally denies.

    Complex subject, indeed. :)


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