Tag Archives: historicism

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?”