In this episode, I have one of my heroes back for a third time. Dr. Jan Willis is an extraordinary Buddhist scholar and practitioner and today she’s talking with me about the question, Are we fundamentally good?
Buddhism sometimes seems quite depressing with its focus on suffering and death. But at the core of Buddhism is the idea that in fact, our nature is fundamentally good. Is there any evidence for this? And if so, how do we come to see it?
Listen to my interview with Dr. Willis to hear the answers to these questions, and whether we might even come to see the good in someone as destructive as Vladimir Putin.
[00:00:50] Scott Snibbe: Dr. Willis, it’s a pleasure having you back on A Skeptic’s Path to Enlightenment again. You’re always such a joyful, wise, and compassionate presence. I’m just so happy you blessed the earth with your presence and our podcast with your voice, so thank you.
[00:01:35] Dr. Jan Willis: You’re so gracious and over the top thanks. It’s good to be back. We talked about enlightenment before, and today we’re gonna talk about buddha nature.
What is buddha nature?
[00:01:44] Scott Snibbe: Absolutely, this question about buddha nature is a real curious one for skeptics, because despite how much Buddhism talks about suffering, it has this optimism at its core, this idea that people are fundamentally good at heart. I’d love to have you explain that in a way that might make sense to people.
How could we believe that? How can we prove that that might be true?
[00:02:06] Dr. Jan Willis: I think it’s probably not as simple as we might think. I think there’ve been some complications along the way for Buddhist thinkers, philosophers, authors to actually nail down because, as we’ll talk about in a minute, there have been three so-called turnings of the wheel. But let me begin with this quotation from the Arya Tathagata-garbha Sutra.
It says, Until you reach the path, you wander in the world with the precious form of the sugata completely wrapped as a bundle of rags by things degrading and dirty. Here it is; you have this precious tathagata. It’s wrapped in rags, unwrap it.
Now, I think that quote is indicative of the notion, at least in this sutra, that we’re already, in some sense, Buddhas. We just don’t know it. Or we don’t realize it but we have—it would seem from this quote—the tathagata, an epithet for the Buddha.
So what is buddha nature? When did the term come about and what are the people who are using it? It wasn’t used often in text until a later period of thought.
In terms of the three turnings, the three turnings said the Buddha taught this in the first turning. Then he taught this in the second, and then he taught this, and the tathagatagarbha theories are put in this third basket. You wonder how the Buddha first taught a strong emphasis on renunciation and practice that’s selflessness.
Then we had the second turning when Nagarjuna is talking about shunyatha; there’s just emptiness. And some of the sutras, even outside of the prajnaparamita texts, begin with homage to the Buddha, the perfect teacher, who revealed dependent origination. We have that second turning of all the prajnaparamita texts. The texts are saying emptiness, emptiness, no essence, no reality, no lasting permanent self anywhere. Then after those texts we have this third turning in which buddha nature appears.
What’s that about? Why does it appear in the third turning? I just went to Columbia recently and that’s where I got my PhD almost 50 years ago. I worked on Yogacara texts that come out of the third turning. As background for that, I had to look at the first two turnings and I had to think about how could it be possible that this form of Buddhism appears that says, There were the earlier turnings, but they weren’t the definitive text. They weren’t the definitive view.
The definitive view has this notion of buddha nature in it. We get the optimism at the end. We’d gotten all this pessimism, one could say, in the middle. Emptiness, emptiness, emptiness. How does the positive thing come out of that? And more than that, the term is equated with our nature. Something that’s so essential to us.
But we might say, How can it be essential because when we think of something’s being essential, we think it’s lasting, permanent, but you just taught anatman. This was really a concern of Buddhist thinkers; is this a sneaky way to reintroduce atman?
[00:06:36] Scott Snibbe: And when you say atman, people would often think of that as a soul, right? Like a solid essence separate from your body that travels from lifetime to lifetime? That’s what you’re saying, you could mistake buddha nature for that, but that’s not what it is?
[00:06:51] Dr. Jan Willis: That’s not what it is. Sometimes the third turning is associated with Yogacara kinds of texts, which then were mistaken by Westerners, in particular thought to be some kind of idealism because the Yogacara texts make a lot of—there’s a store consciousness and it’s always there.
When I was studying and writing my dissertation on a Yogacara text by Asanga, I said, What is he doing? Well, one of the things I thought—I still think—Asanga was doing was trying to help us out, us ordinary beings. It said that Nagarjuna is head of the wisdom lineage, Maitreya’s head of the compassion lineage.
He’s trying to help us out rather than leave us stuck with emptiness. Everything is emptiness. Asanga tries to give us a place to stand where we can look in one direction and see this is all our imagination, illusory. If we turn the other way, we can see what he called the three natures. There’s parakalpita (complete imagination), paratantra (where we stand) which is sort of in the middle ground so that we can see paramata the most supreme.
But then he offered this variety of ways to understand that. So what is it that sees, what is it that realizes ultimate reality? What is it that realizes enlightenment?
[00:08:35] Scott Snibbe: What would Asanga’s definition of buddha nature be?
[00:08:38] Dr. Jan Willis: Not only Asanga’s, but lots of other people. I have to say one other thing. When the Yogacara texts appeared, early millennium, we’re moving into second, and third-century ad. Most of these texts are classified they’re Mahayana. We were in the Theravada phase, and then Nagarjuna came around beginning of the millennium.
Then 200-300 years after that, we get Asanga in some of the Yogacara texts. There was a group of them, the Sandhinirmocana text, the Ratnagotravibhaga, the Bodhisattva Bhumi, and these texts are called, sort of classed as Yogacara text, but there’s some other texts that really emphasized tathagatagarbha, which became a synonym for buddha nature and they were so different that some Western scholars today, contemporary scholars, want to argue they are fourth turning. They’re so unique. And these are called Tathagatagarbha sutras.
[00:09:56] Scott Snibbe: Like a buddha nature Sutra, interesting. For people who don’t know this term, Yogacara, this is a school that emphasizes the mental aspect of reality that all we know is filtered through our senses and through our mind. And some people interpret that as saying there’s only the mental aspect to reality, but that’s not necessarily really the case.
[00:10:18] Dr. Jan Willis: That was really well done.
[00:10:20] Scott Snibbe: Oh, thanks, well, I learned a lot from Ben Connolly. He wrote a great book about it, Inside Vasubandhu’s Yogacara.
[00:10:30] Dr. Jan Willis: I haven’t seen it, but I’ll have to look at it.
Another way of thinking about the three turnings is early on the so-called Theravadas, so-called Hinayanas, that group of Shravakas early Buddhists, who believed strictly in following the Buddha’s words. One way of looking at the turnings is to say in the early turnings there was an emphasis on certain dharmas, certain experiential moments actually existing in reality. Early monks and nuns were to avoid those things.
In avoiding those things, one should renounce the world and concentrate on realizing the selflessness of the self. Just the atmanairatmya, the selflessness of the self. So the main meditation hook was apart from the five aggregates, there is no abiding, permanent, inherently existing atman, non-self.
But in the second turning, that denial of reality became totally pervasive. Mahayanists say there is no self in dharmas, any dharmas, external dharmas, nor is there self or abiding inherent existence in the subjective. There’s atmanairatmya as well as dharmanairatmya. So shunyata became totally pervasive, voidness, all as emptiness. Asanga comes to say, Well, what had that bit of knowledge and this thing developed into alaya-vijnana, storehouse consciousness. It developed in the mind.
Now another way of saying this is very simple. Early on, first turning Theravada monks and nuns concentrated on what the Buddha said initially: ehipassiko, come and see for yourself. They concentrated on looking inward, they meditated, it was experiential. The Buddha said, Come meditate. See for yourself.
It’s that middle ground where we don’t have a place to stand. In the third turning, Buddhists are again saying, This is how you should look. This may be all crazy, Scott, but I’m just trying to make myself clear here that I’ve always argued, and I argued in my PhD dissertation, that Buddhism has never been about ontologies. It was early on, different schools had different numbers, actual numbers of dharmas that were considered real, as though you could—these are not, these don’t count.
Buddhism has never been about ontologies.
And then, pervasive shunyata. Let’s look at how these ideas, these notions, and our experience with enlightenment actually happens. The focus is not only on the subject, it’s on how things come to exist and how we experience them. So it’s experience, again, coming around.
Yogacarins are known because they are yogis. The emphasis is on practice. And it’s as though they’re saying, once we look at this, we experience a mind that is infinite, clear, and luminous. This we call Buddha Nature. That’s what we experience.
I think the experience, it just comes around like Thich Nhat Hanh taught Zen, but it was a kind of mindfulness and zen. It’s like coming back around. It was the original. Coming back to the original meditations, looking deeply. One way to see Yogacarins and alaya-vijnana, the three natures, all of this is a way of explaining in words what the ultimate experience is like.
[00:15:31] Scott Snibbe: What you’re saying is that the buddha nature is really more like an invitation to find an experience through the yogic practice? It’s not a logical argument for your buddha nature, but it’s an invitation to a meditative experience?
[00:15:48] Dr. Jan Willis: It’s an invitation and it’s one that comes with optimism. You probably know this series, no doubt. This is the book by His Holiness the Dalai Lama—
[00:15:58] Scott Snibbe: Samsara, Nirvana, and Buddha Nature, that’s a good one.
[00:16:04] Dr. Jan Willis: It’s a good one, right? Basically, it says the mind itself—with emphasis on the mind—is the basis for both Samsara and Nirvana. buddha nature says the same thing because buddha nature says that the mind that is now defiled by advantageous emotional kleshas and cognitive kleshas. If we get rid of those defilements, we see our buddha nature is revealed, which is always there.
The simplest definition of buddha nature is that we all have this potential. Potential comes up. So people would avoid saying it’s our essence. It’s an eternal thing that’s there, but they still want to say it’s there because you experience it. It’s true.
[00:17:04] Scott Snibbe: Hopefully that makes people curious. I think it’s very empirical, right? It’s not a logical argument.
[00:17:09] Dr. Jan Willis: I think that Buddhism is more empirical.
[00:17:12] Scott Snibbe: There are people who have experienced it. People like us maybe touch it a little bit in our meditation sometimes. And it’s very encouraging when everything drops out and yet you feel so wonderful, letting go.
[00:17:27] Dr. Jan Willis: Isn’t it? It’s always blissful. It’s always joyous and it’s a reminder that this is what awaits you. It’s encouragement; this is what awaits you, not as though you’re after that, but this is your true nature. This bliss, this clarity, this awareness, Dzogchen folk, clarity, luminosity, purity, that’s our ultimate nature.
This bliss, this clarity, this awareness, Dzogchen folk, clarity, luminosity, purity, that’s our ultimate nature.
Scientific research on human nature
[00:18:00] Scott Snibbe: I love hearing about your experience, but recently there’s been a lot more negative views of human nature than positive. Certainly over in the kind of rational era, although the capacity, the potential for human beings to be good has certainly been admitted.
But recently there are actually scientists studying this, instead of arguing philosophically or theologically. And there’s a couple of books like Born to Be Good by Dacher Keltner, or Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers by Bob Sapolsky, or Rick Hansen’s Buddha’s Brain. They all make quite compelling arguments from scientific experiments, especially evolutionary psychology that we do have this capacity for good.
Rick Hansen is really cute. When I asked him about this, I said, is there any evidence for buddha nature in nature? He said if you look at creatures besides humans, like a cat for example, if they have their basic needs met, they’re just in bliss. They don’t sit there and worry and get anxious or start hoarding things. They’re just happy. They’re sitting there purring on the couch, enjoying being pet.
He said maybe just the fact that we see animals and when they’re not stressed, their resting nature—when they’re not stressed—is just pure contentment. And we have that capacity too. It’s funny to use animals to argue for human capacity for good but—
[00:19:28] Dr. Jan Willis: I agree about cats. All the studies that have been on elephants, for example, and how caring they are, or on whales and what good mothers they are. I don’t think that the science is proving . . . are they proving goodness? Or are they proving that—as I remember His Holiness saying—science, early childhood proves that we have sort of innate empathy with one another. We have a kind of empathy, and these things can be expanded.
We have a drive to care for others, and I think that’s been indicated in modern studies of animals, elephants, and whales, for example. We care for each other, every living thing. Maybe the words are wrong; I don’t think it’s so much goodness as it is empathy, care, and a child cares about another, if its needs are met, it can be generous with another one that’s there.
They come with it and that’s marvelous that we have this instinct to mount good behavior. I don’t know if that means we’re innately good. Or we’re innately social and empathetic, which I think are really good qualities.
[00:21:00] Scott Snibbe: The science does back that up. In Dacher Keltner’s research, he writes that when you measure people very precisely, giving them certain social situations, their first impulse in a social situation is to help, for the vast majority of people, despite the sad contraindications we hear of from time to time.
[00:21:20] Dr. Jan Willis: We hear almost every day about this gun violence, for example. And we wonder, How can that happen? There seems to be in some beings an idea to do just the opposite, to not care for beings.
How to recognize fundamental goodness in ourselves
[00:21:36] Scott Snibbe: That actually leads well into the question of how do we recognize this in ourselves? I think a lot of people listening, sadly, perhaps a majority, might not see this fundamental goodness or even potential for good.
What would you say to someone about recognizing and developing that quality for themselves?
[00:21:58] Dr. Jan Willis: Well, I would say those of us in the U.S.—I don’t know about Europe and other Western countries, and I don’t just mean black people. I guess it’s been a couple of decades now, and Sharon Salzberg had this conversation with His Holiness and he was saying we base this practice on the love we have for our mothers. Sharon said, Well, people in the West don’t have the same kinds of feelings towards their parents that you might have your Holiness, and he couldn’t believe it. We have all sorts of issues—mental, we have to see therapists for.
I’m sorry I’m jumping around here, but the Christian verse Matthew where Jesus is being interviewed by the legal scholar trying to catch him up for teaching, on the Sabbath. He says, Well, what do you say is the greatest commandment? Jesus says, What sayeth thou? He turns the question around and the lawyer priest says, It’s to love God, love the Lord thy God with all thy heart and all thy mind, all thy soul. Then he adds, because he knows the law too. And the second is like unto it, thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.
A lot of people think that’s easier said than done. Is that the golden rule? Yes. But not many people really feel moved by that because we might not feel like it’s easy to love our neighbors. Some people have justifiable reasons for that. Some perhaps not justifiable reasons. Didn’t happen this lifetime, didn’t happen this year. But I don’t think I can come up with love for that person. People aren’t moved by just that saying.
One of the reasons they’re not moved by it is because it’s difficult to love themselves. I’m trying to get back to that one. We have some issues in the States with actually loving ourselves. In other words, feelings of unworthiness. When I met Lama Yeshe, I was dragging a whole bag of them coming from the segregated Jim Crow South.
We have some issues in the States with actually loving ourselves.
I thought I was one of the most unworthy human beings around because I’d been told that every day of my life by my surroundings, not by my family, but when I ventured out. There’s a lot to overcome to feel pure, capable, and limitless and all that. That’s why I found Tantra because one of its basic principles is to transform these negative images of ourselves that we constantly entertain.
If we’re looking at our thoughts, we’re having regrets about this, we’re having anxiety about what’s coming, we never just sit in the present moment and say, Gee, present moment, wonderful moment. As Thich Nhat Hanh would say, feels good to be here now, alive and capable. But Tantra says, rather than have all these negative images of ourselves, let’s replace that with a really positive image, a deity, a yi-dam, that makes us feel empowered, capable, and compassionate. I found that method very attractive.
Dignity and self-love
[00:25:59] Scott Snibbe: How would you translate that into advice for someone? Your journey’s amazing, and we talked about that the first time we spoke, and I’m so in awe of your life and the transformation you made for yourself. For an ordinary person feeling some of those things, a sense of low self-worth messages from outside, telling them they’re unworthy, what path would you advise to them?
You say Tantra, but I’m not sure what that would even mean to someone who’s not a Buddhist or unfamiliar with it. Is there any practical advice you would give to someone on that journey of trying to first feel that sense of self-respect, self-worth, and self-love?
[00:26:40] Dr. Jan Willis: Martin Luther King called it dignity. When he talked to junior high schoolers, he’d say, Don’t give up your dignity. This is a different way of entering the room now. You have dignity and that’s inborn. He’d say to them, buddha nature, awakening dignity, which is the same thing, you can move in the world with a sense of ease because you’re at ease with yourself.
You feel content because you know that deep down—this is the encouragement that buddha nature offers—that if you could peel all of those layers away, and they’re adventitious layers, they’re things that we told ourselves over all these years, countless times a day. Those aren’t permanent. Those are illusions we tell ourselves and they’re delusions.
Delusions can be wiped away, revealing our actual buddha nature. Before I knew anything, Lama Yeshe would say to me, Daughter, you’re pure. And I’d go, pure? Me? No way. Thank you so much. But that’s kind. But slowly, slowly over time through examples, he was talking about something and I’d add a thing and he’d say, You are quick.
Delusions can be wiped away, revealing our actual buddha nature.
Just these little things that I had been missing. That kind of encouragement comes from outside, but we could just as well post it on our bathroom mirrors. You’re good, you are pure, and your nature is pure. Maybe we should write that and put it on our bathroom windows. At least we could smile to begin the day. But then at some point, I think it’s good to make contact with some kind of method that will help you to know that.
These tathatatagarbha things end with, Why was this text written? It says so clearly, If we don’t hear these things, then we’re prone to discouragement. If we don’t hear these things, sometimes we become arrogant and we consider others inferior. Sometimes if we don’t hear these positive things, we get distorted conceptions and incorrectly hold to advantageous defilements being truly existent. If we don’t hear these things, we denigrate our own true nature. If we don’t hear these positive things, we become self-centered. And for this reason, Yogacarin authors like Maitreya and Asanga have taught the notion of buddha nature.
[00:29:43] Scott Snibbe: It’s beautiful. And these messages, the more you just tell yourself these messages, the more they come true. But it’s so helpful to have someone telling you from outside. That’s the beauty of having a teacher like Lama Yeshe. Sometimes I feel like it’s hard to be a better person than people expect you to be. It’s really quite another gap to be a person of dignity and compassion in an awful environment that is telling you the worst about yourself.
Sometimes I feel like it’s hard to be a better person than people expect you to be.
This is an interesting sort of contradiction to Buddhism because so much of the science says our relationships are the most critical thing to leading a happy, dignified life and having people that see you for your best and keep telling you that you’re your best.
[00:30:30] Dr. Jan Willis: Have a dog, I’m serious! Right? Your dog loves you unconditionally. Maybe because you feed it, but I doubt it, there’s more, relationships happen. Act the way your dog thinks you are because your dog thinks you’re the best.
Act the way your dog thinks you are because your dog thinks you’re the best.
[00:30:48] Scott Snibbe: And you are, who’s to say you are or you aren’t? I think it’s one of those realizations all of us have as we move through our life in different jobs and relationships. In one relationship you’re the worst; someone thinks you’re the worst person in the world. Then in the next one—maybe with your dog, partner, or child, whatever—they think you’re the greatest person in the world. Which story do you want to listen to and which one’s the most beneficial for your mind?
Which story do you want to listen to and which one’s the most beneficial for your mind?
[00:31:12] Dr. Jan Willis: Yes, and Yogacara used that. It says we look at a pool of water. For the fish, they welcome it. For the person who’s really thirsty, they welcome it. For certain kinds of beings in the universe, it’s filled with puss. So they’re saying there is no true identity in the names that we call things, their true essence isn’t in that because they appear differently to different states of mind. Easier said than done but there are practices for this.
Identity politics and Buddhism
[00:31:46] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, but that’s very important, especially today because the rise of identity politics has so much good to it and so much power, but it is also very reifying and solid, and it sometimes can make you feel more separate than less. I wonder if you could talk about that because what you’re saying is you need this incredible flexibility and fluidity to steer your mind toward its best nature.
But how does that work with strong labels about who we are, even ones about, our gender identity, racial identity, spiritual identity, and political identity?
[00:32:20] Dr. Jan Willis: Oh boy, you ask difficult questions. These are the heart of the matter. As a Black Buddhist, I’m in an interesting position here on self and selflessness.
It’s like the stories of Milarepa, the stories of Naropa, but I’m venturing back into guru-disciple things in order to say that different people need different things. I know we’re talking about identity politics, but Naropa thought too much of himself. He thought he was fine just as he was. So his teacher had to give him a number of shock treatments so that he finally asked, What’s the matter with me? His teacher told him, Right, think a little bit more about compassion than you do about your superiority.
And for Milarepa, there was a time when he was so self-pitying and self-loathing, because he had in fact committed terrible karma. The teacher for him has to build his confidence and that took a long time and it took him building those 12 towers during those 12 arduous years when Marpa wouldn’t let anybody help him, right? Because he had to know that he had the capacity to do harm in the same way he has the capacity to do good. He might have thought his nature was totally shameful and pitiful but actually, his nature is strong and powerful, so identity politics tends to reify a self.
He had to know that he had the capacity to do harm in the same way he has the capacity to do good.
So in that sense we can say it’s dangerous, but at certain times and in certain contexts it’s necessary. It’s necessary to have a strong sense of self. A good thing about gurus is they know what you need to get tweaked, to help you on the path. We don’t have to say, We are not black Buddhists. We can say, Heck, we’re black Buddhists, with some power behind it, and yeah, I’ll claim that.
There’s a strength there that’s necessary. In those stories, certain things had to come in balance before any kind of transmission could happen. Before any kind of transformation can happen, one has to realize what is true and what is necessary, what is actually happening.
[00:35:20] Scott Snibbe: I think what you’re saying is that a strong sense of identity can really promote dignity and power.
[00:35:27] Dr. Jan Willis: Absolutely.
[00:35:28] Scott Snibbe: Once you feel that, then you might mix in the fluidity, the flexibility, the dependent origination to see how that is, that’s not solid, that’s also not limiting, constraining, separating solid, is that what you’re saying?
[00:35:43] Dr. Jan Willis: I’m saying that in part, and I’m also saying what His Holiness or Shantideva says, we have to remember the practice of equanimity. We might need to come up to dignity and feeling content in order to not feel inferior. Whereas certain people might need to not feel so superior using different methods. Compassion becomes genuine compassion, which is about realizing our equality with others so that we know that they suffer. They suffer too, just like us, and they want to avoid it just like us, but we have to start on an even plane.
Compassion becomes genuine compassion, which is about realizing our equality with others so that we know that they suffer.
[00:36:38] Scott Snibbe: You’re seeing this kind of identity politics as a technique that can be used for equanimity. Again, for anyone who’s not familiar, there are these stages towards developing love and compassion. One of the first ones is equanimity, where you try to feel that everyone deserves happiness, no one wants to suffer, from different points of view. They’re beloved and also they’re hated and so on. But we all fundamentally have equal rights and equal potential. These tools of identity can help if you’re feeling less to bring you up to a place of equality.
Do you do use a different tool if you feel superior?
[00:37:21] Dr. Jan Willis: Yes, I like the way you explain it.
How to see fundamental goodness in everyone
[00:37:25] Scott Snibbe: You brought up this awful example of the mass shooters. In Buddhism, sometimes we really see in our meditation or everyday life that there is fundamental goodness, even in people like Vladimir Putin and other types of people doing horrible actions in the world.
How do you do that? That’s very difficult and confusing.
[00:37:51] Dr. Jan Willis: Yeah, I think Buddhism is big enough to hold that and certainly other religious traditions as well. I think the way you get into it comes out of—when I think about it, social justice of this current age. You think of somebody like Brian Stevenson who founded the Equal Justice Initiative.
What does Brian Stevenson say about some of the people he’s seen in courtrooms? He says, You are not the worst act you ever committed. That’s love. That’s love and that’s reality. So many people can’t feel okay with themselves because they think they’re totally identified with the worst act they ever committed. But mother loves you, wife loves you, sister loves you. Cause why? Cause you’re lovable. That’s love. When he says you are not the worst thing that you ever did. Oh, my heart breaks.
You are not the worst act you ever committed.Brian Stevenson
[00:39:05] Scott Snibbe: That speaks to all of us. It’s not just for violent criminals.
[00:39:09] Dr. Jan Willis: Exactly, to all of us and to violent criminals. We need to work on that. But it should always come from a place of love. It should always come from a place of recognition that you’re not the worst thing you ever did. The nuns who were tortured by the Chinese soldiers say, I pray for the darkness of ignorance to lift because I know that the same hands, that torture me, go home and hug a wife and pick up a child and caress them. I know that that’s a big sense. That’s a broad sense we should have.
[00:39:46] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, and what would you say to someone who says, I’m having trouble seeing the buddha nature in Vladimir Putin?
[00:39:52] Dr. Jan Willis: I can understand it. Just as it exists in us, it exists in him. He loves somebody and somebody loves him. He’s lovable in a certain sense to someone. All is never lost on any living being. What we see is not all of them. And Martin Luther King used to teach that. What we see, even in a hate-filled person, perhaps wearing robes coming towards us, what we see is not all of who they are.
All is never lost on any living being.
So he was using logical reasonings. He was just trying to tell us that if we just pause a minute and see human beings as human beings, we might realize that what we see as a hate-filled moment does not represent all of them. Now, it doesn’t mean we want to say, Hey, I like the way you put that hate on. No, it’s not that. But it’s recognizing that this moment, at this time, motivated by this negative emotion is not all of who another human being is. I think that’s really freeing.
[00:41:25] Scott Snibbe: Yeah, it’s generous, it’s wise; it’s just true. That’s the thing, there’s part of us that just doesn’t want to accept that. They want to think only of the bad.
[00:41:35] Dr. Jan Willis: I look at young children, the world over, and I see them as so full of promise. That’s what makes my heart break because this poor child in the Bantustands had some brilliance that we’ll never know about.
I’m thinking there could be one day, hopefully, a recognition that we’re all equal. This is the beloved community, a society in which we’re all valued for the talents we bring, where we feel safe, and where we feel loved. That’s what the beloved community is and to me that’s a beautiful vision.
[00:42:29] Scott Snibbe: It’s very beautiful. And hopefully, conversations like ours help move us just the tiniest bit closer to that idea.
[00:42:40] Dr. Jan Willis: We all have buddha nature. We’re all lovable. The first definition of buddha nature is we all have the potential of reaching our best ultimate self filled with clarity and wisdom.
The first definition of buddha nature is we all have the potential of reaching our best, ultimate self filled with clarity and wisdom.
Enlightenment and the luminous mind
[00:42:57] Scott Snibbe: Is there anything else you’d like to add about buddha nature?
[00:43:01] Dr. Jan Willis: Well, I think what I would add is that, for some people, even for some scholars, or mainly for some scholars, the idea of buddha nature coming so late in Buddhist thought history, might seem like a contradiction, but it’s there from the beginning. There’s that luminous mind, which is that same very close, luminous mind at the end.
Even though in the later traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, for example, different schools describe it differently. In one, it’s clear light mind in another it’s Mahamudra. But I think they’re all getting at a very similar meditative experience; buddha nature is there. I think it’s true that people have experienced it and it’s in a way foundational.
It’s about qualities, not permanent self, but the qualities of our enlightened mind. Buddha nature is a fact, I think. It’s meant to encourage us to practice, not to say, Oh, we’re all Buddhas, which they used to say in the 70s and 80s. We’re all Buddhas anyway, why should we practice? Well, because we don’t know that. We haven’t realized it. And so we have to go through all this hard work so we can say, Ah.
[00:44:36] Scott Snibbe: Robert Thurman puts it in a funny way, you’ve probably heard him say, Once you become enlightened, you realize that you were always enlightened. Which is a very confusing statement. But we shouldn’t mistake the idea that we’re already a Buddha and we should just go and do whatever.
[00:44:52] Dr. Jan Willis: Yeah, it’s not a free license to do anything. I mean, Dogan knew that. Dogan the great 12th-century Japanese founder of Soto knew that as well, he experienced it. Then he realized, I made all these trips from Japan to China, these arduous trips, and I practiced so hard and now I see was always there. Well, you have to sort of go through it, otherwise you miss. It is there, but otherwise, it doesn’t make an impact.
[00:45:27] Scott Snibbe: You hear that over and over again. I think Jetsunma Tenzin Palmo in that book, Cave in the Snow, after her 12 years, she was asked, What did you learn? She said, In a way, nothing, there was actually nothing to learn. It was just always there. It was just always there to find if you are quiet enough.
[00:45:49] Dr. Jan Willis: But people are still happy when they find it. You find a jewel that you didn’t know was right there all along and you’re still happy when you find it.
[00:45:58] Scott Snibbe: Oh yeah, it’s a beautiful idea that it’s there for the finding. If you just look for it in the right way with the right instructions.
Thank you so much, Dr. Willis, it’s a pleasure. Your combination of scholarship with joy and direct experience is quite unique, illuminating, and inspiring. Thank you so much.
[00:46:19] Dr. Jan Willis: I always enjoy talking with you, even though I go through this flurry of activity trying to get ready to talk with you. Really, it’s the conversation that I enjoy. I thank you for giving me that opportunity. I appreciate it.
[00:46:37] Scott Snibbe: Thank you very much. Have a wonderful day.
[00:46:39] Dr. Jan Willis: You too, Scott. Thank you.
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