Buddha Nature: Uttaratantra Shastra

In the Summer 2017 issue of Buddhadharma: The Practioner’s Quarterly, I found an article that really helped focus my study and brought me back to that moment of awareness, brief as it was, in 2002.

The article was on emptiness and the particular author was Dzongar Jamyang Khentsye. The essay, “The Clarity Aspect”, was a response to the idea of emptiness in Buddhist thought.  Dzongar’s approach to the subject was incredibly focused and offered an insight into the whole idea of emptiness that I had, up to this point, never really heard.

Briefly, my understanding of emptiness comes from my Ngondro practice through the Rigpa Organization led by Sogyal Rinpoche.  I see Rinpoche as my teacher.  I am committed to the path that the organization has placed before me and I am thankful have been given the opportunity to study with other Rigpa students.

The emptiness, as presented by Rigpa and as written about in the Heart Sutra always eluded me.  More than anything else, I think that my understanding, or misunderstanding of emptiness, comes from my own deluded and confused mind.  Have you ever had one of those ideas that just never made sense regardless of how hard you tried to understand it?  I have found that confusion more than a few times in my life (like when I was reading Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak ), and in the case of emptiness I kept missing the boat.

Check out this passage from the Heart Sutra:

form does not differ from emptiness,
emptiness does not differ from form.
That which is form is emptiness,
that which is emptiness form.
The same is true of feelings,
perceptions, impulses, consciousness.

Do you GET it? It’s confusing even though the language is pretty straightforward.  What does “form” mean? We can understand the individual words but the meaning can still elude us (or, at least, me).

Anyway, so I didn’t quite grasp emptiness….I had a good idea about what it was and I reckoned that I’d know it when I saw it.  I always referred back to that mental impression from the guided meditation and reasoned that is what emptiness, at least in part, was.

Then in stepped Dzongar Jamyang Khentsye with his insights on emptiness and his specific suggestion that anyone really interested in this idea and the whole notion of Buddhanature itself read Maitreya’s Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra sutra.  Khentsye made this statement, “Everything that we think exists, or does not exist, or both or neither – all these things are fabrications of our mind.” BOOM.

Sure I have heard this idea before, yes it has been communicated, but this essay revealed it to me.

I grabbed a copy of the Uttaratantra Shastra and cracked open the pages preparing to be confused, muddled, or lost in the text.  Instead, I was reading and understanding a text for the first time (please note, I am not an expert and do not claim to be; my insights are clearly insights from a deluded mind…got it? Good.)

Arya Maitreya
The text explained emptiness and mind in such a direct way: the nature of mind is spaciousness, pure, clear.  Thoughts, emotions all rise and fall but the spaciousness remains, unstained or unobstructed by those thoughts and emotions.

So, emptiness (probably NOT the best word for me) is just the notion that these various thoughts and emotions are fleeting, passing moments and that mind, our true nature, is not affected, shaped or altered by those thoughts….thus we are all spacious.  Back in 1998, listening to the cassette tape by Sogyal Rinpoche came back to me and I could hear, in my head, his voice and his words: spaciousness, spaciousness, mind is spacious.  That talk was introducing me to the nature of mind, to buddhanature, to clarity and I didn’t get it!  What a revelation.

The Nature of Mind

Looking back on my Vajrayana experience and study, I can see the steps it took to reach this place.  In 1998 the purchase of a cassette recording of a talk given by Sogyal Rinpoche started me on the path.  The tape, Bringing the Mind Home, was transformative.  Rinpoche talked about spaciousness….spaciousness.  At the time I felt like I understood the idea.  I was deep in the midst of what one might call “New Age” philosophy.  Reading astrology, meeting with an herbalist, having my chi evaluated, considering a career in acupuncture, all of it was new and fascinating to me.



Living in New Mexico, a more than casual glance at the culture and people here will reveal the strong influence of more esoteric and unusual perspectives.  From miraculous dirt in Chimayo to ghosts wandering the arroyos and acequias to crystal shops and crystal healing New Mexico has a plethora of alternative perspectives on how to live your life.

In that environment I gravitated to Vajrayana Buddhism.  Long before I really knew what Vajrayana was, I visited the KSK Stupa in Santa Fe.  Back in the late nineties, the temple had a bookstore on site and I often wandered into the space to check out the selections and pursue the books.  None of the titles or ideas were familiar to me in anyway.  I found one book that grabbed my attention, The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche.  The cassette I purchased and the book went together, and I started reading and listening.

I’d like to say that from that point on my path was set and I gradually acquired the understanding to reach the point I am at today.  None of that could be further from the truth.  I listened to the tape and enjoyed the talks, but I just didn’t get the concept of spaciousness.  Spaciousness in mind, spaciousness of perspective.  The concept was so unusual and sounded good but, really, made no sense to me.

Similarly, when I opened The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying I could not make heads or tales of it.  While I understood the text and of course read the information, the meaning eluded me.  I tried over and over to grasp the point, bringing the mind home, but that idea just didn’t make any sense!  My mind was home!

I quickly moved on to another approach, a course called Full Catastrophe Living by Jon Cabot-Zinn.  The course, taught in the Fall 2002 by Daniel Bruce, was an experience in mindfulness.  The eight-week session started slowly with readings from the book and practical applications of mindfulness.  We meditated for 15, 30, 45, 60 minutes at a time gradually building our resilience.

Jon Cabot-Zinn developed this course, originally, to help folks cope with stress.  He found that mindfulness training and meditation had an effect on helping people find calm.  The course, as taught by Dr. Bruce, Daniel, was more aligned with eastern philosophy.  We did Tai Chi, yoga, and meditation on cushions or in chairs.  Our group was made up of a wide variety of people from Santa Fe.  At the time, I was clearly among the youngest in the group in my 30s.  I asked lots of questions and wondered aloud at the source of the practice.  Daniel was patient.  He talked about the origins of many of these practices and had the authority of someone who studied in China, traveled extensively in Asia, learned yoga and Tai Chi from trained practioners.  Overall Daniel really brought a clear understanding of the material to the course.

The moment of truth came with the last class meeting of the course just before an all-day retreat.  Daniel led us on a guided meditation using the metaphor of clouds and sky.  The session was a 45 minute one and Daniel read the meditation and we sat.  Very quickly I dropped into a deep meditative state.  My breathing changed, my awareness altered.

As he guided us, my thoughts settled.  My mind rested in a state I came to understand was “calm abiding”.  I sat with no expectation of past or future.  I was in the moment.

Have you had one of those experiences in which you are just there, present, no thought? It hasn’t happened often for me but in this moment it did.  Boom.

My mind emptied entirely; spaciousness.  Complete spaciousness.  In that moment I started laughing; a sense of joy swept through me.  In the silence of the meditation room, I laughed out loud.  Imagine the looks I received!  I remember that moment like it is right now.