Into the Uttaratantra Shastra: On Buddha Nature

I’ve read, a few times, the Uttaratantra Shastra and go back to this root text as a means of understanding and analyzing my own behavior and life. The text provides me with some insight into my own actions and helps me be aware of the things I am not always aware of like the bad choices I make in the heat of a moment that sends my life spiraling in a crazy direction. The reding, although sometimes dense and hard to comprehend, is helped along by the commentary provided by Jargon Kongtrul Lord Thaye and Khenpo Tsultrim Gyantso Rinpoche. The insights on the text provided by these scholars help illuminate the writing and provide a keen perspective on the practical nature of these words.

Today, I return to this text after reading the three Upanishad texts and incorporating their ideas into what I understand from Buddhist texts. It really feels like these texts offer a kind of dialogue between ideas and without being in a community that carries on such conversations, I guess it’s up to me to organize my own thoughts and debate myself in ways that challenge my perceptions and silly notions.

For this post, I’m focusing on something very specific: the nature of mind and the relationship between the five skandas, eighteen elements, and six senses. What I’m interested in is how it all works; for example, why do I make dumb choices that reverberate over years of my life? What’s going on? Why does it seem that I cannot break free from my ridiculous decisions?

The Uttaratantra Shastra provides some help or guidance on what’s going on in our minds. I’ll try to explain, from my perspective, what I think is going on and relate that to the text. Feel free, in comments, to destroy my analysis or understanding. The section I’m reading is the Fourth Vajra Point: The Element. On page 27, the text delves into how skandhas, elements, and senses are based on karma and mental poisons.

For the record, the five skandhas are briefly defined as form (your physical body), feeling (the sensations from your body, perception (that comes from your body’s organs like eyes, ears, etc), mental formations (thoughts, ideas and the like), consciousness (your awareness of your body perceptions, etc). Recognizing that these skandhas rise and fall, and even cease to exist is one step to awareness of our buddha nature.

The elements the text refers to are also referred to as the eighteen dhatus. They are comprised of six sense objects (sounds, smells tastes etc), six sense faculties (the act of smelling, tasting etc), and the six sense consciousnesses (your awareness of smell, taste, etc).

Finally, the six senses are defined as the base of consciousness and all awareness that comes from those senses form our understanding of the world around us. The senses are as you understand them now: seeing, hearing,tasting, and smelling. Touch is included in the body sense and the sixth sense is the mind or awareness of the other senses.

Our awareness from the skandhas, elements, and senses are formed, in some ways, by our previous karma. Those actions we took in previous lives make an impression on us and carry on, lifetime after lifetime, as a kind of cause and effect; we make a choice and take an action that impacts what we do and how we act; think of it like hiking a trail. We make tiny impressions in the dirt as we walk. Overtime, as we walk the same trail, those steps form into deeper and deeper ruts in the dirt, eventually forming well-worn paths. Those well-worn paths are representative of the karma we have; previous choices limit future choices and we follow the same path, over and over again. We are, in a sense, trapped by our own choices or karma.

That karma shapes our understanding of the world, and we begin to see things and hear things based on what we think is real based on those karmic footprints. It becomes so hard to step out of the karmic trail we’ve made over lifetimes and so we get stuck, in a sense, in patterns of previous choices. The Uttaratantra Shastra says that once we become aware of those choices, that karma, those negative thoughts and actions, we can begin to step OUT of that karmic trail and find a new way of being that does not keep us stuck on that one path.

In fact, what this section of the text tells us is that we have a spaciousness, an awareness, a nature that is not at all attached to those previous actions. It exists beyond that trail we have trod; imagine it as the sky, pure, cloudless sky that is not even a part of the karmic trail we have traveled for eons. The limits we have placed on ourselves do not apply to this spacious nature, and is completely free from the cares of this experience and this world. Once we recognize that true nature, we can be released from the well-worn path we’ve carved.

Trongsa Dzong, Bhutan 2016

As the commentary called the Unassailable Lion’s Roar states, this true nature of mind “does not depend upon productive causes and it does not depend on active conditions. It therefore does not depend on the gathering of these causes and conditions.” (133) Simply put, our true nature is not bound by the previous choices we’ve made, regardless of how terrible those choices were. We are not, in fact, the sum of our bad choices; we can be completely free from those decisions. Wow.

Practically, then, how do we find this kind of freedom? Where is the possibility of finding such a true nature? As it turns out, it requires us to seek beyond the choices we’ve made and the life we are leading. It means that we have to become aware; that awareness is based on a very fundamental concept – that what we know as the Self is just a construct of those choices we made. Once we realize that we are NOT that construct and that we are not bound to those negative thoughts and emotions, we can seek understanding by becoming aware of our true nature in the stillness of our minds; the calmer mind let’s that awareness arise…it’s pretty much always there anyway; all we really need to do it help remove the clouds or part the curtains for that awareness to rise.

OK, so how do I practice this method? For me it works very simply like this: find the gap between thoughts and focus on that gap. Every single thought rises and falls; between them there is a gap just before the next thought rises. At first, I used breathing as my support; finding the place where my breath switched from in to out or out to in. Now, I sit, walk, ride, or wash dishes or whatever and rest in taht place where I can be aware of my thoughts and the spaces in-between them. That is, in fact, the place I start.

May you be happy, May you be well.