Buddhanature, Love and Awareness
by Matthew Brensilver
I don’t know about Buddhanature. Perhaps it is something simply outside of my own practice experience. I certainly understand the value in positing it. What could possibly cut through shame, self-judgment and doubt more effectively than the notion that our deepest nature is pure, luminous and transcendent. This understanding is even encouraged by certain practice experiences, where we feel like we’re shedding layers of the onion, discovering more and more goodness.
And yet, the Buddha was consistently suspicious of essences. Ajahn Chah posed the question, “What is the mind?” His response: “The mind isn’t ‘is’ anything.” In practice, we are directed to know phenomena as centerless and ultimately ungovernable. The onion has no core. Thanissaro Bhikkhu wrote, “…instead of making assumptions about innate natures or inevitable outcomes, the Buddha advised exploring the possibility of freedom as it’s immediately present each time you make a choice. Freedom is not a nature…”
So, where does this leave goodness and love? While I’m always cautious about positing an essence, it’s worth asking what impulses remain when we stop clinging. What’s on the other side of letting go?
The defilements depend on clinging. Greed and hatred require clinging. Love asks only that we let go. When that love is known, it feels as if it has been waiting there all along. It feels so obvious, so un-manufactured, so effortlessly spontaneous, it is no wonder that it is sometimes interpreted as our true nature.
This unfolding depends on awareness. The gesture of looking is both an expression of love and engenders love. Awareness is itself an expression of letting go. Clinging doesn’t only happen in relation to views and people and pleasures. We cling to phenomena itself. We freeze phenomena into nouns. Awareness lets go. We release the beginning of the breath so that we can be with the middle, and release the middle to be with the end, and so on. As the awareness becomes more vibrant, we touch and release phenomena more quickly and gracefully. We don’t seek phenomena as ground to stand upon but instead trust the path of letting go. This kind of letting go doesn’t always lead directly to love, but it will never lead to hate. And when non-hatred meets the suffering of the world, love arises.
Matthew Brensilver, PhD, served as a Buddhist chaplain at USC for four years and teaches about the intersection of mindfulness and mental health at UCLA's Mindful Awareness Research Center and with Mindful Schools. Matthew was trained by Noah Levine and teaches at Against the Stream. He completed the Spirit Rock/IMS teacher training program (2016) and regularly offers retreats at Spirit Rock and the Insight Retreat Center. He spent years doing research on addiction treatment at the UCLA Center for Behavioral and Addiction Medicine and continues to be interested in the unfolding dialogue between dharma and science.