Dharma Cicle, Zhang Huag, 2004, mixed media installation, Frankfurt, Germany
Dharma Cicle, Zhang Huag, 2004, mixed media installation, Frankfurt, Germany

Throughout the Buddhist tradition, one finds two apparently contradictory models of human nature. One view holds that human beings are fundamentally flawed and laced with impurities and that dharma training is a heroic struggle to rise above the unwholesome psychological roots that have been entrenched in the mind for incalculable aeons. Awakening, then, is a supremely difficult task, requiring unrelenting effort to go “against the stream,” as the Buddha said, of our natural tendencies. The other model takes the view that humans are, in our true nature, intrinsically enlightened and virtuous. From this perspective, practice is a matter of uncovering our original purity. The process is based less on striving than on letting go and gently opening up to our innate goodness.

What are we to make of this discrepancy? My own view is that both are true and neither is true-which is to say, they constitute the horns of a dilemma. But if we look to the Buddha’s teachings, especially as we find them in the earliest texts, we find that they show us a middle path through this polarity, as through others. Certainly, greed, hatred, and delusion—the traditional three poisons of Buddhist teaching—are deeply embedded in the human psyche, and many of the behaviors that arise from these unwholesome roots deserve the label “evil” (in Pali, papa). The mind is permeated with latent tendencies (anusaya), hindrances (nivarana), defilements (kilesa), fetters (samyojana), and toxins (asava),and as the Buddha taught, only a thorough process of purification will allow consciousness to emerge, like a lotus growing up from the mud and blossoming above the waterline, free and clear. But it is also said that the mind is naturally luminescent and only appears otherwise because it is defiled by “visiting” contaminants. According to this description, human nature contains three wholesome roots: non-greed, non-hatred, and non-delusion, or generosity, lovingkindness, and wisdom. There is no reason to suspect that these wholesome roots run any less deep than the unwholesome ones. The pivotal issue, then, is which set of qualities more accurately represents essential human nature.

But the crux of the Buddha’s insight was that there are no essences. That being the case, might it not be that it is the very notion of “essential” or “intrinsic” that is causing mischief here? Might the matter simply be one of skillful means—that sometimes it is helpful to emphasize rising above what is unwholesome and at others it is best to speak of uncovering what is wholesome? Either way, it is surely unskillful to attach to either view. All talk of essences—whether it be of the depressing mass of afflictions or the alluring shine of natural perfection—strikes me as decidedly contrary to the Buddha’s teachings, at least as they are presented in the earliest strata of tradition.

It’s true that the literature uses terms like “unconditioned” or “deathless,” but nowhere does it say that these describe “original” or “essential” aspects of human nature. During the era in which the Nikayas (the early collections of the Buddha’s discourses) were composed, such language was a common feature of the Vedas and Upanishads, and they were at the very basis of the Brahmanical tradition. In fact, it is likely that the Buddha’s teachings of anatta (no-self) andpaticca-samuppada (dependent origination) were arguments against these very notions. But he was equally critical of ideas put forward by others, such as the Ajivikas and to some extent the Jains, that the defilements found naturally in human experience are beyond transformation in this lifetime. The middle path between intrinsic goodness and intrinsic evil is the insight that human nature is the product of interdependently arising factors—some wholesome, some unwholesome—that manifest moment after moment in lawful and knowable patterns. With mindfulness these patterns can be revealed, with wisdom they can be understood, and, precisely because they are unessential, with practice they can be transformed.

Numerous passages in the early texts emphasize the defective aspects of our human nature and then point to a path of purification leading out of the difficulties. Just to take one, almost at random:

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