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:
Tangled within, tangled without,
Creatures are tangled in tangles.
And so I ask you, Gotama
—Who can untangle this tangle?
Those whose passion and aversion
And ignorance are cleansed away,
Arahants with toxins destroyed
—They have untangled these tangles.
But we find as well many passages underlining the natural capacity of the mind for clarity and wisdom. Among the most familiar of these is the following:
The mind, monks, is luminous;
it is defiled by defilements that come upon it;
The mind, monks, is luminous;
it is purified of defilements that come upon it.
The usefulness of this literature to the student of Buddhism depends on how carefully it is read and how accurately it is understood. As is the case with all sensory perception, the mind is drawn to mental events that co-arise with a pleasurable feeling tone and shies away from those associated with displeasure. This tends to lead our thoughts and views into areas with which we are already familiar and comfortable, and away from what challenges us or causes discomfort. This tendency contributes to polarization in how we think about human nature.
Attachment to experiences that occur in meditation might do the same. Seeing deeply into the relentless arising of painful psychological “stuff ” might nudge us to view human nature as defiled; glimpses of magnificent light and clarity might well convince us of our innate purity. In the former case, unwholesome flaws appear more substantial and intractable than the Buddha seems to have regarded them. In the latter, the luminous qualities of mind might be construed more as sacred realities than as the phenomenological manifestations the Buddha described as the field for meditation and transformation.
I suspect we will be better off attending to the nuances of arising and falling experience, below the level of mental constructs, than rearranging conceptual theories. Whether human nature is inherently good or intrinsically evil might even be irrelevant. The more important issue is what one is doing with the mind right now. After all:
Whatever a person frequently
thinks and ponders upon,
that will become the inclination of
This body’s like a ball of foam,
And feeling is like a bubble;
Perception is like a mirage,
Formations like a pith-less tree,
And consciousness is like a trick.
So said the Buddha.
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