In the eleventh century, the great Tibetan scholar-practitioner Gampopa (1079–1153) began his composition known as The Jewel Ornament of Liberation with an exposition on the cause for awakening. What is the cause for awakening? In the Vajrayana and third turning traditions of Buddhism it is buddha nature. Buddha nature is our innate potential for awakening and the root of many Buddhist paths. Zen, Yogacara, and all Tibetan traditions of Buddhism teach that the goal of enlightenment is not some distant aspiration but is accessible in the immediate present.

Historically, the source of the buddha nature teachings can be traced back to the third turning of the Buddha’s teachings, with textual sources dating back to the 3rd and 4th century C.E.  and the Indian Yogācāra tradition. This tradition follows the tenet systems laid out by the Indian masters Vasubandhu (4th–5th century) and Asaṅga (fourth century). Their writings that continue to inspire throughout the ages include the Thirty Verses, the Twenty Verses, the Treatise on the Three Natures, and the Demonstration of Action by Vasubandhu as well as other scriptures on the storehouse consciousness, buddha nature, and the perfect luminosity of the union of appearances and emptiness that were written by his contemporaries and commentators, Asaṅga, Dharmakīrti (seventh century), and Dignāga (480–540). These foundational individuals have inspired an astoundingly profound line of philosophers and commentators in the Tibetan Buddhist traditions, and their developments permeate most all other Mahāyāna centers of Buddhist practice and philosophy.

There are now many literary works that explore the topic of buddha nature, provoking the realization of enlightenment and making that realization relatable to the very essence of our lives. In one’s relationship to the spiritual path, it is important to have a sense of our potential and our innate capability to grow and progress. It is this innate strength that is reflected in the Buddha and his commentators’ teachings on our perfect buddha nature. Enjoy this wonderful lion’s roar that echoes throughout the many publications featured below.

lotus in black and white

Buddha Nature and the Third Turning of the Wheel

Buddha nature is a topic often placed within the philosophy of the third turning of the wheel of dharma, a collection of teachings given by the Buddha and his commentators that focus on tathāgatagarbha, the seed of awakening, as well as other Yogācāra viewpoints, such as the Mind-only tenet system. The three turnings of the wheel can be summarized in three pith statements.

First Turning

In the first turning, all is a process. The first turning emphasizes renunciation and refutation of the self of persons. Particularly, one renounces all conceptual overlays, such as thoughts of personal identity. First turning teachings on interdependence form the basis not only of the early traditions of Buddhism, but also lay the foundations for all three turnings of the Buddha’s teachings.

Second Turning

In the second turning of the wheel of dharma, all is empty. The ultimate in the second turning, which consists of the Mahāyāna schools of Madhyamaka, Zen, and Pure Land Buddhism, is a union of emptiness and compassion. When people hear that the nature of reality is emptiness, dreamlike and insubstantial, it is often confused with nothingness. However, having understood that nothing is immutably real, it is good to go on to the Shentong (“empty of other”) view, which states that mind is not mere emptiness, but is only empty of its adventitious stains and is inseparable from the qualities of transcendence.

Third Turning

Therefore, in the third turning of the wheel of dharma, all is luminous and radiant. The third turning teachings emphasize the inconceivable qualities of the clarity of mind. Falling under this category are teachings on buddha nature (tathāgatagarbha) elucidated in sūtras and commentaries such as the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra and the Uttaratantra Shastra. These teachings show that, whether holding a view of the ultimate or of the relative, a denial of experience cannot be validated. The third turning is a philosophical return to experience for one who has gone beyond the adventitious techniques of analytical analysis utilized in the traditions of the first and second turnings.

Budhha Nature

Asaṅga, the great master of Indian Buddhism, wrote down these traditional examples that capture the brilliance and purity of our essential buddha nature,

Like a lake filled with unpolluted water gradually overspread by lotus flowers,

Like the full moon released from Rahu’s mouth and the sun liberated from a sea of clouds,

It is free from affliction. Being free from pollution and possessing qualities,

[buddhahood] is endowed with the brilliant light rays [of correct and complete vision].

-From Buddha Nature: The Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra, translated by Rosemarie Fuchs

This teaching on the foundation of our spiritual potency shows that there is nothing substantial to our limitations—our true state of being is never dampened by the adventitious pains clouding our experiences. It can be both inspiring, intimidating, and even shocking when first encountering the language used to express buddha nature. Especially if you are used to the common Buddhist philosophies regarding impermanence, selflessness, and suffering, the position of the third turning teachings can be jarring in its emphasis on the positive expressions of the ultimate—the descriptive qualities of the luminosity of mind.

Buddhist symbolism the lotus is symbolic of purity of the body, speech, and mind

Below, Paula Arai, author of Painting Enlightenment, reads an original poem to accompany the painting, “Do Ants Have Buddha-Nature?”, by Iwasaki Tsuneo. Painting Enlightenment is a beautiful exposition on a collection of paintings by Tsuneo illustrating the profound meaning of the Heart Sutra.

Books Featuring Buddha Nature and the Third Turning

Painting Enlightenment 

by Paula Arai

The Heart Sutra—among the most famous of Buddhist scriptures—has been treated with reverence for centuries. Practitioners and calligraphers have honored the sutra by hand copying it dozens, hundreds, and even thousands of times. Bringing that tradition into the modern era, Japanese artist Iwasaki Tsuneo (1917–2002) created an original and exquisitely intricate body of Buddhist art. The subject of his paintings range from classical Buddhist iconography to majestic views of our universe as revealed by science—all created with painstakingly rendered miniature calligraphy of the Heart Sutra.

Painting Enlightenment

Taught by: Paula Arai

$34.95 - Hardcover

Buddha Nature: The Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra with Commentary by Arya Maitreya

Translated by Rosemarie Fuchs

One of the famous Five Treatises which the Buddha Maitreya transmitted to Asaṅga in Tushita Heaven, following Asaṅga's twelve years of arduous retreat. This edition includes several extensive explanations and commentaries on this foundational text coming from the shentong (“empty of other”) point of view.

A more extensive list of teachings on buddha nature can be found in the introduction to Rosemarie Fuchs’s translation of the Uttaratantraśāstra, Buddha Nature: The Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra.

Also, check out this article on Fuchs’s translation from the Spring, 1950 issue of the Snow Lion Newsletter.

The Center of the Sunlit Sky: Madhyamaka in the Kagyu Tradition

by Karl Brunnhölzl

Within The Center of the Sunlit Sky, translator, author, and renowned scholar of Buddhism Mitra Karl Brunnhölzl presents a guide to the original Indian sources and the standard commentaries on Madhyamaka in the Kagyu School of Tibetan Buddhism. Using language that appeals to a contemporary audience, this book reestablishes Madhyamaka as a practical toolkit for pacifying suffering and guiding towards awakening.

The Center of the Sunlit Sky

Taught by: Karl Brunnholzl

$78.00 - Hardcover

The Treasury of Knowledge: Book Six, Part Three: Frameworks of Buddhist Philosophy by Jamgön Kongtrul Lodro Tayé

Translated by Elizabeth M. Callahan

Frameworks of Buddhist Philosophy presents a study of the themes and subtle philosophies developed over thousands of years of Buddhist composition. Written by the leading Tibetan scholar of the nineteenth century, Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Tayé, this work provides a brilliant overview of the development of Buddhism’s three vehicles and four philosophical systems.

The Treasury of Knowledge: Book Six, Part Three

Taught by: Elizabeth M. Callahan & Jamgon Kongtrul Lodro Taye

$44.95 - Hardcover

When the Clouds Part: The Uttaratantra and Its Meditative Tradition as a Bridge between Sūtra and Tantra

by Karl Brunnhölzl

Including an insightful exploration in the translators introduction of the meditative tradition that uses Maitreya’s Mahāyānottaratantra as the basis for Mahāmudra instruction and the Shentong approach to understanding emptiness, this book discusses a wide range of topics connected with the notion of buddha nature as presented in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. Included within is an overview of the sūtra sources of the tathāgatagarbha teachings and the different ways of explaining the meaning of this term, as well as new translations of the Maitreya treatise Mahāyānottaratantra (Ratnagotravibhāga) and its Indian and Tibetan commentaries.

When the Clouds Part

Taught by: Karl Brunnholzl & Asanga & Jamgon Mipham & Maitreya

$49.95 - Hardcover

Buddha Nature and Zen

Shakyamuni Buddha said, “Living beings all are buddha nature.

The Tathagata is continuously abiding and not subject to change.”

- Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra -


There is an impressive lineage of Zen writers that that have commented on the buddha nature teachings. Dōgen (1200–1253), whose instructional lectures were collected in his Shōbōgenzo, is one such Japanese thinker and practitioner whose writings on buddha nature have been published in numerous volumes. For example, Dōgen made the controversial and insightful decision to translate the above passage from the Chinese edition of the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra as, “Living beings all are buddha nature.” Many other translations simply state that all beings have Buddha nature.  Take a peek at the unique perspective Dōgen provides on buddha nature in his commentary on the above passage from the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra found in his Treasury of the True Dharma Eye,

Know that the are of all are buddha nature is beyond are and are not. All are are the buddha words, the buddha tongue. They are the eyeball of buddha ancestors and the nostrils of patched-robed monks. The words all are are not limited to embryonic beings, original beings, inconceivable beings, or any other kind of beings. Furthermore, they do not mean causal beings or imaginary beings. All are are free from mind, object, essence, or aspects. This being so, the body, mind, and environs of Living beings all are [buddha nature] are not limited to the increasing power of action, imaginary causation, things as they are, or the practice realization of miraculous powers.

Such excerpts serve to guide readers toward a more complete understanding of the unique position Dōgen takes when addressing buddha nature. In the remainder of the chapter, difficult points are introduced in relation to this topic such as: the scope of buddha nature and its interconnectedness to living and inanimate beings, buddha nature and the importance of paradox and kōan practice, and narratives that colorfully illustrate Dōgen’s own journey of realization. His commentaries are included in various titles by Shambhala Publications such as the Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, Zen Enlightenment, Rational Zen, and The Essential Dōgen.

Works on Buddha Nature from the Zen Traditions

Zen Enlightenment: Origins and Meaning

by Heinrich Dumoulin

Within Zen Enlightenment the renowned scholar Heinrich Dumoulin traces the development of Zen and the concept of enlightenment from its origins in India through its development in China to its fruition in Japan. With a special emphasis on the historical path Zen has followed, the development of koan practice, and the Japanese Zen master Dōgen, Heinrich presents in a fresh way the enlightenment experiences of a variety of contemporary Zen practitioners.

Zen Enlightenment

Taught by: Heinrich Dumoulin

$24.95 - Paperback

Enlightenment Unfolds is a sequel to Kaz Tanahashi's previous collection, Moon in a Dewdrop, which has become a primary source on Dogen for Western Zen students. Enlightenment Unfolds presents even more of the incisive and inspiring writings of this seminal figure, focusing on essays from his great life work, Treasury of the True Dharma Eye, as well as poems, talks, and correspondence, much of which appears here in English for the first time.

Tanahashi has brought together his own translations of Dogen with those of some of the most respected Zen teachers and writers of our own day, including Reb Anderson, Edward Espe Brown, Norman Fisher, Gil Fronsdal, Blanche Hartman, Jane Hirschfield, Daniel Leighton, Alan Senauke, Katherine Thanas, Mel Weitzman, and Michael Wenger.

Enlightenment Unfolds

Taught by: Zen Master Dogen & Kazuaki Tanahashi

$24.95 - Paperback

Minding Mind: A Course in Basic Meditation

Translated by Thomas Cleary

In this collection of essays on Buddhist meditation, a variety of the traditions represented by teachers from China, Japan, and Korea, present the depth of “pure, clear meditation.” Zazen, as it is known in the Zen traditions, aims to capture the essence of traditional Buddhist meditation, and it is concisely presented here through various teacher’s perspectives.

Minding Mind

Taught by: Thomas Cleary & Zen Master Dogen

$18.95 - Paperback

Only Don't Know: Selected Teaching Letters of Zen Master Seung Sahn

by Seung Sahn, Sungsan Tae Sŏnsa

Taken from personal correspondences he would have with his student, this book presents Zen Master Seung Sahn from the perspective of his most intimate teachings. Seung Sahn received hundreds of letters per month, and some of the best are included here with his personal and enlightened responses to issues surrounding work, relationships, suffering, and the teacher-student relationship.

Only Don't Know

Taught by: Hyon Gak & Zen Master Seung Sahn

$27.95 - Paperback

Rational Zen: The Mind of Dōgen Zenji

by Thomas Cleary

Zen has often been portrayed as being illogical and mystifying, even aimed at the destruction of the rational intellect. These new translations of the thirteenth-century Zen master Dōgen—one of most original and important Zen writers—illustrate the rational side of Zen, which has been obscured through the centuries, tainting people's understanding of it.

Rational Zen

Taught by: Thomas Cleary & Zen Master Dogen

$24.95 - Paperback

The Compass of Zen

by Seung Sahn

This book is a simple, exhaustive—and often hilarious—presentation of the essence of Zen by Master Seung Sahn, a modern Zen Master of considerable renown. In his many years of teaching throughout the world Master Sahn has become known for his ability to cut to the heart of Buddhist teaching in a way that is strikingly clear, yet free of esoteric and academic language. In this book, he presents the basic teachings of Buddhism and Zen in a way that is wonderfully accessible for beginners—yet rich with stories, insights, and personal experiences that will also benefit long-time students of meditation.

The Compass of Zen

Taught by: Hyon Gak & Stephen Mitchell & Zen Master Seung Sahn

$29.95 - Paperback

The Five Houses of Zen

by Thomas Cleary

The Zen tradition has created a huge body of writings, and the writings associated with the so-called Five Houses of Zen are widely considered to be foremost in importance. These Five Houses were not schools of Zen but were styles of teaching represented by the most outstanding masters in Zen history. Many of the writings of these great masters are translated here for the first time.

The Five Houses of Zen

Taught by: Thomas Cleary

$19.95 - Paperback

A Buddha From Korea: The Zen Teachings of T'aego

Translated by J. C. Cleary

A presentation of Zen Buddhism in old Korea, this book is a window to the teachings of the fourteenth-century Zen master known as T’aego. Enjoy this translation of a direct and authentic account of Korean Zen Buddhism.

A Buddha from Korea

Taught by: J. C. Cleary

$19.95 - Paperback

Buddha Nature and Tibetan Buddhism

Although many of the great Tibetan Buddhist scholars and practitioners share the same root lineage, the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism eventually developed subtle philosophical differences with respect to buddha nature. There are many ways that the Tibetan traditions developed to systematically teach about buddha nature. For example, the highly systematized Tibetan traditions held unique philosophical positions regarding the usefulness of conceptual activity, sūtrayāna and mantrayāna supports, and rangtong (“empty of self”) and shentong (“empty of other”) approaches to buddha nature.

The differences in views on buddha nature in Tibetan Buddhism—Gampopa’s teachings on mahāmudrā, the emptiness-centered Gelug presentation, the Jonang ‘empty of other’ presentation by Venerable Dölpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292–1361), and the Nyingma position on Buddha-nature, help encapsulate the subtleties of the buddha nature teachings passed down through Tibetan Buddhism’s lineage of wisdom. The dialogue the ensues between these various viewpoints has led to the rich heritage of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy, preserving the highest and most subtle points of the Buddha’s teachings.

In Gampopa’s chapter on Buddha nature mentioned above, he quotes from Maitreya’s Ornament for the Mahāyāna (mdo sde rgyan),

Suchness, in all places is without distinction, but when it is refined, it is called “Buddhahood”. Therefore, it is that with which all beings are endowed.

If you ask for a reason that all beings can be shown to have Buddha-nature, these are the reasons: The dharmakāya, being emptiness, pervades all beings; suchness is indivisible; and it exists in the heritage of all sentient beings. Therefore, because of these three reasons, sentient beings possess Buddha-nature.

Works on Buddha Nature from the Tibetan Buddhist Tradition

The Buddha From Dolpo: A Study Of The Life And Thought Of The Tibetan Master Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen

by Cyrus Stearns

One of the only books about the controversial Buddhist master of Tibet, Dölpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292–1361). Dölpopa emphasized two contrasting definitions of the Buddhist theory of emptiness. He described relative phenomena as empty of self-nature, but absolute reality as only empty of other (i.e. relative) phenomena. He further identified absolute reality as the buddha nature or eternal essence present in all living beings. This view of an "emptiness of other," known in Tibetan as shentong, is Dölpopa's enduring legacy.

The Buddha from Dolpo

Taught by: Cyrus Stearns

$39.95 - Hardcover

In the Presence of Masters: Wisdom from 30 Contemporary Tibetan Buddhist Teachers

by Reginald A. Ray

Thirty of the most creative, eloquent, and energetic Tibetan Buddhist teachers of Westerners in recent decades are featured in this collection of teachings that are certain to be highly treasured by all students of Buddhism. The contributors are masters who helped establish Buddhism in the West who emphasize meditation practice, personal experience, and spiritual realization.

In the Presence of Masters

Taught by: Reginald A. Ray

$24.95 - Paperback

Indestructible Truth: The Living Spirituality of Tibetan Buddhism

by Reginald A. Ray

A thorough and accessible introduction to the Tibetan Buddhist world. In Indestructible Truth, Tibetan Buddhism is introduced not as an exotic religion, but rather as an expression of human spirituality that is having a profound impact on the modern world. In addition, it presents the point of view of meditation and the practice of the spiritual life, paying special attention to contemplative practice and meditation as taught in the Kagyu and Nyingma schools.

Indestructible Truth

Taught by: Reginald A. Ray

$27.95 - Paperback

Luminous Heart: The Third Karmapa on Consciousness, Wisdom, and Buddha Nature

by Karl Brunnholzl

Synthesizing Yogacara Madhyamaka and the classical teachings on buddha nature, this superb collection of writings on buddha nature by the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (1284–1339) focuses on the transition from ordinary deluded consciousness to enlightened wisdom, the characteristics of buddhahood, and a buddha's enlightened activity.  Rangjung Dorje not only shows that these teachings do not contradict each other but also that they supplement each other and share the same essential points in terms of the ultimate nature of mind and all phenomena. For those practicing the sūtrayāna and the vajrayāna in the Kagyu tradition, what these texts describe can be transformed into living experience.

Luminous Heart

Taught by: Karl Brunnholzl

$39.95 - Hardcover

On Buddha Essence: A Commentary on Rangjung Dorje's Treatise

by Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche

According to Tibetan Buddhist tradition, human beings' true nature, or buddha essence, is the foundation from which all wisdom develops. In order to discover our buddha essence, the meditator needs to know how to meditate correctly and must properly understand the reasons for practicing meditation. Khenchen Thrangu—with clarity, warmth, and humor— explains buddha essence and how to discover it in ourselves by drawing on a classical text of the Kagyu lineage by Rangjung Dorje (the third Karmapa).

On Buddha Essence

Taught by: The Third Karmapa & Khenchen Thrangu & Peter Alan Roberts

$16.95 - Paperback

Discover More Reading Guides, Articles, and Excerpts