A few years back (around 2007 I think), I had a lively discussion with a venerable on the subject matter. I'm going to try to keep this entry as concise as possible. If you are interested in this, read on, otherwise go meditate or move along …
He posited that all phenomena had Buddha Nature. This include the trees and mountains, the chair you are probably sitting on and the monitor you are reading this text on. I was confounded. I was like thinking to myself "What??" … Despite being a lot more senior in monkhood, he was very compassionate to listen to my opposition. I countered that "Buddha Nature referred to the potential or ability of sentient beings to attain Buddhahood. Trees, mountains, chairs … etc is only rupa (physical form) is not sentient, hence cannot attain to Buddhahood." I had him now! Haha! That was easy. A bit too easy.
He countered that "such a description of Buddha Nature is incomplete (if I recall right)". He followed up his claim with a question "What is the Three Universal Characteristics?".
"Impermanence (Anicca), Suffering (Dukkha) and No-self (Anatta)" (original conversation was in mandarin and did not include Pali nor Sanskrit terms.)
He furthered "And all phenomena adhere to these Universal Characteristics without fail?" "Yes"
"And how do they know to adhere to these Universal Characteristics without fail?" " …. …. "
I was a bit dumbfounded. That is like asking how things know how to fall to the ground. Although we have the Law of Gravity describing the relation of gravitational forces acting on two bodies, scientists are still figuring out what this gravitational force is.
Here, it is proposed that "the ability of all phenomena to adhere to these Universal Characteristics without fail" is the Wisdom of the "Buddha Nature" in all phenomena.
Beyond this, the kind venerable didn't try to impose this view / teaching on me for we moved on to other discussion that required our attention.
(I only write down as much as I can recall of the conversation)
I have not really thought much of that exchange that happened a few years back but it hung around at the back of my mind. In a way, I've dismissed it as preposterous. How can we equate ourselves to tables and chairs? Some may argue the same about ants and mosquitoes, but the potential for these sentient beings to, not now, but one day have the conditions to reach Perfection, to attain Buddhahood as a perfectly Enlightened One, as a human being, is there.
Recently, during one of our walks to Poh Ming Tse Temple (PMT) , TH (identity protected until I confirm his agreement) asked about Budha Nature. While sharing thoughts about it, I quizzed him whether he was taught about how there is Buddha Nature is in everything. He replied that he has indeed read or learnt before that Buddha Nature is in everything. I related the above account and added an analysis as hindsight.
If all phenomena is able to choose, and it chose to adhere to the Universal Characteristics as observed, discovered, declared and taught by the Buddha, then we can call that choice a function of wisdom. We can say that there is wisdom. We can even entertain that such wisdom is perhaps akin to if not that of Buddha Nature though whether more justification would be needed is another matter altogether. But so far, no phenomena seem to exhibit this ability to make such a choice. No physical nor mental phenomena had been able to expressly exhibit the ability to choose to be permanent or impermanent. It has no choice but to change according to conditions. To assume that there is otherwise is to posit that which is not expressly present.
The same applies to suffering and no-self. Or for that matter, emptiness.
With that, we conclude that positing that all phenomena including non-sentient trees and mountains, tables and chairs, keyboards and monitors has Buddha Nature, would be to do so based on the presumption that these phenomena actively made the choice to adhere to the Universal Characteristics.
But Let's Go Along for the Ride and See What Happens
Later on, I piqued his interest by suggesting that we assume that there is Buddha Nature in everything. What benefit, what purpose would such a mindset, view or realisation be for us? So he readily offered that knowing thus, we would take care of things even more and cherish whatever come our way, even if it is something that appeared trivial.
I chewed on that for a while. Then I muttered "how about the slippers you are wearing? If it has Buddha Nature, how can you step on it?".
There are probably some volumes of commentaries pertaining to stepping or not stepping on slippers with Buddha Nature, but at that time, it escaped TH.
We continued the journey to PMT and later had the SIMBB Thursday Dharma Class @ PMT.
So … ?
Perhaps, for those who subscribe to the "Buddha Nature in all things", the important thing is not to worship your slippers, but to appreciate the emptiness of all things. If I could borrow a page from science, all the hydrocarbons in the world, regardless of whether it is presently in a living organism or in a tree or mountain, table or chair, keyboard or monitor, all share can potentially become the physical constituent of future Buddhas. Whether these molecules become the constituents in a Perfect being, a Perfectly Enlightened One, a Buddha, or a frowning, complaining or upset, depressed person (or Singaporean for that matter!), is up to us! It is up to us strive towards Perfection, towards Enlightenment Nirvana (or Nibbana for that matter, though itself is not tied to words or languages!).
We could draw the same conclusion based on the Four Elements, but the above should suffice.
So while I do not agree that non-sentient rupa (physicality) has the potential to attain to Buddhahood, I see how all physical phenomena has the potential to one day be part of the physical constituent of a Perfectly Enlightened One, a Buddha.
So do you have Buddha Nature or Gangster Nature? … ah, that would be another blog … Suki hontu! ^_^
In Buddhist suttas and vinaya text, there is mention about spirits presiding in trees, grasses, mountains, rivers etc. It does not make the
former latter* sentient. The spirit merely take these areas as their habitat.
* As pointed out by a *_* special student. PKZ ^_^