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A Song of Awakening

Lama Yeshe's contribution to the Fall 2023 buddhanature issue of Buddhadharma: The Practitioner's Guide

Buddha Shakyamuni’s first impressions after enlightenment move me every time:

This peace so profound—this unpolluted, uncreated clear light—this nectar-like dharma I have found: to whomever I may teach it, it would remain enigmatic. So I will stay silent, keeping to the forest.

- Lalitavistara, Sutra of the Panoramic Play

What wonder is this that can enchant a mind so unbound into hushed humility?

Hearing the verse as the Buddha’s doha, his hymn of realizing buddhanature, is my touchstone for discerning buddhanature—first in his teachings, then my own experience.

To begin, why might the Buddha choose not to teach? Explicit statements about buddhanature are tricky. The unabashed Tibetan Shentong (Empty of All Else) philosophy, infamous for not shying away from assertion, speaks of “sublime peace,” a mystical synergy beyond false binaries of permanent/impermanent, suffering/bliss, self/nonself. An enigma, to be sure. And readily misconstrued. In the reaches of the inexpressible, understanding dawns by degrees.

Sometimes silence is more articulate. The Buddha famously leaves certain questions unanswered. Nor does he mention clear light, enigmas, or buddhanature in his first public discourse, only weeks after invoking his doha. Instead, the Four Truths meet us in what we know all too well: life’s sticky sorrow, even amidst its sweetness. The Buddha exhorts us to recognize dukkha, eradicate its origin, and actualize its cessation by relying on the path.

The Buddha’s doha of speechless awe under the bodhi tree resounds with its signature note. Inviting it, like a tuning fork, again and again, attunes my understanding. Accompanied by its poignant pitch, I receive his instructions for liberation from samsara. From their harmony, buddhanature serenades me, urging me to enact the Four Truths.

Can anything short of fully embodying mind’s true nature—wise, loving, and powerful—be other than suffering? What greater foe is there than whatever impedes buddhanature’s unbridled expression? How better to live than in alignment with the Buddha’s path to liberation, extinguishing so unnatural a state, to reveal what lies hidden in plain sight? My heart pivots.

Listening to the doha sing in silence sharpens my senses. I spy buddhanature everywhere, even when my own or others’ discordant thoughts, emotions, deeds, or words belie it. Like the promise of butter imperceptibly pervading milk, buddhanature is the promise of enlightenment that suffuses mind, whether unmanifest, manifesting, or manifest. Sentient beings are buddhanature—enlightenment unmanifest. Veiled by adventitious kleshas, we display attachment, aversion, and delusion instead. My heart breaks.

Reading by Lama Yeshe
Click for Lama Yeshe's reading of "A Song of Awakening"

For my mercurial mind, silence sometimes feels scanty. The Prajna—paramita sutras and Madhyamaka reasonings, wielding treasure maps riddled with puzzles tucked into mazes, are just the ticket. Navigating these labyrinths of shunyata exhausts my conceptual mind, in thrall to logos. Intellect deposits me, thirsty and receptive, on the threshold of vistas beyond its ken.

Seemingly dissonant, holding paradox transmits the indescribable viscerally, instilling nimbleness. Poised, my mind hastens less to pigeonhole things. I challenge my assumptions more. Reaping the fruits along the path, we are buddhanature, manifesting as enlightenment in evolution. My heart transforms.

Yet curiosity grows insatiable, eager to savor awakening. Enter Vajrayana practice, rich in mythos, summoning the primal unity of appearance-emptiness in elaborate panoramas. Buddhanature glimmers experientially. Blissful ease gentles my mind for the naked aesthetic of Mahamudra. Fleeting glimpses recall the sun emerging from clouds, luminous.

Not a tone-deaf fancy, entertaining the unfathomable empowers the supple precision of meditative awareness, readying the mind to receive what is, as it is. Increasingly capacious, we are buddhanature, manifesting as enlightenment spreading its wings. My heart blazes.

When I recognize it, buddhanature surfaces variously as affirmation, negation, epic, or silence in the Buddha’s teachings. Each vibrates at its own frequency. All resonate with his doha.

Life events contain riches within the sweet, the sorrowful, and the plain. Each cradles catalysts for encouraging buddhanature’s revelation from seed to bud to blossom. All is a conspiracy to enlighten me.

Elusive, I know. No matter. Let place, language, and time go. Arch back to the Buddha, walking the woods, awake, blissful, humbled by awe. Watch him weave wonder into words, letting fly a lavish rhapsody of discourse, paradox, and mystery, fluent in the ineffable. Feel our buddha-hearts quicken under his touch, straining to sing our unsung dohas.

The path unfurls, opening our heart-minds, until buddhanature manifests fully, as it ever is: peace, so profound, transcending self or nonself. Unpolluted by dualistic thought. Uncreated, neither permanent nor impermanent. Clear light, beyond suffering and bliss, nectar-like.


Until, it isn’t.


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