The Karmapas on ‘Buddha Nature’

The nature of all beings is always Buddha [Awakened].


—3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje

Two days ago, HH 17th Karmapa, Orgyen Trinley Dorje, gave the keynote address for the launch of an excellent new educational and scholarly resource on Buddha-Nature launched by the Tsadra Foundation (see website here). Other speakers included Geshe Thubten Jinpa, Karl Brunnholzl, Lama Shenphen Hookham and Alan Zenkar Rinpoche.

17th Karmapa on Buddha Nature

The 17th Karmapa (who is Buddha-Nature manifest) began the opening speech (which can be watched in full here) by speaking about two general divisions of the Mahayana school and the third wheel, Buddha Nature (Tathāgatagarbha) school. mentioning some of the Karmapas, particularly the third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje and seventh and eighth Karmapas and their connection to the Buddha Nature teachings. HH then (as Geshe Thubten Jinpa afterwards put it) ‘provocatively’ suggested that it is time to go beyond debates on empty-of-self (rang stong) and empty-of-other (gzhan stong) and label views and texts on Tathāgatagarbha, as Buddha Nature tenets. I have typed up the full transcript here below:

”As we all know about Buddha Nature, especially in relation to the Uttaratantra (Sublime Continuum)[1], researchers are on the increase. This is partly because in Tibet, the Uttaratantra as a treatise on the Third Turning of the Wheel, is considered the most complete and authoritative. Moreover, as in the Eastern Buddhist traditions, we divide the Mahayana system generally into two: the Middle Way (Madhyamika) and Mind-Only. On top of these two, we can add a third tenet school called the ‘Buddha Nature tenet’ school. That is seen to be the case with Buddhism in India, for which the greatest textual evidence or witness provided for this is the Uttaratantra. The Uttaratantra in Tibet in relation to other emptiness and self emptiness (rang stong) is not just taken to be Middle Way. It is not just about distinguishing self and other emptiness in the Madhyamika.  One must think of it as going beyond the two schools of Middle Way and Mind Only, as a different tenet system.

There is a special connection with the Kagyu tradition due to a story that the Uttaratantra was discovered by Maitrīpa from a stupa. Thus, there is a connection through Maitrīpa. Similarly, in the case of the practice of Maitrīpa’s teachings on ‘Without-mindfulness’ [amanasikāra: dran med] in Tibet there are three types of practices. The first is with focus on the profound luminous (gsal zab snang) Middle Way of the mantra school. The second is with focus on the profound Middle Way of sūtra school (zab pa’i do). The third is with focus on the view of False Aspectarian school of the Mind-Only tradition (nirākāravādin; rnam rdzun pa). The two traditions of focusing on the profound luminous Middle Way of mantra and focusing on the profound Middle Way of sūtra, were passed from Marpa and Milarepa down the Kagyu lineage. Especially in the time of Dagpo Rinpoche [Gampopa], the focus on the profound Middle Way of the sūtra tradition became strong. What we normally call the Sūtra Mahāmudrā is primarily based on the Uttaratantra. When the pandita Sahajavajra in one of his works, said ‘Perfection of Wisdom in essence but Mahamudra in name’, this refers to the Sūtra Mahāmudrā. So when we talk about Uttaratantra and Buddha Nature, we often get into the debate of self and other emptiness. Personally, I think to use the label ‘the Buddha Nature tenets school’ is appropriate.

In any case, they have a special significance for the Kagyu tradition. In the case of Kamtshang, the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje is one of the earliest to expound the view of Other-emptiness in Tibet. Similarly, the 7th Karmapa, Chodrag Gyatso had a great interested in Other-emptiness. As for Mikyo Dorje [8th Karmapa], he was well known for being an expert on Self-emptiness but in particular, he composed texts on Other-emptiness. My hope through this web platform is that the Tibetan Buddhist traditions and the Eastern Buddhist traditions exchange and share knowledge with each other on Buddha Nature and research findings on the Uttaratantra. Similarly, to share the works of foreign scholars using modern research methodology. In particular, to explore who is the author of the Uttaratantra, and such questions. We now have original texts of the Uttaratantra, perhaps the earliest translation is in Chinese. It would also help to carry out proper research on the many texts in Tibetan such as Asanga’s commentary. Thus, it would be good to explore Tibetan Buddhist and Eastern Buddhist traditions and modern research findings. I have great hopes and prayers of this adding value to and developing renewed confidence in the Buddha Nature tenets school. Thus, I wish to convey deep appreciation from my heart for this great project which is beneficial both to oneself and others. I pray that this great project becomes successful without obstacles.”

The Karmapas on Buddha Nature

There are entries on the Buddha Nature website for 1st, 3rd, 8th, 9th, 15th and 17th Karmapas.

8th Karmapa

8th Karmapa, Mikyo Dorje

In the texts listed by 8th Karmapa on the website, there is The Lamp That Excellently Elucidates the System of the Proponents of the Other-Emptiness Madhyamaka (དབུ་མ་གཞན་སྟོང་སྨྲ་བའི་སྲོལ་ལེགས་པར་ཕྱེ་བའི་སྒྲོན་མེ། dbu ma gzhan stong smra ba’i srol legs par phye ba’i sgron me), with a link to a translation of it by Karl Brunnholzl in his book When the Clouds Part.

The texts that the 8th Karmapa wrote on Single Intention by Jigten Sumgon are not included on the new website, even though these texts are specifically referred to by Dr. David Higgins in his 2019 article Buddha in the Storehouse (which is published on the TF website). I have requested Tsadra Foundation to include them.

15th Karmapa

15th Karmapa, Khakyab Dorje

A text by 15th Karmapa, Khakyab Dorje, is listed on the website called an Annotated Commentary on the Treatise on Pointing Out the Tathāgata Heart (ཞལ་ལུང་ནོར་བུ་དབང་གི་རྒྱལ་པོ་དྲི་མ་མེད་པའི་འོད། de bzhin gshegs pa’i sn

This has yet to be translated into English and so I am happy to announce I have started translation of this important text and will make it publicly available here on this website and to the Tsadra Foundation as a contribution to their project.


Of course, there are more texts that can and should be added to their online library. Nonetheless, it is wonderful they have pulled together so many resources in one place on the subject of Buddha Nature.

As the 8th Karmapa states in his Commentary on the 10th point of the Single Intention:

”Through the power of blessing, the ground-of-all (kun gzhi: ālaya) is actualized in a short time.” If this vajra statement is restated extremely clearly, it says this: “By the instructions of one who has ‘seen’ that Buddha nature of the three continuums [ground, path and result]. which is the final intent of the sūtras and tantras [and], which has been given the name ‘ground-of-all’ (ālaya), if one is able to actualize it in a short time via the crucial points. If one has that ability, then by directly recognizing the subtlest root of saṃsāra [i.e., the ālayavijñāna], which is to be abandoned via the Mantrayāna, one engages in relinquishing it. When one engages in that, one cannot help but attain the buddha[hood] of the sutra and mantra traditions.”

Here is also a recent video of HH 17th Karmapa on ‘All beings are Buddha by nature’:

Dedicated to the long life, health and activities of HH 17th Karmapa and for the benefit of all beings and the teachings. Written and compiled by Adele Tomlin, 21st September 2020.

[1] Mahāyānottaratantra Śāstra; theg pa chen po rgyud bla ma’i bstan bcos. Treatise on the Sublime Continuum or the Ratnagotravibhaga. One of the Five Treatises of Maitreya, a commentary on the teachings of the third turning of the wheel of Dharma explaining buddha nature. It is said to have been first translated into Tibetan by Ngok Loden Sherab and the Kashmiri pandita Sajjana.

4 thoughts on “The Karmapas on ‘Buddha Nature’

  1. Such a joy to read your posts. Scholarship is all very well but your love for what you do shines through your translations and adds yet another layer of meaning.
    Was blessed beyond words to accidentally meet that most humble of Lamas – Alak Zenkar Rinpoche. In a roomful of High Lamas all of whom prostrated and made offerings he just sat there in his baggy old pants and sweat shirt – a totally natural unpretentious human being. He made me sit beside him while all this was going on and we talked about Cricklewood where he lived and his years spent in England. We shared quite a few laughs together – we may as well have been carrying on in an Irish pub! I am so glad to see that he is still in circulation and teaching as his presence and kindness has left an indelible impression on my heart . . . Thank you for this and all your fine work.

    1. Hello Paul and thanks for your kind and inspiring comments here! Yes I love the Dharma and what I do, so sweet you felt that reading my work 🙂

      Sounds like he is a very humble and down to earth lama, that’s a sign of a great master for sure. No ego or pretence at grandeur. Thank you for sharing your experience here about that. I take it you are from England then? Also my home country. Warm wishes to you!

      1. Ha, no!
        In fact I’m a happily excommunicated former Irish Catholic – a septuagenarian – living in exile in Canada for over 40 years. We have a newly established Kagyu gompa about 20 miles away from our home: Bokar Karma Tara Ling – in the city of Belleville where the first Tibetan community in North America settled in 1971. His Holiness the Sixteenth Karmapa visited here twice granting empowerments and giving the Black Crown blessings over a two week period. Many other wonderful Lamas such as Kalu Rinpoche and Jamgon Kongtrul also passed through here to nourish and support the small Tibetan community in those early days. Most of these people had escaped from Tibet to harsh and challenging circumstances in India. For them coming to Canada was like winning the lottery. Me too!

        In regard to Alan Zenkar Rinpoche I still get the shakes and goosepimples when I think of him. You nailed it – humble and down to earth beyond words. A man with such terrific accomplishments who suffered so much under the Communist regime in Tibet. A Dzogchen master who is so shy and below the radar and yet so highly regarded by practitioners and scholars alike.

        Several years ago Rinpoche came to Toronto from N.Y. in a Greyhound bus – this in spite of the fact that his wealthy Chinese hosts had offered to fly him up or have him driven by chauffeur. There was a welcoming party of highly distinguished Taiwanese and Tibetan Lamas – all shapes, sizes, colours and lineages. There was much bowing, prostrating and offerings to this unassuming man just off the bus dressed in his baggy pants and worn out sweat shirt. I was new to Buddhism at that time and was overwhelmed by it all. Then Rinpoche called me over and insisted I sit beside him where we chatted for what seemed ages about how he loved living in Cricklewood, the Irish people etc etc

        The vibrations emanating from Rinpoche as we sat so close together were like nothing I ever experienced. Yet through all of this he was so natural, funny, kind and unassuming as he mesmerised all the Lamas over the dinner table that evening. Oh yes, almost forgot – I was just the driver for one of the Lamas but Rinpoche insisted that I must stay and take a seat near him at the table with all these men in robes. I didn’t understand one word of the evenings high-minded conversation but the memory remains and my affection and respect for Rinpoche has only grown larger over by time. I was told by one of the Lamas that for many years both in London and New York that Rinpoche supplemented his income by working in restaurants as a dishwasher and wasn’t interested in anything else. Sounds a bit apocryphal but having met him I do not doubt it for one moment. Am so glad to see from your remarks and also from a very recent YouTube video that Rinpoche has survived his health issues and although somewhat handicapped is now teaching and sharing his knowledge as before. A remarkable being indeed. By the way his oration at the funeral ceremony for Gene Smith brought me to tears – a must see for anyone who appreciates what these great researchers and scholars have and continue to do in order to bring the Light of Dharma to the Western hemisphere.

        With apologies for my longwinded Irish love story . . .

        Warmest regards,


  2. Hi Paul, thanks for sharing your experiences here. In your 70s too, always inspiring to hear of someone that age with such a passion, joy and interest in Buddha Dharma. I rejoice for you! Yes, it’s so inspiring to meet and find teachers and practitioners who are genuinely humble and are not interested in staying at 5 star hotels and first class flights etc. Quite rare these days it seems. I see it as a sign that they also don’t want to waste valuable money and resources on themselves and prefer to see it spent on the Dharma activities and other people etc.

    After your recommendation, I did watch the speech Alak Zenkar Rinpoche gave for Gene Smith and agree it was moving and profound indeed. Thanks for the tip about that. Yes, without Gene Smith all those great Tibetan texts would not be so easily available online for scholars, practitioners and translators etc. A great, generous gift to the world indeed!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s