Is Human Nature Inherently Good or Bad? The Buddhist View of Human Nature

Human beings

“Is human nature good or evil?” In this article, we will explore the Buddhist view of human nature.

The Buddhist view is, of course, only one perspective among many from traditions and philosophies across the world. However, the Buddhist view on whether human nature is good is quite powerful, and is worth considering closely. Let’s get started!

The Short Answer: Human Nature is Good!

In brief: Buddhism views human nature as fundamentally good. The details vary across Buddhist traditions, but almost all Buddhists would agree with the following points:

  • Our nature is basically free. Realizing this nature—without changing it in any way—is liberation, enlightenment itself.
  • There is nothing inherently, permanently wrong with us. However, we do suffer temporary confusion, which causes our nature not to see itself.
  • When our confusion is liberated, our nature shines through as Buddhahood, with no further “improvement” needed.

Buddhism views human nature as fundamentally good.

When we ask, “Are humans good by nature?” we’re asking about our nature itself, before our particular actions, attitudes, or stories. Across the Buddhist teachings, there’s no need to be “better than” this nature, or to “fix” or “redeem” anything about it—only to be free of ignorance that obscures this nature from perceiving itself.

Innate Wisdom, Temporary Obscurations

This overall Buddhist view of inherent wisdom and transient confusion stretches across Buddhism, from the words of the Buddha himself in Pali:

“Monks, this mind is originally radiant and clear, but because passing corruptions and defilements come and obscure it, it doesn’t show its radiance.”

The Buddha, Anguttara Nikaya (translated by Thanissaro Bhikkhu)

And up through the teachings of twenty-first-century Tibetan Buddhist teachers:

“The clear light nature of the Buddha is the ultimate nature of the mind. It is temporally obscured by temporary obscurations, but our mind is pure by nature, so the obscurations can change, can be purified, the mind can change, and we can become Buddha, fully enlightened.”

Lama Zopa Rinpoche

This view—that our flaws and problems are temporary obscurations, and that our innate nature, underneath them, is basically worthwhile—is quite different from many prevailing views in the West, so it may seem counterintuitive or like only a partial picture. Let’s explore it further.

Exploring Buddhism and Human Nature through the Three Yanas

The remainder of this article looks at the Buddhist teachings through the three yanas (Sanskrit, “vehicles”), because each yana has its own flavor and vocabulary in discussing Buddhism and human nature:

  1. The Hinayana (“narrow vehicle”), the shared basis of Buddhist teachings, dating from the life of Shakyamuni Buddha himself around 500 BCE.
  2. The Mahayana (“great vehicle”), teachings on emptiness and compassion, practiced from around the first century BCE.
  3. The Vajrayana (“indestructible vehicle”), the extension of the Mahayana into esoteric teachings and practices, practiced from around the sixth century CE.

Each yana builds on and emerges from the prior yana, and each has a distinct overall flavor, so it’s useful to discuss Buddhism and human nature from the perspective of each in turn. (Please note, though, that the three-yana model is not universal within Buddhism, so some Buddhist practitioners might find that only parts of the exploration below coincide with their traditions.)

Is Human Nature Good or Evil? The Hinayana Teachings and Human Imperfection

No one asked the Buddha, “Is human nature inherently good or bad?” and got a firm answer. In fact, there’s a famous teaching from the Buddha himself about not wanting to answer big philosophical questions: He said that if you have a poison arrow shot into you (representing suffering), you should pull it out without asking lots of questions about the wood used to make it, how tall the archer was, and so on.

As such, the Hinayana teachings are less explicit about whether human nature is good than the Mahayana or Vajrayana teachings that came later. (Despite the arrow parable, a little philosophizing has gone on in Buddhism’s 2,500 years.)

However, the Hinayana does discuss in depth the Buddhist understanding of suffering and confusion. If the Buddha thought something was basically wrong with us by nature, it would be present in the Hinayana.

Instead, the Buddha discusses human cruelty and imperfection in terms of confusion and ignorance. The Buddhist view is that we are ignorant of the basic nature of ourselves and of reality, that this ignorance causes us to suffer, and that in the confusion and bewilderment of our suffering we mistreat ourselves and others.

Buddhism sees human imperfection as the result of confusion: ignorant of our basic nature, we suffer, and in our bewilderment we mistreat ourselves and others.

Importantly, in Buddhism this ignorance is temporary: it can be resolved. Ignorance and confusion are not fundamental to our nature, but rather they temporarily obscure that nature. This is why the Buddha discusses “passing corruptions and defilements,” rather than something like “innate, permanent corruptions and defilements” or “our basically corrupted nature,” neither of which is present in Buddhism.

One striking truth about the Buddhist view of human nature is that it does not discuss evil, or the related concept of sin, in the same way as in Western traditions. Buddhist sources occasionally use these terms, depending on translation, but you’ll find that they do not carry the heaviness, stickiness, or basicness that they do in other traditions. In other words, Buddhism does not see anything fundamentally bad in us, anything that is basically corrupt, unworthy, or fallen.

Buddhism does not see anything fundamentally bad in us, anything that is basically corrupt, unworthy, or fallen.

“Really Bad People”: The Angulimala Sutra

If you’re wondering whether human nature is evil or good, then a worldview with very little sense of evil may strike you as lopsided. What about dictators, violent criminals—people who have taken many innocent lives without remorse?

In seeing us as confused rather than innately malevolent, Buddhism does not make an exception for “really bad people.”

There’s no asterisk: Buddhism does not make an exception for “really bad people.” In fact, there’s a story from the Buddha’s lifetime, the Angulimala Sutra, in which the Buddha meets a serial killer, Angulimala, who immediately begins chasing the Buddha to add him to his list of victims. The Buddha runs away, and while being chased manages to change Angulimala’s mind about the harm he is committing.

Angulimala becomes a monk in the Buddha’s community, and while he suffers repercussions from his actions throughout his life (for example, being beaten by villagers), and dies shortly after meeting the Buddha, the Buddha himself never treats him as unworthy of being a student. After Angulimala’s death, as Wikipedia narrates:

“When the Buddha states that Angulimala has attained Nirvana, this surprises some monks. They wonder how it is possible for someone who killed so many people to still attain enlightenment. The Buddha responds that even after having done much evil, a person still has a possibility to change for the better and attain enlightenment.”

Of course, no one knows how much of this story really happened—and we might certainly question how prudent it is, in practical terms, for the Buddha to bring into his spiritual community a serial killer who just stopped chasing him down to kill him.

The broader point, which I personally find quite powerful, is the way Buddhism does not make exceptions: “Oh, except for those people, who are really messed up.” As such, Buddhism does not encourage us to “other” or look down upon severely confused people, even those who cause great harm.

In Buddhism, confusion is confusion, no matter how severe, and the possibility to express one’s underlying nature as enlightenment remains.

In the Buddhist perspective, confusion is confusion, no matter how severe, just like a Category 5 hurricane is still “weather” and not some new type of thing—and the possibility to express one’s underlying nature as enlightenment remains, the way the clear sky holds the hurricane while it’s raging, and is automatically apparent when the hurricane passes.

Are Humans Good by Nature? Human Nature in Mahayana Buddhism

From the foundation of the Hinayana teachings, the Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhist view of human nature gets progressively more explicit, and more positive. This begins with two core Mahayana teachings: bodhicitta (Sanskrit, “awakened heart”) and tathagathagarbha (Sanskrit, “Buddha nature”).

The Mahayana and Vajrayana view of human nature gets progressively more positive, beginning with the Mahayana teachings of bodhicitta (awakened heart) and tathagathagarbha (Buddha nature).

Bodhicitta: Awakening into Love

Bodhicitta means that our basic nature includes all-encompassing love.

Bodhicitta is a Mahayana Buddhist teaching that emerged beginning around the first century CE. In simple terms, it means that our nature—what we discover when we awaken—is not sterile or unfeeling, but includes boundless and all-encompassing love. Bodhicitta divides into two forms:

  1. Relative bodhicitta, the heartfelt wish to help—and, ultimately, help free—all beings.
  2. Absolute bodhicitta, enlightenment itself.

Here is a Zen expression of relative bodhicitta, from the Bodhisattva vows of East Asian Buddhism:

“Beings are numberless: may I free them all.”

Zen Bodhisattva vows

Another statement of relative bodhicitta is from the famous 8th-century CE Mahayana practitioner Shantideva:

“May I become sustenance in every way for sentient beings
To the limits of space, until all have attained nirvana.”

Shantideva, The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life

The basis for the altruism of relative bodhicitta is absolute bodhicitta: the lovingness of our innate nature itself. Perhaps the most famous expression of absolute bodhicitta is this passage from Shantideva’s A Guide to the Bodhisattva’s Way of Life:

“Just as with a blind man finding a jewel in the heap of dust,
Thus, somehow, bodhichitta has been born in me.

This is the supreme amrita [sacred liquid] which destroys death,
The inexhaustible treasure the removes the world’s poverty.

It is the supreme medicine that cures the world’s sickness,
The tree that provides rest for beings weary of wandering on the paths of existence.

It is the universal bridge on which all travelers may pass over the lower realms,
The rising moon of mind which dispels the torment of the kleshas [mental afflictions].

It is the great sun which puts an end to the obscurity of ignorance,
The pure butter which comes of churning the milk of the holy Dharma [Buddhist teachings].

For travelers wandering the paths of existence seeking happiness from objects of enjoyment,
It is supreme bliss near at hand, the great feast which satisfies sentient beings.”

Shantideva, The Bodhisattva’s Way of Life

Absolute bodhicitta means that to discover our true nature is to discover boundless love. In other words, this love is inherent in us: it is innate to who we really are, below and within any turmoil or confusion we experience.

At this point, the Buddhist tradition can certainly offer a very clear answer to “Why is human nature good?” The answer would be something like, “Because when we discover our true nature, we discover boundless love and compassion.”

Tathagathagarbha: The Buddha Nature of All Beings

The Mahayana teaching on Tathagathagarbha likely began in the third century CE. As Tsadra Foundation describes, it is the teaching “that all beings have latent within themselves all the virtues of a buddha (tathāgata), but that those virtues are hidden by a covering (garbha) of passion and anguish (the so-called kleśas of greed, anger, lust, confusion, and so on). The central message… is that when those kleśas are removed, the buddhahood that is potential in all beings will be revealed.”

This very definitively answers the Mahayana perspective on the question, “Is human nature inherently good or bad?” In fact, the Mahayana sees this inherent Buddha nature in all sentient beings, from cows to crows.

Quoting, again, from Tsadra Foundation:

“Buddha-nature is the capacity for enlightenment and freedom present in every being, a fundamental core of goodness, wisdom, and compassion that is hidden by clouds of ignorance… It is like the sun that continues to shine regardless of the clouds that may cover it.

…The fact that our nature is fundamentally the same as a buddha’s is what makes the whole path to enlightenment possible.”

Tsadra Foundation

Buddha nature extends the fundamental Buddhist logic that we already are everything we wish to be, without any need to change, redeem, or improve our basic nature. Its difference from earlier teachings is in being more explicit about the positive virtues of this nature itself.

Buddhism and Human Nature: Goodness in Vajrayana Buddhism

Vajrayana Buddhism is an extension of Mahayana Buddhism that developed beginning around the 6th century CE. Relative to the both the Hinayana and the mainstream Mahayana teachings, the Vajrayana is more esoteric, energetic, and direct. Tibetan Buddhism is probably the best-known Vajrayana tradition, although Japanese Shingon Buddhism and other Vajrayana traditions exist as well.

Vajrayana Buddhism only heightens the Mahayana’s celebration of our innate nature.

Vajrayana Buddhism only heightens the celebration of our innate nature present in the Mahayana. Many Vajrayana terms point, in different ways, to the wonderfulness of this nature. A few of these terms include:

  • Dzogchen or maha ati, generally seen as the highest teachings in Tibetan Buddhism. Dzogchen (maha ati in Sanskrit) means “The Great Perfection” or “The Great Completion,” referring to one’s experience of both oneself and the world when one’s Dzogchen practice reaches fruition.
  • Primordial purity: That in Dzogchen practice, “Confusion is spontaneously liberated into the primordial purity of mind’s essential nature.”
  • Samantabhadra: Samantabhadra is the primordial Buddha—the ultimate portrait of our nature in human form—in the Dzogchen tradition. Samantabhadra (Kuntu Zangpo in Tibetan) means “All-Good” or “Unchanging Goodness.”
Samantabhadra
Samantabhadra, “All-Good” (from Enlightenment Thangka)

As an example of the overall Vajrayana view on human nature, here is a quote from a Vajrayana seminar given by the twentieth-century Tibetan teacher (and founder of Shambhala) Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche:

“Sacred possibilities always exist in our lives. The goodness and the gentleness of the world are always there for us to appreciate. This is not a myth; it is actual fact. We could experience Vajrayogini [a symbol of wisdom] at any time if we have the courage to acknowledge our own wakeful nature and the greatness of our heritage as human beings.”

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

Basic Goodness: The Shambhala Tradition

The Shambhala teachings are an expression of the wisdom of Vajrayana Buddhism, as well as the Tibetan Bön tradition and other wisdom traditions, developed by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche in concert with his Western students beginning in the 1970s.

A core teaching in Shambhala is a term Trungpa Rinpoche coined: basic goodness. Here is the first presentation of basic goodness in the core Shambhala book, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior:

“If we are willing to take an unbiased look, we will find that, in spite of all our problems and confusion, all our emotional and psychological ups and downs, there is something basically good about our existence as human beings.

[…]

Every human being has a basic nature of goodness, which is undiluted and unconfused.”

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche, Shambhala: The Sacred Path of the Warrior

Trungpa Rinpoche’s teachings on basic goodness were not confined to the Shambhala teachings. As an example, here is a quote from the same Vajrayana Buddhist seminar quoted earlier:

“When we let go of grasping and fixation completely, we are able to rest in the intrinsic goodness of our minds.”

Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche

In general, basic goodness says, simply and explicitly, what the Mahayana and Vajrayana traditions say in a number of other terms and teachings: Human nature is basically, fundamentally good.

The Shambhala teaching of basic goodness says, simply and explicitly, that human nature is fundamentally good.

Buddhism on Human Nature: Humans are Good!

Summing up, Buddhism has a very positive view of human nature. It does recognize that we suffer intense confusion, but it sees this confusion as temporary, transient—and it sees that what remains when that confusion is liberated is wonderful, marvelous, perfection itself. This liberation into our already-present true nature is known as Buddhahood, enlightenment.

Overall, Buddhism has a very positive view of human nature. It sees our confusion as temporary, transient—and that what remains when our confusion is liberated is wonderful, marvelous, perfection itself.

This perspective does vary by the Buddhist tradition. Overall, the Hinayana teachings are much less explicit in ascribing an intrinsic goodness to human nature. The Mahayana is explicit about this, through the teachings of bodhicitta, tathagatagarbha, and many related teachings.

The Vajrayana heightens this appreciation, and is the domain of primordial purity, the Great Perfection, vajra (Sanskrit, “indestructible”) nature, and many other teachings that describe the mind of enlightenment in exceedingly positive terms.

Lastly, our own Shambhala tradition emerges from the general Vajrayana Buddhist view of human nature, and states explicitly, in language for Western students, that our innate nature is basic goodness itself.

All this is very good news—if Buddhism is right about us! On the other hand, when we look at the suffering in the world, and our own and others’ bewilderment, Buddhism’s radical positivity about us can itself be confusing.

Buddhism’s radical positivity about us can be confusing. In some sense, fully fathoming this positivity is the Buddhist path.

In my personal experience, hanging with the thread of this positivity—and my own confusion about it—is the Buddhist path. Why, when a Buddha looks at me (or herself, or anyone), does she love what she sees so much? Why isn’t she more interested in giving a balanced account: pointing out all the things I’m not and will never be, all my failings, all the harm I’ve caused, am causing, and will cause in my fumbling through life? To fully fathom the answer is to be a Buddha oneself, and the journey along the way is like slowly, slowly drowning in love, one pool step at a time.

Thank you for reading!

This article is part of the Shambhala.org Community Blog, which offers reflections by Shambhala community members on their individual journeys in meditation and spirituality.

6 thoughts on “Is Human Nature Inherently Good or Bad? The Buddhist View of Human Nature

  1. Fredrick,
    Nice succinct breakdown of three yanas and question of condition of human nature.
    Thanks. Namaste.

  2. Thank you for this clear teaching. Growing up Christian, the good and evil in the world were seen as a sequence: created good but fallen. Just like the world itself, each person starts innocent, but develops a capacity and actuality for evil. The Buddhist way of basic goodness which becomes confused preserves the goodness and explains the temporary lapses into the other side. As a parent, I have learned patience and compassion, waiting for my child’s confusion or ignorance to dissipate and welcoming the emergence of pure goodness–usually only minutes later!

  3. Thank you very much, G! I really like “created good but fallen”: I’m glad that in the Christian tradition, which tends to emphasize our shortcomings more than the Buddhist tradition, things are or can be seen as going in that order. Relatedly, I’m very struck by the passage in Genesis where God looked at creation “and saw that it was good.” I’d love to hear how people interpret that passage; I hope it isn’t glossed over!

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2024-04-24 14:58:43