Introduction to the Three Natures

Kuden Paul Boyle

Forest City Zen Group

London, Ontario


Today I would like to give an introduction to the Yogacara teaching on the three natures. Yogacara is one of the two main schools of Indian Mahayana Buddhism. Often, Yogacara is thought of as “mind only Buddhism” or “only mind Buddhism”. In any case, Yogacara teachings have strongly influenced Zen, and so it seems worthwhile for students of Zen to have some familiarity with these important foundational teachings.


The explication of the three natures appears first in the Samdhinirmocana Sutra. Scholars haven't fully determined when the sutra was first written. The oldest fragments are from the 1st or 2nd century CE. By the 4th century commentaries on the sutra were being written by Asanga. In any case, the Samdhinirmocana Sutra is a root text of the Yogacara school.


In the Samdhinirmocana Sutra there are a number of chapters, and each chapter is a response to questions posed by different bodhisattvas. In chapter six, Gunakara poses the following question,


Bhagavan, just how are Bodhisattvas wise with respect the character of phenomena? For what reason does the Tathagata designate a Bodhisattva as being wise with respect to the character of phenomena?1


The term “phenomena” is a translation of dharmas or “moments of experience”. The term, “wise” means to discern or see truly. The word “character” is a translation of the Sanskrit word laksana which has several different meanings and depends on the context. Other renderings in English are “mark”, “attribute”, “sign”. So, we can rephrase the question as, “how are Bodhisattvas able to discern the characteristics of our experience?”


In his reply, the Buddha introduces the three natures in the following way:


Gunakara, there are three characteristics of phenomena. What are these three? They are the imputational character, the other-dependent character, and the thoroughly established character.2


When I first learned about the three natures, I thought it was an innovative teaching, something completely new. However, after studying some Abhidharmic teachings on perception and cognition, I am thinking that the three natures are a convenient repackaging of foundational Buddhist teachings on perception and cognition which might make it easier for some people to understand and experience. What this answer is saying, is that whenever we cognize an object, there are three aspects to this cognition. Then, the Buddha goes on to explicate these three aspects. Before delving further into the sutra, I'll provide some alternative translations and short definitions.


Imputational Nature (Sanskrit, parikalpita):The verb “impute” means “to represent, to attribute, to ascribe”. Some other translations: imagined, constructed, artificial. Basically, this is our (unconscious) belief that some dharma inherently possesses some attribute which give it a particular meaning to us.


Other-dependent (Sanskrit, paratantra); The “interdependent”, the “other-powered” (meaning “dependent” as depending upon). As we learn in Buddhism, all dharmas arise in response to conditions. This conditional aspect is the so called other-dependent aspect of a moment of experience.


Thoroughly established (Sanskrit, parinispanna): Some other translations: “The consummate”, “the perfected”, “the absolutely accomplished”, “the fulfilled”. As we will see from further study of Yogacarin texts, the “thoroughly established” is simply the other-dependent aspect minus the imputational aspect of a moment of experience.


In my opinion, the easiest way to explain the three natures is to use a drawing of a cube. When we see the drawing of a cube, we are seeing a representation of a cube, but it is not a cube. This is the imputational or imagined nature. To further highlight the lack of own character of our cube drawing, focus on the lowest left hand “corner”. You can use your will to see that vertex as either coming out of the page or going back into the page. You can do the same thing if you focus on the faces of the cube. Whether we impute one face or one corner as being above or below page, the drawing itself doesn’t change based on how we perceive it. There is no fixed specificity to our imputations. When you are looking at this picture and seeing it as a cube in this moment is the imputational nature in action. What any particular individual sees as the “up” corner or the “down” corner depends on their own karmic or samskaric dispositions. This is the basis of our delusions.


So, what do we really see when looking at the drawing of a cube? We see regions where no light is reflected which we designate nominally as “black lines”, and then we see white coloured regions which contrast with the lines. Our calling this a “black line” depends on our previously assimilated notions of both “black” and “line”. Similarly, there are no real corners, we impute the convergence of three lines at a single point as something which we designate as a “corner”. In addition, the figure you are seeing doesn't arise in your mind on its own. The arising of this visual image depends on many conditions (the presence of light, operational sense gates, the generation of eye consciousness, and so on). This is the dependent or other-dependent nature of this visual dharma.


When we can take this visual representation in without seeing a cube, this is the thoroughly established nature. Just regions of light and dark. Notice, also that “light” and “dark” are relative to one another. When something is relative, it depends on something else. Therefore, the “light” and “dark” regions have no self-nature. They are empty of some essential notion of “lightness” or “darkness”.


So, what is the point of all this? It's not really about looking at drawing of cubes. The teaching of the Three Natures can be applied to any and all dharmas, or moments of our experience. We begin to suffer whenever we attach to the names and attributes we have imputed to an experience. This could be anything from unpleasant bodily sensation like leg or back discomfort to mental anguish which arises in response to a self-narrative which we have about a particular situation. Insight into the imputational nature means that we don't have to conceive of a specific experience in a particular way. Further, how we conceive of a situation is not about the situation per se, rather it is about our own predispositions. Knowing that the source of our suffering is within us, gives us the opportunity to transform these unhelpful dispositions.


Imputational Nature: To return to the sutra, regarding the imputational nature, the Buddha says,


It is that which is imputed as a name or symbol in terms of the own-being or attributes of phenomena in order to subsequently designate any convention whatsoever.3


The imputational or imagined nature is that part of the experience which we attribute to the sensory input we are receiving which is not intrinsically part of that sensory input. According to the sutra, we attribute names or symbols to the experience. Further, we assume these assigned names or symbols are an inherently existent part of the phenomena. This is then used to designate a conventional value about the phenomenon. To use our cube example, use the conventions we have agreed on about cubes to designate our drawing of a cube as having “corners” and “edges” and other conventional properties of cubes. Further, the fact that some perceive the lower left corner as “above” the page and others perceive it as “below” the page, indicates that this specific characteristic is not fixed or “established”. More importantly, whether we perceive a corner as “up” or “down” is function of our karma.


Other-dependent Nature: The sutra states,


It is simply the dependent origination of phenomena. It is like this: Because this exists, that arises; because this is produced, that is produced. It ranges from” 'Due to the condition of ignorance, compositional factors [arise]', up to: 'In this way, the whole great assemblage of suffering arises.'4


The sutra gives two of the classical Buddhist formulations of dependent origination. First, the general statement of causality, because this exists, that arises. Second, it mentions that the phenomena arising from the twelve links of dependent origination. Both of these are considered the other-dependent nature.


Thoroughly Established Nature: The sutra states,


It is the suchness of phenomena. Through diligence and through proper mental application, Bodhisattvas establish realization and cultivate realization of [the thoroughly established character]. Thus, it is what establishes [all stages] up to unsurpassed, complete, perfect enlightenment.5


According to the Samdhinirmocana Sutra, realizing the thoroughly established nature is unsurpassed, complete, and perfect enlightenment. That sounds pretty good. There are a couple of things to say about this. First, realizing the thoroughly established nature means realizing the thoroughly established of a particular phenomenon in a particular moment. So, it's not like you go around in “unsurpassed, complete, perfect enlightenment” as a permanent state of mind thereafter. Having an experience like this is like taking a dose of medicine. It is an antidote for an attachment to delusion. You can still have delusions come up, but there is not this strong clinging to the delusion. The second point the sutra makes is that it is only through diligence and proper mental application that the realization of the thoroughly established nature is experienced. That is, it only happens through practice. Diligence is our energetic, wholehearted effort. Proper mental application means we are not sitting fake zazen, wandering off fabricating day dreams, but we bring a fine and keen awareness to our moment by moment experience. We are present for the most subtle of mind waves.


In the commentary, there is mention of why this aspect is called “thoroughly established” – “because it does not change into something else, because it is an object of observation for purification … it is not a false phenomenon”.6 The commentary notes, “The thoroughly established character is correct knowledge and suchness that are distinguished by having been transformed and by being suchness of phenomena.”7 We need to be careful here. We might want to interpret the phrase “it does not change into something else” as meaning the thoroughly established nature is some essential entity. It is not. It is simply a dependent arising just as it is, devoid of self-nature.


I think we can see parallels to the language and descriptions used in Zen. When we talk about “suchness” we are really talking about the thoroughly established nature. When you hear Zen people talk about “letting go” or “letting go of concepts” it's a suggestion that you stop clinging to the imputational nature of your experience. So, the teaching on the three natures, can help us in our Zen practice.


The temptation here is to make the three natures “a thing”, and to think that the thoroughly established nature is better and more desirable than the imputational nature. It is a mistake to see the teaching on the Three Natures in this way. The imputational nature isn't the bad guy in the story. In fact, the imputational nature is an important tool we use everyday.


For example, suppose you buy a bookcase from Ikea which you have to put together. You will probably have a piece paper which has written directions and diagrams on it. If you were to see the diagrams as simply light and dark regions, you couldn't put the bookcase together. You would be abiding in the thoroughly established nature and according to the sutra be established in complete, perfect enlightenment. However, being enlightened (in this way) isn't going to help you build the bookcase. We need the imputational nature to see the mass of lines as representations of the parts of the bookcase and interpret the directions properly.


The problem isn't the imputational aspect of phenomena, rather, it is our strongly adhering or grasping the imputational aspect and confusing it with the other dependent aspect of phenomenon. When we strongly adhere to the imputational aspect, it prevents us from seeing that other people may not see a situation in the same way that we see it. This is how a lot of psychological or interpersonal conflict starts and festers. Each person is mistaking their own imputations for the situation itself and is unable to move beyond what they think is real. Conversely, when we hold the imputational aspect lightly, we create space to allow ourselves to realize that other people may see a situation differently than we do. That opens up the space for compassion, understanding, and kind action. So, the work here isn't to get rid of the imputational aspect, but to be responsible for our imputations and be able to move back and forth as is appropriate by holding our imputations lightly. So, to adapt an old Zen saying, “Are you using the imputational nature or are you being used by the imputational nature of phenomena?”


How do we learn to hold the imputational aspect of phenomena more lightly? We sit zazen, of course. You don't need to do anything special or different from what you have already been doing when sitting zazen. Just sit zazen. Sitting zazen can help dissolve our strong adherence to the imputational nature. This makes it easier to move effortlessly between abiding in the thoroughly established nature and imputational nature of a specific phenomenon. Being familiar with the teaching on the three natures provides a perspective or framework recognize when we “add something extra” to our experience. Thank-you.


1Wisdom of Buddha The Samdhinirmocana Sutra, p. 81 translated by John Powers, 1995, Dharma Publishing

2Ibid, p 81

3Ibid p. 81

4Ibid p.83

5Ibid p.83

6Ibid p. 335

7Ibid p. 335

Copyright, Kuden Paul Boyle, 2018