Learning & Practice

Introducing The Three Natures

"The true value of a human being can be found in the degree to which he has attained liberation from the self."

— Albert Einstein

When we discuss the concept of "nature" within the context of the dharma, we're referring to suchness, or the inherent qualities and characteristics of existence as they truly are. Nature encompasses the essence of things—whether it's the nature of a mind, the nature of a leaf, or even the nature of a moment. In our exploration today, we delve into a particularly profound aspect of Buddhist philosophy: the concept of the "Three Natures". These three natures serve as lenses through which we're encouraged to examine each moment of our experience, each circumstance we encounter, as they provide a deeper insight into reality and our perception of it.

The Imaginary or Interpreted Nature

The first of these three natures is often termed the Imaginary or Interpreted Nature. This refers to our personalized interpretation of reality, the manner in which we filter our experiences through the lens of our mind and labels. It's an abstract, yet common-sense idea that our experiences are not always an accurate reflection of reality.

For instance, consider the simple example of a couch. We often hold a firm belief that we know a couch by its color, shape, comfort level, and we trust our ability to recognize it among thousands. But in reality, our perception of the couch is also significantly influenced by our likes, dislikes, and our personal history with it — creating a relatively limited perspective of it. Similarly, when we interact with a person, we often interpret their actions and words through our pre-existing understanding of them—an understanding that, common sense tells us, is rarely, if ever, entirely accurate.

Thus, the challenge with the Imaginary Nature is to hold lightly to these perceptions and let go, recognizing that our interpretations are, at best, relatively true. It encourages us to stay open and understand that our views are often a reflection of our mind and history rather than absolute truth.

The Dependent Nature

Next, we move to the Dependent Nature. This perspective encapsulates the principle of interbeing, dependent origination, and cause-and-effect. It acknowledges that no phenomenon exists in isolation, but instead arises through a complex web of interdependence.

Take a leaf as an example. It doesn't exist solely as an individual entity. Rather, it's intrinsically dependent on various factors like the sun, the soil, the tree it grows on, and the sap it produces. Similarly, our thoughts, emotions, and experiences are not separate occurrences, but products of a comprehensive network of experiences and interactions. Every moment, every situation, is a culmination of innumerable interdependent conditions.

Hence, the challenge with the Dependent Nature is to understand the interconnectedness of all things and to open ourselves to the reality of relationality. This understanding transforms our perspective of individual experiences, allowing us to see the broader picture of our interconnected existence.

The Ultimate, Unconditioned, or Empty Nature

The third nature, often referred to as the Ultimate, Unconditioned, or Empty Nature, or even nibbana or suchness, is somewhat more elusive and challenging to articulate. This nature points to a level of awakening or realization, a momentary state of enlightenment where we experience the essence of existence without the confines of our usual interpretations.

To illustrate this, consider the analogy of a wave in the ocean. The Imaginary Nature is like focusing on the individual characteristics of the wave—its height, roughness, or smoothness—through our subjective interpretation. The Dependent Nature, however, emphasizes the wave's reliance on other factors like currents, wind, and the moon for its existence. The Ultimate Nature, in contrast, reveals that despite all these individual characteristics and dependencies, the wave is, in essence, the ocean itself.

It's essential to understand that these three natures are not separate entities but are intricately woven aspects of our experience and reality. Seeing them as distinct would be a misunderstanding that confines us within the realm of the Imaginary Nature, preventing us from seeing the complete picture of our existence. The Ultimate Nature cannot be fully realized by intellectual understanding alone; it requires a deeper experiential realization, an insight that transcends concepts.

Experiences where we let go of judgments and expectations, where we fully immerse ourselves in the suchness of things, can lead us to a tangible experience of this third nature. It's a state where we are not bound by our interpretations but can view reality as it is. It offers a sense of liberation, a freedom that comes from touching the very essence of existence.

Application and Integration

The idea of the Three Natures provides us with a profound foundation for our spiritual practice, fostering a deeper understanding of ourselves and the world. By examining and reflecting on these natures, we can develop wisdom, cultivate healthier relationships with our experiences, and awaken to our true nature.

When it comes to healing from conflictive states of heart and mind, including psychological trauma or difficult life circumstances, this understanding of the Three Natures becomes particularly beneficial. Healing requires us to move beyond our personal experiences and emotions (Imaginary Nature), comprehend the complex interdependencies that contribute to our experiences (Dependent Nature), and ultimately gain insight into the suchness of things (Ultimate Nature).

In the book "Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life", Thich Nhat Hanh beautifully illustrates the Three Natures through a dialogue with a leaf. As autumn arrived and other leaves started falling, he asked the leaf if it was afraid of its inevitable fall. In response, the leaf expressed its understanding of its Ultimate Nature—it didn't fear the end because it was intimately aware of its interconnectedness with everything else. 

It said, "No. During the whole spring and summer I was completely alive. I worked hard to help nourish the tree, and now much of me is in the tree. I am not limited by this form. I am also the whole tree, and when I go back to the soil, I will continue to nourish the tree. So I don't worry at all."

In this dialogue, the leaf embodies the Dependent Nature—understanding that it was part of a larger network that included the tree, the soil, and the entirety of nature. It did not view itself as an isolated entity; it recognized its role as a part of a larger, interconnected system.

As the wind picked up and the leaf finally let go of the branch, floating down to the ground, it danced joyfully. It saw itself not as a separate entity falling but as a part of the tree, rejoining the earth from whence it came. And in this joyful dance, the leaf expressed its comprehension of the Ultimate Nature—its essence was not confined to its leaf form; it was, in fact, the entire tree and would continue to be a part of the cyclical process of life. It called out to the tree, saying, "As I leave this branch and float to the ground, I will wave to the tree and tell her, 'I will see you again very soon.'"

Moved by the leaf's wisdom, Thich Nhat Hanh bowed his head in acknowledgment, realizing that he had much to learn from the leaf. The leaf's understanding of the Three Natures allowed it to let go without fear, knowing that it wasn't truly departing but transforming and continuing its existence in other forms. This understanding, this embracing of the Three Natures, fosters a sense of peace, inner courage, and joyful understanding of the cycles of life.

I encourage you to embrace the Three Natures with an open mind, curiosity, and compassion. These teachings hold immense transformative potential, offering profound insights that lead to understanding and compassion. By embracing them, we can realize a deeper awakening and liberation, breaking free from limiting thoughts and emotions that hinder our ability to recognize our interconnectedness with all things. This, in turn, nurtures peace, equanimity, and an enlightened outlook on life.

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