Zen is all about our “True Nature.” What that is isn’t clearly defined, because 1) It can’t be, and 2) That would ruin the practice.
That said, we can take a more practical approach to this as well. All of the suffering we experience comes from forgetting or misunderstanding something’s nature. If we don’t know something’s nature, then we don’t know how to interact with it.
Our nature is the collection of physical and psychological qualities that influence our behavior and function. It’s our way, our patterns, the underlying structure that determines how we live our lives.
Take fire. Fire’s hot. Duh. Fire consumes, burns, sheds light and belches smoke. That’s its nature. If we didn’t know that fire was hot, then we’d probably have no qualms about reaching out and touching it. That’s how we get burned… by everything.
A lion hunts, pounces, roars, claws, and bites. It also rolls around and lazes whenever the opportunity arises. Knowing all of that, we know how to live and be around lions.
Nagarjuna said that things don’t have their own nature, that was his definition for “emptiness,” but I disagree with him (I usually do). If our minds construct things, then those things do have their own natures. Everything from this cup, to the cosmos has a nature. If I ignore that, then I’m closing myself off from countless ways of working with the world.
Something’s nature makes it predictable, and predicting things is how we manage to get from A to B in day-to-day life without stumbling into too much chaos. It’s how we get to know people, it’s how we fall in love.
If I didn’t know the nature of sidewalks, I’d never think to walk on them. If I didn’t know the nature of cars, it would never occur to me that frolicking across the interstate was a bad idea. So, even if some philosophers reject individual natures, the fact that they lived long, healthy lives shows that they didn’t really reject them. If they did, they’d have all been dead within a few hours after totally accepting their own views.
So I do have a John-nature, and you have a You-nature. And those natures are the product of the natures of everything that composes our bodies and minds, and everything that interacts with them over time. That’s emptiness. Emptiness doesn’t cancel out the particular natures of things, it’s the how behind them.
And the thing is, once we grok this emptiness-nature, we can grok the natures of all things more clearly. Because then we’re not seeing the fire’s nature through our own nature, through our own biases. We’re able to see what the fire is independent of us. We can see the lion’s nature as it is independent of us.
This is quite beautiful, and it allows us to interact with the world in smooth, clean, precise ways. We don’t put our hands on something if it’s hot, and we try to prevent others from doing so as well.
Mostly, you’re not shocked by things anymore, nor do you feel frustrated with or disappointed by other people. Because you see them as they are, you see their natures, the way they move through emptiness. The waves they make, and the waves they respond to. Seeing that, you know what to do, you know which action to take in that moment. You know what to say, how to stand, how to feel.
Of course, running through it all, there are four universal natures that tie us altogether: impermanence, emptiness, suffering, and awakening.
Before anyone lights the torches and comes charging at me with pitchforks, this post isn’t doctrine, I’m not making some metaphysical claim or saying that our natures are absolute and immutable. I’m saying that, when we view things as separate from each other, then each thing has its own way of being.