The word nature (dhammatā or pakati) has several meanings but can be used in the sense of the basic quality of a thing. The English word comes from the Latin natus meaning ‘born’ and in the term ‘human nature’ refers to the inborn or innate character of human beings. Religious thinkers and philosophers have long pondered the question of whether human nature is good or evil. Confucius implied that humans are basically good, Mencius made this idea explicit in his teachings and it came to be accepted in Confucianism from that time onwards. The Christian doctrine of Original Sin asserts that humans are born sinful and prone to evil, having inherited sin from Adam and Eve. Theologians like Luther and Calvin deduced from this that humans are incapable of good and are saved only by the grace and mercy of God.
The Buddha never directly addressed the question of whether humans are essentially good or evil. However, he said that we have the capacity to do good and implied that given the right circumstances, we have a leaning towards goodness. He said: ‘Develop the good! It can be done! If it were impossible I would not urge you to do so. But since it can be done I say to you “Develop the good!” And if developing the good caused you loss and sorrow I would not urge you to do so. But since it conduces to your welfare and happiness I say to you “Develop the good!”’ (A.I,58). The Milindapañha says that our natural tendency to do what makes us happy causes us to gravitate towards goodness. ‘The King asked: “Venerable Nāgasena, which is greater, good or evil?” “Good is dominant, evil less so. ” “Why is that? ” “Sir, someone doing evil is remorseful and, therefore, avoids evil. But someone doing good is not remorseful, free from remorse he becomes glad, from gladness comes joy, being joyful the body is tranquil, with a tranquil body one is happy, the happy mind becomes concentrated and one who is concentrated sees things as they really are. And so it is that good is dominant’ (Mil.84).
Later Mahāyāna thinkers developed the doctrine of Buddha Nature, the idea that all humans, indeed all beings, have the same nature as the Buddha and thus are inherently good. The Ratnagotravibhāga uses a striking parable to explain the idea that Buddha Nature is immanent in everyone and only has to be realized. A thief broke into a house and stole a precious gem. As he was making his getaway, the owners of the house awoke, saw him and began chasing him. As the thief ran through the streets he saw a beggar sleeping on the side of the road and put the gem in his pocket so that if he were caught he could plead his innocence and then retrieve the gem from the beggar later. The beggar awoke the next day and continued his life of hunger, want and unhappiness. One day he happened to put his hand in his pocket and found the gem. He suddenly realized that he had been fabulously rich all along but never knew it.
The idea of the basic goodness of human nature had a profound influence on theories of jurisprudence in Buddhist countries. The second article of Prince Shotoku’s famous Seventeen-point Constitution reads: ‘Sincerely revere the Three Jewels (i.e. the Buddha, Dhamma and Saṅgha). These three constitute the highest ideal for all human beings and are the ultimate foundation of all nations. Very few people are really evil. If only we teach them what is right and wrong the great majority will follow it.’
A key tenet of Buddhist doctrine is that discontent is an outcome of desires grounded in false beliefs. The most important of these false beliefs are that (1) one’s own individual existence is more important than those of other individuals, and that (2) fulfilment can be achieved by acquiring and owning property. If these misunderstandings can be replaced by an accurate view of human nature, suggested the Buddha, then unrealistic craving and ambition will cease, and so will frustration. Happiness, in other words, can be achieved by learning to recognize that (1) no one is more important than anyone else, since all beings ultimately have the same nature, and that (2) the very idea of ownership is at the root of all conflicts among living beings. The methods by which one achieves contentment, according to the Buddha, are both intellectual and practical. One can gradually become free of the kinds of beliefs that cause unnecessary pain to oneself and others by carefully observing one’s own feelings and thoughts, and how one’s own words and actions affect others. To counter the view that one’s own individual existence is more important than the existence of other beings, Buddhist philosophers adopted the radical strategy of trying to show that in fact human beings do not have selves or individual identities. That is, an attempt was made to show that there is nothing about a person that remains fixed throughout a lifetime, and also that there is nothing over which one ultimately has real control. Failure to accept the instability, fragmentation and uncontrollability of one’s body and mind is seen as a key cause of frustration of the sort that one could avoid by accepting things as they really are. On the other hand, realizing that all beings of all kinds are liable to change and ultimately to die enables one to see that all beings have the same fundamental destiny. This, combined with the recognition that all living beings strive for happiness and wellbeing, is an important stage on the way to realizing that no individual’s needs, including one’s own, are more worthy of consideration than any other’s.
The notion that one does not have an enduring self has two aspects, one personal and the other social. At the personal level, the person is portrayed in Buddhist philosophy as a complex of many dozens of physical and mental events, rather than as a single feature of some kind that remains constant while all peripheral features undergo change. Since these constituent events are incessantly undergoing change, it follows that the whole that is made up of these constituents is always taking on at least some difference in nature. Whereas people might tend to see themselves as having fixed personalities and characters, the Buddha argued it is always possible for people either to improve their character through mindful striving, or to let it worsen through negligence and obliviousness. Looking at the social aspects of personal identity, the Buddha maintained, in contrast to other views prevalent in his day, that a person’s station in human society need not be determined by birth. According to the view prevalent in ancient and classical Indian society, a person’s duties, responsibilities and social rank were determined by levels of ritual purity; these were in turn influenced by pedigree and gender and various other factors that remained constant throughout a person’s lifetime. In criticizing this view, Buddhist philosophers redefined the notions of purity and nobility, replacing the concept of purity by birth with that of purity by action (karma) (see Karma and rebirth, Indian conceptions of §5). Thus the truly noble person, according to Buddhist standards, was not one who had a pure and revered ancestry, but rather one who habitually performed pure and benevolent actions.
Given these basic ideas of human nature as a starting point, later generations of Buddhist thinkers were left with the task of explaining the mechanisms by which all the components of a person work together; this also involved trying to explain how human beings can gradually change their character. While there was general agreement on the principle that the intentions behind one’s actions led eventually to resultant mental states, that benevolent actions resulted in a sense of wellbeing, while malevolent actions resulted in uneasiness and vexation, the precise details of how karmic causality took place were a matter of much dispute. Especially difficult was the question of how actions committed in one lifetime could influence the character of a person in a different lifetime, for Buddhists accepted the notion of rebirth that was common in Indian systems of thought. Discussions of how people could improve their character presuppose that the people in question have not become irreversibly depraved. One controversy that arose among Buddhist thinkers was whether there are beings who become so habitually perverse that they can no longer even aspire to improve their character; if so, then such beings would apparently be heir to an unending cycle of rebirths.
The view of the person as a set of interconnected modules, the precise contents of which were always changing, was characterized by Buddhists as avoiding the untenability of two other hypotheses that one might form about human nature. One hypothesis is that a person has some essential core that remains unchanged through all circumstances. This core survives the death of the physical body and goes on to acquire a new body through a process of reincarnation. According to this view, the unchanging essential part of a person is eternal. The second hypothesis is that a person takes on an identity at birth and carries it through life but loses the identity altogether at death. The Buddhist view, characterized as a middle way between these two extremes, is that a person’s character is always in flux, and that the factors that determine the particular changes in a person’s mentality continue to operate even after the body housing that mentality dies. So Buddhists tended to claim that what goes from one living body to another is not an unchanging essence, but rather a set of tendencies to behave in certain ways.