The “Nature vs. Nurture” of Enlightenment

The “Nature vs. Nurture” of Enlightenment - Niysah Iyahu - Drukama Teachings™

Are fully realized individuals born or are they made? In other words, did their full realization occur because of karmic qualifications, work done and merit accrued in many past lives, or was it mainly due to persistent spiritual practice in the life in which they became realized. We are told in both the Eastern and Western traditions that our intention should be to complete the Great Work, or to become fully realized, in “this life and in this body.” There is some question of how to do this, and if it can be done, how rare is it. In order to consider this question, and some related ideas, it seems beneficial to study some examples.

I have drawn upon the Buddhist tradition, particularly the Tibetan, for examples, because the past lives of these masters are well known and have been written about.

A hagiography is the life story or biography of a saint. For any number of fully realized masters or Buddhas, there exists two sorts of hagiography. One portrays the master as being the reincarnation of a realized person and blossoming into enlightenment with little effort. The other shows the sage struggling to attain realization, often spending many years in the process.

Shakyamuni Buddha - The “Nature vs. Nurture” of Enlightenment - Niysah Iyahu - Drukama Teachings™


In the case of Buddha Shakyamuni, he was said to have been a transcendent being, conceived without intercourse, bearing all the major and minor marks of a Buddha. Immediately after birth, he could walk, and with each step a lotus flower grew from the ground. He reportedly said, “I am the chief of the world, eldest am I in the world….”  In the course of his realization, he remembered hundreds of past lives, including a prior life as a bodhisattva.

On the other hand, it seems that he had forgotten this destiny, for he lived a secular life for 29 years. The hagiographies have his father hiding the reality of suffering from him. However, he eventually found out and left home to seek enlightenment. He studied with at least two teachers, Alara Kalama and Uddaka, though he eventually surpassed them. Subsequently, he meditated alone until he achieved enlightenment. It took him six years to achieve complete realization.

Padmasambhava - The “Nature vs. Nurture” of Enlightenment - Niysah Iyahu - Drukama Teachings™


The biography of Padmasambhava, also known as Guru Rinpoche, states very straightforwardly that he was not an ordinary practitioner. He was said to be an emanation of Buddha Amitabha and also Buddha Shakyamuni. Some people believe that he was the reincarnation of Shakyamuni. He is called the second Buddha. He was said to have been perfectly enlightened for many lives.

He did not have a normal human birth, but appeared in a lotus blossom in the land of Uddiyana as an eight-year-old child. He had many incredible experiences, received many profound teachings, and received many miraculous empowerments.

And yet, in spite of this, there are also aspects of his enlightenment which tell a somewhat different story. (“Treasures from the Lotus Crystal Cave, The Direct Instruction of Shri Singha,” from Treasures from Juniper Ridge by Erik Pena Kunsang)

In one account, it is said his faith awakened at age 8. He approached Guru Shri Singha and asked to become his disciple. Initially, he was refused, but he was told to study the Triptaka, which he did exhaustively.

Later, when he is described as being a “young man,” he was taken as a disciple. He first studied secret mantra. Initially, he had only an intellectual understanding. He was then taught how to sit, about the channels and winds, about tummo and melting the drops, and about entering the central column. He had a variety of meditational experiences which initially caused only pride.

His guru then sent him to a solitary place to meditate for a year on at least three separate occasions. He meditated on emptiness, experienced pure awareness, meditated on original mind until his mind was like space. Finally he achieved full realization. It is unclear how long all this took, but it appears to have been at least 10 years.

Yeshe Tsogyal - The “Nature vs. Nurture” of Enlightenment - Niysah Iyahu - Drukama Teachings™

Yeshe Tsogyal

She was one of the two principal consorts of Padmasambhava and is considered one of the founders of Tibetan Buddhism. She was said to have been one of the emanations of Vajra Yogini. She was also a dakini and an emanation of Arya Tara.

She hid many of the treasure texts of Padmasambhava, and she also revealed some of them. Her degree of attainment was said to equal that of her partner, and she is considered a female Buddha. She was said to have had a photographic memory, so that she perfectly remembered everything that Padmasambhava said.

On the other hand, in many of the stories she presents herself as somewhat dull-witted, and often disparages herself, or is disparaged, for being in a female body. She spent many years in study and spiritual retreat before becoming realized.

Mandarava - The “Nature vs. Nurture” of Enlightenment - Niysah Iyahu - Drukama Teachings™


Another interesting example is Princess Mandarava, the other principal consort of Padmasambhava. She was Indian and practiced with Padmasambhava prior to his coming to Tibet.

She had numerous previous lives as an advanced practitioner, and in one of her former lives she attained complete enlightenment and Buddhahood. She was said to be an emanation of Pandaravasini, consort of the Buddha Amitabha.

Nevertheless, full realization was not automatic for her. She had to undertake a program of study, and when she met Padmasambhava, she became his disciple, studying secret mantra and tantra. Later she underwent various misfortunes, but used these experiences as a catalyst to remove obscurations and negativities. Later she received transmissions, which allowed her to perform the generation and completion stage practices of mahamudra. This led to what could be described as “re-enlightenment” in that lifetime.

Milarepa - The “Nature vs. Nurture” of Enlightenment - Niysah Iyahu - Drukama Teachings™


The story of Milarepa is familiar to many people, as he is one of the best known of the Tibetan yogis, and his path of spiritual progress has been inspiring to many. After his family suffered several reversals at the hands of his relatives, he studied sorcery at his mother’s request. Out of revenge, he used Black Magic to kill many people.

Later he became remorseful and sought out a spiritual master, eventually becoming the disciple of Marpa the Translator. Before Marpa would train Milarepa, he treated him very poorly and had him build and demolish several towers. Marpa inflicted physical and emotional abuse on Milarepa, ostensibly in order to purify his negative karma. Finally, he was taken as a disciple. Once he received teaching from Marpa, Milarepa began to make progress, and after many years attained enlightenment. This story is very inspiring because if even a mass murderer could find enlightenment, then so can ordinary sinners.

And yet, there is another side to Milarepa which we seldom hear about. This states that Milarepa was an emanation of the Dzogchen master Manjusrimitra. In this version of his biography, his ability with Black Magic was due to his past life training. This background on Milarepa was downplayed by later biographers who wished to prove that an ordinary being can become a Buddha in a single lifetime.


There are several conclusions, or statements, which can help our thinking about these biographical examples. Perhaps these conclusions are not compelled by the stories, but I believe they are supported by them.

  1. The first is that every sage, master, or highly realized person had karmic qualifications. Even though it would perhaps be encouraging if a “young soul” became fully realized, the truth is that this simply doesn’t happen. It is not always possible to discern whether or not one is so qualified from the early years of a person’s life. Sometimes “old souls” stray far from the path. We must look to the end of the story in order to see beyond the beginning.

All of us who are interested in the spiritual life should assume that we have sufficient karmic qualifications to become realized. In fact, if someone is reading these words, they undoubtedly have the potential to achieve an advanced level of enlightenment.

  1. Another conclusion is that the vagaries of life inevitably obscure the spiritual nature. Often very young children remember past lives, manifest clairvoyance, and display an innate spirituality. Many of us have either personally experienced this or know of examples. But as the child gets older, he or she forgets, and the spiritual aptitude becomes buried or obscured. The accretions of the ego cause the spiritual self to go into hiding. The older one gets, the more deeply the spiritual side becomes buried.

This phenomenon was beautifully expressed by William Wordsworth, who wrote in “Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood”:

Our birth is but a sleep and a forgetting:

The Soul that rises with us, our life’s Star,

       Hath had elsewhere its setting,

         And cometh from afar:

       Not in entire forgetfulness,

       And not in utter nakedness,

But trailing clouds of glory do we come

       From God, who is our home:

Heaven lies about us in our infancy!

Shades of the prison-house begin to close…


It follows that, whenever possible, children should be exposed to the spiritual path when they are young, and if they show interest and aptitude, they should begin training before the obscurations of the “prison-house” set in.

Considered in this light, the Tibetan tradition of Tulku recognition makes a lot of sense. In Tibetan Buddhism, the reincarnations of previous masters are anticipated, and they are sought for while they are still very young. The example of the Dalai Lama is the most well known, but there are hundreds of tulkus.

There are many stories of such children remembering details of their past lives and manifesting advanced spiritual development. When such children are identified, they are taken to a monastery, and training is begun at an early age.

Clearly, this process allows for individuals who have karmic qualifications to be identified and for training to begin early. This process has been criticized, and there are some negative aspects, but the logic is inescapable.

  1. These biographies teach us that everyone who wishes to achieve realization has to work at spiritual practice. All of the spiritual masters for whom the details are known worked for many years before reaching their spiritual maturity, even those who were Buddhas and Bodhisattvas in previous lives.
  1. It is also evident that everyone needs a teacher or a guru. It is currently popular to disparage this idea, but if Buddha Shakyamuni and Guru Rinpoche had teachers, why shouldn’t we also? It may be possible to become realized without a teacher, but surely it is more difficult and takes longer. It is hard enough doing it the easy way, so why make it even harder?

And so to return to the original question as to nature or nurture, the answer appears to be both. Since the innate inclination to spiritual things can become buried, even in the most highly qualified individuals, it behooves us all to be diligent in pursuing the spiritual path. We should all begin as early as possible, work as hard as possible, and avail ourselves of the best instruction possible. Opportunities should never be wasted.

~ Niysah Iyahu

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