well-known motto of Ch'an Buddhism is that "perceiving the true self, one
becomes a Buddha." The "true self" signifies the Buddha nature inherent in
all sentient beings. The discovering of the "true self" has become the
single most important pursuit of the Buddhist, especially in Sino-Japanese
Buddhism. On the contrary, early Buddhism teaches that ultimately no
substantial self (i.e., 'anatman') can be found, since the self is nothing
but the union of the five aggregates. Modern Buddhologists as well as the
Buddhists have been intrigued by the inconsistency that one single
tradition teaches both that there is no self on the one hand, and that the
goal of religious life is to discover the true self, on the other
The big questions concerning these two contradictory doctrines include:
It is out of the scope of this short paper to answer all these questions. Therefore, this paper will deal with the antecedent and synonymous concept of the Buddha nature, that is, 'tathagata- garbha' ('ju lai tsang'). Specifically, this paper will examine the meaning and significance of the 'tathagatagarbha' (Buddha nature) based on three 'tathagatagarbha' texts and argue that the 'tathagatagarbha'/Buddha nature does not represent a substantial self ('atman'); rather, it is a positive language and expression of 'sunyata' (emptiness) and represents the potentiality to realize Buddhahood through Buddhist practices. In other words, the intention of the teaching of 'tathagatagarbha'/Buddha nature is soteriological rather than theoretical.
The term "'tathagatagarbha'" is generally taken as to mean that the "garbha" of a 'Tathagata' exists in all sentient beings without exception, and though temporarily contaminated by adventitious defilement ('agantukaklesa'), it is the cause which eventually leads sentient beings to enlightenment. The notion of the 'tathagatagarbha' can be traced to a luminousˇA inherently pure mind (pabhassar citta) found in the 'Anguttara-nikaya' (1:5):
When the original pure mind came to be regarded as something capable of growing into Buddhahood, there was the 'tathagatagarbha' doctrine. Although the concept of an intrinsically pure mind exists in the Nikaya Buddhism, many Buddhologists, such as Wayman (1), Paul (2), Yin-shun (3) think that the 'tathagatagarbha' thought was originated from the 'Mahasamgika', but was rejected by the 'Theravada'. This theory is also held by Mizuno who points out that the pure mind ('pabhassarcitta') articulated in the Nikaya Buddhism is not totally identical with the original pure mind ('prakrtivisuddhi-citta') articulated in the 'Tathagatagarbha' doctrine, for Mizuno asserts that the former is static whereas the latter is dynamic in that it is capable of eradicating defilement.(4) At any rate, the relationship between pure mind and the adventitious defilement appears to have been wholly adopted by the 'Mahasamghika' and later by the 'Mahayana'.
According to I-tsing's Nan-hai-chi-kuei Nei-fa-chuan (The record of the Buddhist kingdoms in the Southern Archipelago), "the so-called 'Mahayana' (in India) is no more than the two: one 'Madhyamika', the other 'Yogacara'."(5) Although it is commonly held that the 'Madhyamika' and 'Yogacara' were the two major philosophical schools in Indian 'Mahayana' and although it might be true that 'tathagatagarbha' thought never formed an academic school in India, this does not mean that the 'tathagatagarbha' doctrine never played a significant role in the development of Indian Buddhist thought.(6) This is attested by the fact that there are many 'tathagatagarbha' scriptures composed in India approximately from the third to the sixth century, such as the 'Tathagatagarbha-sutra', 'Maha-parinirvana-sutra', 'Anuatyapurn-atvanirdesa-sutra', 'Srimaladevisimhanada-sutra', 'Lankavatara-sutra', Rotnagotravibhaga, Buddha-nature Treatise, etc.
Since the beginning of this century, many 'Buddhologists' have become interested in the 'Tathagararbha' doctrine and have shed new light on tathagatagarbha thought. However, their studies, especially on the Ratnagotravibhaga, lead to two different interpretations of the 'tathagatagarbha' doctrine, i.e., 'tathagatagarbha as a monistic doctrine, and 'tathagatagarbha' as the embodiment of the principle of dependent co-arising ('pratityasamutpada') or 'sunyata', following the traditional 'Mahayana' Buddhist lines.
Obermiller, who maintains the 'Tathagatagarbha' as monistic, in the introduction to his translation of the Ratnagotravibhaga, says that in this text, "we see that Aryasanga has come to a fully monistic and pantheistic conception" and that "The central point of this most developed theory is the teaching that the fundamental element of Buddhahood, the essence of the Buddha in a living being represents an eternal, immutable ('asamskrta') element, which is identical with the monistic Absolute and is unique and undifferentiated in everything that lives."(7)
Takasaki, an eminent scholar of the 'tathagatagarbha' doctrine, asserts that the 'tathagatagarbha' thought holds some monistic element. He says: - "When Buddhism developed itself into 'Mahayana' Buddhism, it could not but take the appearance of Monism as a result of Absolutization of the Buddha and approach the Upanishadic thinking in its philosophy ... for explaining the possibility of anyone's acquiring the Buddhahood, the Monistic philosophy was used as the background. In this last point lies the significance of the 'tathagatagarbha' theory of this text. This theory is in one sense an inevitable result of the development of Mahayanistic monism in its religious expression."(8)
Although Takasaki notes that there is a difference between the nature of monism in the Ratnagotravibhaga and in the Upanishads, for the Absolute taught in the Ratnagotravibhaga is the manifestion of 'sunyata' which is of a quite different character from the substantial Absolute of the Upanishads, still he believes "there was an influence from the Upanishadic thought for the 'astivada' of the Ratna to establish its monistic doctrine."(9)
The reason for those scholars' holding the 'tathagatagarbha' doctrine as monistic is that they base their interpretation on passages in various 'tathagatagarbha' literature which assert the equivalence of the 'tathagatagarbha' to terms with all-pervading character, such as 'tathata', 'dharmakaya', 'dharmadhatu', etc., which describe the 'tathagatagarbha' as being eternal (nitya) and immutable ('atman'), which assert the fundamental purity of the 'tathagatagarbha' (equating the 'tathagatagarbha' as 'prakrtiparisuddhi-citta', the original pure mind), and which assert that the 'tathagatagarbha' functions like a first cause from which the phenomenal reality emanates.
However, if we examine more carefully the 'tathagatagarbha' doctrine, we will find that it can be interpreted as an expression of the concept of 'pratityasamutpada' and 'sunyata'. Yamaguchi (10) and Ogawa(11) follow this traditional line.
Interestingly, modern Buddhologists are not alone in their puzzle about the question of whether the 'tathagatagarbha' represents a kind of Upanishadic 'atman'. Bodhisattva 'Mahamati' in the 'Lankavatarasutra' raised a question concerning this issue. He said to the Buddha:
In this passage, the Buddha clearly identified the 'tathagatagarbha' with emptiness, markless, 'tathata', etc., meaning that the 'tathagatagarbha' is without any substantial entity. Then the question arises: -- if the 'tathagatagarbha' is empty by nature , why the Buddhas teach a 'tathagatagarbha' possessing all positive attributes, such as eternal (nitya), self ('atman'), bliss (sukha) and pure (subha)? The Buddha goes on to answer this question:
It is pointed out in this passage that the 'tathagatagarbha' is empty in its nature yet real: it is 'Nirvana' itself, unborn, without predicates. It is where no false discrimination (nirvikalpa) takes place. There is nothing here for the Buddhas or Bodhisattvas to take hold of as an 'atman'. They have gone beyond the sphere of false discrimination and word. It is due to their wisdom and skillful means ('upaya') that they set up all kinds of names and phrases in order to save sentient beings from mistaken view of reality. In other words, it is exactly to help sentient beings case away their fear of 'anatman' that the 'tathagatagarbha' with positive attributes (i.e., 'asunya-tathagatagarbha') is taught, and at the same time it is to get rid of the clinging of 'atman' that the 'anatman-tathagatagarbha' is taught. Thus it is clear that the 'tathagatagarbha' is not an Upanishadic 'atman'. Now let's turn to examine how Yamaguchi and Ogawa who hold this traditional line interpret this doctrine.
Yamaguchi points out that the statement in the Ratnagotravibhaga, "O Noble youth, such is the essential nature of the dharma ('dharmanam dharmata'), whether the 'Tathagatas' appear in the world, or whether they do not, these living beings are always possessed of the matrix of the 'Tathagata'" (15) is parallel to the statement found in the Sammyutta-nikaya "Whether the 'Tathagatas' were to appear in the world, the theory of 'pratitysamutpada' remains."(16)
Here we see the 'tathagatagarbha' was considered as a valid principle as 'pratitysamutpada'. Thus Yamaguchi holds that the most important point in expounding the 'tathagatagarbha' in the Ratnagotravibharga is that "the 'pratitysamutpada' is the 'tathagatagarbha'." (engi sunawachi nyoraizo)(17).
Ogawa, following the same position, interprets the 'tathagatagarbha' according to the commentary of the 'Ratnagotravibhaga' by the Tibetan master, Dhar-ma rin-chen. He argues that the 'tathatagatagarbha' is essentially the same as 'sunyata', and also it has the 'sunyata' nature which allows the mind to understand 'sunyata'. The crucial point of this interpretation centers on the passage "all sentient beings are possessed of the 'tathagatagarbha'" in the Ratnagotravibhaga. It expounds three 'svabhavas' of the 'tathagatagarbha' to justify the above passage. According to Dhar-ma rin-chen, the three 'svabhavas' are ways of explaining the 'tathagatagarbha' form three perspectives: - from the perspective of the result level of the 'Tathagata', from the perspective of the nature of the 'Tathagata' and from the perspective of the cause of the 'Tathagata.'(18)
In other words, within the very meaning of gotra is experssed the movement from 'prajna' to 'karuna'. This might be called hsia-huei-hsiang, a down-ward transformation or 'tatha-agata', i.e., returning from the realm of enlightenment to that of this world of sentient beings˘wa process of enlightening others, after the socalled shan-huei-hsiang, an up-ward transformation or 'tatha-gata', i.e., striving for the realm of enlightenment from the realm of this world of sentient beings, a process of enlightening oneself. However, this "two-way traffic" process should not be seen as two distinctive and separated processesˇF rather, they are non-dual, interrelated and inter-dependent.
Based on the commentary of Dhar-ma rin-chen, we can conclude that the real purpose of the passage "the gotra of the 'Tathagata' exists in all sentient beings" is to articulate bodhisattva practices based on wisdom. This is supported by the structure of the Ratnagotravibhaga, which is arranged by the following order:
The seven 'vajrapadas' are expalined in terms of cause, condition and result. "'Dhatu'" is the "cause"; bodhi, 'guna', and karma are the "conditions" through which the three jewels (of the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha) as "result" are manifested. As kiyota says that the wisdom, merits and practice of a Bodhisattva constitute the condition through which the "Buddha-is-caused". The expression "Buddha-is-caused", or "Buddha-caused" is derived from 'Buddha-dhatu'. It is employed synonymously with the 'tathagatagarbha'. As Kiyota rightly points out, the term "cause" here does not refer to a first cause (i.e., a substance or a physical entity), but symbolically as a potential (a principle) which is empirically revealed through a set of conditions˘wwisdom, merits ,and practices.(23) In other words, the 'tathagatagarbha' as a potential inherent in the human consciousness can only be realized through Bodhisattva practices.
The above arguments are mainly based on the Rathagotravibhaga. At least two other 'Tatnagatagarbha' related 'sutras' also support this viewpoint. One is the Buddha Nature Treatise (24) and the other, the 'Mahaparinirvana sutra'(25).
In the Buddha Nature Treatise, the author gives five reasons to the question why the Buddha spoke of Buddha nature. They are:
By overcoming these five shortcomings, one gives rise to five virtues, namely , diligent mind, reverence, widom ('prajna') knowledge ('jnana') and compassion ('karuna'). Clearly, right from the beginning, the author does not try to establish that the Buddha nature stands for something substantial. Rather, he points out the soteriological function of the teaching of the Buddha nature.
Delusion refers to the two erronous views of the substential existence of both person ('atman') and things (dharma). Ignorant actions arise from these two attachments to the self and external things which prevent human beings from perceiving the truth. To the author of the Buddha Nature Treatise, the truth is nothing but the Buddha nature, for "Buddha nature is the Thusness revealed by the twin emptiness of person and things."(27) Thus it is said that "if one does not speak of Buddha nature, then one does not understand emptiness and consequently will cling to reality and slander Thusness."(28) Since the Buddha nature is the implementation of emptiness, it can be any thing but an entity.
Furthermore, in the chapter of expounding the nature of Buddha nature, the author identified Buddha nature with the 'Dharmakaya', which is characterized with four virtues ('guna'). One of them is "self" ('atman'). This "self" is immediately identified with the perfection of non-self ('anatman-paramita'). How can the self be at the same time the perfection of non-self? The author explains:
Already the twin emptiness [of person and thing] is pure. [In this] is realized the not-self, the supreme self, Since the Buddha realizes the pure nature (hsing). Not-self turns on itself (chuan) and becomes self.(29)
It is evident from this explanation that the teaching of Buddha nature is the instrument employed along with 'prajna' to realize the true, essential nature of all dharmas, namely, the non-self. Soteriologically speaking, 'tathagatagarbha/Buddha' nature also functions as an active skillful means, for it is reiterated in several 'tathagatagarbha' texts that 'tathagatagarbha' is the basis of 'samsara' and 'nirvana'. That is to say without 'tathagatagarbha/Buddha' nature, sentient beings would neither arouse aversion to 'samsara' nor desire for 'nirvana'. Therefore, 'tathagatagarbha' is active, not static. In other words, it represents actions of practice, rather than an monastic substance.
This interpretation can be further attested by the three causes of the Buddha nature explained in the Buddha Nature Treatise. The Buddha nature consists of three causes:
The three-cause schema signifies that depending on the "Thusness manifested by the twin emptiness (i.e., Buddha nature)"; and through the intensified effort of Buddhist practices, one "should obtain" or "deserves" the fulfillment of Buddhahood. Apparently , the pivot of the triple cause is the cause of intensified practice, for it plays the role of activating the potentiality to realize the Buddha nature.
As we know, the 'Mahaparnirvana-sutra' is one of the most important 'sutras' which articulate the concept of Buddha nature. Just as the Ratnagotravibhaga claims that all sentient beings possess the 'tathagatagarbha', so the 'Mahaparinirvana Sutra' teaches that sentient beings have the Buddha nature. In explaining what it means by sentient beings' having the Buddha nature, the 'Mahaparinirvana Sutra' distinguishes three different ways of understanding the term "to have":
Since the above passage identifies sentient beings' ways of having Buddha nature with the third way of having, i.e., having in the future, it is again a proof that the teaching of the universal Buddha nature does not intend to assert the existence of substantial, entity-like self endowed with excellent features of a Buddha. Rather, Buddha nature simply represents the potentiality to be realized in the future.
Elsewhere in the 'Mahaparinirana Sutra', Buddha nature is defined as the ultimate emptiness and the Middle Way. It says:
The essential point of this passage is that true emptiness, or in this case Buddha nature, trancends any dictomony˘wbeing and non-being, self and non-self, suffering and happiness, etc. Ordinary people and the heterodox see only the existence of self, while 'Sravakas' and Pratyekabuddhas perceive only the non-self, but not the existence of a self. Clinging to one extreme or the other, they cannot realize the ultimate, and true emptiness and consequently cannot realize the Middle Way. Without the Middle Way, they are not able to comprehend Buddha nature. Trying to lessen the monistic flavour of the Buddha nature, the 'Mahaparinirvana Sutra' interprets Buddha nature as both emcompassing and transcending the notions of self and non-self. It makes the doctrine of the Buddha nature adhere closely to the Buddhist teaching of non-duality and the Middle Way. Thus Buddha nature should not be treated as equivalent to the monistic absolute. If it does seemly indicate the presence of a substantive self, it is actually a positive expression of emptiness.
In conclusion, when we try to interpret the thought of the 'tathagatagarbha', we should keep several points in mind:
1) The 'tathagatagarbha' symbolizes the potential for enlightenment (a principle) rather than a material "essence" of ultimate truth,
2) the 'tathagatagarbha' is based on the framework of the 'Mahayana' doctrine of 'sunyata-pratitys-amutpada'.
3) The development of the 'tathagatagarbha' doctrine signifies the ability of a religious tradition to meet the spiritual needs of the masses aiming at a given time.
That is to say the 'tathagatagarbha' thought was formed as an positive soterio-logical approach to counteract the "'sunyam sarvam'" (all is empty) view. The 'tathagatagarbha' which strongly articulates a devotional and experiential approach to salvation provides much to the hope and aspiration of the people at large. It is this positive aspect that was taken up and strongly emphasized in Chinese Buddhism.
4) The 'tathagatagarbha' doctrine is employed as a skill-in-means ('upaya'). This does not necessarily mean that the theory of the 'tathagatagarbha' is neyartha, a teaching requiring further qualifications -- rather, it is a skill-in-means in that it is taught to suit the needs of a certain kind of people and circumstances. This is why it is said in the 'sutra' that in order to teach the emptiness of all dharmas, the Buddhas preach sometimes by the doctrine of the 'tathagatagarbha', and sometimes by that of emptiness. Thus it is better to take the 'tathagatagarbha / Buddha nature' as representing "profound existence" derived from "true emptiness" rather than as a monistic self./.
Source: Digital Buddhist Library
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