buddha nature

Buddha-nature

Buddha-nature (Classical Chinese: 佛性, modern pinyin fó xìng, literally corresponds to the Sanskrit, Buddha-dhatu - "Buddha Element", "Buddha-Principle", but seems to have been used most frequently to translate the Sanskrit Tathāgata-garbha, meaning "Buddha Matrix", which would be more directly translated into Chinese as 如来蔵) is a doctrine important for many schools of Mahayana Buddhism. The Buddha Nature or Buddha Principle (Buddha-dhatu) is taught to be a truly real, but internally hidden immortal potency or element within the purest depths of the mind, present in all sentient beings, for awakening and becoming a Buddha. There are conflicting interpretations of the idea in Mahayana thought. The idea may be traced to Abhidharmic thought, and ultimately to statements of the Buddha in the Nikayas. Other terms for the Buddha-nature are tathagatagarbha and sugatagarbha.

Luminous mind in the Nikayas

There is a clear reference in the Anguttara Nikaya to a "luminous mind" present within all people, be they corrupt or pure, whether or not it itself is stained or pure. When it is "unstained," it is supremely poised for arahantship, and so could be conceived as the "womb" of the arahant, for which a synonym is tathagata. The Lankavatara Sutra describes the tathagatagarbha ("arahant womb") as "by nature brightly shining and pure," and "originally pure," though "enveloped in the garments of the skhandhas, dhatus and ayatanas and soiled with the dirt of attachment, hatred, delusion and false imagining." It is said to be "naturally pure," but it appears impure as it is stained by adventitious defilements. Thus the Lankavatara Sutra identifies the luminous mind of the Canon with the tathagatagarbha, which it identifies with nirvana. The Canon does not support the identification of the "luminous mind" with nirvanic consciousness, though it plays a role in the realization of nirvana. Upon the destruction of the fetters, according to one scholar, "the shining nibbanic consciousness flashes out of the womb of arahantship, being without object or support, so transcending all limitations.

Central tenets of Buddha-nature doctrine

The Buddha-nature doctrine centres on the possession by sentient beings of the innate, immaculate buddha-mind or buddha-element (Buddha-dhatu), which is, prior to the attainment of complete buddhahood, not clearly seen and known in its full radiance. The Buddha Nature is equated in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra with the changeless and deathless True Self of the Buddha. In the Lankavatara Sutra, however, it is said that the tathagatagarbha might be mistaken for a Self, which it is not. . While not 'a self' as normally understood (with all its limitations and conditionedness), it is yet True Self - the Self or essence of the Buddha (this is the only true Reality, according to the Mahaparinirvana Sutra). When asked whether there is a Self in the 25 levels of existence, the Buddha asserts: 'The True Self is the Buddha Nature. All beings have it, but it is concealed by innumerable defilements' (The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra in 12 Volumes, tr. by Kosho Yamamoto, ed. by Dr. Tony Page, Nirvana Publications, London, 2000, Vol. 3, p. 1). This Buddha-nature is taught by the Buddha to be incorruptible, uncreated, and indestructible. It is eternal bodhi ("Awake-ness") indwelling samsara, and thus opens up the immanent possibility of Liberation from all suffering and impermanence (The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra in 12 Volumes, tr. by Kosho Yamamoto, ed. by Dr. Tony Page, Nirvana Publications, London, Volume 2, passim).

No being of any kind is without the Buddha-dhatu (Buddha-nature). It is indicated in the Angulimaliya Sutra that if the Buddhas themselves were to try to seek for any sentient being who lacked the Buddha-nature, not one such person would be found. In fact, it is stated in that sutra that it is impossible for Buddhas not to discern the presence of the everlasting Buddha-nature in each and every being:

"Even though all Buddhas themselves were to search assiduously, they would not find a tathāgata-garbha (Buddha-nature) that is not eternal, for the eternal dhātu, the buddha-dhātu (Buddha Principle, Buddha Nature), the dhātu adorned with infinite major and minor attributes, is present in all beings" ("Tathagatagarbha Buddhism" http://www.webspawner.com/users/tathagatagarbha21/index.html)

The eternality, unshakeability and changelessness of the Buddha-nature (often referred to as "Tathagatagarbha") is also frequently stressed in the sutras which expound this Buddha Element. The Srimala Sutra, for example, says:

"The Tathagatagarbha is not born, does not die, does not transfer [Tib: ’pho ba], does not arise. It is beyond the sphere of the characteristics of the compounded; it is permanent, stable and changeless.

The development of the Buddha-nature doctrine is closely related to that of tathagatagarbha (Sanskrit: "Buddha-matrix"). In the Anunatva-Apurnatva-Nirdesa, the Buddha links the tathagatagarbha to the Dharmadhatu (ultimate, all-equal, uncreated essence of all phenomena) and to essential being, stating:

"What I call 'be-ing' (sattva) is just a different name for this permanent, stable, pure and unchanging refuge that is free from arising and cessation, the inconceivable pure Dharmadhatu.

This eternal refuge of the Dharmadhatu / Buddha-dhatu (transcendentally empty of all that is conditioned, afflicted, defective, and productive of suffering) is equated in the Nirvana Sutra with Buddhic Knowledge (jnana). Such Knowledge perceives both non-Self and the Self, Emptiness (sunyata) and non-Emptiness, wherein "the Empty is the totality of samsara [birth-and-death] and the non-Empty is Great Nirvana."

A central aspect of the Buddha-dhatu (sometimes called the Tathagata-dhatu) is that it is utterly indestructible, invulnerable to all harm and contamination, and truly everlasting. It is the innermost, irreducible pure core within the being that cannot be eradicated or killed. The Buddha says so in terms in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra (Tibetan version):

"The Tathagata-dhatu is the intrinsic nature of beings. Therefore, it cannot be killed by having its life severed. If it could be killed, then the life-force (jivaka) could be annihilated; but it is not possible for the life-force to be annihilated. In this instance, the life-force refers to the Tathagatagarbha. That Dhatu [immanent Buddha Element, Buddha Principle] cannot be destroyed, killed or annihilated.

The Mahaparinirvana Sutra (Dharmakshema version) further makes clear that the act of seeing this Buddha-dhatu bestows upon the seer a body-and-mind (kaya) which is "without temporal limits, eternal." The Buddha (in the Dharmakshema version of the sutra) tells of how beings who fail to see the Buddha-dhatu are still afflicted by mental defilements ("kleshas"), but that once the Buddha-dhatu is seen, Awakening is the consequence. The Buddha says that this was his own experience:

"One who has not yet seen the Buddha-dhātu is said to have a body associated with the afflictions (kleshas), a carnal body, a body circumscribed by a future limit ... I beheld the Buddha-dhātu and attained supreme, fully perfect Awakening." (Mahaparinirvana Sutra, Chapter Two, "Cunda"). In this Awakened mode, life everlasting (nitya) and boundless is secured.

In the Tibetan Book of the Dead, it is taught that at death there is an encounter with our true nature, sugatagarbha or Dharmata, when the veils of egocentricity tend briefly to drop away, and shining, unobstructed Awareness is disclosed to us. In line with Tibetan Nyingma doctrine, Tibetan lama, Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, equates this radiant essence with the Buddha Nature. He writes:

"... all sentient beings already possess an enlightened essence, the sugatagarbha [i.e. the Buddha Nature]. This essence is present and permeates anyone who has mind, just as oil completely permeates any sesame seed ... The moment our ego-clinging falls apart, then our innate wisdom, the luminosity of dharmata, will vividly, nakedly appear. This ground luminosity is not just empty; it is also luminous - aware." (The Bardo Guidebook by Chokyi Nyima Rinpoche, Rangjung Yeshe Publications, Hong Kong, 1991, pp. 116, 121).

An important Sanskrit treatise, entitled the Ratnagotravibhaga, on the Buddha Nature sees the Tathagatagarbha (Buddha Nature) as "Suchness" or "Thusness" - the abiding Reality of all things - in a state of tarnished concealment within the being. The idea is that the ultimate consciousness of each being is spotless and pure, but surrounded by negative tendencies which are impure. Professor Paul Williams comments on how the impurity is actually not truly part of the Buddha Nature, but merely conceals the immanent true qualities of Buddha Mind (i.e. the Buddha Nature) from manifesting openly:

"The impurities that taint the mind and entail the state of unenlightenment (samsara) are completely adventitious ... On the other hand from the point of view of the mind's pure radiant intrinsic nature, because it is like this [i.e. pure and Buddhic], it is possessed of all the many qualities of a Buddha's mind. These do not need actually to be brought about but merely need to be allowed to shine forth. Because they are intrinsic to the very nature of consciousness itself they, and the very state of Buddhahood, will never cease." (Professor Paul Williams, Buddhist Thought, Routledge, London 2000, p. 166).

Buddha-nature is completely rejected by Theravada Buddhism due to the fact that the concept comes from later Mahayana sutras which it sees as inauthentic.

Though not explicitly denied in any form of Indian Mahayana, some scholars, especially those associated with Madhyamaka, did not have an active interest in this doctrine. Nevertheless, the Buddha-nature doctrine did become a cornerstone of East Asian Buddhist and Tibetan Buddhist soteriological thought and practice. Buddha-nature remains a widespread and important doctrine in much of Far Eastern Buddhism today. (Buddhist Thought by Professor Paul Williams, Routledge, London 2000, p. 161).

Development of Buddha-nature

The Buddha-nature doctrine may be traced back in part to the abhidharmic debate over metaphysics, which arose among the Nikaya schools as they attempted to reconcile various perceived problems, including how to integrate the doctrine of anatta, which stipulates that there is no underlying self, with Buddhist psychology (i.e., what is the subject of karma, suffering, etc.; how do these processes occur) and soteriology (what is the subject of enlightenment; (how) does enlightenment occur?). Debates between different Nikaya schools at this time provided a context for the later origination of the Mahayana and Mahayana concepts. The concept of "seeds" espoused by the Sautrāntika in debate with the Sarvastivadins over the metaphysical status of dharmas is a precursor to the store-consciousness of the Yogacara school and the tathagatagarbha, the latter of which is closely related to Buddha-nature and the former of which is identified with it in Yogacara.

Varying interpretations of Buddha-nature

While the primary Buddha-nature sutras present the Buddha Nature as a genuinely true and ultimate Reality, subsequent schools and scholars of Buddhism have on occasion essayed varying interpretations of what the Buddha Nature is. In Chinese Ch’an Buddhism the Buddha Nature tends to be seen as the essential nature of all beings. Writing from this tradition, Master Hsing Yun, forty-eighth patriarch of the Linji School of Ch’an Buddhism, equates (in line with pronouncements in key tathagatagarbha sutras) the Buddha Nature with the Dharmakaya, defining these two as:
"the inherent nature that exists in all beings. In Mahayana Buddhism, enlightenment is a process of uncovering this inherent nature … The Buddha nature [is] identical with transcendental reality. The unity of the Buddha with everything that exists."''

In the Tibetan Kagyu tradition, Thrangu Rinpoche sees the Buddha Nature as the indivisible oneness of Wisdom and Emptiness:

"The union of wisdom and emptiness is the essence of Buddha-hood or what is called Buddha-nature (Skt. Tathagata-garbha) because it contains the very seed, the potential of Buddhahood. It resides in each and every being and because of this essential nature, this heart nature, there is the possibility of reaching Buddhahood." (Buddha Nature and Buddhahood: the Mahayana and Tantra Yana, Khenchen Thrangu Rinpoche, http://www.simhas.org/teaching14.html

In contrast to this, the 14th Dalai Lama, representing the Gelukpa School of Tibetan Buddhism, sees the Buddha Nature as the "original clear light of mind" but is at pains to point out that it ultimately does not really exist, as it is Emptiness:

"Once one pronounces the words emptiness and absolute, one has the impression of speaking of the same thing, in fact of the absolute. If emptiness must be explained through the use of just one of these two terms, there will be confusion. I must say this; otherwise you might think that the innate original clear light as absolute truth really exists.

In a similar vein, the Buddhist scholar, Sallie B. King, sees the Buddha Nature (tathagatagarbha) as merely a metaphor for the potential in all beings to attain Buddhahood, rather than as an ontological reality. She writes of the Tathagatagarbha Sutra in particular: "The tathagatagarbha [Buddha Nature] is here a metaphor for the ability of all sentient beings to attain Buddhahood, no more and no less."

Professor Paul Williams puts forward the Madhyamaka interpretation of the Buddha Nature as Emptiness in the following terms:

"… if one is a Madhyamika then that which enables sentient beings to become buddhas must be the very factor that enables the minds of sentient beings to change into the minds of Buddhas. That which enables things to change is their simple absence of inherent existence, their emptiness. Thus the tathagatagarbha becomes emptiness itself, but specifically emptiness when applied to the mental continuum.

Contradicting this, the Jonangpa School of Tibetan Buddhism, headed historically by the Buddhist lama, Dolpopa, sees the Buddha Nature as the very ground of the Buddha himself, as the "permanent indwelling of the Buddha in the basal state"; Dolpopa comments that certain key Tathagatagarbha sutras indicate this truth, remarking:

"These statements that the basis of purification itself, the matrix-of-one-gone-to-bliss [i.e. Buddha Nature], is Buddha, the ground of Buddha, and the pristine wisdom of a one-gone-thus [Tathagata] also clear away the assertion by certain [scholars] that the matrix-of-one-gone-to-bliss [Buddha Nature] is not Buddha.

Speaking for the Tibetan Nyingma tradition, Tulku Urgyen Rinpoche sees an identity between the Buddha Nature, Dharmadhatu (essence of all phenomena and the noumenon) and the Three Vajras, saying:

"Dharmadhatu is adorned with dharmakaya, which is endowed with dharmadhatu wisdom. This is a brief but very profound statement, because 'dharmadhatu' also refers to sugata-garbha or buddha nature. Buddha nature is all-encompassing ... This buddha nature is present just as the shining sun is present in the sky. It is indivisible from the three vajras [i.e. the Buddha's Body, Speech and Mind] of the awakened state, which do not perish or change.

Independent lay yogi lineage of Dzogpachenpo by Chögyal Namkhai Norbu Rinpoche identifies and asserts the primordial non-dual awareness itself as the Buddha Nature, the only non-fabricated and pristine element of our existence.

Discussion of the precise nature, meaning and implications of the Buddha Nature doctrine continues to the present day.

Buddha-nature vs. Atman

The "tathagatagarbha"/Buddha nature does not represent a substantial self (atman); rather, it is a positive language expression of "sunyata" (emptiness) and represents the potentiality to realize Buddhahood through Buddhist practices; the intention of the teaching of 'tathagatagarbha'/Buddha nature is soteriological rather than theoretical. Unlike the Western concept of Soul or some interpretations of the Indian Atman, Buddha-nature is not presented in the primary Buddha-nature sutras as an isolated essence of a particular individual, but rather as a single unified essence shared by all beings with the Buddha himself. The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra is generally accepted by Mahayana Buddhists as genuine "Buddha-word" and is not alone amongst Mahayana sutras in asserting the reality of an essential Self within each sentient being (including animals) and linking it to the Tathagatagarbha or Buddha-dhatu. As Buddhist scholar and Tibetan lama, Dr. Shenpen Hookham, writes of the Tibetan Buddhist traditions:
"Many venerable saints and scholars have argued for the Self in the past and do so in the present. Great teachers of the Tibetan Nyingma, Kagyu and Sakya schools have and do argue that such a view [i.e. the reality of an essential Self] is fundamental to the practice of the Buddhist path and the attainment of Enlightenment".

Other sutras which mention the Self in a very affirmative manner include the Lankavatara Sutra (in the "Sagathakam" chapter - e.g. "The Self characterised with purity is the state of Self-realisation; this is the Tathagata-garbha, which does not belong to the realm of the theorisers"), the Shurangama Sutra, the Mahavairocana Sutra: "Those who have been initiated into the Mahayana Mandala Arising from Great Compassion, who are honest and pliant, and who always have great compassion ... They know their hearts to be the Great Self" and the Sutra of Perfect Wisdom called The Questions of Suvikrantavikramin:

"...one who wisely knows himself (atmanam) as nondual, he wisely knows both Buddha and Dharma. And why? He develops a personality which consists of all dharmas ... His nondual comprehension comprehends all dharmas, for all dharmas are fixed on the Self in their own-being. One who wisely knows the nondual dharma wisely knows also the Buddhadharmas. From the comprehension of the nondual dharma follows the comprehension of the Buddhadharmas and from the comprehension of the Self the comprehension of everything that belongs to the triple world. 'The comprehension of Self', that is the beyond of all dharmas.

The teaching on the Self which is attributed to the Buddha in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra insists upon the True Self's ultimacy, sovereignty and immortality. The Buddha states (in the Tibetan version of the Sutra): "all phenomena (dharmas) are not non-Self: the Self is Reality (tattva), the Self is eternal (nitya), the Self is virtue (guna), the Self is everlasting (shasvata), the Self is unshakeable (dhruva), and the Self is peace (siva)." In the Chinese versions of the Sutra, the Self is also characterised as autonomous or sovereign (aishvarya).

The Mahaparinirvana Sutra specifically contrasts its doctrine of the Self with that of the Astikas in order to remove the reifying notion that the Self was a little person or homunculus, the size of a grain of rice or of one's thumb, sitting in the heart of the being, thus: "mundane [philosophers] mistakenly imagine it to be a person (puruṣa) the size of a thumb, the size of a pea or a grain of rice that dwells shining in the heart." This, the Buddha says, is a misconception of the nature of Self, for "that opinion of theirs is a mistaken opinion, one that is transmitted onwards from person to person, but it is neither beneficial nor conducive to happiness." The Self of which the Buddha speaks is said by him to be the "essential intrinsic being" (svabhava) or even "life-essence" (jivaka) of each person, and this essential being is none other than the Buddha himself - "radiantly luminous" and "as indestructible as a diamond".

Moreover, the Buddhist tantric scripture entitled Chanting the Names of Mañjusri (), as quoted by the great Tibetan Buddhist master, Dolpopa, repeatedly exalts not the non-Self but the Self and applies the following terms to this ultimate reality:

  • "the pervasive Lord" (vibhu)
  • "Buddha-Self"
  • "the beginningless Self" (anādi-ātman)
  • "the Self of Thusness" (tathatā-ātman)
  • "the Self of primordial purity" (śuddha-ātman)
  • "the Source of all"
  • "the Self pervading all"
  • "the Single Self" (eka-ātman)
  • "the Diamond Self" (vajra-ātman)
  • "the Solid Self" (ghana-ātman)
  • "the Holy, Immovable Self"
  • "the Supreme Self"

In the Ghanavyuha Sutra (as quoted by Longchenpa) this immutable, universal and salvific Buddha Essence (the True Self of the Buddha) is said to be the ground of all things, but it is viewed by fools as something changeful and impermanent, whereas in fact it is stated by the Buddha to be the very opposite of such impermanence:

"... the ultimate universal ground also has always been with the Buddha-Essence (Tathagatagarbha), and this essence in terms of the universal ground has been taught by the Tathagata. The fools who do not know it, because of their habits, see even the universal ground as (having) various happiness and suffering and actions and emotional defilements. Its nature is pure and immaculate, its qualities are as wishing-jewels; there are neither changes nor cessations. Whoever realizes it attains Liberation ...

The Buddha in the Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra insists that the Self of the Buddha (the Buddha Nature which is present in all beings) is everlasting, pure and blissful and is most definitely not transitory and impermanent:

"The Buddha-Nature is the Eternal, Bliss, the Self, and the Pure ... The Buddha-Nature is not non-Eternal, not non-Bliss, not non-Self, and not non-Purity.

The Buddha-Nature is in fact taught in such Tathagatagarbha sutras to be ultimate, conceptually inconceivable, immortal Reality. The Buddha-Nature concept remains an important doctrine in Mahayana Buddhism, especially in its Far Eastern manifestations (Buddhist Thought, Professor Paul Williams, Routledge, London 2000, p.161).

The Rimé movement of Tibet

Ringu Tulku says "There has been a great deal of heated debate in Tibet between the exponents of Rangtong, (Wylie: Rang-stong) and Shentong, (Wylie: gZhen-stong) philosophies. The historic facts of these two philosophies are well known to the Tibetologists."

Jamgon Kongtrul says about the two systems:

Madhyamika philosophies have no differences in realising as 'Shunyata', all phenomena that we experience on a relative level. They have no differences also, in reaching the meditative state where all extremes (ideas) completely dissolve. Their difference lies in the words they use to describe the Dharmata . Shentong describes the Dharmata, the mind of Buddha, as 'ultimately real'; while Rangtong philosophers fear that if it is described that way, people might understand it as the concept of 'soul' or 'Atma'. The Shentong philosopher believes that there is a more serious possibility of misunderstanding in describing the Enlightened State as 'unreal' and 'void'. Kongtrul finds the Rangtong way of presentation the best to dissolve concepts and the Shentong way the best to describe the experience."

In 2006 Khentrul Rinpoche Jamphal Lodro founded "The Tibetan Buddhist Rime Institute" in Melbourne, Australia. It aims to propagate the Rime view of harmony within all Buddhist traditions and to introduce the rare Jonang Kalachakra Tantra lineage teachings in the western world .

See also

Notes

References

  • Gethin, Rupert (1998). Foundations of Buddhism. Oxford University Press.
  • Hookham, Dr. Shenpen (tr.) (1998). The Shrimaladevi Sutra. Oxford: Longchen Foundation.
  • Page, Dr. Tony, (2003). Buddha-Self: The 'Secret' Teachings of the Buddha in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra. London, Nirvana Publications.
  • Powers, J. A. (2000). Concise Encyclopaedia of Buddhism.
  • Rawson, Philip (1991). Sacred Tibet. London, Thames and Hudson. ISBN 050081032X.
  • Suzuki, D.T., (1978). The Lankavatara Sutra, Prajna Press, Boulder.
  • Yamamoto, Kosho (tr.), Page, Dr. Tony (reviser and editor), (1999–2000) The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra in 12 volumes. London: Nirvana Publications.

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