Bodhigarbha: Preliminary Notes on an Early Dzokchen Family of Buddha-Nature Concepts

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*Bodhigarbha: Preliminary Notes on an Early Dzokchen Family of Buddha-Nature Concepts
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Citation: Higgins, David. "*Bodhigarbha: Preliminary Notes on an Early Dzokchen Family of Buddha-Nature Concepts." In The Other Emptiness: Rethinking the Zhentong Buddhist Discourse in Tibet, edited by Michael R. Sheehy and Klaus-Dieter Mathes, 29–52. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2019.

Article Summary

It has recently been alleged by scholars of the Tibetan "Ancient" (rnying ma) tradition that although buddha-nature theory was well known in Tibet from as early as the eighth century, it played quite an insignificant role in early Nyingma exegesis.[1] I intend in this chapter to challenge this assertion by demonstrating that buddha-nature concepts played a highly significant part in Dzokchen thought during the so-called early diffusion (snga dar) period, albeit mostly in the form of autochthonous *bodhigarbha (byang chub snying po) or bodhi-nature concepts rather than their well-known Indian counterpart tathāgatagarbha[2] (de bzhin gshegs pa'i snying po), as well as the as yet unattested but virtually synonymous *sugatagarbha[3] (bde bar gshegs pa'i snying po), which are both usually translated as buddha-nature. Although this family of terms is widespread in preclassical Dzokchen exegesis and therefore of inestimable importance for understanding the early development of buddha-nature theories in Tibet, it has hitherto received no attention in contemporary Buddhist studies. In determining the reasons for the obvious predilection for this indigenous family of buddha-nature concepts from the eighth to eleventh centuries, my aim is to clarify how bodhi-nature was understood by early Dzokchen authors, why it was distinguished from mainstream Mahāyāna-based buddha-nature concepts, and how it eventually became overshadowed by these latter during the classical period (13th–14th c.) as Indian non-tantric buddha-nature theories and controversies took center stage.[4] It is hoped that this short survey of Dzokchen bodhi-nature ideas and their cultural milieu will fill some gaps in our still fragmentary understanding of the origins of Tathāgatagarbha theory in Tibet. At the very least, it will show that a decidedly affirmative indigenous current of buddha-nature teachings flourished in Tibet several centuries prior to the ascendancy of the New (gsar ma) traditions and their polemically heated debates over rangtong (rang stong) and zhentong (gzhan stong) interpretations of buddha-nature. (Higgins, "*Bodhigarbha," 29)
  1. Wangchuk, "rNiṅ-ma Interpretations" 179. "Yet even though the [buddha-nature] theory has certainly been present from early times in the rNiṅ-ma literature, it seems to have played quite an insignificant role and never gained prominence or an independent status, in the way it was conceived, for instance, in the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra." This conclusion is repeated by Almogi, Rong-zom-pa's Discourse on Buddhology 160.
  2. For a detailed discussion of the term buddha-nature, see Zimmermann 2002, 39-40.
  3. Although *sugatagarbha is not attested in Sanskrit (see Seyfort Ruegg, Traite du tathāgatagarbha 68), Wangchuk, "rNiṅ-ma Interpretations" 178 and n. 21, points out (on the basis of references provided to him by Kazuo Kano) that "the term bde gsegs shin po does occur in the Tibetan translations of the Aṅgulimāliyasūtra (P fol. 174a5; D fol. 166b2: bde gsegs sñiṅ po theg pa che las skyes) and Ghanavyūhasūtra (P fol. 62b 1; D fol. 55b 1: bde gsegs shin po dge ba'aṅ de; cf., however, Taishō 747a7) for which the Sanskrit is not extant." We may add that the term bde [bar] gshegs [pa'i] snying po occurs in a large number of Tibetan translations of Indian works. A search of the Derge Bka' 'gyur and Bstan 'gyur canons using the contraction bde gshegs snying po turned up occurrences in the following sūtras in addition to those mentioned earlier: Bhadrakalpika (D 94), Sūtrasammucayabhāṣtaratnālokālaṃkara (D 3935), Laṅkāvatāravṛttitathāgatahṛdayālaṃkāra (D 4031), and Sūtrālaṃkārapaṇḍārtha (D 4031). It is also found in twenty-two tantric works: D 453, 829, 832, 833, 834, 837 (these last four belong to the Mayājāla-Guhyagarbha cycle), 1202, 1401, 1407, 1414, 1613, 1630, 1644, 2128, 2304, 2626, 2816, 2834, 2837, 3713, 3723, and 4449. The unabbreviated bde bar gshegs pa'i snying po occurs in the following tantric works: Kaṇha's Hevajranāmamahātantrarājadvikalpamāyapañjikāsṃrtinipāda (Rgyud kyi rgyal po dgyes pa'i rdo rje zhes bya ba sgyu ma brtag pa gnyis pa'i dka 'grel dran pa'i 'byung gnas), which, however, does not contain the term buddha-nature, D 1187; Mañjuśrīnāmasaṃgītiṭīkāvimalaprabhā ( 'Jam dpal gyi mtshan yang dag par brjod pa'i grel pa dri ma medpa'i od), D 1398; Bhagavatsarvadurgatipariśodhanatejorajatathāgatāhatsamyaksaṃbuddhamahātantrarājavyākhyāsundarālamkāra (Bcom Idan 'das de bzhin gshegs pa dgra bcom pa yang dag par rdzogs pa'i sangs rgyas ngan song thams cad yongs su sbyong ba gzi brjid kyi rgyal po chen po'i rnam par bshad pa mdzes pa'i rgyan), D 2626; Vajravidāraṇānāmadhāraṇīpaṭalakramabhāṣyavṛttipradīpa (Rdo rje rnam par 'joms pa'i gzung zhes bya ba'i rim par phye ba'i rgya cher 'grel ba gsal ba'i sgron ma), D 2687; Tantrārthāvatāravyākhyāna (Rgyud kyi don la 'jug pa'i grel bshad), D 2502; Mahābalikarmakramavṛtti (Gtor ma chen po'i las kyi rim pa'i grel pa), D 3773. This is not the place for an analysis of these occurrences. It is hoped that future research may determine whether any of them can be traced to an extant Indian work containing the term *sugatagarbha.
  4. On problems of Tibetan historical periodization and a useful variant based on existing schemes, see Cuevas, "Some Reflections." For a useful doctrinal-historical periodization scheme based on developments in Tibetan Buddhist epistemology, see van der Kuijp 1989. Loosely following van der Kuijp's proposed periodization, we can distinguish (1) the Ancient (rnying ma) period (8th-9th c.) corresponding to the Early Dissemination (snga dar) and Early Translation (snga gyur) period, which witnessed a massive program of translating Indian works into Tibetan and the growth of early Tibetan monastic communities under the sponsorship of the Tibetan Empire; (2) the Preclassical period (late 10th-12th c.) corresponding to the Late Dissemination (phyi dar) and New Translation (gsar gyur) periods following the collapse of the Tibetan Imperium (and ensuing Period of Fragmentation, ca. 910-1056), which witnessed a campaign of new reformed translations of Indian Buddhist texts and the ascendency of the so-called New (gsar ma) Tibetan Buddhist schools (and their scholastic traditions) that were henceforth distinguished from the Ancients (rnying ma); (3) the Classical period (13th-14th c.), which was characterized by the expansion of the major Tibetan Buddhist schools and the consolidation and systematization of their representative doctrines and practices; and (4) the Postclassical period (15th c. onward) characterized by the intensification of intersectarian dialogue and polemicism fueled by the increasingly fractious sectarian politics as Tibetan orders vied for patronage by foreign powers (Mongols and Chinese) and domestic aristocratic clans.