On the Ratnagotravibhāga

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On the Ratnagotravibhāga
Alexander Gardner
Original content written for the Buddha-Nature Project.


The Indian treatise that this website identifies as the Ratnagotravibhāga Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra is also known by a handful of other titles in multiple languages. It is fairly common for ancient works of literature to be known by many names, especially if, like the Ratnagotravibhāga (to give it its abbreviated name), it has been translated into many languages. This essay will explain the multiple names, discuss what is known of its authorship, and briefly survey the existing recensions and translations.

The Ratnagotravibhāga Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra is one of the main sources for buddha-nature theory in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism (in China, the Awakening of Faith was of much greater importance). This article summarizes what is known about the textual tradition, author, and date of its composition and translations.

The Titles

The title Ratnagotravibhāga Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra[1] is attested in the surviving Sanskrit manuscripts. It roughly translates as “The Ultimate Teaching (uttaratantra)[2] of the Mahāyāna, A Treatise (śāstra) Analyzing (vibhāga) the Jewel (ratna) Disposition (gotra).” One surviving Sanskrit reference, Abhayākaragupta’s Munimatālaṃkāra, gives the name as Mahāyānottara: [Treatise] on the Ultimate Mahāyāna [Doctrine].[3] Western scholars only became aware of Sanskrit versions in the 1930s (see below); prior to this, they knew the text only in Chinese or Tibetan translation, and this was complicated by the fact that both the Chinese and the Tibetan traditions divide the text into two. Whereas in India the Ratnagotravibhāga was a single work comprised of root verses, explanatory verses, and prose commentary, the Chinese and Tibetan translators and commentators considered the root and explanatory verses to be one text and the complete text, including the prose commentary, to be a second. Thus not only do we have multiple names in multiple languages for the treatise but multiple names in Chinese and Tibetan for its different parts.

The Ultimate Continuum, or Gyü Lama, is often used as a short title in the Tibetan tradition for the key source text of buddha-nature teachings called the Ratnagotravibhāga of Maitreya/Asaṅga, also known as the Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra.
term page
Disposition, lineage, or class; an individual's gotra determines the type of enlightenment one is destined to attain.
term page

Takasaki & Kano

The Chinese title of the combined verses and prose is Jiu jing yi cheng bao xing lun,[4] which
, however, suspects that the yicheng 一乘 is a mistake for dacheng 大乘, or Mahāyāna.[5] If this is the case, then the title would back translate to a more familiar form (note that the Chinese does not contain the word "tantra.") In the standard edition of the Chinese canon, the extracted verses come first, after which the complete text is given (see below for references) without a new title. Both translations are credited to
in the early sixth century.[6] It is not known why he—or someone else—separated the text into two, although one might speculate that it was done to make memorization easier.

Continuum vs. Teachings

When it comes to translating the title of the text Ratnagotravibhāga Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra, often referred to simply as the Uttaratantra or rgyud bla ma in Tibetan, there is a clear discrepancy between those that render the term tantra (rgyud) as a 'teaching' or 'doctrine' and those that translate it as 'continuum'...
The Tibetan tradition names the extracted verses Theg pa chen po rgyud bla ma'i bstan bcos, which back translates into Sanskrit as Mahāyāna-uttaratantra-śāstra, and might be rendered in English as something like "Treatise on the Ultimate Mahāyāna Tantra." The complete text, however, is titled Theg pa chen po rgyud bla ma'i bstan bcos rnam par bshad pa, which reconstructs as Mahāyāna-uttaratantra-śāstra-vyākhyā, and translates to "A Commentary on the Treatise on the Ultimate Continuum of the Mahāyāna." It is important to note that the title Ratnagotravibhāgavyākhyā—or any version with "vyākhyā"—is not attested in any surviving Sanskrit manuscript. Kano has surmised that the root verses were extracted by a disciple of the Tibetan translator and given the title of the work, at which point the entire text was deemed to be a commentary and therefore given the title of "vyākhyā."[7] Note that the Tibetan tradition dispensed with the phrase "Ratnagotravibhāga" in the title;[8] it is commonly known as the Uttaratantra. Western scholars on the Ratnagotravibhāga have largely followed Tibetan tradition and divided the text in two, abbreviating the root verses as RGV and the entire text as RGVV.


The identity of the author of the Ratnagotravibhāga is not known. We have names, but the Indian, Chinese, and Tibetan traditions differ so radically that scholars have been unable to reach a consensus. The Sanskrit manuscripts found in Tibetan libraries in the 1930s do not identify an author, nor do the Chinese translations, which date to the early sixth century; only later catalogs provide a name. In brief, the Chinese tradition points to a man named Sāramati, a member of the kṣatriya clan from Central or Northern India. The later Indian and Central Asian traditions point to
as the author of the entire text, while Tibetan tradition credits the verses to the bodhisattva Maitreya and the prose commentary to
Ārya Asaṅga
.[10] The earliest Chinese attribution comes from the important treatise Mohe zhiguan 摩訶止觀, written in 594 by the Tiantai patriarch Zhiyi 智顗 (538–597), who identifies the author of the Ratnagotravibhāga as Jianyi 堅意. Two texts from the seventh century both name the author as Jianhui 堅惠.[11] Jianyi and Jianhui can both be rendered as
; yi 意 and hui 惠, which both mean "wisdom," were used at the time to render mati.[12] The issue is over the jian 堅, meaning "firm," and whether it transcribes sāra or sthira; both sthira and sāra can have the meaning of "strong" or "firm."
4th century
5th Century ~ 6th Century
475 ~ 555
In his 1950 edition of the Sanskrit text of the Ratnagotravibhāga,
asserted that the author was Sthiramati, the author of several Yogācāra-inflected commentaries on Abhidharma literature known in both China and Tibet (by the name Slob dpon blo gros brtan pa, which translates to "firm wisdom").[13] Multiple Japanese and European scholars have also taken this position.
Jonathan Silk
, however, convincingly argues against this view, although he is more careful than others, placing an asterisk before the name (*Sāramati) to indicate that it is nowhere attested in surviving Sanskrit literature. He points out that Jianyi/*Sāramati is credited with another composition, the *Mahāyānadharmadhātunirviśeṣa (Dasheng fajie wuchabie lun 大乘法界無差別論), which Silk finds to be so closely related to the Ratnagotravibhāga to assure him that they were written by the same person. (Note the asterisk, meaning that all we have is a Chinese-language version.) Additional evidence comes from a passage in Fazang's commentary to his teacher *Devendraprajña's translation of the above text, in which he gives the author's name as Jianhui and also as Suoluomodi 娑囉末底, which Fazang glosses as "firm wisdom," and which points to "sthira" rather than "sāra."[14] As
has noted, Chinese tradition after Zhiyi settled on this individual, Sāramati, as the author of the Ratnagotravibhāga.[15]
Central Asian tradition, on the other hand, credited the treatise to the bodhisattva
. The earliest surviving example of this is a fragment of a Khotanese hybrid Sanskrit discovered in the library cave at Dunhuang in the early twentieth century that quotes the "Ratnagotravibhāgaśāstra" and credits it to "the bodhisattva Ārya Maitreya." The fragment quotes both the root verses and the commentarial verses without suggesting different authorship.
dates this fragment to the 840s based on the Chinese text written on the front side of the paper.[16]
While the Central Asian and late Indian tradition of the Ratnagotravibhāga credits Maitreya as the sole author of the text, the Tibetan tradition splits the authorship of the work between Maitreya (the basic and explanatory verses) and
(prose commentary). This split dates to the very beginning of the text's history in Tibet; the colophon to
's translation credits Maitreya with the verses and Asaṅga with the prose.[17] This continued to be the Tibetan tradition and is followed by most scholars who work from the Tibetan side. A few scholars have proposed that perhaps
was given the epithet "Maitreya," which would thereby unite the Chinese and Tibetan traditions, but Kano points out that there is no evidence to support this conjecture.[18] Why Ngok gave credit to Asaṅga for the prose commentary section of the text is not yet understood. As Kano points out, the Kashmiri tradition in which Ngok trained does not appear to have ascribed authorship to Asaṅga.[19] One might speculate that a Tibetan scribe separated the verses from the prose to make a more easily memorized text; if this occurred around the time that Asaṅga's star was rising in Tibet with the translation of his Yogācāra treatises, then the scribe may have felt there would be value in linking Asaṅga's name to the Ratnagotravibhāga.

Surviving recensions of the text in Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan

There are three surviving manuscripts of the Ratnagotravibhāga in Sanskrit, all incomplete. All of these were located only in the middle of the twentieth century. The first, in eleven folios,[20] dates to the tenth or eleventh centuries. It was discovered and photographed in the library of
Ngor Monastery
Ngor Ewaṃ Choden near Shigatse in Tsang was founded in 1429 by Ngorchen Kunga Zangpo. Ngor is part of the Sakya tradition, following the same doctrinal and ritual tradition, but it maintains administrative independence from Sakya Monastery.
in the early 1930s by a Bengali scholar named
.[21] This manuscript is currently stored in the
Potala Palace
The Potala Palace, named after the mountain home of the bodhisattva Avalokiteśvara, looms high above the city of Lhasa on Marpori (red mountain) to the northwest of the Jokhang.
. A second manuscript of Nepalese provenance and dating to around the twelfth century was located at
Zhalu Monastery
Zhalu Monastery in Tsang is one of the oldest monasteries in Tibet. The Serkhang Tramo temple was built originally in 1027 by Chetsun Sherab Jungne of the Che clan, and located close to the Gyengong Lhakhang, built in 997 by Loton Dorje Wangchuk. Buton Rinchen Drub established the Ripuk hermitage in caves above the monastery and retired there. Zhalu is loosely associated with the Sakya school, maintaining its own tradition based on the Sakya and Kadam teachings of Buton.
, again by Sāṅkṛtyāyana.[22]
does not indicate where this manuscript is currently located. The third, also from Zhalu, was brought to the China Ethnic Library in Beijing sometime between the 1960s and 1990s and is now housed at the
Tibet Museum in Lhasa
. On the basis of the first two,
prepared an edited version which was published posthumously in 1950 and continues to serve as the standard (with slight corrections) Sanskrit version.
The Ratnagotravibhāga was translated into Chinese by
(Lenamoti 勒那摩提). It is preserved in the Chinese canon under the title of Jiujing yicheng baoxinglun 究竟一乘寶性論, Taishō no. 1611, vol 31. The Chinese edition is significantly different from the Sanskrit and Tibetan, suggesting that very different versions were circulating in India. The first section (lines 813a8-820c20) consists of eighteen opening verses that are not found in Sanskrit or Tibetan translation; Takasaki suggested that these were composed by the translator.[23] The treatise itself is lines 820c21-848a27 complete with root verses, commentarial verses, and prose commentary.
Ratnamati is said to have come to China from Madhyadeśa (Zhongtianzhu 中天竺) between 498 and 508 and to have translated the Ratnagotravibhāga between 511 and 520 in Luoyang.[24] He may or may not have brought the manuscript with him, and he may have been assisted by
According to Tibetan histories, the Ratnagotravibhāga was translated into Tibetan six times. Only that of
Ngok Lotsāwa Loden Sherab
(1059–1109) survives. The extracted verses are Derge 4024/Peking 5525, titled Theg pa chen po rgyud bla ma'i bstan bcos. The full text is Derge 4025/Peking 5526, under the title Theg pa chen po rgyud bla ma'i bstan bcos kyi rnam par bshad pa. There exist multiple manuscripts and prints of this full translation, many of which the Nepal-German Manuscript Preservation Project has microfilmed.[26]
Sajjana and Ngok Lotsāwa were the second team to translate the Ratnagotravibhāga; before them
Atiśa Dīpaṃkara
Naktso Lotsāwa Tsultrim Gyelwa
had done so. Translations after Ngok were made by
Patsab Lotsāwa Nyima Drakpa
Marpa Dopa Chokyi Wangchuk
Jonang Lotsawa Lodro Pel
(the basic verses only), and
Yarlung Lotsāwa
. Alongside that of Sajjana and Ngok, at least the translations by Atiśa and Naktso and by Patsab survived into the sixteenth century, as
Gö Lotsāwa Zhönu Pal
consulted them for his famous commentary.[27]

Translations into European Languages

The Ratnagotravibhāga was first translated into a European language in 1931 by the Russian Buddhologist
Eugène Obermiller
, who worked from the Tibetan. It was published under the title The Sublime Science of the Great Vehicle to Salvation, Being a Manual of Buddhist Monism. Following
's discovery of the Sanskrit manuscripts and
's edition, Japanese scholar
Takasaki Jikidō
published a second English translation, A Study on the Ratnagotravibhāga (Uttaratantra) Being a Treatise on the Tathāgatagarbha Theory of Mahāyāna Buddhism. He worked primarily from the Sanskrit, but he also consulted the Chinese and Tibetan translations.
Katia Holmes
, students of
Thrangu Rinpoche
(b. 1933), translated the basic verses from the Tibetan in the 1970s, publishing it first in 1979 as The Changeless Nature,[28] which they revised in 1989 as The Uttara Tantra: A Treatise on Buddha Nature[29] and again in 1999 as Maitreya on Buddha Nature.[30] In 2014
Karl Brunnhölzl
translated the Ratnagotravibhāga from the Tibetan in When the Clouds Part.[31] Christian Charrier and Patrick Carré translated the Ratnagotravibhāga into French in 2019, together with Jamgon Kongtrul's commentary, in Traité de la Continuité suprême du Grand Véhicule.

Further reading: Outline of Western Scholarship on Buddha-Nature

Scholars of Buddhism writing in European languages have celebrated, derided, and frequently misinterpreted the doctrine of tathāgatagarbha for well over a hundred years. While some have seen it as a crucial theoretical step to explain how deluded, impure sentient beings can become buddhas, others have dismissed the entire idea as non-Buddhist. Following Chinese and Tibetan scholiasts, Western scholars have labeled tathāgatagarbha as either Yogācāra or Madhyamaka, although most now understand that the doctrine arose independently of either of these main Mahāyāna schools...
  1. According to the Sanskrit grammatical rules associated with sandhi, the word boundaries of the “a” of Mahāyāna and the “u” of Uttaratantra combine as “o.” The title could just as easily be rendered “Mahāyāna Uttaratantra Śāstra.”
  2. See the more detailed discussion of the translation of this term here.
  3. Kano, Buddha-Nature and Emptiness, 27, note #41.
  4. 究竟一乘寶性論
  5. Kano, Buddha-Nature and Emptiness, 27 note #40.
  6. This date is not universally accepted. See Kano, Buddha-Nature and Emptiness, 20-21.
  7. Kano, Buddha-Nature and Emptiness, 18
  8. This only refers to the main bibliographical title of the work. However, the phrase "ratnagotravibhāga", translated as dkon mchog gi rigs rnam par dbye ba , does appear in the Tibetan translation, though only when the full title of the work is repeated at the end of each chapter.
  9. This section is based on the scholarship of Silk, Buddhist Cosmic Unity, appendix A; Kano, Buddha-Nature and Emptiness, 20-31; Takasaki, A Study on the Ratnagotravibhāga, 6-9; Brunnhölzl, When the Clouds Part, 94. For a chart of modern scholars' positions on the authorship of the Ratnagotravibhāga, see Kano, Buddha-Nature and Emptiness, 29.
  10. It should be noted that in contemporary Tibetan monastic circles some scholars have suggested that the commentary section of the Ratnagotravibhāga might have been composed by Asaṅga's brother Vasubandhu. This claim was also put forth by Japanese scholar Nakamura Zuiryū in 1961. See Kano, Buddha-Nature and Emptiness, 20-31. However, Kano considers the assertion to be "weak on evidence."
  11. These are a commentary on the Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra (Jieshenmi jingshu 解深密經疏) by the Korean monk Wǒnch'ǔk 圓測 (613-696) and the Huayan patriarch Fazang's 法藏 (643–712) treatise Dacheng fajie wuchabie lunshu 大乘法界無差別論疏. Kano, Buddha-Nature and Emptiness, 22.
  12. Kano, Buddha-Nature and Emptiness, 22
  13. Silk (Buddhist Cosmic Unity, 150) points out that in China, Sthiramati's name was usually translated as Anhui 安慧 and transliterated (in contemporary pronunciation) as either xichiluomodi 悉恥羅末底 or xidiluomodi 悉地羅末底. Pronunciation of Chinese characters has changed radically over the centuries, and while scholars have made valiant attempts at reconstructing previous pronunciations, it is an imperfect art.
  14. Silk, Buddhist Cosmic Unity, 152-153.
  15. Kano, Buddha-Nature and Emptiness, 24.
  16. Kano, Buddha-Nature and Emptiness, 25. Kano also suggests (page 27) that this text was unlikely to have had any impact on the Tibetan tradition of the treatise, as Tibetans universally name the text Mahāyānottaratantra. He also points to the curious fact that Devendraprajñā, the translator of the *Mahāyānadharmadhātunirviśeṣa, was himself Khotanese and yet ascribed both that text and the Ratnagotravibhāga to Sāramati rather than Maitreya.
  17. Kano, Buddha-Nature and Emptiness, 28.
  18. Kano, Buddha-Nature and Emptiness, 30.
  19. Kano, Buddha-Nature and Emptiness, 28.
  20. These are folios 7, 9, 12, 13, 15, 16, 17, 19, 20, 25, and 26.
  21. Sāṅkṛtyāyana, Sanskrit Palm-leaf Mss. in Tibet, 33. The great twentieth-century Tibetan scholar Gendun Chopel noted the existence of this manuscript in 1934. See Jinpa and Lopez, Grains of Gold, 42.
  22. Sāṅkṛtyāyana, "Second Search of Sanskrit Palm-leaf Mss. in Tibet," 34; Sferra, "Sanskrit Manuscripts and Photographs of Sanskrit Manuscripts," 47.
  23. Takasaki, A Study on the Ratnagotravibhāga, 9-14.
  24. Kano, Buddha-Nature and Emptiness, 21.
  25. Silk, Buddhist Cosmic Unity, 7-8.
  26. See Kano, Buddha-Nature and Emptiness, 19 note #4; he points out that these have yet to be studied.
  27. See Kano, Buddha-Nature and Emptiness Chapter 6 for a survey of these six translations, including surviving passages of the five that have been lost.
  28. Maitreya, The Changeless Nature, 1979.
  29. Maitreya, The Uttara Tantra: A Treatise on Buddha Nature.
  30. Maitreya, Maitreya on Buddha Nature.
  31. Brunnhölzl, When the Clouds Part.