RṄog Blo ldan śes rab's Position on the Buddha-nature Doctrine and its Influence on the Early gSaṅ phu Tradition

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RṄog Blo ldan śes rab's Position on the Buddha-nature Doctrine and its Influence on the Early gSaṅ phu Tradition
Citation: Kano, Kazuo. "rṄog Blo ldan śes rab's Position on the Buddha-Nature Doctrine and Its Influence on the Early gSaṅ phu Tradition." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 32, no. 1-2 (2010): 249–83.

Article Summary

The teaching that all sentient beings have Buddha-nature (tathāgatagarbha) was first proclaimed in the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra. Developed in a series of Mahāyāna sūtras, such as the Śrīmālādevīsūtra and Anūnatvāpūrṇatvanirdeśasūtra, it was then systematized in the Ratnagotravibhāga (abbr. RGV), alias Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra. The core idea of the RGV’s teaching is that everyone possesses Buddha-nature. The latter does not change throughout the progression from the level of ordinary beings to that of a Buddha, it is merely purified through the separation from adventitious defilements. Once this purification is complete, awakening is accomplished.
      Both Indian and Tibetan traditions struggled with the question of the ontological status of Buddha-nature. One finds indeed in some sūtras descriptions of Buddha-nature as permanent and pervading every sentient being, which are also characteristics ascribed by non-Buddhists to the Self (ātman). But if Buddha-nature were to be understood as a permanent entity akin to a Self, how could this teaching be compatible with the standard Buddhist doctrine that everything is impermanent and selfless?
      Some Mahāyāna sūtras, such as the Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, would offer support for the assimilation of Buddha-nature with a Self. The Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra is quite explicit in associating the two notions, characterizing in particular the dharmakāya in terms of “perfection of Self” (ātmapāramitā), but warns about the confusion of the “correct” ātman, which is Buddha-nature, with ātman taken in its ordinary sense.[1]
      RGV I.37 and RGVV also speak of the “perfection of Self” as an epithet of the dharmakāya, interpreting however this notion of “Self” (ātman) in the sense of selflessness (nairātmya) or quiescence of conceptual proliferations (prapañca), thus distinguishing Buddha-nature from the notion of a personal, permanent Self (ātman).[2]
      Nevertheless, the RGV does not promote the doctrine of emptiness in the sense that everything is ultimately empty of intrinsic nature. Quite on the contrary, the RGV stresses the real existence of Buddha-nature, and proclaims the superiority of the Buddha-nature doctrine to the emptiness doctrine of the Prajñāpāramitāsūtras.[3]
      The RGV thus on the one hand distinguishes Buddha-nature from the disapproved view of a Self, while on the other hand it admits Buddha-nature as ultimately existent[4]—an ambiguous viewpoint, and a challenging one for its interpreters. . . .
      The present paper deals with a selection of rṄog’s most significant views on the doctrine of Buddha-nature and considers some reactions to his interpretations in the works of his followers. Since the RGV commentaries attributed to two of rṄog’s "four main [spiritual] sons" (sras kyi thu bo bźi), Źaṅ Tshes spoṅ ba Chos kyi bla ma and Gro luṅ pa Blo gros byuṅ gnas,[5] as yet remain to be found[6] we will concentrate on the next-earliest available work, a commentary by Phywa pa Chos kyi seṅ ge (1109–1169) [7] (Kano, introduction, 249–55)
  1. The Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra equates ātman with Buddha-nature (see P 788 tu 105b5 [≈T vol. 12, 407b; 883b]: bdag ces bya ba ni de bźin gśegs paʼi sñiṅ poʼi don to //) and characterizes the dharmakāya (that is, the resultant aspect of Buddha-nature; see below [i]) in terms of “perfection of permanence” (nityapāramitā), “perfection of bliss” (sukhapāramitā), “perfection of Self (ātmapāramitā), and "perfection of purity" (śubhapāramitā) (see P 788 tu 33b3–34a2 [≈T vol. 12, 377c-378a; 862b]).
  2. RGVV 31, 13–16: tathāgatas tua punar yathābhūtajñānena sarvadharmanairātmya-parapāramiprāptaḥb / tac cāsya nairātmyam anātmalakṣaṇena yathādarśanam avisaṃvāditatvātc sarvakālam ātmābhipreto nairātmyam evātmetid kṛtvā / yathoktaṃ sthito ʼsthānayogeneti /
    (a Schmithausen [1971: 143] corrected tathāgataḥ to tathāgatas tu; b Johnston xvi; c Schmithausen [1971: 143] corrected avisaṃvāditvāt to avisaṃvāditatvāt;d Schmithausen [1971: 143] corrected evātmani to evātmeti)
    RGVV 32,9–10: prajñāpāramitābhāvanayākāśopamasattvabhājanalokanairātmya- niṣṭhāgamanād.
    See also RGVV 33,8–10: tām eva cāvidyāvāsabhūmiṃ pratītya sūkṣmanimittaprapañca- samudācārayogād atyantam anabhisaṃskārām ātmapāramitāṃ nādhigacchanti.
    Schmithausen (1971: 143–144 and 1973: 135) links this sentence to the Madhyamaka view. For instance, the Madhyamakahṛdaya (III.284cd) similarly defines dharmakāya as quiescence of conceptual proliferations (buddhānāṃ dharmakāyo ʼyaṃ prapañcopaśamaḥ śivaḥ).
  3. The alternative title of the RGV, mahāyānottaratantra “supreme doctrine of the Mahāyāna," hints to the superiority of the Buddha-nature doctrine to the emptiness doctrine. Cf. RGV I.160: pūrvam evaṃ vyavasthāpya tantre punar ihottare / pañcadoṣaprahāṇāya dhātvastitvaṃ prakāśitam /
  4. Cf. RGV I.53, I.165; RGVV 2,11–13.
  5. The other two are Khyuṅ rin chen grags and ʼBre śes rab ʼbar. Cf. bKaʼ gdams chos ʼbyuṅ gsal baʼi sgron me, 151.
  6. Both A khu Chiṅ Śes rab rgya mtsho and gŹon nu dpal ascribe RGV commentaries to these two authors. (Cf. respectively Tho yig, nos. 11333 and 11339, and rGyud bla me loṅ, 4,23, 574,5.) gŹon nu dpal also lists RGV commentaries by Chos kyi bla ma’s disciple Ñaṅ braṅ pa Chos kyi ye śes (12th century); Phywa pa’s disciple gTsaṅ nag pa brTson ʼgrus seṅ ge (12th century); and Dan ʼbag sMra baʼi seṅ ge (12th century). See gŹon nu dpal, rGyud bla me loṅ, 4,23–24. A khu Chiṅ Śes rab rgya mtsho most likely copied gŹon nu dpal’s references (see Tho yig nos. 11331, 11334, 11335).
  7. Phywa pa authored a RGV commentary and a topical outline of RGV (based on rṄog’s topical outline), both of which were found recently at gNas bcu lha khaṅ of ʼBras spuṅs Monastery and published in 2006 in the bKaʼ gdams gsuṅ ʼbum. See Theg pa chen po rgyud bla maʼi bstan bcos kyi tshig daṅ don gyi cha rgya cher bsñad pa phra baʼi don gsal ba (abbr. rGyud bla don gsal), vol. 7, pp. 163–345; Theg pa chen po rgyud bla maʼi bsdus paʼi don, vol. 7, pp. 145–156. The authorship of the rGyud bla don gsal is confirmed on the basis of (a) the colophon of the manuscript that states “composed by the monk Chos kyi seṅ ge” (see Phywa pa, rGyud bla don gsal, 93a3: theg pa chen po rgyud bla maʼi bstan bcos kyi tshig daṅ don gyi cha rgya cher bsñad pa phra baʼi don gsal ba źes bya ba / / śa kyaʼi dge sloṅ chos kyi bla maʼi źabs kyi rdul phyi bos nod pa dge sloṅ chos kyi seṅ ges ñe bar sbyar ba rdzogs s.hyō / /) and (b) a citation nominally attributed to Phywa pa in Blo gros mtshuṅs med’s RGV commentary (see Kano 2007: 109, n. 75).