Rong-zom-pa’s Ontological Abyss

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Rong-zom-pa’s Ontological Abyss
Citation: Wangchuk, Dorji. "Rong-zom-pa’s Ontological Abyss: Where the Positivistic Ontology of the Tathāgatagarbha School and the Negativistic Ontology of the Sarvadharmāpratiṣṭhānavāda School Meet." Critical Review for Buddhist Studies 21 (2017): 85–107.

Article Summary

With an intention to contribute a little to gaining a fuller and more accurate picture of the intellectual agenda and philosophical edifice of Rong-zom Chos-kyi-bzang-po (henceforth: Rong-zom-pa), an eleventh-century Tibetan scholar, I wish to address in this article merely one question, namely, how Rong-zom-pa interprets what we shall call the positivistic ontology of the Tathāgatagarbha school[1] while he himself undoubtedly proposes a radically negativistic ontology of a Madhyamaka sub-school called Sarvadharmāpratiṣṭhānavāda. To be sure, the word ontology is used here in the sense of the philosophical theory about the true or ultimate reality of phenomena (according to any given Buddhist system).[2] In particular, the idea that the "root-less-ness" of the mind (or, the rootless mind) is the "root" of all phenomena, or ideas similar to it, is explicit in a number of textual sources that are de-facto considered the literature of the Sarvadharmāpratiṣṭhānavāda by Rong-zom-pa.[3] (Wangchuk, prologue, 87–89)
  1. It was apparently Lambert Schmithausen who employed the term "Tathāgatagarbha school" (i.e. "Tathāgatagarbha-Schule") for the first time. See, for example, Schmithausen 1969, 167–168. In a public lecture in 1998, however, he employed the term "Tathāgatagarbha-Richtung" with the explanation that at least in India, this strand of Mahāyāna Buddhism, unlike Madhyamaka and Yogācāra, does not seem to have devolved into a bigger and independent school. See Schmithausen 1998, 2; Schmithausen 1973, 132.
  2. As a response to some points raised by the reviewers of this article, I wish to offer here some words of explanation. First, in a short article such as this, it has been impossible to either explain at length all the doctrinal backgrounds and arguments that have been presupposed by Rong-zom-pa or cite chunks of relevant Tibetan passages and critically edit and translate them. This will have to wait for another occasion. Second, insofar as every philosophical Buddhist system or sub-system would have its own conception of true reality, thereby using various terms (e.g. śūnyatā, tathatā, dharmadhātu, bhūtakoṭi, samatā, dharmatā, and so on), one can indeed speak of the ontology of any given Buddhist philosophical system, no matter whether it is positivistic or negativistic. The Sarvadharmāpratiṣṭhānavāda, too, has its own very distinct theory of true reality, which, according to Rong-zom-pa, is the "indivisibility of the two modes of reality" (bden pa gnyis dbyer med pa). In my view, the argument that because Sarvadharmāpratiṣṭhānavāda denies any (metaphysical) substratum, be it theistic or otherwise, one cannot even speak of "negativistic" ontology, for it is no ontology at all, does not hold. Such a claim is unfounded insofar as we are speaking here of a "negativistic" ontology of all saṃsāric and nirvāṇic phenomena. Third, it is true that the expression "the ontology of substratum-less-less” indeed sounds like an oxymoron, but we cannot deny that, in general, Mahāyāna sources abound in paradoxical statements, as exemplified by the idea of what are called the "eight [kinds of] profundity" (zab mo brgyad) (Mi-pham, mKhas 'jug, 238.1-241.4), which are said to be often misunderstood as contradictions, and a comprehension of them is said to be a realization (abhisamaya: mngon par rtogs pa) of a bodhisattva of the eighth stage. Fourth, one question that recurs when dealing with the Tathāgatagarbha theory is why emptiness, purity, or "substratum-less-ness" of rocks or vegetables cannot qualify to be tathāgatagarbha and why rocks and vegetables cannot become buddhas. There may be several explanations why the Tibetan tradition, to my knowledge, never came to accept that inanimate entities (such as rocks) and vegetative entities (such as plants) can become buddhas. I can think of three possible explanations. (a) They followed the Indian tradition, and as far as I am concerned, Indian Buddhism did not propose that entities such as rocks and vegetables can become buddhas. (b) Following the Tibetan (and certainly also Indian) Buddhist understanding of the trans/ultra-phenomenal reality (e.g. tathatā, śūnyatā, dharmatā, and tathāgatagarbha), it makes no sense whatsoever to speak as if there were multiple and separate śūnyatās or tathāgatagarbhas, for example, one confined to a piece of carrot and one to a rabbit. From the perspective of dharmatā, there is only one trans/ultra-phenomenal reality, although one does speak of, for example, sixteen kinds of śūnyatā merely on the basis of dhamas/dharmins. This dharma/dharmin-based distinction of the various kinds of dharmatā is said to be true also in the case of the difference between the non-essentiality of persons (pudgalanairātmya: gang zag gi bdag med pa) and non-essentiality of phenomena (dharmanairātmya: chos kyi bdag med pa). In other words, there is one dharmatā that underlies all pudgalas (e.g. rabbit) and dharmas (e.g. carrot), and whoever gains deep meditative insight into the dharmatā would become awakened. Theoretically, if a piece of rock or a piece of carrot were able to gain deep meditative insight into the dharmatā, they would become a buddha, but the Tibetan tradition (following the Indian one) did not accept the sentience of entities such as rocks and carrots, and hence for them it is ridiculous to speak of rocks or carrots becoming buddhas. (c) It appears that one of the reasons why it makes no sense to talk of the possibility of inanimate or insentient entities becoming buddhas is that the Tibetan tradition, no matter which school, seems to take one of the two kinds of Buddhist idealism as a point of departure, namely, what may be called the "idealism according to which there is no other creator (i.e. other than one's mind)" (byed pa po gzhan med pa’i sems tsam) and "idealism according to which there is no external entities" (phyi don med pa’i sems tsam). Various scholars and systems may disagree about the ontological status of the mind. That is, for some, what underlies the mind as its true reality is śūnyatā, and for others what underlies the mind as its true reality is the innate gnosis. But all would agree that the principle point of departure is the mind.
  3. See, for example, the *Guhyagarbhatantra (Wangchuk 2007, 213, n. 72): rtsa ba med pa’i sems nyid ni // chos rnams kun gyi rtsa ba yin //.

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