The Uttaratantra in the Land of Snows-Review by Sur
Philosophical discourse on Buddhist soteriology––theoretically coherent ways of talking, writing, and thinking about how to transcend suffering––is structured around the metaphor of “the path” on which a person may move along a spiritual trajectory that is, in the end, removed from the otherwise unavoidable suffering of conditioned existence. Within the Mahāyāna tradition of Buddhism, “practicing the Buddhist path” means changing from an ordinary person naturally mired in suffering into an enlightened buddha, a being composed of perfect wisdom and compassion. At the heart of this idea is a paradox playing an important role in Buddhist intellectual history: if an ordinary being is conditioned by nature, and this conditioning constitutes a state of suffering, how is it that this conditioned state of bondage can transform into the unconditioned state of freedom and enlightenment of a buddha? Resolving the apparent contradiction at the heart of this essential Buddhist teaching is “buddha-nature,” a term used to describe the basic potential said to be inherent within all beings. It is our buddha-nature, then, that makes it possible to be transformed by the path from an ordinary person into an enlightened buddha.
Within Buddhist intellectual culture, philosophers have made good use of the ambiguities connected the concept of buddha-nature to foster one of the most important sites of philosophical discourse within the Buddhist religion. The premium on rational coherence in Buddhist philosophy means interested theorists must consider whether, and to what degree, over-emphasis on the distinction between the unenlightened being and the enlightened buddha evinces a unbridgeable gap; or whether over-emphasis on the immanence of enlightenment within an ordinary being—often spoken of in genealogical or genetic terms––collapses the foundational path/fruition distinction thus rendering the notion of the path meaningless. These issues have been central to Mahāyāna for more than one thousand years; and they form the backdrop to Tsering Wangchuk’s recently published study of the Tibetan reception and interpretation of one seminal Indian Mahāyāna Buddhist treatise on the topic, The Uttaratantra in the Land of Snows: Tibetan Thinkers Debate the Centrality of the Buddha-Nature Treatise.