Buddha-nature, Critical Buddhism, and Early Chan

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Buddha-nature, Critical Buddhism, and Early Chan
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Citation: Sharf, Robert. "Buddha-nature, Critical Buddhism, and Early Chan." Critical Review for Buddhist Studies 22 (2017): 105–50.

Abstract

This article begins with a reflection on why medieval Chinese Buddhist thought has not been more conspicuous in recent comparative work on Buddhism and Western philosophy. The Japanese proponents of "Critical Buddhism" (hihan bukkyō 批判仏教), Matsumoto Shirō 松本史朗 and Hakamaya Noriaki 袴谷憲昭, would see this neglect as merited since, in their view, East Asian Buddhism in general, and Chinese Chan in particular, is philosophically crippled owing to its embrace of tathāgatagarbha and buddha-nature thought. Indeed, Matsumoto singles out Shenhui 荷澤神會 (670-762), one of the architects of the Southern School of Chan, as an example of the early Chan advocacy of buddha-nature doctrine.
      This article is not concerned with whether buddha-nature and tathāgatagarbha thought is actually deleterious to critical philosophical work. Rather, the concern is to demonstrate that, far from embracing buddha-nature doctrine, the eighth-century founders of Southern Chan had serious concerns with it. Evidence for this is found in: (1) the writings of Shenhui, notably in his opposition to the doctrine of the "buddha-nature of insentient objects" (wuqing foxing 無情佛性); and (2) the Platform Scripture of the Sixth Patriarch (Liuzu tanjing 六祖壇經), particularly in the variant versions of Huineng's famous "enlightenment verse." Thus the Southern School may be viewed as a forerunner of the Critical Buddhist anti-dhātuvāda polemics. The article closes with comments on the ongoing problems Chinese Buddhist exegetes had in marrying the metaphysical monism of Yogācāra and tathāgatagarbha teachings with the anti-foundationalist thrust of Madhyamaka and Prajñāpāramitā literature.