Can all Beings Potentially Attain Awakening? Gotra-theory in the Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra

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Can All Beings Potentially Attain Awakening? Gotra-theory in the Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra

Citation: D'Amato, Mario. "Can All Beings Potentially Attain Awakening? Gotra-theory in the Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra." Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 26, no. 1 (2003): 115–38.

Article Summary

The Mahāyāna has sometimes been associated with the doctrine that all sentient beings will attain complete awakening, a doctrine which is often linked to some conception of the "embryo of the Tathāgata (tathāgatagarbha)[1]. However, according to an alternate Mahāyāna doctrine, only some sentient beings will attain the complete awakening of a buddha — and some may even be excluded from attaining any form of awakening at all. In this paper, I will examine just such a doctrine, as it is found in an Indian Yogācāra treatise, the Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra ("Ornament to the Mahāyāna Sūtras"; abbr., MSA), a Sanskrit verse-text, and its prose commentary, the Mahāyānasūtrālaṃkāra-bhāṣya (MSABh),[2]. Particular Tibetan and Chinese sources attribute the composition of the MSA to the bodhisattva Maitreya[3], which gives us some indication of the importance this text was understood to have within certain traditions. Nevertheless, the authorship and date of the verse-text and its commentary are not certain; I hypothesize that the MSA/Bh may be dated to the fourth century CE (perhaps c. 350 CE)[4]. It is my hope that an examination of such a source may contribute to the study of the various ways in which the contours of the Mahāyāna have been drawn from a doctrinal perspective. In the MSA/Bh, one way in which the limits of the Mahāyāna are defined is through the employment of the gotra-theory, a theory which identifies the soteriological potentialities of individuals through reference to their spiritual "family" or "lineage." So in order to understand this text's discursive construction of the category "Mahāyāna," we must understand its concept of gotra. (D'Amato, "Can All Beings Potentially Gain Awakening," 115–16)


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  1. A concise introduction to this doctrine, and the Mahāyāna sūtras to which it is related, may be found in Williams 1989, Chapter 5
  2. When referring to both the verse-text and the prose commentary together, I will use the abbreviation MSA/Bh. By the term "the text" I mean the MSA and the MSABh taken together, by "the verse-text" I mean the MSA, and by "the commentary" I mean the MSABh. Throughout this paper, for the Sanskrit I will quote from Lévi’s edition of the MSA/Bh (1907); I have also consulted the editions of Bagchi (1970; based on Lévi’s edition) and Funahashi (1985; select chapters based on mss. from Nepal). All translations are my own. The Tibetan canon contains the following relevant works: the MSA (verse-text): DT 4020; the MSA/Bh (verse-text along with prose commentary): DT 4026; the MSAVBh (Sthiramati’s subcommentary to the text): DT 4034; and the MSAT (Asvabhāva’s subcommentary to the text): DT 4029. The MSA/Bh also appears in the Chinese canon (Taisho 1604), although with some differences from the Sanskrit version; on this, see Nagao 1961: vi.
  3. The colophon of the Derge edition of the MSA states that the verse-text was composed by Maitreya. Bu ston (1290-1364) includes the MSA as one of the five Maitreya texts; see Obermiller 1987: 53-54. Ui (1928: 221) identifies a Chinese tradition of the “five treatises of Maitreya,” which differs from the Tibetan list of texts, but which also includes the MSA. Xuanzang (seventh century CE) writes that Asanga received the MSA and other texts from Maitreya; see Beal 1906, vol. 1: 226.
  4. My working hypothesis is that earlier strata of the MSA were compiled, redacted, added to, and commented upon by one person, and I take the result of this process to be the received text of the MSA/Bh. An extended introduction to the MSA/Bh — its editions and translations, structure and contents, authorship, date, and relation to a larger corpus of texts — may be found in Chapter 2 of my PhD dissertation (D’Amato 2000).