Image-likeness and the Tathāgatagarbha: A Reading of William of St. Thierry's Golden Epistle and the Ratnagotravibhāga

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Image-likeness and the Tathāgatagarbha: A Reading of William of St. Thierry's Golden Epistle and the Ratnagotravibhāga
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Citation: Groves, Nicholas. "Image-likeness and Tathāgatagarbha: A Reading of William of St. Thierry’s Golden Epistle and the Ratnagotravibhāga." Buddhist-Christian Studies 10 (1990): 97–117.

Article Summary

In Book 10 of his Confessions Augustine marvels as he meditates on the qualities of the memoria in human beings:


Great is the power of memory, exceeding great, O my God—an inner chamber large and boundless (penetrale amplum et infinitum)! Who has plumbed its depths? Yet it is a poer of mine, and apertains unto my nature; nor do I myself grasp all that I am (nec ego ipse capio totum, quod sum). . . . A great admiration rises upon me; astonishment seizes me. And men go forth to wonder at the heights of mountains, the huge waves of the sea, the broad flow of the rivers, the extent of the ocean, and the courses of the stars, and omit to wonder at themselves (et reliquunt se ipsos).[1]

This concern with the memoria, and its function in the human mind, was to be one of the most important spiritual legacies Augustine would leave to the Latin, and especially monastic, Middle Ages. In fact, it would be possible to say without much exaggeration that the entire history of monastic spirituality in the Latin Middle Ages (at least until approximately A.D. 1200) is the record of the development of understanding of the power of memoria.[2] A central reason for this is that memoria was described as a faculty that worked by recalling the human person to the knowledge and intuition that they were created in the image and likeness of God. Thus the words of Genesis 1:26–27 stand at the beginning of an entire spiritual tradition: "God said let us make man in our own image, in the likeness of ourselves. . . . God created man in the image of himself, in the image of God he created him, male and female he created them." Augustine frequently exhorts himself, as in Confessions 7.10, to "return to myself" (redite ad memet ipsum). This was also the continual refrain of the Cistercian author of the twelfth century, William of St. Thierry, in his Golden Epistle, and it serves as one of the themes on which he builds this work. William's treatise, folloing in the path of Augustine, is a call to discover the image and likeness of God in the individual person.
      In the presentation to follow I would like to set out two spiritual traditions for us to consider: the image-likeness tradition based on Genesis 1:26 and developed by the Latin and Greek Fathers of the Church until approximately A.D. 1200, and the tathāgatagarbha teachings on Buddha-nature in Mahayana Buddhism, which flourished in India and then spread to Tibet and other parts of the Far East in the first six centuries C.E. I shall do this bby presenting two texts: the Golden Epistle of William of St, Thierry, and the Ratnagotravibhāga (third to fifth centuries A.D.), variously attributed to Saramati or Maitreya. My thesis here is that while the language and concepts used in these two treatises are different, and the two worldviews of which they are representative also vary widely, we can find nonetheless underlying themes that express central concerns of each tradition, especially concerning the brith of a basic nature in the person, and the inability of either sin or defilements (kleśa) to cover over that nature that is coming to birth.[3] (Groves, "Image-likeness and Tathāgatagarbha," 97–98)
  1. Augustine Confessions 10.8. I am using the translation of J. G. Pilkington as given in W. J. Oates, ed., Basic Writings of Saint Augustine, 1 (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1980), p. 154. For the Latin text I am following St. Augustine's Confessions, Loeb Classical Library (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979). Augustine travelled much by land, but only twice by sea. On Augustine as traveller, see O. Perler. Les Voyages de Saint Augustin (Paris: Etudes Augustiniennes, 1969), especially pp. 25–81.
  2. The literature on Augustine and memoria is voluminous. For three significant accounts, see R. Javelet, Image et Ressemblance au Douxième Siecle: De Saint Anselme à Alain de Lille (Editions Letouzey & Ané, 1967). vol. 1, pp. 56–63 and accompanying notes in vol. 2; J. Burnaby, Amor Dei: A Study of the Religion of St. Augustine (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1938), pp. 155 ff; J. M. Le Blond, Les Conversions de Saint Augustin (Paris: Aubier, 1950), pp. 23–49.
  3. There is a very helpful discussion of some of the most basic differences between Christianity and Buddhism in chapt. 1, "Concerning the Christian Understanding of Buddhism," of W. L. King, Buddhism and Christianity: Some Bridges of Understanding (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1962), pp. 13–33. Although King writes primarily about the Theravada tradition, much of what he says is applicable to the Mahayana as well.