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'phags pa lang kar gshegs pa'i theg pa chen po'i mdo
Descent into Laṅka Sūtra

An important Mahāyāna sūtra that was highly influential in East Asia as well as in Nepal, where a manuscript was discovered that remains the only extant Sanskrit recension of this text. It is notable for its inclusion of many doctrinal features that would come to be associated with the Yogācāra philosophy of Mind-Only (Cittamātra), such as the ālayavijñāna, or store-house consciousness, that acts as a repository for the seeds of karmic actions. It also includes several lengthy discussions of tathāgatagarbha and, though it is never actually referenced in the Uttaratantra, it is often listed among the so-called tathāgatagarbha sūtras. While its lack of mention in the Uttaratantra has been interpreted by scholars as evidence that the sūtra postdates the treatise, it should be noted that the ways in which the tathāgatagarbha is discussed in the sūtra is often at odds with its presentation in the Uttaratantra.

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Description from When the Clouds Part

It seems that most modern scholars agree that this sūtra originated later than the Uttaratantra and RGVV, which would explain why it is not quoted or referred to in these texts.[1] This may be supported by the date 420 Ce of the earliest Chinese translation of the sūtra (which is now lost) as well as its not being explicitly quoted by name in Indian texts before the time of Sthiramati and Dharmapāla (if one disregards the attribution of the Sūtrasamuccaya to Nāgārjuna, which contains four quotes from the Laṅkāvatārasūtra, mentioning it by name). On the other hand, Lindtner (1992) pointed out a number of close textual relationships between this sūtra and early Madhyamaka texts by Nāgārjuna and Āryadeva. In any case, that this sūtra is not mentioned in the Uttaratantra and RGVV[2] is not necessarily due to its possible later origin. Its equation of tathāgatagarbha with emptiness and the ālaya-consciousness, as well as its statement that tathāgatagarbha is taught only for the sake of removing fear of emptiness and attracting non-Buddhists, clearly do not accord with the position of the Uttaratantra and RGVV and are reason enough for these texts not to refer to it. This very issue also seems to be responsible for the Laṅkāvatārasūtra ’s not being included in any of the above lists of tathāgatagarbha sūtras despite its detailed discussions of the notion of tathāgatagarbha.

      The entire Laṅkāvatārasūtra consists of a dialogue between the Buddha and the bodhisattva Mahāmati. Though this sūtra is not mentioned in the Uttaratantra, RGVV, or the above lists of tathāgatagarbha sūtras (except for Mipham’s Synopsis, but only in a very limited sense), it discusses the teachings on tathāgatagarbha in great detail. However, in accordance with its generally heterogeneous nature of saying different things in different places, the Laṅkāvatārasūtra uses the term tathāgatagarbha in a number of very different ways. For example, the text speaks several times of tathāgatagarbha as being the sphere of the personally experienced wisdom of the noble ones. Tathāgatagarbha is also equated with suchness and the perfect nature (pariniṣpanna):

Mahāmati, what is the perfect nature here? It is as follows. It is
the sphere of the personally experienced wisdom of the noble ones, the
attainment of the realization of suchness by the wisdom of the noble
ones, which is free from conceptions about the characteristics of causal
features, names, and entities. Mahāmati, the perfect nature is the very
heart of the tathāgata heart.[3]

      The tenth chapter equates tathāgatagarbha with naturally luminous mind and, similar to the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra, uses the examples of gold in gold ore and a stained cloth for the tathāgata heart’s being obscured by adventitious stains. Like most of the above sūtras, it even equates tathāgatagarbha with the true self, which is clearly distinguished from the self of the tīrthikas and even outshines the lack of self:

The dialecticians who are confused in the thicket
Of consciousness, lack the proper doctrine,
And wish to propound a self
Just keep running here and there.

The self to be realized in one’s personal experience
Has the characteristic of purity.
This tathāgata heart
Is not the sphere of dialecticians.
.. .
The ālaya that is held to be like this heart
Is described by the tīrthikas
As being associated with a self,
But that is not what the dharmas [of the buddhas] proclaim.

Through distinguishing these [two selves],
Liberation and reality are seen
And the afflictions to be relinquished
Through seeing and familiarization are purified.

Naturally luminous mind
Is the pure tathāgata heart,
But this appropriation of sentient beings
Is free from limit and nonlimit.

The color of gold and the pure gold
In gravel become visible
Through cleansing it—so it is with the ālaya
Of the skandhas in a sentient being.[4]

Buddha is neither a person
Nor the skandhas but uncontaminated wisdom.
Having familiarized with it, it is always peacefulness—
In it, I take my refuge.

That mind’s natural luminosity
Is associated with mentation and so on,
Afflictions, and a self
Is what the supreme speaker has taught.
.. .
The naturally luminous self
Is afflicted by beginningless
Adventitious afflictions and is purified
Like a garment [from the dirt it] possesses.

Just as a garment becoming stainless
And gold becoming free from flaws
Remain and are not destroyed,
So this self is without any flaws.[5]

      The verses that follow these provide a number of examples for this tathāgata heart—the true self as opposed to the mistaken notion of a personal self— not being seen in the skandhas by the ignorant (similar to a woman’s not seeing her own womb, jewels in the earth, or the healing essence of a medicinal plant). This passage of the sūtra concludes with praising the true self and strongly criticizing the view that there is no such self:

If the self does not exist, there are no
Bhūmis, masteries, supernatural knowledges,
No unsurpassable empowerments,
And no special samādhis.

Unspeakable are those who speak of the lack of the self
They separate themselves from the activities of bhikṣus,
Harm the dharmas of the Buddha,
And entertain views about existence and nonexistence.

This pronouncement of the self blazes
Like the fire at the end of time,
Consumes the jungle of the lack of the self,
And is liberated from the flaws of the tīrthikas.[6]

      In that vein and similar to the Śrīmālādevīsūtra, the Laṅkāvatārasūtra also uses the distinct term "a mind distracted from/by emptiness" (śūnyatāvikṣiptamati):

Mahāmati, it is the tathāgata heart, which is the cause of nirvāṇa, happiness, and suffering, that circles in saṃsāra. Naive ordinary beings whose minds are distracted by emptiness do not understand this.[7]

      The sūtra also says that tathāgatagarbha is the primordially pure luminosity that possesses all the major marks of a buddha and always dwells immutably within all sentient beings, similar to a gem wrapped in a dirty cloth:

Then, the bodhisattva mahāsattva Mahāmati said the following to the Bhagavān: "The Bhagavān taught the tathāgata heart in the discourses of the sūtra collection. You stated that, by virtue of the purity of natural luminosity, it is primordially pure, endowed with the thirty-two major marks, and hidden within the bodies of all sentient beings. The Bhagavān declared that, just like a gem of great value wrapped in a stained cloth, it is wrapped up in the cloth of the skandhas, dhātus, and āyatanas, is tainted by the stains of desire, hatred, ignorance, and false imagination[8] [but] is permanent, eternal, peaceful, and everlasting."[9]

      The Laṅkāvatārasūtra uses several synonyms for tathāgatagarbha, such as "buddha disposition" and "tathāgata disposition." This disposition is described as not only being free from all eight consciousnesses but also free from the essential teachings to be cultivated on the path, such as the three natures and twofold identitylessness. At the same time, it is adorned with all kinds of qualities, such as supernatural knowledges, samādhis, and powers:

Mind, twofold identitylessness,
Mentation, consciousness,
The [three] natures, and the five dharmas[10]
Do not exist in my disposition.

What is free from the characteristics of mind,
Without consciousness and mentation,
And lacks the dharmas and natures
Is the tathāgata disposition.

.. .
What is adorned by supernatural knowledges,
Faculties, samādhis, and powers
And endowed with all kinds of mental bodies
Is the pure tathāgata disposition.

Stainless personal experience
And free from causal features—
The eighth bhūmi and the buddhabhūmi
Are the tathāgata disposition.[11]

      Likewise, the ninth and tenth bhūmis are also said to represent the tathāgata disposition.[12] In addition, the Laṅkāvatārasūtra clearly and repeatedly affirms that there is only a single yāna—the one to buddhahood. Obviously, all of this is very much in line with what other tathāgatagarbha sūtras teach and also resembles the examples used in the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra.

      On the other hand, the Buddha explicitly states in the Laṅkāvatārasūtra that what all sūtras of all buddhas teach is nothing but emptiness, nonarising, nonduality, and the lack of nature.[13] In addition, the sūtra often discusses these topics as well as the notion of identitylessness in detail. Clearly, this does not accord with the above passages in the same sūtra, or with statements in other tathāgatagarbha sūtras. It corresponds rather to the well-known passages in the Samādhirājasūtra and the Akṣayamatinirdeśasūtra about which sūtras are of definitive meaning, namely, those that teach emptiness and its equivalents,[14] which were followed by all Mādhyamikas. Given this discrepancy, Mahāmati of course asks how the Buddha’s above teachings on tathāgatagarbha (which is even explicitly called "the self") are different from the ātman of the Hindus:

In that case, Bhagavan, isn’t the doctrine of the tathāgata heart similar to the doctrine of the self of the tīrthikas? Bhagavan, the tīrthikas too teach the doctrine of the self, which is a permanent creator, without qualities, all-pervasive, and imperishable.[15]

      In his answer, the Buddha declares that tathāgatagarbha is not like the ātman and that it actually is another word for emptiness. It was taught for the sake of preventing fear of emptiness in certain people and as a means to expediently guide non-Buddhists into the Buddhist teachings:

The Bhagavān said, "Mahāmati, my instruction on the tathāgata heart is not similar to the doctrine of the self of the tīrthikas. Rather, Mahāmati, the tathāgatas give the instruction on the tathāgata heart as bearing the meaning of words such as emptiness, true end, nirvāṇa, nonarising, signlessness, and wishlessness.[16] Thus, for the sake of relinquishing what makes naive beings afraid of the lack of a self, the tathāgata arhats, the completely perfect buddhas, teach the sphere of nonconceptuality and nonappearance through the introductory instruction on the tathāgata heart.
Now, Mahāmati, future and present bodhisattva mahāsattvas should not cling to the self. Mahāmati, a potter makes various containers from a single lump of clay of one sort with his hands, artistic skill, a stick, water, and a rope. Mahāmati, likewise, through all kinds of forms of prajñā and skill in means, the tathāgatas [teach] phenomenal identitylessness, in which all characteristics of conceptions have terminated, either through the instruction on the [tathāgata] heart or through the instruction on identitylessness. Just like a potter, they teach it through all kinds of words, expressions, and synonyms. For that reason, Mahāmati, the instruction on the tathāgata heart is not the same as the instruction on the doctrine of the self of the tīrthikas.
Thus, Mahāmati, the tathāgatas teach the instruction on the tathāgata heart through teaching the tathāgata heart in order to attract the tīrthikas, who cling to the doctrine of the self. So how may those whose thinking falls into the views of conceiving an incorrect self and those who succumb to falling into the sphere of three [kinds of] liberation[17] swiftly awaken to unsurpassable and completely perfect awakening? Mahāmati, it is for their sake that the tathāgata arhats, the completely perfect buddhas, give the instruction on the tathāgata heart. Therefore, this is not similar to the doctrine of a self of the tīrthikas. Consequently, in order to put an end to the views of the tīrthikas, they need to become followers of the heart of nonself of a tathāgata (tathāgatanairātmyagarbha)."[18]

      Thus, here the Laṅkāvatārasūtra seems to present the teachings on tathāgatagarbha as a provisional means, while in reality tathāgatagarbha means nothing other than emptiness and identitylessness. Though other tathāgatagarbha sūtras such as the Śrīmālādevīsūtra and the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra also say that buddha nature should not be mistaken for the ātman, the thrust of their statements appears to be completely different from what is said here. For both these sūtras teach that the characteristic or pāramitā of self is a true feature or equivalent of the tathāgata heart, and the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra even says that the lack of a self or identitylessness is merely a means to refute the tīrthikas. The Laṅkāvatārasūtra here seems to proclaim the reverse—the teachings on buddha nature are a means to alleviate the fear of emptiness found in non-Buddhists and to indirectly introduce them to the definitive meaning that is emptiness and the lack of a self. Obviously, these statements played a significant role for the later reception of the buddha nature teaching in India, such as its integration as a provisional instruction into the Madhyamaka tradition. This provided a basis for Indian and Tibetan Madhyamaka interpretations that the tathāgatagarbha teachings are of expedient meaning.

      However, this section in the Laṅkāvatārasūtra must be read in conjunction with the sūtra’s above strong statements about the tathāgata heart’s being the true self (as opposed to the wrong notion of a self entertained by the tīrthikas), which can be realized only by "those whose minds are not distracted by emptiness" (that is, by a nihilistic misunderstanding of emptiness rather than understanding the true emptiness that is the tathāgata heart) and those who do not hold the view of the lack of such a self. It is also highly significant that the above section says that "all characteristics of conceptions have terminated, either through the instruction on the [tathāgata] heart or through the instruction on identitylessness," which clearly shows that the instruction on tathāgatagarbha is naturally understood as an approach that is as nonreifying as the instruction on identitylessness or emptiness. Equally significant in that regard is the use of the term "the heart of nonself of a tathāgata," which explicitly combines or unites both notions. In addition, the Laṅkāvatārasūtra ’s passage below that summarizes its approach to tathāgatagarbha says that it is the object of the tathāgatas and was explained for Śrīmālādevī in order to teach phenomenal identitylessness to the śrāvakas. However, in itself, it is not the object of śrāvakas, pratyekabuddhas, and tīrthikas, who cling to the teachings in a literal manner, but the object only of great bodhisattvas with subtle and sharp intelligence, who rely on the meaning rather than the words. All of this suggests that the teachings on tathāgatagarbha and the teachings on emptiness or identitylessness are understood in the Laṅkāvatārasūtra as actually being fully equivalent rather than the former’s being a provisional and preliminary introduction to the latter. Indeed, as other tathāgatagarbha sūtras and RGVV also suggest, the notion of buddha nature is exactly that which represents the correct understanding of emptiness.

      Now, an even more puzzling and ambiguous explanation of tathāgatagarbha in the Laṅkāvatārasūtra is the one that equates it with the ālaya-consciousness. This ālaya-consciousness or tathāgata heart is said to contain both contaminated and uncontaminated latent tendencies, and thus to be both momentary and not momentary:

Mahāmati, the ālaya-consciousness, which is known as "the tathāgata heart," is momentary in its being associated with mentation as well as the latent tendencies of the active consciousnesses,[19] [but] it is non-momentary [in its being associated] with the uncontaminated latent tendencies. Naïve ordinary beings who are attached to the doctrine of momentariness do not realize [the difference between] the momentariness and the nonmomentariness of all phenomena. Since they do not realize it, they destroy even unconditioned phenomena through their view of extinction.[20]

Mahāmati, the collections of the five [sense] consciousnesses are not subject to saṃsāra, nor do they experience suffering and happiness, nor are they the causes of nirvāṇa. Mahāmati, what flourishes and terminates is the tathāgata heart, which is associated with the causes of the sufferings and happinesses that are experienced [as their results] and congeals through the four [kinds of] latent tendencies.[21] It is not realized by naive beings whose minds are infused with conceptions about the view of momentariness.[22]

      Similarly, the sūtra says that the tathāgata heart represents the cause of both virtue and nonvirtue, effects all births and existences in saṃsāra, and yet is free from a self and what is mine, just like a dancer doing various performances.[23]

      However, to leave no doubt about its ultimate stance and in line with its above statements about tathāgatagarbha, the sūtra declares that the ālaya-consciousness—the tathāgata heart—is indestructible, just like gold’s or diamonds’ remaining the same without ever increasing or decreasing. If the attainment of realization were momentary, it says, the noble ones would become nonnoble ones. So how could naive beings who are not skilled in explaining the intentions behind certain statements examine the meaning of momentariness correctly?[24]

      The sūtra also says repeatedly that the ālaya-consciousness, which is tainted by the impregnations of negative tendencies since beginningless time,[25] is like the main body of a great ocean—uninterrupted, free from the flaw of impermanence, without any idea of a self, and naturally pure. The other seven consciousnesses are like its moving waves—being momentary, arisen from the ground of the latent tendencies of ignorance, caused by false imagination, and clinging to names and characteristics. Thus, the tathāgata heart (the ālaya-consciousness) is said to be naturally pure but, due to adventitious stains, it appears as if it were impure to non-Buddhists, śrāvakas, and pratyekabuddhas. This ālaya-consciousness still operates in non-Buddhists and even śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas who realize personal identitylessness. It is only through the realization of bodhisattvas that it can undergo a change and be purified:

Mahāmati, the tathāgata heart contains the causes of virtue and non-virtue and is the creator of all births and forms of existence. Free from a self and what is mine, like a dancer, it enters [all kinds of] dangerous forms of existence. . . . The tīrthikas, who cling to [different] causes, do not understand this. Being impregnated by all kinds of beginningless latent tendencies of the impregnations of negative tendencies of discursiveness, it is called "ālaya-consciousness." Its body, together with the seven consciousnesses that arise from the ground of the latent tendencies of ignorance, always operates uninterruptedly, just like a great ocean and its waves, is free from the flaw of impermanence, is the cessation of the position of a self, and is utterly pure by nature. The seven consciousnesses such as mentation and the mental consciousness, which are other than this and arise and perish, are momentary, arise from the cause that is false imagination, focus on collections of shapes, activities, and distinct instances, cling to names and characteristics, do not understand that appearing forms and characteristics are one’s own mind, do not discriminate happiness and suffering, are not the cause for liberation, arise through and give rise to names, characteristics, and rising desire, and have the [ālaya-consciousness] as their cause and support. Immediately after the so-called sense faculties conjoined [with consciousness] have become exhausted and have ceased, the others [the consciousnesses] do not arise and operate [anymore] either. Those yogins who do not discriminate the thoughts of their own minds as happiness and suffering, who rest in the meditative absorption of the cessation of discriminations and feelings, and who are skilled in the four dhyānas, the [four] realities, and the [eight] liberations entertain the thought of [actually] having been liberated.

[However,] if the ālaya-consciousness, which is known as "the tathāgata heart," does not undergo a change (parāvṛtti), there is no ces- sation of the seven active consciousnesses. For what reason? Because the consciousnesses flourish by virtue of [the ālaya-consciousness’s serving as] their cause and support, and [because the ālaya-consciousness] is not an object of any of the yogins [who are immersed] in the yogas of śrāvakas, pratyekabuddhas, and tīrthikas. Even when one realizes one’s own lack of a personal self and apprehends the specific and general characteristics of the skandhas, dhātus, and āyatanas, this tathāgata heart [still] flourishes. It terminates [only] through seeing the five dharmas, the [three] natures, and phenomenal identitylessness. Through its undergoing a change by progressing through the bhūmis, one cannot be distracted by the views about the path that others, that is, the tīrthikas, [hold]. . . . Therefore, Mahāmati, bodhisattva mahāsattvas who have this special goal should purify the tathāgata heart, which is known as "the ālaya-consciousness."

Mahāmati, suppose there were no tathāgata heart, which is known as "the ālaya-consciousness." Mahāmati, without this tathāgata heart, which is known as "the ālaya-consciousness," there would be no [such] flourishing and terminating. But, Mahāmati, there is [such] flourishing and terminating in naive beings and noble ones, respectively. The yogins who do not cease their efforts and are persevering abide by [dwelling in] their own personal experience of the noble ones and abiding blissfully amid the visible phenomena [of this life]. Mahāmati, this sphere that is the tathāgata heart, the ālaya-consciousness, is beyond the dialectical views of śrāvakas, pratyekabuddhas, and tīrthikas. Though it is completely pure by nature, due to its being afflicted by adventitious afflictions, it appears to them as if it were impure, but it does not [appear so] to the tathāgatas. Mahāmati, for the tathāgatas, it serves as the sphere of their direct perception, just like a myrobalan fruit in the palm of one’s hand.[26]

      Mind (citta as a synonym of the ālaya-consciousness or the tathāgata heart) is said to be neither separated from nor connected with the latent tendencies—it remains the same but is ensnared by latent tendencies. The dirt-like latent tendencies that arise from the mental consciousness sully the mind, which resembles a white garment. Just as space, the ālaya in the body is neither existent nor nonexistent. Once the mental consciousness has come to an end, mind as such is free of all turbidity—since mind knows all phenomena, it is buddhahood.[27]

      Thus, it is not surprising that the Laṅkāvatārasūtra, similar to other tathāgatagarbha sūtras, Yogācāra texts, and the Uttaratantra, uses the three examples of gold, water, and space for the purity of the mind free from adventitious stains:

Just like pure gold,
Water free from turbidity,
And a cloudless sky,
So is [the mind] pure of concepts.[28]

      The sūtra explicitly distinguishes an ultimate ālaya from a relative one that consists of cognizance (vijñapti). Ultimately, however, both are devoid of duality and thus are nothing but suchness:

Since the ultimate ālaya-consciousness
And the ālaya of cognizance
Are removed from apprehender and apprehended,
I teach them to be suchness.[29]

      A similar distinction is made with "mind" as an equivalent of the ālaya- consciousness:

The true nature of the mind is pure
But not the mind that arises from mistakenness.
Mistakenness comes from the impregnations of negative tendencies—
Therefore, the mind is not seen.[30]

      The text explicitly enumerates the eight consciousnesses as (1) the tathāgata heart, which is known as the ālaya-consciousness, (2) mentation, (3) the mental consciousness, and (4)–(8) the five sense consciousnesses.[31] Once, the text even speaks of nine forms of consciousnesses:

Through improper conception,
Consciousness is operating
In eight or nine different kinds,
Just like waves on the ocean.[32]

      The sūtra does not explain what the ninth consciousness is, but it probably refers to tathāgatagarbha as the pure essence of the ālaya-consciousness.[33]

      Thus, the above distinction between an ultimate and a relative ālaya and at least some of the passages in which the tathāgata heart is linked to the ālaya-consciousness suggest that the tathāgata heart is not always understood as a complete equivalent of the ālaya-consciousness but rather as its intrinsically pure nature once it has been fully purified of all its latent tendencies. Thus, the true nature of the ālaya-consciousness in the sense of the tathāgata heart is not to be relinquished but only purified from its adventitious stains (this distinction is also made in a more explicit manner in the Ghanavyūhasūtra). This also implies that it is the tathāgata heart as the essence of the ālaya-consciousness that represents the universal foundation of both saṃsāra and nirvāṇa (that the ālaya-consciousness/tathāgatagarbha is such a foundation is in fact stated in the sūtra).

      On the other hand, as seen above, the text also states that the ālaya-consciousness is momentary, is associated with the other seven momentary consciousnesses, and is the root of afflictiveness. Immediately following the above passage that ends with the example of the myrobalan fruit, the sūtra addresses such an obvious discrepancy by declaring that this is the explanation for śrāvakas, while the equation of the ālaya-consciousness with permanent buddha nature is the explanation for the sake of great bodhi- sattvas with sharp faculties. Moreover, the Buddha explicitly links what he said about the tathāgata heart to the Śrīmālādevīsūtra and summarizes the Laṅkāvatārasūtra’s approach to the ālaya-consciousness and tathāgatagarbha as follows:

"Mahāmati, this is what I [expressed] in the teachings for Śrīmālādevī and also for the sake of other bodhisattvas whose insight is subtle, sharp, and pure: I explained the tathāgata heart, which is known as ‘ālaya-consciousness’ and is associated with the seven [remaining] consciousnesses, as the object of the tathāgatas for the sake of Śrīmālādevī in order to teach phenomenal identitylessness to the śrāvakas, who are attached to the operating [of the ālaya-consciousness. But actually, in itself,] it is not the object of the dialectics of śrāvakas, pratyekabuddhas, and tīrthikas (who are other). Rather, Mahāmati, this very object of the tathāgatas—the object that is the tathāgata heart, the ālaya-consciousness—is [the object] of bodhisattva mahāsattvas like you, whose insight is subtle and sharp, whose intelligence is discriminating, and who rely on the meaning [rather than the words. However,] it is not [the object] of any tīrthikas (who are other), śrāvakas, and pratyekabuddhas, who cling to the expression of the teachings in a literal manner.[34] Therefore, Mahāmati, you and other bodhisattva mahāsattvas should make efforts in fully realizing this object of all tathāgatas—the tathāgata heart, the ālaya-consciousness—and not be content with mere study." Here, [the Buddha] spoke the following [verses]:

The heart of the tathāgatas
Is associated with the seven consciousnesses.
Duality flourishes due to grasping
And terminates through full realization.

The mind appears like a reflection,
Created by beginningless thought.
When actual reality is seen as it is,
Neither referents nor the referent-maker exist.

Just as naive beings grasp at a fingertip
And do not look at the moon [it points to],
So those who are stuck on letters
Do not understand the true reality that is mine.

Mind dances like a dancer,
Mentation resembles a buffoon,
And consciousness with the five [senses]
Imagines appearances like a stage.[35]

      In sum, the Laṅkāvatārasūtra constantly appears to shift perspectives when presenting its crucial topics, such as endorsing versus more or less strongly criticizing or even denying the notions of a self, emptiness, identitylessness, the ālaya-consciousness, and cittamātra. However, rather than simply taking them to be contradictory, when read carefully in comparison, such shifts in perspective appear to be attempts (though not very systematic) to differentiate mistaken and correct ways of understanding those notions such as tathāgatagarbha, a self, and emptiness.

      In particular, the sūtra seems to present the notion of tathāgatagarbha in four ways: (1) as a full equivalent of the ālaya-consciousness, which is the basis of, and operates together with, the other seven consciousnesses, (2) as the pure essence of the ālaya-consciousness that is not to be removed but only purified, (3) as the unchanging true self that only needs to be freed from its adventitious stains, and (4) as an equivalent of the correct understanding of emptiness and identitylessness. Obviously (2) and (3) are closely related in meaning but described separately in different passages of the sūtra.

      As for the notion of "disposition" (gotra), the Laṅkāvatārasūtra presents five kinds of beings with five different dispositions—those who possess the dispositions for realizing the śrāvakayāna, the pratyekabuddhayāna, and the tathāgatayāna, respectively, those with an uncertain disposition, and those without disposition (agotraka). As for those without disposition, which are also called "those with great desire (icchantika)," not attaining buddhahood, the text describes two very different types of such persons. The first are those who have no wish for liberation because they have abandoned all roots of virtue, which primarily means that they reject the mahāyāna teachings. However, at some point, they will reconnect with virtue through the blessings of the buddhas and thus also attain buddhahood eventually. For the buddhas never abandon any sentient being. The second type are those with great desire who are bodhisattvas, that is, those who have taken the vow not to enter parinirvāṇa until all sentient beings have attained parinirvāṇa. They are referred to as "those with great desire" because their great desire is to lead all beings to buddhahood. It is by virtue of this aspiration and their skill in means that they do not enter nirvāṇa. Another reason why they do not pass into nirvāṇa is their realization that all phenomena are already nirvāṇa primordially. Brunnhölzl, K.. When the Clouds Part, pp. 25-38.

  1. There are two Sanskrit editions by B. Nanjio (Kyoto: Otani University Press, 1923) and P. L. Vaidya (Darbhanga: Mithila Institute, 1963). The sūtra is also preserved in two Tibetan (D107, 136 folios and D108, ninety-three folios) and three Chinese translations (Taishō 670–72). D107 corresponds closely to Nanjio’s Sanskrit edition, while D108 is a Tibetan translation of the Chinese one by Guṇabhadra (Taishō 670). This translation lacks the first and the last two of the longer version’s ten chapters, which were obviously added later (as was probably the eighth one). The first, eighth, and ninth chapters are not at all related to the other chapters. Though the tenth chapter (entirely in verse) repeats over two hundred verses from the preceding chapters, about 680 verses are new. Many of them appear to be quite random, while some show significant differences in contents from the other chapters. Generally, except for the last chapter, most parts of the sūtra are taught in both a prose and a verse portion. As Shiu (2006, 171) reports, according to Fazang, when he assisted Śikṣānanda with the translation of the Laṅkāvatārasūtra, he was faced with a total of five different versions of the work, and they had to carefully collate these different versions while also comparing their collation with the two earlier Chinese translations. The style of a collation or compilation of different sources is likewise obvious in the extant Sanskrit version and the Tibetan translation (naturally, it is very hard to tell what is to be considered " original" and what has been added later). For English translations and studies of this sūtra, see Suzuki 1930 and 1979, Sutton 1991, and Red Pine 2012. For a comparison of the Chinese, Tibetan, and Sanskrit versions, see Suzuki 1979, 14–37.
  2. Unless one follows CMW’s equation of the Prakrit verse about tathāgatas’ becoming visible like gold in stony debris being purified in RGVV (J6) with the similar verse X.751 in the Laṅkāvatārasūtra.
  3. Laṅkāvatārasūtra, Nanjio ed., 67.15–17; D107, fol. 81b.6–7. Throughout, my translations from this sūtra follow the Sanskrit.
  4. D107 ends with "so it is with sentient beings in the skandhas."
  5. X.745–46, 748–53, and 755–56.
  6. X.763 and 765–66.
  7. Nanjio ed., p. 242.4–6; D107, fol. 152a.1–2. Note that D107 renders the compound śūnyatāvikṣipta as sting pa nyid kyis g.yengs pa.
  8. A more literal (and more correct) translation of the classical Yogācāra term "false imagination" (Skt. abhūtaparikalpa, Tib. yang dag ma yin pa’i kun tog), also found in the Uttaratantra and RGVV, is "imagination of what is unreal." That is, what is meant is not that the imagination (parikalpa; which is equivalent to the dependent nature) itself is false or unreal (though it is ultimately so) but what it imagines (parikalpita; the imaginary nature) is unreal. Nevertheless, I chose "false imagination" since "imagination of what is unreal" appears to be too long and unwieldy a term and because "false" in "false imagination" (instead of "unreal imagination") can be understood as referring to the essentially mistaken mode of operation of imagination, which implies that what is imagined is false or unreal too. In Yogācāra in particular, the terms "imagination" (parikalpa) and "conception" (kalpana, vikalpa, and their cognates) refer to all the levels of the continuous, constructive yet deluded activity of the mind that never tires of producing all kinds of dualistic appearances and experiences, thus literally building its own saṃsāric world.D
  9. 'Laṅkāvatārasūtra, Nanjio ed., 77.13–78.1; D107, fols. 85.b.7–86a.3.
  10. The five dharmas, which are taught in many mahāyāna scriptures, are names, causal features, imagination, perfect wisdom, and suchness. (1) "Names" are mere designations, such as "book." (2) "Causal features" (Skt. nimitta can mean both "cause" and "characteristic" and is to be understood in this double sense here) refers to the bases for such designations, that is, dualistically appearing entities that on the level of seeming reality, perform functions and have certain characteristics. (3) Here, "imagination" is a collective term for the eight kinds of consciousness. (4) "Perfect wisdom" bears this name because it is the perceiving subject of suchness. (5) "Suchness" is the ultimate object to be focused on through the path—the dharmadhātu. Among these, (1) corresponds to the imaginary nature, (2)–(3) represent the dependent nature, and (4)–(5) are the perfect nature in terms of subject and object (or the unmistaken and unchanging perfect nature), respectively.
  11. X.417–418 and 420–421.
  12. Note that this echoes RGVV’s (J3–4) explanation of the essences of the three jewels being attained on the eighth, ninth, and tenth bhūmis, respectively.
  13. Nanjio ed., 77.3–4; D107, fol. 85b.4–5.
  14. See Brunnhölzl 2004, 530–32.
  15. Laṅkāvatārasūtra, Nanjio ed., 78.1–4; D107, fol. 86a.3–4.
  16. A later parallel passage includes suchness, the nature of phenomena, the dharmakāya, the lack of nature, and being primordially void and peaceful in this list of equivalents of the tathāgata heart.
  17. That is, the fruitions of the three Buddhist yānas.
  18. Laṅkāvatārasūtra, Nanjio ed., 78.5–79.11; D107, fol. 86a.4–86b.5.
  19. "Active consciousnesses" refers to the mental consciousness and the five sense consciousnesses.
  20. Note that this paragraph bears some resemblance with Aṅgulimāla’s response to Mañjuśrī about properly distinguishing what is empty and what is not empty. This is further highlighted by the version of the first sentence in this paragraph that is mentioned in Shiu (2006, 171) and is found only in Bodhiruci’s Chinese translation of the Laṅkāvatārasūtra (Taishō 671, 559c; maybe a lost version of the sūtra), while it is absent in all other Chinese and Tibetan translations as well as the extant Sanskrit version: "Mahāmati, the notion of momentariness is known as ‘empty.’ The ālaya-consciousness, which is known as the tathāgata heart, without the latent tendencies of the common active consciousnesses is known as ‘empty.’ Being replete with the latent tendencies of uncontaminated phenomena, it is known as ‘nonempty.’ "
  21. These four are as follows. (1) The latent tendencies of expression are such as those that have power over an eye consciousness’s apprehending blue appearing as the basis of the conceptual clinging of apprehending blue in such a way that this basis appears to be established through its own specific characteristics. (2) The latent tendencies of views about a self are those that have power over giving rise to views of clinging to a self through making a split between oneself and others. (3) The latent tendencies of the branches of existence are those of virtuous and nonvirtuous karmas, which have the power to accomplish all kinds of births and deaths in saṃsāric existence. (4) The latent tendencies of similar class are such as those that have the power over blue’s appearing as blue for an eye consciousness’s apprehending blue.
  22. Laṅkāvatārasūtra, Nanjio ed., 235.15–236.8; D107, fol. 149b.2–5. Note that this resembles the presentation of the ālaya-consciousness in contrast with the uncontaminated latent tendencies of listening in the first chapter of the Mahāyānasaṃgraha. These latent tendencies of listening coexist with the ālaya-consciousness like a mix of milk and water, but they are the seeds of the dharmakāya and the remedy for the ālaya-consciousness. Since they are the natural outflow of the supramundane utterly pure dharmadhātu, they are the seeds of the supramundane mind.
  23. Nanjio ed., 220.9–10; D107, fol. 142b.2–3.
  24. Nanjio ed., 236.9–15; D107, fol. 149b.5–7.
  25. Asaṅga’s Abhidharmasamuccaya (in general, in the notes, the name of the author of a text will be mentioned only with the first citation of that text) (D4049, fols. 99b.7– 100a.3) lists twenty-four kinds of impregnations of negative tendencies in terms of (1) expressions (which are omnipresent), (2) feelings, (3) afflictions, (4) karma, (5) maturation, (6) afflictive obscurations, (7) karmic obscurations, (8) maturational obscurations, (9) obscurations, (10) examination, (11) food, (12) sexual union, (13) dreams, (14) illnesses, (15) aging, (16) death, (17) fatigue, (18) being solid, (19) being great, (20) being medium, (21) being small, (22) afflictive obscurations, (23) obscurations of meditative absorption, and (24) cognitive obscurations. Sthiramati’s Abhidharmasamuccayavyākhyā (D4054, fol. 230a.4–230b.7) explains that all of these refer to certain latent tendencies in the ālaya-consciousness. (1) refers to the latent tendencies of the omnipresent clinging to the names of all phenomena, which have followed one since beginningless time. They are also called "the latent tendencies of proliferating reference points" because the aspects of such clinging to names arise again and again. (2)–(4) refer to the latent tendencies of contaminated feelings, afflictions, and karma, respectively. (5) are the latencies of dysfunctional karmic maturations, (6) the nonexhaustion and the long continuum of the afflictions, (7) obstacles to the path, such as the five actions without interval, (8) the antagonistic factors to the clear realization of reality— obtaining the bodies of hell beings and so on, (9) the obstacles to engaging in virtue— being overpowered by striving for sense pleasures and so on, (10) the obstacles to being ordained—being overwhelmed by examining sense pleasures and so on, (11) not eating moderately (either very little or too much), (12) the physical and mental harm due to intercourse, (13) the seemingly physical body that is experienced by virtue of being asleep, (14) the experiences of unease due to the elements in the body being unbalanced, (15) being powerless in terms of the change of these elements, (16) all faculties being disturbed when dying, (17) physical exhaustion due to long walks and so on, (18) being joined to all the preceding latent tendencies in their respectively concordant ways and thus not passing into nirvāṇa, (19)–(21) being engaged in the realms of desire, form, and formlessness, respectively, (22) the antagonistic factors to the awakenings of śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas, (23) the antagonistic factors to accomplishing the nine meditative absorptions of progressive abiding, and (24) the antagonistic factors to omniscience. All of these are fully relinquished on the path of nonlearning, when the liberations of mind and prajñā are accomplished. Sthiramati’s Sūtrālaṃkāravṛttibhāṣya (D4034, fols. 120b.6–121a.1) explains that those two liberations refer to the freedom from the afflictions (nirvāṇa) and the freedom from ignorance (omniscient wisdom), respectively. The first one means to be liberated from the afflictions to be relinquished through the paths of seeing and familiarization, which arises from the lack of attachment. The liberation of prajñā means realizing, just as it is, that the liberation of mind actually is liberation, which arises from the lack of ignorance.
  26. Nanjio ed., 220.9–222.19; D107, fols. 142b.3–143b.5.
  27. X.236–39.
  28. X.253 and X.302.
  29. X.59.
  30. X.253.
  31. Nanjio ed., 235.7–9; D107, fol. 149a.6–7.
  32. Laṅkāvatārasūtra, X.13.
  33. Obviously, this verse could have been a source for Paramārtha’s teachings on a ninth consciousness, the *amalavijñāna (see the chapter "The Uttaratantra and Its Relationship to Yogācāra").
  34. Similar to the Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra, the Laṅkāvatārasūtra (Nanjio ed., 45.1–9; D107, fol. 72b.3–6) also states that the ālaya-consciousness is so subtle that it is very difficult to be realized by anybody (such as śrāvakas, pratyekabuddhas, and tīrthikas) but buddhas and bodhisattvas on the bhūmis.
  35. Nanjio ed., 222.20–224.1; D107, fols. 143b.6–144a.6. Note that passages like this in the Laṅkāvatārasūtra seem to have served as the basis for Gö Lotsāwa’s statement that the ālaya-consciousness represents a mere reflection of tathāgatagarbha (for details, see "Gö Lotsāwa’s Unique Mahāmudrā Interpretation of the Uttaratantra ").

Text Metadata

Other Titles ~ ārya-laṅkāvatāra-mahāyāna-sūtra
Text exists in ~ Sanskrit
~ Tibetan
~ Chinese
Canonical Genre ~ Kangyur · Sūtra · mdo sde · Sūtranta
Literary Genre ~ Sūtras - mdo

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