Christopher Jones: Defining a "Buddha-Nature Discourse": The Case of the Mahāmeghasūtra (Sprin chen po'i mdo)

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Christopher Jones: Defining a "Buddha-Nature Discourse": The Case of the Mahāmeghasūtra (Sprin chen po'i mdo)
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Christopher Jones: Defining a "Buddha-Nature Discourse": The Case of the Mahāmeghasūtra (Sprin chen po'i mdo)

Scholars of Buddhism in Tibet and elsewhere have proposed different lists of which discourses (sūtras; Tib. mdo) in Mahāyāna Buddhism are sources for teaching about buddha-nature. Among these, there are those texts that teach some account of buddha-nature using the enigmatic expression tathāgatagarbha (Tib. de bzhin gshegs pa’i snying po). Crucially, these two categories are not quite the same: discourses concerned with buddha-nature exceed those that use the term tathāgatagarbha, whereas passing mention of tathāgatagarbha does not mean by itself that a discourse promotes anything that we can accurately call buddha-nature teaching.

To explore differences between what we should call ‘buddha-nature’ and ‘tathāgatagarbha’ works, the present paper will take as a case study the Mahāmeghasūtra (Discourse of the Great Cloud), which survives only in translations in Tibetan (Sprin chen po’i mdo) and in Chinese (Taishō no. 387 大方等無想經; also called 大方等大雲經). Although recognizably still the same discourse, our two versions of the Mahāmeghasūtra differ significantly in their content. Although commentators in the Jonang tradition, including Dol po pa (C13–14th), have sometimes taken the Mahāmeghasūtra to be a source for teaching about buddha-nature, the Tibetan version of the text certainly does not teach about this in a manner reminiscent of any other known Buddhist discourse, and is demonstrably not invested in the term tathāgatagarbha specifically. Attending to our two extant versions of the Mahāmeghasūtra, I will highlight some of the difficulties in the classification of Buddhist works, especially where two versions of ‘the same’ discourse appear to teach quite different things.

Moreover, recent reevaluation of the history of buddha-nature thought in India suggests that while the Mahāmeghasūtra is not interested in the expression tathāgatagarbha, it may still have been produced in a milieu associated with the very early life of this term. It could be argued that in material of specifically the Tibetan translation of the Mahāmeghasūtra we find traces of nascent thinking about ‘buddha-nature’ before this became tied inextricably to the term tathāgatagarbha. I tentatively propose that the Tibetan version of this work, so far little-studied, may provide insights into the early life of buddha-nature teaching in India, and that while it may not be a member of any delineable ‘tathāgatagarbha corpus’ it could nonetheless provide insights into a formative period of buddha-nature thought in India.
Featuring Christopher V. Jones
Creator Tsadra Foundation
Director Perman, M.
Producer Tsadra Foundation
Event Old Topic, New Insights: Buddha-Nature at the Crossroads between Doctrine and Practice (July 2022, Prague)
Related Website Buddha-Nature
Creation Date July 2022
Citation Jones, Christopher. "Defining a 'Buddha-Nature Discourse': The Case of the Mahāmeghasūtra (Sprin chen po'i mdo)." Old Topic, New Insights: Buddha-Nature at the Crossroads between Doctrine and Practice. The 16th IATS Conference, Prague, July 3–9, 2022. Produced by the Tsadra Foundation Research Department. Video, 17:22. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Yi7pzXbM4-c.