David Higgins: The Eighth Karmapa and the Primacy of Tantric Buddha-Nature Views

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David Higgins: The Eighth Karmapa and the Primacy of Tantric Buddha-Nature Views
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David Higgins: The Eighth Karmapa and the Primacy of Tantric Buddha-Nature Views

Taking a bird’s eye view of the Eighth Karmapa Mi bskyod rdo rje’s (1507–1554) interpretation of buddha nature as it evolved over the course of his scholarly life, we can discern a persistent attempt to compare and coordinate the viewpoints of the so-called sūtric cause-oriented Pāramitāyāna (rgyu pha rol tu phyin pa'i theg pa) and tantric goal-sustained Vajrayāna ( 'bras bu rdo rje kyi theg pa). By his time, it had become commonplace for scholars of buddha nature theory to compare these two systems based on the parallelism between the three phases of buddha nature outlined in Ratnagotravibhāga I.47 and the threefold continuum (rgyud gsum) of cause, means, and result as presented in the supplemental 18th chapter of the Guhyasamājatantra. For Mi bskyod rdo rje, these exoteric and esoteric views are aligned in terms of their disclosive standpoint: buddha nature and the tantric continuum commonly signify innate buddhahood which remains invariant throughout its phases of obscuration and progressive revelation. However, in his later treatments of buddha nature doctrine, Mi bskyod rdo rje increasingly emphasizes the superiority of tantric views and methods over the exoteric counterparts. In his final masterwork, the Sku gsum ngo sprod rnam bshad (Commentary on the Introduction to the Three Embodiments), the primacy of tantric approaches to buddha nature is a central thread running through his delineations of Buddhist thought and practice.

In this paper, I will examine some of his main arguments for the primacy of tantric buddha nature ideas as set forth in an excerpt from the Embodiments on the connection between the three continua. Specifically, I will examine how he addresses the following question: "When the Perfections Vehicle explains the cause of buddhahood, which is termed 'buddha nature,' as a continuity running through the three [aspects of] ground, path, and fruition isn't this precisely what is here in Mantrayāna doctrine posited as the three continua (rgyud gsum)?" From his nuanced response to this question, we can extract three reasons he gives for granting primacy to esoteric views and practices: [1] The tantric tradition's direct views and methods based on experiential interaction supersede the sūtric tradition's oblique views and methods based on inferential knowledge, [2] its conception of an invariant continuum (rgyud) supersedes psychologistic Yogācāra buddha nature concepts, and [3] its disclosive perspective leaves behind provisional causal assumptions embedded in its counterpart's more organicist developmental perspective.
Featuring David Higgins
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 Higgins, David. "The Eighth Karmapa and the Primacy of Tantric Buddha-Nature Views." 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, 20:38. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ErPW8n0J9qM.