Sinitic Speculations on Buddha-Nature: The Nirvāṇa School (420–589)

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Sinitic Speculations on Buddha-Nature: The Nirvāṇa School (420–589)

Article Summary

The universality of Buddha-nature is a doctrine accepted by all Chinese schools of Buddhism. The Wei-shih (Fa-hsiang, Vijñaptimātratā) school of Hsüan-tsang, for reviving the notion that the icchantika is agotra, devoid of this seed of enlightenment, had been summarily dismissed as "Hīnayānist" for that reason. The idea of "the enlightenability of the icchantika" is associated with the later-named "Nirvāṇa School," a group of scholars in the Southern Dynasties (420–589) that chose to specialize on the Nirvāṇa Sūtra, the Mahāyāna scripture narrating the last day and teaching of Śākyamuni on earth. The person credited with discovering this doctrine, before even the full sūtra was available to vindicate his stand, is Chu Tao-sheng (375?–434), perhaps better known for his stand on "sudden enlightenment." The school as such flourished best in the Liang dynasty (502–557); but because it was then aligned with scholarship focusing on the Ch'eng-shih-lun (Satyasiddhi?) by Harivarman, it came under criticism when the latter was denounced as Hīnayānist in the Sui dynasty. It is usually said that the T'ien-t'ai school, based on the Lotus Sūtra, superseded the Nirvāṇa school by incorporating many of its ideas, while the Ch'eng-shih school suffered irredeemably under the attack of Chi-tsang of the San-lun (Three Treatise or Mādhyamika) school at the same time. Henceforth, the Nirvāṇa school faded away while its old association with the Ch'eng-shih tradition was judged an unnecessary mistake.[1] This article will introduce three moments from the history of this Nirvana school, showing the main trends of development and, somewhat contrary to traditional opinion, justifying the necessity for the detour into Harivarman's scholarship. Emphasis will also be put on the interaction between Buddhist reflections and the native traditions. (Lai, "Sinitic Speculations," 135)
  1. The most detailed worf on this school is Fuse Kōgaku, Nehanshū kenkyū in two volumes (Tokyo: Sōbun, 1942).