Tathāgatagarbha, Emptiness, and Monism

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Tathāgatagarbha, Emptiness, and Monism
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Citation: Hubbard, Jamie. "Tathāgatagarbha, Emptiness, and Monism.” Online Publications of Jamie Hubbard, May 2009 (originally written in 1994). https://sophia.smith.edu/~jhubbard/publications/papers/TG-Emptiness-Monism.pdf.

The tathāgatagarbha doctrine is one of the most significant Buddhist doctrines to have come under the scrutiny of scholars in recent times.[1][2] One of the more interesting aspects of this doctrine is that it focuses attention on the nature of the Buddhist "absolute" or highest truth in such a way as to make clear many of the problems and concerns of the Buddhist community after the advent of the doctrine of emptiness (śūnyatā). This is so because, while on the one hand the tathāgatagarbha is identified with emptiness ("The wisdom of the tathāgatagarbha is nothing but the Tathāgata's wisdom of emptiness[3]), on the other hand this emptiness, which for Nāgārjuna and more so for Candrakīrti was a "non-affirming negation," is redefined in terms of affirmative predications of the highest order (e.g. astitva, mahā-ātman, eternal, etc.). That an investigation of the tathāgatagarbha requires one to ask fundamental questions about the nature of the Buddhist absolute—e.g. is there an "absolute" in Buddhism, and if so, what are its characteristics, how does it differ from the substantialism of the ātmavāda, etc.—is also indicated by the fact that both those who assert tathāgatagarbha to be an absolute or monistic doctrine and those who interpret it in orthodox Buddhist terms do so based on the same line of reasoning, i.e. that tathāgatagarbha is but an expression of pratītyasamutpāda and śūnyatā. The difference is that the former group of scholars see Mahāyāna in general as monistic while the latter do not. This essay is concerned with this question of the equation of pratītyasamutpāda, śūnyatā, and tathāgatagarbha and the related issue of whether or not tathāgatagarbha thought represents a form of Buddhist monism. (Hubbard, introductory remarks, 1–2)

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  1. [Note 1., which accompanies the title in the original, reads:] This was originally written in 1994; the publisher seems to have fallen into a black hole, so I am putting it out here myself; I have not changed it (other than fonts and some formatting issues) in order to keep the historical in perspective. I think that I still agree with myself, especially with the idea that tathāgatagarbha represents more of a dualism than a monism and thereby leads to ethical problems with the less-than-real (accidental) kleśa.
  2. Many of the questions considered here have been treated in David Ruegg's recent publication Buddha-nature, Mind and the Problem of Gradualism in a Comparative Perspective (Delhi: Heritage Publishers 1992); see especially Chapter One.
  3. Jikido Takasaki, A Study of the Ratnagotravibhāga (Uttara-tantra), (Rome, 1966), p. 302. Hereafter cited as Ratnagotravibhāga.