The Buddhist Notion of an 'Immanent Absolute' (tathāgatagarbha) as a Problem in Hermeneutics

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The Buddhist Notion of an 'Immanent Absolute' (tathāgatagarbha) as a Problem in Hermeneutics

Citation: Ruegg, David Seyfort. "The Buddhist Notion of an 'Immanent Absolute' (tathāgatagarbha) as a Problem in Hermeneutics." In The Buddhist Heritage, edited by Tadeusz Skorupski, 229–45. Tring, UK: The Institute of Buddhist Studies, 1989.

Article Summary

As a religious and philosophical tradition works out its own stock of ideas and encounters fresh ones among its neighbours, it must very often generate responses to developing tensions and oppositions unless it is simply to turn in on itself, both ossifying and isolating itself from its intellectual and human environment. Buddhism has not ossified and isolated itself in this way, and it has met such challenges not only in its spread outside the Indian subcontinent—in Central, East and Southeast Asia, and now also in Europe and America—but also, and no less importantly, in the course of its development within historical India itself.
      One way in which Buddhism has responded to these intellectual and cultural encounters can be related to hermeneutics: that is, the modes by which a tradition explains its sources and thereby interprets (or reinterprets) itself in a continuing process of reactivation and renewal of its heritage.[1]
      In the case of Buddhism this process—perhaps comparable in part to what in another context is now frequently referred to as aggiornamento—had both endogenous and exogenous causes. It was, in other words, set in train both by internal, systemically generated requirements and tensions within the Buddhist tradition as it evolved in geographical space and historical time, and by external impulses received from its intellectual and social environment, which could be, according to the case, either positive or negative in character.
      The purpose of this paper is to explore this process with respect to the Buddhist hermeneutics of the ideas of non-self (anatman) and of a spiritual matrix or germ (gotra, tathagatagarbha or Buddha-nature) and the relationship of this pair of ideas to Vedantic notions and Brahmanical social groups in classical India. Reference will be made also to certain exegetical developments that either originated in Tibet or were at least fully realized there for the first time. Our analysis will revolve around the fact that, however historically antithetical and structurally contrasting these two ideas are in Buddhism, they in fact have not invariably been treated by Buddhist hermeneuticians as contradictory or even as systematically exclusive of each other.
      Because of its philosophical and religious significance in the fields of soteriology and gnoseology, the Mahāyānist theory of the tathāgatagarbha—the Germ of Buddhahood latent in all sentient beings—occupies a crucial position in Buddhist thought, and indeed in Indian thought as a whole. In virtue of both their extent and their contents, the sūtras treating the tathāgatagarbha—and the systematically related doctrines of the natural luminosity (prakṛtiprabhāsvaratā) of mind (citta) and the spiritual germ existent by nature (prakṛtistha-gotra)[2]—are amongst the most important in the Mahāyāna. The idea that the doctrine of the tathāgatagarbha and Buddha-nature is one of the supreme teachings of the Mahāyāna is explicitly stated in the Mahāparinirvāṇa-sutra.[3]
      Mahāyānist doctrine is in large part concerned with the path (marga) of the Bodhisattva and supreme and perfect awakening (bodhi), that is, the state of a Buddha. The terms tathāgatagarbha and gotra are used to denote the base or support for practice of the path, and hence the 'cause' (hetu: dhatu) for attainment of the fruit (phala) of buddhahood. Even when the texts do not employ the term tathāgatagarbha to designate this factor as the one which makes it possible for all living beings ultimately to attain liberation and Buddhahood, the importance of the theme of the tathāgatagarbha is basic to the soteriology and gnoseology of the Mahāyāna. (Ruegg, "The Buddhist Notion of an 'Immanent Absolute'," 229–30)
  1. On Buddhist sūtra hermeneutics see É. Lamotte , "La critique d'interprétation dans le bouddhisme", in Annuaire de l'Institut de Philologie et d 'Histoire Orientales et Slaves, 9, Melanges Gregoire, Brussels 1949, 341-61; also É. Lamotte "La critique d'authenticité dans le bouddhisme ", in India antiqua, Festschrift J. Ph. Vogel, Leiden 1947, 213-22; R. Thurman, "Buddhist hermeneutics", in JAAR 46, 1978, 19-39; and Tsong Khapa's Speech of Gold, Princeton 1984; D. Seyfort Ruegg , "Purport , implicature and presupposition: Sanskrit abhiprāya and Tibetan dgoṅs pa/dgoṅs gži as hermeneutical concepts" , in JIP 13, 1985, 309-25, and 16, 1988, 1-4.
          Concerning in particular the hermeneutical questions arising in connection with the tathāgatagarbha teaching, see D . Seyfort Ruegg , La théorie du tathāgatagarbha et du gotra, Paris 1969, and Le traité du tathāgatagarbha de Bu ston rin chen grub, Paris 1973, 27ff., 49ff., 73ff., 114n., 122-3, 134.
          On tantric hermeneutics, with which this paper will not be directly concerned, much interesting work has recently been done by M. Broido; see e.g. JTS 2, 1982; JIP 12, 1984.
  2. On the meanings of gotra, see D. Seyfort Ruegg, BSOAS 39, 1976, 341-63; also La theorie du tathāgatagarbha et du gotra, op . cit.
  3. Mahāparinirvāṇa-sūtra (Tibetan translation from Sanskrit of the Mahāyānist version), fol. 195a6, and Colophon, fol. 222b. Here and below, references are to the Lhasa edition of the Tibetan bKa' 'gyur. (For an English translation of the (Sino-) Japanese version of this sūtra, see Kosho Yamamoto, The Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa-Sūtra [Karin Buddhist Series 5), Tokyo 1973–1975.)