The Doctrine of Buddha-Nature Is Impeccably Buddhist

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The Doctrine of Buddha-Nature Is Impeccably Buddhist

Citation: King, Sallie B. "The Doctrine of Buddha-Nature Is Impeccably Buddhist." In Pruning the Bodhi Tree: The Storm over Critical Buddhism, edited by Jamie Hubbard and Paul L. Swanson, 174–92. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1997.

Article Summary

One of the most important arguments made by the exponents of Critical Buddhism is, as Matsumoto Shirõ asserts in the title of one of his papers, that "The Doctrine of Tathāgata-garbha Is Not Buddhist." In brief, the claim made by Matsumoto and Hakamaya Noriaki is that tathāgata-garbha or Buddha-nature thought is dhātu-vāda, an essentialist philosophy closely akin to the monism of the Upaniṣads. In Matsumoto and Hakamaya’s view, only thought that strictly adheres to the anti-essentialist principle of pratītyasamutpāda taught by Śākyamuni should be recognized as Buddhist. Buddha-nature thought, being a dhātu-vāda or essentialist philosophy, is in fundamental violation of this requirement and consequently should not be regarded as Buddhist. On the basis of this reading of Buddha-nature thought, Matsumoto and Hakamaya proceed to make the several subsequent claims documented in this volume. Since the assertion that Buddha-nature thought is dhātu-vāda is such a foundational claim, I will focus my remarks upon this one point in their corpus, though at the end of this chapter I will have a few words to say regarding their charge that Buddha-nature thought is to blame for the weakness of Japanese Buddhist social ethics.
      I propose in this paper to challenge Matsumoto and Hakamaya’s reading of Buddha-nature thought. In my understanding, while Buddha-nature thought uses some of the terminology of essentialist and monistic philosophy, and thus may give the reader the impression that it is essentialist or monistic, a careful study of how those terms are used—how they actually function in the text—leads the reader to a very different conclusion. I will attempt to demonstrate that Buddha-nature thought is by no means dhātu-vāda as charged, but is instead an impeccably Buddhist variety of thought, based firmly on the idea of emptiness, which in turn is a development of the principle of pratītyasamutpāda
      In making my remarks I draw upon the exposition of Buddha-nature thought given in the Buddha-Nature Treatise (Fo hsing lun), attributed to Vasubandhu and translated into Chinese by Paramārtha.[1] The Buddha-Nature Treatise is a particularly useful text to consult in this matter inasmuch as it constitutes a considered attempt, by an author of great philosophical sophistication, to articulate the Buddha-nature concept per se and to explain both its philosophical meaning and its soteriological function. Indeed, the author is savvy enough to have anticipated the criticisms that this concept would face, including the particular criticisms leveled in our time by Matsumoto and Hakamaya, and to have effectively countered them in the 6th century CE. In this chapter, then, I will consider some of these criticisms in turn and see how the author of the Buddha-Nature Treatise defends as Buddhist the concept of Buddha-nature and the language in which it is expressed.[2] (King, "The Doctrine of Buddha-Nature Is Impeccably Buddhist," 174–75)
  1. Fo hsing lun, T No. 1610, 31.787–813. Vasubandhu’s authorship is doubtful. The Buddha-Nature Treatise draws heavily upon the Ratnagotravibhāga and clearly shows considerable infuence from Paramārtha, who espoused Buddha-nature ideas throughout his career. Many scholars, including myself, believe that Paramārtha is the most likely author of the work.
  2. I have treated this subject in greater detail in my Buddha Nature. Some of the translations in the present chapter appeared there in slightly different form.