The Eighth Karmapa Mi bskyod rdo rje (1507-1554) on the Relation between Buddha Nature and Its Adventitious Stains

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The Eighth Karmapa Mi bskyod rdo rje (1507-1554) on the Relation between Buddha Nature and Its Adventitious Stains
Citation: Mathes, Klaus-Dieter, "The Eighth Karmapa Mi bskyod rdo rje (1507–1554) on the Relation between Buddha Nature and Its Adventitious Stains." Critical Review for Buddhist Studies 22 (2017): 63–104.


No abstract given. Here are the first relevant paragraphs:

Accepting the possibility of enlightenment as a fundamental Buddhist axiom, one has to either explain the causal process of its production, or accept its primordial existence, for example in terms of a buddha nature (tathāgatagarbha). The latter also applies, of course, when buddhahood is not taken to be produced from scratch. The way this basic issue is addressed is an ideal touchstone for systematically comparing various masters and their philosophical hermeneutical positions in the complex landscape of Tibetan intellectual history. The diversity of views on buddha nature has its roots in the multilayered structure of the standard Indian treatise on buddha nature, the Ratnagotravibhāga. Depending on whether one follows the original intent of the Tathāgatagarbhasūtras (which can be identified in the earliest layer of the Ratnagotravibhāga), or the Yogācāra interpretation of the latter in the Ratnagotravibhāga, buddha nature can refer to either an already fully developed buddha, or the naturally present potential (prakṛtisthāgotra) or natural luminosity of mind, i.e., sentient beings’ ability to become buddhas. While some saw in such positive descriptions of the ultimate only synonyms for the emptiness of mind,[1] or simply teachings of provisional meaning,[2] the Jo nang pas, and many bKa’ brgyud pas and rNying ma pas as well, took them as statements of definitive meaning.[3] Among the latter, i.e., those for whom buddha nature is more than just emptiness, there was disagreement about the relationship between such a positively described buddha nature and its adventitious stains, which include all ordinary states of mind and the world experienced by the latter.

For my analysis of Mi bskyod rdo rje’s view on the relation between buddha nature and its adventitious stains I have chosen his Abhisamayālaṃkāra commentary, the rGan po’i rlung sman,[4] which contains a critical review of ’Gos Lo tsā ba gZhon nu dpal’s (1392-1481) rGyud gsum gsang ba; the sKu gsum ngo sprod rnam bshad; the Phyag rgya chen po’i sgros ‘bum and Mi bskyod rdo rje’s independent work on gzhan stong, the dBu ma gzhan stong smra ba’i srol legs par phye ba’i sgron me. While these texts have in common that they endorse a robust distinction between buddha nature and the adventitious stains, the respective gzhan stong ("other empty") views underlying this relationship slightly differ, or are not mentioned in explicit terms. The homogeneous clear-cut distinction between impure sentient beings and a pure mind, dharmadhātu, or buddha nature is strikingly similar to what we find in the relevant works of the third Karma pa Rang byung rdo rje (1284-1339).5) Even though Rang byung rdo rje does not explicitly mention the word gzhan stong in his mainly Yogācāra-based presentation of buddha nature, Karma Phrin las pa’s[6] (1456-1539) and Kong sprul Blo gros mtha’ yas’s (1813-1899) description of Rang byung rdo rje as a gzhan stong pa[7] is at least understandable on the grounds that Mi bskyod rdo rje uses this label for a doctrine similar to Rang byung rdo rje’s.[8] In order to further contextualize Mi bskyod rdo rje’s distinction between buddha nature and adventitious stains I have also consulted relevant passages from his commentaries on the Madhyamakāvatāra and the dGongs gcig. (Mathes, introductory remarks, 65–67)

  1. This mainly is the position of rNgog Blo ldan shes rab (1059-1109), who claims in his Theg chen rgyud bla’i don bsdus pa, 5b3: "The mental continuum, which has emptiness as its nature, is the [buddha] element (i.e., buddha nature)." (... stong pa nyid kyi rang bzhin du gyur pa’i sems kyi rgyud ni khams yin no). A similar line of thought is followed by the dGe lugs pas, for whom emptiness is what is taught in the doctrine of tathāgatagarbha (see Seyfort Ruegg 1969, 402).
  2. This is, for example, the position maintained by Sa skya Paṇḍita (1182-1251) and Bu ston Rin chen ‘grub (1290-1364) (Seyfort Ruegg 1973, 29-33).
  3. For rNgog Blo ldan shes rab and some dGe lugs pas, too, buddha nature has definitive meaning on the grounds that it is a synonym of emptiness (see Mathes 2008:26-27; and Seyfort Ruegg 1969, 402) .
  4. This is how the author originally referred to his work, even though it appears in the Collected Works in the less irreverent title Sublime Fragrance of the Nectar of Analysis (Higgins and Draszczyk 2016, vol. 1, 12).
  5. I.e., the Zab mo nang don and its autocommentary, the sNying po bstan pa, the Dharmadhātustava commentary, and the Rang byung rdo rje’i mgur rnams. See Mathes 2008, 51-75.
  6. See Karma 'Phrin las pa: "Dris lan yid kyi mun sel zhes bya ba lcags mo’i dris lan bzhugs", 91, 1-4. For the Tibetan text and an English translation, see Mathes 2008, 55 & 441.
  7. See Kong sprul Blo gros mtha’ yas: Shes bya kun khyab mdzod, vol. 1, 460, 2-13.
  8. The fact that the relation between buddha nature and its adventitious stains is only occasionally labelled gzhan stong by Mi bskyod rdo rje is not very telling, since in his dBu ma gzhan stong smra ma’i srol the main topic is the said relation, and Mi bskyod rdo rje refers to it as gzhan stong merely in the title.

Klaus-Dieter Mathes' article "The Eighth Karmapa Mi bskyod rdo rje (1507-1554) on the Relation between Buddha Nature and its Adventitious Stains" addresses the debate over whether buddha-nature is fundamentally different from saṃsāric existence. Mathes compares the Eighth Karmapa's positions to those of Gö Lotsāwa and mainstream Jonang. Mathes argues that although the Eighth Karmapa's views changed over time, he consistently took the position that the stains are fundamentally separate from buddha-nature, and that buddha-nature is not primordially present but exists only in potentiality.

According to the Eighth Karmapa, Gö Lotsāwa depicted buddha-nature and the adventitious stains as not separate, likening the two to the ocean and waves. This is the view that buddha-nature is present in the stains; even the pollution of saṃsāric existence is pervaded with buddha-nature. Metaphors from the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra that support this position include the lotus that grows in mud and the sprout of a seed. Dölpopa argued the opposite position, that buddha-nature and the stains are fundamentally separate, like a golden statue covered in excrement, another of the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra metaphors.

The Eighth Karmapa disagreed with both of these positions. In terms of his response to Gö Lotsāwa, he argued that buddha-nature could not be of the same nature as saṃsāra because that would render the luminous nature of mind impermanent. The metaphor he used is milk mixed with water—the water acts upon the water, but the two are not the same; in other words, buddha-nature is in saṃsāra but not of it. Still, the Eighth Karmapa also disputed the Jonang position of buddha-nature being a permanently existing entity. In this section of the article Mathes carefully explains the subtle differences in the different authors' definitions of emptiness to show how the Eighth Karmapa's use of "other-emptiness" differs significantly from that of the Jonang tradition.