The Ornament of the Buddha-Nature: Dge rtse Mahāpaṇḍita's Exposition of the Great Madhyamaka of Other-Emptiness

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The Ornament of the Buddha-Nature: Dge rtse Mahāpaṇḍita's Exposition of the Great Madhyamaka of Other-Emptiness

Article Summary

The Ornament of the Buddha-Nature[1] (Tib. Bde gshegs snying po'i rgyan) is a Tibetan Buddhist text composed by the Rnying ma scholar Dge rtse Mahāpaṇḍita (1761-1829). Dge rtse Mahāpaṇḍita is known for having been a vigorous defender of the doctrine of the Great Madhyamaka of other-emptiness, which moulds Tantric practices around the teaching of Buddha-nature at the heart of the doctrine. The present text is one of a number of related texts that are key to understanding his thoughts on the doctrine, whose development he follows from its beginnings in India to Tibet, where it culminates in its final form. Throughout, he is intent on affirming the authority of the Rnying ma tantras with both a fine line of argument and a mastery of literary skill in verse form. The experience attained through Tantric practices leading to perfection is beyond expression, but the compositional powers of this highly educated scholar in expounding his doctrine are able to convey some sense of the insights such practices lead to.
      A brief summary of the content of the work in which Dge rtse Mahāpaṇḍita unfolds his understanding of the history of Buddhism is as follows. After the title, his homage to buddhas, and a statement of the composition’s purpose, he sets out to give an account of the Three Turnings of the Wheel of the Teaching. Doxographically, the First Turning gives rise to the doctrines of the Vaibhāṣika and Sautrāntika schools of the Lesser Vehicle. The author explains the ultimate truth as conceived by the Vaibhāṣika School, but rejects its atomic theory as being deluded, since it posits the existence of subtlest particles of both matter and cognition. He likewise cannot follow the Sautrāntikas in their assertion of the true existence of external objects. From there, he jumps to the Last Turning, which he deals with until the end of the work, primarily on the basis of quoted scriptures. Among them, those concerning the Mind-Only school focus in on the Three Natures theory, which in turn he disallows, given that a truly existing perceiving subject does not comport with the essencelessness of phenomena. That school, he claims, died out, and their works did not gain entry into Tibet. From there he moves on to the next great figures to arrive on the scene: Nāgārjuna and Asaṅga. He goes on to explain the two modes of Madhyamaka, and contends that though both of them are in fact Mādhyamikas of the Middle Wheel, some biased persons claim Asaṅga for the Mind-Only school. Mādhyamikas, whose doctrine is grounded in the Two Truths, divided into two subschools, the Svātantrikas and Prāsaṅgikas. The former, represented in the Indian tradition by Bhāviveka, accepted the existence of phenomena only on the relative level. The latter, by contrast, represented by Buddhapālita, do not accept phenomena even on the relative level. That was the stage to which the Indian Mādhyamikas developed. Dge rtse Mahāpaṇḍita identifies his own position as that of a true successor of Indian Buddhism’s Prāsaṅgika-Madhyamaka. In Tibet, Tsong kha pa (1357-1419) initiated a new approach, whereby the truth was subject to confirmation by means of valid cognition, which led to a tradition of rigorous debate. Extensively citing the Ratnapradīpa of Bhavya (clearly distinguished from the Svātantrika Bhāviveka), which expounds the subtle, inner Madhyamaka of practice, he refutes the use of logic when it comes to ultimate reality. He asserts that the doctrine of mind-only as taught in such works associated with the Last Turning of the Wheels as the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra and the Ghanavyūha-sūtra is the subtle, inner Madhyamaka—and Nāgārjuna, Āryadeva, Candrakīrti, and Bhavya also taught it as such. He equates it with the Great Madhyamaka of other-emptiness, which he also terms the Great Madhyamaka of definitive meaning. He defends Hwa shang's "abandoning mental engagement," as being the tradition of the instruction of Madhyamaka. The practitioners of Rdzogs chen, he notes, label the doctrine of the Last Turning the "king and creator of all" (kun byed rgyal po), and so he regards Rdzogs chen as the same as the Great Madhyamaka of other-emptiness. Thus, he places Madhyamaka at the summit of the doxographical hierarchy of Buddhist schools as it crystallized in Tibet from its roots in India. He thereby emphasizes that the two modes of emptiness, or two forms of Madhyamaka, that is, self-emptiness and other-emptiness, are in harmony. For Dge rtse Mahāpaṇḍita, the essence of the Buddhist doctrine, which is the Great Madhyamaka of other¬emptiness, is shared by all Tibetan Buddhist schools, be they Jo nang pas, the early Dge lugs pas, Bka' brgyud pas, Sa skya pas, or Rnying ma pas. He ends by stating that Tantric practice is fundamental to the Great Madhyamaka of other-emptiness, and that it is predicated on the existence of the Buddha-nature—that is, Buddhahood—in every sentient being. (Makidono, preliminary remarks, 77–79)
  1. Dge rtse Mahāpaṇḍita. Nges don dbu ma chen po'i tshul rnam par nges pa'i gtam bde gshegs snying po'i rgyan. I have used three editions of the text for my translation; see the References. The section headings in the translation have been added.