The Process of Awakening in Early Texts on Buddha-Nature in India

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The Process of Awakening in Early Texts on Buddha-Nature in India
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Citation: Zimmermann, Michael. "The Process of Awakening in Early Texts on Buddha-Nature in India." In A Distant Mirror: Articulating Indic Ideas in Sixth and Seventh Century Chinese Buddhism, edited by Chen-kuo Lin and Michael Radich, 513–28. Hamburg: Hamburg University Press, 2014. https://hup.sub.uni-hamburg.de/volltexte/2014/146/chapter/HamburgUP_HWS03_Zimmermann_LinRadich_Mirror.pdf.

Article Summary

The aim of this paper is to throw some light on the question of how the authors of early texts on buddha-nature (tathāgatagarbha, buddhadhātu etc.) in India, in the first centuries of the Common Era, perceived the process of awakening, i.e., how they imagined the actual realization of this buddha-nature, and how they described this process in terms of their own underlying vision. As far as I can see, the discussions of the last twenty years or so about the question of whether buddha-nature thought might actually be Buddhist at all[1] have lost their immediate punch and relevance, and might already have become an historical topic to be studied in its own right. New approaches have entered the world of academic Buddhist Studies. They have shown Buddhism to be a multilayered phenomenon to be studied on many diverse levels, and honored it as such, taking into consideration not only doctrinal aspects of the religion, but also the contexts in which these doctrines came into existence, as much as their assumed social ramifications. I have never doubted that the idea that all sentient beings have buddha-nature, alongside other notions, has always been of central interest for the Mahāyāna movement. It is an idea which can be found expressed in many of the sūtras of the Mahāyāna – not only those explicitly dedicated to the elucidation of this issue, but also in texts which in certain passages subscribe to the theory in passing, so to say.[2] (Zimmermann, introduction, 513–14)
  1. An excellent summary of the positions put forward by the proponents of the idea that buddha-nature is not Buddhist, on the one hand, and criticism of this position, on the other, is found in Hubbard and Swanson, 1997. It is my understanding that the representatives of the so-called Critical Buddhism movement (hihan bukkyō 批判仏教) started out with the aim of reforming certain deplorable states of affairs in Japanese Buddhism, but quickly turned against much of what characterizes the history of Buddhist ideas in India and beyond. Though their immediate aim was thus laudable, the normativity of their approach makes it difficult for a critical scholar of the intellectual history of Buddhism to accept their criticisms.
  2. The most comprehensive discussion of the scriptures on buddha-nature in India is still Takasaki, 1974.