The rÑiṅ-ma Interpretations of the Tathāgatagarbha Theory

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The rÑiṅ-ma Interpretations of the Tathāgatagarbha Theory

Citation: Wangchuk, Dorji. "The rÑiṅ-ma Interpretations of the Tathāgatagarbha Theory." Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde Südasiens 48 (2004): 171–213.


The theory of “Buddha Nature” or tathāgatagarbha (henceforth TG)[2] formed an important school of thought in Mahāyāna Buddhism and continues to enjoy popularity in some circles even today, although it has been dismissed by some scholars as non-Buddhist.[3] It has drawn the attention of several scholars. On the Tibetan front, David Seyfort Ruegg has through a series of publications greatly contributed to the understanding of the TG theory, particularly that of the dGe-lugs-pa tradition. A number of studies devoted to the TG theory from the perspective of the exponents of the gźan stoṅ (“extrinsic emptiness”)[4] theory have also appeared in recent years.[5] However, much remains to be explored in the works of various Tibetan authors of different traditions and periods.

One important Tibetan interpretation of TG that has been ignored so far is that of the rÑiṅ-ma school. The little attention it has received is in the context of studies pertaining to the Tibetan Madhyamaka and rDzogs-chen doctrines.[6] Can one, however, speak of a single rÑiṅ-ma interpretation of TG without the risk of oversimplification? Admittedly, not all rÑiṅ-ma scholars interpreted TG in the same way. They may differ in their erudition, style of interpretation and emphasis according to the particular time and place in which they lived. Even one and the same scholar may interpret it differently in different works, or even in different passages of the same work. Nevertheless, despite the differences in details within the various schools of Tibetan Buddhism, each of them, including the rÑiṅ-ma school, has, in my opinion, its own few archetypical intellectual figures who shape, lead and represent their respective traditions, and whose positions agree at least in substance if not always in every detail. And thus later rÑiṅ-ma-pas consider Roṅzom-pa (eleventh century), Kloṅ-chen-pa (1308-1363) and Mi-pham (1846-1912) as their three archetypical intellectual models, and their interpretations of a given doctrine as the “official” rÑiṅ-ma position.[7]

Before examining their views, I would like to briefly discuss how someof the leading rÑiṅ-ma scholars – whose interpretations of the TG doctrine are considered authoritative for the rÑiṅ-ma school – are portrayed in some secondary literature. Of the major rÑiṅ-ma scholars, Roṅ-zom-pa has been presented as clearly preferring YogācāraMadhyamaka by Georges Dreyfus,[8] apparently following John Pettit who merely states that Roṅ-zom-pa in his Grub mtha’i brjed byaṅ suggests that the YogācāraMadhyamaka is “more important” (don che ba).[9] What the closing phrase of the pertinent statement by Roṅ-zom-pa actually says is: “The treatise [or position] of YogācāraMadhyamaka appears (snaṅ) to be more significant.”[10] The statement gives Roṅ-zompa’s personal opinion about the then prevalent two Madhyamaka systems (i.e., Sautrāntika–Madhyamaka and YogācāraMadhyamaka) and not his doctrinal affiliation.[11] Kloṅ-chen-pa and Mi-pham have been portrayed as exponents of the gźan stoṅ theory. For example, according to Samten Karmay, Kloṅ-chen-pa’s stance on the TG theory is identical to that of Dol-po-pa’s.[12] Similarly, David Germano (apparently following S.K. Hookham) describes Kloṅ-chen-pa’s comments regarding the doctrine of emptiness and TG as “fairly typical” of the gźan stoṅ concepts in Tibet.[13] These scholars’ impressions are not altogether unjustified because Kloṅ-chen-pa’s evaluation of TG prima facie looks so positive that one might assume it to be identical with that of Dol-popa’s. Even amongst the traditional Tibetan scholars there were figures like Koṅ-sprul who preferred to place Kloṅ-chen-pa and Karma-pa Raṅ-byuṅ-rdo-rje (1284-1339) in the group of gźan stoṅ exponents.[14] This doctrinal agenda is still continued by living Tibetan exponents of the gźan stoṅ doctrine. A few modern scholars have designated Mi-pham as an exponent of the gźan stoṅ theory as well. However, a closer look reveals that in most cases, it is the terminology that has led to this determination; that is, the term gźan stoṅ has not necessarily been used by these scholars in a strict technical sense. One author who seems to consciously seek to prove Mi-pham a gźan stoṅ exponent is Paul Williams.[15] Leading rÑiṅ-ma teachers of more recent times have also been presented as proponents of the gźan stoṅ theory. Cyrus Stearns’ The Buddha from Dolpo, which greatly contributes to the understanding of Dol-po-pa’s life and thoughts, tends to oversimplify the rÑiṅ-ma explanation of the TG theory. For instance, Stearns, relying on verbal communication with sDe-gźung Rin-po-che (1906-1987), maintains that rÑiṅ-ma teachers such as bDud-’joms Rin-po-che (1904-1987) and Dilmgo mKhyen-brtse (1910-1991) were proponents of the gźan stoṅ doctrine.[16] I am not aware of any textual evidence that would suggest that these teachers were proponents of the gźan stoṅ doctrine, at least not in Dol-po-pa’s sense. Both bDud-’joms Rin-po-che and Dil-mgo mKhyenbrtse, in fact, speak about the oneness of emptiness and appearance or the compatibility of the Middle and Last Cycles of Buddha’s teachings.[17]

One notices a general tendency among modern scholars to associate, in addition to the above-mentioned rÑiṅ-ma teachers, rÑiṅ-ma doctrines with gźan stoṅ teachings. [18] These scholars can be grouped into three: (a) those who are obviously predisposed to the gźan stoṅ theory, (b) those who are opposed to the gźan stoṅ doctrine and (c) those who are too generous with the use of the term gźan stoṅ. [19] One of the reasons why the rÑiṅ-ma position on TG has remained somewhat elusive appears to be the complexity of the matter itself which forbids a simplistic expression of it in terms of raṅ stoṅ or gźan stoṅ. In the following passages, I shall present (a) the early Tibetan background of the TG theory, (b) a brief historical sketch and (c) a general profile of the rÑiṅ-ma interpretation of the TG doctrine, and (d) finally my assessment of the rÑiṅ-ma stance on the TG theory in India and Tibet,19 and thereby demonstrate how complex and distinctive the rÑiṅ-ma interpretation of TG actually is. Nonetheless, although I shall strive to describe their interpretation accurately, some of my observations will remain tentative. It is, however, not my intention to discuss here whether the rÑiṅ-ma interpretation is in keeping with the TG theory as originally conceived in India.

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  1. This article is a revised and enlarged version of the paper presented at the Tenth Seminar of the International Association for Tibetan Studies (6th-12th September 2003) held in Oxford. I owe my gratitude to a number of individuals who contributed in different ways to bringing this article to its present form. I am grateful to my wife Orna Almogi (University of Hamburg) for painstakingly going through this article at its various stages of writing. I also owe my thanks to Prof. Lambert Schmithausen (University of Hamburg), Prof. Karin Preisendanz (University of Vienna) and Dr. Anne MacDonald (University of Vienna) for their valuable suggestions. I would also like to thank Prof. David Jackson (University of Hamburg) for going through an earlier version of this article. My thanks also go to Kazuo Kano (University of Hamburg) for his proof-reading of the final version.I am, of course, solely responsible for the content of the article.
  2. See Michael Zimmermann’s recent study of the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra, the earliest exposition on Buddha Nature in India, where he presents a detailed discussion of the term tathāgatagarbha (Zimmermann 2002: 39-50). Note that I use Tathāgatagarbhasūtra as a proper noun referring to this particular sūtra and TG sūtra as a common noun referring to a sūtra which deals primarily with the tathāgatagarbha doctrine.
  3. Some modern Japanese scholars have openly dismissed the TG theory as non-Buddhist, an issue which lies outside my present topic. For some details, see Zimmermann 2002: 82-84.
  4. A tradition may for polemical reasons label a rival tradition as a proponent of gźan stoṅ (“extrinsic emptiness”) or raṅ stoṅ (“intrinsic emptiness”). However, as suggested in Kapstein 2000: 121, it would be, from a methodological point of view, sensible to refrain from using labels such as gźan stoṅ and raṅ stoṅ unless a given tradition prefers to use one of these terms to describe its own conception of emptiness. Furthermore, since we tend to be too generous with the use of the terms raṅ stoṅ and gźan stoṅ, I would like to make clear from the very outset how rÑiṅma scholars understand these terms. For them, a given “x” (no matter what) is said to be raṅ stoṅ if it cannot withstand (bzod pa) the logical analysis of Madhyamaka reasoning. A given “x” that can withstand such a scrutiny, which is for them an impossibility, would imply its “true or hypostatic existence” (bden par grub pa). Please note that my translation of the technical term bden par grub pa or bden grub is based on Seyfort Ruegg 1989: 37 where it is explained as “a permanent substantial entity established ‘in truth’, i.e., hypostatically (bden par grub pa).” See also Seyfort Ruegg 2000: 320 and Seyfort Ruegg 2002: 296, Indices, s.v. bden grub. Hence, if the logical analysis of Madhyamaka reasoning is applied, for example, on a cow or TG, neither of them will be able to withstand the force of logical analysis. A single case of “hypostatic existence” would be sufficient to cause the collapse of the entire Madhyamaka system. Thus, from the perspective of such a scrutiny, a given “x” is always raṅ stoṅ. Further, if a given “x” is empty of a numerically different given “y,” then “x” is said to be gźan stoṅ. In this sense, a given “x” is always empty of “y” and hence always gźan stoṅ. For example, a cow is always empty of a bull and so is TG empty of adventitious impure phenomena of saṃsāra. Thus, from this viewpoint, a given “x” can be both raṅ stoṅ and gźan stoṅ. On the other hand, for Dol-po-pa Śes-rab-rgyal-mtshan (1292-1361), the initiator of the gźan stoṅ theory, whether or not “x” is raṅ stoṅ or gźan stoṅ would depend on whether “x” is a conventional phenomenon or absolute reality. If “x” is a conventional phenomenon, it is raṅ stoṅ, and if it is absolute reality, it is gźan stoṅ. Hence, Dol-po-pa uses the expressions kun rdzob raṅ stoṅ or kun rdzob stoṅ ñid and don dam gźan stoṅ or don dam stoṅ ñid (Ri chos, p. 305.8) and states that the banal (tha śal) emptiness (i.e., itaretaraśūnyatā) belittled in the Laṅkāvatārasūtra is neither of the two (ibid., p. 154.15-155.15). In principle, Dol-po-pa could have described this itaretaraśūnyatā (“emptiness of reciprocity”) as kun rdzob gźan stoṅ in opposition to what he called kun rdzob raṅ stoṅ and don dam gźan stoṅ but has apparently, for strategic reasons, refrained from doing so. Designating itaretaraśūnyatā as kun rdzob gźan stoṅ would have been self-defeating because then he would have been forced to concede that there is at least one kind of gźan stoṅ which is unacceptable even by his own standard. Thus, he could consolidate his gźan stoṅ theory by insisting that only the absolute can be gźan stoṅ and only gźan stoṅ can be absolute (ibid., p. 308.12-15).
  5. See, e.g., Seyfort Ruegg 1963; Broido 1989; Hookham 1991 and 1992; Stearns 1999; Mathes 1998, 2000 and 2002. Note, however, that one may have to be careful not to anachronistically presuppose that one homogenous gźan stoṅ theory existed at every place and time in Tibet (e.g., see the Si tu’i raṅ rnam, p. 266.7-267.2; Smith 2001: 265). In fact, the comparing and contrasting of the various gźan stoṅ interpretations would shed important light on the history of the concept and might contribute to a better understanding of the evolution, continuation and reception of such concepts.
  6. Kloṅ-chen-pa’s discussion of TG occurring in the seventh chapter of his Tshig don mdzod is assessed in Germano 1992: 77-82. John Pettit published a translation of Mi-pham’s Ṅes śes sgron me and its commentary by ’Khro-chu ’Jam-dpal-rdo-rje (Pettit 1999a) and also included a translation of Mi-pham’s gŹan stoṅ seṅ ge’i ṅa ro, p. 359-378.4. See “The Lion’s Roar Proclaiming Extrinsic Emptiness,” in Pettit 1999a: 415-427. The recent doctoral dissertation by Karma Phuntsho also discusses Mi-pham’s stance on the TG theory (Phuntsho 2003).
  7. One might ask just how authoritative and representative Roṅ-zom-pa, Kloṅchen-pa and Mi-pham were and are for the rÑiṅ-ma school. Mi-pham himself considered Roṅ-zom-pa and Kloṅ-chen-pa as the most authoritative interpreters of the rÑiṅ-ma doctrine and he saw himself as the follower of the two. See the Dam chos dogs sel, p. 378.5-379.2, the dBu ma rgyan ’grel, p. 42.5, the Ṅes śes sgron me, p. 121.1-2. See also the colophon to his Roṅ zom bla rnal, p. 61.6: mtshuṅs med ma hā paṇḍi ta chen po’i rjes su ’jug par khas ’che ba mi pham rnam par rgyal bas zla tshe bzaṅ po la bris pa dge’o /. The fact that Mi-pham is responsible for the latest systematisation of the rÑiṅ-ma doctrine and that he did so primarily by relying on Roṅ-zom-pa and Kloṅ-chen-pa, is, in my view, sufficient for considering the three as representative and authoritative, as they are indeed perceived by the rÑiṅ-ma tradition today. See also Smith 2001: 16.
  8. See Dreyfus 2003: 331.
  9. Pettit 1999a: 90-91, 485, n. 315.
  10. lTa ba’i brjed byaṅ, p. 11.11-14: dbu ma rnam gñis kun rdzob kyi tshul mi mthun pa la / luṅ daṅ rigs pa gaṅ che ba ni rgyud daṅ mdo sde spyi’i gźuṅ daṅ / rigs pa spyi’i tshul daṅ / dbu ma’i mkhan po gźuṅ phyi mo mdzad pa’i slob dpon klu sgrub daṅ / ārya de ba’i gźuṅ ltar na yaṅ / rnal ’byor spyod pa’i dbu ma’i gźuṅ don che bar snaṅ ṅo /.
  11. If one wishes to speak about Roṅ-zom-pa’s doctrinal affiliation, then one can safely state that he was, in the first place, affiliated with rDzogs-chen doctrines, and that his method of establishing emptiness is closer to that of the Prāsaṅgika– Madhyamaka than to any other Buddhist system, regardless of whether or how much access he had to Prāsaṅgika texts. This becomes particularly evident in his Theg chen tshul ’jug and was also the impression of some traditional Tibetan scholars such as Mi-pham (see, for example, the Ṅes śes sgron me, p. 75.3-4, the dBu ma rgyan ’grel, p. 309.6-310.1 and the Dam chos dogs sel, p. 378.6) and Blobzaṅ-mdo-sṅags Chos-kyi-rgya-mtsho (1903-1957), a dGe-lugs-cum-rÑiṅ-ma scholar from Khams, who even went on to prove that Roṅ-zom-pa’s view is a Prāsaṅgika view (see the lTa ba’i dris lan, p. 70-71). Whether the Prāsaṅgika–Madhyamaka view was in some form present during the early propagation of Buddhism in Tibet may depend, among other things, on whether Śāntideva was indeed a Prāsaṅgika–Mādhyamika as the Tibetan tradition has perceived him to be.
  12. See Karmay 1988: 184-185; cf. Kapstein 1992: 23, n. 1.
  13. See Germano 1992: 78. See also Hookham 1991: 136, 150.
  14. Śes bya rgya mtsho, p. 567.8-10; Smith 2001: 338, n. 888.
  15. See Williams 1998 (particularly, p. 199-216). For reviews of Williams 1998, see Kapstein 2000, Tatz 2001: 78-79. A few words should be said here regarding Paul Williams’ study of “auto-perception” (raṅ rig: svasaṃvedana/svasaṃvitti) and his attempt to connect it with the controversial issue of gźan stoṅ. To agree with Mi-pham’s understanding or interpretation of “auto-perception” is one thing and to understand his position accurately is yet another matter. In my view, Williams seems to have missed the point regarding the controversial issue of “auto perception,” particularly in regard to Mi-pham’s stance on this issue. If he had studied Mi-pham’s interpretation of “means of valid cognition” (pramāṇa), he would have seen why the theory of “auto-perception” was crucial for Mi-pham. According to him, the whole theoretical structure of perception and inference developed by Dignāga and Dharmakīrti would collapse without the theory of “auto-perception.” Mi-pham insists that as long as one accepts conventional valid cognition (tha sñad tshad ma), one must accept “auto-perception,” at least on the conventional level, just as one accepts “perception of others” (gźan rig). Thus, without a clear concept of Mi-pham’s background and his view on pramāṇa, any study of Mi-pham’s view on “auto-perception” is destined to be less than successful. A proper assessment of Mi-pham’s understanding of Madhyamaka would have revealed that for Mi-pham, there is no phenomenon that can withstand (bzod) the Madhyamaka logical analysis, and this includes “auto-perception.” The Prāsaṅgika–Mādhyamikas (such as Candrakīrti and Śāntideva) do refute the Yogācāra notion of “auto-perception” but, for Mi-pham, this is done so in the context of establishing absolute reality or “that which is free from manifoldness” (niṣprapañca). However, even Prāsaṅgika–Mādhyamikas should, according to Mi-pham, have no problem in accepting “autoperception” on the conventional level, just as they have no problem accepting “perception of others.” For Mi-pham, anything that can be attested by means of conventional valid cognition is acceptable on the conventional level. If a thing is impossible even on the conventional level, then it should be something like a “permanent sound” (sgra rtag pa) or a “rabbit’s horn” (ri boṅ gi rwa). But, for him, neither is “auto-perception” like a “permanent sound” nor did Candrakīrti and Śāntideva consider it to be so. However, Tsoṅ-kha-pa believed that Candrakīrti and Śāntideva held “auto-perception” to be impossible even on the conventional level. This is the point of departure of the actual issue and the controversy took place within the contextual framework of Pramāṇa and Madhyamaka, which were seen by Mi-pham as complementing and strengthening rather than as excluding or nullifying each other. Hence, bringing in rDzogs-chen and gźan stoṅ issues in this context is unwarranted. If Williams had studied rDzogs-chen or the rÑiṅ-ma interpretation of TG, he would have realised that for the rÑiṅ-ma-pas (including Mi-pham), there is a strict distinction between mind (sems) and gnosis (ye śes). The expression so sor raṅ gis rig par bya ba (pratyātmavedanīya) which actually means “accessible to personal experience only” or “to be known directly and introspectively,” an idea also acceptable to Candrakīrti or Śāntideva, has also been taken out of context by Williams. Unless we understand the methods of interpretation systematized by Mi-pham, we will never fully comprehend the way he conceives Pramāṇa, Madhyamaka, TG and rDzogs-chen or his conception of their intricate relationship with one another. And unless we have a clear picture of how Mi-pham understood raṅ rig in these systems, we shall only have a fragmentary and distorted idea of Mi-pham’s stance on raṅ rig.
  16. See Stearns 1999: 215, n. 137-138.
  17. bDud-’joms Rin-po-che explicitly states: “Thus, by clinging to and postulating one of the positions of appearance and emptiness, one would not be able to avert the erroneous (lit. “bad”) views that hold on to the extremes. Therefore, it is necessary to properly establish the sphere of reality (dharmadhātu), the union of appearance and emptiness [or] the ultimate [and] actual absolute truth, as the equality of [saṃsāric] existence and [nirvāṇic] calmness” (bsTan pa’i rnam gźag, fol. 109b2-4: des na snaṅ stoṅ gaṅ ruṅ re’i phyogs su źen ciṅ bzuṅ bas ni mthar ’dzin gyi lta ba ṅan pa bzlog mi nus pas / chos dbyiṅs snaṅ stoṅ zuṅ ’jug mthar thug rnam graṅs ma yin pa’i don dam srid źi mñam ñid du legs par gtan la ’bebs dgos śiṅ /). Dil-mgo mKhyen-brtse likewise considers the Middle and Last Cycles as complementary, for he explains absolute reality as “the ultimate of what is to be established in a way that the purports of the Middle and the Last Promulgations become entwined as one and is the finale of the ocean-like systems of sūtra and tantra” (bDud rtsi’i snaṅ ba, fol. 71a6: ’khor lo bar mtha’ dgoṅs pa gcig dril gyis gtan la dbab bya mthar thug pa mdo sṅags grub mtha’ rgya mtsho’i skyel so yin la). See also the Zil gnon dgoṅs gsal (fol. 178a6-b2) where Dil-mgo mKhyen-brtse speaks about the union (zuṅ ’jug) of the “primordial purity” (ka dag), which is equated with “freedom from the eight extremes of manifoldness” (spros pa’i mtha’ brgyad las ’das pa), and the “immanently present” (lhun grub) Buddha bodies (sku) and gnosis (ye śes) constituting the TG, and his ’Jam dpal dgoṅs rgyan (fol. 239a2-b5), where TG (among several other terms) is indicated as a synonym of the emptiness of the Middle Promulgation. See also his rDo rje mdud grol (fol. 136a5-b4 & 150a3-4) where he explains the view of Prāsaṅgika–Madhyamaka in the same way Mi-pham does.
  18. According to Karmay, who relied on the Italian edition (1973) of The Religions of Tibet, Tucci maintains that the doctrines of rDzogs-chen and of the Jonaṅ-pas were developed from the Hva-śaṅ’s doctrine of TG (see Karmay 1988: 87). This claim, however, does not appear in the later English translation of the book. S.K. Hookham describes rDzogs-chen as typically gźan stoṅ-type teachings and claims that giving it a raṅ stoṅ gloss is the attempt of the present Dalai Lama “to abate the long standing hostility” towards rDzogs-chen and to protect it “from the ravages of the ‘exclusive Rangtongpa’” (Hookham 1991: 16; see also Hookham 1992: 151-152, n. 4). For reviews of Hookham 1991, see Ehrhard 1993 and Griffiths 1993. See also Seyfort Ruegg 2000: 87.
  19. See, for example, Smith 2001: 231, where it is stated that “Mi pham’s open advocacy of the Gzhan stong was another red cape, and the bulls were not slow to charge,” and ibid., p. 327, n. 788 where both the sToṅ thun seṅ ge’i ṅa ro (p. 563-606.5) and the gŹan stoṅ seṅ ge’i ṅa ro (p. 359-378.4) are said to be works on the gźan stoṅ theory. It is of course true that Mi-pham wrote on the gźan stoṅ theory and even defended it and can be thus called a “gźan stoṅ sympathiser.” He, however, did not consider himself a gźan stoṅ pa (Dam chos dogs sel, p. 378.5-379.1: ñams mtshar tsam du bris pa yin na yaṅ / raṅ bzos bde gśegs dam chos bslad mi ruṅ / ’chal ṅag soṅ na rgyal ba rnams la bśags / raṅ bzos bśad na ci yaṅ zad mtha’ med / bdag la gźan stoṅ sgrub pa’i khur kyaṅ med / roṅ kloṅ rnam gñis klu sgrub gźuṅ daṅ mthun / dman pa bdag kyaṅ rtse gcig der ’dun kyaṅ / ma bris dbaṅ med pha rol tshig gis bskul /). Surprisingly, although the Ṅes śes sgron me is the locus classicus for the rÑiṅ-ma position regarding the issue of raṅ stoṅ and gźan stoṅ, John Pettit, in his study of this work, seems to be uncertain about Mi-pham’s position (Pettit 1999a: 114-124). However, cf. Pettit 1999b.