Topic of the week
Forging a Common Ground between Rangtong and Zhentong
The philosophy of buddha-nature in Tibet is often thought to have been split into a dichotomy of the rangtong, or self-emptiness, and zhentong, or other-emptiness. The advocates of these two traditions are seen to present two contradictory interpretations of the Tathāgatagarbha sūtras. While the classic rangtong philosophers such as the mainstream Sakya and Geluk scholars consider the Tathāgatagarbha sūtras as provisional teachings, reject an intrinsically existent buddha-nature and the latent Buddha qualities in all sentient beings, and adopt a rationalist approach to the nature of the mind, the main zhentong thinkers such as the leading Jonangpa masters take the Tathāgatagarbha sūtras to be definitive teachings, accept innate buddha-nature endowed with all enlightened qualities of the Buddha, and primarily maintain a cataphatic, mystical approach to the nature of the mind. Apart from the followers of the Nyingma and Kagyu, who profess a kind of a middle ground between the two by accepting the emptiness and illusory state of buddha-nature while espousing also that it is fully endowed with the Buddha qualities, the followers belonging to the mainstream rangtong and zhentong camps are seen to oppose each other, not finding a common ground. Instead, the Jonangpas and Gelukpas accuse each other of adopting extremist views and faltering from the Middle Way philosophy.
Thus, it is intriguing that some Jonangpa masters in the twentieth century who were based in the Jonang establishments of Zamthang in eastern Tibet adopted an inclusive approach to reconcile the Gelukpa rangtong theories and Dolpopa's zhentong theories. One such scholar was Ngawang Tsoknyi Gyatso, who was the author of Removing the Anguish of Holding to Extremes: Explanation of Omniscient Jonangpa's Madhyamaka of Other Emptiness and Illuminating Light: An Exegesis of Omniscient Jonangpa's Intent Aligned with General Treatises of Madhyamaka and Pramāṇa. Perhaps influenced by his teacher Bamda Thubten Gelek, who had direct connections with Geluk teachers and is also considered to be an incarnation of the Geluk master Jamyang Zhepa, Tsoknyi Gyatso in these two writings on other-emptiness makes a concerted effort to bring Dolpopa's Jonangpa and Gelukpa understanding of emptiness and the ultimate to a noncontradictory phase using various hermeneutic tools. A substantive treatment of Tsoknyi Gyatso's inclusivistic and conciliatory interpretations has been carried out by Filippo Brambilla in his article "A Late Proponent of the Jo nang gZhan stong Doctrine."
At the end of his Removing the Anguish of Holding to Extremes, Tsoknyi Gyatso presents a synopsis of the Ultimate Continuum, which effectively captures his understanding of the teachings on buddha-nature. He writes:
- As for presenting a short summary of the Ultimate Continuum, this great treatise entitled the Ultimate Continuum, which is primarily a major commentary on the last turning of the wheel, shows that a buddha element which is a naturally luminous and pure awareness, empty of hypostatic existence and primordially free from harsh characteristics of conceptuality, exists in all sentient beings without difference. It is obscured like treasure underneath the ground and butter lamp in a vase. Such an element is fully fathomed only by the Buddha and out of great compassion shown to the sentient beings, who are to be tamed, according to their mental capacity in the manner of cleansing a gem. In the first turning of the wheel, all appearances such as form are maintained as they appear and taught to be impermanent, suffering, empty and without self. These teachings show merely the techniques to approach liberation after the sentient beings have renounced saṃsāra and entered the path of liberation from saṃsāra.
- For those whose mindset is mature, the middle turning shows how all phenomena from form to the qualities aligned with enlightenment are by nature thatness which is free from all elaborations being empty of inherent existence, just like seeing the colorful rope as a snake. For those whose mindset is further matured through [the second turning] having confirmed the lack of elaborations or characteristics, the last turning shows how the sphere of reality which is empty of hypostatic existence and without the depth of characteristics is not a mere nonexistence when accessed by nonconceptual pristine wisdom free from elaborations. It is shown to possess all pure and ultimate aspects such as the marks, tokens, and strengths.
Rongtön and Buddha-Nature
Rongtön Sheja Kunrik alias Shakya Gyaltsen is one of the towering Sakya scholars who has left behind a rich corpus of commentaries on the five works of Maitreya. Among them, we find two works he composed pertaining to the Ultimate Continuum: a full commentary entitled Elegant Explanation of the Treatise of the Ultimate Continuum of the Mahāyāna and a short synopsis entitled Stages of Meditation of the Ultimate Continuum: Ornament of Maitreya's Intent, which contains instructions on how to put the Ultimate Continuum into practice. As one of the preeminent figures who shaped the philosophical assertions of the Sakya school, Rongtön presents a clear philosophical interpretation of the main topics discussed in the Ultimate Continuum.
For instance, while discussing the Buddha among the Three Jewels and explaining the unconditioned nature of the Buddha, Rongtön explains that the concept of being unconditioned must be understood in four different ways: not being conditioned by causes and conditions like the compounded phenomena are, not being conditioned by actions and afflictive emotions like ordinary sentient beings are, not being conditioned by the birth with mental body and inconceivable death and transfer like the enlightened saints on the path are, and not appearing to be conditioned like the physical forms of the Buddha are. Thus, only the aspect of the Buddha's ultimate state which is the sphere of reality or emptiness is truly unconditioned in the first sense; even the cognitive aspect of the Buddha's enlightenment is conditioned.
While commenting on Verses I.154 and 155, Rongtön refutes the interpretation given by former scholars and explains that there are no real adventitious defilements to be overcome, as they are empty by nature, and the defilements are separable from buddha-nature by their nature. Similarly, the natural purity of the buddha-nature need not be maintained, as it is an inherent and inseparable quality of the mind. Thus, he understands buddha-nature to be the luminous nature of the mind, combining both emptiness and awareness, and claims that it is free from truly existent defilements but endowed with the natural purity which unfolds into the sublime qualities of the Buddha when fully enlightened. If it were merely the unconditioned nature of emptiness, it could not be the main cause of Buddha's wisdom.
Although Rongtön presents in his commentary an analytical and scholarly exegesis of the Ultimate Continuum following the tradition passed down from the famous translator Ngok Loden Sherab, in his synoptic work on the practice of the Ultimate Continuum he lays out the structure in which this text can be put into practice. Firstly, one identifies the element/buddha-nature, which is the main cause of enlightenment, and the four obscuring thoughts and emotions, including aversion to dharma, view of self, fear of cyclic existence, and disregard for others' welfare. Then, one takes refuge in the Three Jewels to start the practice of the path to enlightenment and begins to cultivate the four antidotes to the four obscuring thoughts and emotions—namely, interest (seed), wisdom (mother), meditation (womb), and compassion (nanny). The path results in the state of enlightenment described as pure, self, permanent, and blissful. More on Rongtön’s commentary and the positions he held on buddha-nature and related topics can be read in Christian Bernert's Perfect or Perfected? Rongtön on Buddha-Nature.
Mahāmati, what I taught as buddha-nature is not like the self advocated by the non-Buddhists. Mahāmati, what the fully enlightened Buddhas teach as buddha-nature refers to emptiness, the ultimate, nirvāṇa, the unborn, the uncharacterized, and the wishless.~ Laṅkāvatārasūtra
Gö Lotsāwa’s Monumental Work on Buddha-Nature
Gö Lotsāwa Zhönu Pal was one of the most illustrious Tibetan scholars of the fifteenth century, not least for being the author of the famous historical work called Blue Annals. This history gives a brief account of how the five works of Maitreya, including the Ultimate Continuum, were transmitted in Tibet. Although not as well known as his historical work, Gö Lotsāwa also wrote a monumental commentary on the Ultimate Continuum and its vyākhyā entitled The Commentary on the Treatise "Mahāyāna-Uttaratantra": The Mirror Showing Reality Very Clearly. The work, amounting to nearly seven hundred folios, is most likely the longest commentary on the Ultimate Continuum to have ever been written and contains not only detailed philosophical interpretations and arguments but also historical accounts of how the Ultimate Continuum was transmitted in India and Tibet. The text contains rich citations from the canonical texts, including sūtras and tantras, Indian commentarial literature, and the works of many Tibetan scholars and masters. It is almost unique in blending the Indian sources and inspirational Tibetan writings on buddha-nature, particularly from the Kagyu tradition.
Styled on Indian commentarial writings and not laid out using the sa bcad outline which is the norm in Tibetan scholarship, Gö Lotsāwa presents the commentary in three main parts. The title, for which he gives an elaborate explanation of each word, is the first part and is the concise statement through which people of superior caliber can comprehend the content of the text. The second part consists of the first three verses of the Ultimate Continuum, which present the summary of the content of the text. These verses are considered sufficient to give the complete picture of the content of the text for those of middling caliber. The first verse enumerates the seven vajra, or adamantine, topics, which form the content of the Ultimate Continuum, the second verse shows the sūtra sources for these topics, and the third verse presents how the seven topics are connected to each other in a rational and coherent manner.
The third and main part of the commentary is the explanation of the main text of the Ultimate Continuum, in which Gö Lotsāwa first cites the verses and provides a very incisive and detailed explanation. This is said to be required for those of inferior mental caliber. Gö Lotsāwa presents an elaborate commentary on the verses, often exhibiting his ecumenical approach to bring all schools of Mahāyāna thought to a harmonious phase. With his knowledge of Sanskrit, he also compares the different translations and explains some concepts using original Sanskrit terms. For example, he states that the Tibetan term snying po (སྙིང་པོ་) is translated from the Sanskrit terms sāra, hridaya, garbha and maṇḍa. While these can be used synonymously to refer to the same thing, sāra implies being the essence or center from which things emit, hridaya to the heart which is cherished, garbha to the seed or womb which remains at the core, and maṇḍa to the crux or center. His reading of the Ultimate Continuum in his commentary is said to be more aligned to the original Sanskrit than the versions currently available in the Tibetan Tengyur canons.
Another striking feature of his commentary is his merging of the two traditions of the scholastic commentarial tradition, or analytic tradition, passed down from Ngok Lotsāwa Loden Sherab and the meditative tradition passed down from Tsen Khawoche. This is particularly palpable in his writing given his scholastic training under masters such as Tsongkhapa and his deep connection to Mahāmudrā and the Kagyu tradition of Gampopa. While being very critical and scholarly in his exegetical approach, he frequently draws inspiration from the experiential teachings of meditation masters such as Gampopa, Dampa Sangay, and Drigung Kyobpa Jigten Sumgön.
Gö Lotsāwa summarizes the meaning of buddha-nature in the scripture into four categories as (1) emptiness which is a nonimplicative negation, (2) the luminous nature of the mind, (3) the store consciousness, and (4) the bodhisattvas and sentient beings. His own understanding of buddha-nature is aligned to the second one, and he uses terms such as element of awareness (རིག་པའི་ཁམས་) and emptiness of awareness (རིག་པའི་སྟོང་པ་ཉིད་) to refer to buddha-nature, which appears to be seen as a coalescence of emptiness and appearance.
The version of Gö Lotsāwa's commentary which was critically edited by Klaus-Dieter Mathes can be found here.
Buddha nature is eternal, pure, real, virtuous, and will be realized by everyone in the future.~ Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra
The Kālacakra (དུས་ཀྱི་འཁོར་ལོ་) teachings, which were introduced to Tibet sometime around 1027 by Kyijo Lotsawa and fully translated by Dro Lotsāwa Sherub Drak and Ra Lotsāwa Chorab (leading to two early lineages), had a major impact on the tantric tradition in Tibet. The most common historical tradition claims that the Kālacakra teachings were imparted by the Buddha in Dhānyakaṭaka stūpa on the full moon of the Caitra month (the third month in Tibetan calendar today) in the year after he reached full enlightenment. According to another tradition, the Buddha gave these teachings in the final year of his life. The teachings were dispensed to a large gathering of disciples, including King Sucandra of Śambhala kingdom. King Sucandra is said to have taken the teachings to Śambhala where it flourished for many centuries.
Seven generations later, King Yaśas, who is believed to have been an emanation of Bodhisattva Mañjuśrī, united the different subjects of his kingdom into a single Vajrayāna caste and composed the summarized version entitled Summarized King Kālacakra Tantra Extracted from the Supreme Primordial Buddha, commonly known as the Summarized Kālacakratantra, or Kālacakralaghutantra. His son, Puṇḍarīka, who is considered to have been an emanation of Avalokiteśvara, composed the commentary on the Summarized Kālacakratantra entitled Vimalaprabhā, or Stainless Light. The original Root Tantra, said to be 12,000 verses containing 384,000 syllables in length, is no longer extant, but many of its verses are cited in the Stainless Light.
The Summarized King Kālacakra and its commentary Stainless Light were first passed down to India from where it was taken to Tibet in the eleventh century. Since its arrival, the Kālacakra teachings have not only changed the Tibetan concepts of time and space and informed its calendar and cosmology but also impacted the understanding and practice of Vajrayāna Buddhism. The tantra, with five chapters discussing the concepts of external cosmology, internal sentient beings and energies, the rites of empowerment, instructions for deity yoga, and the cultivation of pristine wisdom, became one of the most encompassing and influential sources for Vajrayāna theory and practice and was embraced by all major traditions of Tibetan Buddhism, with many considering it a very advanced and superior form of tantric teachings.
The impact of the Kālacakra on the understanding of buddha-nature can be best seen in the explicit and emphatic teachings the Kālacakra text professes on the actualization of the blissful, empty, luminous nature of the mind, often referred to as the pristine wisdom of the fourth empowerment (དབང་བཞི་པའི་ཡེ་ཤེས་) and aroused through sexual yoga and control of energy fluids. It is this aspect of the Kālacakra teachings and the related sixfold yoga practices in the Kālacakra that inspired Dolpopa to rise as a strong advocate of other-emptiness and formulate an absolutist understanding of buddha-nature. It is this aspect that also aroused Mipam Gyatso to praise the Kālacakra as exceptionally effective in revealing the innate nature of the mind.
More on the link between buddha-nature and "the image of emptiness" (སྟོང་གཟུགས་) in the Kālacakra and other-emptiness can be found in Michael Sheehy’s presentation at the 2019 Tathāgatagarbha Symposium in Vienna and in Robert Thurman's explanation here.
What is rigpa? The so-called rigpa is inner awareness free from conceptualisation. It is emptiness endowed with all aspects.~ Vimalaprabha
Gampopa’s Four Dharmas
Gampopa Sonam Rinchen was undoubtedly one of the earliest scholarly masters of the Kagyu school. He effectively combined the monastic and mind-training tradition of Kadam, in which he received his first training, with the tantric meditation tradition, which he received from Milarepa. He left behind a rich collection of teachings and meditation instructions, among which his teachings known as the Four Dharmas of Gampopa (སྒམ་པོའི་ཆོས་བཞི་) stand out as very well-known axiomatic teachings.
His learned disciple Jangchub Ngödup wrote down the four axiomatic instructions as it was taught to him in his work entitled Treatise Known as Four Dharmas of Incomparable Gampopa. Jangchub Ngödup, from the southern region of Layak, also authored an extensive commentary on the instructions entitled Ornament Illuminating the Essence: A Commentary on the Famous Text, the Four Dharmas of the Incomparable Dakpo in which he presents buddha-nature as a definitive teaching and directly links it to Mahāmudrā. The four dharmas are presented as:
- 1. ཆོས་ཆོས་སུ་འགྲོ་བ། Making dharma a [genuine] dharma practice
- 2. ཆོས་ལམ་དུ་འགྲོ་བ། Turning dharma into the path
- 3. ལམ་འཁྲུལ་པ་སེལ་བ། Clearing confusion on the path
- 4. འཁྲུལ་པ་ཡེ་ཤེས་སུ་ཤར་བ། Seeing confusion as pristine wisdom
Jangchub Ngödup elaborates on these four points in great detail, providing a very rich array of citations and arguments to underscore his points.
The buddha-nature is the cause, precious and supreme human body, the support, the virtuous master is the agent, and his instructions, the expedient technique. The result is the body of the perfect Buddha, who engages in actions for the world with no thought.~ Gampopa
The Precious Lamp, the First Bhutanese Commentary on the Ultimate Continuum
Gendün Rinchen alias Geshe Jyaku, the sixty-ninth Je Khenpo of Bhutan, is one of the most prolific monk-scholars Bhutan ever produced. A Bhutanese Buddhist luminary of the twentieth century, he has left behind an impressive literary legacy of nine volumes of compositions and commentarial literature, most of which he wrote while teaching in the shedra colleges in Bhutan. A scholar of great depth and vast knowledge, his works are marked by clarity and an exceptionally beautiful writing style, whether they are in prose or poetry. His creative play with words and lucid writing skills can be seen in his wit and humor-laden Biography of Drukpa Kunley and the very informative Religious History of Bhutan.
On buddha-nature, Gendün Rinchen wrote a commentary on the Ultimate Continuum entitled Precious Lamp: A Literal Explanation of the Ultimate Mahāyāna Continuum. In explaining the content of verses I.154 and 155, he clearly expresses his understanding of buddha-nature as a union of emptiness and luminosity endowed with latent qualities of the Buddha. He writes:
- If asked what is the ontic nature of the element which is taught to be unfathomed by others, this natural purity of the essence, which is free from stains, has no need for preexisting elements of flaws to be cleared because being free from all kinds of stains is the nature of this intrinsically empty [essence]. This natural luminosity of the essence, which is free from stains, has no need for new aspects of qualities to be maintained because possessing all qualities in an indivisible manner is the nature of this intrinsically luminous [essence].
He comments further:
- If asked what are the characteristics of such element, the naturally pure element is separable from the conditioned phenomena, which are divisible from it, because the afflictions which have arisen from the assembly of causes and conditions do not penetrate its innate character and the stains are empty of their nature, just like space. The pure element is inseparable from the unconditioned attributes of the Buddha, which are indivisible from it, because it naturally possesses the unsurpassable qualities of the Buddha, such as powers, and the qualities are not empty of their nature, just like the sun. It is empty of that which does not exist in it, thus transcending the extreme of exaggeration, and it is not empty of that which exists in it, thus transcending the extreme of denial, just as Maitreya has said: "What exists in it cannot be nonexistent and what does not exist can neither be existent."
Gendün Rinchen explicitly endorses a buddha-nature that is a union of emptiness and luminosity, but he also argues that the Buddha qualities which are latent in buddha-nature are not empty of their being. Thus, he adopts a position which is slightly different from the main advocates of self-emptiness and other-emptiness.
O King! Mind is inconceivable and always luminous by nature. Its buddha-nature remains like gold in the rocks.
Bötrul Dongak Tenpai Nyima and His Elucidation of Mipam's Thought
If Ju Mipam Gyatso, who composed commentaries on many classical texts and articulated specific Nyingma philosophical positions on critical and popular topics in the Tibetan scholarly world, can be considered the father of Nyingma scholasticism, it was his disciples and followers who carried on this legacy and gave a sustained and strong philosophical voice for the Nyingma school. This can be seen in hermeneutics pertaining to buddha-nature, which was initiated by Mipam and later on reinforced by his followers, such as Bötrul Dongak Tenpai Nyima.
Bötrul, in his Notes on the Essential Points of Exegesis (སྟོང་ཐུན་གནད་ཀྱི་ཟིན་ཐུན་), captures the gist of interpretations, analyses, and arguments which Mipam has presented in his writings, particularly in Lion's Roar: Exposition of Buddha-Nature. This concise and clear synopsis was initially written at the behest of Choying Rangdrol in Kham and later extended at Drigung Nyima Changra, when Bötrul taught there for a year. The crux of Mipam and Bötrul's exposition of buddha-nature and related literature and formulation of buddha-nature as a union of emptiness and luminosity is the two sets of two truths and the fourfold scheme of correct cognition. Mipam endorses the importance of distinguishing the two different sets of two truths in order to understand the intent of the many sūtras and their commentaries. The first set of two truths, which is well known particularly in the Mādhyamika literature, is two truths comprising emptiness and appearance (སྣང་སྟོང་བདེན་གཉིས་). In this context, emptiness is the ultimate truth and all knowable phenomena or appearances fall under the category of conventional truth. Buddha-nature, in this case, is a conventional truth just as the wisdom and qualities of the fully enlightened Buddha are. Emptiness, which is free from all extremes or elaborations, is the only real ultimate truth. The Buddha's middle turning of the wheel and the scholastic writings of Nāgārjuna, according to Mipam and Bötrul, focus on this set of two truths.
Mipam calls the second set the two truths of abiding/ontic and appearing/phenomenal modes (གནས་་སྣང་བདེན་གཉིས་). In this context, a thing for which its ontic existence and phenomenal appearance are consistent (གནས་ཚུལ་དང་སྣང་ཚུལ་མཐུན་པ་), such as the Buddha's wisdom, is the ultimate truth, while a thing for which its appearance does not conform with its ontic reality, such as the illusory experience of hell through misconception, is a worldly or conventional truth. Thus, buddha-nature, which is the innate nature of all beings, falls under the ultimate truth because it exists ontologically as it appears, whereas suffering, for instance, is a part of the conventional truth because it is an illusory experience triggered by adventitious afflictions and does not exist objectively.
In tandem with this distinction of two sets of two truths, Mipam and his followers also underscored the theory of fourfold correct cognition. Firstly, correct cognition is divided, as is popularly done, into two categories of the cognition examining the ultimate (དོན་དམ་དཔྱོད་བྱེད་ཀྱི་ཚད་མ་) and the cognition examining the conventional (ཐ་སྙད་དཔྱོད་བྱེད་ཀྱི་ཚད་མ་). The correct cognition discerning the ultimate is then divided into the correct cognition discerning the notational ultimate (རྣམ་གྲངས་པའི་དོན་དམ་) and the one discerning the non-notational ultimate (རྣམ་གྲངས་མ་ཡིན་པའི་དོན་དམ་). The first one apprehends merely the emptiness or absence of real existence, while the second is the awareness of emptiness free from all extremes or elaborations. The understanding of the lack of self-existence or hypostatic existence is considered only a partial emptiness and the notational ultimate. The real ultimate is said to transcend all points of fixation, mental constructions, and conceptual elaborations.
The correct cognition perceiving the conventional is also divided into two categories of the limited mundane cognition (ཚུར་མཐོང་ཚད་མ་) and cognition of pure discernment (དག་གཟིགས་ཚད་མ་). Ordinary phenomena such as the things of saṃsāra are objects of limited mundane cognition which does not have ontic reality. Thus, they fall within the conventional truth, while things associated with nirvāṇa, such as buddha-nature, which exist as the true nature of things, are objects of the latter. Because they are confirmed by the higher cognition of pure discernment or the pristine wisdom of the enlightened beings, these things are ultimately existent (དོན་དམ་པར་ཡོད་པ་).
The rejection of buddha-nature as the ultimate truth in the sūtras of the middle turning of the wheel and works of masters such as Candrakīrti is in the context of the first set of two truths. Buddha-nature is negated when examined by the cognition examining the ultimate truth in this context. Thus, buddha-nature is considered a provisional teaching. However, buddha-nature is part of the ultimate truth in the context of the second set of two truths as it is ascertained by the enlightened wisdom or cognition of pure discernment. Therefore, it is considered as a definitive teaching in the sūtras of the third turning of the wheel and in texts such as Maitreya's Ultimate Continuum. In this manner, Mipam and his followers adopt a hermeneutic approach to reconcile the divergent positions of the sūtras and classical Mādhyamika authors and claim them to be noncontradictory.
Mahāmati, Buddha-nature is the basis of saṃsāra and nirvāṇa, and happiness and suffering.~ Laṅkāvatārasūtra
Kongtrul and His Encyclopedia
Jamgön Kongtrul Lodrö Taye alias Yönten Gyatso was one of the most prolific scholars and staunch advocates of the theory of other-emptiness in the nineteenth century. An ecumenical master with extensive learning not only in various Buddhist traditions but also in the Bön religion of Tibet, he left behind an astounding literary legacy. His oeuvre, which includes both new compilations/editions of existing texts and fresh writings, consists of the Five Great Treasures (མཛོད་ཆེན་ལྔ་) and amounts to well over a 100 thick volumes.
Among the Five Treasures is an encyclopedic work entitled Treasury of Knowledge (ཤེས་བྱ་ཀུན་ཁྱབ་མཛོད།) that covers in ten long chapters all topics and concepts related to the Buddhist path to enlightenment. The content of the book is presented through the scheme of the three trainings (བསླབ་པ་གསུམ་), and the author broaches all major understandings and interpretations known to him on the topics starting from the cosmological origins of the world to the ultimate nature and qualities of Buddhahood. Kongtrul first composed the root verses of the text and later supplemented them with the commentary at the behest of his teacher and colleague Khyentse Wangpo.
In his Treasury of Knowledge, Jamgön Kongtrul presents a clear analysis of the positions held by the advocates of self-emptiness and other-emptiness. He writes:
- As for both Madhyamaka known as self-emptiness and other-emptiness, there is no difference in establishing all phenomena included within the conventional truth as emptiness and in negating all extremes of elaboration during meditative equipoise. Yet, in the postmeditative state when tenet systems are delineated, merely as a philosophical assertion, there is a difference in the manner of designating through thoughts and words, some saying "there is reality and truth," others claiming "there isn't," and a difference in the view, with some asserting nondual wisdom is truly existent and others saying it is not truly existent when being examined by the final analysis verifying the ultimate.
He also refutes the position held by some Indian and Tibetan scholars that the theory of other-emptiness belongs to the Mind Only school. Kongtrul explains that both the systems introduced by Maitreya/Asaṅga and Nāgārjuna are Madhyamaka, or Middle Way, and deal with the ultimate definitive point. The first one, presented in the Five Dharma Treatises of Maitreya, does so through nondual pristine wisdom, and the latter, presented in the scholastic writings of Nāgārjuna, does so through emptiness which is a nonimplicative negation. The former establishes the ultimate to be empty of all conventional phenomena which lack self-existence, and the latter establishes both conventional and ultimate truth to be empty of self-existence. Thus, the theory of self-emptiness is best at elucidating Nāgārjuna's position and the theory of other-emptiness is best at elucidating Maitreya's thought, and neither can logically repudiate the other. Kongtrul, following Śākya Chokden, considers the two systems introduced by Nāgārjuna and Maitreya as equal in delineating the ultimate reality and does not relegate either to a lower rank in Buddhist doxography.
The single vehicle of the Buddha is taught.
Hold this for every one will become Victors.
The Golden Age of Buddha-Nature Discourse in Tibet
The fourteenth century was perhaps the most vibrant period in the history of buddha-nature thought in Tibet. At the peak of what Seyfort Ruegg called the classical systemic period of Tibetan philosophical history, particularly that of Madhyamaka, or the Middle Way philosophy, that century saw the discourse on buddha-nature reach new heights. Many leading authorities on buddha-nature whose works shaped the understanding of buddha-nature in Tibet and formalized the main schools of interpretation of buddha-nature lived in the fourteenth century.
The first one was the Third Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje (1284–1339), who composed two important short works on buddha-nature and espoused a position that buddha-nature is the basic element or base of existence, including both saṃsāra and nirvāṇa, endowed with the qualities of the Buddha. He was followed by Butön Rinchen Drup (1290–1364), who ardently argued in his treatise that the buddha-nature taught in the sūtras as having qualities of the Buddha latent in it is a provisional docetic teaching and that the buddha-nature is empty of its own being. Using the Indian Buddhist hermeneutic tools of basis for the intention (དགོངས་གཞི་), purpose of the teaching (དགོས་པ་), and logical damage in direct understanding (དངོས་ལ་གནོད་བྱེད་), he advocated a position which was aligned to many Sakyapa masters before him.
In contrast, Dölpopa Sherab Gyaltsen (1292–1361), whose life almost fully overlapped with Butön’s, started as a critical and ecumenical scholar on buddha-nature and eventually adopted an absolutist theory, arguing that buddha-nature is real, absolute, eternal, and endowed with the qualities of the Buddha in its primordial nature. Heavily influenced by the teachings in the tantric literature such as Kalācakra and in the sūtras of the third wheel, Dölpopa became the foremost doyen of other-emptiness, and his Mountain Dharma remains the tour de force of this thought. As an author of many works on buddha-nature and as the head of Jonang tradition, he left behind a philosophical and religious tradition which clearly distinguishes itself in terms of its absolutist understanding of buddha-nature and assertion that both the first and second turnings of the wheel of Dharma are provisional. His student Jonang Chokle Namgyal (1306–86) carried on his legacy in the fourteenth century.
Another luminary of this era was Longchen Rabjam (1308-64), who left behind a rich body of literature related to buddha-nature as well as a vibrant spiritual tradition of seminal teachings on the nature of the mind. Longchen Rabjam espoused a position akin to what his teacher Rangjung Dorje promoted and also presented buddha-nature in direct relationship to Dzogchen mysticism, the highest tenet system and spiritual practice in his Nyingma school. These heavyweights on buddha-nature were followed by prolific writers and thinkers such as Rendawa Zhönu Lodrö (1349–1412), Rongtön Sheja Kunrik (1367–1449), and Bodong Chokle Namgyal (1376–1451), but most prominently Tsongkhapa Lobzang Drakpa (1357–1419), who reformed the Kadampa tradition and founded the Gelukpa school, which became a strong advocate of the theory of self-emptiness and a harsh critic of other-emptiness. Thus, the main philosophical interpretations of buddha-nature in the Nyingma, Kagyu, Sakya, Jonang, and Geluk traditions were mostly crystallized and systematized in the fourteenth century.
The nature of the mind is luminous and has never any affliction.
Ngok Loden Sherab was one of the most outstanding figures of the New Translation (འགྱུར་གསར་མ་) and old Kadampa tradition. A prominent translator and scholar of the 11th century, Ngok Loden Sherab taught philosophy, logic, and religious practices to as many as twenty thousand students and worked with many Indian paṇḍitas to translate some thirty-seven thousand verses of texts. The Tibetan translation of the Ultimate Continuum (Ratnagotravibhāga Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra) as we know it was executed by him with the Indian scholar Sajjana. An earlier one was done by Atiśa and Naktso Tsultrim Gyelwa but is considered lost. In addition to the translation, Ngok Loden Sherab also authored a commentary on the Ultimate Continuum and started the analytical tradition of the exegesis and study of the Ultimate Continuum.
Ngok Lotsāwa Loden Sherab generally equated buddha-nature with emptiness free from all elaborations and asserted buddha-nature to be a seed or potential for buddhahood rather a full-blown buddhahood in sentient beings obscured by temporary afflictions. In his epistle sent to Ga Sherab Drak and the monks of Tsong Kharusum, he writes:
- བཤེས་གཉེན་སྤྲིན་ལས་ལེགས་བྱུང་མང་དུ་ཐོས་པ་ཡི། །
- ཆར་རྒྱུན་བསིལ་བས་ཉོན་མོངས་གདུང་བ་ཞི་བྱེད་ཀྱིས། །
- བདེ་གཤེགས་སྙིང་པོའི་ས་བོན་རབ་ཏུ་བརླན་བྱས་ནས། །
- སངས་རྒྱས་ཡོན་ཏན་ཕུན་ཚོགས་ལོ་ཏོག་རབ་རྒྱས་བྱ། །
- Quell the agony of afflictions with the cool shower of learning
- Which flows gently from the cloud that is one’s master.
- Having soaked the seed of buddha-nature,
- Make the wholesome harvest of the Buddha's qualities boom.
The full translation of this epistle can be found here.
Mahāmati, the Bodhisattvas and Mahāsattvas of the present and future should not construe and grasp this a self.~ Laṅkāvatārasūtra
Tāranātha was undoubtedly one of the greatest exponents of the theory of other-emptiness in Tibet. A brilliant scholar with an impressive oeuvre on history, language, philosophy, and rituals, he has left a mark on Buddhism particularly through his History of Buddhism in India and his writings on buddha-nature.
Among his numerous writings on buddha-nature, the following three works highlight his position on emptiness and the philosophical interpretation of the Buddha's ultimate intent. In his Essence of Other-Emptiness (Gzhan stong snying po), he spans the Buddhist and non-Buddhist philosophical tenets and spiritual paths. He classifies them into systems which cannot lead to happy rebirth, which can lead to happy rebirth and to liberation, and classifies the Buddhist systems into four philosophical tenet systems and Greater and Lesser Vehicles. While most people who follow Greater or Lesser Vehicles also espouse the equivalent tenet systems, there are some who espouse a Mahāyāna tenet system but enter the path of the Lesser Vehicle and vice versa.
The highest philosophical system is the Madhyamaka, which he divides into the Ordinary Madhyamaka (དབུ་མ་ཕལ་པ་) and the Great Madhyamaka (དབུ་མ་ཆེན་པོ་). The exponents of self-emptiness are grouped under Ordinary Madhyamaka, which was passed down from masters such as Buddhapālita, Bhāvaviveka, Vimuktisena, Śāntarakṣita, et al. This school, he argues, asserts emptiness free from elaborations, like empty space, to be the ultimate truth and includes even the Buddha's wisdom within conventional truth. Tāranātha states that the later exponents of this tradition have criticized the theory of other-emptiness without understanding it properly.
The theory of other-emptiness is the Great Madhyamaka, also known as Madhyamaka of Cognition (རྣམ་རིག་དབུ་མ་), which was propounded by both Nāgārjuna and Asaṅga and their main followers. In this system, all conditioned or unconditioned phenomena, including the ultimate truth espoused by the proponents of self-emptiness, are considered as lacking true existence and thus adventitious constructs, while the self-aware luminous wisdom which is inseparable from the sphere of reality is the ultimate truth. This theory of eternal, absolute, adamantine buddha-nature, or dharmakāya, is the message of the Mahāyāna sūtras, particularly those teaching buddha-nature, and the many commentarial literatures.
In the Ornament of Other-Emptiness Madhyamaka (Gzhan stong dbu ma'i rgyan), he carries out a more rigorous rebuttal of the critique of the theory of other-emptiness. Delving into Buddhist hermeneutics in this discourse written largely in verses, he argues that no sūtras teach the third turning of the wheel to be provisional, while many teach the second turning to be provisional. According to him, the first turning teaches conventional truth, the second turning teaches partial ultimate truth, and the third turning teaches the full ultimate truth. Deploying themes such as provisional and definitive teachings, the three turnings of the wheel of Dharma, and the four points of reliance, he argues how the theory of self-emptiness is provisional and not the ultimate understanding of the Buddha's intent.
He also cites many sūtras and the early masters of Mahāyāna and argues that the most leading Mahāyāna masters prophesied by the Buddha taught the other-emptiness, while only a few later Mādhyamika masters rejected the other-emptiness and advocated the theory of self-emptiness. In The Scriptural Citations for the Ornament of Madhyamaka of Other-Emptiness (Gzhan stong dbu ma'i rgyan gyi lung sbyor), Tāranātha provides in full the citations and references which he either quoted briefly or alluded to in the Ornament of Other-Emptiness Madhyamaka.
Although your true nature may be hidden momentarily by stress and worry, anger and unfulfilled longings, it still continues to exist.~ The Buddha's Brain
Tashi Özer's Commentary on the Ratnagotravibhāga
Dumowa Tashi Özer is one of the articulate Kagyupa commentators on the Ratnagotravibhāga. He received an education in the Geluk and Sakya traditions but is most significantly associated with the two most scholarly Karmapas as a student of the 7th Karmapa, Chödrak Gyatso, and a teacher of the 8th Karmapa, Mikyö Dorje. Tashi Özer's commentary, Heart of the Luminous Sun, was primarily based on the topical outline written by the 3rd Karmapa, Rangjung Dorje.
The commentary provides a concise summary of the two interpretations of the topic of buddha-nature in Tibet. He writes:
- In identifying the nature of buddha-nature, in Tibet, there are diverse assertions. The lamas of the Gaden tradition claim that the emptiness of the mind being empty of hypostatic existence, which is a nonimplicative negation, is buddha-nature. The lamas of the Sakya tradition hold that the unity of emptiness and clarity of the mind is buddha-nature. The lord Rangjung Dorje has taught:
- This ordinary consciousness itself
- Is the sphere of reality, the buddha-nature.
- It can neither be made better by enlightened beings
- Nor sullied to become worse by sentient beings.
- He also states:
- Then, if asked: What does buddha-nature refer to? It is as said in the verse:
- The luminous nature of the mind
- Is immutable like space.
- The adventitious impurities such as attachment
- Which arise from wrong concepts cannot defile it.
Following Rangjung Dorje's position, the author adopts a zhentong position and argues that buddha-nature is empty of adventitious defilements but is not void of the transcendental qualities of enlightenment. He refutes the claim put forth by others that buddha-nature is a provisional teaching and also the argument that buddha-nature is empty of both its own existence and adventitious defilements.
All sentient beings are of the same spiritual gene and possess buddha-nature.~ Atiśa
Mipam Gyatso on Buddha-Nature
Ju Mipam Namgyal Gyatso (1846–1912) was perhaps the greatest polymath Tibet ever produced. A thinker and writer with extraordinary output, now published in 31/32 volumes, Mipam effectively began a new chapter of philosophical exegesis and scholarship in the Nyingma tradition. Although he did not claim to begin a new philosophical school but only elucidate and elaborate the points of the scholars and saints of the past, including his Nyingma precursors Rongzom Chökyi Zangpo (1042–1136) and Longchen Rabjam (1308–1364), Mipam became a trailblazer in presenting a clear Nyingma stance on many philosophical issues and is today seen as the most authoritative intellectual voice in the Nyingma tradition. While building a strong Nyingma philosophical and hermeneutic system, he also espoused and promoted the ecumenical rime approach and had much influence on other Tibetan Buddhist traditions through his writings.
Mipam did not write an extensive treatise on buddha-nature, although he discussed the topic in many of his writings. His writings on the Middle Way and Vajrayāna cover the topic of buddha-nature in some detail. However, it is in the two short writings, both with the title Lion's Roar, that we find his philosophical take on the definition of buddha-nature. The first one, Lion's Roar: Exposition of Buddha-Nature, is a pithy presentation in which Mipam explains the three rational arguments given in Ratnagotravibhāga, Verse I.28 for the presence of buddha-nature in all sentient beings. In the course of his discussion, Mipam refutes, on the one hand, the zhentong thought, which asserts buddha-nature to be an absolute hypostatic entity endowed with the qualities of the Buddha, and on the other, the Geluk position that buddha-nature refers to the mere negation of hypostatic existence as well as the Sakya assertion that it is the union of emptiness and clarity of the transient mind. Like his Nyingma precursors, whose position he sets out to elucidate, Mipam presents a description of buddha-nature which is closely related to the understanding of the "ground" in the Dzogchen philosophy. To him, buddha-nature is the coalescence of emptiness and luminosity, which is an unconditioned, innate nature of the mind. If analyzed using Mādhyamika reasoning, buddha-nature, like other phenomena, is empty of true self-existence and cannot be found. It defies ontological possibilities such as being, nonbeing, existence, nonexistence, both and neither. Yet, such emptiness or absence has a natural appearance or presence that is unconditioned and transcendent. Buddha-nature is this empty and transcendent nature, which all beings possess, and has all the qualities of enlightenment latent in it.
In his other short treatise, Lion's Roar: Affirming Other Emptiness, Mipam defends the zhentong interpretation of buddha-nature from the unjustified criticism made by the mainstream rangtong advocates. The proponents of rangtong, or self-emptiness theory, argue that buddha-nature refers to the emptiness of the mind and does not exist as an innate nature of a sentient being. They argue that the Buddha's teachings on buddha-nature as an innate state of enlightenment are not definitive teachings to be taken literally but provisional teachings to lead the beings who lack confidence. They criticized the proponents of zhentong, or other-emptiness, and accused them of espousing an absolutist concept akin to the non-Buddhist theory of self.
Although Mipam himself held the position of rangtong, or self-emptiness, which combines emptiness free from elaborations with unconditioned transcendent presence of enlightenment in all sentient beings, he rebutted the critique of zhentong theory. He used his two different schemes of two truths in order to do this: the two truths pertaining to emptiness and appearance (སྣང་སྟོང་བདེན་གཉིས་) and the two truths pertaining to existence and appearance (གནས་སྣང་བདེན་གཉིས་). In the context of the final analysis for true existence in accordance with the purport of the second turning of wheel, all things are empty. Thus, buddha-nature is also empty of its own nature as are all other things. Thus, buddha-nature is merely a conventional phenomena. Yet, in the context of what really exists on the conventional level in accordance with the purport of the third turning of the wheel, Mipam argues that there are some things which exist as they appear because they are inherent aspects of our true nature. Buddha-nature is such an inherent nature, and all sentient beings are endowed with the transcendent qualities of enlightenment in their true nature, unlike defiling emotions and negative thoughts of saṃsāra which are pure fiction and do not exist with any ontological reality. Thus, to Mipam, buddha-nature is empty of such adventitious problems, but not empty of its own transcendent qualities.
The single essential point of all the doctrines of Sūtra and Mantra is only this all-pervasive buddha-nature.~ Mipam Gyatso (1846–1912)
Rangjung Dorje on Buddha-Nature
Karmapa Rangjung Dorje (1284–1339) is undoubtedly one of the greatest authors on buddha-nature in the Kagyu tradition. Recognized as the incarnation of Karmapa Pakshi by his teacher Ogyenpa Rinchen Pal (1229–1309), Rangjung Dorje emerged to be a leading religious figure of his time, combining Kagyu and Nyingma teachings.
The work for which he is best known is Zab mo nang don, or The Profound Inner Meaning, which, in eleven chapters, deals in detail with the origin of sentient bodies in existence; the network of inner energy channels; the different types of energies and essential fluids which flow through them; the states of consciousness dependent on physical energies; the alignment of internal forces to the external universe, pantheon of divinities, and stages on the path of purification; and the dissolution of the energies. Although the text is based on the premise that all beings have innate buddha-nature with full-blown qualities, Rangjung Dorje does not elaborate on buddha-nature. This he does in his short text entitled The Treatise on Pointing Out the Tathāgata Heart and his famous aspiration prayer Aspiration Prayer of the Definitive Meaning of Mahāmudrā.
This ordinary consciousness is the sphere of reality and the essence of the Buddha.~ Rangjung Dorje
Remembering Professor David Seyfort Ruegg
Today is the 21st day since the passing of Professor David Seyfort Ruegg, one of the most outstanding modern scholars in the field of buddha-nature and Middle Way studies. I first met Prof. Seyfort Ruegg in 1998 when I approached him with a request to be the external supervisor for my doctoral research on emptiness at Oxford. He had already retired from academic positions by then and was devoting his time to writing, but after my persistent requests during three visits, he kindly agreed, making me, to my knowledge, the last PhD student he formally supervised.
In the four years of doctoral work that followed, I would visit Prof. Seyfort Ruegg regularly to discuss the chapters of my thesis, which I would post to him a couple weeks in advance. If I failed to send a chapter on time, I would receive a short note as a polite reminder. Our meetings at his home in Cadogan Square in London would invariably begin with a glass of apple juice, one or two pieces of Duchy Originals shortbread, some pleasantries, and updates on Tibetan and Buddhist Studies before he delved into the detailed discussion and critique of what I had written. We spent hours going through my chapters page by page, the longest session being one from 2–10pm. The sessions were both taxing and uplifting, filled with advice and instructions on which book to read or word to choose, and a ruthless assessment of my writing.
Prof. Seyfort Ruegg was a king in his field. A leading authority on Middle Way and buddha-nature studies in the Indo-Tibetan tradition, he was relentless in the rigor, precision, clarity, and substance of his works. Two incidents still remind me of the high standard he held and wished his students to aim for. When I included a long critique of a certain author on Nāgārjuna in my writing, to my surprise, he dismissed it, saying the work in question did not deserve such attention and effort. After I submitted my thesis for viva voce, he insisted that I wait (which I did for eight months) to have accomplished scholars on the topic as examiners.
Born in 1931 in New York and having undertaken Indology and Tibetology in Paris for his university education, Prof. Seyfort Ruegg devoted much of his long and rich academic career to the study of buddha-nature and the Middle Way. Starting from his doctoral thesis, La théorie du tathāgatagarbha et du gotra, in 1969, he has written many books and articles on buddha-nature, including Le traité du tathāgatagarbha de Bu ston Rin chen grub in 1973, and Buddha-nature, Mind and the Problem of Gradualism in a Comparative Perspective: On the Transmission and Reception of Buddhism in India and Tibet in 1989. His writings on the Middle Way include, among other titles, his important work The Literature of the Madhyamaka School of Philosophy in India published in 1981, Studies in Indian and Tibetan Madhyamaka Thought, Part 1 & 2, and the most recent compilation of fifteen articles by him, The Buddhist Philosophy of the Middle: Essays on Indian and Tibetan Madhyamaka. His other writings include books and articles on linguistic philosophy, epistemology, hermeneutics, history and art, and many dozens of book reviews.
As a Sanskritist and Tibetologist, Prof. Seyfort Ruegg also held professorial chairs in Indian Philosophy, Buddhist Studies, and Tibetan Studies at major universities, including Leiden, Seattle, Hamburg, and the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He has supervised numerous students like myself, giving them his time and knowledge very generously. Despite his formidable output and renown for his work, David Seyfort Ruegg was, as a person, a quiet, private, and gentle being. His kindness and soft character was evident particularly in his care for his senile mother who lived with him. Our academic discussions in his house were at times interrupted by the care he was giving her.
David Seyfort Ruegg passed away on February 2, 2021 due to complications related to Covid-19. Far away in the midst of the land and people he studied, I lit a butter lamp in homage and chanted some heartfelt prayers. May his consciousness find peace, and may his wisdom and compassion continue to shine his own path and the paths of other sentient beings.
The idea that the doctrine of the tathāgatagarbha and buddha-nature is one of the supreme teachings of the Mahāyāna is explicitly stated besides in the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra.~ David Seyfort Ruegg
Gompopa and His Jewel Ornament of Liberation
Dam chos yid bzhin nor bu thar pa rin po che'i rgyan, or Dvags po thar rgyan for short, is one of the most popular works by Gampopa Sonam Rinchen, one of the founding fathers of the Kagyu tradition. Using a lam rim instructional style, the text presents the entire system of the Buddhist spiritual practice using the framework of the six focal points of cause, support, agent, technique, result, and actions.
- རྒྱུ་ནི་བདེ་གཤེགས་སྙིང་པོ་སྟེ། །
- རྟེན་ནི་མི་ལུས་རིན་ཆེན་མཆོག །
- རྐྱེན་ནི་དགེ་བའི་བཤེས་གཉེན་ཡིན། །
- ཐབས་ནི་དེ་ཡི་གདམས་ངག་སྟེ། །
- འབྲས་བུ་རྫོགས་སངས་རྒྱས་ཀྱི་སྐུ། །
- ཕྲིན་ལས་རྟོག་མེད་འགྲོ་དོན་མཛད། །
- The buddha-nature is the cause,
- Precious and supreme human body, the support,
- The virtuous master is the agent,
- And his instructions, the expedient technique.
- The result is the body of the perfect Buddha,
- Who engages in actions for the world with no thought.
Gampopa, thus, set the ground with buddha-nature as the cause of enlightenment. He goes on to elaborate how buddha-nature exists in all sentient beings as the capacity for enlightenment, citing sūtra sources and using the three arguments presented in the Sublime Continuum Verse I.28. The text is also available in English translations such as Jewel Ornament of Liberation by Herbert Guenther.
Why wouldn’t one attain enlightenment if sought with diligence because all of us sentient beings possess buddha-nature, the cause of buddhahood.~ Gampopa Sonam Rinchen
Chomden Rikpai Raldri and Buddha-Nature
Chomden Rikpai Raldri (1227–1305) is one of the most illustrious masters of the early Kadam school and Narthang monastery. He was born in Phuthang in the Samye area and became a monk at Samye but later joined Gadong to study under Nyima Tsundru. Suspecting leprosy contraction, he traveled to Narthang to see Kyotön Mönlam Tsultrim, the master who was then well known for treating leprosy. Kyotön Mönlam Tsultrim made Chomden Rikpai Raldri recite the Pramāṇaviniścaya in seclusion. He is said to have recovered from leprosy after reciting this text on epistemology over a thousand times. He is also said to have studied at Narthang, where he later became an abbot of great reputation, so much so that two-thirds of Tibet’s scholars are said to have gathered there during his time.
Chomden Rikpai Raldri despised the alliances Tibetan lamas made with Mongolian rulers and even had an interesting exchange with Chogyal Phakpa, the first Sakya ruler and teacher of Kubilai Khan. His student Chim Jampelyang, with whom he was initially displeased and whose gifts he did not accept happily, became a tutor to a Mongol prince and sent him ink to help him write some sixteen volumes of his writings. He composed many commentarial works with the title Ornamental Flower and also wrote catalogues for the newly compiled Narthang Kangyur and Tengyur. His synoptic commentary and outline of the Sublime Continuum entitled Ornamental Flowers: A Commentary on Sublime Continuum is a short work which is perhaps one of the earliest commentaries on the Sublime Continuum.
In this synoptic outline, which has recently been discovered in the Drepung library, Chomden Rikpai Raldri highlights his position on buddha-nature. He points out that buddha-nature is a luminous nature of the mind which is indivisible from reality (ཆོས་ཉིད་དང་དབྱེར་པའི་རང་བཞིན་འོད་གསལ་བའི་སེམས་), and buddha-nature does not refer to the mere empty reality because even nonsubstantial and inanimate objects have that reality (ཆོས་ཉིད་རྐྱང་པ་ཁམས་མ་ཡིན་ཏེ་བེམ་པོ་དང་དངོས་མེད་ལ་ཡང་ཡོད་པའི་ཕྱིར་རོ།།). He clearly claims that all sentient beings possess the buddha-element, for which different labels are used, and the buddha-element has all the qualities of the Buddha latent in it, awaiting to be only made manifest. Thus, he categorically declares that buddha-nature is not a provisional topic but a topic of definitive teaching.
All phenomena are perfectly awakened from the beginning.~ Padmasambhava
Candrakīrti and Two Works Attributed to Him
The figure of Candrakīrti features prominently in the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist philosophical tradition. His work on the Middle Way entitled Entrance to the Middle Way, or Madhyamakāvatāra (དབུ་མ་འཇུག་པ་), is perhaps the most studied work on emptiness and Madhyamaka in the Himalayan world. As a leading exponent of Nāgārjuna’s Middle Way school, and as the foremost champion of Prāsaṅgika Madhyamaka thought, which is seen as the highest philosophical tenet system, Candrakīrti holds a highly elevated position in the Tibetan Buddhist intellectual tradition.
In his Madhyamakāvatāra, Candrakīrti charts out the bodhisattva path in the framework of ten stages and ten perfections, which culminates in the state of the Buddha with enlightenment powers and other marvelous qualities. Of the ten perfections, his work treats in detail the perfection of wisdom by establishing emptiness, which according to him is the true and ultimate nature of all things. It is the full realization of emptiness, or non-self, which constitutes the ultimate knowledge or wisdom and the central path to enlightenment. Candrakīrti employs a wide range of rational reductionist analyses to deconstruct all phenomena to establish the emptiness of all things and in the process refutes the substantialist philosophical claims of both Buddhist and non-Buddhist schools.
While underscoring this nature of emptiness, he rejects the existence of buddha-nature and interprets the sūtras that expound buddha-nature to be provisional teachings which are dispensed merely as expedience to lead beings to enlightenment. He argues that buddha-nature, akin to the notion of self, or ātman, was taught for the sake of helping those inferior beings who are scared of the negation of the self. He cites the Descent into Laṅka Sūtra (Laṅkāvatārasūtra) in his autocommentary on Madhyamakāvatāra to explain that buddha-nature is just another designation for emptiness and the unborn nature of all phenomena. Based on this rejection of buddha-nature in his Madhyamakāvatāra, the followers of and commentators on Candrakīrti considered him to have denied the existence of innate buddha-nature in sentient beings.
However, such one-sided philosophical classification is not as straightforward as it seems and becomes complicated when we consider another work attributed to Candrakīrti and related to buddha-nature. The Pradīpoddyotananāmaṭīkā, or The Extensive Commentary entitled the Illuminating Lamp, is an elaborate commentary on the Guhyasamāja Tantra, which Candrakīrti claims is based on instructions passed down from Nāgārjuna. His mention of Nāgārjuna and citation of the prophecy for Nāgārjuna from The Descent into Laṅka Sūtra in this commentary also generally confirms that Candrakīrti, the author of this commentary, is the same as the Mādhyamika philosopher and author of the Madhyamakāvatāra.
In this commentary on Guhyasamāja, an important inner-yoga tantra, Candrakīrti presents the six hermeneutic tools of the provisional and ultimate teachings, the literal and nonliteral teachings, and the interpretable and the noninterpretable teachings. The treatise also highlights the enlightened state of all phenomena, presenting the five aggregates as five families of buddhas, the five elements as five female buddhas, etc. The text describes the innate nature of the mind as luminous and endowed with enlightened qualities. He argues that sentient beings are the base of all buddhas because they possess buddha-nature (རྒྱལ་བ་ཀུན་གྱི་གནས་ནི་སེམས་ཅན་ཐམས་ཅད་དེ། དེ་བཞིན་གཤེགས་པའི་སྙིང་པོ་ཅན་ཡིན་པའི་ཕྱིར་རོ།།). Thus, we can confidently say that Candrakīrti in the context of the higher tantric school accepted buddha-nature as the essential quality of sentient beings.
Such divergent claims from a single author can be perplexing and can often lead historians to question the identity of the author. The diverging positions of Nāgārjuna on ultimate reality in his scholastic and hymnic corpuses is a good example. While he takes a negative or apophatic approach of reductionism to negate all points of fixation and thus reaches an ultimate truth of utter emptiness in the scholastic corpus, he adopts a positive, cataphatic, and romantic approach to embrace an ineffable absolute reality, or dharmatā, in his hymnic corpus. These two seem contradictory on the surface as does the philosophical position of Candrakīrti on buddha-nature in his two treatises.
Yet, with close scrutiny, one can say that it is an interesting characteristic of the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist philosophical tradition to have philosophers espouse different, sometimes even contradictory, positions in different doxographical contexts. It is a part of their skill-in-means (ཐབས་ལ་མཁས་པ་) and an inclusive strategy to help sentient beings. Such a shift in philosophical stance and interpretation is not seen as a sign of inconsistency and confusion but rather as an intellectual ability to formulate things in the proper context and unravel and propound layers of teachings as per the needs of the different levels of sentient beings, who are the audiences and beneficiaries.
Sakya Paṇḍita and His Critique of Absolute Buddha-Nature
Sakya Paṇḍita Kunga Gyaltsen (1182–1251) is certainly one of the most influential Tibetan scholars. Enumerated as one of the three Mañjuśrīs of Tibet for his intellectual brilliance and learning, his writings continue to influence Tibetan Buddhist thought and culture. It was his scholarly stature which eventually led to the Sakya rule over Tibet. He also enjoys unique acclaim in being the only Tibetan to debate and defeat a non-Buddhist challenger and the only Tibetan author whose work was translated into Sanskrit. He is said to have defeated Harinanda in debate and had his Tshad ma rigs pa’i gter (Treasury of Logic and Epistemology) translated into Sanskrit.
On buddha-nature, Sakya Paṇḍita held a clear rangtong view and attacked the Tibetan thinkers who took the buddha-nature teachings to be ultimate. In his Sdom gsum rab dbye (Distinguishing the Three Vows), he alleges that asserting an absolute buddha-nature in sentient beings would amount to a heretical philosophical view like that of the Saṃkhya school. Buddha-nature, according to him, is a designation for dharmatā, the luminous nature which is free from all extremes and elaborations. The doctrines on buddha-nature such as those showing buddha-nature as a latent buddha quality in sentient beings, like a statue hidden in a rag, are to be understood only as provisional teachings to help beings enter the path of enlightenment. Should there be such an innate buddha-nature, it would be equivalent to the non-Buddhist ātman. He also criticized those who understood buddha-nature as emptiness or as the buddha-element exclusively in sentient beings.
What is known as buddha-nature is the expanse of nirvāṇa.
Kyotön Mönlam Tsultrim and His Works
Kyotön Mönlam Tsultrim (1219-1299), a master of the acclaimed Narthang monastery, is the author of a number of short texts related to buddha-nature. He served as the abbot of Narthang from 1285 to 1299, when he passed away, and built the main temple and border walls of Narthang. He wrote many treatises, including exegeses on the Middle Way philosophy of Madhyamaka and the Perfection of Wisdom, or Prajñāpāramitā. Among his works dealing with buddha-nature are his Instructions on the Ultimate Continuum of the Mahāyāna, The Meaning of the Essence of Luminosity, Instructions for the Moment of Death, Essential Pith Instructions That Summarize the Quintessence of the Piṭakas, and Instructions on the Path of the Nature of Phenomena.
While these short works contain scholarly depth and rigor, Kyotön does not present them merely as doctrinal exegesis but rather takes the approach of homiletic discourse which is in alignment with the spirit of Kadampa masters and their pragmatism. Most of the texts contained here have recently been discovered in the Nechu Temple of Drepung Monastery. Find out more about these works and their author here.
The Buddha has taught that all sentient beings possess buddha-nature and the Buddha is permanent, eternal, unchanging, immovable and blissful.~ Mahāparinirvāṇamahāyānasūtra
The Four Noble Truths
The teaching on the four noble truths (Tibetan: བདེན་པ་བཞི་ bden pa bzhi, Sanskrit: catvāri āryasatyāni, Chinese: sìshèngdì) is perhaps the most well known of the Buddhist teachings. Delivered to his five friends in Deer Park seven weeks after the Buddha attained enlightenment, the four noble truths form the earliest set of teachings and the soteriological basis of the Buddha’s spiritual system. The Buddha proclaimed that,
- There is suffering.
- There is the cause of suffering.
- There is the cessation of suffering.
- There is the path to the cessation of suffering.
In today’s idiom, the Buddha declared that,
- Life has many problems.
- Problems come out of causes.
- There are solutions to the problems.
- There are paths to the solution.
After identifying the four noble truths in the first round of utterances, the Buddha is then said to have announced in the second round of utterances that,
- Suffering is to be recognized.
- The cause of suffering is to be eliminated.
- The cessation of suffering is to be attained.
- The path to the cessation is to be adopted.
The Sublime Continuum, Verse IV.52, succinctly captures this message using the common medical analogy.
- ནད་ནི་ཤེས་བྱ་ནད་ཀྱི་རྒྱུ་ནི་སྤང་བྱ་ལ། །
- བདེ་གནས་ཐོབ་བྱ་སྨན་ནི་བསྟེན་པར་བྱ་བ་ལྟར། །
- སྡུག་བསྔལ་རྒྱུ་དང་དེ་འགོག་པ་དང་དེ་བཞིན་ལམ། །
- ཤེས་བྱ་སྤང་བྱ་རེག་པར་བྱ་ཞིང་བསྟེན་པར་བྱ། །
- Just as a disease is to be known, the cause of the disease is to be relinquished,
- The state of well-being is to be attained, and medicine is to be relied upon,
- Suffering, [its] cause, its cessation, and, likewise, the path, respectively,
- Are to be known, to be relinquished, to be reached, and to be relied upon.
For more details, see the page on Verse IV.52.
What is buddha-nature? The primordial innate freedom of every mind that is blissful and full of wisdom and compassion itself.~ Karl Brunnhölzl
Among the many tathāgatagarbhasūtras, or sūtras on buddha-nature, the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra is the only one which goes by that name. It is also perhaps the earliest and most well-known sūtra on buddha-nature. Translated into Chinese by Buddhabhadra in the fourth century and Amoghavajra in the eighth century, and into Tibetan by Śākyabhadra and Yeshe De in the eighth century, this sūtra is one of the main sources used by the author of the Sublime Continuum, or Ratnagotravibhāga, which is the core text on buddha-nature.
The sūtra is set at Vulture Peak, ten years after the Buddha attained perfect enlightenment, among some hundred thousand monks and innumerable bodhisattvas, including many familiar names, and many other kinds of beings. The Buddha, after lunch, enters the Candanagarbha pavilion, and through his meditative power he manifests myriads of lotus flowers in the space above. A radiant buddha figure sits in calyxes of the lotus flowers sending forth rays of light. He then uses his power to make the flowers wilt into dark, putrid, unsightly forms, but the buddhas inside the flower remain radiant. The Buddha uses this to explain how, in the putrid and unsightly filth of negative emotions and thoughts, every sentient being has the true nature of a buddha.
The Buddha goes on to explain all nine similes to illustrate the presence of latent buddha-nature in all sentient beings.
- 1. Buddha figure in the wilting unsightly lotus
- 2. Honey in the beehive
- 3. Kernel of grain in the husk
- 4. Gold nugget in pile of excrement
- 5. Treasure underneath a pauper’s house
- 6. A mango seed ready to unfold into a tree
- 7. Precious statue of the Buddha in a rag
- 8. A universal monarch in the womb of a poor woman
- 9. Golden statue in a clay mould
All sentient beings possess buddha-nature; It remains obscured by myriad defiling emotions, like a lamp in a vase.~ Aṅgulimālīyam-nāma-mahāyāna-sūtra
Topic of the Week: Buddha-nature and Luminosity
The classic text on buddha-nature, Ratnagotravibhāga, Verse I.63 states:
The luminous nature of the mind
Is completely unchanging, just like space.
It is not afflicted by adventitious stains,
Such as desire, born from false imagination.
The innate nature of the mind is often described as luminous (Tibetan: འོད་གསལ་བ་ ’od gsal ba, Sanskrit: prabhāsvara, Chinese: guāng míng) in the sūtras and commentarial literature. The earliest sūtra to do this is perhaps Aṅguttaranikāya, I.10, which quotes the Buddha saying: "Luminous, monks, is this mind, but sometimes it is defiled by adventitious defilements." Among the Mahāyāna sūtras, the Aṣṭasāhasrikāprajñāpāramitā is perhaps the earliest to describe mind as being naturally luminous. In Chapter I it states: "Mind is not mind; its nature is luminous." Later sūtras, tantras, and commentarial writings elaborate on the luminous nature of mind.
What does it mean for the mind to be "luminous" then? Karl Brunnhölzl, an authority on buddha-nature, warns that it should not be understood to be an experience of external light. Luminosity, in the context of the buddha-nature and the nature of mind, refers to its natural clarity, consciousness, and lucidity. It is the innate capacity of the mind that enables it to be aware, intelligent, and knowing. This essential quality of the mind forms the bedrock of spiritual transformation and enlightenment in Mahāyāna and Vajrayāna traditions of the Buddhist Himalayas. See more on this here.
Buddha-nature is the ultimate topic of both sūtra and mantra Buddhist teachings.~ Khenpo Namdol
Topic of the Week: The Life of the Buddha
The life of the Buddha is told in many sūtras and commentaries, and it is also presented in numerous art forms. Ever since the early days of Buddhism, it was used as one of the most common liberative tools to help inspire people on the path to enlightenment. Buddhists chant many prayers which recount the life of the Buddha. In the Indo-Tibetan Buddhist traditions, the rich life story of the Buddha is often condensed in his twelve deeds (མཛད་པ་བཅུ་གཉིས་). These twelve deeds are also considered to be a defining characteristic of the supreme emanation body, or uttamanirmāṇakāya (མཆོག་གི་སྤྲུལ་སྐུ་). However, there are variations in the enumeration of the twelve deeds.
The Ratnagotravibhāga (Verse II.54-6), which is often cited as source for the enumeration of the twelve deeds, presents the following twelve:
1. Being born in Tuṣita heaven (སྐྱེ་བ་མངོན་པར་སྐྱེ་བ་)
2. Descent from Tuṣita (དགའ་ལྡན་གནས་ནས་འཕོ་བ་)
3. Entering the mother's womb (ཡུམ་གྱི་ལྷུམས་སུ་ཞུགས་པ་)
4. Being born (སྐུ་བལྟམས་པ་)
5. Becoming skilled in various arts (བཟོ་ཡི་གནས་ལ་མཁས་པ་)
6. Enjoying the company of royal consorts (བཙུན་མོའི་འཁོར་གྱིས་དགྱེས་རོལ་བ་)
7. Renouncing the world and going through austerities (ངེས་འབྱུང་དཀའ་བ་སྤྱད་པ་)
8. Proceeding to the heart of bodhi (བྱང་ཆུབ་སྙིང་པོར་གཤེགས་པ་)
9. Overcoming Mara's hosts (བདུད་སྡེ་བཅོམ་པ་)
10. Becoming fully enlightened (རྫོགས་པར་བྱང་ཆུབ་པ་)
11. Turning the wheel of Dharma (ཆོས་ཀྱི་འཁོར་ལོ་སྐོར་བ་)
12. Passing into mahāparinirvāṇa (མྱ་ངན་ལས་འདས་པ་)
Nāgārjuna, in his Praise of the Buddha through Twelve Deeds, contains a different list.
1. Descending from Tuṣita to enter mother's womb
2. Taking birth in Lumbini grove
3. Mastering the various arts and skills
4. Enjoying palace life in the company of consorts
5. Seeing futility of worldly life and becoming a renunciate
6. Undergoing austerities and reaching meditative states
7. Becoming fully enlightened under the Bodhi tree
8. Turning the wheel of Dharma at various places
9. Defeating his rivals and taming the opponents
10. Performing miracles and spreading the teachings
11. Passing into nirvāṇa
12. Leaving behind relics
However, the common enumeration of the twelve deeds of the Buddha in the Himalayan communities differs slightly from both of the above-mentioned Indian sources.
1. Descent from Tuṣita
2. Entering the mother's womb
3. Taking birth
4. Becoming skilled in various arts
5. Delighting in the company of consorts
6. Becoming a renunciate
7. Practicing austerities
8. Proceeding to the foot of the Bodhi tree
9. Overcoming the evil forces
10. Becoming fully enlightened
11. Turning the wheel of Dharma
12. Passing into nirvāṇa
Buddha-nature is not an object of intellectual enquiry.~ Laṅkāvatārasūtra
Topic of the Week: The Number Three
The use of the number three is very common in religious traditions. The ancient followers of Vedic religion had the three deities of Agni (the fire god), Vāyu (the wind god), and Sūrya (the sun god), and the ancient Greeks commonly grouped gods by triads or trinities. Hinduism is centered on the cosmic trinity of Brahmā, Viṣṇu, and Śiva. Christianity has the Holy Trinity, while Judaism has the three patriarchs, including Abraham, Issac, and Jacob. The Taoists have their Three Pure Ones and other triadic categories.
The most popular Buddhist triadic set is perhaps the Three Jewels, although there are many other sets of three, including the three poisons (དུག་གསུམ་), three baskets (སྡེ་སྣོད་གསུམ་), three trainings (བསླབ་པ་གསུམ་), etc. The Buddha presented a set of three objects of refuge which can protect an individual from the cyclic sea of suffering. They are the Buddha, to whom one takes refuge as the teacher, his teachings, the Dharma, in which one takes refuge as the path, and the Saṅgha, or the spiritual community in whom one takes refuge as the companion. But why these three?
A common explanation for this question, using a medical analogy, is that a person who is suffering from the disease of afflictive emotions needs the Buddha, like a physician, the Dharma, like medicine, and the Saṅgha, like a nurse. The Ratnagotravibhāga, however, the core text on buddha-nature, justifies the triadic enumeration by arguing that the three objects are for six kinds of individuals and three purposes. The Buddha Jewel is mainly taught for the bodhisattvas, the supreme beings seeking the state of the Buddha, and for those who are primarily interested in venerating the teacher. The Dharma Jewel is mainly taught for the pratyekabuddhas, or solitary sages, who seek enlightenment without a teacher by relying on individual realization of dharma, and for those who are primarily interested in venerating the teachings. The Saṅgha Jewel is mainly taught for the śrāvakas, or disciples, who focus on the support of the spiritual community, and for those who are primarily interested in venerating the spiritual community. The triadic presentation is also for the purpose of highlighting the qualities of the teacher, teachings, and the followers. See Verse I.19 for more on this.
While the triadic presentation of the objects of refuge have remained universal, the Tibetan Buddhist tradition added another element, especially in its universal chant for taking refuge. In addition to the Three Jewels, one commonly finds Tibetan Buddhists taking refuge in the lama, as the following popular verse shows.
I take refuge in the lama.
I take refuge in the Buddha.
I take refuge in the Dharma.
I take refuge in the Saṅgha.
The path of awakening involves both transforming the mind/brain and uncovering the wonderful true nature that was there all along.~ Rick Hanson and Richard Mendius, Buddha's Brain, p. 19.
Topic of the Week: The Saṅgha
Saṅgha, the third of the Three Jewels, generally refers to the followers of the Buddhist path. The Sanskrit term saṅgha literally means a company, assembly, or association. The Tibetan translation for the word saṅgha, dge ’dun (དགེ་འདུན་), literally "interested in virtue," refers to the spiritual seekers who are often classified into the two communities of saffron-colored renunciates (རབ་བྱུང་ངུར་སྨྲིག་གི་སྡེ་) and the community of white-clothed, long-haired ones (གོས་དཀར་ལྕང་ལོའི་སྡེ་).
The Saṅgha Jewel originally referred to the followers of the Buddha who have entered the path. In the early sūtras, they are described as those who have properly entered (ལེགས་པར་ཞུགས་པ་), correctly entered (རིགས་པར་ཞུགས་པ་), ethically entered (དྲང་པོར་ཞུགས་པ་), and harmoniously entered (མཐུན་པར་ཞུགས་པ་) the path. They are further described as those who are worthy of veneration (ཐལ་མོ་སྦྱར་བའི་འོས་སུ་གྱུར་པ་), worthy of homage (ཕྱག་བྱ་བའི་འོས་སུ་གྱུར་པ་), worthy objects of merit (བསོད་ནམས་ཀྱི་ཞིང་), worthy of offering (ཡོན་ཡོངས་སུ་སྦྱོང་བ་), and worthy recipients of gifts (སྦྱིན་པའི་གནས་སུ་གྱུར་པ་). They mainly include the celibate monks and nuns, particularly the fully ordained bhikṣus and bhikṣuṇīs. Four such ordained persons are often believed to constitute a proper saṅgha.
In terms of a more technical explanation, the saṅgha in mainstream Buddhism comprises the four sets of spiritual persons, including the stream-runner (རྒྱུན་ཞུགས་), once-returner (ཕྱིར་འོང་), non-returner (ཕྱིར་མི་འོང་), and foe-destroyer (དགྲ་བཅོམ་). The first three are considered to be at different levels on the path to enlightenment, and the fourth one is considered to be an enlightened saint who has reached nirvāṇa. They are further divided into eight or twenty types of saṅgha. The great scholar Vasubandhu in his Abhidharmakośa (chapter IV.32) states that it is the inner spiritual realization and experience of the followers of the Buddha, not the physical or social person, which is the true saṅgha - the third object of refuge.
The classic literature on buddha-nature, the Ratnagotravibhāga, presents a unique Mahāyāna understanding of the saṅgha. In chapter I.15, it argues that a true Mahāyāna saṅgha is the assembly of bodhisattvas who possess the virtue of the inner vision of suchness and multiplicity and have reached an irreversible stage on the path to buddhahood. Later commentators elaborate that a Mahāyāna saṅgha is marked by the eight qualities of knowledge and liberation (རིག་གྲོལ་གྱི་ཡོན་ཏན་བརྒྱད་). A Mahāyāna saṅgha possesses the knowledge of suchness or reality (ཇི་ལྟ་བ་རིག་པ་), the knowledge of multiplicity of phenomena (ཇི་སྙེད་པ་རིག་པ་), and the knowledge of inner pristine wisdom (ནང་གི་ཡེ་ཤེས་རིག་པ་). Furthermore, they possess the liberation or freedom from the obscuration of attachment (ཆགས་པའི་སྒྲིབ་པ་), the obscuration of obstructions of knowledge (ཐོགས་པའི་སྒྲིབ་པ་), and the obscuration of inferiority (དམན་པའི་སྒྲིབ་པ་). The overall categories of knowledge (རིག་པ་) and liberation (གྲོལ་བ་) are added to these six to make eight qualities. For more on this, read Verses I.14–18
All sentient beings possess buddha-nature.~ Ārya-prajñāpāramitā-naya-śatapañcaśatikā
Topic of the Week: Buddha-Nature and Gender
Set in the male-dominated society of ancient India and given the physical difficulties faced in the life of a renunciate in old times, most Buddhist sūtras present the female body as being a lesser physical medium for spiritual practice than the male body. These sūtras often teach how a female seeker would move on to a male body as she advances on the spiritual path. This was exactly the assumption Mahāmeghagarbha had while talking about a female bodhisattva named Vimalaprabhā in the Great Cloud Sūtra. The Buddha berates Mahāmeghagarbha for having such a thought.
- གསོལ་པ། ལྷ་མོ་དྲི་མ་མེད་པའི་འོད་གང་དུ་བུད་མེད་ཀྱི་ལུས་ལས་ལྡོག་པར་འགྱུར་བ་བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས་དེ་བཞིན་གཤེགས་པས་ལུང་བསྟན་དུ་གསོལ།
- བཀའ་སྩལ་པ། སྤྲིན་ཆེན་སྙིང་པོ། བུད་མེད་ཀྱི་ལུས་ལས་གང་དུ་ལྡོག་པར་འགྱུར་ཞེས་དེ་ལྟར་མ་ལྟ་ཞིག །
- གསོལ་པ། བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས་འོ་ན་ཇི་ལྟ་བུ་ལགས།
- བཀའ་སྩལ་པ། འདི་ནི། བུད་མེད་མ་ཡིན་ཏེ༑ ལྷ་མོ་དྲི་མ་མེད་པའི་འོད་འདི་ནི། བསྐལ་པ་བྱེ་བ་ཕྲག་གྲངས་མེད་པ་ནས་བྱང་ཆུབ་སེམས་དཔའི་བྱ་བ་བྱེད་པ་ཡིན་ཏེ། སེམས་ཅན་འདུལ་བའི་དབང་གིས་བུད་མེད་ཀྱི་ལུས་འཛིན་པས་ན།
- འདི་ནི༑ ཐབས་ཀྱི་ལུས་ཡིན་པར་བལྟའོ། །
- [Mahāmeghagarbha] asked: O Blessed Tathāgata! Please prophesy where the goddess Vimalaprabhā will switch from the female body.
- [The Blessed One] said: Mahāmeghagarbha! Do not think of where she will switch from the female body.
- Mahāmeghagarbha: Blessed One! How will it be, then?
- The Buddha: This is not just a case of a woman. The goddess has engaged in bodhisattva activities for countless decamillion eons.
- She holds the female body for the sake of taming sentient beings. View hers as a form of expedience.
The Buddha praises the qualities of Vimalaprabhā in the sūtra and goes on to prophesy how Vimalaprabhā will take the form of an attractive and loving princess in the future to promote the teachings of the Buddha and benefit the world. We also find a similar account of female power in the sūtra called Lion’s Roar of Queen Śrīmālā. In this sūtra, the main interlocutor is Queen Śrīmālā, daughter of King Prasenajit of Kosala but married to King Yaśamitra of Ayodhyā. Queen Śrīmālā is described as a lady of high caliber and confidence. She makes ten pledges and three special prayers, and the Buddha gives the prophecy that she will become a buddha in the future.
The buddha-nature teachings generally underscore the fact that all sentient beings, irrespective of their diverse physical forms, are the same in their innate state of being. Whether male, female, or otherwise, beings possess the same potential and capacity for enlightenment.
Every being has the potential for perfection, just as every sesame seed is permeated with oil.~ Matthieu Ricard
Topic of the Week: The Four Misperceptions
Buddhist texts talk about four viparyāsa, or misperceptions. The most common enumeration of the four misperceptions include (1) perceiving what is impure as pure (མི་གཙང་བ་ལ་གཙང་བར་འཛིན་པ་), (2) holding what is dissatisfactory and suffering as blissful (སྡུག་བསྔལ་བ་ལ་བདེ་བར་འཛིན་པ་), (3) holding what is impermanent as permanent (མི་རྟག་པ་ལ་རྟག་པར་འཛིན་པ་), and (4) holding what is lacking in self as self (བདག་མེད་པ་ལ་བདག་ཏུ་འཛིན་པ་). In this context, our notion of things being pure, blissful, permanent, and self-existent is considered to be a wrong perception and contradictory to the way things are.
Yet in the Mahāyāna sūtras and the commentarial treatises, particularly those dealing with buddha-nature, we find the description of buddha-nature as pure, blissful, permanent, and self-existent. Purity, bliss, permanence, and self are ultimate qualities to be actualized. How do we, then, reconcile these two types of teachings dealing with the four viparyāsa?
The sūtra entitled Lion’s Roar of Queen Śrīmālā provides one clear explanation of what the Buddha meant in the divergent teachings.
- བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས། སེམས་ཅན་རྣམས་ནི་ཟིན་པའི་ཕུང་པོ་ལྔ་པོ་དག་ལ་ཕྱིན་ཅི་ལོག་པར་གྱུར་ཏེ། བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས། དེ་དག་ནི་མི་རྟག་པ་ལ་རྟག་པར་འདུ་ཤེས་པ་དང་། སྡུག་བསྔལ་བ་ལ་བདེ་བར་འདུ་ཤེས་པ་དང་། བདག་མ་མཆིས་པ་ལ་བདག་ཏུ་འདུ་ཤེས་པ་དང་། མི་གཙང་བ་ལ་གཙང་བར་འདུ་ཤེས་པ་ལགས་སོ། །བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས། ཐམས་ཅད་མཁྱེན་པའི་ཡེ་ཤེས་ཀྱི་ཡུལ་དང་། དེ་བཞིན་གཤེགས་པའི་ཆོས་ཀྱི་སྐུ་ནི་ཉན་ཐོས་དང་། རང་སངས་རྒྱས་ཐམས་ཅད་ཀྱི་ཤེས་པ་དག་པས་ཀྱང་སྔོན་མ་མཐོང་ལགས་སོ། །བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས། སེམས་ཅན་རྣམས་དེ་བཞིན་གཤེགས་པ་ལ་དད་པས་རྟག་པར་འདུ་ཤེས་པ་དང་། བདེ་བར་འདུ་ཤེས་པ་དང་། བདག་ཏུ་འདུ་ཤེས་པ་དང་། གཙང་བར་འདུ་ཤེས་པའི་སེམས་ཅན་དེ་དག་ནི་བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས་ཕྱིན་ཅི་ལོག་ཏུ་འགྱུར་བ་མ་ལགས་ཏེ། བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས། སེམས་ཅན་དེ་དག་ནི་ཡང་དག་པའི་ལྟ་བ་ཅན་དུ་འགྱུར་བ་ལགས་སོ། །དེ་ཅིའི་སླད་དུ་ཞེ་ན། བཅོམ་ལྡན་འདས། དེ་བཞིན་གཤེགས་པའི་ཆོས་ཀྱི་སྐུ་ཉིད་རྟག་པའི་ཕ་རོལ་ཏུ་ཕྱིན་པ་དང་། བདེ་བའི་ཕ་རོལ་ཏུ་ཕྱིན་པ་དང་། བདག་གི་ཕ་རོལ་ཏུ་ཕྱིན་པ་དང་། གཙང་བའི་ཕ་རོལ་ཏུ་ཕྱིན་པ་ལགས་པའི་སླད་དུའོ། །
- Blessed One! Sentient beings have misperceptions regarding the five sentient aggregates. Blessed One! They are perceiving what is impermanent as permanent, perceiving what is suffering as blissful, perceiving what lacks self as self, and perceiving what is impure as pure. Blessed One! Even the pure cognition of śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas has not previously perceived the objects of pristine omniscient wisdom and the dharmakāya of the buddhas. Blessed One! Those sentient beings who, out of faith, perceive the Buddha as permanent, blissful, self, and pure are not mistaken in their perception. Blessed One! These sentient beings possess the right view, for the dharmakāya of the buddhas, Blessed One, has reached the perfection of permanence, perfection of bliss, perfection of self, and the perfection of purity.
If there were no buddha-element, one wouldn’t be unhappy with suffering.~ Maitreya
Topic of the Week: What is dharma?
Dharma is perhaps one of the most popular Indic Sanskrit terms that is used widely in religious philosophy and practice. There is no single word in the English language that renders dharma and its numerous meanings. It refers to existence and phenomena in its broadest sense, but in specific contexts it also designates objects of mental faculty, the law of nature, truth, virtue, duty, spiritual path, religion, and religious doctrine. In his work entitled Vyākhyāyukti, or Principles of Exegesis, Vasubandhu states that the term dharma can mean ten different things in the Buddhist context alone.
In its most common usage in Buddhism, dharma refers to the second object of refuge, the teachings of the Buddha. Again, Vasubandhu in his magnum opus, Abhidharmakośa, or the Treasury of Abhidharma, explains that the dharma of the Buddha is twofold: the doctrinal scriptures and experiential understanding. The Ratnagotravibhāga presents a more abstruse and sophisticated Mahāyāna definition of dharma in the context of its explanation of the Three Jewels. The Dharma Jewel is said to be inconceivable, nondual, nonconceptual reality, which is pure, luminous, and remedial in nature. It comprises the third and fourth truths out of the four noble truths: the truth of cessation, which is free from attachment, and the truth of the path to cessation, which helps bring about the freedom from attachment. Learn more about this Mahāyāna definition of dharma by reading Verse I.10.
Buddha-nature is taught to be the immutable reality that is unborn and unceasing like space.~ Asaṅga
Topic of the Week: Who is a bodhisattva?
The term bodhisattva is commonly used in Buddhism and has now entered most of the English dictionaries. Who, then, is a bodhisattva, or what makes someone a bodhisattva? In early Buddhism, a bodhisattva is considered to be a rare being of exceptional caliber who can become a buddha. Not many beings were said to have the bodhisattva spiritual gene and to possess the capacity to become a buddha.
The rise of Mahāyāna Buddhism changed this narrative. Some Mahāyāna traditions argued that those capable of seeking enlightenment would have one of the three dispositions to pursue a śrāvaka arhathood, pratyekabuddha arhathood, or buddhahood. Many beings of superior caliber and disposition became bodhisattvas, seeking buddhahood for the sake of all sentient beings. As the opportunity to become a bodhisattva increased, the pantheon of bodhisattvas also grew. Thus, we find many names of bodhisattvas in the Mahāyāna sūtras. Other Mahāyāna traditions took this even further and argued that all beings have the capacity to become a buddha and would eventually become one if they followed the path. Thus, any sentient being could become a bodhisattva, and the bodhisattva disposition was not restricted to any specific type of being. Anyone who generated bodhicitta—the thought of enlightenment—and engaged in the practice of the six perfections was a bodhisattva. A bodhisattva, in brief, is a buddha in the making.
The Ratnagotravibhāga, the main text on buddha-nature, explains that a bodhisattva or an heir of the Buddha is someone who is born from the seed of faith in the Supreme Vehicle and the womb of blissful samādhi. Their mother is understood to be wisdom, and their nanny is compassion. To discover more on this, read Verse I.34.
Even those born as animals have the buddha-nature.~ Asaṅga
Topic of the Week: Buddha-Nature at Death
Can buddha-nature be instantly actualized at the time of death? Death, in Tibetan Buddhism, is seen as a powerful opportunity for enlightenment. As one’s bodily organs stop functioning and the support of the physical elements break down, one’s ordinary consciousness ceases to function. At this point one is said to go through a psychological and existential hiatus in which all thoughts, emotions, and activities momentarily come to a halt and the luminous nature of mind, the clear light, like a vast, clear sky, is laid bare and open. Those who become aware of this and rest in this state of the ground nature overcome the temporary obscurations and let their buddha-nature shine forth unobstructed and free forever. They are said to have actualized the pristine wisdom of the ground and remain in thugs dam, a meditative equipoise at death. Find more on buddha-nature and death in ’Da’ ka ye shes kyi 'chi kha ma’i man ngag by Mönlam Tsultrim, The Buddha: Death and Eternal Soul in Buddhism by the 14th Dalai Lama, and "Death, Sleep, and Orgasm: Gateways to the Mind of Clear Light" by Jeffrey Hopkins.
Thine own intellect, which is now voidness, yet not to be regarded as of the voidness of nothingness, but as being the intellect itself, unobstructed, shining, thrilling, and blissful, is the very consciousness, the All-good Buddha.~ The Tibetan Book of the Dead
Topic of the Week: The Parable of the Lost Son
In the parable of the Prodigal Son in the Bible (Luke, 15.11), we find the story of a son who was lost and found. The Buddha presents a similar parable about the reinstatement of a lost son in the Great Drum Sūtra. In this story a wealthy householder, who lost his son due to the carelessness of a nanny, finds his son many years later living an impoverished life. Worried that he may frighten the poor boy away if he reveals the whole truth of their relationship, he entices the boy with presents and expediently employs the boy to work as a servant. With gradual exposure to the rich life in the house, the boy becomes ready for the final recognition and reinstatement as the scion of the wealthy house.
The Buddha uses this parable to illustrate how the lower vehicles of the śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas are only expedient steps leading to the ultimate Mahāyāna goal of complete buddhahood. Sūtras related to buddha-nature such as the Great Drum Sūtra and the Lotus Sūtra teach that there is only one final enlightenment (i.e., buddhahood) and that there is only one vehicle (ekayāna) which represents this goal.
In the Dzogchen tradition, this story is used to illustrate that we are all buddhas by nature but are led astray from this nature by temporary incidents. Like a lost prince roaming in the state of an ordinary person (རྒྱལ་པོའི་བུ་དམངས་སུ་འཁྱམས་པ་) remains a prince to be eventually recognized and enthroned as a king, sentient beings remain in the state of the buddha-nature, although they wander aimlessly in the cycle of existence. The purpose of spiritual practice is to recognize and realize that our true nature is the same as the Buddha’s.
In a pregnant woman’s womb,
A child exists but is not seen. Just so, dharmadhātu is not seen, When it’s covered by afflictions.~ Nāgārjuna
Topic of the Week: Explaining the term Three Jewels
The Three Jewels form one of the fundamental concepts in Buddhism. The Buddha as the teacher, his teachings, or the Dharma, as the path, and his followers, or Sangha, as the companion are known as triratna in Sanskrit, triratana in Pali, and könchosum (དཀོན་མཆོག་གསུམ་, Wyl. dkon mchog gsum) in Tibetan. The Sanskrit term ratna and Pali ratana means jewel, gem, or treasure. The Tibetan word köncho literally means rare and supreme. Why are the Buddha, his teachings, and his followers considered to be jewels or to be rare and supreme? What is the reason behind the term Three Jewels or Triple Gem?
The Ratnagotravibhāga, which is a treatise on the spiritual gene of the Three Jewels, states in Verse l.22 that they are considered jewels or gems because they are rare, stainless, powerful, supreme, immutable, and ornaments of the world. Find more translations and explanations of this verse here.
The Buddha's teaching on the fundamental nature of the human mind has always been a great source of inspiration and hope for me.~ The 14th Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso
Topic of the Week: Who or What is a Buddha?
Who or what is the "buddha" in buddha-nature? The word buddha comes from the Sanskrit verbal root √budh, to wake up and to know. Buddhist texts generally describe the Buddha as the one who is awakened or enlightened. A buddha has woken up from the slumber of ignorance and is in full awareness of the way things are. Tibetan translators used the term sangye (སངས་རྒྱས་, Wyl. sangs rgyas), in which "sangs" refers to being cleansed or freed from something and "rgyas" refers to flourishing. They explained that the Buddha is fully freed from ignorance and other impure things, and the Buddha flourishes with intelligence and wisdom.
The core classic text on buddha-nature, the Ratnagotravibhāga, defines the terms buddha or buddhahood as a state of enlightenment with eight qualities: unconditionality, spontaneity, incomprehensibility, wisdom, compassion, power, benefit to oneself, and benefit to others. Explore what these qualities mean and who or what is the ultimate "buddha" in the context of buddha-nature teachings by reading Root Verse I.5.
Mind, in essence, is luminous and pure buddha-nature.~ Laṅkāvatārasūtra