Grounds of Buddha-Nature in Tibet

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Grounds of Buddha-Nature in Tibet
Citation: Duckworth, Douglas S. "Grounds of Buddha-Nature in Tibet." Critical Review for Buddhist Studies 21 (2017): 109–36.


This paper discusses syntheses forged in Tibet among the doctrines of Madhyamaka, Yogācāra, and buddha-nature (tathāgatagarbha). Buddha-nature is a distinctively Mahāyāna Buddhist doctrine, taking a place along side of the Yogācāra doctrine of the basic consciousness (ālayavijñāna) and the universal emptiness (śūnyatā) of Madhyamaka. As a fundamental ground of reality, buddha-nature comes to be identified with a positive side of emptiness (in the case of Madhyamaka) and is assimilated with the basic consciousness (in the case of Yogācāra) as well. As the intrinsic purity of mind, buddha-nature also plays a causal role as the potential for complete awakening.

Buddha-nature comes to shape a Madhyamaka interpretation of emptiness in a positive light in a way that parallels its place in a Yogācāra interpretation (as a positive foundation of mind and reality). Buddha-nature supplements a Yogācāra theory of mind and reality by offering a positive alternative to a theory of consciousness that otherwise functions simply as the distorted cognitive structure of suffering. It thus is not only the potential for an awakened mind, but the cognitive content of awakening, too.

In Tibet we see the interpretation of buddha-nature converge with Mahāyāna doctrines in structurally parallel ways. Paired with buddha-nature, the doctrine of emptiness in Madhyamaka pivots from a “self-empty” lack of intrinsic nature to an “other-empty,” pure ground that remains. In narratives of disclosure characteristic of the doctrine of buddha-nature, we also see parallel shifts in the foundations of Yogācāra, as grounds of distortion like the basic consciousness, the dependent nature, and self-awareness are reinscribed into a causal story that takes place within a pure, gnostic ground.