Purpose of Teaching the Tathagatagarbha

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Purpose of Teaching the Tathagatagarbha

Gyamtso, Khenpo Tsultrim. "Purpose of Teaching the Tathagatagarbha." In Progressive Stages of Meditation on Emptiness, translated by Shenpen Hookham, 92–96. San Bernardino, CA: Shrimala Trust, 2016.

The purpose of teaching the Tathagatagarbha is to give meditators confidence that they already have Buddha Nature. Without such confidence it is very difficult to fully rest the mind free from all conceptual contrivance, because there is always a subtle tendency to try to remove or achieve something.

In the Ratnagotravibhaga five reasons are given for teaching the Tathagatagarbha. Firstly, it encourages those who would otherwise be so self-depreciating that they would not even try to arouse Bodhichitta and attain Buddhahood. Secondly, it humbles those who, having aroused Bodhichitta, feel intrinsically superior to others who have not. Thirdly, it removes the fault of taking the stains, which are unreal, to be the true nature of beings. Fourthly, it removes the fault of taking the Clear Light Nature, which is real, to be unreal. Fifthly, by showing that all beings are intrinsically of the same nature as the nature of Buddha, it removes the obstacle to the arising of true compassion, which sees no difference between self and others.

Base, Path and Fruit

Since the Buddha Nature is without beginning, it is present in the base, path and fruit. The only difference between the three stages is that the base is the time when the Buddha Nature is completely obscured by stains, the path is when it is partially purified and the fruit is when it is completely purified.

The Doctrine of the Ratnagotravibhaga

The Ratnagotravibhaga gives three points of Mahayana Buddhist doctrine that demonstrate all sentient beings have Tathagatagarbha. It lays out the doctrine on Tathagatagarbha under ten headings and it gives the nine examples from the Tathagatagarbhasutra which illustrate how, although the Tathagatagarbha remains unchanged, the veils have to be removed.

It teaches three stages, the pure, the partly pure and the completely pure, which correspond to beings, Bodhisattvas and Buddhas respectively. These correspond to the base, path and fruit Tathagatagarbha.

At first, ordinary beings do not recognize the Clear Light Nature of mind at all. It is therefore covered with both gross and subtle veils; this is the base Tathagatagarbha, which is like gold when it is still in the gold ore.

Once the true nature of the mind has been recognized by the Bodhisattva, the gross veils fall away. From then on Bodhisattvas use their realization as the essence of the path, which consists of refining it as one refines gold once it has been separated from the ore.

The final realization is the fruit Tathagatagarbha and is like the perfectly refined gold that has all the qualities of pure gold. The fruit Tathagatagarbha displays all the qualities of a perfectly Enlightened Buddha.

Ratnagotravibhaga 1.154 teaches that the Element (i.e. the Tathagatagarbha) is empty of what is contingent (i.e. the stains) that are separable, since they are not of its essence, but not empty of our innate Buddha qualities that are not separable, since they are of its essence.

Our innate Buddha qualities are the qualities of the nonconceptual Wisdom Mind, which, when it is purified, is called the Dharmakaya. When the Wisdom Mind is not purified the qualities are not manifest and it is called Tathagatagarbha.

These qualities are inseparable from that Wisdom Mind. They are not divisible from its essence as if the mind's essence were one thing and the qualities another. If they were like that they would have been shown to be empty of own nature by Madhyamaka reasoning. The essence would have arisen dependent on the qualities and the qualities dependent on the essence. Such qualities or such an essence could not have any self-nature or true existence. However, the Buddha qualities are not like this. They cannot be grasped by the conceptual mind and are not separable from the essence of the Wisdom Mind (which also cannot be grasped by the conceptual mind). Thus the Buddha qualities are not compounded or conditioned phenomena, which arise, stay and perish. They exist primordially.

Shentongpas criticize the view of the other Madhyamikas who say that the Buddha's qualities arise as a result of the good deeds, vows and connections made by Bodhisattvas on the path to Enlightenment. If the qualities arose in this way then they would be compounded and impermanent phenomena and not beyond samsara. The whole point of Buddhism is that the Buddha is beyond samsara. Shentongpas accept the doctrine of the Tathagatagarbha sutras that the Buddha qualities are primordially existent. Nevertheless, good deeds, vows and connections are necessary for removing veils.

Both the Chittamatrins (and Rangtong Madhyamikas who have a philosophical view) think of the Buddha's wisdom as a stream of moments of purified awareness that has emptiness or the conception-less nature as its subtle object. Since the object is pure, the awareness itself exhibits the qualities of a pure mind and this is called jnana. Its arising is associated automatically with the qualities of the Buddha that result from the actions of the Bodhisattva on his path to Enlightenment through his accumulation of wisdom and merit (punya). Therefore, whether they express this view explicitly or not, the Rangtong Madhyamikas who have a view regard the Buddha qualities as relative phenomena whose essence is emptiness.

As has been mentioned already above, Shentongpas do not accept that the Wisdom Mind knows in a dualistic way. It does not divide into a knowing and a known aspect, so there is no subtle object of the Wisdom Mind.It is not a stream of moments of awareness. It is completely unbounded and free from all concepts including time and space. Therefore it is primordially existent like its qualities.