Primary Sources

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The Source Texts

A note about source texts
Source literature is divided into the two broad categories of sūtras and commentaries. While traditionally both entail a wide range of internal divisions and classifications, here the two can be simply understood to demarcate the difference between scriptures orated by the Buddha or his attendant bodhisattvas, and authored works which draw upon those discourses in order to elucidate a particular aspect of the Buddhist teachings. In terms of the former, these texts are traditionally referred to as “buddhavacana,’’ literally “the speech of the Buddha,’’ and are considered to represent actual sermons that were passed down orally until they were eventually set into writing. Commentaries refers to treatises composed to explicate the doctrine. They are recognized to have been written by historical people, although in many cases the authorship is shrouded in myth and mystery.


Sources for Buddha-Nature Teachings

The seeds of buddha-nature teachings are sprinkled throughout the sutras and tantras of the Buddhist canon. A core group of scripture that initially taught buddha-nature known as the tathāgatagarbha sūtras date between the second and fourth centuries. These include the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra, the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, the Śrīmālādevīsūtra and several others. The famous Laṇkāvatārasūtra was also important for buddha-nature theory. In Tibetan Buddhism the late-Indian treatise Ratnagotravibhāga Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra, or "Gyu Lama" as it is known in the Tibetan, serves as a major source for buddha-nature. In East Asia the Awakening of Faith in the Mahāyāna (大乗起信論) was the most influential treatise in spreading buddha-nature theory.

This page provides a listing of some of the key sources for buddha nature teachings found in the sutras, as well as the key texts found in Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan traditions, as well as influential commentaries from centuries of traditional scholarship on the subject.

The Titles of the Text[edit]

For more detail on the meanings of the terms in the title, see the excerpt from When the Clouds Part by Karl Brunnhölzl here.

The title Ratnagotravibhāga Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra[1] is attested in the surviving Sanskrit manuscripts. It roughly translates as “The Ultimate Teaching (uttaratantra)[2] of the Mahāyāna, A Treatise (śāstra) Analyzing (vibhāga) the Jewel (ratna) Disposition (gotra).” One surviving Sanskrit reference, Abhayākaragupta’s Munimatālaṃkāra, gives the name as Mahāyānottara: [Treatise] on the Ultimate Mahāyāna [Doctrine].[3] Western scholars only became aware of Sanskrit versions in the 1930s (see below); prior to this, they knew the text only in Chinese or Tibetan translation, and this was complicated by the fact that both the Chinese and the Tibetan traditions divide the text into two. Where in India the Ratnagotravibhāga was a single work comprised of root verses, explanatory verses, and prose commentary, the Chinese and Tibetan translators and commentators considered the root and explanatory verses to be one text and the complete text, including the prose commentary, to be a second. Thus not only do we have multiple names in multiple languages for the treatise, but multiple names in Chinese and Tibetan for its different parts....

The Texts[edit]

Sutras[edit]

Commentaries[edit]

Further Reading[edit]

  1. According to the Sanskrit grammatical rules associated with sandhi, the word boundaries of the “a” of Mahāyāna and the “u” of Uttaratantra combine as “o.” The title could just as easily be rendered “Mahāyāna Uttaratantra Śāstra.”
  2. See the more detailed discussion of the translation of this term here: Continuum vs. Teachings: Discrepancies in the Translation of the Term Tantra (rgyud) in the Subtitle of the Ratnagotravibhāga.
  3. Kano, K. Buddha-Nature and Emptiness, 27, note #41.