Topic of the week
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