This brilliant article by Sri Acharyaji on the ontological nature of the self in the Tathagata-garbha philosophy of Buddhism appeared in Volume 2 of Helios: Journal of Metaphysical and Occult Studies.
By Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya
Self as a Via Positiva Substantial Real:
An Examination of the Tathagatagarbha Theory of Buddhism
The very first verse of the Brahma-sutras - arguably the most important philosophical treatise in the history of South Asia - states, athato brahma jijnasa, “Now is the time to inquire into the nature of the Absolute.” This, in essence, seems to be the raison d’etre of every spiritual tradition throughout history: the search for ultimate reality. What, then, are we to make of the claim that Buddhism is the sole exception to this rule? Many contemporary Buddhist scholars and practitioners have attempted to present Buddhism as a way of thought free of the requisite metaphysical speculations that have enriched the development of all other religio-philosophical traditions. Not only does Buddhism historically decry the efficacy of the metaphysical enterprise, but it goes so far as to deny the very possibility of the existence of those elemental transcendents which serve as the objects of religious debate, i.e., the Absolute, the self, and the concept of omnicompetent permanence.
Despite the prevalence of such claims, however, there have been attempts by some schools of Buddhist thought to discover the trans-discursive, ontological foundation of phenomenal reality. Possibly the most important and influential of these ideas is tathagatagarbha, sometimes also referred to as Buddha Nature thought. In the following paper, I will provide a brief presentation of tathagatagarbha thought as a via positiva transcendent and metaphysical realitywhen juxtaposed with the via negativa of traditional Buddhist philosophy.
The observations and goals of orthodox Buddhist thought are very rational and practical. They offer us a penetrating insight into the nature and cause of suffering. Most appealing, these insights are nothing which cannot be confirmed by simple empirical observation. The summation of Shakyamuni Buddha’s realization is presented in the form of the chatur aryasatya, the Four Noble Truths. 1) The essence of existence is duhkha, suffering; 2) this suffering has an origin (samudaya); 3) suffering can be eliminated (nirodha); 4) there is a proper path, or marga, which will lead to this elimination (RadhaKrishnan, 1996). Of these four truths, it is the second which concerns us most.
For, according to the Pali canon, it is our attachment to an ultimately false sense of self which leads to our present distressed condition. Contemporary Buddhism teaches us the radical concept of anatman, the non-existence of subjective essentiality. The sense of self, of ‘I am,’ is what lies at the heart of sentient existence. The origins of this idea of self, according to Contemporary Buddhism, is nothing more than the interaction of the five skandhas - form, sensation, perception, impulse and consciousness - of which we are solely and truly composed (Ch’en, 1968). Moreover, all aspects of phenomenal reality are no more than the results of antecedent causes; they do not contain the cause of their own existence within them and are thus no more than conditioned effects. Every existent is dependent upon pre-existing factors which contribute to the sense of an existent being an integrated whole. This is the Buddhist theory of Pratitya Samutpada. Everything being conditioned, there is no essence, only process. The significance of tathagatagarbha thought lies in its ability to powerfully challenge this traditional Buddhist view of the Absolute, or more accurately, the lack thereof.
Before we directly deal with tathagatagarbha, however, we will first examine the history and literature of the school. The tathagatagarbha concept is a purely Mahayana phenomena. The self-styled “Great Vehicle” (Mahayana) differs from the Theravada tradition in many ways. The most interesting aspect of their differences, for our present purposes, is how the two opposing schools view the relationship between nirvana (enlightenment) and samsara (phenomenal reality). For the Theravadin, there is a clear distinction between the two. With Mahayana, though, the contrast becomes eroded. One of Buddhism’s later philosophers, Nagarjuna, states, “Where is the limit of samsara, there is the limit of nirvana; not the slightest thing whatsoever is between them” (Wayman, 1974). This identification of the realm of samsara with the Absolute led, historically and philosophically, to a shift in understanding of the term “Buddha.” From first referring to a human being who existed within the context of history, the word is then employed to denote a metaphysical principal that includes the full spectrum of living beings (dharmakaya). It further comes to encompass all reality, both sentient and non-sentient (Prasad, 1991).
This development led, in turn, to the evolution of the Buddha-image from a deityless sage, to an ontological concept, to a worshipable savior. The Buddhologist, Jikido Takasaki, stated that the “...absolutization of the Buddha made Mahayana Buddhism more religious than Abhidharma Buddhism. Emphasis was placed on the Buddha rather than on the Dharma and effected the ‘ekayana’ theory of the Buddha. Among the three jewels, the jewel of the Buddha came to be regarded as the only ultimate refuge” (Takasaki, 1966). This is the historical context in which tathagatagarbha thought emerges.
The literary tradition of tathagatagarbha thought does not represent any one identifiable school of Indian Buddhist philosophy. Rather, it is the product of a stream of thought effecting, and in turn being affected by, many different doctrines, possibly some as ancient as the Mahasangikas (Wayman, 1974). The most important tathagatagarbha sutras are: 1) the Srimaladevisimhanada, 2) Anunatvapurnatva, 3) Mahaparinirvana and, 4) Tathagatagarbha-sutra, all composed between 350-200 BCE. The Mahaparinirvana-sutra is the first to link together the ideas of tathagata-dhatu and Buddha-dhatu - the nature and cause of Buddha. This sutra “...emphasizes the eternity of the Buddha, implicitly criticizing the idea that nirvana means extinction, and linking this belief with the idea of the tathagatagarbha” (King, 1991). Another important text, the Ratnagotravibhaga-sutra, was written by Maitreya-natha in the Fifth Century CE as an attempt to present a summary and systematization of tathagatagarbha thought. It establishes a causal link between the tathagatagarbha and Dharmakaya, the transcendent, inner nature of the Buddha, which is synonymous with the essence of the cosmos (Brown, 1981). It was the Srimaladevi-sutra, however, which “...was considered the primary scriptural advocate in India for the doctrine of a universal potentiality of Buddhahood...” (ibid., 1981). The Srimaladevi-sutra, along with the many other tathagatagarbha sutras, laid the foundation upon which was erected the metaphysical construct of the tathagatagarbha doctrine.
In order to properly understand a philosophical system, it is always wise to begin with an examination of that system’s primary terms. It is recorded that Shakyamuni, the historical Buddha, referred to himself as the Tathagata. A Sanskrit term, tathagata has a dual meaning. It can be broken down in two ways. As tatha and gata, it conveys the meaning “thus gone,” that is, the process of progressing toward the state of enlightenment. But as tatha and agata, its meaning appears to be just the opposite: “thus come,” i.e., returning, coming from the tatha, the ultimate realm of “Thusness,” in order to engage non-enlightened sentient beings in the enterprise of enlightenment. In what appears to be a paradox, then, tathagata denotes both a coursing toward enlightenment, as well as a purposeful activity in the world of duhkha. This cyclical dynamic between nirvana and samsara, however, was to become one of the foundational ideas of the self-styled Great Vehicle. For one is mutually dependent upon the other.
In concurrence with the bodhisattva ideal, enlightenment finds its fulfillment properly expressed only in terms of assisting others toward nirvana. The realm of samsara is the only field of activity which provides the necessary environment for realizing the self. “Just as a knife is known in actual cutting, so is tathagatagarbha known in coping with the actual problems of samsara, not in fleeing from them” (Kiyota, 1985). There is no nirvana outside samsara. In the ultimate sense, the tathagata refers to Buddhahood (King, 1991). The term garba, too, has a bivalent sense. It means both the “womb” of the tathagata, the container of the Buddha nature, as well as the embryonic Buddha, itself. The garbha is the causal potentiality for becoming Buddha.
The two words joined, tathagatagarbha refers to the latent potency of Buddhahood that lies at the core of all sentient beings. Buddha nature is a latent component, an essential (indeed, the most essential) aspect of each individual living entity. Rather than being an ineffable other, it is the true self lying hidden within as “...an innate aspect of a being’s mind” (Hookham, 1991). Most significantly, the tathagatagarbha has positive qualities that are subject to predication. This is radically unlike the philosophy of the Madhyamikas who claim that nothing can be predicated of the Absolute other than the nebulous concept of shunya (emptiness, or nihil in Latin). Among the qualities ascribed to the tathagatagarbha are those of nitya (permanent), dhruva (steadfast), shiva (calm) and sasvata (eternal) (Wayman, 1974).
Even though India is known to be the birthplace to a wide variety of schools of thought, for some reason the tathagatagarbha theory did not survive there. Rather, it was East Asia which was to feel its powerful influence. Indeed, the tathagatagarbha concept was foundational in its influence on the East Asian concept of the human being. Tathagatagarbha thought played a major role in the development of the indigenous schools of Chinese Buddhism, this is especially true for T’ien t’ai, Hua-yen and Ch’an (King, 1991). From China, tathagatagarbha ideas were to eventually influence Japanese Buddhist philosophy as well.
Two of the philosophical antecedents which were influential in the development of tathagatagarbha were the school of Yogacara and Madhyamika. Yogacara taught the concept of the alaya-vijnana, or the “storehouse consciousness.” Alaya is the basic consciousness of existence. It is the essence of being, from which all that exists is born. Contained within it are the psychic phenomena and experiences of every individual life. There are some texts that associate this alaya-vijnana* of Yogacara with tathagatagarbha. These texts include two that were very influential in Chinese Buddhism, the Lankavatara-sutra and the Da Sheng Qi Xin Lun, or Awakening of Mahayana Faith (King, 1991; Waley, 1974). The Awakening of Mahayana Faith, specifically, identifies tathagatagarbha with tathata when its pristine nature and superlative qualities are connoted, and with alaya-vijnana when indicating its participation in the samsaric realm. Yogacara was not alone in its cross fertilization of ideas with tathagatagarbha.
The Madhyamika school also had an influence on tathagatagarbha thought, specifically with its theory of shunyata or Emptiness. Shunyata forms the central notion of most contemporary Buddhist thought. Since every existent is dependent upon antecedent factors for its existence, which in turn derive their existence from factors external to themselves, nothing in existence is independent, unconditioned by others. According to shunyata theory, all things are empty of a self-nature (svabhava), essenceless. It is shunyata which permeates all phenomena and makes their existence and development possible. Sunyata is untainted by duality and beyond the purview of discursive thought, analysis and description. It is the Absolute as the ultimate incommunicable. Thus shunyata represents the epitome of the via negativa, the path of negation. It is the optimum dialectic of what the Absolute is not. It has been theorized that the Shunyavadin’s real purpose in positing such a negative position was due to a conscious attempt to clearly distance their position from that of the Vedantists. John Keenan affirms this position when he writes:
"Guarding against constant solicitation from Brahmanic influence, the major doctrinal trajectories of Indian Buddhism shied away from anything that seemed to suggest a Buddhist centrism; that there is any core reality, however august, ineffable, or hidden, from which all things come and to which all return." (Keenan, qtd. in Griffiths, 1990)
Shunyata realization is recognized by the followers of tathagatagarbha as being a necessary precondition to the realization of tathagatagarbha, but only as a precondition.
Many Buddhist practitioners view shunyata as an ontological reality, and therefore as an end in itself. Others, however, found this negative approach to philosophy to be too unfulfilling, too dry (Prasad, 1991). Being aligned with the latter view, tathagatagarbha thinkers viewed shunyata as a prerequisite emptying of oneself of the false in order to open oneself to the true, one’s innate Buddha nature. Rather than being the goal, shunyata is merely the process for achieving the goal. In the Ratna-gotravibhaga, shunyata is viewed as a process designed to clear one’s vision, the goal of which is the realization of something positive, the tathagatagarbha-dharmakaya (Takasaki, 1966).
The Srimaladevi, too is critical of a purely negative presentation of shunyata and sees tathagatagarbha thought as a corrective to the mistakes of neophyte practitioners who have misinterpreted the shunya doctrine as upholding nihilism. It sees the realization of enlightenment and the nature of the Absolute in very positive terms. It defines the tathagatagarbha in terms of the ground of phenomenal existence, without beginning or cessation; it transcends the caused, conditioned and compounded (Brown, 1981). Indeed, rather than being a case of “neti, neti,” (the negative "not this, not this" path) the tathagatagarbha is presented in the Srimala as being a veritable diamond mine of positive attributes:
"Lord, the cessation of suffering is not the destruction of Dharma. Why so? Because the Dharmakaya of the tathogata is named ‘cessation of suffering,’ and it is beginningless, uncreate, unborn, undying, free from death; permanent, steadfast, calm, eternal; intrinsically pure, free from all the defilement-store; and accompanied by Buddha natures more numerous than the sands of the Ganges, which are nondiscrete, knowing as liberated, and inconceivable. This Dharmakaya of the Tathagata when not free from the store of defilement is referred to as the tathagatagarbha." (Wayman, 1974)
This represents only a partial listing of the positive attributes predicated of the Tathagata, the Absolute.
There are four important attributes that Queen Srimaladevi ascribes to the dharmakaya, the tathagatagarbha in its pristine state. These are the four gunaparamita, or perfections, of 1) permanence, 2) bliss, 3) self, and 4) purity. These four perfections are confirmed as qualities of the Absolute in the Ratnagotravibhaga-sutra:
"Those are the sons of the Lord, Whose seed is the faith in the highest of vehicles, whose mother is the Wisdom that gives birth to the properties of the Buddha, who abide in the blissful womb of meditative trance and are nursed by Great Commiseration. The result are the Absolute,Transcendental Properties of Purity, Unity [atman], Bliss, and Eternity." (Obermiller, 1931, Prasad, 1991)
The four gunaparamita doctrine, coupled with the extremely positive language used to describe the dharmakaya, nirvana and the Buddha in the different tathagatagarbha sutras could be seen as containing within them the germ of later East Asian Buddhist devotionalism.
Of all of the four gunaparamita, the most often disconcerting for students of contemporary Buddhist philosophy is that of atman, or “self.” While all four of these attributes represent what are conventionally considered to be wayward views (for example, anitya versus nitya), it is atman which sticks out due to its apparent circumvention of the purported heart of post-Shakyamuni Buddhism (both Theravada and Mahayana): the anatman doctrine. Some authorities, however, would argue that anatman is not necessarily the highest teaching of Buddhism, but that, rather, the anatman dogma is merely a via negativa attempting to redirect our concerns away from ego. Steve Collins writes in Selfless Persons that:
"...the denial of self in whatever can be experienced or conceptualized...serves to direct the attribution away from that sphere. Instead of supplying a verbalized notion of what is the sphere of ultimate value, Buddhism simply leaves a direction arrow, while resolutely refusing to predicate anything of the destination, to discuss its relationship with the phenomenal person or indeed to say anything more about it." (Collins,1982)
The concept of a permanent and true self, then, is not necessarily an anathema to authentic and original Buddhism, but may have been merely over-emphasized to the point of dogma by later overly zealous philosophers.
Our true, inner essence is synonymous with tathatagata. It is non-conditioned, permanent and free from suffering. These characteristics of the self represent just the opposite attributes of the dharmas ("essences", not to be confused with Dharma, or the Natural Way), which are subject to patitya-samutpada. The tathagatagarbha is both transcendent and immanent. While the Srimaladevi-sutra, for example, may emphasize the transcendental nature of tathagatagarbha, other texts, such as the Anunatvapurnatva-nirdesha, stress the immanence of the tathagatagarbha, for tathagatagarbha is the essence of life. The goal of enlightenment is to realize our true nature. That true nature is Buddha-nature - the state of spiritual awakening.
At present, we are constrained from knowing our Buddha-nature due to its concealment. It is hidden from us by non-essential defilements, such as ignorance, fear, lust, hatred and desire. These coverings are of our own making, as a direct result of our karma, and are innumerable. The Tathagatagarbha-sutra gives several analogies of our true self in its present state of concealment. It is compared to a statue of the Buddha wrapped in a rag; grain covered by husk; and a hidden treasure buried beneath the ground (King, 1991). The Ratnagotravibhaga compares the essence of Buddhahood to a sprout hidden in a small seed and gold buried in impurities (Obermiller, 1931; Prasad, 1991). According to the Srimala-sutra, it is these defilements which keep us from liberation, from our true nature, tathagatagarbha. “The voidness knowledge of the tathagatagarbha is of two kinds. The two are as follows: Lord, the tathagatagarbha is void of all the defilement-stores, which are discrete and knowing as not liberated. Lord, the tathagatagarbha is not void of the Buddha dharmas, which are nondiscrete, inconceivable, more numerous than the sands of the Ganges and knowing as liberated” (Wayman, 1974). While these defilements have the power to conceal our inherent Buddha nature from us, this is true only to the extent that we permit our past karma to determine our lives for us.
The tathagatagarbha theory having now been briefly outlined, we will proceed to examine some of its implications. First, as delineated by the tathagatagarbha sutras, Buddha nature is absolutely essential to the human condition. Whether we are capable of verifying it experientially or not, it is still the summum bonum of human existence. Second, this doctrine teaches that we are presently Buddhas. Buddhahood is not some far off goal for us to eventually earn, but rather the essence of our true selves which we must simply reclaim. Third, salvation is a universal phenomenon from which no one will be excluded. No one is incapable of forever achieving Buddhahood. Nirvana is a gate open to all. Thus, tathagatagarbha thought is ultimately an encouraging and optimistic outlook. The tathagatagarbha doctrine presents us with ideas that are quite similar to those found in many of the world’s religions, especially Buddhism's sister religion Sanatana Dharma. The dogmas of the lack of self and the non-existence of an Absolute have probably served as the major stumbling blocks in the acceptance of Buddhism in attempts at ecumenical dialogue. The tathagatagarbha doctrine could serve as a point of reference that will allow non-Buddhist religions to approach Buddhism with a more open mind.
Overall, post-Shakyamuni contemporary Buddhism seems to present itself as a via negativa, an attempt to know the Absolute by systematically stripping way all that the Absolute is not. The human mind can not live on a diet of negation alone, however, and seems to inevitably yearn to know the positive side of ultimate reality. The human being ultimately experiences both intellectual and existential dissatisfaction without the assurance of an ever-existent soul, or atman. The theory of tathagatagarbha was apparently born from just such a natural yearning. As a via positiva, it confirmed the existence of a true self, an eternal self, as juxtaposed against the egoic “self”; and of an Absolute possessed of superlative qualities.
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About the Author
Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya is universally acclaimed as one of the world's most respected and qualified Dharma teachers and Hindu spiritual leaders alive today. He personifies what it means to be a true and authentic guru.
Dr. Deepak Chopra has exclaimed in 2002: "You've done truly phenomenal work teaching the pure essence of Yoga". In a similar manner, Dr. David Frawley has said about Sri Acharyaji, "Sri Acharyaji represents the Sankalpa [the will] of the Hindu people and the cause of Sanatana Dharma. I urge all Hindus everywhere to give him your full support, assistance, and encouragement in his crucial work. He needs and deserves our help."
Sri Acharyaji began his personal spiritual journey over 35 years ago at the tender age of ten when he read the Bhagavad Gita for the very first time. He coupled his decades of intense spiritual practice and study with advanced academic achievements, earning a B.A. in philosophy/theology from Loyola University Chicago, as well as an M.A. and Ph.D. in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
He has lectured on Dharma at dozens of top universities, such as Harvard, Columbia, Rutgers, Cornell, and Northwestern. He has also served as a consultant for such Fortune 500 companies as Ford Motor Corporation and Lucent Technology.
Explaining to his doctoral advisor that "I don't want to just study the history of religion…I want to make religious history", Sri Acharyaji eventually left academia to devote himself exclusively to spiritual teaching and to the preservation of the great tradition of Sanatana Dharma (Hinduism).
Today, Sri Acharyaji occupies his full time teaching Dharma spirituality to diverse audiences. In addition to leading classes, satsanghas, seminars and lecturing on Sanatana Dharma widely, Sri Acharyaji is a renowned author, as well as a personal spiritual guide (guru) to a rapidly increasing following of enthusiastic students from both the Indian and the non-Indian communities.
Sri Acharyaji was the Resident Acharya (Spiritual Preceptor) of the Hindu Temple of Nebraska (2007 - 2009), which represents the first time in American history that a Hindu temple has ever made such an esteemed appointment. He is the Founder-President of the International Sanatana Dharma Society, a global movement dedicated to teaching Dharma in its most authentic form.
Sri Acharyaji is the real thing: an enlightened guru with the ability to deliver the highest wisdom and spiritual liberation to his sincere students.
Sri Acharyaji's teachings stress the achievement of enlightenment through the practice of meditation, Yoga, and directly experiencing the presence of the Divine. Another overarching aspect of Sri Acharyaji's teachings focuses on the importance of love, compassion and service toward all living beings.
Whether speaking to an audience of thousands, or having a heart-felt discussion with only one person, Sri Acharyaji vividly conveys a deeply moving sense of compassion, peace, humility, and spiritual insight that has endeared him to thousands of students and admirers throughout the world.
Some of his books include:
"Sanatana Dharma: The Eternal Natural Way"
"Living Dharma: The Teachings of Sri Dharma Pravartaka Acharya"
"Radical Universalism: Does Hinduism Teach that All Religions are the Same?"
"Taking Refuge in Dharma: The Initiation Guidebook"
"The Vedic Way of Knowing God"
"The Shakti Principle: Encountering the Feminine Power of God"
"The Art of Wisdom: Affirmations for Boundless Living"
His latest book Sanatana Dharma: The Eternal Natural Way, is scheduled for publication in 2011.
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