The following short sutra is an important teaching by the Buddha on the "Tathagatagarbha" and "Dharmakaya" doctrines. The two terms refer essentially to the same undying, unchanging Reality at the heart of all beings. The sutra has been translated into English here for the first time by Stephen Hodge. Note that "Bhagavat" means "Blessed One" and alludes to the Buddha. Apologies for the strange extended lay-out of this text (and others on this page): the website seems to have a mind of its own and has changed the format without my altering anything at all! - Tony.
Thus I have heard.At one time the Bhagavat was staying on Mount Gṛdhrakūṭa at Rājagṛha in the company ofa community (saṅgha) of one thousand two hundred and fifty monks.There were also countless, inconceivable numbers of Bodhisattva-mahāsattvas.
On that occasion, Śāriputra was in the midst of the assembly and, rising from his seat, he went towards the Bhagavat.When he reached the place where the Bhagavat was, he bowed down with his head at the Bhagavat's feet in salutation.Then he went and sat to one side.With his hands joined in devotion, he spoke to the Bhagavat.
"Bhagavat, from time without beginning all beings have wandered, coming and going, through the six states of existence in the three realms of Saṃsāra.They have repeatedly transmigrated through the four modes of birth and have experienced unbounded sufferings undergoing births and deaths.Bhagavat, does this mass of beings, this ocean of beings, undergo increase and decrease or does it not undergo increase and decrease ?I do not understand the significance of this profound matter.How should I answer if anybody asks me about it ?"
The Bhagavat answered Śāriputra thus, "It is excellent, Śāriputra, excellent that you ask me about the significance of this profound matter in order that all beings will achieve relief from their efforts (yoga-kṣema), out of pity for all beings, for the benefit of all beings, for the welfare and comfort of all beings including gods and humans.
"Śāriputra,if you had not asked the Tathāgata, Arhat, Saṃyak-saṃbuddha about this matter, many errors would occur.Why is that ?Because all beings, including the gods and humans, in the present and future ages, would experience the disadvantage of suffering misery for a long time and lose all welfare and comfort for ever.
"Śāriputra, there is a major false opinion – the assertion that the realm of beings (sattva-dhātu) fills up and that the realm of beings decreases.Śāriputra, beings who embrace this opinion are like the congenitally blind and cannot see the true nature of things.Hence they are involved in improper behaviour for a very long time, following a false path.For this reason,they fall in this lifetime into the miserable states of existence.
"Moreover, Śāriputra, there is a precipitous gorge -- rigidly adhering to the perverse claim that the realm of beings increases and rigidly adhering to the perverse claim that the realm of beings decrease.Śāriputra, because of rigidly adhering to this perverse opinion, beings are involved in improper behaviour for a very long time, following a false path.For this reason,they fall in future lifetimes into the miserable states of existence.
"Śāriputra, because all foolish ordinary beings (bāla-pṛthak-jana) do not know the oneness of the Dharmadhātu as it truly is in reality, because they do not see the oneness of the Dharmadhātu as it truly is in reality, they give rise to a mistaken opinion in their minds – that the realm of beings increases and the realm of beings decreases.
"Śāriputra, while I, the Tathāgata, reside in the world, my disciples do not give rise to such thoughts, but when five hundred years has elapsed after my departure there will be many foolish beings lacking in insight and knowledge.Even amongst [followers of] the Buddha Dharma, there will be those who resemble monks in their appearance, with their heads shaven and wearing the three monastic robes, and yet internally they will lack the qualities of a monk. These fellows will claim to be monks even though they are not really monks, they will claim to be disciples of the Buddha even though they not really disciples of the Buddha, saying 'We are monks, we are the real disciples of the Buddha'.
"Such people will give rise to the false opinions of imposition (samāropa) and detraction (apavāda).Why ?Because these beings lack the eye of awareness since they rely upon the Tathāgata's provisional sūtras, because they do not perceive emptiness as it truly is in reality, because they do not know the [significance of] the initial generation of the aspiration [to enlightenment] experienced by the Tathāgata as it truly is in reality, because they do not know [the Tathāgata's] accumulation of immeasurable virtues for enlightenment as it truly is in reality, because they do not know the immeasurable qualities attained by the Tathāgata as they truly are in reality, because they do not know the immeasurable power of the Tathāgata as it truly is in reality, because they do not know the immeasurable domain (viṣaya) of the Tathāgata as it truly is in reality, because they do not believe in the Tathāgata's immeasurable spheres of activity (gocāra) as it truly is in reality, because they do not know the Tathāgata's mastery of inconceivable, immeasurable qualities as it truly is in reality, because they do not know the Tathāgata's inconceivable, immeasurable expedient means as they truly are in reality, because they are not able to distinguish the immeasurable facets of the Tathāgata's domain (viṣaya), because they are unable to comprehend the Tathāgata's inconceivable great compassion, and because they do not know the Tathāgata's great Nirvāṇa as it truly is in reality.
"Śāriputra, because these foolish ordinary people lack the insight born of study (śruta-māya-prajńā), they give rise to the false opinions (dṛṣti) of annihilation or cessation when they hear of the Tathāgata's Nirvāṇa.Because of these ideas of annihilation and cessation, they claim that the realm of beings decreases and thus generate this major false opinion which leads to extremely grave misdeeds.
"Furthermore, Śāriputra, these people give rise to a further three false opinions due to that false opinion of detraction.These three false opinions and their false opinion of detraction are mutually inseparable like the cords of a net.What are the three false opinions ?The first is the idea of nihilism (uccheda-vāda), that concerning utter annihilation, the second is the idea of cessation, that Nirvāṇa is thus, and the third is the idea that there is no Nirvāṇa, that Nirvāṇa is utter vacuity.
"Śāriputra, people are thus bound, thus seized, thus touched by these three opinions.Because of the power of these three opinions, they in turn give rise to another two false opinions.These two false opinions are inseparable from those two opinions like the cords of a net.What are these two opinions ?The first is the opinion concerning abstention and the second is the opinion that Nirvāṇa is utterly non-existent.Śāriputra, in dependence upon the opinion concerning abstention, a further two opinions arise.These two opinions are inseparable from the opinion concerning abstention like the cords of a net.What are these two opinions ? The first is the opinion that is attached to moral precepts (śīla-vrata-parāmarśa-dṛṣṭi) and the second is the opinion that gives rise to the cognitive distortion that treats the impure as the pure.
"Śāriputra, in dependence upon the opinion that that Nirvāṇa is utterly non-existent, a further six opinions arise.These six opinions are inseparable from the opinion that Nirvāṇa is non-existent like the cords of a net.What are these six opinions ?The first is the opinion that the world has no beginning, the second is the opinion that the world has no ending, the third is the opinion that beings are created as manifestations, the fourth is that there is neither suffering nor happiness, the fifth is that beings have no obligations (?), and the six is that there are no noble truths.
"Furthermore, Śāriputra, these people give rise to a further two opinions due to this false opinion of attribution.These two false opinions and that false opinion of attribution are mutually inseparable like the cords of a net.What are these two opinions ?The first is that Nirvāṇa has a starting point and the second is that Nirvāṇa comes into existence spontaneously without causes and conditions.Śāriputra, these two opinions cause beings to be devoid of any aspirations and strenuous effort directed at the wholesome factors (kuśala-dharma).Śāriputra, because they give rise to these two opinions, there is no chance of these people making any aspirations or efforts directed at the wholesome factors even though the seven Buddhas have appeared in the world in succession n order to teach the Dharma.Śāriputra, these two opinions – the opinion that Nirvāṇa has a starting point and the opinion that Nirvāṇa comes into existence spontaneously without causes and conditions – are ignorance (avidyā), the root of afflictions (kleśa).
"Śāriputra, these two opinions (samāropa & apavāda) are the root of extreme evil, the way of great defects.All opinions arise in dependence upon these two opinions.All these opinions are inseparable from those two opinions like the cords of a net.'All opinions' signifies the multitude of different opinions whether concerning the internal or the external, whether coarse, subtle or middling that involve the opinions of attribution and detraction.Śāriputra, these two opinions are grounded upon a single basis (dhātu), are identical to a single basis, conjoined with a single basis.Because all foolish ordinary people do not know that single basis as it truly is in reality, because they do not see that single basis as it truly is in reality, they give rise to thoughts [involving] an extremely pernicious major [false] opinions – that is to say, the realm of beings increases and that the realm of beings decreases."
Then the venerable Śāriputra said to the Bhagavat, "Bhagavat, what is this one basis of which you speak ?Why do all foolish ordinary people give rise to thoughts [involving] an extremely pernicious major [false] opinions – that is to say, the realm of beings increases and that the realm of beings decreases – because they do not know that single basis as it truly is in reality, because they do not see that single basis as it truly is in reality ?I do not yet understand this extremely profound matter, so I entreat the Bhagavat to help me understand it so that I may be liberated !"
Then the Bhagavat answered the venerable Śāriputra thus, "Śāriputra, this matter [appertains] to the Tathāgata's perceptual domain, the Tathāgata's sphere of activity.No Śrāvakas or Pratyekabuddhas, Śāriputra, are able to know, to see or to investigate this matter with their insight.How much less able are foolish ordinary people to do so, except when they directly realize it by faith !Ultimate truth, Śāriputra, may be directly realized by faith.Ultimate truth (paramārtha), Śāriputra, is a synonym for the realm of beings (sattva-dhātu). The realm of beings, Śāriputra, is a synonym for the Tathāgata-garbha.The Tathāgata-garbha, Śāriputra, is a synonym for the Dharmakāya.Śāriputra, this Dharmakāya taught by the Tathāgata is indivisible in nature from the virtues (dharma) of the Tathāgata which far exceed the grains of sand in the Ganges in number, inseparable in its qualities from awareness (avinirmukta-jńāna-guṇa).
"Śāriputra,just as the light, heat and colour of a lamp in the world are indivisible in nature, inseparable qualities or again just as the brilliance, colour and shape of a jewel, in the same way, Śāriputra, this Dharmakāya taught by the Tathāgata is indivisible in nature from the virtues (dharma) of the Tathāgata which far exceed the grains of sand in the Ganges in number, inseparable in its qualities from awareness (avinirmukta-jńāna-guṇa).
"Śāriputra, this Dharmakāya neither arises nor ceases in nature, it is not delimited in the past nor is it delimited in the future, because it is devoid of the two extremes.Śāriputra, it is not delimited in the past because it is devoid of a point of arising and it is not delimited in the future because it is devoid of a point of cessation.Śāriputra, this Dharmakāya is permanent because it is unchanging in nature and because it is inexhaustible in nature.Śāriputra, this Dharmakāya is stable, because it is the stable refuge and because it is identical to the bounds of the future.Śāriputra, this Dharmakāya is peace because it is non-dual (advaya) in nature, because it is devoid of conceptualization (avikalpa) in nature.Śāriputra, this Dharmakāya is eternal because it is indestructible in nature, because it is unfabricated in nature.
"Śāriputra, this very Dharmakāya is called the realm of beings (sattva-dhātu) when it concealed by a sheath of boundless afflictions, wandering repeatedly through births and deaths in beginningless Saṃsāra, buffeted by the waves of Saṃsāra.Śāriputra, this very Dharmakāya is called a Bodhisattva when it is disillusioned with the sufferings of the stream of Saṃsāra and is detached from all the experiential objects of desire and engages in the practice aimed at enlightenment through the mass of eighty-four thousand doctrines(dharma) which are subsumed by the ten Perfections. Śāriputra, this very Dharmakāya is called the Tathāgata, Arhat, Saṃyak-saṃbuddha when it has become free from the sheath of all the afflictions, has passed beyond all sufferings, has eliminated the stains of all the subsidiary afflictions, purified, utterly purified, and, abiding in the supremely pure reality (dharmatā) and reaching the level which may illumine all beings, has attained the peerless, heroic strength with regards all knowable things and has realized mastering power over all phenomena without any obscuration and any obstruction in nature.Therefore, Śāriputra, the realm of beings and the Dharmakāya are not different.The realm of beings is the Dharmakāya and the Dharmakāya is the realm of beings.Their significance is identical, only distinguished by different names.
" Furthermore, Śāriputra, as I have previously explained, the realm of beings has three qualities which are all real, not different nor separate from thusness. What are the three qualities ?First, the Tathāgata-garbha is intrinsically conjoined with pure qualities from time without beginning, secondly the Tathāgata-garbha is intrinsically not conjoined with impure qualities from time without beginning, and thirdly the Tathāgata-garbha is unchanging sameness throughout the future.
"Śāriputra, you should know that the fact that the Tathāgata-garbha is intrinsically conjoined with pure qualities from time without beginning signifies that it is veridical and not delusive, a pure reality that is without separation and exclusion from awareness (jńāna), an inconceivable "entity" (dharma) that is the Dharmadhātu.It is primordially conjoined with this purity by nature.Śāriputra, grounded upon this pure and veridical Dharmadhātu, I teach the intrinsic purity of the mind, this inconceivable doctrine, for the sake of beings.
"Śāriputra, you should know that the fact that the Tathāgata-garbha is intrinsically not conjoined with the impure qualities, the afflictions which envelop it, from time without beginning signifies that those impure qualities, the afflictions which envelop it, which are primordially separated from and not conjoined with it, are just to be eliminated by the awareness of the Tathāgata's enlightenment.Śāriputra, grounded upon the inconceivable Dharmadhātu which is not conjoined with these enveloping afflictions, I teach the intrinsic purity of the mind to which the adventitious afflictions are attached (sakta), this inconceivable doctrine, for the sake of beings.
"Śāriputra, you should know that the fact that the Tathāgata-garbha is unchanging sameness throughout the future signifies that it is the root of all [wholesome and unwholesome] qualities, that it possesses all [Tathāgata] qualities, that it is endowed with all qualities, that it is not separate or divorced from all veridical qualities in the midst of mundane qualities, that it sustains all qualities, and that it includes all qualities. Grounded upon this permanent, stable, pure and unchanging refuge that is free from arising and cessation, the inconceivable pure Dharmadhātu, I term it "be-ing" (sat-tva).Why is that ?What I call 'be-ing' is just a different name for this permanent, stable, pure and unchanging refuge that is free from arising and cessation, the inconceivable pure Dharmadhātu.For this reason, grounded upon this entity (dharma), I speak of 'be-ing'.
"Śāriputra, all three of these qualities (dharma) are veridical, not separate nor divisible from reality.The two kinds of extremely pernicious, unwholesome false opinions do not ultimately arise with regards to these veridical qualities that are not separate not divisible from reality.Why ?Because of perceiving things as they truly are in reality.Śāriputra, all Buddha Tathāgatas are totally free from these two false opinions – the opinion which [falsely] attributes and the opinion which [falsely] detracts – which are censured (garhya-sthānīya) by the Buddha Tathāgatas.
"Śāriputra, should any monk, nun, upāsaka or upāsikā give rise to one or other of these opinions, the Buddha Tathāgatas are not their teacher (śāstṛ).Such people are not my disciples (śrāvaka).Śāriputra, I say that by giving rise to those two opinions, these people are filled with darkness – they go from darkness to a greater darkness, from gloom to a greater gloom, their darkness becoming ever greater.I call them 'icchantikas'.Therefore, Śāriputra, you should train yourself, abiding in the true path which is separated from those two opinions."
When the Buddha finished expounding this sūtra, the elder Śāriputra,as well as the great assembly of monks, nuns, upāsakas, upāsikās, bodhisattva-mahāsattvas together with the gods, nāgas, yakṣas, gandharvas, asuras, garuḍas, kinnaras, mahoragas, humans and non-humans, were all greatly joyful, receiving with faith and venerating the Anūnatva-apūrṇatva sūtra expounded by the Buddha.
(For a full-length monograph on this topic, see my "Buddha and God" page on this website)
For well over a century now, most Westerners have been taught and have uncritically accepted that there is absolutely and categorically no God, no Divine in Buddhism. But is this quite true? Is it not perhaps time to look again at what this vast religion of Buddhism actually contains in connection with the idea of possible Divinity?
Firstly, we need to define “God”. A key concept is that of ultimate, eternal Reality. The “Cambridge Encyclopedia” (CUP, 1997, p. 460) states: “God is conceived as ‘being itself’ … as absolute, infinite, eternal, immutable, incomprehensible … all wise (omniscient), all-good (omnibenevolent), and everywhere present (omnipresent).”
Is there anything approaching this in Buddhism? Yes!Let’s look at a small amount of the large quantity of evidence.
In his early teachings, the Buddha spoke of the realm of Nirvana (eternal peace and happiness) as being “unborn, unoriginated, uncreated” (Udana). This means that Nirvana did not spring into being from some cause or causes: it was always there.
Later, in his Mahayana teachings, the Buddha speaks of the Buddha as the “Holy King” of this mysterious realm of Nirvana. In the Nirvana Sutra, he states: “The abode of the unsurpassed Dharma Lord, the Holy King, is accordingly given the name, ‘Great Nirvana’.” (Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, tr. by K. Yamamoto, edited by T. Page, Nirvana Publications, 2000, Vol. 7, p. 28). “Dharma” is ultimate, sustaining cosmic Truth, and the Buddha is the embodiment of that Truth – the personalised face of the impersonal Absolute.
Moreover, the Buddha is said to be present everywhere. Again in the Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha declares of himself:
“ … the Tathagata [i.e. Buddha] pervades all places, just like space. The nature of space cannot be seen; similarly, the Tathagata cannot really be seen, and yet he causes all to see him through his sovereignty. Such sovereignty is termed ‘the Great Self’. That Great Self is termed ‘Great Nirvana’.” (ibid, p. 30).
He is thus stated to be “omnipresent”, invisible, yet able to manifest through his great “sovereignty”. An uncreated, omnipresent, invisible, sovereign Self who is Lord -does that sound familiar? Does it not have more than slight echoes of some form of Godhead?
Let us go further. In the Instructions on Non-Decrease and Non-Increase scripture, the Buddha reveals how his innermost and omnipresent nature – called the “Dharmadhatu” (realm of Truth) - constitutes the eternal Refuge for all creatures and the very heart of all being. He says:
“Grounded upon this eternal, unshakeable, pure and unchanging refuge that is free from arising and cessation, the inconceivable pure Dharmadhatu, I term it ‘be-ing’ [sat-tva].”
We note that this “ground” of the Buddha’s being is “inconceivable” or “incomprehensible” -another quality associated with the Divine.
But there is more. In the Lankavatara Sutra, the Buddha tells of how he is worshipped under a vast array of names, including as Truth (satyata), Nirvana, and “God” (“Isvara”), and yet is not understood by those who worship him in these various modalities. They fail to see that one-and-the same uncreated, undying being is here being spoken of under a plenitude of names. Some even think he is a non-entity, a non-existence! The Buddha comments:
“They pay respect and make me offerings, but they do not understand well the meaning of words, do not distinguish ideas, the true from the false; clinging to words of teaching, they erroneously discriminate that the Unborn and Undying means a non-existence. They are thus unable to comprehend that One Tathagata [i.e. Buddha] may be known in many different names and titles.” (Studies in the Lankavatara Sutra, by Dr. D. T. Suzuki, Motilal, 1999, p. 354).
This is perhaps why many people have misconstrued an important area of Buddhism: because the Buddha speaks of something that was Uncreated or Unborn, many have wrongly assumed that this must mean there is nothing there at all -as it never got born into existence. But this is to miss the central point -that Reality was, is and never can be “created”: it just IS!
Finally, if the reader still has doubts regarding the God concept in Buddhism, let us listen to the words of the Primordial Buddha, whose name is Samantabhadra -which interestingly means “All-Good”, one of the definitions of God – who in the “All-Creating King” scripture reveals, in the most awe-inspiring and majestic terms, that all beings and phenomena issue from nowhere other than himself - the cosmic Awakened Mind:
“I am the core of all that exists. I am the seed of all that exists. I am the cause of all that exists. I am the trunk of all that exists. I am the foundation of all that exists. I am the root of existence. I am ‘the core’ because I contain all phenomena. I am ‘the seed’ because I give birth to everything. I am ‘the cause’ because all comes forth from me. I am ‘the trunk’ because the ramifications of every event sprout from me. I am ‘the foundation’ because all abides in me. I am called ‘the root’ because I am everything.”
(“The Supreme Source”, tr. by Adriano Clemente, Chogyal Namkhai Norbu, Snow Lion Publications, 1999, p. 157).
This is assuredly the Buddha as God – the source, sustainer and essence of All. Is it not, therefore, time that we stopped calling Buddhism “atheistic”?
An Indian Philosopher's Insight into Emptiness and the Self
From the prepublications at the South Asia Seminar, 2000 at The University of Texas at Austin
Atman in Sunyata and the Sunyata of Atman
An attempt to reconcile the alleged difference between Buddhism and Advaita Vedanta on the nature of the Self
Advaita Vedanta and Buddhism are at loggerheads with one another on the metaphysical issue of the self or soul. Whereas the former school of thought is credited with the belief in the existence of the Atman or the soul as the core reality of the human individual, the latter school is famous for the theory of Anatman or denial of the existence of any self or soul substance. In contemporary philosophical parlance, the Advaita Vedantin would be a realist about the self and the Buddhist an anti-realist about the same thing. This is surely a radical ontological antinomy. But what is surprising is that despite such an ontological antinomy the two systems of thought have a more or less common "metaphysic of transcendence" or a transformative teleology. They each believe in the possibility of ultimate human liberation or enlightenment. The ultimate liberation (Moksa) of Advaita Vedanta and the ultimate enlightenment (Nirvana) of Buddhism are in essence similar notions of attainment of salvation or final freedom from the quagmire of human bondage. How would one reconcile the fact that the two systems share a basically similar metaphysic of salvation with the fact that they are arch opponents on the issue of the ontology of the self?
What I have posed as a perplexing problem should be clear once it is realized that the question of the self is crucially related to the issue of ultimate liberation. If liberation is attained in the form of self-realization or self-transformation, then whether one affirms or denies the existence of the self would seem to make a corresponding difference in respect of the possibility of ultimate liberation understood as self-liberation. The perplexity is that both an anti-realist (Buddhism) and a realist (Vedanta) about the self are nonetheless convergent on the idea of the possibility of ultimate, self-transformative liberation. Indeed, to converge on a common salvific teleology while the two parties hold on to the radically divergent ontological positions of self-denial and self-affirmation is to open up a curious philosophical situation that demands closer scrutiny.
The Buddhist position is intriguing precisely because it claims the possibility of emancipation without admitting that there is any self-same, enduring bearer of the emancipatory experience. Ironically, self-extinction rather than self-existence is said to be a necessary condition for the possibility of emancipation. But we may pause here to reconsider the meaning of the concept of self in question. Does the sense of perplexity rest on an ambiguity of the word "self" as used by the opposing parties?
Apparently, it would be absurd to profess total self-denial while admitting ultimate liberation because the experience of liberation, being enduring as well as unitary, presupposes an experiencer of some sort. We would do well not to short-circuit the Buddhist position into plain absurdity and examine whether there really is no sense of self-affirmation in the overall metaphysical stance of Buddhism.
On the other hand, the Vedantic position on self-affirmation also needs to be subjected to a closer scrutiny in relation to its Buddhist opponent. What needs to be examined closely is what really is affirmed when the Vedantin affirms the existence of the self. What is the content of the self involved in Vedantic self-liberation?
Why have I moved the matter towards a discussion of the content of the Vedantic self in relation to the no-self thesis of Buddhism? I have done so in view of the alleged dichotomy between the two systems of thought described in terms of positive ontology (Vedanta) and negative ontology (Buddhism). Vedanta is metaphysically Being-oriented, specifically the Being of Atman or the true individual self, which is ultimately identical with Brahman or the Absolute Reality. Buddhism is metaphysically oriented to Nothingness or Emptiness, known as Sunyata, so much so that Absolute Reality is identified with Absolute Nothingness. What I wonder is whether there can really be any substantive difference of specific content between a metaphysic of Being and a metaphysic of Nothingness, when both systems subscribe to an ultimate reality conceived in equally metaphysically absolutist terms. The metaphysical "sphere" of absolute Being may coincide with that of absolute Nothingness, and there may not be "internal" content-specific difference between the two.
In keeping with the speculative remark I just made, I would now like to take up the Buddhist notion of Sunyata for a careful analysis. Buddhists are arch anti-realists when it comes to the existence of anything that can be individuated. Sheer impermanence and transitoriness of everything characterizes reality for them. There is no thing and no self in such a reality of ceaseless flux. Hence, according to Buddhism, a right understanding of the world and us in it would be not to reify anything into enduring individual entities or selves. This is what gets expressed as the no-self or Anatman view. One is therefore advised to empty oneself of the illusory representation of oneself as an enduring and distinct self. Everything is devoid of any substantive essence. In a sense, everything in reality is empty.
It might be helpful to think of emptiness or Sunyata, understood as Absolute Nothingness, as a cosmic "field," and reality ultimately identified with this field. Anything in reality would then be absolutely non-substantial, which implies that there would be no non-illusory substantive self-representation in this field. Consciousness, which is the content of the so-called self and experience (and may be the content of the cosmic field as such), would be absolutely empty of any ego-centric self-representation. It would be "pure" consciousness, or consciousness per se.
Contrast this picture of Buddhism with the Vedantic depiction of reality. Phenomenal reality, which is what appears as the world of sensible apprehension in all its multiplicity, is held to be a false projection of cosmic illusion, of Maya or Avidya. All relationality amongst distinct individuals, the whole world as it appears to be distinct from oneself as subject in all its multifariousness, is unreal from the transcendental standpoint of Brahman. True reality is Brahman, which is One, indeterminate, and all that there is. Brahman simply is. We, the so-called individual selves, are each essentially an atman. Being an Atman, each of us is not really distinct from other individual selves (or from anything else whatsoever). As Atman, we are ultimately one with Brahman, which is tantamount to being one with reality as such.
According to Vedanta, not to realize this oneness with Brahman, via the realization of our true essence as Atman, is to remain spiritually blinded by Avidya. Liberation as self-realization is the realization of our ultimate identity with Brahman. Short of our understanding of our Atman-essence we are each a Jiva, an individual ego distinct from other similarly "unrealized" individuals. As Atman, none of us is really an individual self, but a universal self merging with the absolute universality of Brahman. To come to have this realization is to attain Moksa.
As it stands, the Vedantic metaphysics is realist, i.e. realist about the self as Atman. It is the "being" of the self, rather than nothingness or emptiness, which is clearly affirmed. The Atman is regarded to be the truest, and only enduring, reality. Vedanta therefore strikes us as a reality-affirming ontology in contrast to the reality-negating ontology of Buddhism. For Vedanta, there is a reality with its positive identity once the illusory projection of a phenomenal world is transcended. There is Atman-identical-with-Brahman to constitute Reality. By contrast, the Reality of Buddhism is seemingly gratuitous because sheer emptiness is supposed to be coterminous with Reality. Lacking in any positive content or identity, the Reality depicted by Buddhism would seem to make no room for the possibility of an enduring experience to count as an experience of emancipation.
When Buddhism and Vedanta are thus juxtaposed in a comparative perspective, the two systems present themselves in the form of a mutually exclusive relation. An affirmation of the existence of Atman would presuppose a negation of the reality of Sunyata. Conversely, identifying reality with the field of Sunyata would entail a denial of the existence of Atman. So, either it is Atman without Sunyata, or it is Sunyata without Atman.
We must recall the earlier discussion that both Buddhism and Vedanta with their opposing ontological commitments nevertheless converge on the issue of salvation. This means that Sunyata is no impediment to ultimate liberation. And if the reality of Sunyata leaves no room for Atman, then it follows, by implication, that the non-existence of Atman is also no impediment to ultimate liberation. One might say here (with a mildly reactive temperament) that the metaphysics of ultimate liberation is severely underdetermined by the ontology of the self. But is the question of the self---its existence or non-existence---so very neutral with respect to the possibility of liberation?
At this stage I would argue in the direction of justifying a negative answer to the above question. I would claim that self-reality is intimately connected to the reality of ultimate liberation. But in claiming this I would in no way imply that the Buddhist way of conceiving of the possibility of liberation is fictitious. Instead, my conclusion would be that true liberation or emancipation is as much grounded in a metaphysic of Sunyata as it is founded upon its counterpart metaphysic of Atman. But, then, I shall have to disentangle the knotty problem of the antinomy between Buddhism and Vedanta discussed in the beginning of this essay.
I think that a reconciliatory philosophical reconsideration of the ancient debate between Buddhism and Vedanta would yield a picture in which the two systems would be seen as being complementary to each other. With this intent I shall start from the Vedantic angle to show that the concept of Atman is compatible with that of Sunyata.
Granted the reality or existence of Atman, exactly in what form does it exist? Can we say that it exists as an individual entity of some sort? To so exist, it must satisfy certain criteria of individuation. But, admittedly, there are no such criteria. Not being Jiva, it is not an individual existing in relation to other individual entities. This is tantamount to saying that Atman is not really an individual at all. It has no relationality except its relation to Brahman, which is, after all, a relation of identity characterizing the non-duality between the two.
Can the Atman be described in terms of any attribute apart from its most general characterization as something of the nature of pure consciousness? And qua pure consciousness---consciousness without any specific features---Atman is better grasped as attributeless. It is as though we can get a grip on the concept of Atman by subtracting from the "content-laden" concept of consciousness all contingent specificities attached to the concept. Atman is consciousness absolutely purged of all factual specificities---everything that consciousness accumulates during its involvement with the empirical world or Samsara.
If Atman is attributively free pure consciousness, and attribute-free consciousness entails consciousness not centred on any ego-specific point of view, then it is a "decentred" self inhabitating a "centreless" world. Consciousness decentred is also consciousness universalized, and a self nourished by universalized, perspectiveless consciousness is evidently empty of all inner encumbrances that accrue to a self of centred consciousness. At least, part of attaining ultimate liberation is this freedom from the contingencies of ego-centred consciousness. One could say that one meaning of the Buddhist concept of emptiness is the idea of the self's emptying itself of accumulations of inner traits born of ego-specific consciousness.
Once we conceive of the idea of a decentred self as having its life in a centreless world of ego-neutral consciousness, we get closer to the idea of Atman as identical with the universal consciousness of Brahman. We may even think of the self's progressive decentering of itself culminating in a form of transcendental subjectivity which is the perfection of centrelessness. Such a perfectly decentred consciousness would then be a mirror image of Atman. But a perfectly centreless consciousness would have to be absolutely devoid of perspectival partialities of ego-centric consciousness steeped in the "push and pull" of Samsara. It would be emptied of the delimiting attributes of finitude to the extent of experiencing the intimations of infinity. It would undergo a transformation of consciousness from its ego-specifically substantial mode to an ego-neutrally"insubstantial" mode of Nothingness.
We now have a picture of Atman that depicts the self as consciousness without any substantive content of empirically delimiting attributes. This picture also seems to be akin to the Buddhist idea of nothingness or Sunyata. Atman-consciousness is a kind of consciousness-as-nothingness inasmuch as it is empty of the attributes of ego-specific subjectivity. Transcendence from the life of a Jiva to that of Atman requires that the self render itself into emptiness (Sunyata) as far as the perspectival subjectivity of the former mode of life is concerned. It would therefore be no travesty of Vedantic truth to say that there is a great deal of Sunyata in the inner constitution of Atman. The Vedantic self is nourished by metaphysical nothingness. It is therefore no wonder that Samkara, the greatest protagonist of Advaita Vedanta, has been described as the Buddha in disguise.
Of course, one must not underplay the positive ontological connotation of Atman in a bid to overplay the metaphysical nothingness of Atman-consciousness. While the Vedantic self must negate all its ego-specific substantiality and transform into consciousness-as-nothingness, it is precisely the fulfillment of this negation that the true affirmation of the positive existence or substantiality of the self as Atman consists in. Nothingness therefore is one side of the coin of the Vedantic self, of which the other side is its ego-neutral or centreless substantiality. Indeed, the substantiality of Atman is at its most pronounced in its potentiality to attain moksa.
What, on the other hand, about the alleged non-substantiality of ultimate reality as Nothingness or Sunyata? I think it would be equally wrong to overplay the negative connotation of the metaphysic of Sunyata to the point of losing sight of any affirmative connotation concealed behind that metaphysic. For one thing, the admission of the potentiality to attain and experience Nirvana is a clear indication of the substantiality of Sunyata-based existence. In this sense Sunyata evidentlyhas an ontic import; and it even suggests an ontology of self akin to that of Vedanta. Buddhistic ultimate liberation---the attainment of Nirvana---is a substantial unitary transition from the unenlightened condition to the state of enlightenment. The possibility of this transition bespeaks of the substantial presence of a shadowy self in the metaphysical vacuum of Sunyata.
Furthermore, Sunyata is not abhava or non-existence, but held to be the ultimate ground of everything, the utmost original condition of reality prior to all conceptualization and phenomenal distortion. It is characterized as pregnant emptiness, vibrant void. Cast in terms of consciousness, Sunyata is a state of pure consciousness that one would revert to if one were able to empty oneself of any illusory constructions or impressions of an unchanging or permanent reality, whether of things or persons. This reversal to original subjectivity, which also has an ethical import, may be interpreted as one's "becoming" Sunya or empty. But "becoming" Sunya does not mean going out of existence. Rather, one can truly be oneself, or become truly self-aware, only by "becoming" Sunya. Otherwise, one continues to be in an unawakened state---to be under the spell of Avidya.
Can we not say, now, that the Buddhist awakening in "the field of Sunyata" is most akin to the Vedantic realization of the ultimate identity of Atman with Brahman? And is not Brahman---the absolutely indeterminate (Nirguna) Ultimate Reality---itself more like a "field of Sunyata," the original ground of everything? It seems to me that these speculations about the "complementarity" between Vedanta and Buddhism are on the right track. For such a reading of these two systems of thought helps us make more coherent sense of either position than what they seem to mean individually. What, then, is the complementary light of Buddhism on our understanding of Vedanta? It is essentially this: Sunyata is the only ground reality for the life of Atman. Atman without Sunyata would be like motion without energy.
In a similar vein, it can also be said that "becoming" Sunya or being in (the field of) Sunyata is virtually the same thing as being or "becoming" Atman. It is important that we recognize the negative overtone of Sunyata and its cognate Anatman has, as its counterpoint, an affirmative undertone. There is the negation of the unawakened self---the self centred in an individualized field of consciousness and shackled to the perspectives tied to it. This negation forms the basis for a spontaneous affirmation of becoming awakened or enlightened---becoming a decentred self. In essence, consciousness-as-Sunyata manifests itself in the form of consciousness-as-Atman.
What transpires from the above discussions is a thesis that is better characterized in terms of convergence of Buddhism and Vedanta than in terms of their complementarity to one another. Of course each is a complementary perspective to the other in so far as our making coherent sense of either position is concerned. What we gain from such a complementary understanding of the allegedly incompatible juxtaposition of these two ancient systems of thought is that their apparent difference betrays a profound underlying unity. We have intimations of a "hidden" Atman of Buddhism on the one hand, and of the "silent" Sunyata in Vedanta on the other. A deeper study of the Vedantic Atman-theory results in making the otherwise silent metaphysics of emptiness resonate with a persuasive explanatory voice, much as a scrutinizing look at the Buddhistic Sunyata-theory manages to get a glimpse of the shadowy presence of a full-fledged Atman that explains the possibility of enlightenment.
It is a welcome sign in contemporary scholarship to find Japanese Buddhism (especially the Kyoto school of Zen Buddhism) professing views that reflect the compatibility of Buddhist ideology with that of Vedanta. Nishitani Keiji, a distinguished scholar of this school of thought, is emphatic on affirming the intimacy of the relation between Sunyata and the self. Emptiness is said to be the "absolute nearside" of us. Sunyata is the field of ecstatic transcendence and the "absolute nearside where emptiness is self." We are said to become truly ourselves when we are empty, i.e. when we become decentred selves in the field of nothingness. There is thus a pronounced self-assertion set against Sunyata.
Interestingly, Nishitani turns to "The I-Thou Relation in Zen Buddhism" and analyzes the nature of this relation in a manner which is strikingly Vedantic. He talks about this relation as "non-differentiated", and adds that this "absolute non-differentiation belongs to the I itself , and it is the same for the Thou." The implication is that, once the self is in Sunyata, which is said to be its "home ground," it truly becomes itself and then enters into the "I-Thou" relation with the distinctive attitude of "absolute non-differentiation." This is clearly indicative of the Advaita or non-dualism of Vedanta. The non-duality of the I-Thou relation is emblematic of the ultimate non-duality of Reality.
In contemporary Indian philosophy we witness a neo-Vedantic portrayal of the I-Thou relation in a significantly different light. Ramchandra Gandhi presents a highly interesting version of the I-Thou relation in the communicative framework of the addresser-addressee relation. There is something uniquely sacrosanct about my addressing someone by using the personal pronoun You. In being so addressed by me, you are called forth as just yourself, in your pure and simple personal identity, "untouched" by any contingent or de facto attributes which happen to be true of you. To be identified as an addressee is, for Gandhi, to be regarded as a person per se, when the person is not conceived under any predicative-attributive frame of mind.
What Gandhi wants to show on the basis of the idea of a non-attributive, non-predicative mode of person-identification is the availability of the religious idea of a soul. When any one is called forth pronominally, the person (addressee) is picked out by the caller (addresser) with an attitude of mind which is characterized as an attitude towards a soul. Hence the idea of a soul is implicit in the attributeless mode of thought in which the I relates itself to the Thou. What it is to be a soul is thus articulated through a serious exploratory analysis of the communicative concept of personal pronominal designation.
The Gandhian idea of a soul defined in terms of non-attributive person-identification can now be profitably linked with both Sunyata and Atman. The addressee as a soul is very much modeled on what it is to be Atman. For you to be addressed by me entirely non-attributively is to be thought of as a pure personal subject, much as for me to adopt the non-predicative stance towards you is to act as a decentred self. One might say that this formulation of the I-Thou relation is a variation on the idea of inter-relations between Vedantic selves. But it is also a variation on Buddhist Sunyata : for me to adopt the non-attributive stance towards you is to place myself (as well as you) in the field of nothingness. Unless I "become" empty or Sunya, I cannot absolve myself of my usual attributive-predicative mode of viewing you or anybody else, including myself.
What we are presented with here is a very fundamental human situation, a situation of human communion in its most primary modality: addressing. I and Thou coexist in the unitary field of Sunyata, which is the attitudinal locus of non-attributive inter-personal regard. When we both partake of the infinite field of absolute nothingness, there is no duality of I and Thou. There is "virtual identity" instead, which means the relation is truly expressed as "I am Thou."
Non-Dual Divinity in the "Avatamsaka Sutra"
by Benjamin Root
The following splendid essay by American philosopher, Benjamin Root, explores the idea that there is a subtle sense of non-dual Divinity pervading the Buddhist teaching embodied in the massive Avatamsaka Sutra. Benjamin's vision of a sole, ungraspable, mentalistic Reality is not incompatible with ideas expressed in the tathagatagarbha sutras. "Non-duality" is a teaching particularly found in the prajnaparamita sutras and in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra.
Divinity in the Avatamsaka Sutra
by Benjamin Original: January, 2003 Subject to revision
An Important Mahayana Scripture Gives the Buddha a Cosmic Dimension
There is a common misperception that Buddhism is atheistic or at least agnostic. This may be true of the original teachings of the Buddha (5 or 6 centuries before Christ) preserved by the Theravada tradition, though even in this case one can argue that the Buddha's real intention was only to divert his disciples from what he considered to be irrelevant philosophical discussions. Be that as it may, notions similar to the Divine reappear in the later Mahayana Buddhism (starting about the time of Christ), though many Buddhist scholars would deny this! Partly this is because they wish to avoid comparisons to the God of the Middle Eastern (or some dualistic Indian) traditions, who creates a material world, populates it with human beings made of body and soul, and judges over those souls after the body has died.
In the East, whether we consider Hinduism or Buddhism, the notion of divinity is often rather different. To begin with, there is a tendency towards 'idealism', the belief that the fundamental reality is consciousness. This precludes a material world and hence a creator of that material world. Likewise, the belief in a real body and an independent soul is another dualistic notion that does not accurately describe the general Eastern approach. The Hindus, for example, believe that the fundamental reality is Brahman or Consciousness and nothing is really separate from this one reality (a doctrine known as 'monism' which is often closely associated with idealism). Mind, body and world are all illusions projected by this One Consciousness into itself, through a process called maya, which has the same root as magic. (There are Hindu dualists who would deny this, but the sacred Vedic scriptures tend to back up the idealistic and monistic view.) Likewise, after an excursion into quasi-materialism in Early Buddhism, the later dominant Mahayana tradition exhibited a clear idealistic tendency, though the label 'Buddha' or 'Buddha Nature' is used rather than 'Brahman'. Finally, in both Hinduism and Buddhism, karma is emphasized over a final judgment, so that we determine our own future by our beliefs and actions, and the divine judge plays no role.
One important scripture where the divine and cosmic aspect of the Buddha is particularly emphasized is the Avatamsaka Sutra, also known as the HuaYen or Flower Garland Scripture. This originated in India sometime during the first few centuries after Christ, during the rise of the Mahayana itself. However, it played a far greater role in China, where it became the foundational scripture for the important Hua Yen school during the golden Tang Dynasty (618-907 AD), and it also strongly influenced the important Chan/Zen tradition which continues to this day.
With excerpts from an English translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra, I will try to convince you that this important scripture of Far Eastern Buddhism views the cosmic Buddha in terms not unlike the Brahman of the Hindus. A translation of Chapter 1 of the Avatamsaka is available here. (Note that you must scroll down to reach the beginning of Chapter 1.) For the convenience of the reader, I will limit most of my excerpts to this chapter. The translation is by J.C. Cleary, who has skillfully translated many Buddhist and Taoist works, and the entire book is about 1600 pages. The following discussion is to some extent an abridged version of a longer article I have posted on this site. However, unlike that article, I will try to limit my own interpretation and let the scripture speak for itself.
The Avatamsaka is essentially a description of the Buddha's enlightenment. It abounds in fantastic imagery and paradoxical ideas. It forms the basis of the Hua Yen philosophy that 'all is one' and that 'everything interpenetrates with everything else'. The metaphor of Indra's Net is used to illustrate this. The net is of cosmic dimensions and is made of precious jewels, each of which reflects every other jewel (and the reflections in those jewels, ad infinitum). In the same way, each apparent 'object' of this world in some sense contains and reflects every other. A number of interpretations have been proposed for this astonishing thought, such as that it refers to the causal interdependence of all beings. This is supposed to be in harmony with the Buddha's key idea that no conscious being has an ego or 'small self', which was extended by the Mahayana to the notion of 'emptiness', whereby no entity whatsoever has a self. Mundane explanations of this idea are, for example, that 'no man is an island' and that everything affects everything else, so that the fluttering of a butterfly wing in the Amazon can set off a chain of events that produces a storm in Asia.
This kind of interpretation does not satisfy me. While not entirely incorrect, it does seem inadequate, since from a purely causal perspective, many beings are effectively isolated from most others. Such a causal explanation still seems mired in a basically objective view of the universe, whereby the different objects do have some degree of independent reality, notwithstanding the web of causal interactions. The more profound view, in my opinion, is to see the vision of the Avatamsaka as yet another affirmation of the idealistic insight that all is consciousness only, and a single Consciousness at that. When stated thus, the similarity to the Advaitic Brahman is unmistakable. I will rely on the following excerpts to back up my view.
There is thus no question of any objects whatsoever, since the object is by definition that which stands opposed to consciousness. All apparent objects are only illusions in consciousness, just like the objects in a dream. Even the different conscious beings are ultimately reflections of a single all-encompassing Consciousness, called Brahman by the Advaitins and Buddha by the Mahayanists. As the excerpts will show, the different 'Buddhas' are all the same 'suchness' or consciousness, and our essence is not different from the Buddha's essence. This dissolution of objects into the 'emptiness' of pure consciousness goes far beyond standard pedestrian explanations in terms of the mutual interdependence of beings that are still allowed a measure of independence and objectivity. It is not possible to penetrate to the core of either Advaita or Mahayana without abandoning all notions of objectivity and the discrete existence that this implies. What remains, when all objectivity has been eliminated, is simply pure consciousness, which is undeniable, and which is also referred to as Buddha Mind or Buddha Consciousness.
It follows that if there is only the Buddha Consciousness, then 'everything is in everything else' so to speak. The boundaries between different apparent objects melt way, not because they mutually influence each other, but because the objects have no more discrete reality than the objects in a dream. They are entirely illusory and fictitious, just as the dream objects are seen to be nothing but the consciousness of the dreamer upon awakening. This is pure Advaita and is also the implicit (and sometimes explicit) spirit of the Avatamsaka, as we will see. It is my conviction that no other interpretation of the Avatamsaka, or of the other main Mahayana scriptures, really makes sense.
This nonduality of Consciousness is reflected in the more common properties which we attribute to the divine, such as omnipresence and omniscience. Indeed, nothing is different from this divine consciousness. Everything is but an illusion in the Universal Consciousness called God, Buddha or Brahman. In addition, the violation of dualistic common sense entails the ineffability of the divine, a theme common to both Advaita and Mahayana. In fact, the nonduality and ineffability of Consciousness are often expressed in terms of 'void' or 'emptiness', since language relies on objective descriptions which contradict the very nondual nature of consciousness. If the seemingly objective entities of the dream are illusory and unreal, and only consciousness remains upon awakening, then the nature of that consciousness becomes something transparent and mysterious, which resists objective description, with its assumption of discrete entities existing by themselves.
Opening of the Sutra
The first few paragraphs of the Avatamsaka Sutra are worth repeating in their entirety, since they provide a vivid description of the setting and atmosphere of the entire scripture. The Buddha is present before a vast assembly of 'enlightening' beings; he has just achieved enlightenment under the bodhi tree. I have commented on this opening at some length in my other article on the Avatamsaka. One should expect an enlightened being to see the world somewhat differently than we do! (Excerpts from the Avatamsaka are given in purple.)
At one the time the Buddha was in the land of Magadha (the kingdom in Northern India from which the historical Buddha originated), in a state of purity, at the site of enlightenment, having just realized true awareness. The ground was solid and firm, made of diamond, adorned with exquisite jewel discs and myriad precious flowers, with pure clear crystals. The Ocean of Characteristics of the various colors appeared over an infinite extent. There were banners of precious stones, constantly emitting shining light and producing beautiful sounds. Nets of myriad gems and garlands of exquisitely scented flowers hung all around. The finest jewels appeared spontaneously, raining inexhaustible quantities of gems and beautiful flowers all over the Earth. There were rows of jewel trees, their branches and foliage lustrous and luxuriant. By the Buddha's spiritual power, he caused all the adornments of this enlightenment sight to be reflected therein.
The tree of enlightenment (the bodhi tree under which the Buddha meditated for 40 days and nights prior to enlightenment) was tall and outstanding. Its trunk was diamond, its main boughs were semi-precious stones, its branches and twigs were of various precious elements. The leaves, spreading in all directions, provided shade, like clouds. The precious blossoms were of various colors, the branching twigs spread out their shadows. Also, the fruits were jewels containing a blazing radiance. They were together with the flowers in great arrays. The entire circumference of the tree emanated light; within the light there rained precious stones, and within each gem were enlightened beings, in great hosts, like clouds, simultaneously appearing.
Also, by virtue of the awesome spiritual power of the Buddha, the tree of enlightenment constantly gave forth sublime sounds speaking various truths without end.
The Palace chamber in which the Buddha was situated (the historical Buddha was a king) was spacious and beautifully adorned. It extended throughout the ten directions. It was made of jewels of various colors and was decorated with all kinds of precious flowers. The various adornments emanated lights like clouds; the masses of their reflections from within the Palace formed banners.
A boundless host of enlightening beings, the congregation at the site of enlightenment, were all gathered there: by means of the ability to manifest the lights and inconceivable sounds of the Buddhas, they fashioned nets of the finest jewels, from which came forth all the realms of action of the spiritual powers of the Buddhas, and in which were reflected images of the abodes of all beings.
Also, by virtue of the aid of the spiritual power of the Buddha, they embraced the entire cosmos in a single thought. (Note: a premonition of idealism!)
At that time, the Buddha, the world honored one, in this setting, attained to supreme, correct awareness of all things. His knowledge entered into all times with complete equanimity; his body filled all worlds; his voice universally accorded with all lands in the ten directions. Like space, which contains all forms, he made no discrimination among all objects. And, as space extends everywhere, he entered all lands with equanimity. His body forever sat omnipresent, in all sites of enlightenment. Among the host of enlightening beings, his awesome light shone clearly, like the sun emerging, illuminating the world. The Ocean of Myriad Virtues which he practiced in all times was thoroughly pure, and he constantly demonstrated the production of all the Buddha lands, their boundless forms and spheres of light extending throughout the entire cosmos equally and impartially. (Already a rather cosmic and unitary sounding Buddha!)
An insight into this fantastic imagery is provided by some verses from later in the chapter:
Each adornment is fully complete. And could not be described in a million years. The Buddhas mystic power extends everywhere; That's why the ground is beautifully pure.
The Buddha's enlightenment causes all things to be seen in their original exquisite purity and beauty, a common experience among mystics around the world. Consciousness itself is this exquisite purity and beauty. Yet it is more than mere vision; it is a power that can influence and transform the 'world', since this world is not different from the enlightened consciousness. Specifically, I do expect that as one progresses to higher states of consciousness, one approaches the 'Source' and acquires powers of the Source, such as telepathy and even the ability to manipulate so-called matter. But this is incidental to enlightenment.
Omnipresence of the Buddha's Body
All religions imagine the Divine as omnipresent. Only a primitive religion would seriously attribute a visible shape and body to the Divine localized in a particular place. We all intuitively realize that the Divine must be invisible (without particular shape) and omnipresent (since unlimited). This is but an expression of the notion that consciousness is the only reality, since such attributes are entirely consistent with the infinite consciousness and with nothing else, though most religions do not formulate their belief with such philosophical sophistication. The Cosmic Buddha of the Mahayana is clearly omnipresent, in contrast to the restriction of 'Buddha' to the historical Buddha generally found in Early Buddhism. (Something similar happened with the Christ of Christianity, who started out as a historical person but was transformed to a cosmic principle by St. John and St. Paul.)
The Buddha Body extends throughout all the great assemblies: It fills the cosmos without end. Quiescent, without essence, it cannot be grasped; It appears just to save all beings.
The 'quiescence' of the Buddha refers to the 'peace that passes all understanding' of Buddhist enlightenment, which is the same as the ananda (bliss) in the Hindu sat-chit-ananda (being-consciousness-bliss) description of Brahman. The expressions 'without essence' and 'cannot be grasped', like the 'signless' and 'formless' to follow, refer to the ineffable and empty nature of pure consciousness, about which more will be said later. Note also that 'causing all beings to see' is just like the 'eye of the eye' description of Brahman found in the Kena Upanishad.
The Buddha is pure as space, Sign-less, Form-less, Present everywhere, Yet causing all beings to see, This Light of Blessings well observes.
Some can see the Buddha's reality body Incomparable, unhindered, pervading everywhere: The nature of all the infinity of things Is in that Body completely.
The Buddha's 'reality body' or 'Dharmakaya' can be seen everywhere when it is recognized as the pure consciousness which sustains all illusions of objects. In this sense, it is 'seen' when it is not seen (as something objective)!
The Buddha constantly emits great beams of light; In each light beam are innumerable Buddhas. Each makes displays of sentient beings affairs; This is the entryway of wonderful sound.
The Buddhas in the beams of light are an affirmation of the same essence in everything, a theme to be reiterated at length during the scripture. This common essence is simply consciousness, which is the same in all things and all Buddhas. (No other interpretation makes sense, and this interpretation is explicitly confirmed, as we will see.)
The Buddha body is pure and always tranquil; The Radiance of its light extends throughout the world; Sign-less, pattern-less, without images, Like clouds in the sky, thus is it seen.
The Buddha Body is like space, inexhaustible- Formless, unhindered, it pervades the ten directions. All of its accommodation manifestations are like conjurations: Sound of Magical Displays understands this way.
The Buddha Body is all pervasive, equal to the cosmos. It manifests in response to all sentient beings; With various teachings he is always guiding: Master of Teaching, he is able to enlighten.
Further confirmation that the essence of the Buddha is the essence of everything and pervades everything like space. By being no particular thing, it is invisible and formless in this sense, i.e. it cannot be apprehended as an ordinary discrete object or form. It is the 'seer' that sees all things, and the objects seen are not different from the seeing, just as the dream-objects (or 'conjurations') are not different from the dreamer.
Universes in a Hair Pore
One amusing and oft-repeated image of the Avatamsaka is the Buddha's hair pore, which contains innumerable worlds and Buddhas. Again, this is a poetic description of the common essence in all reality, namely, consciousness. The tiniest 'parcel' of consciousness has the same essence as all of 'space' and 'creation'. Indeed, consciousness cannot be divided into parcels, as seems to be the case with illusory objective matter.
All lands existing in the past They can show in a single Pore: This is the great spiritual power of the Buddhas: Delight in Tranquility can expound this.
The beings of infinite, boundless lands, The Buddha can make enter a single pore While sitting at rest among those hosts. This is the vision of Flaming Mouth
Buddhas knowledge is unhindered, comprehending all times; All he shows in an instant, in his hair pores: The Buddha's teachings, lands, and sentient beings: All these appear from his recollective power.
Each of the Buddha's hair pores Emits light annulling distress Causing worldly afflictions to end This is the entry of Radiant Pores.
An interesting echo of this idea is found in the Advaitin classic called the Yoga Vasistha, which contains many ideas that closely resemble Mahayana Buddhism, as discussed elsewhere on this site.
Yoga Vasistha, trans. Swami Venkatesananda, p. 561
Consciousness becomes embodied [through delusion] though it is truly like space, incapable of being contained. In it there arise the ideas of 'head' and of 'feet', and it sees these as existing organs. . . . It sees these notions as if they were real. Even so does it become Brahma the creator [and all the other Gods] . . . even so does it seemingly become a worm. In truth, however, it has not become any of these; it is as it is, pure void in void, consciousness in consciousness.
That is the seed of all bodies in the three worlds. . . . It is the cause of all, and it is the leader of time and action. . . . Just as a man who is fighting with a lion in a dream shouts in that dream, though in truth he is silent and asleep, the infinite consciousness which entertains all these notions is at peace and silent within itself. The universe which extends to millions of miles in all directions exists in the minutest subatomic particle and the three worlds exist within one strand of hair (in comparison to the infinite consciousness).
Even Brahma the creator, though he presides over the universe which is unimaginably vast and which is his body, exists in an atom; in fact, he does not occupy any space at all, just like the mountains seen in a dream. . . . In truth, O Rama, he is but pure consciousness.
And let us note that the universes in a hair pore are reminiscent of the famous 'world in a grain of sand' of the British mystical poet William Blake:
To see a World in a grain of sand, And a Heaven in a wild flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand, And Eternity in an hour.
Omniscience of the Buddha
Besides omnipresence, omniscience is another key attribute of divinity in all religions. The Buddha of Mahayana is no exception. If everything is the one pure infinite consciousness, then omniscience must logically follow. Furthermore, this omniscience is not limited to any particular perspective. It sees everything from every possible perspective for all time in the blink of an eye! This omniscience is like space; it is really the same as omnipresence. It is a manifestation of the universality of Consciousness, which is the only reality.
So why are we not omniscient? Because our particular manifestation of consciousness is clouded by ignorance. Advaita and Buddhism agree on this key point. Rather than emphasizing sin, they both emphasize ignorance as the source of all problems and limitations. With no objects existing in the illusory world, what else could limit a manifestation of consciousness than ignorance within that very consciousness? Paradoxically, this ignorance is not different from the Universal Consciousness, any more than anything else is. Advaita and Mahayana agree on this. The presence of ignorance is often considered an inexplicable mystery. Indeed, ignorance is not a 'real' thing, in that it is but darkness, which is the absence of light. Yet the ignorant mind is still a manifestation of Consciousness, since there is nothing else. Ignorance is a thorny issue in both Advaita and Buddhism! But we must be humble and remember that we are trying to understand it from the perspective of ... ignorance.
The vast eye of the Buddha's wisdom body Sees every particle of the world And reaches in the same way throughout the ten directions: This is the liberation of Cloud Sound.
Buddha's Eye is as Vast as Space; He sees the entire cosmos. In the unimpeded state, with unequaled function, All Buddhas can tell of this eye.
The Buddha Eye is vast and boundless, Seeing all the lands in the ten directions. Sentient beings therein are innumerable: Showing great spiritual powers, he conquers them all.
The Buddha's knowledge is like space; it has no end. His light shines throughout the ten directions. He knows the mental patterns of all sentient beings. There is no world he does not enter.
The vast eye of the Buddha Is pure and clear as space Seeing all beings With complete clarity.
Buddha knows the outcome of all acts, Comprehending past, present, and future instantly; The Lands, Ages, Beings, and Times of all regions: All he can reveal and make clear.
Buddha cultivated all sided knowledge; The nature of his omniscience is like space: Therefore he has unhindered power Illuminating all lands in the ten directions.
Emptiness and Ineffability of Consciousness
We now arrive at the ineffability and 'emptiness' of pure consciousness. All sophisticated religions realize that the Divine must be ineffable (inexpressible, indescribable), but the notion of 'emptiness' is a subtlety characteristic of Mahayana thought, particularly in the seminal Prajnaparamita scriptures. However, this idea of emptiness or void has clear parallels in Advaita, as will be illustrated by further excerpts from the Yoga Vasistha. This is the Nirguna Brahman or 'consciousness without attributes' of Advaita. Just as all the dream-objects are seen to be only the waker's consciousness upon awakening, likewise all the apparent objects 'out there' are but hallucinations within Consciousness. In this sense, they are clearly 'empty' of reality, that is, of a reality independent of consciousness. Yet they appear as illusions, so that in this sense the void can be identified with the entire magic spectacle of space and the world apparently contained within it. All this is but pure consciousness, which can be considered a vast unlimited void of pure awareness and being.
The Buddha Body is like space Unborn, it clings to nothing It is ungraspable and without inherent nature This is seen by Wind of Good Omen.
The Buddha is like space, with no inherent nature; Appearing in the world to benefit the living, His features and refinements are like reflections: Pure awareness sees in this way.
Now consider the following similar ideas from the Yoga Vasistha. I will present quite a few excerpts, since I wish to dispel the common notion that Mahayana 'believes in emptiness' and Advaita 'believes in consciousness', which are somehow diametrically opposed! This is a gross misunderstanding. The notion of void or emptiness frequently appears in Advaita, including in Shankara's Vivekachudamani, to describe the ineffability of Brahman. Yet even the notion of void is ultimately 'void' and should not be taken too literally, as we are reminded by both Mahayana and Advaita. That is, we must never consider the void to be an object in its own right, as its very purpose is to dissolve all notions of objectivity. At the same time, it is most definitely not pure nothing; rather, it is pure consciousness, which is the essence of all being and reality and hence quite the opposite of 'nothing'.
What you have called the body does not exist in the eyes of the sage. It is only Brahman [Consciousness]. Even so the word 'dream' used to illustrate the truth of the illusoriness of the world-appearance: there is no 'dream' in the infinite consciousness. There is neither a body nor a dream in it. There is neither a waking state, nor dream nor sleep. Whatever it is - it is void, it is OM [the primordial sound]. Enough of such descriptions. (Yoga Vasistha, p. 719)
O Rama, though this universe seems to exist, nothing really exists as the universe. It is but the appearance or reflection in the infinite consciousness, which alone is the reality. In that consciousness the creation appears as if in a dream. Hence, only the reality [i.e. consciousness] in which it appears is real: and that is the infinite void. (Yoga Vasistha, p. 183)
In the pure space of the infinite consciousness these countless world-appearances exist. They come into being and they dissolve, though they are all essentially void (sunya) in their nature. ... This creation is void, and the void grows and the void alone ceases to be (void because it is devoid of a notion of 'self'). (Yoga Vasistha, p. 666)
That state is the void, Brahman, consciousness, the Purusa of the Sankhya, Isvara of the yogi, Siva, time, Atman or self, non-self, the middle, etc., of the mystics holding the different views. (Yoga Vasistha, p. 313)
The supreme state is beyond all concepts, even those of 'mass of consciousness' and 'void'; it is devoid of everything but it is also full of everything. Hence, the earth, etc. do exist; on the other hand, nothing exists in it [in the consciousness]. Though there are infinite jivas [souls] in it, yet they do not exist as jivas independent of the consciousness. (Yoga Vasistha, p. 671)
Immediately after death, this world is realized exactly as it is - as a dense void - within one's own mind. . . . Whatever is, is the infinite consciousness; there is naught known as the earth.' (Yoga Vasistha, p.687)
Is there a difference between pure consciousness and utter void? Even if there is, it is impossible to put it into words. (Yoga Vasistha, p.513)
Note that the Yoga Vasistha explicitly affirms the common vision of the different mystical traditions, at least those of the nondual type, such as Advaita and Mahayana. The Brahman of Advaita and the Void of Mahayana are explicitly identified. So much for the occasionally alleged incompatibility of these traditions! (Scholars and pundits are often more confused on this point that wise and sincere practitioners.)
An interesting consequence of the sole reality of consciousness is that material objects have no solidity or fluidity! This is to be expected since they do not even exist. All sensations, perceptions and feelings of solidity or fluidity are only within consciousness, as is heat, cold and other tactile phenomena. Indeed, all perceptions are nothing but consciousness, so that when the 'realist' cries out in exasperation that the world exists because he sees and feels it, he is only unwittingly confirming idealism. A similar idea is found in the Yoga Vasistha, again showing the striking parallels between the two traditions.
The Buddha sees things of the worlds as like reflections of light; He enters into their most recondite mysteries And explains that the nature of all things is always quiescent: Intellect Sewn With Virtue can see this.
He who realizes that the nature of things is without solidity Appears in all the boundless lands of the ten directions: Expounding the inconceivability of the realm of Buddhahood, He causes all to return to the ocean of liberation.
Time, space, and all the rest of it, are the appearance of the consciousness. Even so are the mountains nothing but consciousness, too. It is consciousness alone that is the essence of the characteristic of the elements like solidity of the earth, fluidity of the water, etc. In fact, however, the earth and the other elements do not exist: the infinite consciousness alone exists. (Yoga Vasistha, p.714)
The mountains are not hard nor are the waters fluid. Whatever the infinite consciousness considers itself to be and wherever, that appears to be so there. A mountain arises in a dream and exists in nothing and as nothing: even so this universe, for it is the dream of the infinite consciousness. (Yoga Vasistha, p.715)
The 'non-origination' mentioned in the next verses refers to the non-creation of an independent objective material reality external to consciousness. This is a notable echo of the 'ajativada' or non-creation doctrine of the Advaitin sage Gaudapada, who was the teacher of Shankara's teacher. This is found in his commentary or karika on the Mandukya Upanishad.
The Buddha is in the world without a resting place- Like a shadow or reflection he appears in all lands. The nature of things is ultimately non-origination: This is the entryway of the King Supreme Vision.
Due to its ineffability, the nature of the Buddha or pure consciousness is often simply referred to as 'suchness' or 'tathata' in Mahayana.
Cultivating skill in means over countless ages, Purifying all lands in the ten directions, The Suchness of the Universe never moves: This is the realization of virtue of tranquility.
All the Buddhas are one reality body- True Suchness, equal, without distinctions; The Buddha always abides through this power: Immediate Manifestation Everywhere can fully expound this.
This notion of 'suchness' or 'tathata' is similar to the 'That' of Advaita, used to refer to the indescribable essence of Brahman. For example, in Shankara's Vivekachudamani, we read
So the world is not distinct from the Supreme Self, and its perception is an illusion like all attributes. What we add to That has no reality, but merely appears to exist in addition to That through misunderstanding. (235)
The words 'God' and 'yourself', referred to by the terms 'That' and 'Thou' are conscientiously purified by repetition of the scriptural phrase 'Thou art That', and are clearly seen to be identical. (241)
That which is mistakenly imagined to exist is recognised by wisdom to be That alone, and is thus undifferentiated. The colourful world of a dream disappears. What remains other than oneself on waking? (253)
Finally, the emptiness of 'non-existence' of the world is essentially the same as nonduality or the sole reality of consciousness. The word 'nonduality' may sound modern, but it can be found in the Avatamsaka:
Looking at the Buddha in various ways, there's nothing there; Seeking him in all directions, he can't be found. The manifestations of the reality body have no true actuality: This is truth is seen by Silent Sound.
The real body of the Buddha is fundamentally non-dual; Yet it fills the world according to beings and forms- Sentient beings each see it before them: This is the perspective of Flames of Light.
A Modern Comparison
The mystical and spiritual vision of the Avatamsaka and of Mahayana in general has many more parallels than in Advaita. It reappears in 'advanced' spiritual traditions from around the world, by which I mean those that have discovered the principle of nonduality. It also arises spontaneously in individual seekers, as in someone I only recently discovered on the web called Bob Cergol. The following description of his 'awakening' repeats themes discussed at length here.
An intensity of awareness built until at some instant the entire world -- including ME -- was OUT THERE -- part of the view. Yet there was no dichotomy because this awareness also CONTAINED the whole view, the totality. In that instant I saw there was NO DEATH -- because there was NOTHING TO DIE! In that instant I saw the equality of all beings, their essential unity -- they were all manifestations from the same ground.
There are many such examples of spontaneous discoveries of nondual consciousness. A classic case from medieval Christianity is Meister Eckhart. A particularly endearing modern case is that of Peace Pilgrim.