Refutation of the Claim that Tathagatagarbha is “Mere Upaya” (Skillful Means) and Mere Dependent Origination
By Dr. Tony Page
(with apologies for lack of diacritics and occasionally eccentric line positionings: technical problems!)
At the heart of Buddhism resides Mystery. The experience of Awakening (bodhi) and Nirvana – so the Buddha of both the agamas and the Mahayana sutras repeatedly teaches - lies beyond the realm and reach of worldly logic and mundane speculation. The same caution is urged by the Buddha in connection with the Tathagatagarbha – the “Buddha Matrix” which is said to be inherent in all beings and which holds out the promise of every person’s eventual Liberation (moksha).
Yet some scholars of Buddhism seek to rob what may be termed “Tathagatagarbha Buddhism” of its mystically transcendentalist and essentialist nature. They seek to explain away such doctrines as that of the Tathagatagarbha or Buddha Nature (Buddha-dhatu – Buddha Principle) as merely a skilful tactic (upaya) to attract support from amongst the ranks of the faint-hearted – those persons who allegedly cannot endure the stark vision of absolute non-Self and absolute Emptiness (construed as all-supreme Dependent Origination).
One of the finest and most paradigmatic presentations of this general approach to the Tathagatagarbha / Buddha-dhatu in recent years has come from Youru Wang. His essay, “De-Substantializing Buddha-Nature in the Tathagatagarbha Tradition” (The International Journal for Field-Being, Vol. 1(1), Part 2, Article no. 10, 2001, URL www.iifb.org/ijfb/YWang-2-10.htm), is an eloquently written, well-structured, highly readable, comprehensively referenced, skilfully reasoned and thought-provoking argument for a rejection of all “essentialism” within the notion of the Tathagatagarbha. It has the great merit that, unlike some other discussions of the subject, it draws upon direct quotations from a number of Tathagatagarbha sutras themselves (rather than merely upon commentaries) to buttress its arguments. This is to be welcomed, and to this extent can serve as a model for subsequent studies in the field.
And yet, on closer inspection much of Dr. Wang’s argumentation reveals itself to be flawed, misleading, inappropriately partial in its emphases (the Tathagatagarbha is excessively viewed as "upaya", whereas Emptiness and Dependent Origination do not receive similarly accented ideological treatment), contrary to the spirit of the Tathagatagarbha sutras, and marred by pre-existing assumptions - and thus must ultimately be rejected, particularly as a potential basis for Buddhic practice. It is the purpose of the present essay to show where the errors of such an approach as Youru Wang’s lie and to offer a vision of the Tathagatagarbha which is more in harmony with the meaning, movement and spirit of some of the major Tathagatagarbha sutras than any de-essentialising “Prasangika-Madhyamaka”-style commentaries have been able to contrive.
The Unjustified Rejection of “Essence” or “Substantialization”
Early in his paper, Youru Wang validly writes that the negative language employed by Madhyamaka Buddhism “ … has no ultimate superiority over positive language” – the positive language of Tathagatagarbha and Yogacara Buddhism. However, Dr. Wang then adds the rider, “The point … is not what kind of language can be appropriately used but how to avoid reification or substantialization.”
Why should there be, from the very outset, an almost fearful assumption that the greatest of all Tathagatagarbha Buddhist doctrinal sins would be to fail to insist that the Tathagatagarbha is not any substantial ( = ontic, real) entity of any kind? This is simply to beg the question. It is to assume that nothing whatever within Buddhism could possibly be of “substance” or of “essence” (and these are of course code-words in Madhyamaka Buddhism for what is truly existent, unchangingly real and enduring). It is to decide, a priori, that one knows exactly what Buddhism is, what it can be, what it must be - and what it may never, ever, in any circumstances become. This is, ironically, to invest Buddhism itself with the very immutable, fixed and not-to-be-questioned “essence” (here an essence marked by negative dogma) which the claimed position seeks to deny. True, Youru Wang is speaking here chiefly of not “reifying” language; and of course the word, “Tathagatagarbha”, itself is not regarded by any Buddhist as a “thing”. But that term, Tathagatagarbha, is a sonic or verbal symbol pointing to something which is presented in the relevant sutras as Reality: the salvific indwelling Buddhic mystery labelled “Tathagatagarbha”. Furthermore, Youru Wang’s insistence that Buddhism cannot possibly have any truck with “essentialism” in a broader sense recurs throughout his paper. This automatic importing of Madhyamaka assumptions of what Reality is into the domain of the Tathagatagarbha is not justified by the context of a series of sutras (the Tathagatagarbha scriptures) which see themselves as complementing and re-envisioning the previous non-Self and Emptiness teachings (while not jettisoning certain aspects of them) and providing the final and definitive elucidation of the nature of Buddhic Truth.
What is the evidence for this?
On the eve of his “death”, the Buddha tells his assembled listeners (including all-wise Manjushri and even Buddhas who are looking on from other Buddha-lands) how on this very day he will reveal the intended meaning of all his previous sutras. He will, in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra which he is about to deliver (and from which we shall quote in its three main versions, to provide a more comprehensive flavour and “feel” of the text), provide the correct understanding of his previous “words of implicit meaning” (sandha-vacana), which have often been mangled in their comprehension by the spiritually immature. The Buddha proclaims:
"... the very ultimate (uttarottara) meaning of all sutras is taught by this sutra …This sutra is supremely excellent (varottama). For example, just as the people of Uttarakuru in the north are virtuous, likewise, those who have listened to this great sutra have become supramundane; you should know that they are Bodhisattva-mahasattvas [great Bodhisattvas]. Therefore, this signifies that [this sutra] is a great uttara-tantra [culminational explanatory treatise] ... [this sutra is] the uttarottara [absolutely supreme] of all Mahayana discourses ..." (Tibetan version)
He further states:
“… when I am making preparations to pass into Parinirvana [i.e. on this very day of preaching the Mahaparinirvana Sutra], I shall then speak of the Tathagata’s various secret words of concealed intention in their entirety … On that day I shall impart the intended gist to my sons.” (Tibetan version)
So the explanations of Dharma afforded by this sutra need to be taken extremely seriously indeed. The Buddha later declares in the same scripture (Dharmakshema version) that in his earlier expositions of Dharma he had “taught impermanence [anitya], suffering [duhkha], Emptiness [sunyata] and non-Self [anatman]. Now I turn the Wheel of Dharma in this-here town of Kushinagara [on the day of the Parinirvana], I teach eternity [nitya], happiness [sukha], the Self [atman] and purity [suddha]”. We note that Emptiness is here replaced by Self. And Self is, in Buddhist metaphysical discourse, equal to “essence” or svabhava.
In another vital part of the sutra, the Buddha explains how in the past he had taught non-Self and Emptiness as a temporary kind of pabulum for his spiritually child-like students; now, when his students have overcome the sickness of false views and possess a healthy, more mature appetite, he can teach them the Tathagatagarbha. He relates the parable of a woman with an ailing infant. The sickness of that child requires that it temporarily desist from drinking its mother’s milk while the medicine which has been administered to it is assimilated. To facilitate this, the mother smears her breasts with a bitter substance, and this deters the infant from suckling at his mother’s breasts. But after the medicine has been absorbed, the child can drink the health-bestowing mother’s milk to his heart’s content – although at first he is hesitant and fearful of doing so. This relates to the doctrine of non-Self, Emptiness (which many commentators on Buddhism equate with “non-substantialism” or “non-essentialism”) and Self: when his students are still spiritually “sick”, the Buddha gives them the bitter medicine of “non-Self” and Emptiness; but when they have progressed into greater health and maturity, he teaches them the reality of the Tathagatagarbha. Here is what he says, elucidating the meaning of his own parable:
“… just as the mother smeared her breasts with a nimba leaf ointment, so too did I say [to my “sick” monks]:‘Meditatively cultivate the understanding that all phenomena lack a self and are empty’. Just as the child’s mother later wiped her breasts clean and told the child to suckle, saying ‘Before, I could not allow you to suckle at my breasts until your medicinal butter had been digested, but now you can suckle’, so too I instructed [the monks] thus in order that they might be turned away from mundane phenomena, telling them that there is no Self; but now monks, because I teach that the tathâgatagarbha exists, do not be frightened like the child. Just as the child tested [his mother’s breasts] and then suckled at them, so too do I now teach that you monks should investigate the idea that the tathâgatagarbha exists within yourselves and strenuously apply yourselves to the meditative cultivation of it.” (Tibetan version)
Contrary to what is often claimed, the Buddha here is not teaching the Tathagatagarbha doctrine to people who fear the notion of non-Self - but to people who fear the Self! In fact, early in the sutra the Buddha has to reprimand his enthusiastic “non-Self”-championing monks (who “repeatedly meditate upon the idea that there is no Self”) for being perverse in their understanding of Dharma and wrong-headedly applying the teaching of non-Self where its writ does not run - to the real Self. That everlasting Self is nothing less than deathless Nirvana, and Nirvana finds its personalised embodiment in the Buddha himself. The equation thus runs: the Eternal = Great Nirvana = the Self = the deathless, pure and blissful Buddha. The Buddha indicates this to his listeners most explicitly:
“ … the eternity [nitya] of Great Nirvana is the Self. The Self is pure, the pure is bliss. The Eternal, Blissful, the Self and the Pure are the Tathagata." (Dharmakshema)
But why speak so much of the Self here? Firstly, because Self equals innermost essence, irreducible core reality – which Youru rejects as any valid part of Buddhist metaphysics. Secondly, because the Self is equated in some Tathagatagarbha sutras with the Tathagatagarbha/ Buddha-dhatu (“Buddha Nature”). Here is what the Buddha says on the matter in the Nirvana Sutra:
“The True Self is the Tathagatagarbha.” (Faxian);
“The essence of the Self is the subtle Tathagatagarbha” (Dharmaksema)
“,,, the True Self that the Tathagata expounds today is called the Buddha-dhatu [“Buddha Nature”].” (Dharmaksema).
“The Buddha-dhatu [“Buddha Nature”] is the True Self and like a diamond, for example, it cannot be destroyed.” (Dharmaksema).
That “Buddha-dhatu” is even directly equated with the Buddha. We read in the sutra, apodeictically (and more than once): “the Buddha-dhatu is the Tathagata” (Dharmaksema, Vol. 4, p. 54).
Furthermore, the Buddha urges his followers to be confident that he (as the Dharmakaya) will never die and that he is indeed as durable as the great Mount Sumeru:
“… you must not think I will cease to exist.
Consider the Tathâgata to be like Sumeru” (Tibetan version)
Mount Sumeru: the mightiest, most solid and most resilient of all mountains.
This certainly does not sound very “non-substantialist”. In fact, the image of the mountain or especially the diamond - the all-but hardest substance known to mankind – is used on more than one occasion as an exemplar of the Buddha Nature. For example, in the section of the sutra centring on the Diamond Body of the Buddha (which is equated with the Buddha Nature), we read the Buddha’s exhortation: “ … you should henceforth bear in mind that the Tathâgata’s body is indestructible and solid like a diamond.” Solid vajra: supremely resistant diamond/ indestructible adamantine. On another occasion within the sutra, the Buddha-dhatu is likened to an iron ball which has been heated in a furnace and in the process gave off transitory sparks and heat; the sparks dissipated like the kleshas (moral/mental/behavioural negativities), we are told, “… but the substance of the iron remains”. That iron-like substance is the Buddha Nature. A strange choice of image, this, if the final teaching is a revelation that actually there is nothing substantial to Reality in any modus, sense, shape or form. A strong sense of genuinely real (one might say “substantive”) entity - although of course spaciously open, “empty” and “ungraspable” to the un-Awakened and invisible to normal perception – is communicated by such metaphors.
But there is more of a smilar kind which needs to be noted and brought into prominence. The Buddha specifically indicates in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra that the Buddha-dhatu does possess features which one might reasonably describe as “substantial”. In a later section devoted to the Buddha-dhatu, the Buddha comments how that dhatu is both material and non-material. It is material, we read, “because of the diamond-like body” (Dharmaksema) – again, the solidity of adamantine or diamond. But how is it non-material? “Because of the eighteen uncommon qualities [of a Buddha], which are not material.” The Buddha does not seize upon this opportunity for negation to say, “Because it has no ultimate reality to it at all” – which is what the votaries of the totally “non-essentialist” Buddha-dhatu critique might hope for. He simply refers to the character traits of the Diamond Body, which include, for example, the Buddha’s mind always being in a state of samadhi (meditative concentration) and the Buddha’s unobstructed and free vision of past, present and future. What is more, the Buddha-dhatu in this passage is repeatedly said to be nitya – everlasting, permanent, unchanging. Youru Wang argues that such an epithet merely relates to the on-going nature of Dependent Arising – which, for him (as we shall later see), is what the Buddha-dhatu is in its totality. But one should note that the adjective nitya does also bear the connotation of “unchanging”. The last thing that one can say of Dependent Origination, however, is that it is “unchanging”: it is, in fact, constant change and movement. Indeed, it is mutation and change par excellence. Furthermore, the Buddha-dhatu is specified in this passage to be freed from sensations: “… it is separated from all sensations [vedana]”. Yet one of the chief elements of Dependent Origination is that it includes “sensation” or “feeling” (vedana) as part of its painful mutational processes. Already certain deficiencies in Youru Wang’s argument would seem to be surfacing.
Furthermore, the Buddha specifically states that the Buddha Principle (Tathagata-dhatu) is the essential nature of beings:
“ The tathâgata-dhâtu is the intrinsic nature (svabhâva, prakṛti) of beings. Therefore, it cannot be killed by having its life severed. If it could be killed, then the life-force (jîvaka) could be annihilated (atyanta-abhâvî-kṛta), but it is not possible for the life-force to be annihilated. In this instance, the life-force refers to the tathâgata-garbha. That [tathâgata]-dhâtu cannot be destroyed, killed or annihilated, but also it cannot be seen very clearly as long as buddhahood has not been attained. Therefore, there is nobody who can kill it.” (Tibetan version)
It seems to the present writer that a natural and straightforward reading of this passage would see the Tathagatagarbha as a truly indestructible, deathless, living core or essence within the sentient being. Any other reading must surely strike us as somewhat forced, wilful and distortionist.
If we turn to the Tathagatagarbha Sutra, it becomes even more evident that when the Buddha speaks of the Tathagatagarbha, he is indeed speaking of an actually existing, real essence at the centre of each person’s embodied being. That essence is of the Buddha, indeed is the/a Buddha. The image of countless flowers with wilting petals is evoked, and in the calyx of those lotus flowers a radiant Buddha is seen seated in the lotus posture. This – and the other famous images employed by the sutra – are an emblem of the Tathagatagarbha, which only Buddhas can clearly discern in the depths of all beings. Here is the Buddha’s own explication of that first image of an inwardly dwelling Buddha within an abode of decaying and mortal physicality and moral affliction:
“In a similar fashion, good sons, when I regard all beings with my Buddha eye, I see that hidden within the klesas [negative traits] of greed, desire, anger, and stupidity there is seated augustly and unmovingly the tathagata’s wisdom, the tathagata’s vision, and the tathagata’s body. Good sons, all beings, though they find themselves with all sorts of klesas, have a tathagatagarbha that is eternally unsullied, and that is replete with virtues no different from my own.” (“The Tathagatagarbha Sutra”, by William H. Grosnick, in Buddhism in Practice, Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1995, p. 96).
The text does not say that the Buddha is here presciently perceiving a future Buddha; or that this is what will potentially arise when certain conditions have been fulfilled: rather, this indwelling Buddha is seen by Buddhas to exist already within all beings, right here, right now. It remains obscured from worldly sight, however, by the concealing kleshas which envelop it. But it is real and present. To return momentarily to the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, we might quote the Buddha’s declaration, when asked what is Real, that the Buddha Principle or “Buddha Nature” (Buddha-dhatu) falls within that category: “… Real is the Buddha-dhatu, the Buddha-dhatu is the Real” (Dharmaksema). The much-neglected but highly important Angulimaliya Sutra likewise affirms that the Tathagatagarbha is truly real and is in fact nothing less than the Buddha’s ultimate mode of Reality, his Dharmakaya. We read:
“… the Tathagatagarbha is true and real; it is the ultimate permanent body, the ultimate inconceivable body of the Tathagata, the ultimate eternal body, for it is the Dharmakaya, the body of peace, the ultimate body, the body born from Reality [tattva].”
This is no shifting, temporary and ultimately vanquishable phenomenon (such as is Dependent Origination): this is nothing less than indestructible Truth itself.
Dr. Youru Wang believes that the Tathagatagarbha is nothing more nor less than Dependent Origination (pratitya-samutpada). He quotes the Buddha of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra in an attempt to lend weight to his claim: “This twelvefold chain of interdependent arising is called Buddha nature”; “All sentient beings must have such a twelvefold chain of interdependent arising; therefore it is said that all sentient beings have Buddha nature”.
But neither here nor elsewhere in the Nirvana Sutra does the Buddha say that Dependent Origination is the totality of what the “Buddha Nature” (Tathagatagarbha/ Buddha-dhatu) is. In other words, the Tathagatagarbha may include Dependent Origination within its boundless scope, but it is not wholly defined, limited or exhausted by it. Linking the Tathagatagarbha to Dependent Origination may be necessary - but it is not sufficient. That a distinction is drawn by the Buddha as between the Buddha-dhatu and Dependent Origination is suggested by the following passage in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra (Dharmaksema version), where the Buddha tells Bodhisattva Kasyapa:
“Noble son. The world does not know, see or realise the Buddha-dhatu. If there is a person who knows, sees and realises the Buddha-dhatu, we do not call such a person one of the world. We say ‘Bodhisattva’. The world also does not know, see or realise the twelve types of scripture, the twelve links of Dependent Origination, the four inversions …” (emphasis added; The Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra in 12 Volumes, Nirvana Publications, 1999-2000, Yamamoto/Page, Vol. 5, p. 47).
The fact that the Buddha specifies the Buddha-dhatu as the first in a list of items of which the worldly being has no cognisance and then itemises Dependent Origination as another of those elements indicates that the two - the Buddha-dhatu and Dependent Origination - are separate dharmas (phenomena).
This is not to say that Dependent Origination has no connection whatsoever with the Buddha-dhatu/ Tathagatagarbha. In the Angulimaliya Sutra, we learn that the Tathagatagarbha is present within all phenomena - just as the Self is stated, in the full Dharmaksema version of the Nirvana Sutra, to be present in all things (“I also teach, for the sake of all beings, that in truth there is the Self in all dharmas”, Yamamoto/Page, Vol. 1, p. 46). So it is hardly surprising that it should also reside in the processes of Dependent Origination. How could it be otherwise? The living being needs to break free from his or her painful entrapment within the constricting coils of Dependent Origination, so inevitably the liberative Tathagatagarbha is present there too, and indeed – according to the Srimaladevisimhanada Sutra – it is the presence of the Tathagatagarbha within the samsaric processes (of Dependent Origination) which causes the being to feel repelled by painful samsara and to yearn for Nirvana. Furthermore, it is the seeing of Dependent Origination which is so crucial, not Dependent Origination itself (this is what is meant when the Buddha describes the Buddha-dhatu as Dependent Origination – it is the Buddhic knowledge and vision which perceives and knows it, while yet being free from entrapment within it). In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra we do indeed learn that the Buddha-dhatu is “all-knowing” - unlike unawakened beings or even 10th-level Bodhisattvas. Is the Dependent Origination of samsara, then, all-knowing? Of course not. It is a blind, futile, ignorance-based process that engenders suffering and must be brought to an end. That is the whole point and purpose of Dharma. Dependent Origination (as usually spoken of in the Buddhist scriptures) is not something desirable or pleasant. The Buddha in the Maharatnakuta Sutra unequivocally declares: “Every link of dependent origination is only a great mass of suffering” (A Treasury of Mahayana Sutras, Pennsylvania State University Press, 1983, ed. by Garma C. C. Chang, p. 159). To imply, therefore (as the Youru Wang-style of argument inevitably must), that the Tathagatagarbha is ignorant, mutating and painful constitutes the epitome of all distortions of Tathagatagarbha doctrine. Indeed, within the world of the Tathagatagarbha sutras themselves, such a view would be excoriated as that of an icchantika (the most spiritually deluded and misguided of beings). The present writer has no desire to advance further into such sensitive territory, however!
Furthermore, Dependent Origination could be characterised as dependently arising, uncontrolled mutational processes throughout the span of past, present and future. It is change in time made manifest. Yet the Buddha-dhatu, as exemplified by the Buddha, is eternal and is not captured by time. In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra (in the final quarter of Dharmaksema's vast scripture), the Buddha tells Bodhisattva Kasyapa:
"As the Buddha-dhatu is eternal [nitya], it is not encompassed
by / not subsumed within the Three Times ...
all the Buddha-dharmas [Buddha-qualities] that the
Buddha-dhatu has are eternal [nitya] and unchanging
[aviparinama]." (MPNS, Yamamoto/Page, Vol. 10, p. 67).
Equally pertinently, it is necessary to stress that the actual seeing of the Tathagatagarbha or Buddha-dhatu ushers in the moment of Awakening, according to the Mahaparinirvana Sutra. So if the Tathagatagarbha were, as Youru Wang claims, “identical” with Dependent Origination, we could expect pratyekabuddhas (“solitary Buddhas” who, by means of their own efforts, have broken through to a perception of Dependent Origination) to have a full and clear vision of the “Buddha Nature”, since they (almost by definition) are seers of Dependent Origination. But, in fact, they fail to achieve this insight. This alone should warn the student of Tathagatagarbha Buddhism that the two – Dependent Origination and the Buddha-dhatu - are certainly not wholly identical. An instructive passage in this regard can be found in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, where the Buddha makes it abundantly clear that pratyekabuddhas lack the capacity to perceive the Buddha-dhatu:
“Noble son, if somebody sees that all phenomena are impermanent, without Self, devoid of bliss and impure and if he also sees that non-all phenomena are impermanent, without Self, devoid of bliss and impure, then that person does not see the Buddha-dhatu. ‘All’ denotes samsara; ‘non-all’ denotes the Three Jewels. Sravakas and pratyekabuddhas see that all phenomena are impermanent, without Self, devoid of bliss and impure, and they also see
that non-all phenomena are impermanent, without Self, devoid of bliss and impure. For that reason they do not see the Buddha-dhatu. A Bodhisattva of the ten bhumis [levels] sees that all phenomena are impermanent, without Self,
devoid of bliss and impure, and partly sees that non-all phenomena are eternal, Self, blissful and pure. Because of that, they are able to see one tenth. The Buddha-Bhagavats see that all phenomena are impermanent, without Self, devoid of bliss and impure, and they also see that non-all phenomena are eternal, Self, blissful and pure. For this reason they see the Buddha-dhatu as though it were a mango lying in the palm of their hand.”
We register, in passing, the solidity of the image - the substantial, weighty mango resting in the palm of the hand - and, more central to the present discussion, we see it confirmed that the pratyekabuddha is not psychically empowered to perceive the Buddha-dhatu. Even 10th-level Bodhisattvas only have a very partial and limited sight of the Dhatu. Yet we know that 10th-level Bodhisattvas and pratyekabuddhas are beings who have a full and clear vision of Dependent Origination. Why, then, should there be this seeming contradiction? Because quite evidently the Buddha-dhatu and Dependent Origination are not wholly one and the same.
The above passage also makes it clear that Buddha, Dharma, Sangha (termed “the Great Self” in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra), unlike transient worldly phenomena (which are precisely the realm of Dependent Origination) are characterised by eternity, bliss, purity and Self (with the latter equating to ever-enduring Essence).
Furthermore, the Nirvana Sutra has the Buddha speak of the need to fell the giant tree of Dependent Origination. Penetrating into Dharma through asking probing questions can facilitate this. The Buddha states:
“By means of these good questions, there can be the turning of the Wheel of Dharma, the killing of the great tree of the 12 links of causation, the passing of people across the boundless sea of birth and death, the good fight against King Marapapiyas, and the smiting down of Papiyas’s victorious banner.”
(Emphasis added; Vol. 8, p. 7).
The Buddha-dhatu, it need hardly be added, cannot be “killed”, and nor should one ever think along those lines. Again, the Buddha-dhatu and Dependent Origination are indicated to be not identical. Moreover, the destruction of the great tree of Dependent Origination is bracketed together with the crushing of evil Mara and the liberation of beings from the ocean of samsara. Can one really sensibly argue that to reach Liberation one first has to crush and smash the Buddha-dhatu – which is what would be involved here, if the Dhatu and Dependent Origination were completely the same? Obviously not. But destruction is precisely what is called for in regard to Dependent Origination. Once Buddhahood is attained, the Buddha-dhatu is in fact cleansed, as it were, of the adventitious defilements which have hitherto obscured it – and included amongst these negative, blocking factors to be eliminated is precisely twelve-fold pratitya-samutpada. The Buddha says so in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra when providing a disquisition on what is present in the Tathagata’s Buddha-dhatu and what is absent:
“The Buddha-dhatu of the Tathagata has two aspects: one is existence, and the second is non-existence. As regards existence, that is the 32 signs of a superman, the 10 powers, the 4 fearlessnesses, the three bases of recollection, Great Compassion and Loving-kindness, the countless samadhis, such as the vajra-like samadhi. As regards non-existence: that is the causal and resultant aspects of the Tathagata’s
past wholesome, unwholesome and neutral karma, the klesas, the five
skandhas, and the twelvefold dependent origination.” (Emphasis added) (Dharmaksema)
Evidently, the Buddha-dhatu, possessed of wonderful qualities such as Great Loving-kindness and Great Compassion, is not contingent upon the process of Dependent Origination for its existence and reality: in fact, the ultimate goal sees it utterly devoid of this painful samsaric encumbrance of causation, conditionality and the consequences which flow from it..
Intriguingly, we also learn from the Nirvana Sutra that the “eye of prajna” (insight), which is centrally linked in Buddhism to the seeing of Dependent Origination, is yet unable to see the Buddha-dhatu clearly. The Buddha says:
“Noble son, although Bodhisattvas dwelling on the tenth bhumi [level] do perceive the Buddha-dhatu, it is not clear to them. Noble son, you might ask: ‘with what eye do Bodhisattvas dwelling on the tenth bhumi perceive the Buddha-dhatu though it is not clear to them, [and] with what eye do the blessed Buddhas clearly perceive it?’ Noble son, that seen with the eye of prajna is not clear, while that seen with the Buddha-eye is clear. It is not clear while engaging in the practice of a Bodhisattva, but it is clear when no longer engaging in the practice. Though they perceive it because they dwell on the tenth bhumi, it is not clear to them, whereas it is clear to those who do not dwell or proceed [along the bhumis]. What Bodhisattva-mahasattvas perceive with prajna is not clear; whereas the blessed Buddhas perceive it clearly because they have severed causes and effects. 'All-knowing [sarvajna]' is said to be the Buddha-dhatu; whereas tenth-level Bodhisattvas are not said to be all-knowing, and so, although they perceive it, it is not clear to them.”
The prajna-eye, which is so finely attuned to the seeing of causes and conditions and what springs from them – in other words, the 12 links of Dependent Origination - is yet myopic and afflicted with clouded vision when it comes to seeing the Buddha-dhatu. Moreover, the Buddha - who, we must remember, is the Buddha-dhatu made manifest – is said to have cut off all causes and results - the sphere of Dependent Arising – and thus is able to see the Buddha-dhatu clearly. His very being - his kaya (which includes both body and mind) - is defined in the Nirvana Sutra as not being composed of causes and conditions (i.e. the chain of Dependent Origination):
“The Tathagata’s Body is not causally conditioned. Because it is not causally conditioned, it is said to have the Self (atman); if it has the Self, then it is also eternal, blissful and pure.” (Dharmaksema)
Whatever intimate links may exist between Dependent Origination (or more precisely, the full seeing of it) and the Buddha-dhatu, the two are obviously not wholly the same.
A growing trend amongst scholars who comment on Tathagatagarbha Buddhism is to seek to play down and even eliminate the radicality of Tathagatagarbha doctrine by claiming that it has nothing other than Emptiness - the absence of eternal Self or Essence - as its referrent. This is, from the viewpoint of the main Tathagatagarbha sutras themselves, an inappropriate and soteriologically dangerous application of Madhyamaka-style understanding to the sphere of the Tathagatagarbha. And it is a trap into which, unfortunately, Youru Wang plunges headlong, without any safety net beneath him
“Emptiness”, writes Dr. Youru of the Nirvana Sutra’s doctrines on the Buddha-dhatu, “is maintained in the original sense of being without self-existence or inherent nature. The Buddha nature is empty …” Yet this is to overlook an early and (for the Nirvana Sutra) definitive explanation by the Buddha in this sutra of how Emptiness (sunyata) when applied to transcendental verities should now, in this final revelation of Dharma, be understood. To avail ourselves of a term made famous by the Jonangpa Buddhist master, Dolpopa, we can say that the following Nirvana Sutra definition of Emptiness in relation to Liberation (which is of the nature of Nirvana/ Buddha-dhatu) is markedly shentong - indicating an “emptiness of other, but not of itself”. The Buddha affirms this when he states:
“Emptiness (sûnyatâ) means that one can find nothing even after having sought it. Although the Nirgranthas also have a ‘nothingness’, liberation is not like that. Emptiness is like this: concerning a honey jar, a butter jar, an oil jar, a water jar or a yoghurt jar, no matter whether there is any yoghurt in the jar or not, it is still called a ‘yoghurt jar’, and similarly no matter whether there is any honey or water there or not, one still calls them a honey jar or a water jar. How can one then say that the jar itself is empty or that the jar is intrinsically empty in the absence of that [yoghurt and so forth]? If it has both form and colour, how is it empty ? Liberation is not that sort of [utter] emptiness, for liberation also has a perfection of shape and colour and thus, just as one says that a yoghurt pot is empty because there is no yoghurt in it, even though one perceives that it is not empty [in itself], one says that liberation is empty, while it is not [actually] empty. How can one say that it is empty while it has form (rûpa) ? The term ‘empty’ is applied to liberation because it is devoid of the various aspects of emotional afflictions, the twenty-five conventional modes of existence, suffering, mundane teachings, observances and arising perceptual domains, just as the yoghurt jar is devoid of yoghurt. Just as the form of the jar itself remains immutably, there are, with regard to [liberation], utter bliss, joy, permanence, stability, eternality, supramundane Dharma, observances and perceptual domains. Like the form of the jar, liberation is permanent, stable and eternal, but the jar will [eventually] get broken because it is merely established through causal circumstances. Because liberation is not created (akṛta), it will not perish. That which is liberation is an unfabricated element (dhâtu), and that is the Tathâgata.”
It is abundantly clear from the above passage that the Buddha (who is Liberation/
Nirvana / the Buddha-dhatu personified) is only empty of that which is linked to
samsara - the realm of suffering - but is not empty of such qualities as being unshakeable (dhruva), unchanging (nitya), eternal, blissful and free from the reincarnational cycle and the created (akrta). Liberation (moksha) is only shown here to be empty of what is other than itself - but not empty of its own intrinsic form, its own intrinsic nature and its own intrinsic virtues.
It may come as a shock to some Buddhists to read that Nirvana/ Buddha has a “form”; but such shock is misplaced, since Mahayana Buddhism is awash with scriptural passages which speak of the Buddha’s ever-and-everywhere present kaya – or body (which includes his jnana, his Knowing). It is not “body” in itself which needs to be eliminated in the quest for Nirvana - only that perishable body constituted of the five impermanent, worldly skandhas from which liberation needs to be sought. But there are other skandhas – Buddhic ones, which know of no perishing and no surcease. The Buddha indicates as much to Kaundinya, his interlocutor, in the following assertion which comes towards the very end of the Nirvana Sutra and thus carries with it a particularly powerful impact:
“Kaundinya, rupa [form] is suffering, but through the
elimination of this rupa, one attains Liberation, the rupa of
Vedana, samjna, samskara and vijnana are also likewise.
rupa is empty, but through the elimination of empty rupa, one
attains Liberation - non-empty
rupa. Vedana, samjna, samskara and vijnana
are also thus. Kaundinya, rupa is non-Self [anatman], but through
the elimination of this rupa, one attains Liberation, the rupa of the
True Self. Vedana, samjna, samskara and vijnana are also thus.”
It is crucial to note here that the Buddha (as elsewhere in the Nirvana Sutra) is indicated to be possessed of skandhas which are not empty - peaceful and tranquil skandhas, which are of the True Self (atman); and this
non-empty True Self is indeed the Tathagata himself. There is no hint here of this being merely a “provisional” teaching, or simply a clever tactic to get Kaundinya on board as a “Buddhist”: Kaundinya is already a respected monk in the Buddha’s Sangha and is, in fact, asked by the Buddha shortly after these comments to shave off the hair of a new entrant into the Community (the falling hair represents the falling-away - the “emptiness” - of all defilements). Kaundinya is being treated here to nothing less than a final Dharmic pronouncement by the Buddha on the very eve of the latter’s “death”.
If we jump backwards to a much earlier portion of the Sutra (on the Four Truths), we find another vital passage which indicates that unqualified and absolute Emptiness is not the realm of Truth - not the sphere of suffering’s cessation. To show how this idea is embedded from the very start in the earliest extant version of the Sutra, I quote from Faxian’s translation of the text. The Buddha there affirms:
“As for the Truth of the Cessation of Suffering: if one cultivates
Emptiness, everything will be eliminated, and one will destroy
[i.e. in one’s perceptions] the Buddha-dhatu. If one calls the
cultivation of Emptiness the Truth of Cessation, then do not the
heterodox with their irrational [Emptiness] also attain the Truth
of Cessation through their cultivation of Emptiness? You should
know that everybody has the constantly present Tathagata-dhatu;
when you eradicate the fetters, the klesas [negative traits] will be
eliminated forever and the constantly present Tathagatadhatu will be manifested…. Moreover, when you cultivate the Tathagata-dhatu and
treat it as Emptiness and non-Self, you should know that you will
be like a moth falling into a flame. What I term the Truth of
Cessation is the
Tathagata-dhatu, the Reality of the Tathagata, the elimination of all the innumerable klesas. Why is that? Because of the Tathagata-dhatu; those who know that will know the Truth of Cessation on a level with
the Tathagata. Anything other than this is not called Cessation.”
This is powerful testimony. Meditatively viewing the Tathagata-dhatu as non-Self and Emptiness effectively turns one into a spiritual suicide, we are told. The undesirability of such a state need hardly be stressed. We note, too, that the Tathagata-dhatu is appositionally linked to the Reality of the Buddha and the loss of all countless afflictions. The Buddhic state is thus indicated to be empty of suffering, but not devoid of its own inherent Reality.
Furthermore, if the Mahaparinirvana Sutra really wanted its listeners/ readers to see the Buddha-dhatu as nothing more than Dependent Origination (as Youru Wang claims), the above passage would be an ideal opportunity for the Buddha to insist that one must correctly view the Tathagatagarbha as Empty, since all Dependent Origination is coreless, baseless and lacking in any eternal essence. But he indicates precisely the opposite: that the Buddha-dhatu is not to be viewed as marked by that Emptiness which is the hallmark, par excellence, of Dependent Origination.
The reader should not, however, assume from the above that the term “Emptiness” is never applied to the Buddha-dhatu. It is. But when applied to the Buddha-dhatu it refers to the latter’s freedom from and emptiness of suffering, of physical and (worldly) mental apprehensibility, and of essential pollution by the contaminated extraneous factors of samsara. Another major Tathagatagarbha sutra, the Srimaladevisimhanada Sutra, also differentiates two types of Emptiness in relation to the Tathagatagarbha: the type which might be called (using shentong/rantong terminology) “Emptiness-of-other” and “non-Emptiness-of-itself”. In the Srimaladevi Sutra we learn that the Tathagatagarbha is devoid of all klesas, as well as of all samsara-ensnaring ignorance, but that it is not empty of all the innumerable positive qualities linked to Liberation. We read:
“ … the knowledge of emptiness of the Tathagata-garbha
is of two kinds. What are the two?
The first is the knowledge that the Tathagata-embryo is empty:
that it is apart from all defilements and apart from knowledge
which does not lead to liberation. The second is the knowledge
that the Tathagata-garbha is not empty: that it contains inconceivable
dharmas [qualities] more numerous than the sands of the Ganges,
which embody the Buddhas’ wisdom of liberation.”
(A Treasury of Mahayana Sutras, Pensylvania State University Press,
University Park and London, 1983, ed. by Garma C. C. Chang, p. 378)
This text is not unknown to Youru Wang – indeed, he alludes to it. But he dismisses it, along with the Uttara-Tantra of Maitreya, as not of “the Middle Way” and not successfully communicating any “strategic nature” and damns it as thus having lost “the capacity of resisting reification”. But as pointed out at the beginning of this paper, to adopt such a stance is effectively to assert in advance that the Tathagatagarbha cannot possibly, in any sense, mode or manner, be construed as something which has a genuine, spiritually-tangible, ontic Reality to it. For critics of a Madhyamaka bent it has to be defused or “rendered safe” (particularly for votaries of Prasangika-Madhyamaka) by declaring that it is nothing more than Dependent Origination and Emptiness. But the relevant Tathagatagarbha sutras indicate otherwise - and one would be displaying a deplorable bias if one were simply to reject those Tathagatagarbha texts which didn’t conveniently fit into one’s comforting, pre-determined little thought-pattern of what Buddhism is and always must be. Sadly, despite the eloquence of his essay, this is a fault from which Youru Wang remains unfree.
The Tathagatagarbha is Emptiness. That is true. It is emptiness of suffering - of the change, mutation, defects and impermanence which are associated with samsara and which engender pain. It is not, however, empty of the everlasting qualities which constitute enduring liberational Knowledge, happiness and joy. In other words, it is not empty of that which makes up the liberated heart of the eternal Buddha.
Is the Tathagatagarbha “Merely” an Upaya?
It has become increasingly common in the last decade - now that a more general awareness of the Tathagatagarbha sutras has at last dawned in the West, after a century of neglect/ refusal to acknowledge their (for certain parties) embarrasing existence - to frantically dismiss or denigrate the Tathagatagarbha itself to a “mere” tactical device (an upaya) or, as Youru puts it, “nothing but a temporary expedient” (my emphasis). It is precisely with this “nothing but”, or sense of “mere” upaya, that this part of the present paper will deal.
Firstly, it is necessary to understand what the term upaya actually means. All too many Buddhists effectively believe that upaya always and necessarily means a lie, a ruse, a deception, to trick people into doing something that is desired. This is inaccurate. The word derives from a verbal root which means to bring a person to a goal, to advance that person forward. Anything that does this, in keeping with Dharma, is certainly no trick or deception. Within the Buddhist context, an upaya is a method for bringing a being (or beings) closer to, or directly into, Awakening and Nirvana. Such methods may, for example, include promulgating the Noble Eightfold Path; or the teaching of the Four Noble Truths; or the dividing of Dharma into the sravaka/pratyekabuddha/bodhisattva paths; or the teaching of Emptiness. These are not lies. They are methods brimming over with Truth. Allied to this is the repeated statement by the Buddha that he does not speak falsehoods – he speaks only Truth. Indeed, one could argue that “skilful” or positive upayas (upaya-kausalya) are saturated with Truth, born from Truth, are activations of Truth, are umbilically linked to Truth and precisely for that reason can thus deliver the recipient into the bosom of Truth. If they were not immersed in Truth, they could not convey one to Truth. So upaya is no “mere” device or ruse, with nothing of reality behind it. It is Buddhic activity at its most compassionate and practically Real.
Of course, in an ultimate sense, the whole of Buddhism is an upaya for ferrying beings across the dangerous waters of samsara and onto the safe further shore of Nirvana. Ultimately, as the Buddha repeatedly stresses, Dharma cannot really be compressed into words or understood by reason alone. It is of the Beyond - “the Beyond of all dharmas”, as some prajnaparamita sutras are pleased to call it.
But because words are not sufficiently precise to capture the full and recondite nature of Reality does not mean that what those words express should simply be dismissed or denigrated as meaning nothing at all. They do in fact embody and point to key elements of Reality. They themselves are not real (in the sense of having eternal svabhava), but they point to a That-ness (tathata) which is enduringly real. This is the case with the Tathagatagarbha/ Buddha-dhatu. These terms are indeed “an upaya” - but that does not mean that the referrent of those terms is non-existent. As the Angulimaliya Sutra exhorts the Buddhist follower: “Do not say that the subject of this Tathagatagarbha sutra [i.e. the Tathagatagarbha itself] is non-existent.” The Tathagatagarbha is present in the here and now. It would exist whether or not Buddhas spoke of it or communicated their vision of it. It is mere blind folly, moral contamination and ignorance which prevent it from being seen – and which cause its existence to be denied.
To return to upaya: it may be helpful to look in a little more detail now at how the term upaya is used in Mahayana Buddhism generally and in Tathagatagarbha Buddhism in particular. We might usefully start with the Mahaparinirvana Sutra.
In one of the sutra's many parables, the Buddha tells of how a group of people play in a pool in the forest and let a genuine beryl jewel fall into the water. Everybody wants to retrieve that precious jewel and fetches up all kinds of worthless stones, pebbles and pieces of gravel in the mistaken belief that they have seized hold of the genuine article. The real gemstone, however, begins to gleam and transfigure the water with its iridescence. One man who is amongst the crowd sees this and, unlike them, knows how to get to the jewel and take hold of it. He has the "skilful means" for doing so. The Buddha relates this to his enthusiastic "non-Self" monastic votaries, who insist that there is no Self at all and that everything is devoid of the Self. Like the deluded crowd in the pool, these monks have picked up a contingent "treasure" and believe themselves to be in possession of the highest of all doctrines - the supreme Dharma. But they have mis-taken a provisional, conditioned doctrine (a jewel-resembling object) for the ultimate Dharma, which is that of the Eternal Self of the Buddha. Here is what the Buddha says:
"Then, somebody in their midst who is skilled in means and intelligent is actually able to get that gem. In the same way, monks, you have latched onto such extremes as ‘everything is suffering’, ‘everything is without a self’, ‘everything is impermanent’, ‘everything is impure’, and you repeatedly cultivate that. All of that is mistaken and worthless, just like the pebbles and gravel in the pond. Be like the person who is skilled in means ! I declare that there is Happiness, Self, the Eternal, and Purity in whatever you meditatively cultivate of all those extremes which you have latched onto – those four [extremes] are cognitive distortions ! Therefore, cultivate the idea that dharma-tattva [the true nature of Reality -i.e. the truth of Dharma] is eternal, like that gem.” (Tibetan version)
It is clear that the expression, "skilful means", in the parable does not relate to the radiant gem that is in the water, any more than it relates to the Self which is said to be pure, happy and eternal. "Skilful means" refers instead to the knowledge and ability which that one special man in the crowd (symbolic of a great Bodhisattva) possesses for attaining the real gem or Self. In meditative-practical terms, this man does not lapse into the extremism and nihilism of the monks, who wrongly deem absolutely everything to be painful, impermanent, devoid of Self and impure. This wise and able man sees the Truth and knows how to make it his own, so to speak. He has the means and intelligence to know what needs to be grasped, and what needs to be relinguished. Thus in one of the most important of all Tathagatagarbha sutras, we have a fine illustration of how the Dharmic Essence (or Self) is not dismissively labelled an upaya and relegated to the level of a mendacious but useful little ploy to attract the unsophisticated crowd, but rather we see how the term, upaya, relates to the skill and knowledge which the Buddhist practitioner needs in order to contact what is most gloriously luminous and Real. In other words, the upaya of this parable is equated to the means by which the real object of one's quest is attained, not to the object itself. This is typical of the entire Tathagatagarbha-sutric approach to upaya whenever the talk is of breaking through to a direct vision of the Buddha-dhatu and making contact with it: the Dhatu is always real and present, but the means has to be devised to cause both oneself and others to perceive and "touch" it. We would do well to bear this vital distinction in mind.
Arguably one of the most famous and rightly celebrated examples of an upaya is found in the Lotus Sutra - that of the burning house (symbol of the dangerous, searing samsaric world in which all beings are unwittingly trapped), from which a father (representing the Buddha) rescues his sons by means of a "skilful device". He promises his sons three different kinds of carriage, suited to their tastes, if they will only cease playing with their toys (symbolising immersion in the worldly sense-spheres) and leave the fiercely burning house immediately. Attracted by this promise of a pleasing gift, the children run out of the conflagration and are saved. But in actuality, the father does not have three different carriages for them; he has only one type of carriage - but this is much grander, much more exalted and more beautiful than the three kinds of which he had spoken to his children. The Buddha explains that the three carriages represent the sravaka-yana, the pratyekabuddha-yana and the Bodhisattva-yana. The all-inclusive totality of them constitutes the Buddha-yana, and it is this One yana (vehicle) which is truly real and of which all three partake.
What is striking in this parable is not that the father has told a complete lie to his children – which he has not - but that he has actually undersold the merits of the real carriage, simply because the children were too immature to be able to conceive of its true nature. When they see it, far from being disappointed, they “dance for joy” , “cavort”, “play” and “enjoy themselves, completely at ease and feeling no encumbrances” (Scripture of the Lotus Blossom of the Fine Dharma, tr. By Leon Hurvitz, Columbia University Press, pp. 71-72).
This is important in connection with the Tathagatagarbha doctrine. In the various Tathagatagarbha sutras, it is stressed that the Tathagatagarbha cannot really be explained or understood (to and by the samsaric mind). So the Buddha uses parables and similes to convey a sense of what that Buddha-dhatu (Buddha Principle) is like. But these similes cannot do full justice to the Dhatu - any more than the father of the fable was in a position to do justice to the radiance and brilliance of the actual carriage which he presents to his children. The similes that are utilised, however, are not dissimilar to Truth. Yet they cannot quite reach the exalted level of Truth. In terms of the parable: the carriage is real (not an illusion or a lie) – indeed, it is even more glorious than the words of the father had suggested. And it is a carriage. It is not a case of treasure, a tree, or a gold coin, or a tasty meal (i.e. something totally different from what had been promised). It is essentially the same as what the upaya had stated it to be, but on a far grander scale. That is the case with the Tathagatagarbha too. It is real, visible and knowable - but it is far greater and grander than our mundane minds and limited language can depict or conceive. The referent of the doctrine of the Tathagatagarbha is thus no “fiction” or “deception”, although it is not adequately captured by the words that seek to express it. It is Reality on the highest level.
Furthermore, the Lotus Sutra indicates that the Buddha’s upayas even include the teaching of the Noble Truths (and which Buddhist would generally dare to say that those are not true?!). We read:
“Even though the Buddhas, the World-Honored-Ones,
Resort to expedient devices [upayas],
The living beings whom they convert
Are all bodhisattvas.
If there are persons of slight understanding …,
Profoundly addicted to lust and desire,
For their sakes
I preach the Truth of Suffering,
And the beings rejoice at heart
That they have gained something they never had before.
The Buddha’s preaching of the Truth of Suffering
Is reality without falsehood …
For their sakes [i.e. for the sakes of suffering-enmeshed beings],
By resort to an expedient device [upaya], I teach the Path …”
(ibid. pp. 74-75).
The Noble Truths, including the Path itself, are all here closely allied with upaya – indeed are almost defined as upaya. Does that mean that the Noble Truths are in fact not truths at all, but lies? If one were to listen to the votaries of the “Tathagatagarbha as mere upaya” theory, one might have to draw this conclusion. But the Truths, for all that they are presented as upayas, are not falsehoods - any more than the Tathagatagarbha is.
The sceptical reader might object at this point, saying: “You are placing far too heavy an emphasis on something which is only mentioned by the Buddha in passing”. To address this point and show that the Lotus Sutra is not alone in associating the notion of upaya with, for example, the noble eightfold Path, we might do well to look again at the “king” of all Tathagatagarbha sutras, the Mahaparinirvana Sutra (Dharmakshema version). In that scripture, the Buddha asserts:
“The wise ones are freed from the five skandhas by way of skilful means [upaya]. ‘Skilful means’ refers to the eightfold noble Path, the six perfections [paramitas], and the four Immeasurables [apramanas]”
Such phenomena as the paramitas and apramanas are not tricks, or deceptions, or pretences which are simply abandoned when Buddhahood is attained. They constitute much of the natural and spontaneous heart of Buddhahood. In fact, the Nirvana Sutra teaches (Vol. 10, p., 33) that the apramanas of Great Loving-kindness and Great Compassion inhere in the Buddha’s very own Buddha-dhatu. They are an integral element of what a Buddha is.
Our sceptical reader might raise further objections and declare that “one swallow does not make a summer” and that we still have not conclusively shown that upaya does not always mean a “trick” or “untrue yet serviceable ruse”. In response to this charge, we should like to quote from the Maharatnakuta Sutra (precisely “On Upaya-Paramita”), which provides us with a valuable set of examples of what is encompassed by the Buddha’s application of the term, upaya. As will be seen from the following instances of upaya, the word can simply mean an action or attitude which is conducive to what is dharmically wholesome and, ultimately, to Awakening (both for self and others), without in any way implying falsehood or deceit:
“Good man, a Bodhisattva who practices ingenuity [upaya], can use even a handful of food as alms for all sentient beings. Why?
When a Bodhisattva who practices ingenuity [upaya] gives a handful of food to any single sentient being, even an animal, he does so with an aspiration for all-knowing wisdom, and vows to share the merit of this giving with all sentient beings by dedicating it to the [universal] attainment of supreme enlightenment. Because of these two – his seeking all-knowing wisdom and his skillful vow – he attracts sentient beings into his following. Good man, this is the ingenuity [upaya] practiced by a Bodhisattva-Mahasattva ….
“Moreover, good man, when a Bodhisattva-Mahasattva who practices ingenuity [upaya] pays homage to one Buddha, respects him, makes offerings to him, honors him, or praises him, the Bodhisattva-Mahasattva will think: ‘All Tathagatas share the same dharmadhatu and Dharma-body; they share the same discipline, meditation, wisdom, liberation, and the knowledge and awareness derived from liberation.’ With this in mind, he will know that to pay homage to one Buddha, respect him, make offerings to him, honor him, or praise him is to do so to all Buddhas. For this reason, he can make offerings in this way to all the Buddhas in the worlds of the ten directions. This is the ingenuity [upaya] practiced by a Bodhisattva-Mahasattva.” (Chang, op. cit., pp. 428-429).
It is evident from the above that upaya can simply denote a highly beneficial act of body or mind which advances a person towards bodhi (Awakening) and thus brings spiritual profit to both self and others. It does not necessarily imply untruth, lack of reality, or any species of deceit. Rather, it is a mental or physical act (or inner stance) which has the power to help a sentient being reach the Buddhic goal of Awakening. Thus, if the Mahaparinirvana Sutra says (as Youru Wang quotes), “Because it is good for being a temporary upaya, it is said that the Buddha-dhatu can be seen in sentient beings”, this does not mean that the Buddha-dhatu does not exist; it means that while beings are still trapped in their temporary state of ignorance, it serves as a valuable expedient to point out to them that the Buddha-dhatu does in fact reside within their bodies. It is this skilful pointing out of the existence of the Buddha-dhatu - the temporary verbalising of this fact of Dhatu-immanence, prior to its direct perception - that is the expedient, not the Dhatu itself. This is made clear in the Nirvana Sutra’s parable of the poor woman (in the main chapter on the Tathagatagarbha) who unknowingly has a cache of treasure buried beneath her house but who requires the “skilful methods” of the Buddha before she can unearth it and see it. The treasure is not the “method”. Knowing how to bring about an awareness of its presence is the real skilful method - the method of which the Buddha has consummate knowledge. Thus, the above statement from the sutra (which Youru probably hoped would clinch his argument) in no way means that the focus of the upaya (i.e. the Buddha-dhatu) is unreal; it simply means that until the being can directly see the reality of the Buddha-dhatu inside him/herself, verbalised instruction on its immanent presence and reality is required to be imparted. The veridical nature of the Buddha-dhatu is in no way called into question by suchlike statements. Thus there is no justification whatsoever for rejecting the Buddha-dhatu’s reality simply because the verbalisation of its presence is indicated to possess great upayic power. This is to misunderstand the profoundly compassionate, true and liberative nature of verbalised Upaya-Dharma - and indeed the Buddha - entirely.
Is the Buddha Nature Merely a 'Potential'?
Another desperate ploy resorted to by commentators who seem to dread the possibility that the Buddha Nature is truly real and changeless within the being is to claim that it is only a potentiality for Awakening - nothing more. This makes the votaries of such an interpretation feel safe and secure in the knowledge that they have done away with the shibboleth of 'essence'. Yet such a claim is demonstrably false. While it is true that the Buddha-dhatu (Buddha Nature) is indeed a potency within the being for realising that being's inherent Enlightenment, it is more than just that. The Nirvana Sutra makes this clear. In the Nirvana Sutra, (Dharmakshema version) the Buddha speaks of the Buddha Nature (Buddha-dhatu) of ordinary beings as well as of the Buddha Nature of himself. At one point in the sutra, the Buddha tells of those elements which are present in his Nature and those which are absent, saying: "The Buddha-dhatu of the Tathagata has two aspects ..." And in the Tathagatagarbha Sutra, the Buddha spcifically states, without any room for misunderstanding: "Just as I have a Tathagata nature,
so do all beings."
Would it make sense to say that a fully and perfectly Awakened Buddha has the 'potential' to become a Buddha? Clearly not. He has already arrived at complete Buddhahood and is fully Awoken. And yet the scriptures speak of the Buddha's persistent Buddha-dhatu. Obviously it is something far more than a mere potential that is being referred to here. It is an immortal essence.
Two Frequently Misinterpreted Passages from the Nirvana Sutra
Like other commentators before him, Youru Wang cites part of a particular passage from the Mahaparinirvana Sutra to promulgate the thesis that the Buddha-dhatu is “nothing but a temporary expedient” and, ultimately, to back up his contention that the Self is not real - just a piece of verbal trickery employed by the Buddha to attract those who “have a deep attraction to the sense of self and worry about the loss of self”. As we have noted earlier, this now-common distortion of the Nirvana Sutra’s teachings on the Self is revealed as a misrepresentation of the Buddha’s intended meaning, when we remember that early in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra (in the chapter on “Grief”), the Buddha specifically opposes and reprimands a group of his monks who are inveterate adherents of the impermanence and “non-Self” approach to Dharma. The Buddha tells them that their approach is “worthless” and encourages them to see the Eternal Self in what is indeed Eternal and Self. Thus any global claim that the Mahaparinirvana Sutra merely makes use of positive “Self” language in order to attract those who “have a deep attraction to the sense of self and worry about the loss of self” is clearly untenable.
What, then, is this particular passage that Youru and others of his ideological persuasion like to quote to deny the reality of the Self and effectively denigrate it to a “mere” upaya? Here is the key extract which Youru Wang gives:
“The Buddha-nature is in fact not the self. For the sake of [guiding]
sentient beings, I describe it as the self.”
Crucially, however, there is more which the Buddha enunciates here - and yet, for some puzzling reason, commentators choose to omit the subsequent words, which prove that the Buddha is in no way denying the reality of the Self. Here is the whole passage in full (here as elsewhere I gratefully use Stephen Hodge’s translation, which bases itself both on the Chinese and the Tibetan):
“Noble Son: on one occasion, I was staying by the River Nairanjana. I said to Ananda, ‘I am going to bathe, so bring me my robe and cleansing powder.’ Then, when I had immersed myself in the water, all the creatures that fly in the air and rest on the water came and watched me. On that occasion there were also five hundred [ascetic] wanderers who came to the bank of the river into my presence. They each said to one another, ‘How shall we obtain a vajra-kaya [diamond-body]? If this Gautama does not expound a nihilistic doctrine, we shall accept instructions and precepts from him.’
“Noble Son, knowing their thoughts with the Knowing that cognises the minds of others, I said to them, ‘Why do you think that I expound a nihilistic doctrine?’
“The wanderers replied, ‘Gautama, you have explained in all the sutras that beings are devoid of self. If you have thus explained that there is no self, then how is that not a nihilistic doctrine? If there is no self, then who maintains the moral code and who infringes it?’
“The Bhagavat [Buddha] replied, ‘I have not taught that all beings are devoid of self. Given that I have always taught that all beings have the Buddha-dhatu, is not that same Buddha-dhatu the self? For that reason, I do not expound a nihilistic doctrine.’
“Then, having heard me explain that the Buddha-dhatu is the self, those wanderers all generated the aspiration to the supreme and perfect Awakening; they immediately went forth into the homeless life and they applied themselves assiduously to the Path of Bodhi. Moreover, all the creatures that move in the air, on the water and on the land also generated the aspiration to supreme bodhi. Having generated that aspiration, they immediately abandoned their bodies. Noble Son, the Buddha-dhatu is not truly self, but I explain it as self for the sake of beings. Noble Son, because of various causes and conditions, the Tathagata has indeed taught that that which is devoid of self is self, but it is truly devoid of self. Even though I have explained matters thus, there is no falsehood in that. Noble Son, due to various causes and conditions, I have also taught that that which is the self is devoid of self, for though there is truly a self, I have taught that there is no self, and yet there is no falsehood in that. The Buddha-dhatu is devoid of self. When the Tathagata teaches that there is no self, it is because of permanence. The Tathagata is the self, and his teaching that there is no self is because he has attained mastery/sovereignty.” (Yamamoto/Page
equivalent, Vol. 8, pp. 27-28).
The key point to note from the above is that the Buddha most certainly does not deny the reality of the Self - in fact, he affirms it: “there is truly the Self”, he says. He himself is that Self, as he reveals in the chapter of the Nirvana Sutra called “Grief” (“ ’Self’ signifies the Buddha, the ‘Eternal’ signifies the Dharmakaya”, he declares there). So this passage should never, ever, be used to claim that in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra the Buddha eventually “comes clean” and admits that his talk of Self was just a ruse to attract the spiritually deficient and that he now reverts to his “real” teaching that there is no Self at all. Nowhere in the Nirvana Sutra does the Buddha deny that he, the Tathagata, constitutes the Atman. Quite the reverse. He repeatedly insists that he - unlike all worldly things and states – is that true Self.
But let us look in more detail at the passage as a whole. Firstly, we note the implicit attractive force and magnetism of the True Self: all the birds and animals, as well as the ascetic wanderers, are irresistibly drawn to that Self who is Buddha. The Buddha is bathing in the Nairanjana River, and all the birds, ducks and other creatures come as if involuntarily drawn towards him to gaze upon his person. The location is in itself significant, as the Nairanjana is precisely the river in which Siddhartha bathed and beside which he sat, beneath the Bodhi Tree, on the day he penetrated into the recondite realm of Reality and became “Buddha”. Through this device of association, the reader of the sutra is made aware that the pronouncements of the Buddha at this locus will have a special force. So if the Buddha now affirms the Self - which he does - this is not to be taken lightly as a “mere upaya”, as nothing but “skilful means” to accommodate the wishes of the timorous and the fearful. The existence of the Self is solid fact, incontrovertible truth, enunciated beside the very river which witnessed Siddhartha’s break-through into Awakening. Furthermore, the animals are not shown to be mere mindless beasts who are fixated on preserving their own physicalised ego at all costs: they are so detached from suchlike that, on aspiring to Bodhi, they immediately relinquish their animal bodies (they essentially “die” to that particular mode of being) and presumably arise in a higher state that is more conducive to the practice of Dharma. This casting off of their animal bodies is not the act of beings who are wedded to a sense of an “ego-identity”; rather, it is the act of creatures who are genuinely open to profound Dharma and sufficiently flexible as to “kill off” their embodied ego - their animal identities - and take a huge spiritual leap forward. This certainly puts paid to the idea that the Buddha only teaches “Self” to those rather inadequate beings who “have a deep attraction to the sense of self and worry about the loss of self.” There is no sign of that here whatever.
Next, what kind of self do the ascetic wanderers speak of in this passage? They are concerned with, and conceive of, the self as a “doer” - as an active agent which upholds or breaches the codes of Buddhist morality. But nowhere in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra does the Buddha say that the Self or the Buddha-dhatu is truly a “doer”. This is why he denies that the Buddha-dhatu is a self (in the worldly sense). Neither Self nor Buddha-dhatu wholly “do” anything. That belongs to the realm of Samsara. It is evident that the self which is spoken of in this entire episode is twofold: the term refers – depending on the causes and conditions of its usage - either to the worldly, impermanent ego - the skandhaic self which temporarily acts, upholds or breaches sila - or, alternatively, to the true sovereign Self, which is the Buddha, autonomous and free from all karmas. That self is indeed not 'self', as it is characterised by self-governance and autonomy (aisvarya). Thus the Buddha-dhatu is not the impermanent “doer”-self or acting ego spoken of by the wanderers. In this sense, the Dhatu is indeed “not self/ not the ego”. Nor is the Buddha such an ego or self. That is why he says that he (the true, eternal Self) teaches the impermanent non-Self - because he has now attained the mastery/ sovereignty (aishvarya) which characterises the True Self, but which is markedly lacking from the mundane, ephemeral self, the fictitious ego. And the reason the wanderers and the animals are able to make such startling spiritual progress is because they are coming face to face, in faith, with the Self - the real Self, the Buddha – and are attracted to the vajra-kaya (diamond body, sought out by the wanderers) which that Self constitutes. The Buddha, possessor of the vajra-kaya, is not a nothingness, not a non-entity. He is the Self. But he and the Buddha-dhatu alike are non-ego. Thus, the Buddha says that he has not taught that beings are devoid of the Self. He has not taught a nihilistic or destructionist doctrine. And that is why both the animals and the wanderers are drawn to him and enter upon a liberative Path, commenced by this faithful encounter with the Buddha-Self, that leads to their transformation.
The second passage, on the nature of the Buddha-dhatu, is quoted by Dr. Wang to show that the the Self and non-Self are “equally partial” (i.e. equally incomplete, equally inadequate) and unbalanced in terms of the Middle Way (which, according to Youru Wang, means Dependent Origination and Emptiness). But is this in fact what the Buddha says? Let us see. The Buddha explains what the Buddha-dhatu is in the following words:
“You have asked what the Buddha-dhatu is; so listen with sincerity, listen
with sincerity. I shall analyse and elucidate it for your sake. Nobly-born
one, the Buddha-dhatu is termed ‘ultimate Emptiness’
[paramartha-sunyata], and ultimae Emptiness is termed ‘Awareness/
Knowing’ [jnana]. So-called ‘Emptiness’ is neither viewed as emptiness
nor as non-emptiness. The wise perceive emptiness and non-emptiness,
the eternal [nitya] and the impermanent, suffering and bliss, the Self
and the non-Self. The empty is the totality of samsara and the non-empty
is Great Nirvana … Non-Self is samsara, and the Self is Great Nirvana.
To perceive the emptiness of everything and not to perceive
non-emptiness is not termed the Middle Way … to perceive the non-Self
of everything and not to perceive the Self is not termed the Middle Way.
The Middle Way is termed ‘the Buddha-dhatu’. For this reason, the
Buddha-dhatu is eternal and unchanging. Because beings are enveloped
in ignorance, they are unable to perceive it. Sravakas and
pratyekabuddhas perceive the emptiness of everything, but do not
perceive the non-emptiness … they perceive the absence of Self in all
things, but do not perceive the Self. For this reason, they do not attain
ultimate Emptiness. Because they do not attain the supreme
Emptiness, they do not traverse the Middle Way.”
There is not one word here of Dependent Origination’s being on an equal footing with the Self or with the seeing of the Self. Nor is there any equivalency drawn between the non-Self and the Self, or for that matter the empty and the non-Empty. These are distinct phenomena that belong within different categories – the one samsaric, the other nirvanic. The empty is all that is passing, ephemeral, worldly; whereas the non-empty is the goal of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra doctrines: ever-enduring Great Nirvana. The Self is clearly posited here as real (as we know from the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Self is none other than the Buddha), as is the Buddha-dhatu – just a few lines later the Buddha says, “the Buddha-dhatu is Eternal, Bliss, the Self, and the Pure” (Yamamoto/Page, Vol. 8, p. 23) - and failure to see the Buddha-dhatu means failure to walk the Middle Path of Dharma. It is important to note that the Buddha does not explicate (as some commentators would dearly wish him to) fixation on the Self as equally as bad as fixation on the non-Self, or that fixation on the non-Empty is equally erroneous as fixation on the Empty. It is the still-ignorant who see all things as empty and non-Self. But nowhere is it stated that it is the ignorant who perceive the Self and the non-Empty. Nor is the passage centrally concerned (as Youru Wang implicitly indicates) with correct terminology, with the appropriate language to use. This is not the point at issue here. Rather, this discourse of the Buddha’s is concerned with seeing, with full, rounded and balanced Buddhic vision. That is to say, seeing from the vantage point of the Buddha-Sphere (the Buddha-dhatu) or the Buddha-Self, and recognising what is transitory and what is not. And the nature of such all-encompassing Knowing (jnana) is called Ultimate Emptiness. Thus Ultimate Emptiness is not a void or a nothingness or Dependent Origination. It is an Awareness which includes the samsaric (e.g. Dependent Origination) but goes beyond it and is not confined within it. It is supreme and perfect Knowledge – the Knowledge of a perfect Buddha. It is direct, unmediated, discriminating vision of what is transient and what is eternal. As the Buddha says just a few lines later:
“The Middle [Way] is paramartha-sunyata [Ultimate Emptiness]. This sees
the non-eternal [anitya] as non-eternal and the Eternal [nitya] as the
Eternal.” (Yamamoto/Page, Vol. 8, p. 23).
We would do well not to confuse the two - however much certain commentators might attempt to lure us into doing so. The authentic Dharma upholds a necessary distinction between what endures and what does not. The changing world is empty and does not last. The Self is full of virtues and abides eternally. Without this distinction, the metaphysics and soteriological vigour of Buddhism have the tattvic rug pulled out from under their very feet, and come crashing in splintered, dangerous shards to the secularist ground below.
Authentic Tathagatagarbha Dharma
Tathagatagarbha Buddhism likes to emphasise what it terms “authentic Dharma” or “true Dharma” (sad-dharma). And it is with such True Dharma that we shall conclude this paper.
The “authentic Dharma”, like the Buddha-dhatu and the Buddha himself, is, in the end, Mystery. That Dharma (in the sense of the sustaining Law of all beings) is beyond all worldly comparisons. It can only be approximated through language and hinted at through parables and similes. But it is emphatically not simply and merely identical to ever-changing samsara or the Dependent Origination which makes up the misery and suffering of samsara. Such a claim is the epitomy of nonsense and the final heresy from the perspective of Tathagatagarbha Buddhism. Instead, the Buddha-dhatu is a Reality which is pointed to and brought within the range of our perception by the use of skilful means and efficacious strategems. It is thus the pointing out of the way to full vision of the Buddha-dhatu which is the “upaya” - not the Buddha-dhatu itself. A careful reading of the central Tathagatagarbha sutras will confirm that the Dhatu itself is not at all a “device” - but that various devices and methods are employed to bring us, erring and blinded mankind that we are, to a perfect vision of it.
There now follows a selection of affirmative statements on the reality of the Buddha-dhatu/ Tathagatagarbha from the key Tathagatagarbha sutras themselves, which show beyond reasonable doubt, I think (except perhaps to those persons with a penchant for sophistry and distortionism), that there truly does exist (in an ultimately supra-samsaric modus) an immanent and transcendental Buddhic Principle within all beings and creatures which nothing can destroy and which no one should deny, without grave consequences being attendant upon such denial. We shall start with the Mahaparinirvana Sutra itself. There we read the Buddha’s words on how cream of ghee is always present within all forms and modifications of milk, but is undetectable until it has been purified of its obscuring elements. The Tathagatagarbha is likewise:
“Ghee arising from the cow does not arise from something else and does indeed exist in all [cases] inherently (prakṛti), nevertheless it is not apparent because it is obscured by defects and subsists mixed mutually with [the milk]. …as I have just taught previously, the tathâgata-garbha indeed has an intrinsic nature like the cream of ghee, but it appears as something else due to the defects associated with the kleshas.” (Tibetan version).
The Buddha clearly teaches here that the Tathagatagarbha is the inherent nature of the being, its prakrti or svabhava - not merely a clever little verbal ploy “pour encourager les autres” (those alleged unfortunates unable or unwilling to face the stark Madhyamaka truth of no permanency and no abiding core reality to anything, anywhere, anywhen). The Garbha is always present, no matter what mutations and incarnations all beings may pass through during their sojourn in samsara. But the Garbha strikes human, unawakened perception as being not the Essence, since the seeing of that Essence is clouded by obscuring and distorting factors – the moral contaminants called the kleshas.
In a chapter on the fundamental dicta of Tathagatagarbha Buddhism called “The Letters”, the Mahaparinirvana Sutra reiterates the Buddha’s previously intimated point (one encountered earlier in this paper) that to deny or reject the Tathagatagarbha is tantamount to committing spiritual suicide. Now the Buddha spells this out (appropriately in the chapter on “The Letters”) unequivocally:
““Û signifies [this Mahaparinirvana Sutra’s being] like a cow’s udder (ûdas). For example, just as cow’s milk is delicious, the taste of this sûtra too is similar to that. Those who abandon the teaching given in this sûtra concerning the tathâgata-garbha are just like cattle. For example, just as people who intend to commit suicide will cause themselves extreme misery, similarly you should know that those ungrateful people who reject the tathâgata-garbha and teach non-Self cause themselves extreme misery.”
Far from using the Tathagatagarbha as a mere crutch for, or concession to, the spiritually backward and deficient, the Buddha here makes it clear that acceptance of the reality of the Tathagatagarbha is comparable to the drinking-in of a life-giving and life-sustaining mother’s milk. To reject such vital nutriment is both to display ingratitude to the Buddha and, furthermore, to evince sure signs of spiritual obtuseness (hence the image of the cattle). More importantly, the teaching of non-Self without promulgating the counterbalancing revelation of the Tathagatagarbha is an act which will generate the most severe suffering. The whole raison d’etre of Buddhism is to eliminate suffering - so to assert, as the Buddha does here, that it is the unqualified non-Self doctrine (not the Tathagatagarbha) which will generate such misery must be taken very seriously indeed.
One of the main concerns of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra is to strike a balance between encouraging the seeing of the non-Self (i.e. the changeful skandhas, which constitute what the Buddha calls “the mundane self”) and the eternal, blissful Self of the Buddha (into which interior Dhatu the advanced Buddhist practitioner is instructed to “enter”). The Buddha revealingly elucidates how ignorant beings either misconstrue the true nature of the Self or else cast out the baby (the “Tathagata-Embryo”!) with the bathwater altogether, when they deludedly believe that, because the mundane, personalised self is a fiction, there can be no true Self at all. He declares:
“… when a Bodhisattva-Mahasattva appears in the world and
expounds the True Self to beings, those who are ignorant of it
hear that all beings have the Buddha-dhatu but, because they
do not know its true [nature], they speak about it with deluded
ideas, [saying], ‘The Self is like an inch-sized flame located in
the heart.” … [Or else] they consider whether they have a
personal self and seek out the nature of their personal self but,
not finding the True Self, they come up with the theory that
there is no Self. Thus all people in the world constantly have
deluded ideas, considering whether they have a personal self
or having the idea that there is no Self. Thus, noble son, I teach
that the Tathagata-dhatu is the supreme Reality.”
The ignorant try to measure and apportion dimensions to the Self. But it is a Reality beyond all computation, locational fixing and measurement. As the Buddha asserts in the Nirvana Sutra: “The Tathagatagarbha cannot be quantified” (Tibetan version). We might note in passing that a similar notion of the ungraspable nature of the Self is expressed in the Avatamsaka Sutra (Eulogies in the Tushita Palace, Buddhabhadra’s version), where we read:
“Just as the Self is not an object [*viṣaya]
and cannot be encompassed by thought,
similarly the Buddha’s Dharmakâya
cannot be measured by anything.”
Commentators who completely misconstrue such statements and insist on interpreting them in a nihilistic manner claim that because the Self or the Tathagatagarbha cannot be physically or mentally measured or grasped, it does not exist. This is the height of absurdity and a calamitous misreading. The very opposite is shown to be the case by the Buddha in these Tathagatagarbha sutras: only the Buddha/ Buddha-dhatu has enduring Reality, but is so freed from confining physicality and samsaric graspability, so utterly supra-worldly (while yet having an ongoing presence within each being), that the “insect-like” mind (according to the Nirvana Sutra) of the un-Awakened cannot possibly grasp or envision it.
Like many deniers of the ontic reality of the Self, Youru Wang quotes and misinterprets the Lankavatara Sutra in an attempt to prove his viewpoint. But again, like many other like-minded critics, he pointedly fails to quote affirmative statements within that same sutra which issue indeed from one of the oldest segments of the entire scripture, the “Sagathakam”. There we learn that the Tathagatagarbha and the pure Self are one and the same, and are real, beyond all speculation:
“The Self [atman] characterised with purity is the state of
Self-realisation; this is the Tathagatagarbha, which does not
belong to the realm of the theorisers …
“As when a garment is cleansed of its dirt, or when gold is
removed from its impurities, they are not destroyed but
remain as they are; so is the Self freed from its defilements …
“Those who hold the theory of non-Self are injurers of the
Buddhist doctrines, they are given up to dualistic views of
[samsaric] being and non-being; they are to be ejected by the
convocation of the Bhikshus and are never to be spoken to.
“The doctrine of an ego-Soul shines brilliantly like the rising
of the world-end fire, wiping away the faults of the
philosophers, burning up the forest of non-Self-ness.
“Molasses, sugar-cane, sugar, and honey; sour milk,
sesame oil, and ghee – each has its own taste; but one
who has not tasted it will not know what it is.
“Trying to seek in five ways for an ego-Soul in the
accumulation of the skandhas, the unintelligent fail to
see it; but the wise, seeing it, are liberated.” [765-768].
One wonders why these powerful passages from the famous Lankavatara Sutra are never quoted …?
The Srimaladevisimhanada Sutra likewise asserts the profound Reality of the Tathagatagarbha, and it specifically labels its doctrines as nitartha – final and definitive (not just provisional, not merely a useful but untrue “means”). Authorised by the Buddha, the great Queen Srimala tells of how the Tathagatagarbha “… is the sphere of experience of the Tathagatas; it is not the sphere of experience of Shravakas and Pratyekabuddhas.”
(The Shrimaladevi Sutra, translated by Dr. Shenpen Hookham, Longchen Foundation, 1998, p. 36). Again, it is needful to note that if, as Youru indicates, Dependent Origination is the sum total of what the Tathagatagarbha is, then the pratyekabuddhas should be able to experience it. But they do not. It lies beyond their spiritual ken. The sutra further affirms the desirability of having faith in the Tathagatagarbha, which is the Buddhic Essence concealed within extraneous contaminants and which is nothing less than the Dharmakaya when freed from those obscuring veils:
“Whoever has no doubts about the Tathagatagarbha wrapped in the
sheath of the kleshas, has no doubt about the Tathagata’s Dharmakaya,
which is liberation from the sheath of the kleshas.” (ibid).
Entrapment, concealment of the Tathagatagarbha, and its final Liberation. That is the meaning and movement enunciated by the Tathagatagarbha sutras. Yet paradoxically the Garbha is never truly trapped or hindered; it is only the purblind and afflicted vision of ignorant beings which fails to perceive its constant immanence.
The highly important sutra entitled the Anunatva-Apurnatva-Nirdesa (“Teaching on Non-Decrease, Non-Increase”) communicates a vision of the Tathagatagarbha which reveals the Garbha’s abiding reality, its oneness with the Dharmakaya, its sole comprehensibility to Buddhas alone, and its inseparability from countless and wondrous Buddha qualities. The sutra is also at pains to stress that the the Tathagatagarbha is essentially sattva (the being) itself. There is no severance between the living being and the Tathagatagarbha which upholds all phenomena without exception. At the heart of all is One dhatu – the Principle of the Tathagatagarbha. Furthermore, the view that Nirvana (which is intimately linked to the Tathagatagarbha) is non-existent or just a vacuity is a grievous error, leading the holder of such a pernicious opinion from an already-existing darkness to a darkness still greater yet. Here are some key quotations from the Buddha, who is instructing Sariputra on these various points:
“Sariputra, this matter [of the single, unifying dhatu] [appertains] to the Tathagata’s perceptual domain, the Tathagata’s sphere of activity. No sravakas or pratyekabuddhas, Sariputra, are able to know, to see or to investigate this matter with their prajna [insight] … Ultimate Truth [paramartha], Sariputra, is a synonym for the realm of beings [sattva-dhatu]. The realm of beings, Sariputra, is a synonym for the Tathagatagarbha. The Tathagatagarbha, Sariputra, is a synonym for the Dharmakaya. Sariputra, this Dharmakaya taught by the Tathagata is indivisible in nature from the virtues/ qualities [dharmas] of the Tathagata, which far exceed in number the grains of sand in the Ganges …
“Sariputra, this Dharmakaya 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. Sariputra, 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. Sariputra, this Dharmakaya is permanent, because it is unchanging in its nature and because it is inexhaustible in nature. Sariputra, this Dharmakaya is firm/unshakeable/ immovable [dhruva], because it is the firm/unshakeable/ immovable refuge and because it is identical to the bounds of the future. Sariputra, this Dharmakaya is peace, because it is non-dual [advaya] in nature, because it is devoid of conceptualisation [avikalpa] in nature. Sariputra, this Dharmakaya is eternal, because it is indestructible in nature, because it is unfabricated in nature …
“Sariputra, you should know that the fact that the Tathagatagarbha 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 jnana [Knowing, Awareness], an inconceivable dharma [entity, existent] that is the Dharmadhatu [omnipresent realm of ultimate Reality]. It is primordially conjoined with this purity by nature. Sariputra, for the sake of beings I teach the intrinsic purity of the mind, this inconceivable doctrine …
“Sariputra, you should know that the fact that the Tathagatagarbha is unchanging sameness throughout the future signifies that it is the root of all qualities, that it possesses all qualities, that it is endowed with all qualities, that it is not separate or divorced from all true/ veridical qualities in the midst of mundane qualities, that it sustains all qualities, and that it includes all qualities. Grounded upon this eternal [nitya], immovable[dhruva], pure and unchanging refuge that is free from arising and cessation, the inconceivable pure Dharmadhatu, I term it satt-va [“be-ing”]. Why is that? What I call sattva is just a different name for this eternal, firm, pure and unchanging refuge that is free from arising and cessation, the inconceivable pure Dharmadhatu.
“Sariputra, all … of these qualities [of the Tathagatagarbha] are veridical, not separate nor divisible from Reality.” (Based on translation by Stephen Hodge).
There is a strong mystical and monistical flavour to these words. At the heart of all phenomena is an immutable basis or essence – a dhatu - which is eternal and inviolate. It informs all things and is the ultimate refuge for all beings. It knows no origination and passing away (certainly it is not encompassed or exhausted by Dependent Origination), and it abides, immaculate, in the midst of all worldly phenomena. It is pure beyond the levels of mundane conception, untarnished and uncontaminated by whatever temporary defilements surround it. Most of all, it is real, veridical, and true. It is not delusory, not a trick, not distinct from Ultimate Reality. In other words, it is not “merely a strategem” or merely the time-bound process of Dependent Origination. Anyone who reads these words of the Buddha’s and does not intuit their mystical force is surely remarkably impervious and insensitive to the communicative power of mystical literature. To reduce the Tathagatagarbha to a “mere device” is to remain wilfully deaf and blind to the whole spirit of Tathagatagarbha sutric literature. The Tathagatagarhba texts breathe an air of mystery, awe and of transcendence-within-immanence. They consciously and pointedly constitute a step-change within Buddhism: a move away from the overwhelmingly apophatic [purely negative] approach to Truth into the sphere of the cataphatic [affirmative and positive]. This is not just a question of language, not just a verbal ruse, not a ploy, nor a mere comfort-blanket for those who fear the apophatic assertions of the non-Self doctrine: such a claim as the latter is revealed to be utterly baseless by the Buddha’s excoriation, in the Nirvana Sutra, of those very monks who insist on universal non-Self and even presume to urge it upon the Buddha. As a consequence, those perverse monks and their kind are shown to stand in dire need of the Buddha’s enriching, balanced and culminational vision of the Tathagatagarbha and the True Self. In the words of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the Tathagatagarbha teachings are the quintessence of all Dharma - “the final culmination” – not a concessionary and comforting simplification of Dharma for the fearful.
From the perspective of Tathagatagarbha Buddhism and its practice, such matters are of the highest importance. The very efficacy of Tathagatagarbha spiritual practice and progress depends upon an accurate and faithful penetration of the meaning of these sutras. To try to turn them into the very opposite of what they again and again proclaim themselves to be - attempted expressions of an undying, blissful, all-knowing and ultimately ineffable Buddhic Truth at the heart of all things – is not only to distort the entire spirit of these religious texts but also to put at risk the spiritual welfare of those who seek to practise in accordance with their precepts and instructions. Thus while academically appealing essays such as Youru Wang’s are increasingly popular in scholarly circles - they are, after all, on the face of it informative, skilfully written, well-structured, elegantly composed and seemingly clever pieces - they signally fail to capture the deep and mystical meaning of the sutras they seek to dissect; they fail to represent the Buddha’s Tathagatagarbha teachings accurately and most importantly to communicate the requisite cataphatic spirit, which is of such central importance to the Buddha's intention in these scriptures and which in no way calls for destructive "deconstruction". To do so is to defy the express injunction of the Buddha that the Tathagatagarbha and the Buddha himself should not be reduced to a mere Emptiness or seen negatively and nihilistically as non-Self. This near-annihilation of the ambrosial “flavour” or distinctive "taste" of Tathagatagarbha Buddhism which has infected much of today's scholarly fora, this insensitive discounting of the mood (which vitally helps embody and convey the meaning) of the scriptures, runs the serious risk of leading the earnest practitioner of Tathagatagarbha Dharma onto a perilous road of misconstrued notions and distorted views. For all their readability, verbal sophistication, good intentions and undoubted sincerity, papers such as that by Youru Wang need to be recognised as unbalanced, ill-attuned to the nature, tone and meaning of the Buddha-dhatu sutras, and as dangerously misleading in the context of practical meditative cultivation. Such interpretations of Tathagatagarbha Dharma are, in sum, strikingly contrary to the counter-Madhyamaka (particularly Prasangika-Madhyamaka) spirit of the Tathagatagarbha scriptures themselves. The Tathagatagarbha does not constitute a verbal sleight-of-hand to smuggle in utter Emptiness or Dependent Origination into the corpus of Buddhist doctrine for the weak-minded or philosophically enfeebled. Rather, the Tathagatagarbha sutras proclaim themselves as a definitive and salutary corrective to a perverse, unbalanced understanding of just such teachings as Emptiness and non-Self and provide the “meaning” rather than just the dead “letter” of a Buddha-Dharma that was at risk of having its very soul (its living Atman or Tathagatagarbha, so to speak) torn out of it by an increasingly negative and nihilistic construing of what is ultimately a highly positive and affirmative transcendental Dharma. To try to force the Tathagatagarbha sutras onto the Procrustean bed of Prasangika-Madhyamaka Essence-denial (which some scholars choose to call “deconstruction”, but which might more aptly be termed "spiritual destruction") is to reverse the whole direction and trend which Tathagatagarbha Buddhism deliberately sought to set in train, and is, moreover, to disregard, disrespect and distort the predominant spirit of eternal-transcendence-within-immanence which the Tathagatagarbha sutras are so keen to articulate and disseminate to the world.
As stated above, for serious practitioners of Tathagatagarbha Buddhism, these are no mere debating points, no mere “theoretical” or “academic” concerns. They cut to the very heart of spiritual practice and attainment. If Tathagatagarbha meditative endeavour is undertaken in the framework of a false and inverted understanding, the consequences for the practitioner - so the Buddha tells us - can be severe indeed. Hence the high significance of establishing a fundamentally correct vision from the outset. To see the Buddha and the Tathagatagarbha as just a changeful flow of point-moments - not really so different from samsara - is to commit the ultimate heresy and insult. This is a view which needs to be abandoned, if one is to remain true to the Buddha's final phase of doctrinal teaching and instruction.
No stronger insistence upon the truth of the Tathagatagarbha and the real dangers attendant upon its denigration, misrepresentation or status-downgrading can be found than in the remarkable Angulimaliya Sutra. There we read the following on the eternity, unity, universality, immaculacy and immortality of the Tathagatagarbha, in which faith is fittingly invested and which is yet shielded from our sight by the obscuring, screening effect of countless extraneous mental and moral defilements (the kleshas). The sutra forcefully expounds the samsaric dangers which potentially lurk in wait for those who would disparage or reject the very real Tathagatagarbha that lies at the heart of all beings, indeed of all things:
“The Tathagatagarbha does exist in all beings, but it is present like a lamp within a jar, enveloped by millions of kleshas [mental and moral afflictions] …
“That mind which is said to be intrinsically pure is the Tathagatagarbha. That is the foremost of all phenomena; for all phenomena have the Tathagatagarbha as their essence/ intrinsic nature [svabhava] …
“Those [people] who were shameless crows in previous lives, who were extremely ungrateful and ate unclean food, are even now impoverished, lacking in shame, and do not have faith in the Tathagatagarbha. In future lives, too, these are none other than those who will become agitated upon hearing about the Tathagatagarbha from somebody who gives beneficial teachings, and who will not believe that there is an atma-dhatu [Self Principle]; for they … will be shameless crows who eat unclean food …
“Those people who were unpleasant scorpions in previous lives and turned away from the Tathagatagarbha, even now get into a blazing rage when they hear about the Tathagatagarbha, and are definitely similar to scorpions. In future lives, too, these are none other than those people who hear about the Tathagatagarbha and have no faith in it, saying that it was not expounded by the Buddha. These people will definitely do harmful actions like scorpions …
“Those who were donkeys in previous lives and paid no attention to the Tathagatagarbha are now poor and eat coarse food as donkeys do. In future lives, too, apart from being poor, they will be born into lowly kshatriya [military] families. These are none other than the people who have no faith in the Tathagatagarbha and culivate the notion of no-Self, for they will be like prostitutes, outcastes, birds and donkeys.
“Those who were ugly asuras [titanic, aggressive beings] in previous lives, with stunted, pot-shaped bodies and long fangs, criticised the Tathagatagarbha, and even now have stunted, pot-shaped bodies, for they are definitely asuras. In future lives, too, these are none other than the fierce people who have stunted, pot-shaped bodies and long fangs who criticise the Tathagtagarbha, for … they will be people who belong to the asura clan.
“Because [by contrast] of the merits of hearing [faithfully] about the Tathagatagarbha, people will be free from illnesses and afflictions, have long lives, and delight all creatures. By having heard that the Tathagata is eternal, immovable and everlasting, and does not die even though he passes into Parinirvana, they will be endowed with all possessions, long-lasting firmness and permanence.
“… if those who enter upon the path of Liberation smash the billions of kleshas [defilements] like a jar, they will then see the entire Dhatu [Buddha Essence] as though it were a mango upon the palm of their hand. For example, though the sun and moon do not shine upon the earth when they are veiled by clouds, they do shine upon the earth when they are released from the clouds. Similarly, when the Tathagatagarbha is hidden by the billions of kleshas, it is not visible; but when it is freed from the kleshas, the sun and moon of the Buddha-dhatu are also visible, just like the sun and moon.
“… the Tathagatagarbha is true and real; it is the ultimate permanent body, the ultimate inconceivable body of the Tathagata, the ultimate eternal body; for it is the Dharmakaya, the body of peace, the ultimate body, the body born from Reality [tattva] … hence the Dharma which is True emerges. All that the Bhagavat [Lord, Buddha] has taught is divorced from untruth. Therefore he is called ‘the Buddha’.”
Serious students and faithful, committed practitioners of Mahayana Buddhism (particularly Tathagatagarbha Buddhism) might be well counselled and wise indeed to reflect upon these statements and to take the above words of Dharmic guidance gratefully into their hearts.