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The Doctrine of Tathgata-garbha Is Not Buddhist


I have given this essay indicates,1 I do not consider tathgata-garbha thought to be Buddhist. To demonstrate this thesis I propose to begin with a discussion of what Buddhism is, then to turn to the doctrine of tathgata-garbha and demonstrate why the two are incompatible. In doing so, I am fully aware that my presentations of Buddhism and tathgata-garbha thought represent my own views on the matter.


I begin, then, by laying out the broad outlines of what I understand Buddhism to be. To begin with my conclusion, I take Buddhism to be the doctrines of no-self and prattyasamutpda. The prattyasamutpda I have in mind here, however, does not include such later formulations as the co-arising of the dharmadhtu or the mutually dependent, simultaneous and spatial (i.e., non-temporal) prattyasamutpda that we nd, for example, in Hua-yen thought. By prattyasamutpda I understand rst and foremost the prattyasamutpda of the twelve-membered chain of dependent arising as taught in the Mahvagga, which I believe to be the twelvefold chain of dependent arising that kyamuni pondered in its forward and reverse order, and to the truth of which he was awakened. Such a claim is sure to provoke immediate objections from academics. kyamunis awakening is unrelated to prattyasamutpda, they will say; or the twelvefold chain of dependent arising is a later development; or perhaps more radically, there is no essential difference between kyamunis enlightenment and that taught in the Upaniads or early Jain philosophy.


The scope of the present study does not allow me to delve into the interpretative problems of early Buddhism needed to counter these claims.2 I will only indicate my two principal motives in asserting that kyamuni was enlightened to the twelvefold chain of dependent arising. First, I am opposed to the idea of objective scholarship, or rather to the idea that nal judgements are to be ever postponed and nally suspended. As I have argued elsewhere, it is the task of those who are practicing Buddhists to determine the true Buddha-dharma, even if this involves submitting to criticism statements in the earliest Buddhist texts. Second, I wish clearly to reject the idea that kyamunis awakening (and hence Buddhism itself) can be understood in terms of self and existence rather than in terms of no-self and emptiness. For me, the teaching of no-self follows naturally from the notion of prattyasamutpda to which kyamuni was awakened. Tsuda Shinichi is typical of those who approach Buddhism from the point of view of self or existence. As is well known, in the Mahvagga story of the Buddhas awakening, immediately after contemplating the twelvefold chain of dependent arising in forward and reversed order kyamuni uttered a paean of joy (udna), delighting in the true appearance of phenomena (ptubhavanti dhamma) as they become manifest to the meditator.3 On the basis of Tamaki Kshirs interpretation of this dhamm as primal source of phenomena or primal dhamm,4 Tsuda repeatedly glosses it as existential foundation, existence (Sein) as the foundational strata, the single source of the world, the Sein that is the existential foundation of phenomena, or the feminine singular dhamma.5 He writes, for example:
The metaphysical scheme of humanity arising from the single source of the world and its return to that same foundation is already implied in even the simple phrases of the previously cited Mahhatthipadopamasutta [emphasis added].

The ideas that Tsuda puts forward in this article are neither as complex nor as novel as they might appear. They are typically expressions, pure and simple, of the tathgata-garbha traditionthat is, of dhtuvda. It does not seem to have occurred to Tsuda that the various phrases he employs can all be subsumed under the single term dhtu. For in the end his claim amounts to little more than the idea that manifold phenomena (dharm) arise from a singular dhtu, the dharmadhtu (the


foundation of the various dharmas). I have reached the point that I can no longer concede the possibility of understanding kyamunis awakening in terms of such a singular truly existing source.6


If we may allow this brief sketch of my idea of dhtu-vda to stand for the time being, we may turn next to the notion of tathgata-garbha. Before I present my thesis that tathgata-garbha thought is a form of dhtuvda, I would ask the reader to set aside preconceptions about the tathgata-garbha doctrine. The idea, for instance, that the dharmadhtu is the world of truth (O7u), or the mistaken notion that dharma means truth (O7) or permanent law (7), or again the idea that the mind is pure in its essential nature (Skt. prakti cittasya prabhsvar, Chin. ) are basic Mahayana concepts said to appear in the Prajpramit sutras. In my view, however, none of these ideas has been demonstrated as true or even textually veried. As Hirakawa Akira has shown, for example, the Tao hsing pan jo ching (T No. 224, 8.42578), the oldest extant Chinese translation of the Aashasrikpraj-pramit (itself the earliest of the Praj-pramit sutras), does not, in fact, contain the phrase prakti cittasya prabhsvar.7 Along the same lines, far from being a teaching of equality, the doctrine of tathgata-garbha seems to me to be an argument for social discrimination. I will clarify this below in explaining the structure of dhtu-vda, but I recommend that those who hold the widely accepted idea that tathgata-garbha thought teaches equality to consider the Mahynastrlakra and the Mahparinirva Sutra. The Mahynastrlakras theory of the reality of the three vehicles is of course well known as an exposition of Yogacara doctrine,8 but what are we to make of its assertion that All sentient beings are/have the tathgatagarbha? The extant text does indeed declare, tadgarbh sarvadehina (Mahynastrlakra, IX.37), which the commentary interprets to mean sarve sattvs tathgatagarbh ity ucyate (Mahynastrlakra-bhya ad IX.37). At the same time, it also clearly declares the existence of those lacking the cause (hetuhna, Mahynastrlakra III.11), which is interpreted as forever lacking the lineage [gotra] for nirvana (atyantparinirvadharman, Mahynastrlakra-bhya, ad III.11). What is therefore important to note is that the


Mahynastrlakras declaration that all beings are/have the tathgata-garbha is not the same as the Lotus Sutras declaration that all sentient beings will attain Buddhahood (issai kaij s). The same idea can by found in the Mahparinirva Sutra, which sees no contradiction between the assertion that all sentient beings possess Buddha-nature and the existence of the icchantika, beings permanently incapable of attaining to Buddhahood.9 I would illustrate this with two passages from the Tibetan translation of the Mahparinirva Sutra (Peking edition No. 788):10
1. Within all sentient beings is the nature of a Buddha (Skt. buddhadhtu, Tib. sas rgyas kyi khams); this nature (dhtu) is provided (tsha) within each of their bodies. After eliminating the mark (rnam pa) of delement they will attain Buddhahood, excluding, however, the icchantika (Tu 99a67).11 2. Even the icchantika possess the tathgata-garbha, but it is within a very thick covering. Just as a silkworm makes its own cocoon but cannot leave it until it makes an opening, the tathagata-garbha cannot free itself from those karmic blunders and emerge from within the icchantika. Therefore [the icchantika] will not attain the cause of enlightenment (bodhi-hetu) even until the end of all transmigration (Tu 134b23).12

Takasaki Jikid interprets references to the exclusion of the icchantika in the Mahparinirva Sutra to be a qualication of the general claim that all sentient beings possess Buddha-nature.13 I cannot agree. As the second passage above shows, the Mahparinirva Sutra clearly states that the icchantika also possess Buddha-nature (tathgata-garbha in the Tibetan). Accordingly, excluding the icchantika is not meant as an exclusion from possession of the Buddha-nature but as an exclusion from the attainment of Buddhahood. This is referred to in the rst quote by the phrase, after eliminating the mark (rnam pa) of delement they will attain Buddhahood. To repeat, then, the Mahparinirva Sutras declaration that all sentient beings possess Buddha-nature is not the same as the Lotus Sutras standpoint that all sentient beings will attain Buddhahood. In addition, Takasaki has himself shown that Vasubandhus Commentary on the Lotus Sutra, although afrming the notion that all sentient beings possess Buddha-nature, also establishes the thesis of three separate vehicles and therefore also negates the notion that all sen168


tient beings will attain Buddhahood.14 Hence the initial optimistic understanding that the doctrine of tathgata-garbha or Buddha-nature entailed the possibility of the attainment of Buddhahood proves to be unfounded.15 If we add to this evidence from the Abhisamaylakara (discussed below), we may schematize our conclusion as follows:

Mahynastrlakra all sentient beings are the tathgata-garbha Mahparinirva Stra and Vasubandhus Commentary on the Lotus Sutra all sentient beings possess the Buddha-nature Abhisamaylakara the undifferentiated dharmadhtu

Lotus Sutra All sentient beings attain Buddhahood

It has been known for some time now that buddha-dhtu is the original Sanskrit for the term Buddha-nature as it appears in the Mahparinirva Sutra phrase, all sentient beings possess the Buddha-nature. In spite of this identication, Buddha-nature is still commonly taken to mean the possibility of the attainment of Buddhahood, the original nature of the Buddha, or the essence of the Buddha. I nd this incomprehensible. The etymology of dhtu makes it clear that its meaning is a place to put something, a foundation, locus. It has no sense of original nature or essence. As a further elucidation of the meaning of dhtu within tathgata-garbha thought, I would like to turn briey to my notion of dhtu-vda, which discloses the fundamental structure of tathgata-garbha. Dhtu-vda, or the theory of locus is, of course, no more than a tentative name I have chosen for an overall structure that is depicted in the chart on the following page.




tathgata-dharma = super-locus

S ()
dharmadhtu = ekayna

= locus L ()

As the diagrams shows, all things are positioned in terms of a locus (L) below and a superlocus (S) above. The dening characteristics of dhtuvda may thus be given as follows:
1. Locus is the basis for super-loci. 2. Locus gives rise to super-loci. 3. Locus is one, super-loci are many. 4. Locus is real, super-loci are not real. 5. Locus is the essential nature (atman) of super-loci. 6. Super-loci are not ultimately real, but have some reality in that they have arisen from the locus and share its nature.

Of this (1) is of course the most important point and determines the structure of dhtu-vda. In (2) we see how the production of S from L stems from the very nature of L as locus. As for (3) and (4), once L is taken to be a singular reality S must necessarily be seen as different in nature, hence plural and merely provisional. If this were not so, it would be meaningless to say that S arises from L. The essence (atman) in (5) may thus be thought of as A in the relationship known in Indian logical systems as avinbhva:
without A there will be no arising of B.

So, too, here, without L, S will not arise. Indeed, in two of the most important texts of the tathgata-garbha tradition, the rmldev Sutra and the Mahparinirva Sutra, L is actually declared to be atman. Finally, (6) provides the basic ideology for the establishment and absolutization of social discrimination and separation. The doctrine of the ve xed gotras, including the agotra (or icchantika forever shut off from the attainment of Buddhahood), the caste system, social classes from


kingship to slavery, and the like are all based on this structure. In this sense, the structure of dhtu-vda makes it possible to harmonize the seemingly contradictory notions of all sentient beings possess Buddhanature and the icchantika never attains Buddhahood. Furthermore, the plurality of S is essential to the structure of dhtu-vda and cannot be eliminated. In other words, the singular (equal) nature of L does not serve to eradicate the plurality (differences) of S, but rather acts as the basic support to maintain that plurality. Clearly dhtu-vda encompasses an ideology of social discrimination. To sum up, the basic structure of dhtu-vda is that of a singular, real locus (dhtu) that gives rise to a plurality of phenomena. We may also speak of it as a generative monism or a foundational realism. Elsewhere I have discussed the prototypical structure of this dhtu-vda, tracing its development from the Chapter on Herbs in the Lotus Sutra, through the Chapter on the Arising of the Nature in the Avatasaka Sutra, to its culmination in the rmldev Sutra, and then on to the Sutra of Neither Increase Nor Decrease.16 For a compact statement of the basic structure of dhtu-vda, however, we may turn to the following verses from the Mahyna-abhidharma Sutra and the Abhisamaylakra (I, 39), respectively:
andikliko dhtu sarvadharmasamraya | tasmin sati gati sarv nirvdhigamo pi ca || The beginningless dhtu (locus) is the equal support (araya, locus) of all phenomena (dharma). Because of that, there exist all forms of life as well as the attainment of nirvana. dharmadhtor asabhedd gotrabhedo na yujyate | dheyadharmabhedt tu tadbheda parigyate || Because the dharmadhtu (the dhtu/locus of all phenomena) is nondifferentiated, it is not reasonable that there are differences of gotra. Because, however, of the differences of the phenomena (dharma) located on [that locus], those differences [of gotra] are taught.

The locative absolute because of that (tasmin sati) in the passage from the Mahyana-abhidharma Sutra indicates that dhtu includes the meaning of cause (hetu) as well as locus. The verse from the Abhisamaylakra manifests the social discrimination common to the tathgata-garbha tradition in that it maintains the nondifferentiated nature of the dharma171


dhtu or locus while ultimately afrming the differences of actual phenomenon (dharma) and spiritual lineages (gotras) among people.


The structure of dhtu-vda, whose afrmation of identity and nondiscrimination ironically ends up afrming and absolutizing actual differences, can also be seen in the Japanese notion of original enlightenment, itself based on the tathgata-garbha tradition. Hakamaya Noriaki has discussed this in an article entitled, Thoughts on the Ideological Roots of Social Discrimination. He sees Dgens thought to entail a fundamental critique of the ideas of original enlightenment and tathgata-garbha, and proceeds to dramatize how, in the later history of the St sect, this fundamental position of Dgen was twisted and changed into teaching the very thing its originator had criticized. The same phenomena took place in India. The structure of dhtuvda discussed in the previous pages had itself been the target of kyamunis criticismthe Brahman-tman philosophy of the Upaniads. (The similarities of the tathgata-garbha tradition with the philosophy of the Upaniads have often been pointed out by Takasaki.17) It is not within the scope of this essay to lay out all the textual evidence in support of the claim that dhtu-vda was the object of kyamunis criticism. The important point here is that kyamunis doctrine of causality, prattyasamutpda, can only be understood when viewed as antithetical to the theory of a singular ground or cause of the manifold worldthat is, to the idea of dhtu-vda. Hence my claim that Buddhism or the Buddhist theory of prattyasamutpda takes aim at the notion of tathgata-garbha, in virtue of its critique of dhtu-vda. This is also the grounds for my thesis that tathgata-garbha thought is not Buddhist. We may summarize this position in three points:
1. Tathagata-garbha thought is a form of dhtu-vda. 2. Dhtu-vda was the object of kyamunis criticism. Buddhism (qua prattyasamutpda) must of necessity reject dhtu-vda. 3. Contemporary Japanese Buddhism can only be truly Buddhist insofar as it is unceasing in its negation of tathagata-garbha thought. 172


For non-Buddhists, none of this is an issue (and indeed for Hindus, the reemergence of dhtu-vda within the Buddhist tradition might be seen as a fortunate turn of events). But for me, as a Buddhist, there is rather more at stake. Should any of my readers have harbored the notion that the doctrine of tathgata-garbha belongs to the essence of Buddhism, or even simply that it represents one of the many streams of the broad Buddhist tradition, I can only plead with them to recognize it as an example of the very thing that kyamuni was criticizing and to return to true Buddhist teaching.
[Translated by Jamie Hubbard]