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Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Buddha Nature 

Buddha Nature: The Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra  by Arya Maitreya (Snow Lion) This text is regarded as a Buddhist classic.One of the Five Treatises of Maitreya, a commentary on the teachings of the third turning of the wheel of Dharma explaining buddha nature. It was first translated into Tibetan by Ngok Loden Sherab and the Kashmiri pandita Sajjana.  Since all sentient beings have Buddha nature, there is no reason for conceit nor for self-contempt. These misunderstandings are removable and do not touch the inherent purity and perfection of the mind, our buddha nature. This book presents in great detail and clarity the view which forms the basis of any Vajrayana or tantric practices.

Buddha nature — when the Buddha became enlightened he realized that all beings without exception have the same nature and potential for enlightenment, and this is known as buddha nature.

Mipam on Buddha-Nature: The Ground of the Nyingma Tradition by Douglas S. Duckworth (SUNY, State University of New York Press) Mipam ('u mi pham rgya mtsho, 1846-1912) is one of the most prolific thinkers in the history of Tibet and is a key figure in the Nyingma tradition of Buddhism. His works continue to be widely studied in the Tibetan cultural region and beyond. This book provides an in-depth account of Mipam's view, drawing on a wide range of his works and offering several new translations. Douglas S. Duckworth shows how a dialectic of presence and absence permeates Mipam's writings on the Middle Way and Buddha-nature.

Arguably the most important doctrine in Buddhism, Buddha-nature is, for Mipam, equivalent to the true meaning of emptiness; it is the ground of all and the common ground shared by sentient beings and Buddhas. This ground is the foundation of the path and inseparable from the goal of Buddhahood. Duckworth probes deeply into Mipam's writings on Buddha-nature to illuminate its central place in a dynamic Buddhist philosophy.

Duckworth has gathered Mipam's writings on Buddha-nature from a variety of sources to show the central role of Buddha-nature in his works. In doing so, he does not stray far from the texts and include many excerpted translations.

Excerpt: This book addresses the relationship between presence and absence (emptiness) in Buddhist thought. It focuses on the Nyingma (rnying ma) tradition of Tibet as articulated in the works of Mipam (ju mi pham rgya mtsho, 1846-1912), a great synthesizer of Buddhist doctrine and Nyingma philosophy. Mipam incorporates an extraordinarily wide range of discourses into his grand, systematic interpretation of Buddhist doctrine. I draw widely from his writings on the Middle Way (dbu ma, madhyamaka), epistemology (tshad ma, pramana), and tantra to discuss the significance of an ontological "ground" (gzhi), or Buddha-nature, as the central theme in his overall interpretative scheme. I present Mipam's view across a range of topics to underscore Buddha-nature and a dialectic of presence and absence as a central thread that runs through his interpretative system.

The presence of Buddha-nature as intrinsic within the ground of existence is a predominant feature of the discourses of tantra in the Nyingma tradition of Tibet, and in particular, the Great Perfection (rdzogs chen). The Great Perfection is a textual and meditative tradition that affirms the nature of mind as the Buddha, and offers a radically direct approach to actualizing this reality. The view of the Great Perfection consistently evades systematic analysis and in a fundamental way is antithetical to abstract conceptual determination. While Mipam did not write extensively on the Great Perfection as an isolated topic, he elucidates the view of the Great Perfection in his exoteric writings by creatively formulating the esoteric discourses that have defined the Nyingma tradition—namely, the Great Perfection—in terms of central exoteric discourses of monastic Buddhism: Buddha-nature, the Middle Way, and Buddhist epistemological systems. He skillfully incorporates esoteric discourses of Mantra (sngags) characteristic of his Nyingma predecessors into his commentaries on Indian sastras.

Buddhist epistemology, a system that delineates the authentic means of knowing reality, plays an important role in Mipam's exegesis across both domains of esoteric and exoteric doctrines. Mipam integrates aspects of the Buddhist epistemological tradition with a view of Mantra, and associates the view of the Great Perfection with Prasarigika-Madhyamaka. The Great Perfection is the Nyingma tradition's highest esoteric teaching and Prasarigika-Madhyamaka is the philosophy commonly accepted in Tibet as the highest exoteric view. By integrating the esoteric teachings of Nyingma tantra with Buddhist epistemology and Prasarigika-Madhyamaka, Mipam affirms the Nyingma as not only a tradition of tantric exegesis and ritual practice, but also as grounded within the rigorous intellectual traditions of Buddhist exoteric philosophy.

While discussing Mipam's treatment of Buddha-nature, or the ground, across a number of issues in his works, we will address in detail his representation of affirmation and negation. The English terms "affirmation" and "negation" refer to the realm of linguistic representation. To depict the issues at stake in a more meaningful way, I use the words "presence" and "absence," which have more of an ontological connotation—what is rather than simply its linguistic representation. Presence as such can be understood in two ways:

  1. as a reified presence—the realm of conceptual or linguistic knowledge.
  2. as an indeterminate presence the realm of the mystical or divine ground of being.

We will see how the former presence is rejected, and discuss implications of the latter presence in Mipam's interpretation of Buddhist doctrine. In particular, we will look into the tension, or resonance, between the problem intrinsic to formulating such presence conceptually (or linguistically) as well as its fundamental place within the Buddhist tradition. A central concern here is the nature of philosophical reasoning and intellectual inquiry into Buddhist scriptural traditions.


In the course of this book, we will see how a dialectic of presence and absence is a central theme in Mipam's works. The relationship between emptiness and divine presence involves a fundamental tension in Buddhist exegetical discourse. For Mipam, a key to the resolution of this tension is the unity of emptiness and divine presence. The ground, or Buddha-nature, is a focal point around which he articulates this unity.

The topic of Buddha-nature spans the domains of metaphysics, theology, and philosophical anthropology. An etymology of the term "Buddha-nature" (tathagatagarbha) reflects the variable status and complexity of the subject matter. The Sanskrit compound tatha + gata, meaning "the thus gone one" (i.e., Buddha), is the same spelling as the compound tatha + agata, meaning "the thus come one"; the term reveals the dual quality of a transcendent Buddha thus gone and an immanent Buddha thus come. Also, garbha can mean "embryo," "womb," and "essence." On the one hand, as an embryonic seed it denotes a latent potentiality to be developed and the subsequent consummation in the attainment of Buddhahood. As a womb, it connotes a comprehensive matrix or an all-embracing divine presence in the world to be discovered.

Academic scholars have described Buddha-nature in a number of ways. David Ruegg addresses a dual function of Buddha-nature in a dialectic between a soteriological point of view, in which the absolute is immanent in all beings, and a gnoseological point of view, in which it is altogether transcendent. We can see that Buddha-nature is at once transcendent, a future potential, and at the same time immanently present. As such, Buddha-nature functions as a mediating principle spanning both the absolute and phenomenal worlds.

Another term for the Buddha-nature is "heritage" (gotra). Ruegg cites three main meanings of the term gotra in Buddhist usage: (1) germ, seed; (2) family, clan, lineage; (3) mine, matrix. He also mentions that the term gotra is designated extensionally as a soteriological or gnoseological category, and intensionally as the spiritual factor or capacity that determines the classification into that category. The topic of Buddha-nature also is a basis for promoting "one vehicle" (ekayana) of the Buddha, an inclusivist system of the Mahayana that incorporates all Buddhist traditions. The role of Buddha-nature as the single heritage of all beings distinguishes the Buddha-nature from Vijnanavada (Mind-Only) traditions that accept five distinct heritages within three final vehicles (sravaka, pratyekabuddha, bodhisattva).

Another scholar, Florin Sutton, delineates three other roles of Buddha-nature: from a theoretical point of view, Buddha-nature is an extension of the Self/no-self debate, "providing the Yogacaras with a new, positive platform of defense against both the Hindu Eternalists and the Buddhist Nihilists"; from a didactic (or practical) point of view, it functions as an intermediate step between a narrowly defined notion of Self (atman) and a more thorough understanding of no-self (anatman); and from an ethical point of view, it provides a philosophical basis for altruism in the Mahayana. Sutton also explains Buddha-nature to function in three ways: (1) as an essence, an "underlying ontological Reality, or essential nature behind phenomena"; (2) as an "embryo" or "seed"—a dynamic, evolving potential; and (3) as a "matrix" or "womb," an "intermediate" meaning (between the first two meanings), equated with the universal ground consciousness (alayavijniana).

The discourse of Buddha-nature, as a pure essence abiding in temporarily obscured living beings, is a considerable diversion from the negative language found in many other Buddhist texts. The unchanging, permanent status attributed to Buddha-nature is a radical departure from the language emphasizing impermanence within the discourses of early Buddhism. Indeed, the language of Buddha-nature is strikingly similar to the very positions that Buddhists often argue against, demonstrating a decisive break from the early Buddhist triad of impermanence (anitya), suffering (duhkha), and selflessness (anatman). The Uttaratantra (ca. fourth century), the first known commentarial treatise to deal explicitly with this topic, states: "The qualities of purity (subha), self (atman), bliss (sukha), and permanence (nitya) are the transcendent results." Such affirmations are conspicuously absent in many other Buddhist texts. However, these terms are found in sutras such as the Lankavatara, Gandavyuha, Angulimaliya, Srimala, and the Mahaparinirvana, where they are used to describe the Buddha (tathagata), the Truth Body (dharmakaya), and the Buddha-nature.6 Furthermore, the Lankavatara uses the term "supreme Brahman" to describe the ultimate state of existence (nisthabhavah param brahma).

While the Perfection of Wisdom (prajnaparamita) Sams can be seen to function as an overturning of early Buddhist literature by depicting all phenomena as empty, Buddha-Nature Sutras mark another radical inversion with the use of atman in a positive light. This language has been said to have soteriological "shock value," to uproot reified conceptions of emptiness. Nathan Katz has fittingly termed this phenomenon of contradictory claims as "hermeneutical shock."  The tension between the discourses of presence, as in the Buddha-Nature Sutras, and emptiness, in the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras, is a rich source from which divergent interpretations grew, and one that has a long history in the developments of Buddhist discourse. In an important way, opposed opinions and sectarian debates on this issue create and maintain the dynamic vitality of Buddhist traditions.

A lively dialectical tension between Buddha-nature and emptiness has continued in Tibet in terms of the competing doctrines of "other-emptiness" (gzhan stong) and "self-emptiness" (rang stong). The language of other-emptiness—which portrays the ultimate truth in affirming language—explicitly conflicts with the orthodox Geluk (dge lugs) formulation of the ultimate as a mere absence of inherent existence. A central issue concerning the status of other-emptiness is a recurring tension between presence and absence, which in Buddhist terms gets expressed in various ways such as appearance and emptiness, conventional and ultimate truth, Buddha-nature and emptiness, and other-emptiness and self-emptiness. This issue can be seen to have a history extending back to India in the competing depictions of the absolute as qualified (saguna) or unqualified (nirguna). A major tension in Tibetan thought is found between the positions that the ultimate truth must be a simple emptiness—a negation—in contrast to the positively framed depictions of ultimate reality as a divine presence existing at the ground of all. Across this spectrum we find a wide array of positions.

The most famous proponents of other-emptiness are found within the Jonang (jo nang) tradition, and Dölpopa (dol po pa shes rab rgyal mtshan, 1292-1361) in particular. A view of other-emptiness in general involves affirming an ultimate ground of reality as a metaphysical presence that is empty of all phenomena that are extrinsic to it. We will discuss Dölpopa's view of other-emptiness in chapter 3, as well as look into the views of a Jonang scholar of the last century, Khenpo Lodrö Drakpa (mkhan po blo gros grags pa, 1920-1975).

Tsongkhapa (tsong kha pa blo bzang grags pa, 1357-1419) and his Geluk followers were major critics of the Jonang, the emblematic tradition of other-emptiness. In contrast to the Jonang depiction of other-emptiness as a metaphysical presence, Tsongkhapa consistently argued that the ultimate truth is necessarily a mere absence. He offered a clear delineation of what ultimate truth is: the lack of inherent existence. We will see how other traditions portray the ultimate truth in more affirming language, and offer a less delimited portrayal of ultimate reality than the one championed by the Geluk tradition following Tsongkhapa.

In order to fully appreciate the dialectical tension between presence and absence in Tibetan thought, we need to recognize the central role that the works of Dharmakirti (600-660) and Candrakirti (600-650) have played in Tibet. Representations of exoteric Buddhist discourse in Tibet have been dominated by the commentaries of Dharmakirti and Candrakirti. It is important to not only recognize this fact, but also to acknowledge its implications for how Buddhism is interpreted.

In Tibet, the negative dialectics of the Middle Way are typically identified with Candrakirti's interpretation of Nagarjuna, and systematic epistemology is associated with Dharmakirti. These two figures are also held to be authoritative commentators on a univocal doctrine of Buddhism. Even though Candrakirti explicitly criticized Buddhist epistemological systems in his Prasannapadd, Buddhists in Tibet have integrated the theories of Candrakirti with Dharmakirti's epistemology in unique ways.14 Within this integration, there is a tension between the epistemological system-building on the one hand, and "deconstructive" negative dialectics on the other. The integration of an epistemological system within the Middle Way is an important part of Mipam's philosophical edifice. He calls the integration of these two systems "the intertwined necks of the lions of the Middle Way and valid cognitio n ."

Along with Candrakirti and Dharmakirti, an important Indian figure for Mipam in particular is Santaraksita (ca. eighth century), who synthesized components of epistemology with the Middle Way in a system of Yogacara-Madhyamaka. Mipam explains that Santaraksita's Madhyamakalamkara is a treatise that demonstrates the essential point of all Mahayana, Sutra and Mantra. He states:

Such a scripture as this is the universal path of the Mahayana, integrating the viewpoints of the scriptures of the two chariot traditions like water mixed with water. In particular, both (1) ultimate valid cognition in the way that Nagarjuna asserts and (2) conventional valid cognition in the way that Dharmakirti asserts are combined as one taste in the great ocean of reason.

Santaraksita's system of Yogacara-Madhyamaka is important for Mipam in significant ways: not only does Yogacara play a fundamental role in his systematic presentation of exoteric Buddhism, but it plays an important role in the narrative structure of the entire Buddhist path by putting forward wisdom as the ground and fruition of the Buddhist path. Moreover, the synthetic approach of Yogacara is instrumental to the way that Mipam incorporates various systems of Buddhist thought in Tibet.

However, it is the reconciliation of Buddha-nature—particularly the affirmations of presence in tantra and the Uttaratantra—with depictions of emptiness in Candrakirti's Madhyamakavatara that is a central part of Mipam's exegesis. Mipam weaves together aspects of Dharmakirti, Candrakirti, and the Uttaratantra into his unique exegesis of Buddhist doctrine.

A number of scholarly works on Mipam have surfaced in the past decade. One example is Karma Phuntsho's recently published Mipham's Dialectics and the Debates on Emptiness. He discusses Mipam's works in light of polemical exchanges with Geluk scholars, and his work is an excellent source for Mipam's treatment of emptiness. Also, John Pettit's Mipham's Beacon of Certainty, which is focused around a translation of one of Mipam's texts with an annotated commentary, offers biographical information and provides a general background to central issues in Mipam's writings.

Another book-length study of Mipam was done by Paul Williams, whose work deals with the notion of "reflexive awareness" (rang rig) in Mipam's commentary on the ninth chapter of the Bodhicaryavatára. In his book, Williams makes a case that Mipam can be understood as a proponent of "other-emptiness." Matthew Kapstein, however, questions the usefulness of the indigenous labels of "self-emptiness" and "other-emptiness" in interpreting Buddhist thought, and cites a danger in overly generalizing these categories. As an alternative, he suggests that it is important to document the precise usages of such terms as they are employed by indigenous traditions.2° In chapter 3, I have tried to document some ways in which "other-emptiness" and "self-emptiness" have been used by the specific Jonang and Nyingma authors I address, in order to further the understanding of how emptiness is represented in these traditions in general, and Mipam's position in particular.

There has been little written directly concerning the topic of Buddha-nature in the Nyingma tradition, particularly in Mipam's works. I intend to clarify the central role of Buddha-nature in his works through a broad-based representation of Mipam's view of Buddha-nature that takes into account his treatment of epistemology, negative dialectics, and tantra. By drawing upon a wide range of discourses that he treats, my aim is to provide a holistically-oriented account of Mipam's view of Buddha-nature.

In his Khenjuk, Mipam Rinpoche writes:

The 'naturally present potential' (Skt. praktistha-gotra; Wyl. rang bzhin gnas rigs) is the essence of the tathagatas. In essence, it is naturally arising and uncompounded wisdom, the union of awareness and emptiness, the dharmadhatu which has always been inseparable from the kayas and wisdoms. It is naturally pure, the nature of things, just as it is, pervading all phenomena, beyond any transition or change, like space. Although it is within this context that the ordinary aggregates, elements and faculties of beings are born and die, this nature itself remains beyond birth and death. It is through the realization of this nature that the Three Jewels come into being. This immaculate 'element' (Wyl. khams) is present in all beings without exception as the very nature of their minds, just like the example of a treasure beneath the earth and so on. Nevertheless, for those in whom this nature remains veiled by the four stains, and who have not activated their potential, despite its presence, it does not function in an apparent way [rather like a candle kept inside a jar]. And although they are naturally pure, because they are obscured by temporary veils, this nature is beyond most people's imagination. If the veils that obscure the potential are reduced, it serves to inspire us with a longing to leave samsara behind and attain nirvana.
The four veils that obscure our potential are (1) an antipathy to the Mahayana teachings, (2) the view of self, (3) fear for the sufferings of samsara, and (4) a lack of concern for beings' welfare.
The causes for purifying these veils are: (1) an interest in the Mahayana teachings, (2) a high degree of wisdom, (3) meditative concentration (samadhi), and (4) love.
When we possess these four, through the force of awakening our potential, we come to possess the 'developing potential' (Skt. samudānīta-gotra; Wyl. rgyas 'gyur gyi rigs) through which we can properly cultivate the virtues of the Mahayana.



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