Dharma - Merit - Meditation - Nectar - Liberation - Emptiness - Process - Awakening


in Buddhadharma

On the Mahâyâna

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"May I be a wishing jewel, a magic vase,
Powerful mantras and great medicine,
May I become a wish-fulfilling tree
And a cow of plenty for the world."

Śântideva : A Guide to the Bodhisattva's Way of Life, 3:20

The Rise of the Mahâyâna
The Bodhisattva Ideal & the Five Paths
The Mahâyâna Schools
The Rise of Mahâyâna Tantrism
A Criticism of the Mahâyâna

The "Mahâyâna" ("Great Vehicle") arose either side of the beginning of the common era and opened the path to enlightenment to all beings. Together with the "Hînayâna" or "Lesser Vehicle", it is rooted in different aspects of the historical teachings of Buddha Śâkyamuni. While the Individual Vehicle practitioner seeks his or her own liberation, the Mahayanist wishes to attain enlightenment for the sake of the welfare or benefit of all sentient, suffering beings. This intent is embodied in the ideal of the Bodhisattva, who's outstanding Bodhicitta-quality is indeed compassion ("karunâ").

The Mahâyâna spread from India to Tibet, China, Korea and Japan, giving rise to various schools. In India arose the Mâdhyamaka School (Nâgârjuna) & the Yogâcâra (Asanga). Hindu Tantra stimulated Buddhist Tantra to develop, and an esoteric, magic-oriented form appeared as Vajrayâna (primarily flourishing in Tibetan Buddhism). In China, we find the Ch'an, Hua-yen, T'ien-t'ai & the Pure Land schools, developed in Japan as Zen, Kegon, Tendai and Amidism.

 The Rise of the Mahâyâna

The Mahâyâna developed from the Mahâsanghikas and Sarvâstivadins, two Hînayâna schools initiated in the 3th century BCE. The first school taught the transcendent nature of the Buddha, the Bodhisattva ideal & the notion of emptiness, whereas the seed of the "trikâya" or Buddha-bodies is present in the doctrine of the latter.

In a general sense, the Mahâyâna is less monastic than the Hînayâna. Helped by Bodhisattvas & Buddhas, lay followers can also attain "nirvâna". Hence, "nirvâna" is more than just liberation from "samsâra" (as was the case in the Hînayâna) or Arhathood. Realizing one's nature of mind also means to be inseparable from Buddhahood. Indeed, the historical Buddha fades to the background (being the Buddha of the present historical age), while the Buddha-nature, immanent in each & every sentient being, becomes central. The aim of the Great Vehicle is for all sentient beings to directly discover this nature.

Although the Mahâyâna made its appearance at the turn of the millennium, the term became current only much later. In the first "new" scriptures of the movement, the term "Mahâyâna" is not found, neither is the Bodhisattva ideal. The earliest Mahâyânists seem primarily concerned with the role of the Abidharma schools, the status of the Buddha & the relevance of lay versus monastic status to spiritual realization.

From the first century CE to the middle of the first millennium CE, a vast variety of Mahâyâna literature focuses on the ideal of the Bodhisattva, cultivating "Bodhicitta". Many defined themselves as "vaipulya" or "expanded", implying acceptance and knowledge of the teaching of the mainstream Hînayâna scriptures, but adding a more comprehensive perspective on the Dharma, particularly regarding compassion & wisdom.

Dating between 100 & 500 CE (for the non-tantric texts) or 1000 CE (tantric texts included), about 600 Mahâyâna sûtras are extant, either in Sanskrit, Tibetan or Chinese. In a general sense, the non-tantric teachings constitute the "Great Perfection Vehicle", named after the "Prajñâpâramitâ Sûtras" or "Perfection of Wisdom Sutras", a body of texts dealing with wisdom as taught by the Mahâyâna (but not by all Mahâyâna Bodhisattvas). In fact, all available non-tantric texts belong to this category. These texts describe the path of the Sutric Bodhisattva, perfecting the Six Perfections, accumulating vast merit (compassion) and profound wisdom (emptiness) sequentially and attaining Buddhahood very slowly.

The Mahâyana is not an institutional segregation, for there never was a Mahâyana Vinaya. Mahâyânists are ordained within the "nikâyas" of non-Mahâyâna schools ! Becoming a Mahâyânist is then like expanding the Lower Vehicle. The "sûtra" part of the Bodhisattva training (the Great Perfection Vehicle) does not contradict the teachings of the Lower Vehicle, but "expands" them.

 The Bodhisattva Ideal & the Five Paths

The Bodhisattva or "bodhi-being", is one committed to or intent upon "Bodhi", "enlightenment" or "awakening". In the Hînayâna, the only religious goal was the state of the Arhat, or membership of the Ârya-Sangha. Later, one began to introduce the "Pratyekabuddha", one who entered "nirvâna" on his own and for himself alone. But this Buddha did not teach. Finally, the Mahâyâna ideal received form. Someone pursuing the goal of perfect (full) enlightenment or awakening for the benefit for all sentient beings is a "Bodhisattva Mahâsattva". "Bodhisattva" refers to their personal aspiration to Buddhahood and "great being", to their wish to help all possible sentient beings. Technically however, a Mahâsattva Bodhisattva is one who reached a level beyond the seventh ground ("bhûmi") or stage of the Bodhisattva training.

Although the Great Vehicle focused on compassion, finding the Hînayâna goal lacking in this, the life of the historical Buddha was full of compassion. Hence, this emphasis is a reassertion of what is inherent in his teaching, probably imperfectly understood since the earliest times.

At the core of the Bodhisattva ideal is the generation of "Bodhicitta", the mind, consciousness or will towards enlightenment for the sake of all sentient beings. It is a force or urge entirely outside the five "skandhas" and thus supramundane. Various methods were developed to generate it, but the most powerful one is the cultivation of compassion.

In order to help sentient beings to the full of his or her capacity, the Bodhisattva wishes to attain enlightenment as soon as possible. Without Buddhahood, no omniscience and so no best possible help is possible ! The popular idea, prevalent in the West, that the Bodhisattva vows to postpone his own enlightenment until all sentient beings attain theirs, is a misrepresentation based on two admirable but unrealistic devotional forms of the Bodhisattva intent (called the shepherd-like & boatman-like "Bodhicitta"). In fact, actual "Bodhicitta" is "king-like". The Bodhisattva first becomes enlightened and then uses his or her resources to help others. The Bodhisattva vows to generate the "mind of enlightenment for all" and to complete the Ten Stages of the Bodhisattva training. As a Buddha, he or she remains in this world until all sentient beings have entered "nirvâna" ...

The path of the Bodhisattva is long and difficult, said to demand many lifetimes to finish. This is pursued by practicing the "pâramitâs" or Six Perfections : (1) generosity ("dâna"), (2) ethics ("śîla"), (3) joyous effort ("vîrya"), (4) patience ("ksânti"), (5) meditation ("samâdhi") and (6) wisdom ("prajñâ") and training in the Ten Stages of the Bodhisattva. To correlate the Six Perfections with these Ten Stages ("bhûmis"), four perfections are added : (7) skillful means ("upâya"), (8) vow to achieve Buddhahood ("pranidhâna"), (9) power ("bala") and (10) knowledge ("jñâna").

The first five perfections are sealed by wisdom. The Bodhisattva realizes the ultimate reality (and conventional illusion) of the beings saved. This is "mahâkarunâ" or "Great Compassion". The Six Perfections also explain the two "accumulations" ("bodhi-sambhâra" or "equipments for Bodhi") : the accumulation of merit ("punya-sambhâra"), being the generation of the first five perfections, while the accumulation of wisdom ("jñâna-sambhâra") is achieved through the perfection of wisdom, the sixth perfection.

Later, Kamalaśila (ca. 700 - 750 CE), integrated the "pâramitâs" & "bhûmis" in five "paths". These form the basis for the understanding of the Path of the Bodhisattva in Tibetan schools like the Gelugpas :

  • Path of Accumulation : entered upon the arising of the mind of enlightenment for all sentient beings, the practice of the perfections cause the two baskets (of merit & wisdom) to be filled and self-cherishing to end ;

  • Path of Preparation : a deep conceptual insight (on the basis of special insight realized at the end of the previous path) into emptiness, the fundamental nature of all phenomena, is realized. Once achieved, this full conceptual understanding is irreversible & acquired self-grasped abolished ;

  • Path of Seeing : after this full understanding, a direct experience of emptiness is at hand. Then the Bodhisattva, now a Superior, enters the first "bhûmi" & the Ârya-Sangha ;

  • Path of Meditation : here, thanks to meditation, this direct experience is developed and stabilized by going though the remaining nine stages to eliminate innate self-grasping. The experience of emptiness of the Hînayâna Arhat is identified with the Sixth Stage. The Great (Mahâsattva) Bodhisattvas abide beyond the Seventh Stage ;

  • Path of No More Learning : the simultaneous experience of conventional & ultimate truth, of "samsâra" & "nirvâna", of compassion & wisdom leading to the state of Buddhahood.

Because, in the higher stages of the path, Great Bodhisattvas have developed all possible mundane & psychic abilities to help others, their resulting accomplishments are progressively less different from those of a fully awakened Buddha. Hence, they may be worshipped to the same degree as a Buddha. Since they have been practicing for countless lifetimes and have been reborn in more refined realms of "samsâra" numerous times, these Bodhisattvas are no longer common humans.

Moreover, to help sentient beings, fully awakened Buddhas are able to manifest numerous Form Bodies, appearing to devotees as so-called meditational or "Dhyâni" Bodhisattvas (examples are Avalokiteśvara, Mañjuśrî, Maitreya, etc.). These Great Bodhisattvas are invoked by way of a formal set of instructions called a "sâdhana". Such a meditational Bodhisattva used as an object of meditation is called a "Deity" (cf. Deity Yoga), but clearly this concept radically differs from the notion of Deities in other religions (like in Animism, Brahmanism, Ancient Egyptian religion, Greco-Roman cult, the Nordic gods and Abrahamic monotheism), for Buddhist Deities have no existence from their own side (are empty of substance and merely process-like, and so bridges between the physical world and the supramundane). The practice of Buddhist Deities became increasingly important, especially in the Vajrayâna.

 The Mahâyâna Schools : Mâdhyamaka - Yogâcâra - Tathâgatagarbha

The Mâdhyamaka School drew out the implications of the Prajñâpâramitâ Sûtras, whilst the Yogâcâra School systematized teachings found in the more "idealist" sûtras. Both are a doctrinal development going back to the Abidharma, and had many exponents in Indo-Tibetan and Far Eastern Buddhism, dominating all later developments of the Mahâyâna doctrine. The earliest Tathâgatagarbha Sûtras (Tathâgatagarbha Sûtra & Śrîmâlâdevî-simhanâda Sûtra) date from the 3rd century CE, although it has been argued the latter text is derived from a Mahâsanghika source.

  The Mâdhyamika

The pivotal concept systematized by Protector Nâgârjuna (2nd century CE), the founder of the Mâdhyamaka School, was "dharma-śûnyatâ", the emptiness of the "dharmas", or all things in existence expounded by the Abhidharma.

In Tibetan exegesis, the Sutric Middle Way School is divided in Mâdhyamaka-Svâtantrikas ("marks of right logic") & Mâdhyamaka-Prâsangika ("undesirable consequences"). The former are "autonomists" asserting the inherent existence of conventional reality and the presence of "autonomous" syllogisms and conclusions. The latter are "consequentialist", positing no axioms & generating an untenable inference or consequence on the basis of an opponent's arguments, in this case someone asserting inherent existence. It is this variant which is considered as definitive, for all phenomena, from subatomic particles to Buddhas are self-empty, i.e. devoid of substantial characteristics from their own side.

Various variations on the theme of Sutric Mâdhyamaka exist. Let us distinguish between base, path & fruit to summarize what they all share. The base, ground or view is the union of the Two Truths, the path is the union of the two accumulations (of merit & wisdom), and the result or fruit is the union of the two "kâyas", the Form Bodies & the Truth Body.

By not denying the appearance of conventional reality, nihilism is avoided. As ultimate truth is free of all fabricated extremes, eternalism is avoided. This is the Ground Mâdhyamaka. By not holding on to any phenomena, eternalism is avoided. By accumulating positive deeds for the benefit of others, nihilism is avoided. This is the Path Mâdhyamaka. By realizing the "Dharmakâya", ultimate truth, the pacification of all conceptualization, freedom of eternalism is established. Because the activities of the Form Bodies is endless and touches all beings, nihilism is avoided. This is the Fruit Mâdhyamaka.

Sûtra Mâdhyamaka aims at the Two Truths. Tantra Mâdhyamaka at the nondual wisdom viewed as the union of clarity-emptiness or bliss-emptiness.

In what follows, I shall focus on the Prâsangika, the highest view insofar as classical logic goes.

All things without any exception, are "śûnya" or "empty" of "svabhâva" or inherent (substantial) existence. This is the heart of the Middle Way approach of the Consequentialists.

Indeed, for Nâgârjuna there is no independent "dharma" whatsoever. Nothing has "svabhâva", i.e. a lasting, permanent existence disconnected from external conditions (a substance distinct from its accidents). He pointed to this by an extensive use of the logic of the reductio ad absurdum, deriving a formal contradiction from a premise, showing how untenable the consequences are when such an independent, substantial existence would be accepted. This has been identified with nihilism, the tenet nothing exists, but this is not the case. Conventional entities "merely" exist in terms of logic and function, they are process-like but not substance-like. If nihilism would pertain, entities could not function and would never be processes. In that case, they would simply not exist at all. Even appearances would be negated, and this is not the case.

As a method, consequentialism was in tune with the Middle Way wisdom, for no positive statement about the ultimate nature of phenomena is possible and so no axiomatic base can be established to infer necessary statements about "śûnyatâ". Hence, only the refutation of positive, affirming proposition remains. His work is an indirect attack and non-exhaustive refutation of the substantialist premise : inherently independent things exist. If the latter would be the case, then independent things must be found. However, all those proposed do not pass ultimate analysis. So in truth, they have never been found. They only seem independent, but after ultimate analysis are found to be dependent. This method does not deduce anything positive about emptiness, but refutes all statements positing substantial existence.

As said, some Buddhist and non-Buddhist scholars alike defined Nâgârjuna as a nihilist, claiming he taught there is no reality whatsoever. This is wrong thinking. The substantialist premise can be so deeply entrenched, that absence of substance is identified with absence of reality ! However, the fact substance is absent, does not preclude something exists ! The path of the Middle Way School lies between eternalism (there are independent substances) and nihilism (there is no reality). It moves away from eternalism by viewing all phenomena ("nirvâna" included) as lacking permanent, unchanging substance, but also rejects nihilism by acknowledging all conventional phenomena are dependent-arisings, i.e. process-like appearences with logical & functional validity. Saying emptiness is not a substance is not the same as claiming emptiness is nothing. Likewise, saying conventional objects are not substantial does not mean they do not exist at all, i.e. cannot be identified to perform certain functions.

The relative truth of the conventional world of samsaric dependent-arisings is affirmed, although none of these functional happenings or regularities have any permanent, unchanging, independent, substantial existence from their own side, i.e. inherently. Nâgârjuna makes clear how substantialists (those who affirm "svabhâva", claiming at least one irreducible & independent existent) must agree substance should resist logical analysis, and so be able to argue the proposed irreducible & independent substance. However, as every object has component parts (spatial and/or temporal), and these parts can be shown to be dependent upon each other, it follows nothing is independent. Many other lines of argumentation lead to the same conclusion. These are all part of numerous insight meditations, or meditations on emptiness.

"Whatever is dependently co-arisen
That is explained to be emptiness.
That, being a dependent designation,
Is itself the Middle Way.

Something that is not dependently arisen,
Such a thing does not exist.
Therefore a nonempty thing
Does not exist."

Nâgârjuna : Mûlamadhyamakakârikâ, 24:18-19.

To affirm emptiness is to affirm the process-like nature of phenomena. But to conceptualize "emptiness" is not to grasp at some new "substance". As a mere abstraction or epistemological ultimate, "śûnyatâ" is the limit-idea of what is ultimately true & knowable in every cogitation. It has no ontological status of its own. Lack of inherent existence can be grasped as the property of every single instance, phenomenon, event or thing. So emptiness is not the "substance" of everything, not some fundamental self-sufficient ground, not an ultimate, unchanging existence. Emptiness is empty, i.e. emptiness itself lacks inherent, substantial existence, does not exist independently from its own side. This is the thesis of the emptiness of emptiness. Emptiness has no own-self, is self-empty.

Traditionally, the Middle Way teaches by way of classical, first-order logic, but these arguments should never be taken outside the context of Buddhist emptiness-meditation.

They are part of Insight Meditation, a special analytical meditation having "śûnyatâ" as object. Taking many months or even years, the practitioner moves through all the various levels of understanding emptiness, repeating the forms of previous meditators and those produced by his or her own mind. At some point, a meditative experience of emptiness happens. The generic image or concept constructed by conceptual thought is called "understanding" precisely because it is blind of such direct experience. It merely is a contrived approximation or categorized ultimate of the direct (uncontrived) experience of emptiness (the non-categorized ultimate).

As wood-worms eat their own wood, meditative experience of emptiness undermines ignorance and so allows, by eliminating the obscurations overlaying it, the fundamental luminosity or natural light of the mind to shine. But these poetical ideas are not Middle Way logic. In terms of this logic, we cannot say anything affirmative about emptiness, while claiming the empty nature of mind is "luminous" is such a positive designation. This points to the fundamental difference between a cognitive, intellectual understanding of emptiness and its direct, experiential discovery. The latter remains an ineffable mystical experience. To clear reified concepts, Mâdhyamaka logic is perfect. To get at direct experience, Yoga is indispensable ...

In Yogâcâra Mâdhyamaka (a Middle Way strongly influenced by the Mind-Only School - cf. infra), consciousness lacking apprehended-object & apprehended-subject is affirmed. In Tantric Mâdhyamaka, clarity-emptiness is affirmed.  In Shentong or other-emptiness, the primordial Buddha-qualities are affirmed. In Dzogchen, the inseparability of clarity & the empty primordial base is affirmed. In the strict non-affirmative logic of the Prâsangika, these affirmations cannot be made, they are merely poetry. But logic is only used to clear away reification, not to describe actual experiential content.

  The Yogâcâra

The Yogâcârin School is "the practice of yoga school" or "Mind-Only School". The earliest text associated with this yogic approach is the Samdhinirmocana Sûtra (ca. 2nd century) and the most quoted is the Lankâvatâra Sûtra (4th century). The mythical founder of the school, the famous Asanga (ca. 310 - 390), wrote a series of important texts : the Abhisamayâ-lamkâra, the Madhyântavibhâga, Yogâcârabhûmi and the Mahâyânasûtrâlamkâra. Vasubandhu (ca. 320 - 400) is another great scholar associated with this school. Although belonging to the Great Vehicle, Early Yogâcâra is still very influenced by the Lesser Vehicle, in particular the Abhidharma categorizations.

For the Yogâcârin School, the Mâdhyamikas over-emphasized the non-existence of the "dharmas" and are nihilistic, denying the real existence of anything. In fact they had emphasized it just enough. For Mâdhymaka, the Yogâcârins merely misunderstood their emptiness doctrine and by reintroducing "svabhâva" reinvented eternalism. Also this latter claim can be refuted.

At the heart of emptiness is dependent-arising and the core of the latter is absence of inherent existence or emptiness (as defined by a non-affirmative, decisive, un-saying negation). But the absence of substance is not the absence of some thing, namely universal interconnectedness between all the operators of cyclic existence. In matters pertaining to Buddhahood, the yogis found this role of conventional truth questionable. The ultimate should only be approached by the ultimate and the Two Truths, in absolute terms, are One Truth. Tsongkhapa denies this and posits the simultaneity of these two properties of all phenomena, their ultimate & conventional nature, in the enlightened mind of a Buddha.

This debate has been at the heart of Buddhist philosophy and is still being conducted today. Although it has great pedagogic merit in introducing experiential content, most scholars agree with the Consequentialists, for their logic ad absurdum is implacable. In the Ri-mé view, both logic & experience are important and have their use. Logic & philosophy serve the end of reification, bring the calm mind under vast unity and point to the ultimate as the direct experienced of this immediate awareness of and therefore presence in the hic et nunc.

Because of the conviction of the Yogâcârins the Middle Way was not properly expounded by Nâgârjuna, they found it necessary to articulate the true, final and ultimate ("paramârtha") teaching of the Buddha. The principal doctrine of this school is the "Mind-Only" ("cittamâtra"), a philosophical reflection upon direct meditational experience (or yogic validators).

The totality of our experience is dependent upon mind. Nothing cognized can be radically different from mind, for otherwise subjects & objects would not be cognitively accessible to each other. The nugget of gold in this view is the phenomenology of direct experience and a first person perspective. Indeed, in each moment of consciousness, objects are apprehended (attended, identified, grasped) appearances, and without sentience (with its sensate, volitional, affective & mental underpinnings), no object would be identified. Hence, the subject is an object-possessor. This phenomenology of the momentary of consciousness resulted from millennia of yogic experience and would not be given up lightly, especially not for some fancy negative philosophy. To clear reifications, substantialisation & essentializations, the non-affirmative approach is fine, but to share the fruit of direct experience, more is needed to cover the semantics of ultimate truth and its nondual prehension.

The Mind-Only School introduced a more positive & idealist description of ultimate reality (or how things truly are) and held there is something which exists from its own side, substantially & inherently ! This thing which has "svabhâva" is the absolute (Buddha) mind itself and only such a mind is free of ignorance. So not the appearing objects are important, but the witnessing (attending, attributing) mind is central. Hence, the Two Truths (the truth of coventional suffering and the truth of ultimate reality) are, to such an absolute mind, One Truth, namely the ultimate truth of all possible phenomena. The mind is "śûnya", empty, because it is free from duality, empty of any conception of subject & object. And precisely this provides a new definition of emptiness ! In the Mâdhyamaka School, emptiness is only lack of "svabhâva", while to the Yogâcârins, it is absence or lack of duality between perceiving subject and perceived object. Of course the Mâdhyamaka disagree there is only One Truth. The mind of a Buddha apprehends all conventionalities while prehending the emptiness of all phenomena (simultaneously). Quite another position.

In the light of these ideas about the real, substantial existence of mind, the Yogâcârins elaborate upon the concept "svabhâva", inherent existence, substance, essence, articulating the doctrine of the "three own beings" ("trisvabhâva") or "three natures". Everything knowable about all possible things can be classified under these natures, or, in other words, all phenomena are characterized by these three : (1) other-powered natures (dependent), (2) imputed natures (imagined) and (3) thoroughly established natures (perfected).

Vasubandhu offered an interesting analogy to explain them. Suppose there is a magician who takes a piece of wood and by way of miracle powers makes it to appear as an elephant. In that case, the way things really are or the "dependent nature" ("paratantra-svabhâva") is the piece of wood. It is impermanent and other-powered, i.e. dependent on conditions outside it. The "imagined nature" ("parikalpita-svabhâva") is the elephant, a misconception of what is really there, the reality of the delusion caused by ignorance, the imputation based on false ideation, in particular reification, attributing self-settled own-power to sensate or mental objects. Finally, the "perfected nature" ("parinispanna-svabhâva"), is the true perception seeing there is no elephant in the piece of wood.

The world of everyday experience is the "imagined nature" in which we, as "real" subjects, grasp at "real" objects (the elephant). These phenomena depend upon the flow of mutually conditioning "dharmas" of the process of dependent arising ("pratîtya-samutpâda"). The "dependent nature" is closer to an understanding of the way things are (the wood). This is valid knowledge about the world, the "system" behind the arising, abiding & ceasing of the dependent nature. This is the "dharma" (or law) of the samsaric scene of cyclic existence.

Only by realizing the "perfected nature" can the pure, unchanging and ultimate reality underlying the impermanent "dependent" nature be experienced. The latter is an ontological absolute (like the absence of an elephant in the piece of wood).

The Yogâcârins applied these three natures to the Buddha Jewel. A Buddha has three bodies ("trikâya") :

  • Dharmakâya or "Body of Truth" : linked with the perfected nature, it is also called "svabhâvikâya", or "body of own being", the pure, nondual flow of consciousness experienced by a Buddha. This supreme mind is ultimately real, substantial and exists inherently. This is the only self-sufficient & self-settled absolute substance in existence ;

  • Sambhogakâya or "Body of Complete Enjoyment" : linked with the imagined nature, it is only relatively true or real, and participates in the world of duality. Nevertheless, an excellent & perfect subtle (illusionary) body, it has the 112 marks of a superman ("mahâpurusa") ;

  • Nirmânakâya or "Body of Manifestation" : linked with the dependent nature it is the physical body of a Buddha, a magical creation of the Enjoyment Body. It too is only imagined, an illusionary form to teach Dharma.

In the Yogâcârin practice, the soteriological process is ignited by "turning about in the basis" ("aśraya-parâvritti"), the path of purification eliminating false ideation, ending the imputation of inherent properties to dependent natures. This is Middle Way throughout, negating all inherent properties of all dependent natures. This "basis" turned about is the deepest level of consciousness, so-called "storehouse" or "receptacle" consciousness ("âlaya-vijñâna"). In its pure, undefiled state, it is the same as the perfected nature. Defiled by the seeds ("bîja") sown by previous moments of consciousness, perfuming future moments, the impure storehouse is the means by which "karma" operates. But when this storehouse consciousness ("âlaya-vijñâna") is purified from false ideation ("vijñapti"), it is the undefiled wisdom ("âlaya-prajñâ" or "âlaya-jñâna") of the perfected Buddha-nature.

Because, in the Middle School interpretation, the yogis posit an inherently existing, absolute Bodhi-mind knowing the reality of dependent natures devoid of the results of false ideation, i.e. without substantialist superimpositions, the Yogâcâra School is deemed a form of idealist eternalism (whether this is indeed the case will be the studied elsewhere). There is one single absolute substance : the mind of a Buddha. This view led, for the best of crippling reasons, to fierce criticism by the Mâdhyamikas. The conflict points to the tension between formal logical, conceptual thought and direct yogic perceivers, between waking state discursivity and the direct experience of the nature of mind during meditation. When emptiness is "seen", its direct experience is no longer accommodated by a generic image generated by conceptual thought. It is no longer categorized, named or conceptualized, but witnessed in every moment. In fact, the direct discovery of the nature of mind is beyond words (ineffable) and every attempt to fixate it in concepts will, as Mâdhyamaka logic demonstrates, fail, for inherent existence can apparently not be logically found. Either one rejects logic altogether (and given the limited structure of classical logic this is a valid strategy), thereby targetting duality per se, or one accepts the highest state is cognitive and targets inherent existence, accepting the dual-unity of the Two Truths. This discussion, as Tsongkhapa showed, is poignant and will be analysed in more detail elsewhere.

  The Tathâgatagarbha

The Tathâgatagarbha (or "Buddha-nature") was not a school like the Mâdhyamaka or the Yogâcâra and, probably because of its similarity with certain Hindu teachings, never had the same intellectual impact. It is nevertheless a crucial soteriological teaching, for it extends Buddhahood to all sentient beings, affirming all sentient beings possess the unalienable potential of enlightenment.

The etymologyof the term "Buddha-nature" reflects the complexity at hand. On the one hand, "tathâ + gata" means "the thus gone one", whereas, on the other hand, "tathâ + âgata" means "the thus come one". Moreover, "garbha" can mean "embryo", "seed" or "essence", denoting a latent potentiality to be developed, but also "womb" or "matrix", connoting the all-embracing presence of the enlightened Bodhi-mind to be discovered. Hence, either this Buddha-nature is transcendent (a potential to be actualized in the future) or an immanent presence (an actual enlightened state to be uncovered). In a very general way, one either posits the potential, then introducing a method to actualize it (like meditations on the emptiness of the mind itself) or, one affirms the actuality of this Buddha-nature, defining ways to eliminate the adventitious material covering it. The former approach was cherished by the Gelugpas, whereas the latter is found in the Kagyupas and Nyingmapas.

Debates were held to ascertain whether the Tathâgatagarbha-doctrine was really different from the Yogâcâra School, for both doctrines were developed in the same period and shared some root texts by Asanga. Moreover, the Tathâgatagarbha literature shows an increasing trend to identify the "tathâgatagarbha" or "embryo of the Tathâgata" or "seed of Buddhahood" with the "âlaya-prajñâ".

The immanentist approach is rejected by most Middle School Consequentialists, identifying Buddha-nature with the emptiness of the mind, affirming nothing about it and so keeping it strictly potential. However, the Third Turning comes after the Turning on Emptiness & Compassion, indicative of a higher level of teachings. Is this Third Turning more experiential, whereas the Second Turning was more philosophical ? Are the Four Turnings of the Wheel of Dharma four levels of complexity ?

Crucial texts are the Tathâgatagarbha Sûtra, the Śrîmâlâdevî-simhanâda Sûtra (3rd century) and the Ratnagotravibhâga of Maitreyanâtha (3rd or 4th century). The latter was commented by Sâramati, the first systematizer of the Tathâgatagarbha doctrine. He made a clear distinction between two states of suchness or "tathatâ". Buddhahood represents the pure, undefiled state, whereas everyday existence manifests the defiled state (the parallels with the Yogâcâra storehouse consciousness are obvious).

For the Madhyamaka-Prâsangika, emptiness is defined by a non-affirmative negation, namely as absence of "svabhâva" or inherent existence. For the Yogâcârins, emptiness refers to the lack of duality in the absolute mind. In the Tathâgatagarbha doctrine, "śûnya" is the inherent absence of defilements in the seed of Buddhahood, which is deemed permanent, blissful, pure and of the nature of a Self. In this sense, it comes close to the Shentong, or other-emptiness, affirming inherent Buddha-qualities.

Regarding these doctrinal traditions and their differences, three positions are possible :

  • strong conflict : the Madhyamaka-Prâsangika denies "svabhâva" in a radical way. Conceptually, this creates a conflict with both Yogâcâra & the Tathâgatagarbha doctrine, reintroducing -in the Prâsangika interpretation- inherent existence (the absolute mind inherently exists, Buddha-nature also). There is no way to "solve" or "harmonize" this tension. Inherent existence is the case or not, one cannot have it both ways. For strict rationalists, limited by conceptual elaboration, the experience of inherent existence suggested by the Yogâcâra can never be articulated and remains therefore a private affair. Pursued, this position of strong conflict leads to sectarian attitudes, violence and bloodshed ;

  • mild conflict : taking the Yogâcâra as organizing the "experiental" side of Buddhism, it is possible to consider a certain continuity between the Middle Way and the Yoga School : the first represents what is possible with conceptual thought only, while the latter points to what is realized with non-conceptual meditation. The first aims at the objective side of emptiness, the second at its subjective experience. Although logically, a conflict pertains, in practice this would be less the case : the heart has its reasons reason does not know. The conflict would then seem to rise between, on the one hand, Mâdhyamaka & Yogâcâra, and, on the other hand, the Tathâgatagarbha doctrine. The latter, with its substantialist claims about the "Dharmakâya" would seem closer to eternalism than Yogâcâra, insisting only the undefiled mind has "svabhâva". This middling position is less strict than the former, and invites a choice ;

  • complementary : the Middle Way defines the conceptual content of enlightenment, the Yoga School its ineffable experiental content, while the Tathâgatagarbha doctrine soteriologically explains how the movement from our present defiled state to our enlightened state, the very process Yoga accommodates, is ontologically possible, namely thanks to our abiding Buddha-potential. This Ri-mé position accepts the presence of logical conflicts, but understands them to depend on the limitations of conceptual thought itself and on the difference between theory & practice, between logic & experience. By doing so, it eliminates the idea only reason is enough and brings the necessity of meditation to the fore. No conflict and no choice are at hand, rather a sense of prevailing complementarity. However, historically, most proponents of Ri-mé, Mipham excluded, accept the view of other-emptiness.

 The Rise of Mahâyâna Tantrism

Within the context of Mahâyâna, Buddhist Tantra, the Fourth Turning of the Wheel, gave rise to a completely new body of texts. The emergence of the first phase of Vajrayâna, "Diamond Vehicle" or "Adamantine Vehicle", the third phase of Indian Buddhism after Hînayâna and the Great Perfection Vehicle, dates from as early the 2nd century CE (other names for it are "Tantrayâna" & "Mantrayâna"). Its earliest tantras are from the "kriyâ" tantra class (Action Tantra) and were translated into Chinese from the 3rd century.

This "esoteric" Buddhism remained Indian, secretive & a private minority interest until the 8th century, when, with the arising of the Pâla dynasty of Bihar & Bengal (760 - 1142 CE), the Vajrayâna, purged from its erotic & trangressive contents, entered the great Buddhist universities. Buddhist Tantra became international. This second phase marks the origin of the Vajrayâna proper, including its symbolism, terminology & ritual. The latter is adaptive to circumstance, using the "standard" subtle apparatus of Indian yoga (the Vajra-body of winds, channels, wheels  & drops), but adding the wisdom of seeing reality as it is, i.e. empty & interdependent. It was largely from the Indian universities at Vikramaśîla and Odantapurî that Mahâyâna Buddhism was taken to Tibet, and Tantra was an integral part of this transmission. Eventually, although the Tibetans did not add to these teachings, they were reorganized & reinterpreted. The way Tibetan Tantra works with the subtle anatomy also differs from the Hindu approach, and even between the various Tantras differences occur. But these differences do not touch the core : the rapid, this-life transformation of impure into pure, of defiled body, speech & mind of a deluded sentient being into the enlightened body, speech & mind of a Buddha.

 Criticism of the Mahâyâna

In comparison with the sober style of the Lesser Vehicle, the expansion introduced by the Mahâyâna opened the door to a more popular, fantasic appreciation of the Bodhisattva, giving way to elaborated ornamentations and the rise of a vast treasure-house of stories, myths, legends and fictions depicting the extended powers of these saviour-like figures. Their supernatural miracle powers fired the imagination of the commoners and caused the rise of this vast "hagiographic" literature, the objective contents of which can hardly be put to the test. According to some, it even conflicts with the intent of the Buddha himself !

Insofar as this extended approach manifests the spirit of praise & thanksgiving, it can be made part of the imaginary and treated as such. However, without proper training and understanding, the prowess of the Bodhisattvas may lead to forms of worship and veneration verging on backward superstition. It may even induce people to see the Buddha as God and treat him as such. Likewise, without critical sense, Great Bodhisattvas (those moving beyond the Seventh Stage) are prone to be lauded beyond the limitations Buddhist doctrine upholds.

Although the same happened in other spiritual traditions (cf. the prophets of Israel, the figure of Jesus Christ & the saints of Christianity, the "holy" men of Islam, etc.), Mahâyâna doctrine spurred this tendency to take root. Indeed, when it is actually possible to attain enlightenment in this life, one cannot avoid this to happen and these Buddhas to display their fundamental mind of Clear Light ! As countless Buddhas appear, numerous displays occur and so the presence of the supramundane becomes obvious, leading to a pansacral worldview. As Buddhas can manifest in all possible forms, even as mountains or stones, even common objects may become sanctified and thus open to worship. In a sense, this pansacralism may bring about a return to animism, sympathetic magic, and the very cults (of inherent persons & objects) the Buddha wanted to eradicate.

Tantric Bodhisattvas in particular are open to this. These supermen or Vajra-masters display such vast skills during life, at death and in the afterlife (choosing to return when and how they wish), that -in the minds of simple people- they must be (and are) endowed with Divine properties. For those still clinging to inherent existence, Deity Yoga in particular can be easily misunderstood. Although these Deities represent the empty characteristics of our own Buddha-nature, they do manifest and work. Hence, the ignorant say : the Buddhas are Gods !

Another point of contention is the notion the Buddhist path can be entered using the Mahâyâna Vehicle only, making the Lesser Vehicle obsolete. Although the Bodhisattva ideal encompasses all sentient beings, not all sentient beings are ready to become Bodhisattvas and/or able to generate altruism before proper individual training in strict renunciation. Some minds, before being able to integrate the vast scope on emptiness and compassion called for in the Great Vehicle, need years of individual work, focusing on Hearers & Solitary Realizers practices like renunciation & meditation on equanimity. Hence, entering the Mahâyâna too soon may cause adverse effects, like for example avoiding valid Theravâda practices, like mindfullness & Calm Abiding, abandoning the whole idea of spiritual evolution, or worse, hallucinate one is a Bodhisattva instead of gaining awareness of one's delusions !

So, in many cases, there are sound arguments to foster the gradualist approach throughout, making practitioners move through the three vehicles one at a time : first Lesser Vehicle renunciation & equanimity, next Great Perfection Vehicle compassion & emptiness and then finally the profound tantric method of the Diamond Vehicle : Deity Yoga.


© Wim van den Dungen
philo@sofiatopia.org l Acknowledgments l SiteMap l Bibliography

Mistakes are due to my own ignorance and not to the Buddhadharma.
May all who encounter the Dharma accumulate compassion & wisdom.
May sentient beings recognize their Buddha-nature and find true peace.



initiated : 29 XI 2008 - last update : 02 XII 2014 - version n°2