On the Mahâyâna
"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
of Mahâyâna Tantrism
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
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
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
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
The Rise of the
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
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
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
Perfection Vehicle) does not contradict the teachings of the Lower
Vehicle, but "expands" them.
Ideal & the Five Paths
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
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
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)
("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
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
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
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
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"
wisdom leading to the state of
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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,
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 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
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
new definition of emptiness ! In the Mâdhyamaka School, emptiness is
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
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
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
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
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
This discussion, as Tsongkhapa showed, is poignant and will be analysed in
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
Regarding these doctrinal traditions and their differences, three
positions are possible :
: 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 ;
: 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
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
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
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.
In comparison with the sober style of the
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,
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
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.