A Direct Path to the Buddha Within
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A Direct Path to the Buddha Within

Go Lotsawa's Mahamudra Interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhaga

Klaus-Dieter Mathes

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eBook - ePub

A Direct Path to the Buddha Within

Go Lotsawa's Mahamudra Interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhaga

Klaus-Dieter Mathes

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Maitreya's Ratnagotravibhaga, also known as the Uttaratantra, is the main Indian treatise on buddha nature, a concept that is heavily debated in Tibetan Buddhist philosophy. In A Direct Path to the Buddha Within, Klaus-Dieter Mathes looks at a pivotal Tibetan commentary on this text by Go Lotsawa Zhonu Pal, best known as the author of the Blue Annals. Go Lotsawa, whose teachers spanned the spectrum of Tibetan schools, developed a highly nuanced understanding of buddha nature, tying it in with mainstream Mahayana thought while avoiding contested aspects of the so-called empty-of-other ( zhentong ) approach. In addition to translating key portions of Go Lotsawa's commentary, Mathes provides an in-depth historical context, evaluating Go's position against those of other Kagyu, Nyingma, and Jonang masters and examining how Go Lotsawa's view affects his understanding of the buddha qualities, the concept of emptiness, and the practice of mahamudra.

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Year
2013
ISBN
9780861719150
PART I
THE TIBETAN HISTORICAL
CONTEXT
images
1. The Development of Various Traditions of Interpreting Buddha Nature
IN THE FIRST PART of my study, I will present the Tibetan historical background necessary for understanding Zhönu Pal’s enterprise of commenting on the Ratnagotravibhāga toward his specific ends. The first chapter of this part is dedicated to an analysis of the dramatic changes Indo-Tibetan Buddhism went through in the eleventh and twelfth centuries with particular emphasis on the analytical and meditation schools of interpreting the Ratnagotravibhāga. It is followed by a chapter on the stances of our selected masters from the fourteenth century and a comparison of their positions.
As we have already seen in the introduction, there were basically two main approaches to interpreting the Ratnagotravibhāga and its doctrine of buddha nature. The first is to follow the Laṅkāvatārasūtra and see in buddha nature (equated with ālayavijñāna) a term connoting emptiness. Following this line of thought, we can either take the Ratnagotravibhāga to be neyārtha, or, if we see in buddha nature a synonym of emptiness, even nītārtha. The second possibility is to take the Ratnagotravibhāga and the sūtras upon which it comments more literally, as is done by the proponents of an “empti[ness] of other” (Tib. gzhan stong). Further, a tradition espousing an analytical approach, in describing buddha nature as a nonaffirming negation, must be distinguished from a meditation school, which takes positive descriptions of the ultimate, such as buddha nature, to be experiential in content. It should be noted that the latter school may still accept buddha nature as a synonym of emptiness.
Ngog Loden Sherab’s Analytical Interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhāga
Loden Sherab (1059–1109) played a crucial role in the transmission of the Ratnagotravibhāga in Tibet. Not only were his translations of the Ratnagotravibhāga and its vyākhyā the ones included in the Tengyur, but he also composed a “summarized meaning” or commentary of the Ratnagotravibhāga, in which he tries to bring the teaching of buddha nature into line with his Madhyamaka position. The latter is usually identified as being Svātantrika.109 Since this summary, which is of great significance for the understanding of Zhönu Pal’s mahāmudrā interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhāga, has received little attention by Western scholars up till now,110 the main points of Loden Sherab’s strategy will be presented in this section.
Some ten years ago, the text of the summarized meaning was reproduced from blockprints of the edition by Geshé Sherab Gyatso (Dge bshes Shes rab rgya mtsho) (1884–1968) and published with an extensive introduction by David Jackson (1993).111 Seyfort Ruegg, who must have had access to the blockprint in the possession of Dagpo Rinpoché (Dvags po Rin po che) in Paris, only briefly refers to Loden Sherab’s commentary when discussing the ineffable and inconceivable nature of ultimate truth.112 Contrary to the Gelug position, Loden Sherab radically rejects the possibility that the ultimate can be grasped by conceptual thought:
This is because the ultimate [truth] is not an object amenable to speech; for the ultimate [truth] is not an object of thought, since conceptual thought is apparent [truth]. The intended meaning of not being able to be expressed by speech is here [because the ultimate is] not a basis for any verbal or conceptual ascertainment. This does not [mean] that [the ultimate] merely does not appear directly113 to the verbal consciousness. For if it were so, then it would follow that [objects] of apparent [truth], such as a vase, would also be such (i.e., not a basis for verbal ascertainment114).115
This position is in accordance with the interpretations of Sakya Paṇḍita (Sa skya Paṇḍita) (1182–1251) but greatly at variance with the position maintained by Chapa Chökyi Sengé (Phya pa Chos kyi Seng ge) (1109–69) and many later Gelug scholars.116 Loden Sherab differs from Sakya Paṇḍita, however, in taking the Ratnagotravibhāga to be a commentary on the discourses with definitive meaning:
When the illustrious Maitreya clarified in an unmistaken way the intention of the discourses of the Sugata, he presented reality, which is the true meaning of Mahāyāna, by composing the treatise of the Mahāyānottaratantra [Ratnagotravibhāga], which117 teaches the precious sūtras of definitive meaning, [namely] the irreversible dharmacakra, the dharmadhātu as a single path;118 and which precisely teaches the meaning of all the very pure and certain discourses.119
It should be noted, however, that the remaining four Maitreya works, namely the Abhisamayālaṁkāra and the three Yogācāra works, are taken to be commentaries on sūtras with provisional meaning.120
Zhönu Pal informs us in his Blue Annals that Loden Sherab equated buddha nature with the inconceivable ultimate, whereas Chapa took the latter (and thus buddha nature) to be a nonaffirming negation, bringing it within reach of logical analysis:
The great translator (i.e., Loden Sherab) and Master Tsangnagpa (Gtsang nag pa) take the so-called buddha nature to be the ultimate truth, but say, on the other hand: “Do not regard the ultimate truth as being an actual object corresponding to words and thoughts.” They say that it is by no means a conceptualized object. Master Chapa for his part maintains that nonaffirming negation (which means that entities are empty of a true being) is the ultimate truth, and that it is a conceptualized object corresponding to words and thoughts.121
The way in which Loden Sherab equates buddha nature with the ultimate becomes clear in his commentary on the third vajra point of the Noble Saṅgha, where he explains the awareness of how reality is (yathāvadbhāvikatā) and the awareness of its extent (yāvadbhāvikatā) in the following way:
Awareness of the extent refers to the “vision that a perfect buddha is present in all [sentient beings].” The awareness that the common defining characteristics—the very selflessness of phenomena and persons—are the nature of a tathāgata, [namely] buddha nature, and that [this reality] completely pervades [its] support, [i.e.,] the entire element of sentient beings, is the [awareness of] the extent. Furthermore, the unmistaken awareness of mere selflessness, which exists in all sentient beings, is the awareness of how [reality] is. The apprehension that every support is pervaded by it is the awareness of its extent. Both are supramundane types of insight, [and so] ultimate objects, not a perceiving subject bound to the apparent [truth].122
This passage not only shows that awareness of emptiness is an ultimate object, but also that buddha nature is taken as the mere lack of a self in sentient beings. How buddha nature is defined becomes clearer in the commentary on the first and third reasons for the presence of a buddha nature in sentient beings, in RGV I.28:
Pure suchness is the kāya of the perfect buddha. [Its] radiation (spharaṇa) means being pervaded by it (the kāya)—pervaded inasmuch as all sentient beings are fit to attain it (i.e., a kāya of their own). In this respect, the tathāgata [in the compound tathāgata-nature123] is the real one, while sentient beings’ possession of his [i.e., the tathāgata’s] nature is nominal,124 because “being pervaded by it” has been metaphorically applied to the opportunity to attain it (i.e., such a kāya)…. With regard to the [reason] “because of the existence of a potential,” tathāgata is nominal, because the [tathāgata-nature] is the cause for attaining suchness in the [resultant] state of purity—[is, in other words,] the seeds of knowledge and compassion, the mental imprints of virtue, and [thus only] the cause of a tathāgata. The only real [in tathāgata-nature here] is the “nature” of sentient beings (and not that the latter consists of an actual tathāgata).125
Buddha nature is thus not only taken as emptiness (namely the lack of self in sentient beings) but also as the seed or cause of buddhahood. We wonder, then, how Loden Sherab explains similes such as the huge silk cloth from the Avataṁsakasūtra,126 which illustrates the presence of immeasurable buddha qualities in sentient beings. Against the purport of the sūtra, according to which each sentient being has its own buddha wisdom, Loden Sherab claims that this buddha wisdom is the one of the illustrious one himself:
As the picture on a silk cloth exists in an atom, just so the wisdom of the Buddha exists in the [mind]stream of sentient beings. If you ask what [this wisdom] is, [the answer is] the dharmadhātu. If you ask how this [can] be wisdom, [the answer is:] Since the illustrious one came to know that all phenomena lack defining characteristics thanks to the insight that encompasses [everything] in a single moment, this ...

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