A Direct Path to the Buddha Within

1. The Development of Various Traditions of Interpreting Buddha Nature

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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 26Ratnagotravibhāga 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 27treatise 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 28supramundane 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 29[everything] in a single moment, this insight is inseparable from its objects. Therefore the ultimate, the very dharmadhātu itself, is [in this respect also] the wisdom that is aware of this [dharmadhātu]. Since [the dharmadhātu] abides in all sentient beings without exception, the example and the illustrated meaning are fully acceptable.127

The question arises whether this contradicts Loden Sherab’s presentation of the first reason for sentient beings having buddha nature in RGV I.28. In his explanation of the nine examples from the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra, Loden Sherab specifies exactly how sentient beings are pervaded by the dharmakāya:


As to the phrase “[the dharmakāya that] pervades the entire sphere of sentient beings”: The Dharma of realization of previous tathāgatas was accomplished on the basis of immeasurable accumulation [of merit and wisdom]. [The resulting dharmakāya, i.e.,] the very pure suchness and the wisdom apprehending it, namely that which by nature is separate [from sentient beings], pervades all sentient beings, for this dharmakāya is emptiness, and it is emptiness, too, that exists in sentient beings.128

In other words, even though the buddha nature of sentient beings is different from the wisdom of the buddhas, the former is still pervaded by the latter since the buddha wisdom realizes the emptiness of sentient beings’ minds. The space-like buddha qualities of RGV II.29–37, which Loden Sherab, in accordance with the vyākhyā, also subsumes under the ultimate truth,129 must be taken in the same way. They pertain to the ordinary mind only insofar as it, too, is emptiness. Equally inconceivable as the ultimate is natural luminosity, as this must be actualized through wisdom without any objective support, so that luminosity is actually taken to be wisdom.130 To review, the emptiness of the ultimate cannot become the object of ordinary perception. But being the object of a buddha, it is pervaded by the wisdom or luminosity of the Buddha, this insight being no different from its object.

The buddha nature or element, which is repeatedly said to be the emptiness of each mindstream,131 can become the objective support of inferential cognitions that negate without affirming anything. As such it becomes the substantial cause for the attainment of buddha qualities:



As to the [buddha] element that has become the conventional object of a nonaffirming negation, it is called the substantial cause that has become the conventional object of a nonaffirming negation; but something that amounts to human effort [as a substantial cause of buddhahood] does not actually exist. As to the conventional object, it has the meaning of a nonaffirming negation—namely that anything that is established as an own-being does not exist in reality.132

This leads to the question whether the qualities are for Loden Sherab something newly produced. In his introduction to the second chapter of the Ratnagotravibhāga—a commentary on stanza RGV II.3—the notion of nothing being newly produced is brought up in the presentation of the essence of enlightenment (compared to natural luminosity, the sun, and the sky in RGV II.3a). But with the unchangeability of buddha nature restricted to its true nature, the possibility of development with nonconceptual wisdom as a cause remains untouched:


[Verse RGV II.3c:] “Buddhahood is endowed with all stainless buddha qualities; it is permanent, stable, and eternal”133 expresses wisdom, abandonment, and the qualities based on them. [It further states] that it is not the case that these [qualities] have arisen as something that did not exist before, and that they existed in previous state[s] [still] accompanied by hindrances. In all this the essence [of enlightenment] is taught. As for the cause, here [in this stanza] it is the wisdom of not conceptualizing phenomena, and the distinguishing wisdom attained after that.134

In other words, in terms of the essence of enlightenment nothing is newly produced, which means that emptiness is present throughout beginningless time and nothing needs to be added to it (see below).

Of particular interest is, in this respect, Loden Sherab’s commentary on RGV I.51,135 in which he restricts the statement of being naturally endowed with qualities to the very pure state in which these qualities are not experienced as something disconnected. In the same way as they are experienced as something inseparable from the pure state, their cause, or the dharmadhātu, can be apprehended in impure states:


[The verse RGV I.51b] “being naturally endowed136 with qualities” shows that the immutability of the properties of qualities 31(i.e., the buddha qualities) in the very pure state is acceptable. This means that the true nature is not tarnished when qualities suddenly manifest, nor is [this nature] experienced as being separate from any natural[ly endowed] qualities, in the same way as it [cannot] be established as something that possesses a particular qualitative feature that did not exist before in the impure state, for example. For the meaning of naturally established qualities lies in their being naturally137 established as an objective support without superimposition; or rather as the objective support that is the cause of [these very] qualities. This is because the correct apparent [truth] abides without superimposition, or because the ultimate abides in such a way, respectively. The realization of the ultimate is the cause of all qualities, because all buddha qualities are summoned as if called when you realize the dharmadhātu.138

In other words, the naturally established (or endowed) qualities are nothing else than the cause of these qualities, which is mind’s emptiness. To put it another way, to perceive your mind as it is, without superimposing an ultimately existing own-being, is the buddha nature that causes qualities.

The crucial stanzas RGV I.157–58 (J I.154–55) on emptiness, which state that nothing needs to be added and that buddha nature is not empty of inseparable qualities, are explained in the following way:


Neither superimposing the ultimate existence of an objective support for all defilements nor denying the relative139 existence of an objective support for the mind and the mental factors of purification, one abides in the two truths as they are. With regard to this it has been said: “The meaning of emptiness is unmistaken.” This has been expressed [in the following verses RGV I.157ab (J I.154ab)]: “In it140 nothing is to be removed [and nothing to be added].” [That is,] in this reality, nothing is to be removed—[namely,] an objective support for all defilements—because [no such thing] has ever been established. [Likewise,] in this reality nothing need to be added—[namely,] characteristic signs of purification, such as the strengths and clairvoyance, because the objective support for [the attainment of the ten] strengths, etc., and purification, which exists on the level of apparent [truth], abides throughout beginningless time.…141


The phrase “possessing the defining characteristic of being inseparable” means that the nonapprehended unsurpassable qualities exist on the level of apparent [truth], and since reality and existence on [the level of] apparent [truth] do not contradict each other, they are said to exist as mere nature. If you therefore directly realize illusion-like apparent [truth], you [automatically] establish the qualities, because the nature of qualities is simply such that one has them (i.e., the illusory phenomena of the apparent) as an objective support.142

The quoted passages clearly show that Loden Sherab avoids defining what exactly the qualities of which buddha nature is not empty are, or rather, instead of accepting the literal meaning of RGV I.158 (J I.155) that the buddha element is not empty of unsurpassable properties, Loden Sherab suggests replacing the unsurpassable properties by the conditioned phenomena of apparent truth. In fact, qualities are circumscribed by “having the illusory phenomena of the apparent as an objective support.” Such phenomena are conducive to purification, if an ultimate own-being is not wrongly superimposed. As we have seen above, this is the correct apparent truth. What it comes down to is the objective support that is the mere cause of qualities, the dharmadhātu, or rather to the ability to meditate on emptiness by taking buddha nature as the conventional object of a nonaffirming negation. This observation is also shared by Śākya Chogden (Śākya mchog ldan) (1428–1507), who asserts that Loden Sherab sees buddha nature as a “nonaffirming negation that is not qualified by qualities such as the [ten] strengths.”143

Finally, it should be noted that Loden Sherab brings the buddha element into relation with the ālayavijñāna when he explains, on the basis of the Mahāyānābhidharmasūtra,144 that the buddha element is the seed of the buddha qualities, and that all sentient beings, too, arise from it. Sentient beings are, however, affected through additional conditions.145

Ratnogotravibhāga Commentaries in the Meditation Tradition

In the introduction to his Ratnagotravibhāga commentary, Zhönu Pal informs us that during a visit to Kashmir, Tsen Kawoché, who was a disciple of Drapa Ngönshé (Grva pa Mngon shes), requested Sajjana to bestow on him the works of the illustrious Maitreya along with special instructions, since he wanted to make these works his “practice [of preparing] for death” (’chi chos). Sajjana taught all five Maitreya works, with Lotsāwa Zu 33Gawa Dorjé (Lo tsā ba Gzu Dga’ ba rdo rje) functioning as a translator. In addition, he gave special instructions with regard to the Ratnagotravibhāga.146 Until now only little has been known about Tsen Kawoché’s “meditation tradition” of the five Maitreya works. In his Blue Annals, Zhönu Pal informs us that whereas Ngog Loden Sherab takes buddha nature to be the inconceivable ultimate, Tsen Kawoché emphasizes it under the aspect of natural luminosity:


The followers of the tradition of Tsen (Btsan) maintain that since the luminous nature of mind is the buddha nature, the cause of buddha[hood] is fertile.147

According to Kongtrül Lodrö Tayé’s (Kong sprul Blo gros mtha’ yas) (1813–99) introduction to his Ratnagotravibhāga commentary, Tsen Kawoché and his translator Zu Gawa Dorjé became well known as followers of the meditation tradition of the Maitreya works, which was unique in terms of both explanations and practice. Zu Gawa Dorjé wrote his own commentary on the Ratnagotravibhāga in accordance with the teaching of Sajjana.148 Based on this commentary, the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorjé composed a summary of the contents of the Ratnagotravibhāga, and Karma Könzhön (Karma Dkon gzhon) (b. 1333) commented at length on it. Karma Trinlepa (Karma Phrin las pa) (1456–1539) composed a commentary of his own by inserting corrections into Karma Könzhön’s commentary.149 None of these works has turned up to date; but since in Kongtrül’s presentation of the Tsen tradition Zhönu Pal’s Ratnagotravibhāga commentary is mentioned next to Karma Trinlepa’s commentary, a study of Zhönu Pal promises to shed the first light on this meditation tradition. In the colophon of his Ratnagotravibhāga commentary, Zhönu Pal tells us that he used notes written by Chöjé Drigungpa Jigten Sumgön (Chos rje ’Bri gung pa ’Jig rten gsum mgon) (1143–1217) as the basis for spelling out his own Mahāyāna hermeneutics, which attempt to demonstrate the superiority of the last dharmacakra mainly on the basis of mahāmudrā pith instructions.150 He further says that Drigungpa’s explanations both of the three dharmacakras and the Ratnagotravibhāga, and the explanations deriving from Sajjana’s heart disciple Tsen Kawoché, are all in accordance with mahāmudrā.151 On the other hand, Zhönu Pal tells us that he also consulted in-depth explanations that follow along the lines of Ngog Loden Sherab.

In this respect it is of interest how Śākya Chogden summarizes the views of Pagmo Drupa (Phag mo gru pa) (1110–70) and many other Dagpo Kagyüpas on buddha nature. Whereas Loden Sherab is said to define the 34latter as a nonaffirming negation that is not qualified by qualities such as the ten strengths, Śākya Chogden says about mainstream Dagpo Kagyü:


As to the definition of [buddha] nature, it is either taken to be the part made up of natural purity only, or as [also including] the accumulation of qualities that are inseparable from it (i.e., this purity). With regard to the second, [buddha nature] is either taken as that which enables the realization of these qualities, [namely,] the qualities of the dharmakāya, or it is taken to be, as natural [purity], the qualities of the dharmakāya…. [The latter is claimed by] upholders of the Dagpo Kagyü such as Pagmo Drupa.152

By combining Loden Sherab’s nonaffirming negation with the qualities of the dharmakāya as natural purity, Zhönu Pal developed his theory of the subtle qualities of the dharmakāya in sentient beings. These subtle qualities are described as resembling the space-like qualities of the svābhāvikakāya. They evolve in their own sphere, without depending on artificial conditions, as the hindrances are gradually removed.

The Mahāmudrā Interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhāga

At least two of the masters who are mentioned in the context of the meditation tradition of Tsen are known to have given mahāmudrā explanations on the basis of nontantric Mahāyāna works. Besides Zhönu Pal, this can be also confirmed now for the Third Karmapa Rangjung Dorjé, who in his newly discovered Dharmadhātustotra commentary equates prajñāpāramitā with mahāmudrā, both being for him a defining characteristic of the dharmadhātu.153 It is therefore reasonable to assume that Rangjung Dorjé also composed his summarized meaning of the Ratnagotravibhāga from a mahāmudrā perspective. It is all the more reasonable since Gampopa had once said to Pagmo Drupa that the Ratnagotravibhāga was the basic text of their mahāmudrā. Zhönu Pal explains this background in his Blue Annals:


Moreover, Dagpo Rinpoché (Gampopa) said to Pagmo Drupa: “The basic text of this mahāmudrā of ours is the Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra (Ratnagotravibhāga) by Venerable Maitreya.” Pagmo Drupa in turn said the same thing to Jé Drigungpa (Rje ’Bri gung pa), and for this reason many explanations 35of the Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra are found in the works of Jé Drigungpa and his disciples. In this connection, the Dharma master from Sakya (i.e., Sakya Paṇḍita) maintains that there is no conventional expression for mahāmudrā in the pāramitā tradition, and that the wisdom of mahāmudrā is only the wisdom arisen from initiation. But in the Tattvāvatāra composed by the Master Jñānakīrti it is said: “As for someone with sharp faculties who practices the pāramitās diligently, by performing the meditations of calm abiding and deep insight, he [becomes] truly endowed with the mahāmudrā154 [already] in the state of an ordinary being; [and this] is the sign of the irreversible [state attained] through correct realization.” The Tattvadaśakaṭīkā composed by Sahajavajra clearly explains wisdom that realizes suchness as possessing the following three particular [features]: in essence it is the pāramitās, it is in accordance with the mantra[yāna] and its name is mahāmudrā. Therefore Götsangpa (Rgod tshang pa), too, explains that Jé Gampopa’s pāramitāmahāmudrā is [in line with] the assertions of the master Maitrīpa.155

This passage from the Blue Annals clearly shows that Zhönu Pal defends the pāramitā-based mahāmudrā tradition against the critique of Sakya Paṇḍita by pointing out that it had Indian origins, namely in the persons of Jñānakīrti and Maitrīpa (together with Maitrīpa’s disciple Sahajavajra)...

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