lundi 20 novembre 2023

Interesting discussions on "Buddha Nature" and "Luminosity"

Venerable Dhammadipa (Thomas Peter Gutman)

I recently discovered a series of discussions with the Venerable Dhammadipa on the Tsadra Foundation Media Channel. I had the pleasure of meeting Thomas as he was called then in India in 1980. I was a monk then, traveling with other monks in India and staying most of the time at the monastery of Kalu Rinpoche I in Sonada. We received a series of private teachings by Kalu rinpoche I in his room (translated by Jerry), and Thomas was there as well. We were already impressed by his friendliness and knowledge and so was Kalu Rinpoche I, who, half jokingly half seriously, called him a “mahāpaṇḍita”. We met Thomas again later, while traveling through India, in Nālandā where he stayed at a local Chinese temple. I am happy to read how well he fared from there, how he became a very “complete” Buddhist, having studied and practiced many different forms of Buddhism, and how he conveys his knowledge with great simplicity.

I transcribed (and slightly edited) two short discussions (Boulder, CO, 30 January 2019) between the Venerable Dhammadipa and members of the Tsadra team, Marcus Perman and others.

1. “On the Roots of Tathāgatagarbha and His Position on the Concept

The Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra you may know is a kind of a base for the whole of the Yogācāra tradition. In the Yogācāra tradition we have two traditions, one is based on the ālaya[-vijñāna], the other is based on what you may call the supermundane consciousness. The supermundane consciousness links us to the Buddha Nature, as you call it, and in Chinese tradition there is a very important text which I have translated into Czech and which is attributed to Aśvaghoṣa, The Awakening of faith in Mahāyāna. It is a very interesting text for this Tathāgatagarbha tradition, and in China it is like the most widely studied text especially in the Zen tradition. You may say that Zen tradition is also a Tathāgatagarbha tradition, and most of the Chinese tradition is also connected to the idea of Tathāgatagarbha. In it, you may find roots for Madhyamaka and for Yogācāra, but you will hardly find anything on the Tathāgatagarbha tradition, that's for sure. So Chinese Buddhists may not find any difficulty in accepting Tathāgatagarbha, but you will find it difficult to convince Theravada Buddhists that this teaching is to be traced back to the Buddha himself.

Marcus: Is that because it's not found in the Nikāyas?

You don't find any clear indication of that in the Nikāyas, maybe only in the Vinaya. There is a famous story that Buddha, after his enlightenment, sees all the beings as lotus flowers deeply merged in the mud. This story exists in the Vinaya and may be also the root for this tradition. What else are these lotus flowers than the Tathāgatagarbha?

Marcus: Do you find Tathāgatagarbha an interesting idea?

Well if as taught in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, if you consider it to be skillful means [upāya], then no one should have any problem with that, but if you consider it to be like the definitive truth of Buddhism as the, say substance, then I will have difficulty with that.

Marcus: Because it contradicts the teachings on emptiness or could you explain that a little more?

Well if you study Buddhism, you are not likely to accept the idea of any essence whatsoever. Finally it is the same in Madhyamaka and Yogācāra. However you explain, the basic idea of Buddhism is essencelessness (niḥsvabhāvatā). Learning buddhism is learning essencelessness. Essencelessness is selflessness. Normally, however you explain Buddhism, the principal idea of all its genuine traditions is selflessness. Where you find selflessness, there is buddhism. If you talk about a Self, then it is suspicious. But you can of course explain, like in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, that it is a skillful means. Then we have no problem with that. Because the Indian tradition of the Upaniṣads and so on is definitely concerned with the searching for the Self. In Buddhism, even in Dhammapada [Chapter 12], you find verses such as that the meaning of Buddhism is searching for the true self, it is there.

The self is a master of the self
Where else would you find the self?
These are famous verses from the Dhammapada. You can explain it in this way. There is a very important sūtra for the Yogācāra tradition, called the great Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra. It also teaches permanence, happiness, Self and purity, the exact opposites… But it does not teach Tathāgatagarbha directly.

Marcus : That teaching you would accept as, I don't want to get absurdly technical, but do you accept that text as one of the texts that teaches…

It is a very important text for the Yogācāra tradition. The main disciple of Xuanzang, Kuījī, advises all to read the Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra and the Great Nirvāṇasūtra. These are the two sūtras which are to be studied especially for understanding Yogācāra.

Marcus: Those two seem to have some links with, or at least in, other traditions. They point to those sūtras as being sources for Tathāgatagarbha teachings.

Indirectly yes, but not directly, not directly.

2. "On the Nature of Mind in Yogachara"

Marcus: When they talk about the nature of mind, there is often this word that comes up, luminosity [prabhāsvaratā], or there is sometimes the attempt to describe that nature.

As you know, the Yogācārabhūmi-śastra does not talk much about it, and the Prajñāpāramitā-śastras do not talk about luminosity. They talk about the original purity of the mind. They also have original enlightenment. The understanding of original enlightenment is the beginning of the practice. But they don’t speak about luminosity.

Marcus: How do they describe mind in that sense, or the nature of mind?

Simply as empty, emptiness. The light is just a skilful means for understanding the ungraspable [brtag tu med pa, arūpi?[2]]. But ungraspable is the truth, not the light. If you take the light as a truth, then you have something you can hold on to. But this is not the teaching of the Prajñāpāramitā, which is the basis of the whole of Mahāyāna. Without Prajñāpāramitā, there is no Mahāyāna. Prajñāpāramitā is the mother of Mahāyāna. So if you're holding on to the light, you are in a way rejecting the teachings of the Prajñāpāramitā.

[Discussion about luminosity not being an ideal translation. Clarity is suggested as another translation]

Clarity is alright.

[Discussion between Tsadra members
-It’s not like light emanating, it’s not radiation or luminosity or anything. That word in English, luminosity, being used, has gotten very confusing.
-But the key is that there is a basis at all which is upsetting to Madhyamika right? You can’t attribute anything to the nature of mind.
-There is a sense that you could cognize something, which is the clarity.]

Actually, the main idea of these sūtras and śastras and of the Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra is that its practice is the practice of praśrabdhi[3] [shin tu sbyangs pa]. Praśrabdhi is the opposite of duṣṭatā [skyon chags pa], which means grossness. You find this also in Theravada suttas, it’s a very genuine tradition. Meditation practice, vipaśyanā-samatā is a practice of praśrabdhi, which you may translate as clarity and relaxation. It is the opposite of grossness. According to the Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra, strictly speaking, you can not practice śamatha and vipaśyanā unless you have attained the state of clarity and relaxation. But they don’t mention any light/luminosity, no.

Marcus: Do they say anything beyond “Don’t describe it”? The question would be how do Buddha qualities, or how does the Buddha manifest, if the nature of mind and the dharmakāya is just nothing at all?

Actually, this is explained very clearly as the suchness [tathatā] of emptiness and non-emptiness. This is explained specifically in the Awakening of faith in Mahāyāna. If you explain emptiness, it is not complete. If you explain non-emptiness it’s not complete. The two aspects have to be explained. Emptiness and non-emptiness. The aspect of emptiness is non separated from the infinite virtues of suchness. This is a teaching of the Diamond Sūtra and so on. Suchness has these infinite virtues, not an individual. This is very important to understand.

Question: What is non-emptiness in Sanskrit?

It is in Chinese, so it is called bukong (不空). In sanskrit aśūnya.

Marcus: So it’s not that each being has Buddha-nature, it’s that everything is suchness anyway, and suchness has immeasurable qualities?

In the Buddhist translation, suchness has a mundane/worldly and a supramundane aspect. The worldly aspects are e.g. the solidity of earth, the perception of the senses, etc. In Pāli it’s called sadisa, which means “similar to this”. It's a very significant word to trace suchness in Pāli traditions. Sadisa or sadṛśa [in Sanskrit] means “similar to that”. Similar to what? Similar to ultimate reality. The solidity of earth, the fluidity of water, the heat of fire are “similar to that”. This is where Mahāyāna philosophy finds traces in the āgamas. You have suchness in the relative sense and in the ultimate sense. These two aspects of suchness represent the whole of reality.

In the Saṃdhinirmocanasūtra, as long as you're not enlightened, you only know the differentiated and non-differentiated images in the mind. When you become enlightened you know the worldly reality which is called yāvadbhāvika[jñāna] (ji snyed pa mkhyen pa’i ye shes), as far as one can go. This includes the five aggregates (skandha), the twelve ayatanas, the eighteen dhātus, dependent origination. This is as far as one can go in the world. Then there is the yathāvadbhāvika[jñāna] (ji lta ba mkhyen pa’i ye shes), the aspect of suchness of this, which is on one side saṃsāric and on the other the ultimate. Rather than saṃsāric we call it relative. Some say the relative has a worldly aspect and the ultimate aspect. This is how you can bring all these things together[4].

Marcus: the two truths basically. That’s really interesting to me.

In Yogācāra, the most important is the third aspect, parikalpita, in which we live, because we don’t understand the nature of dependent origination. This is pure Yogācāra.

Marcus: The three natures (trisvabhāva, or three defining characteristics lakṣaṇa). Do these appear in other texts as a three natures set? In The Awakening of faith in Mahāyāna etc.?

You will find it everywhere in the Yogācāra scriptures. We are all subjected to parikalpita. This is our saṃsāra. Through removing the parikalpita from the paratantra, one attains the pariṇiṣpanna, ultimate reality. This is also the basis for meditation. Finally śamatha is the most important. In the Sandinirmochana sūtra, śamatha is defined as the state without object… the mind.

French language blogs on the ambiguous (non-allegorical) use of light and luminosity from a more mainstream Buddhist point of view:

La lumière est-elle la même en Inde qu'en Chine ? 22/10/2014
Petite genèse des lumières de la Lumière 25/11/2014
Théorie orientale de l’illumination 26/11/2014
Illumination et perception 30/11/2014
Illumination au sens propre 02/12/2014
Le monde imaginal 05/12/2014
Naturellement lumineux 09/12/2016
Esoterisme, illuminisme et mysticisme 14/11/2018
De la pensée lumineuse à la Claire Lumière 09/01/2020


[1] Dhammapada, Attavaggo 12. The Chapter about the Self, translated by Ānandajoti Bhikkhu (2nd edition, November 2017). E.g.

160 Attā hi attano nātho, ko hi nātho paro siyā?
Attanā va sudantena nāthaṁ labhati dullabhaṁ.

For the self is the friend of self, for what other friend would there be?
When the self is well-trained, one finds a friend that is hard to find.

380 Attā hi attano nātho, attā hi attano gati,
tasmā saṁyamayattānaṁ assaṁ bhadraṁ va vāṇijo.

Self is the protector of self, self is the refuge of self,
therefore one should restrain oneself, as a merchant his noble horse.

[2] A term found in the Ratnagotravibhāga/Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra and thus in Tathāgatagarbha theory, but perhaps Bhante has another term and theory in mind?

[3] Fifth among the branches or limbs of awakening (Skt. bodhyaṅga)

[4] See Apple, James. (2018). Khu lo tsā ba's Treatise: Distinguishing the Svātantrika/*Prāsaṅgika Difference in Early Twelfth Century Tibet.

Section (6) covers the result of practice (nyams su blang ba’i ’bras bu) [15.3 – 16.10] and again makes a distinction between how Autonomists [15.3–15.5] and Consequentialists [15.5–16.9] have different understandings of what constitutes buddhahood. For the Consequentialists all appearances are ignorance, buddhas do not have ignorance and therefore do not have appearances. The state called “Buddha” is the pacification of all elaborations and the cessation of all mind and mental factors. The understanding of buddhahood being without conceptuality and inconceivable is found in the works of Nāgārjuna and Candrakīrti and is strongly advocated throughout the works of Atiśa and his early Kadampa followers. The form bodies of a buddha appear to sentient beings like a wishfulfilling jewel or tree that manifests based on sentient beings own conceptual thought together with the condition of the buddha’s previous aspirations and virtues accumulated as a bodhisattva in previous lifetimes. This leads the author to state an unusual position in Mahāyāna Buddhist thought and buddhology, attributed to Atiśa that,

As wisdom is the cessation of differentiaton and objects of knowledge are not at all [16.8] established, the wisdom which does not conceptualize anything at all exists as the pristine wisdom which cognizes reality just-as-it-is and the pristine wisdom which cognizes reality to its utmost extent along with its appearances does not exist. 

The pristine wisdom which cognizes reality just-as-it-is, yathāvadbhāvikajñāna (ji lta ba mkhyen pa’i ye shes), and the pristine wisdom which cognizes reality to its utmost extent, yāvadbhāvikajñāna (ji snyed pa mkhyen pa’i ye shes), as far as known in current scholarship, are considered to be two forms of wisdom that a buddha possesses simultaneously. The currently known exegesis of these two types of wisdom is based on Yogācāra sources. Our manuscript therefore provides a previously unknown Madhyamaka exegesis on these two pristine wisdoms of a buddha.”

4 commentaires:

  1. Super intéressant comme d'habitude ! Dans l'esprit du croisement des différentes traditions et de la lecture du bouddhisme ancien, j'ai récemment découvert Hillside Hermitage et les enseignements d'Ajahn Nanamoli Thero. Cela fait 20 ans que je lis sur le bouddhisme Theravada et Vajrayana et c'est la première fois que je suis absolument soufflé par l'intelligence de la lecture phénoménologique des sutras pali. Je pense que pour quiconque à une âme curieuse, ça vaut le détour ! Tu peux regarder les vidéos Youtube, ou lire les essais ici, ceux de Bhikkhu Anigha sont aussi très bien : Il est dans lignée de Nanavira Thera qui mériterait aussi d'être beaucoup plus connu vu sa trajectoire atypique (a choisi de se suicider alors qu'il était moine ordonné). Je serai en tout cas très curieux d'avoir ton ressenti sur cet enseignement et cette lecture tout à fait particulière de l'enseignement du Bouddha mais qui parvient a en donner un sens nouveau et curieusement plus juste à mon sens.

  2. Bonjour Nicolas,

    Merci pour ton message et les références ! Je connaissais Nanamoli, Nanavira, Nanananda (Kalakarama sutta, The Magic of the Mind), je regarderai les vidéos de Bhikkhu Anigha. Je viens de trouver un petit fichier Word (notes d’enseignements sur l’abhdhamma) du Venerable Dhammadipa (Thomas Peter Gutman), qu’il a l’air intéressant car expliqué de façon simple et directe, et rapportable à la pratique. Abhidhamma with Ven. Dhammadipa from Czechoslovakia
    { The mind and its mental factors}
    J’ai le sentiment que la voie équilibrée (Abhidhamma-Madhyamaka-Yogācāra) suivie par Thomas, centrée sur le triple entraînement et la pratique de śamatha-vipaśyanā (avec l’accent sur śamatha… curieux mais intéressant, à découvrir…) pourrait être le socle pour un bouddhisme approprié à une pratique laïque en Occident, éventuellement enrichi d’autres “upāya”. A suivre

  3. Merci de ta réponse et ravi d'apprendre que tu as déjà connaissance de ces références. Concernant Bhikkhu Anigha c'est plutôt ses essais qu'il faut lire. Merci pour le fichier !! Avec le recul et tes connaissances, que penses-tu de la lecture phénoménologique de Nanavira/Nanamoli des suttas ? Aussi, le fait qu'il décrive l'entrée dans les absorptions sur la base du contrôle des sens (sense restraints) plutôt que sur des techniques de concentration (qu'il critique abondamment) me semble novateur au regard du bouddhisme contemporain mais finalement très proche des sutta pali quand on prend le temps de les lire. Si tu utilises reddit tu peux consulter la page de Hillside où il y a des contributions top !

  4. Oui, le contrôle des sens se trouve aussi dans les huit branches du yoga de Patanjali et dans le yoga à six branches du Kālacakra. Ces branches sont un retrait graduel du “monde”, qui permet la concentration. J’ai regardé un peu les discussions sur reddit sous la modération du bhikkhu. C’est très bien.

    C’est une bonne idée d’explorer les différentes formes de bouddhisme. Cela permet de s’ouvrir et de sortir de la chambre d’écho que peuvent être parfois des groupes bouddhistes renfermés sur soi. Cela m’avait personnellement fait beaucoup de bien. Pour un lien sur Nanavira Cela fait longtemps que je ne l’avais pas lu