Notes on the Denial of Svabhāva in Mahāyāna Buddhism

By David Reigle on March 20, 2012 at 3:24 am

The sympathy toward the Gelugpa order of Tibetan Buddhism shown by the Theosophical teachers in their writings has long been well-known among students of Theosophy. The fact that Gelugpas deny that anything in the universe has any svabhāva has in the last few decades become well-known in the world outside of Tibet. If the term svabhāva and its idea in fact play a central role in the Book of Dzyan, we have a conflict of ideas that will be of considerable interest to students of Theosophy to follow out. We may look at a few selected items pertaining to the idea of svabhāva and how it was perceived over the centuries, drawn from the many sources that have now become available.

The Gelugpa understanding that Tsongkhapa’s denial of svabhāva applies to absolutely everything is nicely summed up by Thupten Jinpa, longtime translator for the Dalai Lama: “First and foremost, he [Tsongkhapa] wants to make it clear that the Mādhyamika’s rejection of svabhāva ontology must be unqualified and absolute. . . . The negation of svabhāva, i.e., intrinsic being, must be absolute and universal . . . .” (Attached: “Delineating Reason’s Scope for Negation: Tsongkhapa’s Contribution to Madhyamaka’s Dialectical Method,” p. 297.) The last sentence goes on to say, “yet it should not destroy the reality of the everyday world of experience.” When the Mahāyāna schools denied the svabhāva of the dharmas as taught in the so-called Hīnayāna schools, this denied the reality of the dharmas, which make up the world. Tsongkhapa wanted to preserve the conventional existence of the world. To do this, he taught that one must distinguish the svabhāva, understood as the ultimate existence of something, from that thing’s conventional existence. So when its ultimate existence is denied, its conventional existence is not denied. Things exist, but they do not inherently exist. He taught that clinging to any idea of ultimate existence prevents one from achieving enlightenment. Thus, there is only conventional existence, but nothing ultimately existing behind it. Conventional existence is the only reality. Nothing in the universe has “inherent existence.”

Today we hear much from Tibetan lamas about everything’s lack of “inherent existence,” which translates Tibetan ngo bo nyid or rang bzhin, which translates Sanskrit svabhāva. This meaning of svabhāva was singled out and made standard in philosophical discourse in Tibet by Tsongkhapa. The more basic meaning of svabhāva as “inherent nature” was eclipsed by it. In this way, the word svabhāva (in its Tibetan translations) became a charged term in philosophical discourse in Tibet. Noted scholar of Madhyamaka Buddhism David Seyfort Ruegg, in his appreciation of Tsongkhapa’s contributions, describes this narrowing down of the meaning of svabhāva to the idea of “inherent existence,” or as he translates it, “self-nature/self-existence”: “Sometimes, moreover, Tsoṅ kha pa has narrowed down the meaning of a word, making, e.g., raṅ bźin/ṅo bo ñid (Skt. svabhāva) regularly and systematically denote ‘self-nature/self-existence’, and bracketing out other, less technical, usages of this word even though attested in Nāgārjuna’s text (e.g. Madhyamakakārikās xv.1-2) and, occasionally, in his own literal comments.” (Attached: “The Indian and the Indic in Tibetan Cultural History, and Tsoṅ kha pa’s Achievement as a Scholar and Thinker: An Essay on the Concepts of Buddhism in Tibet and Tibetan Buddhism,” p. 338.)

This means that for writers who preceded Tsongkhapa, including the Jonangpa teacher Dolpopa, svabhāva did have all the implications that it acquired as “inherent existence,” and it did not have the emotional charge in philosophical discourse that it later acquired. In Dolpopa’s major work, the extensive Mountain Doctrine, it is rarely used (only in about nine places, as opposed to, for example, hundreds of occurrences of “emptiness”), and it is used casually (none of these put it forth pointedly, and four of these are in quotations of other texts). The translator, Jeffrey Hopkins, recognized this difference in meaning and implication, and here switched from what had been his usual translation, “inherent existence,” to “inherent nature.” It was up to later Jonangpa writers, when the thought climate in Tibet had changed, to argue for it philosophically.

This is equally true for Indian Buddhist writers, who of course all preceded Tsongkhapa. We have already seen that Haribhadra, who Tsongkhapa regarded as the foremost commentator on the Perfection of Wisdom texts, spoke of the svabhāva of the dharma-dhātu (however he may have understood this). The Madhyamaka writer who Tsongkhapa relied on above all, Candrakīrti, was willing to say in his Madhyamakāvatāra-bhāṣya, as accurately translated by William L. Ames: “Ultimate reality (don dam pa, paramārtha) for the Buddhas is svabhāva itself. That, moreover, because it is nondeceptive is the truth of ultimate reality. It must be known by each of them for himself (so so rang gis rig par bya ba, pratyātmavedya).” (Attached: “The Notion of Svabhāva in the Thought of Candrakīrti,” p. 162. The quotation is from Candrakīrti’s own commentary on his Madhyamakāvatāra, chapter 6, verse 28. The Tibetan edition that William Ames refers to has for this: sangs rgyas rnams kyi don dam pa ni rang bzhin nyid yin zhing | de yang bslu ba med pa nyid kyis don dam pa’i bden pa yin la | de ni de rnams kyi so so[r] rang gis rig par bya ba yin no.)

While Candrakīrti differed radically from his Buddhist Sarvāstivāda compatriots, in that he totally denied any svabhāva in any existent thing (bhāva), his last sentence just quoted apparently agreed with them: “It must be known by each of them for himself (pratyātmavedya).” In ultimate reality, svabhāva can only be personally known (pratyātmavedya) by the buddhas. Vasubandhu’s Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya, here representing the Sarvāstivāda position, says about nirvāṇa, as accurately translated by K. Dhammajoti: “Its self-nature [svabhāva] can only be personally realized [pratyātmavedya] by the ārya.” (Attached: “The Sarvāstivāda Conception of Nirvāṇa,” p. 348. The quotation is from Vasubandhu’s own commentary on his Abhidharmakośa, chapter 2, verse 55. The Sanskrit from P. Pradhan’s 1975 edition, p. 92, lines 2-3, is: āryair eva tat-svabhāvaḥ pratyātma-vedyaḥ.)

Candrakīrti returns to this idea in his explanation of svabhāva in his Prasannapadā commentary on Nāgārjuna’s Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā, chapter 15, verse 2. There he again says that svabhāva is ultimately only in the range of the āryas (translated by William Ames, ibid., p. 169): “This is what has been said: The whole class of entities is apprehended through the power of the ophthalmia of misknowledge. With whatever nature [that class] becomes an object — by means of non-seeing — for the āryas, [who are] free from the ophthalmia of misknowledge, just that intrinsic nature is determined to be the svabhāva of these [entities].”

In the whole of the Sanskrit Buddhist writings known to me, quite the clearest and fullest explanation of this svabhāva that is accessible only to the āryas (the buddhas and bodhisattvas) is found in the Bodhisattva-bhūmi. This text is part of the massive Yogācāra-bhūmi, attributed by Chinese tradition to Maitreya, and attributed by Tibetan tradition to Asaṅga. There, in its “Reality” (tattvārtha) chapter, the inexpressible (nirabhilāpya) inherent nature (svabhāva) of all dharmas is described. Several pages from this chapter were translated into German by Erich Frauwallner and published in his 1956 book, Die Philosophie des Buddhismus. This book was translated into English and published in 2010 as The Philosophy of Buddhism. These pages from the Bodhisattvabhūmi on inexpressible svabhāva in English translation are attached. The sphere or object of the knowledge or wisdom of the buddhas and bodhisattvas is there translated as “the inexpressible nature [svabhāva] of all factors [dharmas].”

We may note that the Bodhisattva-bhūmi speaks of the inexpressible svabhāva of all dharmas, not of the dharma-dhātu, or of nirvāṇa. As we know, the Mahāyāna schools, both Madhyamaka and Yogācāra, denied that the dharmas have svabhāva, as was taught in the so-called Hīnayāna schools, such as the Sarvāstivāda. It may be this inexpressible svabhāva of the dharmas that the Sarvāstivāda school was originally referring to, and they did so by teaching that the svabhāva of the dharmas always exists. We may prefer to accept that the dharmas are the svabhāva of the dharma-dhātu, as the Mahāyāna writer Haribhadra said. Then insofar as a dharma, an attribute or property, is not different from what it is an attribute or property of, what can be said about one can be said about the other. That is, we can just as well speak of the inexpressible svabhāva of the dharmas as of the dharma-dhātu. By the time of the Sarvāstivāda writings we have, this school taught that the many dharmas each had an individual svabhāva of its own, and this Nāgārjuna felt obliged to deny. Yet the original understanding of svabhāva by the earliest Sarvāstivādins may not have differed from the inexpressible svabhāva taught by Maitreya/Asaṅga, or even from the svabhāva that can only be personally known (pratyātmavedya) by the āryas accepted by Nāgārjuna according to Candrakīrti.

The fact is that, despite all the affirmations of all the Mādhyamika Buddhists on earth that we do, we do not know for sure what Nāgārjuna meant in his Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā. This is because his own commentary thereon is inexplicably lost. Similarly, we do not know for sure what Maitreya meant in his Abhisamayālaṃkāra, because the commentary thereon by Asaṅga (who he taught it to), is inexplicably lost. The Theosophical Mahatmas claim to have all such lost texts. The idea of svabhāva found in the stanzas we have from the Book of Dzyan may not conflict with the idea of svabhāva found in these texts. We can only hope that, as our habitual tendencies toward sectarian biases slowly subside, these texts will again be made available.

Category: Svabhavat | 4 comments

  • Nicholas Weeks says:

    If you mean the title EG-Plugins, then yes, EG Attachments shows up – I know that. But as I wrote above, clicking on EG-Attachments gives “no response.” I know neither of these buttons are ‘live’ because my cursor does not transform into the little ‘white gloved hand’.

  • David Reigle says:

    If you move your cursor over the title (or part of it) the link will show up. Then it can be clicked on. We are trying to find a way to make the links more visible.

  • Nicholas Weeks says:

    I suppose the EG-Attachments (under EG-Plugins) is where they would be, but neither Chrome nor Safari sees that button as ‘live’, so no response to clicking on it.

  • Nicholas Weeks says:

    David mentions attachments – where are they?


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