A Svābhāvika School of Buddhism?, part 2

By David Reigle on March 4, 2012 at 6:02 am

Despite the early dominance of the Sarvāstivāda school of Buddhism, we no longer hear of the Sarvāstivāda doctrine, because only schools of Buddhism that opposed it exist at present. Neither current books on Buddhism nor modern Buddhist teachers tell us that Buddhism once taught, “all exists” (sarvam asti). The early schools of Buddhism were all in general agreement that the dharmas are real, real existents or substances (dravya), and thus that they each have a svabhāva, an inherent nature. For, as put by Bhikkhu Dhammajoti (Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma, p. 65), “What is real is what has a svabhāva.” But while the Sarvāstivādins taught that the dharmas exist throughout the three time periods, the early schools who opposed them taught that the dharmas, although real, do not exist for more than a moment, much less throughout the three time periods. The dharmas along with their svabhāvas arise, exist, and perish, all in a moment. This is the doctrine we find today in the Theravāda school, which has survived up to the present in Southeast Asian countries.

The basic teaching of the early Buddhist schools, that the dharmas are real and thus have a svabhāva, was then denied by the Mahāyāna schools. For the Mahāyāna schools, the dharmas are not real existents or substances (dravya). This was denied by denying that the dharmas have svabhāva. Thus, we have their famous statements that all dharmas or phenomena are empty of or lack svabhāva, an inherent nature or inherent existence. To the often repeated statements of one of these schools that no svabhāva is ultimately findable anywhere, the Sarvāstivādins would reply that the svabhāva of a dharma is, in ultimate truth, exactly what IS findable, and the only thing that is findable. This is clearly stated in the Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya by Vasubandhu, chapter 6, verse 4. Vasubandhu introduces this verse by asking what is the definition of the two truths, conventional truth and ultimate truth (or relative truth and absolute truth). The verse concisely states these (translated by Poussin and Pruden): “The idea of a jug ends when the jug is broken; the idea of water ends when, in the mind, one analyzes the water. The jug and the water, and all that resembles them, exist relatively. The rest exist absolutely.” The bhāṣya or commentary explains as follows, skipping to the explanation of ultimate or absolute truth (translated directly from Sanskrit by Bhikkhu Dhammajoti, Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma, p. 67; words in single brackets are his, while words in double brackets have been added by me):

“Absolute truth (paramārthasatya) is other than this [[conventional or relative truth]]. Therein, even when [a thing] has been broken, the cognition of it definitely arises and likewise, even when its [constituent] dharma-s are removed mentally—that is [to be understood as] an absolute existent (paramārthasat). For instance rūpa: for, therein, when the thing is broken into the atoms (paramāṇuśaḥ), and when the [constituent] dharma-s taste, etc., have been removed mentally, the cognition of the intrinsic nature [[svabhāva]] of rūpa definitely arises. Vedanā, etc., are also to be seen in the same way. This is called absolute truth as the existence is in the absolute sense (etat paramārthena bhāvāt paramārthasatyam iti).”

After analyzing a jug and water and mentally removing the imputations of jug and water, we see that the jug and water only exist in conventional or relative truth. But then, in ultimate or absolute truth, “the cognition of the intrinsic nature [svabhāva] of rūpa definitely arises” (rūpasya svabhāva-buddhir bhavaty eva). This ultimate or absolute truth, Vasubandhu goes on to tell us, is cognized by supramundane or trans-worldly knowledge (lokottara-jñāna), or by the kind of mundane knowledge (laukika-jñāna) that is obtained immediately following upon (tat-pṛṣṭha-labdha) an experience of supramundane knowledge in meditation. This, he reports, is the teaching of the ancient masters (pūrvācārya).

The very same criterion for ultimate or absolute truth is accepted by the Mahāyāna schools. One must then wonder why some āryas who have the capacity of supramundane knowledge are reported to cognize svabhāva, while other āryas who have the capacity of supramundane knowledge are reportedly unable to find any svabhāva. This puts the now forgotten Sarvāstivāda doctrine on an equal footing with the now prevalent Mahāyāna doctrine. The fact of the Theosophical associations with Tibet, and that Tibet is a Mahāyāna country, does not oblige us to follow the Mahāyāna criticisms of Sarvāstivāda (which, as shown by Ryotai Fukuhara in his article, “On Svabhāvavāda,” sometimes misrepresent the Sarvāstivāda position). What we know is that the stanzas we have from the Book of Dzyan use the word svabhāva, that the Mahatma K.H. advised A. O. Hume to study the doctrines of the Svābhāvikas, that HPB in an 1877 letter said that her teacher “is a Buddhist, but not of the dogmatic Church, but belongs to the Svabhavikas” (The Letters of H. P. Blavatsky, vol. 1, p. 353), and that in another 1877 letter she said about herself that “I am a Shwabhavika, a Buddhist Pantheist, if anything at all” (p. 370). We have more to learn about the svabhāva doctrine of the Sarvāstivāda school of Buddhism.

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