A Svābhāvika School of Buddhism?, part 3

By David Reigle on March 5, 2012 at 5:25 am

The Sarvāstivāda doctrine was unique in Buddhism in holding that the dharmas, the factors of existence, exist throughout the three periods of time, past, present, and future, and they do this by way of their individual svabhāvas, their inherent natures. The svabhāva, which makes a dharma what it is, remains the same, even though the dharma undergoes change. As put by Bhikkhu Dhammajoti (p. 134): “throughout the three periods of time, the dravya (= svabhāva) remains unchanged. This is sarvāstivāda or sarvāstitva in a nutshell.” At the beginning of this chapter (Chapter 5, “Sarvāstitva and Temporality,” the chapter that explains the distinctive Sārvāstivāda doctrine), he had concisely stated the situation (p. 117): “All said and done, sarvāstitva must imply the continuous existence of an essence in some sense. But just precisely in what sense, was something that the Ābhidharmika Buddhists—Sarvāstivādins themselves included—were unable to specify. For the Sarvāstivādins, the failure to do so is not to be considered a fault on their part. It is on account of the profound nature of dharma-s which, in the final analysis, transcends human conceptualization.”

In order to explain how a dharma could always exist (sarvāsti) throughout the three time periods, the Sarvāstivādins said “that a dharma is present when its exercises its kāritra [activity], future when its kāritra [activity] is not yet exercised, past when it has been exercised” (p. 126). What makes it possible for a dharma to exercise its activity (kāritra) and thus enter the present? Its potency or force or power (śakti) to do so. The famous Sarvāstivāda writer Saṃghabhadra explains, as translated from the extant Chinese translation by Bhikkhu Dhammajoti (p. 126): “The potencies (śakti) of dharma-s are of two kinds, activity (kāritra) and efficacy/function/capability/capacity (sāmarthya/vṛtti/vyāpāra).” This explanation of the potency or power or force (śakti) that the dharmas have according to this school is reminiscent of the Mahatma K.H.’s statement about the Svābhāvikas, “Their plastic, invisible, eternal, omnipresent and unconscious Swabhavat is Force or Motion ever generating its electricity which is life.” Moreover, the Sarvāstivādins did not call themselves Sarvāstivādins, but rather called themselves Yuktavādins, the “advocates of logic” (Bhikkhu Dhammajoti, pp. 56, 242), or proponents of reasoning. This is because in their debates with other Buddhist schools they appealed primarily to logic or reasoning, while their opponents appealed primarily to scriptural authority (the Sautrāntikas even derived their name from taking the scriptures, the sūtras, as authority). Again, this is reminiscent of the Mahatma K.H.’s statement, “you will find them the most learned as the most scientifically logical wranglers in the world.”

It is possible that the Mahatma K.H. was here referring to the Sarvāstivādins, or perhaps more specifically to a Sarvāstivāda doctrine that preceded the Sarvāstivāda school as we know it. We may summarize the known Sarvāstivāda doctrine as follows: All dharmas have svabhāva, which remains the same throughout the three periods of time. A dharma enters the present time when, due to its potency or power or force (śakti), it comes into activity (kāritra). How this change in a dharma occurs, while its svabhāva remains unchanged, is explained in four different ways by four early Sarvāstivāda teachers. These four explanations are given by Vasubandhu in his Abhidharmakośa and his own commentary thereon, chapter 5, verses 25-27. Three almost identical positions on how change occurs, with almost verbatim explanations, are given by Vyāsa in his commentary on Yoga-sūtra 3.13 (see also 4.12), although here in this Hindu text they are of course not given as Buddhist positions. This is obviously an old teaching, which has been recorded in two different traditions, traditions having different doctrinal positions. One of these traditions, Sāṃkhya-Yoga, accepts a unitary eternal substance, while the other tradition, Buddhism, does not; yet both accepted this old teaching on how things exist in the three time periods. From Theosophical sources we learn of an original Buddhist school that would have preceded the formation of the Sarvāstivāda school, with the clear implication that the Theosophical Mahatmas follow this original school (Blavatsky Collected Writings, vol. 5, pp. 245-248; Theosophical Glossary under Abhayagiri). Perhaps this original school accepted what I have called prehistoric svabhāvavāda.

In the Theosophical teachings there is no indication that svabhāva is the svabhāva of anything but the one element (eka-dhātu), while in the Buddhist teachings of all the early schools, including the Sarvāstivādins, there is no indication that svabhāva is the svabhāva of anything but the individual dharmas. This may be the problem, which made it so hard for the Sarvāstivādins to defend their teaching that svabhāva always exists. On this hypothesis, they would have received the original teaching that svabhāva must always exist; but being unable to speak of the one element, and in accordance with the Buddhist teaching of the multiplicity of the dharmas, they had to formulate the teaching of an always existing svabhāva in terms of the changing dharmas. This latter was an almost impossible task. Bhikkhu Dhammajoti writes, continuing the quotation from the beginning of Chapter 5 given above (p. 117):

“Once this metaphysical notion, however elusive, of an underlying essence of phenomena came to be emphasized, the debates—as to its truth or otherwise, and as to its precise implications—continued endlessly. . . . In these debates, we see the Ābhidharmikas—including the self-professed sūtra-based Sautrāntikas—utilizing logic as a tool to the utmost. At the end of the day, the Vaibhāṣikas [i.e., the Sarvāstivādins] had to be content with a form of identity-in-difference (bhedābheda) logic. In the depths of their hearts, however, it would seem that it is their religious insight and intuition—even if they happen to defy Aristotelian logic—that must be upheld at all cost.”

We see from the lengthy passage in Isis Unveiled (1877, vol. 2, pp. 264-265), quoted in The Secret Doctrine (1888, vol. 1, pp. 3-4), that from beginning to end, HPB understood the Theosophical teaching she received from her Mahatma teachers to be that svabhāva is the svabhāva of “the one infinite and unknown Essence” that “exists from all eternity.” When this “unknown essence” is, metaphorically speaking, “awake” or “active” or breathing out, the “outbreathing of the ‘unknown essence’ produces the world.” It is this “active condition of this ‘Essence’” that HPB understood as the svabhāva taught by the Svābhāvikas: “The Svâbhâvikas, or philosophers of the oldest school of Buddhism (which still exists in Nepaul), speculate only upon the active condition of this ‘Essence,’ which they call Svabhâvât, and deem it foolish to theorize upon the abstract and ‘unknowable’ power in its passive condition.” It is the inherent nature (svabhāva) of this essence (the one element, dhātu) to periodically outbreathe, and this produces what we perceive as the manifestation of the world. That svabhāva is the activity or outbreathing is fully supported by the Mahatma K.H.’s statement about the Svābhāvikas calling it force or motion: “Their plastic, invisible, eternal, omnipresent and unconscious Swabhavat is Force or Motion ever generating its electricity which is life.” It is the motion of the one element, its inherent nature (svabhāva), that produces the world. This motion is its life, its breathing, something inherent to it. This inherent motion produces the illusion of the world, just like, in Gauḍapāda’s analogy, the motion of a firebrand produces illusory shapes. But these shapes cannot have any ultimate reality, and consequently, any svabhāva. Likewise, in agreement with Mahāyāna doctrine, the individual dharmas cannot have any ultimate reality, and consequently, any svabhāva.

We do not know exactly what the original teachings of Buddhism were, despite the claims of each now existing Buddhist school to have them just as the Buddha taught them. Buddhism appears to have been a unified tradition for the first hundred or so years of its existence. Then the first schism occurred, and in the following centuries the “eighteen schools” of early Buddhism arose. Due to absence of original sources, and conflicting information in available sources, to sort out these early schools is, in the words of Etienne Lamotte, “futile” (History of Indian Buddhism, Chapter Six, “The Buddhist Sects,” English p. 548, French p. 606). The first schism resulted in the Mahāsāṃghikas and the Sthaviravādins. The Sarvāstivādins, along with several other schools, are included in the Sthaviravādins, and at first considered themselves Sthaviravādins. As Bhikkhu Dhammajoti says about the Sarvāstivādins, “Both they, as well as their opponents—the Vibhajyavādins—seemed to continue for quite some time to assume the status of the orthodox Sthaviravādins” (Entrance into the Supreme Doctrine: Skandhila’s Abhidharmāvatāra, Colombo, 1998; 2nd rev. ed. Hong Kong, 2008, “Introduction,” pp. 18-19). The present day Theravādins, the Pali form of the Sanskrit word Sthaviravādin, also consider themselves to be the orthodox Sthaviravādins. Certainly doctrinal developments took place, such that we cannot know which doctrines were original and which were not. Bhikkhu Dhammajoti tells us that (Entrance, p. 19):

“Although in the Vijñāna-kāya-śāstra, the existence of dharma-s in the three periods of time was already explicitly asserted and argued for, we have to wait until the Jñāna-prasthāna-śāstra to find their fully developed theory of the everlasting existence of the svabhāva of dharma-s. In fact, it was the Jñāna-prasthāna-śāstra that established the Sarvāstivāda dogma in a definite form.”

All we can say is that there was a large and influential early school of Buddhism, the Sarvāstivādins, who taught the everlasting existence of the svabhāva of the dharmas. We do not know if this was an original teaching of Buddhism. The Svābhāvika school of Buddhism referred to in Theosophical writings, whose teachings were identified with the Theosophical teachings, was apparently understood to have taught the svabhāva of the one element (dhātu) rather than the svabhāva of the individual dharmas. Since this is not the teaching of the Sarvāstivādins, and the alleged Svābhāvika school in Nepal does not exist, we are left with the idea that in Theosophical writings the Svābhāvika school of Buddhism refers to what is taken to be the original teachings of Buddhism preserved by the Theosophical Mahatmas.

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