A Svābhāvika School of Buddhism?

By David Reigle on March 3, 2012 at 2:39 pm

As already discussed here, the alleged Svābhāvika school of Buddhism in Nepal that is spoken of in many books on Buddhism, and also in Theosophical writings, turned out not to exist. Brian H. Hodgson had described this and three other alleged schools of Buddhism in Nepal in an article published in Asiatic Researches in 1828, later reprinted with other articles in his book, Essays on the Languages, Literature and Religion of Nepal and Tibet (London, 1874). The excerpts translated from Buddhist texts that he gave in support of this school (1874 ed., pp. 73-76) are also elusive, only a few of them yet having been traced from his early and expectedly faulty translations. The facts of the situation did not fully emerge until 161 years later, through David N. Gellner’s 1989 article, “Hodgson’s Blind Alley? On the So-Called Schools of Nepalese Buddhism” (Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies, vol. 12). I was able to verify for myself what Gellner found, when in 1995 Nancy and I could study with Gautam Vajracharya, who comes from a prominent Buddhist teacher family in Nepal. But as we have often seen, even though references in Theosophical writings may be quite wrong, the ideas that these references are used to support may accurately represent the ideas intended by the Theosophical teachers.

The Mahatma letters were often written by chelas such as H. P. Blavatsky at the behest of the Theosophical Mahatma teachers, much like when an executive today may tell a secretary to write such and such in a letter to someone. The secretary may have to draw upon currently available reference books when doing this. This explains many of the erroneous references that we find in these writings. But the ideas given are in a different category. These must be separated out. One of the most important Theosophical statements on the Svābhāvikas was given in Mahatma letter #22, by or on behalf of Mahatma K.H., writing to A. O. Hume in 1882: “Study the laws and doctrines of the Nepaulese Swabhavikas, the principal Buddhist philosophical school in India, and you will find them the most learned as the most scientifically logical wranglers in the world. Their plastic, invisible, eternal, omnipresent and unconscious Swabhavat is Force or Motion ever generating its electricity which is life.”

The reference to “the principal Buddhist philosophical school in India” is a bit incongruous in reference to Svābhāvikas in Nepal. As I have suggested earlier (Book of Dzyan Research Report #3, 1997, p. 6), this may actually refer to the Sarvāstivāda school in old India (see also Book of Dzyan Research Report #4, 1997, pp. 2-3, 24). Today we have an important source on these early Buddhists, titled Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma, by Bhikkhu K. L. Dhammajoti (Colombo, 2002; 2nd rev. ed. 2004; 3rd rev. and enl. ed., Hong Kong, 2007; 4th rev. ed. 2009). Although there has not been any Buddhist school in India for about a thousand years, the Sarvāstivāda school was once “the principal Buddhist philosophical school in India.” In the book, Sarvāstivāda Abhidharma, we read (4th ed., p. 56): “The Sarvāstivāda remained the most powerful and influential school in north-western India from around the beginning of the Common Era to about the 7th century C.E.” Moreover (p. 60), “According to the *Samayabhedoparacanacakra, most of the early Buddhist sects had accepted the doctrine of sarvāstitva, even though they seem to have disputed endlessly on what it really meant for them in each case.” The distinctive Sarvāstivāda doctrine is that “all exists” (sarva asti, sarvāsti, sarvāstitva). This means that all dharmas, all the factors of existence, exist in the past, the present, and the future. They do this by way of their svabhāva, their inherent nature, which remains the same throughout the three time periods. In this sense, the Sarvāstivādins may be considered Svābhāvikas, and their doctrine has been described as a svabhāvavāda (Ryotai Fukuhara, “On Svabhāvavāda”), although neither they nor other Buddhist schools called them Svābhāvikas.

(to be continued)

Category: Svabhavat | 1 comment

  • David Reigle says:

    Bhikkhu Dhammajoti’s books can be obtained from here: http://www.buddhism.hku.hk/Publications.html

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