Dharmatā in the Questions of Maitreya

By David Reigle on April 9, 2012 at 5:36 am

In our investigation of the dhātu (“element, basic space”) and its synonyms as a central idea in the system of the Book of Dzyan, the term dharmatā (“true nature”) has been brought in as the definition of svabhāva (“inherent nature”), when svabhāva is used in its highest meaning. The Yogācāra school of Buddhism speaks of the three svabhāvas: (1) parikalpita svabhāva, the “imagined nature”; (2) paratantra svabhāva, the “dependent nature”; and (3) pariniṣpanna svabhāva, the “perfect nature”. In the Prajñā-pāramitā or Perfection of Wisdom texts, a similar listing is found in the chapter known as the “Questions of Maitreya” (maitreya-paripṛcchā, chapter 72 of the version in 25,000 lines, and chapter 83 of the version in 18,000 lines). There, dharmatā (“true nature”) is the third and highest, corresponding to the pariniṣpanna svabhāva (“perfect nature”).

So verse 6 of stanza 1 of the Book of Dzyan could just as well say that the universe was immersed in dharmatā as in pariniṣpanna. The same is true for verse 1 of stanza 2. It is just a matter of which term is used in which class of texts. The fact that pariniṣpanna (Tibetan yongs grub) is given among the technical terms found in the Book of Dzyan (The Secret Doctrine, vol. 1, p. 23) tells us that this book used Yogācāra terms rather than terms from the Perfection of Wisdom texts.

The Yogācāra texts have formed the basis not only of the Cittamātra or “mind-only” school, but also of the so-called “Great Madhyamaka” school. There they are understood differently than in the Cittamātra school. There they cross over directly to the Perfection of Wisdom texts, the primary sourcebooks of all Madhyamaka schools. This cross-over was made possible by the “Questions of Maitreya” chapter found in two of the large Perfection of Wisdom texts. In this chapter, the Buddha replies to Maitreya’s questions, telling him that all dharmas can be understood as parikalpita (kun brtags), “[falsely] imagined”, vikalpita (rnam par brtags), “conceptualized”, and by way of their dharmatā (chos nyid), “true nature”, obviously corresponding to the three svabhāvas of the Yogācāra texts.

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