From Svabhāva to Dharmatā to Dhātu

By David Reigle on March 30, 2012 at 5:52 am

In my post titled “Notes on the Denial of Svabhāva in Mahāyāna Buddhism,” Candrakīrti’s Prasannapadā commentary on Nāgārjuna’s Mūla-madhyamaka-kārikā (chapter 15, verse 2) was quoted saying that svabhāva, “inherent nature,” is ultimately only in the range of the āryas (those who have achieved the “path of seeing”). Candrakīrti had earlier quoted this same verse and the preceding one from Nāgārjuna, in his Madhyamakāvatāra-bhāṣya. Here in his commentary a questioner asks Candrakīrti if the kind of svabhāva accepted by Nāgārjuna exists. He replies that it is the dharmatā, literally, “dharma-ness,” often translated as “true nature.” In giving this reply, Candrakīrti quotes the famous catechism-like phrase, “Whether Tathāgatas arise or do not arise, this dharma-ness [dharmatā] of dharmas remains.”

As noted in the introductory post to the “key subject” of dhātu, titled “Basic Space, the One Element, the dhātu,” this phrase more often says that the dhātu remains. But the dharmatā is a common variant. They are used as synonyms in this phrase. So we have this ultimate svabhāva, “inherent nature,” defined as dharmatā, “true nature,” which is here the same as dhātu, “element,” or “basic space.” Here is Candrakīrti’s passage, again as accurately translated by William L. Ames, in “The Notion of Svabhāva in the Thought of Candrakīrti” (previously linked), p. 163. Candrakīrti begins by quoting Nāgārjuna’s two verses:

“The arising of svabhāva through causes and conditions is not right. A svabhāva arisen from causes and conditions would be artificial (kṛtaka). (15-1)

“But how will svabhāva be called artificial? For svabhāva is non-contingent (akṛtrima) and without dependence on another. (15-2)

“[Question:] But does there exist a svabhāva of the sort defined by the ācārya [Nāgārjuna] in the treatise [Mūlamadhyamakakārikās], which is accepted by the ācārya? [Answer:] What is called dharma-ness (chos nyid, dharmatā) exists, regarding which the Blessed One said, “Whether Tathāgatas arise or do not arise, this dharma-ness of dharmas remains,” etc. [Question:] But what is this which is called dharma-ness? [Answer:] The svabhāva of these [dharmas], such as the eye. [Question:] But what is their svabhāva? [Answer:] That which these have which is non-contingent and without dependence on another; [it is their] intrinsic nature, which is to be comprehended by cognition free from the ophthalmia of misknowledge. Who [would] ask whether that exists or not? If it did not exist, for what purpose would bodhisattvas cultivate the path of the perfections? Because [it is] in order to comprehend that dharma-ness [that] bodhisattvas undertake hundreds of difficult [actions].”

Category: Dhatu | 2 comments

  • David Reigle says:

    You bring in the big questions, Capt. Anand. As you know, the religions of India have always been distinguished from the Abrahamic religions by their use of reasoning to establish their teachings. So the Nyaya and Vaisesika philosophical schools argue for their pluralistic worldview, the Samkhya and Yoga philosophical schools argue for their dualistic worldview, and the various Vedanta schools argue for their non-dualistic worldview (Advaita), or qualified non-dualistic worldview (Visistadvaita), or even dualistic worldview with a single brahman (Dvaita). Most people throughout known history have thought that ultimately one of these must be right, and the others wrong. This, however, makes for some difficulties. So there have also been attempts to see how these could be harmonized. The most well-known of these in the last few centuries is by Vijnana-bhiksu.

    The approach that we see in the previously lost Pranava-vada gives an entirely different picture of how these various philosophical schools interacted long ago. They did not see each other as being mutually contradictory or wrong. But how can this be? Apparently it has to do with seeing reality from different standpoints. The famous example used in India is of course the blind men and the elephant. The most helpful explanation that I have found of the three philosophical standpoints, by which non-duality is true, duality is true, and plurality is true, is given by Jagadisha Chandra Chatterji in the introduction to his 1912 book, The Hindu Realism (which I think is available online). The teaching of “the one” is made from the highest of these philosophical standpoints, but there are many aspects of life where the dual or plural standpoints are more practical and useful. This threefold approach shows how these are not wrong. The logical proofs given for any of these systems make more sense when seen from these three standpoints. I think that they can also be well applied to the various offerings of modern science.

  • Capt. Anand Kumar says:

    Thank You David for explaining the concept of Dhatu in such detail. It only goes to establish that the science’s quest to find the “Basic Building Block of the Universe” has its roots in the philosophical quest for the same. But a question arises, what if it was not true.

    The human mind has been conditioned to think that all must evolve from one. But what if there was more than one element (Dhatu). My question is if there has been any reference to such thought anywhere and how it has been refuted? Thank You David.


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