The Connection to a Svabhāva Teaching in Buddhism

By David Reigle on March 9, 2012 at 6:08 pm

There remains the question of the missing link. The missing link is between how the term svabhāva is used in the stanzas we have from the Book of Dzyan and a svabhāva teaching, if not a Svābhāvika school, that is represented in Theosophical writings to be Buddhist. The obvious choice for this, the Svābhāvika school of Buddhism in Nepal that was referred to in Western writings on Buddhism from 1828 to 1989, was disqualified when doubts about its existence were confirmed in 1989. The fact that a Nepalese Buddhist teacher could describe such a school of thought to Brian H. Hodgson in 1828, based on Sanskrit Buddhist texts, is nonetheless intriguing. The next candidate was not a Buddhist school called Svābhāvika, but rather the svabhāva or inherent nature doctrine held by the Sarvāstivāda school of Buddhism. Although some of the Theosophical references may have been to this school, its doctrine as we know it pertains to the svabhāvas of the individual dharmas, while the Theosophical references pertain to the svabhāva of a single element. The Buddhist schools denied a single existing element, and even the individual dharmas had to be impermanent (anitya) and without a self (nairātmya). Rightly or wrongly, the Sarvāstivāda school was criticized by other Buddhist schools for its doctrine that the dharmas always exist (sarvāsti) by way of their svabhāva. As stated by Y. Karunadasa: “What provoked much opposition to the theory of sarvāstitva was that it was alleged to be a veiled recognition of the substance view which is radically at variance with the Buddhist teaching on the non-substantiality of all phenomena” (Foreword to Bhikkhu Dhammajoti’s Entrance into the Supreme Doctrine; “non-substantiality of all phenomena” translates nairātmya of all dharmas). This leads us into the question of whether there can be a third candidate within Buddhism.

There has always been the dilemma of why the entire edifice of Buddhism was built on a worldview that postulates only dharmas, a word that means attributes or properties, when these are not held to be the attributes or properties of anything. This is rather like postulating that there is sunshine, but no sun. The early Buddhist schools solved this by making the dharmas real (dravya), endowing them with svabhāva, an inherent nature that gives them reality. The Mahāyāna Buddhist schools with their emptiness doctrine took this reality, this svabhāva, away from the dharmas, bringing us back to square one. We have dharmas that are not ultimately real in themselves, like attributes or properties, but no dharmin, something these attributes or properties belong to.

The dharmas are described by Vyāsa in the Hindu Yoga-sūtra-bhāṣya, 3.13, as arising and disappearing in the dharmin, the substratum, an abiding substance (avasthita dravya). This same verse is where we have the parallel to the explanations of how the dharmas exist in the three periods of time, given in the Buddhist Abhidharmakośa-bhāṣya by Vasubandhu. In the Hindu account, the three explanations of how change occurs are all given as true, happening side by side; while in the Buddhist account, the four explanations are given as alternatives from which one is to be chosen as correct. Vyāsa’s account appears to me to be the more original one, while Vasubandhu’s account appears to me to be adapted to the requirements of its Buddhist setting. For, like other Buddhists, the Sarvāstivādins did teach that the dharmas are impermanent (anitya). Even though they exist in the three periods of time, they come into activity only in the present moment, and thus are momentary (kṣaṇika). In the Hindu account, Vyāsa sums up by saying that ultimately (paramārthataḥ) there is only one kind of change, because a dharma or attribute is only the nature (svarūpa, a synonym of svabhāva) of the dharmin, the substratum. They are not different. In his commentary on the next verse, 3.14, Vyāsa tells us that a dharma is only the potency or power or force (śakti) of the dharmin, the substratum, distinguished by its functionality. This is just like the Mahatma K.H.’s statement that svabhāva is force or motion. In the Buddhist Sarvāstivāda account, the force (śakti) is of the individual dharmas, not of the dharmin, the substratum. An existent substratum was always rejected in Buddhist philosophy, as having too many logical problems. But what if it is beyond existence, neither existent nor non-existent?

The dharma-dhātu, the element or realm of the dharmas, is not usually regarded in Buddhism as an existent substratum or existing element. It is an ultimate that is a non-entity. Nonetheless, in the Mahāyāna Buddhist writer Haribhadra’s Āloka, a joint commentary on the Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra in 8,000 Lines and on Maitreya’s Abhisamayālaṃkāra, we find it said that the dharmas are the svabhāva of the dharma-dhātu. Here are a couple examples, where he sums up the meaning of what has preceded. The Sanskrit references are given to both Unrai Wogihara’s 1932 edition, Abhisamayālaṃkārālokā, and to P. L. Vaidya’s 1960 edition, Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā.

etad uktam | rūpādīnāṃ dharma-dhātu-svabhāvatayā mahattā (Wogihara p. 176, line 3, Vaidya p. 349, line 15), “This is what was said: Form, etc. [the dharmas], are great, because they are the inherent nature [svabhāva] of the dharma-dhātu.”

etad uktam | dharma-dhātu-svabhāvatayā prajñā-pāramitāyāṃ sthitasya bodhisattvasya sarva-dharmāṇāṃ nodgraha-tyāga-bhāvanādikam iti (Wogihara, p. 185, lines 21-23, Vaidya p. 353, lines 10-11), “This is what was said: For a bodhisattva established in the Perfection of Wisdom there is no cultivation, etc., of the taking up or abandoning of all dharmas, because they are the inherent nature [svabhāva] of the dharma-dhātu.”

As will immediately be perceived, this is the idea that we have been seeking in Buddhist texts. The dharma-dhātu, or just dhātu, is the one element that is taught in Theosophical writings. That its svabhāva or inherent nature is the dharmas, the factors of existence that make up the world, is exactly the idea that would be expected based on the Theosophical sources. This idea given in Haribhadra’s writings did not seem to receive criticism from other Buddhist writers, presumably because the dharma-dhātu is not regarded as an existent substratum or existing element. In the Theosophical teachings, too, the one element is regarded as being beyond existence, neither existent nor non-existent. But neither did this idea seem to receive attention in Tibet, despite Haribhadra’s honored position there, where he was regarded by Tsongkhapa and others as the foremost Indian commentator on the Perfection of Wisdom texts. The idea that the dharmas are the svabhāva of the dharma-dhātu does not seem to have become a topic of discussion among Tibetan Buddhist writers. The idea that the dharma-dhātu has a svabhāva, however, did become a topic of debate, being regarded as heretical.

The Jonang school teaches that the ultimate, whether called the dharma-dhātu or some other synonym, has a svabhāva, an inherent nature (see, for example, “Whose Svabhāva is It?,” by Michael Sheehy, on the Jonang Foundation website: http://www.jonangpa.com/node/1235). This idea received much criticism from other Buddhist schools in Tibet, especially from the Gelugpas. The idea that the ultimate has a svabhāva or inherent nature was regarded as saying that it has inherent existence, taken in the context of existence and non-existence. Svabhāva became a bad word in Tibet, and the Jonang explanations that it is beyond the duality of existence and non-existence were unable to defuse the situation. The Jonang school is the only Tibetan Buddhist school known to me that openly teaches the svabhāva of the ultimate. The Jonangpas were bold enough to espouse this unpopular idea because they believed that their tradition was the revival of the lost Golden Age Tradition (see Dolpopa’s text, the Fourth Council, translated by Cyrus Stearns in his book, The Buddha from Dolpo). The primary Jonang writer, Dolpopa, uses many synonyms for the ultimate, including the dhātu or basic element, the dharma-dhātu, the tathāgata-garbha, the dharmatā, the prabhāsvara-citta or clear-light mind, etc. A quotation from his major work, Mountain Doctrine, translated by Jeffrey Hopkins, shows one of these synonyms, ultimate mind, as having svabhāva (p. 389): “Therefore, the import is that an ultimate other-empty mind endowed with inherent nature [rang bzhin, svabhāva] always abides as the basis of the emptiness of a conventional self-empty mind.” This is quite like the “one mind” taught in The Awakening of Faith, a classic in Chinese Buddhism. The svabhāva idea taught in the Jonang school is by no means a svabhāva doctrine, a svabhāvavāda, but their writers do specifically put this idea forth, explain it, and defend it.

The fact that Haribhadra says the dharmas are the svabhāva of the dharma-dhātu, matter-of-factly and without argument, would indicate that this idea was prevalent among Mahāyāna Buddhists in India during his time. The fact that Jonang writers teach and argue for the idea that the ultimate has svabhāva, whether we call this ultimate the dharma-dhātu or something else, shows that this idea was held by at least one Buddhist school in Tibet. These two facts provide us with the missing link between how the term svabhāva is used in the stanzas we have from the Book of Dzyan and a svabhāva teaching in Buddhism. What is said about svabhāva in the Book of Dzyan is not found in the writings of Brian Hodgson on the alleged Svābhāvika school of Nepal. It does, however, well match the idea that the dharmas are the svabhāva of the dharma-dhātu, and that the dharma-dhātu has svabhāva, both of which are in fact found in Buddhism. That these are not standard Buddhist teachings is only to be expected, since Theosophy never claimed that it was based on known Buddhism, but quite the opposite.

We have already seen such a svabhāva teaching in the hitherto lost Praṇava-vāda, and also in Gauḍapāda’s Māṇḍūkya-kārikā, both Hindu works. The addition of these Buddhist sources fills in the gap that had remained. We now have a much clearer picture of the meaning and usage of svabhāva in the Book of Dzyan.

Category: Svabhavat | 3 comments

  • David Reigle says:

    Thank you very much, Katinka, for bringing in this important point. This is true, and we have not yet even mentioned here the three svabhāvas taught in the Cittamātra school, also called the Yogācāra school. As you know, the Great Madhyamaka tradition uses the same texts, and distinguishes the Cittamātra or “mind-only” understanding of them from the Yogācāra or “yoga practice” understanding of them. This brings in the difference between an ultimate ālaya-vijñāna consciousness, accepted in Cittamātra, and an ultimate ālaya jñāna wisdom or prabhāsvara citta luminous mind, accepted in Yogācāra Great Madhyamaka, as the source of the world, or what might be called the ground of being.

  • katinka says:

    I would like to note that not all of Mahayana Buddhist philosophy sees objects as lacking inherent existence: this is the (Prasangika) Madhyamika viewpoint. It could be argued, in Chittamatrin perspective (the other major Mahayana filosophical school), that since everything is a product of consciousness, consciousness is itself the ground of all being.
    That is probably stretching the tradition beyond it’s bounds, but I’m not sure. Such a perspective sounds nearly like classic theosophy excepting that for the Chittamatrin consciousness is primary, while for Blavatsky Svabhava is a something that’s neither consciousness or matter (or both). I’m not sure the Chittamatrin would be comfortable with the phrase ‘ground of all being’ while for a theosophist it is essential in this context.

  • David Reigle says:

    Regarding the quotations from Haribhadra’s Āloka, rather than my own translations I had intended to give these as translated by Gareth Sparham (Abhisamayālaṃkāra with Vṛtti and Ālokā, 4 vols., Jain Publishing Company, 2006-2012). It is thanks to his English translation that I found these quotations. However, he incorrectly translates these as saying that the dharma-dhātu is the svabhāva of the dharmas, rather than that the dharmas are the svabhāva of the dharma-dhātu. Since this idea is of considerable importance to our research, I will provide some detail.

    Gareth was the first (and still the only) person to translate the two primary Indian commentaries on Maitreya’s Abhisamayālaṃkāra into English. This small and concise text outlines the path to Buddhahood buried in the large and diffuse Prajñāpāramitā sūtras. Because it gives the whole path to Buddhahood, the Abhisamayālaṃkāra (in Tibetan translation) became the most widely studied text in Tibet. Because of the complexity of this path, the Abhisamayālaṃkāra became the most commented on text in Tibet. Gareth has also translated Tsong kha pa’s extensive commentary on it, titled Golden Garland of Eloquence. Gareth’s long study of the Abhisamayālaṃkāra and the path it teaches, first with Tibetan lamas from Tibetan texts, and then later from the original Sanskrit texts, has allowed him to translate this complex material into English for us. One must know the technicalities of the system before the texts are comprehensible. One cannot just pick up a text and expect to comprehend it. So we are fortunate to have access to this material through his translations. But of course, in dealing with this vast material, small mistakes are easily made and are to be expected.

    Haribhadra’s statements usually use the compound, dharma-dhātu-svabhāvatayā, or dharma-dhātu-svabhāvatvāt. The suffixes -tā and -tva, basically meaning “-ness” or “-hood,” are very often used in Sanskrit as a quick substitute for the finite verb meaning “is” or “are.” When declined in the instrumental or ablative cases, -tayā or -tvāt, as they are here, they mean “because [something] is [such and such],” more literally, “by being . . . ,” or “due to being . . . .” These compounds are usually straightforward. Here we have simple tatpuruṣa or case relation compounds. In these, the genitive case ending, meaning “of,” must be supplied for dharma-dhātu. This gives us “the inherent nature (svabhāva) of the dharma-dhātu.” The declined suffixes -tayā or -tvāt then give us “because [they, i.e., dharmas] are the inherent nature of the dharma-dhātu.” This is, by the way, fully supported by the Tibetan translations, which supply the elided case endings for these tatpuruṣa compounds. They give chos kyi dbyings kyi ngo bo nyid, supplying the genitive case ending “kyi.”

    In order to reverse this meaning, and get that the dharma-dhātu is the inherent nature of the dharmas, one would have to take this compound as a bahuvrīhi, an adjective. This is apparently what Gareth did. If this compound was a bahuvrīhi or adjective, it could be translated as “they whose svabhāva is the dharma-dhātu,” or “having the dharma-dhātu as svabhāva.” But it is not. Since the -tā or -tva suffixes already directly say that something “is” something, one would not expect these compounds to be bahuvrīhis or adjectives that describe something else. Nonetheless, to be certain, the Tibetan translations can be checked. These reflect how the Indian pandit working with the Tibetan translator understood them. In order for these to be understood as bahuvrīhi or adjective compounds they would have to first be karmadhāraya compounds rather than tatpuruṣa compounds. Their words would have to be in apposition to each other (svabhāva is dharma-dhātu, or dharma-dhātu as svabhāva) rather than in a case relation to each other (svabhāva of the dharma-dhātu). As already said, the Tibetan translations show these as a tatpuruṣa or case relation compounds. This shows that they were not understood as bahuvrīhi compounds.

    This phrase, dharmāṇāṃ dharma-dhātu-svabhāvatayā (or -svabhāvatvāt), means literally, “of the dharmas, because of the being the inherent nature of the dharma-dhātu.” This, in English, is a very convoluted way of saying, “because the dharmas are the inherent nature of the dharma-dhātu.” This Sanskrit phrasing is very common, especially in prose commentaries on verse works. It was not until years into my Sanskrit studies (mostly reading verses) that I figured out how to translate this prose phrase. No Sanskrit textbook known to me explains it. To get idiomatic English, one must take the word declined in the genitive case as the subject, take the -tā or -tva suffix as the verb “is/are,” place the “because” at the very beginning (given at the very end of the Sanskrit by the instrumental or ablative case ending), and then bring in what the -tā or -tva suffix is attached to. Thus, “because (instrumental “ayā” of “ā”) the dharmas (dharmāṇām) are (-tā) the inherent nature of the dharma-dhātu (dharma-dhātu-svabhāva).” This also works when the word having the -tā or -tva suffix is declined in the nominative rather than the instrumental or ablative cases. One merely leaves out the “because.” Thus, rūpādīnāṃ mahattā: literally, “of form, etc., [there is] greatness”; idiomatically, “form, etc., are (-tā) great.” When the “subject” in the genitive case is not stated, one may supply a pronoun, “it” or “they.” Thus, dharma-dhātu-svabhāvatvāt: “because it is (or they are) the inherent nature of the dharma-dhātu.”

    Besides the instrumental -tayā and the ablative -tvāt, we also have this latter suffix -tva declined in the instrumental case, -tvena. In “because” clauses, all three have the same meaning: “because (it/they) is/are.” In other clauses the instrumentals -tayā and -tvena also have another meaning: “as being” (or simply, “as”). Sometimes a phrase using -tvena in this latter meaning is found along with a “because” phrase using -tvāt. Then the -tvena phrase may be subordinated to the -tvāt phrase. Thus, sarva-dharmāṇāṃ dharma-dhātu-svabhāvatvena rāgārāga-viviktatvāt: literally, “of all dharmas, as being the inherent nature of the dharma-dhātu, because they are distinct from desire and non-desire.” For idiomatic English, we may place the “because” of the -tvāt phrase first, make the genitive the subject, then insert the subordinate -tvena phrase, and then complete the -tvāt phrase. Thus, “because all dharmas, as being the inherent nature of the dharma-dhātu, are distinct from desire and non-desire.” The explanation of the Sanskrit construction of these phrases given in this and the previous paragraph is an aside, hopefully useful for Sanskrit students. The translation problem being referred to in this note specifically pertains to the construal of just the compound, not to the construal of the whole phrase.

    With the help of Gareth’s translation, I have taken note of nine places in Haribhadra’s text where this statement is made. Here is a listing of these places, along with his translations. My additions are given in double brackets. The single brackets and parentheses are his. His translations are followed by the Sanskrit text, with references to both Unrai Wogihara’s 1932 edition, Abhisamayālaṃkārālokā, and to P. L. Vaidya’s 1960 edition, Aṣṭasāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā. Then given are translations that are as literal as I could make them in keeping with English idiom, so that the Sanskrit text can be more easily followed and compared.

    1. Sparham, vol. 1, p. 304: “And why? Subhūti says, Because a Bodhisattva is as boundless as form, etc., is boundless. Based on the maxim, ‘There is no dharma over and above the dharma element [[dharma-dhātu]],’ just as the dharma element is boundless, so too is the form [skandha], etc., that has that for its essential nature [[svabhāva]] boundless.” Sanskrit, Wogihara p. 110, lines 3-4, Vaidya p. 323, line 1: . . . dharma-dhātuvat tat-svabhāvī-bhūtānāṃ yasmād rūpādīnāṃ aparyantatayā bodhisattvāparyantatā . . . . Reigle: “. . . like the dharma-dhātu, because form, etc., which are its inherent nature (svabhāva), are boundless, bodhisattvas are boundless . . .” (I have not translated yasmād here, because it correlates with tasmād later in the sentence).

    2. Sparham, vol. 2, p. 124: “Here [Maitreya] is saying that form and so on [[the dharmas]] are great because the Dharma Element [[dharma-dhātu]] is their final nature (svabhāva).” Sanskrit, Wogihara p. 176, line 3, Vaidya p. 349, line 15: etad uktam | rūpādīnāṃ dharma-dhātu-svabhāvatayā mahattā. Reigle: “This is what was said: Form, etc. [the dharmas], are great, because they are the inherent nature (svabhāva) of the dharma-dhātu.”

    3. Sparham, vol. 2, p. 130: “[Maitreya] is saying [the gods say a Bodhisattva] standing in that [Perfection of Wisdom] is certain that the form [skandha] and so on with the Dharma Element [[dharma-dhātu]] as its essential nature [[svabhāva]] is the Tathāgata.” Sanskrit, Wogihara p. 182, lines 11-12, Vaidya p. 351 lines 15-16: etad uktam | prajñā-pāramitāyāṃ sthitasya vastuno dharma-dhātu-svabhāvatayā rūpādīnāṃ tathāgatatvāvadhāraṇam iti. Reigle: “This is what was said: For something established in the Perfection of Wisdom, tathāgatahood (buddhahood) is ascertained, because form, etc., are the inherent nature (svabhāva) of the dharma-dhātu.”

    4. Sparham, vol. 2, p. 134: “[Maitreya] is saying [the gods are saying] that all dharmas have the Dharma Element [[dharma-dhātu]] as their essential nature [[svabhāva]], . . .” Sanskrit, Wogihara p. 185, lines 21-23, Vaidya p. 353, lines 10-11: etad uktam | dharma-dhātu-svabhāvatayā prajñā-pāramitāyāṃ sthitasya bodhisattvasya sarva-dharmāṇāṃ nodgraha-tyāga-bhāvanādikam iti. Reigle: “This is what was said: For a bodhisattva established in the Perfection of Wisdom there is no cultivation, etc., of the taking up or abandoning of all dharmas, because they are the inherent nature (svabhāva) of the dharma-dhātu.”

    5. Sparham, vol. 2, p. 241: “. . . a wholesome root . . . and has the same own-being [[svabhāva]] because its own-being is the Dharma Element [[dharma-dhātu]].” Sanskrit, Wogihara p. 350, lines 23-25, Vaidya p. 391, lines 18-19: . . . dharma-dhātu-svabhāvatvāt tat-svabhāvam. Reigle: “. . . [has] the inherent nature (svabhāva) of that, because it is the inherent nature (svabhāva) of the dharma-dhātu.”

    6. Sparham, vol. 3, p. 138: “He means that in true reality form, etc., its sign, and its own-being [[svabhāva]] are the Dharma Element, and the practice that therefore does not conceive, etc., of them enables [Bodhisattvas] to gain non-conceptual practice and not construct [or conceive of] powers that are ‘unthinkable,’ i.e., beyond thought.” Sanskrit, Wogihara p. 479, lines 1-2, Vaidya p. 425, line 8: tattvato dharma-dhātu-rūpatvād rūpādi-tan-nimitta-tat-svabhāvāvikalpanādi-pratipatti-sāmarthyena . . . . Reigle: “In reality, because it is the form of the dharma-dhātu, through the capability of the practice of non-conception, etc., of form, etc., which are the sign of that and the inherent nature (svabhāva) of that, . . .”

    7. Sparham, vol. 4, p. 196: “All dharmas have the Dharma Element for their own-being [[svabhāva]], [i.e., essential nature], so you cannot get at any other different suchness dharma. Since this is the case, ultimately, no one stands in suchness.” Sanskrit, Wogihara p. 859, lines 14-16, Vaidya p. 517, lines 14-15: dharma-dhātu-svabhāvatvāt sarva-dharmāṇāṃ tathatā-vyatiriktānya-dharmānupalambhe sati naiva kaścit paramārthatas tathatāyāṃ sthāsyati. Reigle: “Because all dharmas are the inherent nature (svabhāva) of the dharma-dhātu, there being no perception of other dharmas distinct from suchness, no one ultimately will stand in suchness.”

    8. Sparham, vol. 4, p. 228: “To remove the conceptualization of a nominal (prajñapti) being, [they should meditate] on the fact that, because all dharmas have, in their original nature, the Dharma Element as own-being [[svabhāva]], they are isolated from a shared or specific place.” Sanskrit, Wogihara p. 898, lines 4-5, Vaidya p. 527, lines 27-28: sattva-prajñapti-vikalpa-nirāsārtham sarva-dharmāṇāṃ prakṛtyā dharma-dhātu-svabhāvatvena sāmānya-viśiṣṭa-deśa-viviktatvāt. Reigle: “This is for the sake of removing the conceptualization of the designation of a being, because all dharmas, as naturally being the inherent nature (svabhāva) of the dharma-dhātu, are distinct from a common or specific place.”

    9. Sparham, vol. 4, p. 229: “To remove the conceptualization of attachment, [they should meditate] on the fact that all dharmas are isolated from attachment and non-attachment because they have as their own-being [[svabhāva]] the Dharma Element.” Sanskrit, Wogihara p. 898, lines 20-21, Vaidya p. 528, lines 2-3: sakti-vikalpa-nirāsārtham sarva-dharmāṇāṃ dharma-dhātu-svabhāvatvena rāgārāga-viviktatvāt. Reigle: “This is for the sake of removing the conceptualization of attachment, because all dharmas, as being the inherent nature (svabhāva) of the dharma-dhātu, are distinct from desire and non-desire.”

    Note: I sent this to Gareth before posting it, and he very graciously encouraged me to go ahead and post it.


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