The Svabhāva Teaching Not to Be Attributed to Buddhism Today

By David Reigle on February 20, 2012 at 9:21 pm

On the introductory page to Svābhāvat under “Key Subjects” I have referred to two major problems with this term: its form and its meaning. Relating to the latter is its usage. The most immediate problem with the teaching of svabhāva as it is found in H. P. Blavatsky’s 1888 book, The Secret Doctrine, is its attribution to Buddhism. Buddhist studies were then just beginning, and at that time Western writers on Buddhism attributed the teaching of svabhāva to Buddhism. As Buddhist studies progressed in the next century, it was seen that this is incorrect; and in the case of Mahāyāna or Northern Buddhism, it is quite the opposite. The central Mahāyāna Buddhist teaching of emptiness (śūnyatā) is, in full, the emptiness or absence of svabhāva, inherent nature. So the following statements from The Secret Doctrine on the teaching of svabhāva in relation to Buddhism are incorrect, and should be updated. I quote them from the very helpful compilation made by Jacques.

“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 Svâbhâvat, . . .” (SD 1.3)

“It is, in its secondary stage, the Svabhavat of the Buddhist philosopher, . . .” (SD 1.46)

“Svâbhâvat is, so to say, the Buddhistic concrete aspect of the abstraction called in Hindu philosophy Mulaprakriti.” (SD 1.61)

“Svâbhâvat is the mystic Essence, . . . The name is of Buddhist use . . . .” (SD 1.98)

“. . . the infinite Substance, the noumenon of which the Buddhists call swâbhâvat . . . .” (SD 1.671)

The idea that Buddhists teach svabhāva came from the writings of Brian H. Hodgson, British Resident in Nepal from 1821 to 1843. He began publishing articles in Asiatic Researches in 1828, which were later collected into a book, Essays on the Languages, Literature and Religion of Nepal and Tibet (London, 1874, with an earlier Indian edition in 1841; for relevant excerpts, see: http://www.easterntradition.org/foundations%207.pdf). Since Nepal was then closed to foreign travelers, no one could check Hodgson’s information until Sylvain Levi’s trip there in 1898, and Buddhist scholars accepted Hodgson’s account of the Svābhāvika Buddhists of Nepal until well into the twentieth century. It was not fully abandoned by scholars until 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). No Svābhāvika school of Buddhism was found in Nepal. Its existence was based on a mistaken assumption, due to inadequate information, at that very early stage of Buddhist studies.

Other early and erroneous sources on the teaching of svabhāva in Buddhism, influenced by Hodgson, include Rev. Samuel Beal’s 1871 book, A Catena of Buddhist Scriptures from the Chinese. He there writes (p. 11): “Both these [Chinese] writers adopted the teaching of the Swābhāvika school of Buddhism, which is that generally accepted in China. This school holds the eternity of Matter as a crude mass, infinitesimally attenuated under one form, and expanded in another form into the countless beautiful varieties of Nature.” The equation of matter with the dharmas, which make up the Buddhist worldview, is adopted directly from Hodgson (1874 ed., p. 72): “Dharma is Diva natura, matter as the sole entity, invested with intrinsic activity and intelligence, the efficient and material cause of all.” Beal continues, on the next page (p. 12): “The expression ‘Fah-kai’ is a well-known one to signify the limits or elements of Dharma (dharma dhatu), where Dharma is the same as Prakriti, or Matter itself. Much confusion would have been avoided if this sense of Dharma, when used by writers of the Swābhāvika school, had been properly observed.” In fact, the dharmas are not at all the same as matter, and this has caused much confusion in early Western writings pertaining to Buddhism, including those by Blavatsky.

In relation to svabhāva Beal frequently uses the phrase, “universally diffused essence” (pp. 11, 12, 13, 14, 29, etc.), which he later (p. 373) equates with dharmakaya (cp. Mahatma Letter #15, 3rd ed. pp. 88-89). Blavatsky writes:

“As for Svâbhâvat, the Orientalists explain the term as meaning the Universal plastic matter diffused through Space, . . .” (SD 1.98 fn.)

The orientalist she is referring to is Samuel Beal, who she frequently draws material from.

Another orientalist who she draws material from is Rev. Joseph Edkins. From his 1880 book, Chinese Buddhism, pp. 308-309 (also p. 317), she copied the following erroneous information:

“Svâbhâvat, the “Plastic Essence” that fills the Universe, is the root of all things. Svâbhâvat is, so to say, the Buddhistic concrete aspect of the abstraction called in Hindu philosophy Mulaprakriti. . . . Chinese mystics have made of it the synonym of “being.” In the Ekasloka-Shastra of Nagarjuna (the Lung-shu of China) called by the Chinese the Yih-shu-lu-kia-lun, it is said that the original word of Yeu is “Being” or “Subhava,” “the Substance giving substance to itself,” also explained by him as meaning ” without action and with action,” “the nature which has no nature of its own.” Subhava, from which Svâbhâvat, is composed of two words: Su “fair,” “handsome,” “good”; Svâ, “self”; and bhâva, “being” or “states of being.”” (SD 1.61)

This has been misunderstood by Edkins, who in 1857 when he translated the Ekasloka-sastra could hardly have been expected to do any better. No reliable information was then available in Western sources about Nāgārjuna. Nāgārjuna was the most articulate of all Buddhist writers in formulating the teaching of the emptiness or absence of svabhāva in all dharmas. The word given by Edkins, subhava, is wrong, and should be svabhāva, as HPB perceived. But the etymology of subhava, copied by HPB, is erroneous for svabhāva. We have to “clear the deck” of all these extraneous and erroneous references before we can proceed to try to find out the meaning and significance of svabhāva in the Book of Dzyan.

There was in fact an early school of Buddhism that taught the eternal existence of the svabhāva of the dharmas. So the teaching of svabhāva can correctly be attributed to them. But this school, the Sarvāstivāda, has not existed for more than a thousand years, and its teaching has been refuted by the other schools of Buddhism.

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