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The Doctrine of Svabhava or Svabhavata
and the Questions of Anatman and Shunyata
by David Reigle
[Accents have been removed from the original edition because of technical limitations.]
The doctrine of svabhava or svabhavata, as was discussed in the previous Book of Dzyan Research Report, "Technical Terms in Stanza II," is a fundamental doctrine of the "Book of Dzyan" as presented in The Secret Doctrine by H. P. Blavatsky. To establish its validity outside the small circle of believing Theosophists, it must be traced in the Buddhist texts where it is said to be found. Until it can be traced in the Buddhist texts, the affirmation of its former existence by a Nepalese Buddhist Vajracharya carries no more weight to objective investigators than do statements about it by Theosophical Mahatmas. To trace it in the Buddhist texts we must necessarily do so in terms of the "dharmas," the word they use throughout for all the "elements of existence." Here we will need to reconcile their universally-held doctrine that all dharmas are anatman, or "without self," with the Theosophical teachings which regularly use the term atman. Then we come to their teaching of shunyata, the "emptiness" of all dharmas. Only at this point are we back to svabhava, for shunyata is defined as the nihsvabhava, the "lack of svabhava," of all dharmas.
It will already be obvious that for our research we must first find out if there is anything taught in Buddhism that is not a dharma, something beyond the "elements of existence." The Buddhist authority Walpola Rahula, explaining dhamma, the Pali equivalent of the Sanskrit dharma, tells us that there is not:
There is no term in Buddhist terminology wider than dhamma . It includes not only the conditioned things and states, but also the non-conditioned, the Absolute, Nirvana. There is nothing in the universe or outside, good or bad, conditioned or non-conditioned, relative or absolute, which is not included in this term.
[Walpola Rahula, What the Buddha Taught, 1959; second enlarged edition, New York: Grove Press, 1974, p. 58. Note that many current Buddhist writers translate "dharmas" as "phenomena."]
In an earlier Book of Dzyan Research Report, "Theosophy in Tibet: The Teachings of the Jonangpa School," the Buddhist teaching of the dhatu, the "element," described as permanent, stable, quiescent, and eternal, was likened to the Theosophical teaching of the "one element." What, then, is the relationship between the one element, the dhatu, and the many elements of existence, the dharmas? A verse from the now lost Mahayana-abhidharma-sutra, quoted in several extant Buddhist texts, tells us that it is their basis or support (samashraya):
anadi-kaliko dhatuh sarva-dharma-samashrayah | tasmin sati gatih sarva nirvanadhigamo 'pi ca ||
From beginningless time the element is the basis of all the dharmas. Because it exists, all the destinies [of living beings] exist, and even the [possibility of the] attainment of nirvana.
[All translations are by myself unless otherwise noted. This verse is here taken from Asabaga's commentary after 1.152 of the Ratna-gotra-vibhaga, where it explains the tathagata-garbha or Buddha-nature, the dhatu or element when obscured. Hence, dhatu's Tibetan translation is here khams, element. When this verse occurs in Yogacara texts, as at the beginning of Asabaga's Mahayana-samgraha, and in Sthiramati's commentary on verse 19 of Vasubandhu's Vijnapti-matrata-siddhi-trimshika, it explains the alaya-vijnana or substratum consciousness. Hence, dhatu's Tibetan translation is there dbyins, or realm. This verse is accepted not only by the Jonangpas and the Yogacarins, but also by the Prasabagika Madhyamikas, the dominant school in Tibet. It is quoted approvingly by Jam-yang-shay-ba in his somewhat polemical Tibetan monastic study manual, with the comment: "The Prasabagikas accept these passages literally." See Jeffrey Hopkins' partial translation of this study manual in Meditation on Emptiness, London: Wisdom Publications, 1983, where this occurs on p. 623.]
This seems to also provide us with a firm basis for tracing the Theosophical svabhava or svabhavata doctrine in Buddhist sources. If the element is thought of as svabhava, and svabhava is indeed given as one of its meanings in Maitreya's Ratna-gotra-vibhaga, we would have it. So what happened to this teaching?
[Ratna-gotra-vibhaga 1.29 gives ten meanings for the dhatu, the first of which is svabhava.]
Early Buddhism was divided into many schools. Although they classified the dharmas differently, and even had different numbers of dharmas, generally speaking they held that each dharma was a real existent (dravya), had its own svabhava, and was impermanent (anitya).
[See: Etienne Lamotte, History of Indian Buddhism from the Origins to the Shaka Era, translated from the French by Sara Webb-Boin, Louvain-la-Neuve: Institut Orientaliste de l'Universite Catholique de Louvain, 1988, p. 600.]
Thus the svabhava of a dharma is here its individual nature, which is non-eternal. An exception to this was the Sarvastivada school. The teachings of this once-dominant school have been preserved for us as taught by the Vaibhasikas of Kashmir in Vasubandhu's Abhidharma-kosha . This text, however, says little about their svabhava teaching. But the same author wrote a commentary on this text criticizing many of its teachings from the standpoint of the Sautrantika school. Strangely enough, it is here in a verse ridiculing this teaching that we find its clearest statement:
svabhavah sarvada casti bhavo nityash ca nesyate | na ca svabhavad bhavo 'nyo vyaktam ishvara-cestitam ||
Svabhava always exists, but an existent entity is not held to be permanent; yet an existent entity is not different from svabhava. Clearly, [and absurdly,] this is the doing of [some imaginary] God.
[This verse is found in Vasubandhu's Abhidharma-kosha-bhasya on 5.27.]
No Buddhist school has ever believed in God. The Sautrantikas are saying that this position is so illogical that it would have to be the work of an all-powerful God who could transcend the laws of reason, and hence for Buddhists it is completely absurd. The Sarvastivada position seems to be that the svabhava of a dharma is eternal, although an independently existing entity (bhava) is not eternal. If this svabhava is taken to be the one element, we would have an exact statement of the Theosophical position. There is the one element, only the one element, and nothing but the one element; and it is eternal. All apparently existing things are non-eternal as such. Yet, if there is nothing but the one element, all apparently existing things cannot be different from it. But the Sarvastivada position was not seen in this way. Rather it was seen like that of the other early Buddhist schools to refer to the svabhava of the individual dharmas. For as stated in the early Samaya-bhedoparacana-cakra by Vasumitra, who was himself a Sarvastivadin, "The svabhava [of a dharma] does not combine with the svabhava [of another dharma]."
["Origin and Doctrines of Early Indian Buddhist Schools: A Translation of the Hsuan-chwang Version of Vasumitra's Treatise," trans. Jiryo Masuda, Asia Major, vol. 2, 1925, p. 48 (section 3, chapter 5, verse 29). See also Abhidharma-kosha 1.18 for a similar statement.]
Vasumitra's treatise is terse and admittedly not always easy to understand, but my bracketed material in the above quote certainly reflects how later schools understood the Sarvastivada position, namely that their eternal svabhava is that of the individual dharmas.
Buddhist thought as studied in Tibet for the last millennium holds that the Sarvastivadins or Vaibhasikas were refuted by the Sautrantikas; the Sautrantikas were refuted by the Yogacarins or Cittamatrins; the Yogacarins were refuted by the Svatantrika Madhyamikas; and these were refuted by the Prasabagika Madhyamikas. This latter is accepted as the highest teaching on earth by the majority of Tibetan Buddhists. In this manner the old Sarvastivada teaching of svabhava as eternal, taken to refer to the individual dharmas, was superseded.
The teaching of the eternal element or dhatu as the basis of all the dharmas, allowing the possibility of seeing in it a single eternal svabhava, was taken differently by different schools. The Yogacarins understood the dhatu to refer to the alaya-vijnana, or substratum consciousness. The Madhyamikas understood the dhatu to refer to the tathagata-garbha, or Buddha-nature, taken to be the emptiness of the mind. Buddhist schools sought to avoid emphasizing this teaching in any way which could be seen as holding a unitary eternal svabhava, apparently because of the similarity of this idea to the Hindu atman doctrine.
The Question of Anatman
All known schools of Buddhism have always taught that all dharmas are anatman or "without self." This means that atman as the universal higher self taught in Hinduism and also taught in Theosophy is denied. This distinctive teaching of Buddhism defines for Buddhists their teachings as Buddhist. Thus most Buddhists regard Theosophy as derived from Hinduism, not from Tibetan Mahatmas who as Buddhists could not hold the atman doctrine. Conversely some Theosophists as well as others have attempted to show that Buddhism does not really deny atman. Since this doctrine is so central to Buddhist teachings, any Theosophist who wishes to trace a svabhava or svabhavata doctrine in the Buddhist texts must first reconcile the anatman doctrine one way or the other with the Theosophical teachings. To do this we should consider the words of Walpola Rahula:
What in general is suggested by Soul, Self, Ego, or to use the Sanskrit expression Atman, is that in man there is a permanent, everlasting and absolute entity, which is the unchanging substance behind the changing phenomenal world. ...
Buddhism stands unique in the history of human thought in denying the existence of such a Soul, Self, or Atman . according to the teaching of the Buddha, the idea of self is an imaginary, false belief which has no corresponding reality. ...
"The negation of an imperishable Atman is the common characteristic of all dogmatic systems of the Lesser as well as the Great Vehicle, and, there is, therefore, no reason to assume that Buddhist tradition which is in complete agreement on this point has deviated from the Buddha's original teaching."
It is therefore curious that recently there should have been a vain attempt by a few scholars to smuggle the idea of self into the teaching of the Buddha, quite contrary to the spirit of Buddhism. These scholars respect, admire, and venerate the Buddha and his teaching. They look up to Buddhism. But they cannot imagine that the Buddha, whom they consider the most clear and profound thinker, could have denied the existence of an Atman or Self which they need so much. They unconsciously seek the support of the Buddha for this need for eternal existence of course not in a petty individual self with small s, but in the big Self with a capital S.
It is better to say frankly that one believes in an Atman or Self. Or one may even say that the Buddha was totally wrong in denying the existence of an Atman . But certainly it will not do for any one to try to introduce into Buddhism an idea which the Buddha never accepted, as far as we can see from the extant original texts.
[What the Buddha Taught, pp. 51-56.]
The term atman is used in Theosophy for the seventh or highest principle in man. In the "Cosmological Notes" from January 1882 a Mahatma gives in parallel columns the seven principles of man and of the universe in Tibetan, Sanskrit, and English.
[in The Letters of H. P. Blavatsky to A. P. Sinnett, comp. A. T. Barker, 1925; facsimile reprint, Pasadena: Theosophical University Press, 1973, pp. 376-386.]
The term atman is found in two forms in the Sanskrit column for the principles of man. The Tibetan terms given for these, however, are not translations of the Sanskrit terms, but rather represent a different system. In other words, the Tibetan system used here by the Mahatmas does not have atman or its translation; only the Sanskrit system does, which consists of terms drawn from Hinduism. It is well known to readers of The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett that the Mahatmas expressed great difficulty in finding appropriate terms with which to teach their doctrines, and they often drew from wherever they could find similar ideas, including even the European philosophy of the time. Indeed, this practice could satisfactorily explain their references to the Svabhavika school of Buddhism thought to exist in Nepal, were it not for the fact that the term svabhavat is given seven times in the Stanzas from the "Book of Dzyan." Since the Mahatmas had Hindu chelas, they would have already had intact a system of Hindu terms. But it does not necessarily follow that the Mahatmas were themselves followers of the schools from which the terms were taken. E.g., "We are not Adwaitees [followers of the Hindu school of advaita or non-dual Vedanta], but our teaching respecting the one life is identical with that of the Adwaitee with regard to Parabrahm."
[The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, comp. A. T. Barker, 2nd ed. 1926, p. 53; 3rd ed. 1962, p. 53; chronological ed. 1993, p. 271.]
So also, from their use of parallel terms it does not necessarily follow that the Mahatmas accept all the implications of the term thus used, as we learn from an article published at that same time.
An article by the Adwaitee Hindu chela T. Subba Row, "The Aryan-Arhat Esoteric Tenets on the Sevenfold Principle in Man," came out in The Theosophist, January 1882, with notes by H. P. Blavatsky. These notes were written before the publication in 1883 of A. P. Sinnett's highly influential Theosophical classic, Esoteric Buddhism, and therefore before Blavatsky felt obliged to counter the view that Theosophy is esoteric Buddhism so as to stress its universality (as she later did in The Secret Doctrine). Thus she here speaks unguardedly of the differences between the esoteric Buddhist or Arhat doctrine of the Tibetan Mahatmas and the esoteric Brahmanical or Aryan doctrine of the Hindu Initiates. By the time this article was reprinted three years later in Five Years of Theosophy, key sentences giving these differences were omitted; and in her subsequent writings we read only of the identity of the Hindu Vedantic parabrahman and atman with the Buddhist teachings and with Theosophy. Here are the relevant excerpts from her notes:
So that, the Aryan and Tibetan or Arhat doctrines agree perfectly in substance, differing but in names given and the way of putting it, a distinction resulting from the fact that the Vedantin Brahmans believe in Parabrahman, a deific power, impersonal though it may be, while the Buddhists entirely reject it. [p. 406]
The Impersonal Parabrahman thus being made to merge or separate itself into a personal "jivatma," or the personal god of every human creature. This is, again, a difference necessitated by the Brahmanical belief in a God whether personal or impersonal, while the Buddhist Arahats, rejecting this idea entirely, recognize no deity apart from man. [p. 410]
We have already pointed out that, in our opinion, the whole difference between Buddhistic and Vedantic philosophies was that the former was a kind of rationalistic Vedantism, while the latter might be regarded as transcendental Buddhism. If the Aryan esotericism applies the term jivatma to the seventh principle, the pure and per se unconscious spirit it is because the Vedanta postulating three kinds of existence (1) the paramarthika (the true, the only real one), (2) the vyavaharika (the practical), and (3) the pratibhasika (the apparent or illusory life) makes the first life or jiva, the only truly existent one. Brahma or the one self is its only representative in the universe, as it is the universal life in toto while the other two are but its "phenomenal appearances," imagined and created by ignorance, and complete illusions suggested to us by our blind senses. The Buddhists, on the other hand, deny either subjective or objective reality even to that one Self-Existence. Buddha declares that there is neither Creator nor an Absolute Being. Buddhist ration-alism was ever too alive to the insuperable difficulty of admitting one absolute consciousness, as in the words of Flint 'wherever there is consciousness there is relation, and wherever there is relation there is dualism.' The One Life is either "mukta" (absolute and unconditioned) and can have no relation to anything nor to any one; or it is "baddha" (bound and conditioned), and then it cannot be called the absolute ; the limitation, moreover, necessitating another deity as powerful as the first to account for all the evil in this world. Hence, the Arahat secret doctrine on cosmogony admits but of one absolute, indestructible, eternal, and uncreated unconsciousness (so to translate), of an element (the word being used for want of a better term) absolutely independent of everything else in the universe; ... [pp. 422-23]
[H. P. Blavatsky Collected Writings, ed. Boris de Zirkoff, vol. 3.]
The central doctrine of the upanisads, and therefore of Vedanta, is that there is nothing but brahman, or parabrahman, and further that brahman and atman, the Self in all, are one. Buddhism, for whatever reason, did not teach an a-brahman or "no brahman" doctrine, but rather taught an an-atman or "no self" doctrine. At the time of the Buddha there existed in India other Hindu schools, such as Sabakhya, who interpreted the upanisads differently than the Vedantins. The Sabakhya school understood brahman as referring to unconscious substance. This may be seen from the extensive polemics against them by Shabakaracarya in his commentary on the Brahma-sutra, also called the Vedanta-sutra, whose whole point is to prove that brahman is omniscient, and therefore not unconscious. Since they are the primary target of Shabakaracarya's polemics, we may assume that the Sabakhya school was once quite influential; and this is indeed borne out by the old epic literature of India. So there was in early India an influential Hindu school which held that brahman was unconscious substance (acetana pradhana or prakriti). But despite the teaching that brahman and atman are one, the Sabakhya school understood atman as referring to the conscious purusa or spirit, much like the Vedanta school's atman as the conscious jivatman in man. Thus, if the Buddha's point was to refute an absolute consciousness, he would have been obliged to refute atman rather than brahman. As such, I would choose to reconcile the Theosophical teachings in favor of the anatman doctrine of the Buddhist teachings, despite Theosophy's use of the term atman, which I would then take as a working but not entirely overlapping parallel.
If, on the other hand, the Buddha's point with the anatman doctrine was not to refute an absolute consciousness, but to refute an absolute substratum of any kind, the Buddhists have some very embarrassing sutras of their own to reconcile. These are the Tathagata-garbha or Buddha-nature sutras,
[There are said to be ten Tathagata-garbha sutras: Sh ri-mala-devi-simha-nada-sutra; Jnanalokalamkara-sutra; Sandhi-nirmocana-sutra; Mahaparinirvana-sutra; gvikalpa-pravesha-dharani; Dharanishvara-raja-paripriccha (Tathagata-mahakaruna-nirdesha-sutra); Arya-abaguli-maliya-sutra; Mahabheri-haraka-sutra; Tathagata-garbha-sutra; Anunatvapurnatva-nirdesha-parivarta.]
said by the Jonangpas to be of definitive meaning, and said by the Gelugpas to require interpretation. For example, one of these, the Maha-parinirvana-sutra, teaches that:
The atman is the Tathagatagarbha. All beings possess a Buddha Nature: this is what the atman is. This atman, from the start, is always covered by innumerable passions (klesha): this is why beings are unable to see it.
[Etienne Lamotte, The Teaching of Vimalakirti, Eng. trans. by Sara Boin, London: The Pali Text Society, 1976, Introduction, p. lxxvii.]
It is noteworthy that this very sutra, extracts from which had been translated by Samuel Beal as far back as 1871, was quoted in The Mahatma Letters on this very question of atman:
Says Buddha, "you have to get rid entirely of all the subjects of impermanence composing the body that your body should become permanent. The permanent never merges with the impermanent although the two are one. But it is only when all outward appearances are gone that there is left that one principle of life which exists independently of all external phenomena...."
[The Mahatma Letters to A. P. Sinnett, 2nd ed. p. 455; 3rd ed. p. 448; chron. ed., p. 217. Compare: A Catena of Buddhist Scriptures from the Chinese, by Samuel Beal, London: Trubner and Co., 1871, p. 184.
The teachings of the Tathagata-garbha sutras are synthesized in a unique and fundamental text, the Ratna-gotra-vibhaga, which is considered in Tibetan tradition to be one of the five texts of Maitreya. This text refers to the four qualities which Buddhism had always taught as characterizing all dharmas or phenomena, namely, impermanence (anitya), suffering (duhkha), no-self (anatman), and impurity (ashubha); but says that their opposites characterize the dharma-kaya or absolute, namely, permanence (nitya), happiness (sukha), self (atman), and purity (shubha). The commentary then quotes in explanation of this a passage from the Shri-mala-sutra, which I here translate in full:
O Lord, people hold mistaken views about the five perishable personality aggregates which form the basis of clinging to existence. They have the idea of permanence about that which is impermanent, the idea of happiness about that which is suffering, the idea of self (atman) about that which is without self (anatman), and the idea of purity about that which is impure. Even all the Shravakas and Pratyeka-Buddhas, O Lord, because of their knowledge of emptiness (shunyata), hold mistaken views about the dharma-kaya of the Tathagata (Buddha), the sphere of omniscient wisdom, never before seen. The people, O Lord, who will be the Buddha's true sons, having the idea of permanence, having the idea of self (atman), having the idea of happiness, and having the idea of purity, those people, O Lord, will hold unmistaken views. They, O Lord, will see correctly. Why is that? The dharma-kaya of the Tathagata, O Lord, is the perfection of permanence, the perfection of happiness, the perfection of self (atman), and the perfection of purity. The people, O Lord, who see the dharma-kaya of the Tathagata in this way, see correctly. Those who see correctly are the Buddha's true sons.
[Ratna-gotra-vibhaga-vyakhya after 1.36; E. H. Johnston ed. p. 30-31; Z. Nakamura ed. p. 59. A perfectly good translation of this exists by J. Takasaki from Sanskrit, pp. 209-210, and also by E. Obermiller from Tibetan, p. 166. I have retranslated it in order to bring out the technical terms, particularly atman, which Takasaki and Obermiller translate as "unity" rather than "self."]
Terms such as Tathagata-garbha and dharma-kaya have multiple connotations, so I have left them untranslated above. As mentioned in an earlier Book of Dzyan Research Report, the Tathagata-garbha, or Buddha-nature, and thei dharma-kaya, or body of the law, are what the dhatu, or element, is called when obscured and when unobscured, respectively; and these three terms correspond well with the "One Life," the "One Law," and the "One Element," of The Mahatma Letters . These three terms for the absolute are interpreted by the Gelugpas as referring to the absolute truth of the emptiness of all things, and not to any absolute substratum. But for the Jonangpas they come from texts of definitive meaning which require no interpretation, so do refer to an absolute substratum which is empty of everything but itself. The Tathagata-garbha texts, like all Buddhist texts, still deny atman in regard to phenomenal life, but accept atman in regard to ultimate reality; that is, as applied to the Tathagata-garbha and the dharma-kaya, or the obscured and unobscured dhatu, the element, which is described as eternal, but not as conscious. This certainly justifies the Mahatma's use of the term, even from a Buddhist standpoint.
The Question of Shunyata
Having reconciled the Buddhist anatman doctrine with Theosophical teachings, at least to my own satisfaction, we can now proceed to the shunyata, or "emptiness" question, which is closely linked with the svabhava question. The doctrine of anatman is taught throughout Buddhism from beginning to now, and in all its branches. The doctrine of shunyata, however, comes from sutras said to have disappeared from the realm of humans forty years after the time of the Buddha, and only brought back centuries later. These texts form the basis of Mahayana or northern Buddhism, but were not accepted by Hinayana or southern Buddhism. Primary among these are the Prajna-paramita or Perfection of Wisdom sutras, which were brought back by Nagarjuna from the realm of the Nagas, the "serpents" of wisdom, called by Blavatsky, "initiates."
[The Secret Doctrine, by H. P. Blavatsky, vol. I, p. 404; vol. II, pp. 211, 501.]
Hinayana Buddhism in general teaches that all dharmas, though they are impermanent or momentary, really exist, so each has its own svabhava. The Prajna-paramita texts teach that all dharmas do not really exist, that they are empty of any svabhava of their own; thus adding to the early anatman doctrine regarding persons (pudgala-nairatmya) an anatman doctrine regarding dharmas (dharma-nairatmya).
The doctrine of shunyata, the central teaching of the Prajna-paramita texts, is stated in terms of the shunyata, the "emptiness" or "voidness" of all dharmas; or more fully, that all dharmas are svabhava-shunya, "empty" (shunya) of svabhava. These texts never tire of repeating this teaching:
[These representative examples are drawn from the 25,000 and 18,000 line Prajna-paramita sutras. There is at present no complete Sanskrit edition of any of the three large Prajna-paramita sutras. But as pointed out by Edward Conze, their contents are essentially identical, with the 100,000 line version spelling out in full the extensive and repetitive lists of categories which are only abbreviated in the 18,000 and 25,000 line versions. So each of the three can be divided according to subject matter into eight progressively achieved "realizations" (abhisamaya), following Maitreya's Abhisamayalabakara. Using this, we can readily see what the available Sanskrit editions cover:
Catasahasrika-prajna-paramita, ed. Pratapacandra Ghosa, vol. 1 (18 fascicles, 1676 pp.), vol. 2 (1 fasc., 71 pp., incomplete), Calcutta, 1902-1914, Bibliotheca Indica 153; includes 13 parivartas covering most of the 1st abhisamaya.
The Pancavimshatisahasrika Prajnaparamita, ed. Nalinaksha Dutt, London: Luzac and Co., 1934, Calcutta Oriental Series 28; covers the 1st abhisamaya.
Pancavimshatisahasrika Prajnaparamita II - III, ed. Takayasu Kimura, Tokyo: Sankibo Busshorin Publishing Co., 1986; covers the 2nd and 3rd abhisamayas.
Pancavimshatisahasrika Prajnaparamita IV, Takayasu Kimura, Tokyo: Sankibo Busshorin Publishing Co., 1990; covers the 4th abhisamaya.
The Gilgit Manuscript of the Astadashasahasrikaprajnaparamita, Chapters 55 to 70 corresponding to the 5th Abhisamaya, ed. & trans. Edward Conze, Roma: Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1962, Serie Orientale Roma 26.
The Gilgit Manuscript of the Astadashasahasrikaprajnaparamita, Chapters 70 to 82 corresponding to the 6th, 7th and 8th Abhisamayas, ed. and trans. Edward Conze, Roma: Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1974, Serie Orientale Roma 46.
The 25,000 line editions of Dutt and Kimura, covering the first through fourth abhisamayas, and the 18,000 line editions of Conze, covering the fifth through eighth abhisamayas, make up the complete subject matter of these texts. Thus it was not until 1990, with Kimura's edition completing the last of the eight abhisamayas to be edited, that we had access to a complete large Prajna-paramita sutra in printed form.]
No dharma has ever come into existence (anutpada); they do not exist (na samvidyate); they are non-existent (abhava); they are empty (shunya); they are empty of svabhava (svabhava-shunya); they are without svabhava (nihsvabhava); their svabhava is non-existent (abhava-svabhava). Again, I have left svabhava untranslated. One may employ any number of possible translations: essence, own-being, inherent existence, self-existence, self-nature, essential nature, intrinsic nature, intrinsic reality. As may now be seen, most occurrences of the term svabhava in these texts are found in conjunction with occurrences of the term shunyata, because the whole point of the doctrine of shunyata is to refute the doctrine of svabhava.
The shunyata or emptiness teachings of the Prajna-paramita sutras were first formulated into a philosophy by Nagarjuna. This is the Madhyamaka or "middle way" philosophy, so called because it seeks to avoid the two extremes of eternalism and nihilism. Its primary text is the Mula-madhyamaka-karika, or "Root Verses on the Middle Way." In this text Nagarjuna underscores how critical it is to understand shunyata correctly:
An incorrect view of emptiness destroys the slow-minded, like an incorrectly grasped snake, or an incorrectly cast spell.
vinashayati durdrista shunyata manda-medhasam | sarpo yatha durgrihito vidya va dusprasadhita ||]
Yet early on, varying schools of interpretation of Nagarjuna's treatise arose. Its verses or karikas are concise and often hard to understand without a commentary. Nagarjuna is thought to have written his own commentary on it, called the Akutobhaya, but his authorship of the extant text of that name found in the Tibetan canon is rejected by Tibetan tradition.
[Meditation on Emptiness, Jeffrey Hopkins, p. 360]
By the time of Tsong-kha-pa, more than a millennium after the original text was written, there existed many commentaries. After studying these, Tsong-kha-pa wondered what the correct interpretation was. Through mystical means, the Buddha of Wisdom Manjushri told him that the interpretation by Chandrakirti was in all ways reliable.
[The Door of Liberation, by Geshe Wangyal, New York: Maurice Girodias Associates, Inc., 1973, p. 66.]
In this way Tsong-kha-pa and the Gelugpas came to champion Chandrakirti's school, the Prasabagika Madhyamaka, which became dominant in Tibet.
The Prasabagika or "consequence" school uses a type of statement called prasabaga, somewhat reminiscent of Socratic dialogue, which points out unexpected and often unwelcome consequences in whatever anyone can postulate. It reduces these postulations to absurdity. Through this type of reasoning dharmas are analyzed and shown not to be findable, and as a consequence are proven to be empty. This school seeks to avoid making positive statements of its own. Not only are all dharmas empty, so too is emptiness empty. Shunyata itself does not exist any more than anything else. It is not the void in which things may exist. Shunyata is here absolute only in the sense of being the absolute truth of the emptiness of all things, including itself.
Would this, then, also be the Theosophical understanding of shunyata? The Theosophical teachings are said to represent an esoteric school of interpretation, so one should not expect them to agree with the exoterically known schools, such as "the Prasabaga Madhyamika teaching, whose dogmas have been known ever since it broke away from the purely esoteric schools."
[The Secret Doctrine, vol. I, p. 43.]
For as Blavatsky points out:
Esoteric Schools would cease to be worthy of their name were their literature and doctrines to become the property of even their profane co-religionists still less of the Western public. This is simple common sense and logic. Nevertheless this is a fact which our Orientalists have ever refused to recognize.
[H. P. Blavatsky Collected Writings, vol. 14, p. 433.]
So now that Blavatsky did bring out to the western public some of the esoteric teachings, under instruction from certain of the Tibetan Mahatmas who believed that the time had come for this, where do we find the Theosophical understanding of shunyata? Returning to the passage quoted earlier from Blavatsky's notes on Subba Row's article, we continue reading:
Hence, the Arahat secret doctrine on cosmogony admits but of one absolute, indestructible, eternal, and uncreated unconsciousness (so to translate), of an element (the word being used for want of a better term) absolutely independent of everything else in the universe; a something ever present or ubiquitous, a Presence which ever was, is, and will be, whether there is a God, gods or none; whether there is a universe or no universe; existing during the eternal cycles of Maha Yugas, during the Pralayas as during the periods of Manvantara: and this is Space, the field for the operation of the eternal Forces and natural Law, the basis (as our correspondent rightly calls it) upon which take place the eternal intercorrelations of Akasha-Prakriti, guided by the unconscious regular pulsations of Shakti the breath or power of a conscious deity, the theists would say the eternal energy of an eternal, unconscious Law, say the Buddhists. Space, then, or Fan, Bar-nang (Maha-Shunyata) or, as it is called by Lao-tze, the "Emptiness" is the nature of the Buddhist Absolute.
[H. P. Blavatsky Collected Writings, vol. 3, p. 423.]
The term "space" is Samuel Beal's rendering of shunyata in his 1871 translation of the most condensed Prajna-paramita sutra, the Heart Sutra.
[Found in A Catena of Buddhist Scriptures from the Chinese, by Samuel Beal, London: f304 Trubner and Co., 1871, pp. 282-284. It had been published earlier in Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society, n.s. vol. 1, 1865, pp. 25-28.]
Blavatsky had quoted it earlier in another note to Subba Row's article:
Prakriti, Svabhavat or Akasha is Space as the Tibetans have it; Space filled with whatsoever substance or no substance at all; i.e., with substance so imponderable as to be only metaphysically conceivable. ... 'That which we call form (rupa) is not different from that which we call space (Shunyata) ... Space is not different from Form. ...' (Book of Sin-king or the Heart Sutra ... .)
[H. P. Blavatsky Collected Writings, vol. 3, pp. 405-406.]
Beal was one of the first western translators of Buddhist texts. Influenced by Brian Hodgson's account of the four schools of Buddhism, Beal believed that Chinese Buddhism followed the Svabhavika school, accepting a "universally diffused essence."
[Beal, Catena, p. 11: "Both these writers adopted the teaching of the Swabhavika 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." Also, p. 14: "The doctrine of a universally diffused and self-existing essence of which matter is only a form, seems to be unknown in the Southern schools. It would appear, therefore, that there has been no advance in the Southern philosophical code since the date of Nagasena [i.e., Nagarjuna], who was a strenuous opponent of the Swabhava theory."]
So in Beal's understanding, shunyata or space was just another form of the absolute svabhava. Several decades later the first comprehensive study in English of the Madhyamaka school based on a thorough study of Nagarjuna's original Sanskrit text came out: T. R. V. Murti's The Central Philosophy of Buddhism, 1955. Although no longer based on a Svabhavika idea, Murti still understood shunyata to be the Buddhist absolute. Therefore Madhyamaka was seen by him as a kind of absolutist philosophy. In recent decades, however, since the Tibetan displacement, a number of new works have come out based on collaboration with Tibetan Gelugpa lamas, which severely criticize the earlier absolutist interpretations of Madhyamaka.
[See, for example: Tsong Khapa's Speech of Gold in the Essence of True Eloquence: Reason and Enlightenment in the Central Philosophy of Tibet, by Robert A. F. Thurman, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984; The Emptiness of Emptiness: An Introduction to Early Indian Madhyamika, by C. W. Huntington, Jr., with Geshe Namgyal Wangchen, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1989; The Fundamental Wisdom of the Middle Way: Nagarjuna's Mulamadhyamakakarika, by Jay L. Garfield, New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.]
They point out that Madhyamaka is by definition the middle way which avoids the extremes of eternalism and nihilism. Neither of these two forms of absolutism can be the correct interpretation. The Tibetans are heirs to an unbroken tradition of Madhyamaka spanning more than fifteen hundred years. Since this tradition has been thoroughly sifted by generations of scholars, they have every reason to believe that theirs is the correct interpretation of shunyata; and this shunyata is not something which itself exists in any absolute way such as space. Do we here have another case where Blavatsky quoted whatever she could find which seemed to support the esoteric teachings, but which later turns out not to support them after all? I don't think so.
In one of the most significant extracts drawn from secret commentaries and found in The Secret Doctrine, we find:
... As its substance is of a different kind from that known on earth, the inhabitants of the latter, seeing through it, believe in their illusion and ignorance that it is empty space. There is not one finger's breadth (angula) of void Space in the whole Boundless (Universe)....
[The Secret Doctrine, vol. I, p. 289.]
This leaves no doubt that shunyata or space is indeed understood in the Arhat secret doctrine as the absolute, the one element, the eternal substance. But how can there be an absolute in the middle way taught by the Buddha?
Tracing Absolute Shunyata and Absolute Svabhava
There is a tradition known as "Great Madhyamaka," which was introduced in Tibet by Dolpopa and the Jonangpas several centuries ago. It fully agrees with the Prasabagika Madhyamaka school that absolutist philosophies of eternalism and nihilism are extremes to be avoided. Like all Madhyamaka traditions, it accepts as authoritative the words of Nagarjuna:
Emptiness (shunyata) is proclaimed by the Buddhas as the leaving behind of all philosophical views, but they have pronounced those who hold a philosophical view about emptiness (shunyata) to be incurable.
shunyata sarva-dristinam prokta nihsaranam jinaih | yesam tu shunyata-dristis tan asadhyan babhasire ||]
Any conception, however subtle, that dharmas either absolutely exist or absolutely do not exist, is considered incorrect; but the Great Madhyamikas hold that there is something beyond what can be postulated by the mind. This inconceivable something, whatever it may be called, is described in the Tathagata-garbha sutras as absolute and eternal. If it did not exist, Buddhahood and all its qualities could not exist. Since it is beyond the range and reach of thought, it transcends any philosophical view. Just as the Prasabagikas in denying the absolute existence of anything, including shunyata, are careful to point out that this does not imply nihilism, so the Great Madhyamikas in affirming the absolute existence of Buddha qualities, as well as shunyata, are careful to point out that this does not imply eternalism.
There are many precedents for the teaching of absolute shunyata in the words of the Buddha. If there were not, no one would have taken it seriously, any more than any one would take seriously Blavatsky's The Secret Doctrine without such precedents. Primary among these sources is a sutra called the "Disclosure of the Knot or Secret Doctrine" (Sandhi-nirmocana), in which the Buddha says he has given three promulgations of the teachings, or turnings of the wheel of the dharma, and will now disclose the true intention or meaning of these apparently contradictory teachings. As summarized from this sutra by Takasaki:
The ultimate doctrine of the Mahayana is no doubt taught in the Prajnaparamita, but its way of exposition is 'with an esoteric meaning,' or 'with a hidden intention.' For example the Prajnaparamita teaches the nihsvabhavata [lack of svabhava] in regard to the sarvadharma [all dharmas], but what is meant by this nihsvabhavata is not so clear. The purpose of the Sandhinirmocana is to explain this meaning of nihsvabhava 'in a clear manner,' that is to say, to analyze and clarify the significance of the shunya-vada [doctrine of shunyata]. Just because of this standpoint, the Sutra is called ' sandhi-nirmocana,' i.e. the Disclosure of the Knot or Secret Doctrine.
[A Study on the Ratnagotravibhaga (Uttaratantra), by Jikido Takasaki, Roma: Istituto Italiano per il Medio ed Estremo Oriente, 1966, Serie Orientale Roma 33, Introduction, p. 58]
In the first promulgation the Buddha taught that all dharmas really exist. Though they are impermanent, they all have their own svabhava. This is the teaching of the sutras accepted by southern or Hinayana Buddhism. In the second promulgation the Buddha taught that all dharmas are in reality non-existent. They are empty (shunya) of svabhava. This is the teaching of the sutras accepted by northern or Mahayana Buddhism, especially of the Prajna-paramita sutras. In the third promulgation the Buddha clarified in what way dharmas exist and in what way dharmas do not exist. To do this he put forth the teaching of the three svabhavas or natures.
[Sandhi-nirmocana-sutra, chapters 6 and 7. For English translation see: Wisdom of Buddha: The Samdhinirmocana Sutra, translated by John Powers, Berkeley: Dharma Publishing, 1995.]
The nature of dharmas as they are conceptualized to have their own svabhava is their imagined or illusory nature (parikalpita-svabhava); in this way they do not really exist. The nature of dharmas as they arise in dependence on causes and conditions is their dependent nature (paratantra-svabhava); in this way they exist conventionally. The nature of dharmas as they are established in reality is their perfect nature (parinispanna-svabhava); in this way they truly exist.
This teaching of the three svabhavas was elucidated in the treatises of Maitreya, Asabaga, and Vasubandhu. Although these writers are often classified as being Citta-matra, or "mind-only," and hence denigrated by Prasabagika Madhyamikas, Dolpopa considers them to be "Great Madhyamikas." As such, they would be vitally interested in the understanding of shunyata. Indeed, it is clear from their writings that they were; and as we saw earlier, the terms shunyata and svabhava are normally found together in Buddhist texts. Vasubandhu quotes in his commentary at the beginning of Maitreya's Madhyanta-vibhaga a classic definition of shunyata, as something that exists, and not just the emptiness of everything including itself:
Thus, 'where something does not exist, that [place] is empty (shunya) of that [thing];' [seeing] in this way, one sees in reality. Again, 'what remains here, that, being here, exists;' [knowing] in this way, one knows in reality. In this way, the unmistaken definition of shunyata arises.
[Madhyanta-vibhaga-bhasya, 1.1 in G. Nagao ed.; or 1.2 in R. Pandeya ed.: evam yad yatra nasti tat tena shunyam iti yatha-bhutam samanupashyati yat punar atravashistam bhavati tat sad ihastiti yatha-bhutam prajanatity aviparitam shunyata-laksanam udbhavitam bhavati. This is also quoted in Asabaga's Ratna-gotra-vibhaga-vyakhya on 1.155; in Asabaga's Abhidharma-samuccaya; and in Asabaga's Bodhisattva-bhumi.]
Later in the same chapter Maitreya and Vasubandhu discuss the sixteen kinds of shunyata. The last two of these are called abhava-shunyata, the emptiness which is non-existence (abhava), and abhava-svabhava-shunyata, the emptiness which is the svabhava or ultimate essence of that non-existence. Vasubandhu explains that this kind of shunyata truly exists:
[The former is] the emptiness of persons and dharmas. [The latter is] the true existence (sad-bhava) of that non-existence.
[Madhyanta-vibhaga-bhasya, 1.20 in Nagao ed.; or 1.21 in Pandeya ed.:
pudgala-dharmabhavash ca shunyata | tad-abhavasya ca sad-bhavah.]
The source of this teaching in the words of the Buddha may be found in the Tathagata-garbha sutras of his third promulgation. One of these, the Maha-parinirvana-sutra, puts it this way, as translated from Tibetan by S. K. Hookham:
Thus, these are respectively, the emptiness that is the non-existence (abhava-sunyata) of the accidentally stained form etc., which is their each being empty of their own essence [ svabhava ], and the Tathagatagarbha Form etc., which are the Emptiness which is the essence of [that] non-existence (abhava-svabhava-shunyata), the Absolute Other Emptiness.
[The Buddha Within: Tathagatagarbha Doctrine According to the Shentong Interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhaga, by S. K. Hookham, Albany: State University of New York Press, 1991, p. 139.]
Note the use of the phrase "Absolute Other Emptiness" (don dam gzan ston) in this quotation to describe the sixteenth kind of shunyata, abhava-svabhava-shunyata . This is one of many quotations utilized by Dolpopa to establish the teaching of an absolute (paramartha) shunyata. This shunyata is empty of everything other than itself, hence it is "empty of other" (gzan ston), but it is not empty of itself. In contradistinction to this, the shunyata taught by the Prasabagika Madhyamaka school is empty of everything, including itself. Theirs is a svabhava-shunyata, or an emptiness of any ultimate svabhava in anything. The Great Madhyamikas, too, accept the teaching that all dharmas, or the manifest universe as we know it, are empty of any svabhava of their own, so are ultimately non-existent. But beyond the range and reach of thought there is a truly existent absolute shunyata empty of anything other than itself, which is the truly existent absolute svabhava of the non-existent manifest universe.
This mind-boggling teaching of the Great Madhyamikas was quite shocking to the orthodoxy when brought out in Tibet by Dolpopa and the Jonangpas in the fourteenth century. The later Jonangpa writer Taranatha tells us that at first some found this "empty of other" doctrine hard to understand, while others were delighted by it. But later when adherents of other schools heard it they experienced "heart seizure" (snin gas) and "scrambled brains" (klad pa 'gems pa).
["Dol-po-pa Shes-rab Rgyal-mtshan and the Genesis of the Gzhan-stong Position in Tibet," by Cyrus Stearns, Asiatische Studien, vol. 49, 1995, p. 836.]
This led finally to the banning of Dolpopa's works by the Gelugpas in the seventeenth century. As one appreciative recent writer comments:
Dol po pa's work ... has the glorious distinction of being one of the very few works in Tibet ever banned as heretical.
[Gareth Sparham, "On the Proper Interpretation of Prajna-Paramita," Dreloma: Drepung Loseling Magazine, no. XXXII-XXXIII, 1994-95, p. 20.]
Dolpopa was in many ways to fourteenth-century Tibet what Blavatsky was to the nineteenth-century world. The London writer W. T. Stead spoke in a similar vein about Blavatsky's work just after her death:
... it [the creed which Madame Blavatsky preached] has at least the advantage of being heretical. The truth always begins as heresy, in every heresy there may be the germ of a new revelation.
[W. T. Stead, "Madame Blavatsky," Review of Reviews, June, 1891 (pp. 548-550); reprinted in Adyar Library Bulletin, vol. XIV, part 2, 8th May, 1950, p. 67.]
While the Gelugpas and the Sakyapas, two of the four main schools of Tibetan Buddhism, found the Great Madhyamaka teachings to be heretical, the Nyingmapas and the Kagyupas, the other two schools, in general accepted these teachings. In fact, leading teachers from these two schools used the Great Madhyamaka teachings as a unifying doctrinal basis for their "non-sectarian" (ris med) movement. This was begun in Tibet in the latter part of the 1800s, the same time the Theosophical movement was being launched in the rest of the world.
Just as Blavatsky devoted the bulk of The Secret Doctrine to supportive quotations and parallels from the world's religions and philosophies, so Dolpopa devoted the bulk of his writings to supportive quotations from the Buddhist scriptures. Today many scholars are finding that Dolpopa's understanding of his sources makes better sense than that of his critics. One reason for this is that he takes them to mean what they say, rather than to require interpretation. It took the genius of Tsong-kha-pa to bring about the "Copernican revolution" of making the second promulgation or turning of the wheel of the dharma to be of final or definitive meaning and the third promulgation to be of provisional or interpretable meaning, and thereby reverse the teaching of the Sandhi-nirmocana-sutra . Buddhist scholar Paul Williams writes:
In portraying the tathagatagarbha theory found in the sutras and Ratnagotravibhaga I have assumed that these texts mean what they say. In terms of the categories of Buddhist hermeneutics I have spoken as though the Tathagatagarbha sutras were to be taken literally or as definitive works, and their meaning is quite explicit. The tathagatagarbha teaching, however, appears to be rather different from that of Prasabagika Madhyamaka, and were I a Tibetan scholar who took the Prasabagika Madhyamaka emptiness doctrine as the highest teaching of the Buddha I would have to interpret the tathagatagarbha teaching in order to dissolve any apparent disagreement.
[Paul Williams, Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, London and New York: Routledge, 1989, pp. 105-106.]
Dolpopa is most known for the Shentong or "empty of other" teaching of an absolute shunyata, said by him to be based on the three Kalacakra commentaries from Shambhala,
[These three commentaries are: Pundarika's Vimala-prabha-tika on the Kalacakra-tantra; Vajrapani's Laghu-tantra-tika on the Cakra-samvara-tantra; and Vajragarbha's Hevajra-pindartha-tika on the Hevajra-tantra . The latter two explain their respective tantras from the standpoint of Kalacakra.]
and supported by him with quotations from the Tathagata-garbha or Buddha-nature sutras whose teachings are synthesized in Maitreya's Ratna-gotra-vibhaga and its commentary. Despite this, the majority of Dolpopa's writings are on the Prajna-paramita texts. Thus he, like Tsong-kha-pa, put most of his attention on the primary texts of the second promulgation. In doing so he drew heavily on a lengthy commentary which gives, according to him, the Great Madhyamaka interpretation of these texts. It is a combined commentary on the 100,000 line, 25,000 line, and 18,000 line Perfection of Wisdom sutras, called the Shata-sahasrika-pancavimshati-sahasrikastadasha-sahasrika- prajna-paramita-brihat-tika, attributed by some to Vasubandhu. Unfortunately, it has not yet been translated into a western language. The late Edward Conze, who was practically the sole translator of Prajna-paramita texts throughout his lifetime, lamented that:
The most outstanding feature of contemporary Prajnaparamita studies is the disproportion between the few persons willing to work in this field and the colossal number of documents extant in Sanskrit, Chinese, and Tibetan.
[Edward Conze, trans., The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom, Berkeley, Los Angeles, London: University of California Press, 1975, p. x.]
Dolpopa believed that shunyata is found in two different senses in the Prajna-paramita texts, that must be distinguished through context and through knowledge of absolute shunyata, as may be found in the above-mentioned commentary. This text utilizes a three svabhava type scheme in its explanations, as we have seen from the Sandhi-nirmocana-sutra . Dolpopa refers frequently to the "Questions Asked by Maitreya" chapter of the 18,000 and 25,000 line Prajna-paramita sutras for the source of the three svabhava teaching in the Prajna-paramita texts.
[Sanskrit text printed in "'Maitreya's Questions' in the Prajnaparamita," by Edward Conze and Iida Shotaro, Melanges D'Indianisme a la Memoire de Louis Renou, Paris: Editions E. de Boccard, 1968, pp. 229-242; English translation in The Large Sutra on Perfect Wisdom, trans. Edward Conze, pp. 644-652.]
It is there given in related terms; e.g., dharmata-rupa, translated by Conze as "dharmic nature of form," is there given for parinispanna-svabhava, the "nature which is established in reality." Dolpopa considers this chapter to be the Buddha's auto-commentary, which should be used to interpret the Prajna-paramita sutras. This chapter, like elsewhere in these sutras, also speaks of the inexpressible dhatu, saying that it is neither other than nor not other than the dharmas. While the teaching that all dharmas are empty of any svabhava of their own is repeated tirelessly in the Prajna-paramita sutras, Dolpopa also finds in them the Great Madhyamaka doctrine of the truly existent absolute shunyata empty of everything other than itself, but not empty of its own svabhava, which is established in reality (parinispanna).
All Madhyamaka traditions seek to avoid the two extremes of eternalism and nihilism, which are the two cardinal doctrinal errors: superimposition (samaropa) of real existence onto that which has no real existence; and refutation (apavada) of real existence in regard to that which has real existence. According to Great Madhyamaka, the Prajna-paramita sutras and the texts on philosophical reasoning by Nagarjuna address the error of superimposition of real existence onto that which has no real existence. They do this by teaching that all dharmas are empty of any svabhava. This is the Prasabagika teaching. But one must also address the error of refutation of real existence in regard to that which has real existence. This, say the Great Madhyamikas, is done primarily in the Tathagata-garbha sutras of the third promulgation and their synthesis in the Ratna-gotra-vibhaga of Maitreya, and also in the hymns of Nagarjuna. They do this by teaching the real though inconceivable existence of the dhatu or element, both when obscured as the Tathagata-garbha, and when unobscured as the dharma-kaya. They teach that the dhatu is not empty of svabhava, that its svabhava is threefold, consisting of:
the dharma-kaya, "body of the law;" tathata, "suchness" or "true nature;" and gotra, "germ" or "lineage." This is its truly existent absolute svabhava established in reality.
Shunyata, as we saw above, is without doubt understood in the Arhat secret doctrine to be an inconceivable absolute like Shentong, the emptiness of everything but itself. So svabhava is without doubt understood in the Arhat secret doctrine to be a truly existent absolute, as seen in a phrase consisting of the few "technical terms as employed in one of the Tibetan and Senzar versions" of the Book of Dzyan given in The Secret Doctrine:
Barnang and Ssa in Ngovonyidj.
[The Secret Doctrine, vol. 1, p. 23.]
This means: "space (bar-snang) and earth (sa) in svabhava or svabhavata (ngo-bo-nyid)." The Tibetan word ngo-bo-nyid or no-bo-nid is one of two standard translations of the Sanskrit svabhava or svabhavata. Robert Thurman notes that:
Where it is used in the ontological sense, meaning "own-being" or "intrinsic reality," the Tibetans prefer ngo bo nyid . Where it is used in the conventional sense, meaning simply "nature," they prefer rang bzhin, although when it is used as "self-nature," that is, stressing the sva- (rang) prefix, they equate it with ngo bo nyid .
[Tsong Khapa's Speech of Gold in the Essence of True Eloquence, p. 193, fn. 11.]
This phrase occurs in stanza I describing the state of the cosmos in pralaya before its periodical manifestation. If space and earth are dissolved in svabhava, it must be the svabhava of something that truly exists, even when the universe doesn't.
The concept of svabhava or svabhavata found throughout known Sanskrit writings is the concept of the "inherent nature" of something. This something may be a common everyday thing or it may be the absolute essence of the universe. In terms of doctrines, then, there must first be the doctrine of an existing essence before there can be the doctrine of its inherent nature or svabhava. If a doctrinal system does not posit the existence of an essence, whether of individual things or of the universe as a whole, there can be no doctrine of svabhava. Rather there would be the doctrine of nihsvabhava: that since nothing has an essence, nothing has an inherent nature; such as is taught in Prasabagika Madhyamaka Buddhism.
The concept of svabhava or svabhavata found in the Book of Dzyan comes from the stanzas dealing with cosmogony, not from stanzas laying out its doctrinal system, which we lack. But from the writings of Blavatsky and her Mahatma teachers it is clear that the doctrinal system of the Book of Dzyan and The Secret Doctrine is based on the existence of the one element. This, then, is a unitary essence, with a unitary inherent nature or svabhava, not a plurality of essences with a plurality of svabhavas such as is taught in early Abhidharma Buddhism.
From what we have seen above, there can be little doubt that the svabhava spoken of in the Book of Dzyan is the svabhava of the dhatu, the one element. This teaching in Buddhism is focused in a single unique treatise, the Ratna-gotra-vibhaga . The doctrinal standpoint of the Ratna-gotra-vibhaga as understood in the Great Madhyamaka tradition is of all known texts far and away the closest to that of The Secret Doctrine, just as the ethical standpoint of the Bodhicaryavatara is of all known texts far and away the closest to that of The Voice of the Silence . These facts take us well beyond the realm of probability. Blavatsky indeed had esoteric northern Buddhist sources.
We are here speaking of the doctrinal system, not of the cosmogonic system, which the Ratna-gotra-vibhaga does not deal with. The doctrinal standpoint of the Ratna-gotra-vibhaga has been taken by most Buddhists down through the ages, other than the Great Madhyamikas, to be quite different from the other four treatises of Maitreya. One of the reasons for this is that it uses a largely different set of technical terms. Its primary concern is the dhatu, the element, while that of its commentary is the Tathagata-garbha, the obscured element as the Buddha-nature, or what we may call the one life.
[It should be noted, however, that Prasabagika Madhyamikas such as the Gelugpas rather interpret the Tathagata-garbha as emptiness, specifically the emptiness of the mind. E. Obermiller more or less followed this interpretation in his 1931 pioneering translation of the Ratna-gotra-vibhaga or Uttara-tantra, since he followed Gelugpa commentaries, even though he considered that it taught monism. Similarly, David Ruegg in his 1969 monumental study of the Tathagata-garbha, La Theorie du Tathagatagarbha et du Gotra, also followed this interpretation. A review article by Lambert Schmithausen, "Zu D. Seyfort Ruegg's buch 'La theorie du tathagatagarbha et du gotra'," in f304 Wiener Zeitschrift fur die Kunde Sudasiens und Archiv fur Indische Philosophie, 1973, criticizes this interpretation. As summed up by Paul Williams: "Schmithausen has argued that reference to the tathagatagarbha as emptiness must be understood in terms of the particular meaning of emptiness for this tradition that emptiness is a particular aspect of the tathagatagarbha, i.e., that the tathagatagarbha is empty of defilements, not that it is identical with the [Prasabagika] Madhyamaka emptiness. I agree." (Mahayana Buddhism: The Doctrinal Foundations, 1989, p. 281, note 11.)]
Neither of these terms is the concern of the other four treatises of Maitreya. In fact, the authorship of the Ratna-gotra-vibhaga is not even attributed to Maitreya in the older Chinese tradition, though it has always been attributed to Maitreya in the Tibetan tradition. Blavatsky in a letter to A. P. Sinnett specifically links The Secret Doctrine she was then writing to a secret book of Maitreya:
I have finished an enormous Introductory Chapter, or Preamble, Prologue, call it what you will; just to show the reader that the text as it goes, every Section beginning with a page of translation from the Book of Dzyan and the Secret Book of "Maytreya Buddha" Champai chhos Nga (in prose, not the five books in verse known, which are a blind) are no fiction.
[The Letters of H. P. Blavatsky to A. P. Sinnett, p. 195.]
Given their doctrinal similarity, it is likely that the Ratna-gotra-vibhaga, or more specifically its secret original, is the book of Maitreya that Blavatsky refers to here. The known Ratna-gotra-vibhaga, though it may be a "blind," still apparently represents the same doctrinal standpoint as that of The Secret Doctrine . The other four books of the "i Champai chhos Nga " (byams-pa'i chos lnga), the five (lnga) religious books (chos, Sanskrit dharma) of Maitreya (byams-pa, pronounced Champa or Jampa),
[The other four books are: Mahayana-sutralabakara; Madhyanta-vibhaga; Dharma-dharmata-vibhaga; Abhisamayalabakara . Note the unfortunate blunder of Geoffrey Barborka in translating Champai chhos Nga as "the whole doctrine in its essentiality," copied in Boris de Zirkoff's "Historical Introduction" to the definitive 1978 edition of The Secret Doctrine, p. , n. 130. I have more than once contacted the publishers concerning this, but it could not be corrected.]
however, according to the Great Madhyamikas also represent the same doctrinal standpoint as that of the Ratna-gotra-vibhaga . The Ratna-gotra-vibhaga forms the heart of the Great Madhyamaka tradition, which significantly was represented by Dolpopa to be the "Golden Age Tradition." Although this tradition teaches an inconceivable absolute shunyata or Shentong (gzan ston) which is not empty of svabhava, its teachings are not presented in terms of svabhava, so it is not a Svabhavika tradition.
The only references I am aware of to a Svabhavika school in any Buddhist text are those found in the Buddha-carita, and these do not refer to a Buddhist school of this name, but rather to a non-Buddhist school.
[Ashvaghosa's Buddha-carita 9.58-62. See also 18.29-40 for a refutation of the svabhava doctrine.]
The Samaya-bhedoparacana-cakra by Vasumitra, said to have been written only four centuries after the time of the Buddha, gives an account of the eighteen schools of early Buddhism, none of which is the Svabhavika. Thus, leaving aside the now largely discredited account of the Svabhavika school of Buddhism given by a Nepalese Buddhist pandit to Brian Hodgson, I am aware of no traditional sources for any Buddhist school either calling themselves Svabhavikas or being called Svabhavikas by other Buddhist schools.
The southern or Hinayana schools in general accepted a svabhava in their impermanent but real dharmas. In this sense they could be called Svabhavikas, but apparently they were not. Since this svabhava is impermanent, it cannot be the eternal svabhava referred to in Theosophical writings. We have noted above an exception to this in the Sarvastivada school, which taught an eternal svabhava. But its doctrinal standpoint on this is not clearly known; and this svabhava was apparently still the svabhava of the individual dharmas rather than the svabhava of the one dhatu. Thus it cannot be the unitary svabhava referred to in Theosophical writings. Again, the Sarvastivadins were not considered either by themselves or by others to be Svabhavikas.
The northern or Mahayana schools in general would be the opposite of Svabhavikas, teaching that all dharmas are empty of svabhava (nihsvabhava). Just as dharmas are ultimately non-existent, so their svabhava is ultimately non-existent. As put by Chandrakirti, svabhava is not something (akimcit), it is merely non-existence (abhava-matra).
[Prasanna-pada commentary on Mula-madhyamaka-karika 15.2.]
The inherent nature or svabhava of fire, for example, is here not its common everyday nature of burning, but rather is that its essence is non-existent. In other words, the inherent nature (svabhava) of dharmas is that they have no inherent nature (nihsvabhava). This position is most fully developed in the Prasabagika Madhyamaka school, the dominant school in Tibet, generally considered to be the culmination of the Mahayana schools.
The Yogacara school of Mahayana is known for its teaching of the three svabhavas, derived from the Sandhi-nirmocana-sutra . These svabhavas or natures, which are also called laksanas or defining characteristics, are applied to the dharmas: a dharma has an illusory nature, a dependent nature, and a perfect nature established in reality. However, these are balanced in the same texts with the teaching of the three nihsvabhavas, culminating with the absolute lack of svabhava (paramartha-nihsvabhavata). So this certainly would not be considered a Svabhavika position.
The Great Madhyamaka tradition accepts a truly existent though inconceivable absolute shunyata which is not empty of svabhava. Since this tradition presents its teachings in terms of shunyata and not in terms of svabhava, as noted above, they are not Svabhavikas. Yet it is only here that we find a match with the doctrine of svabhava or svabhavata found in Theosophy. The match is to their teaching of the dhatu, the element, which is described in terms of absolute shunyata or Shentong empty of anything other than itself, and whose svabhava is also absolute and truly existent. This, however, is the very teaching most pointedly refuted by the Gelugpas, who in other regards are considered closest to Theosophy. But Theosophists and others often remain unaware that the Gelugpas refute this teaching, because as stated by Hookham:
Unfortunately for those who intuit a Shentong meaning somewhere behind the Buddha's words, it is possible to listen to Gelugpa teachings for a long time before realizing that it is precisely this intuition that is being denied. The definitions and the "difficult points" of the Gelugpa school are designed specifically to exclude a Shentong view; they take a long time to master.
[The Buddha Within, p. 17.]
Research in Buddhist texts is in its early stages in the West. The Great Madhyamaka tradition remained largely unknown here until quite recently, and only now are its texts starting to come out. Much remains to be done in preparation for the coming out of an original language text of the Book of Dzyan.