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By Whalen Lai

The universality of Buddha-nature is a doctrine accepted by all Chinese schools of Buddhism. The Wei-shih(a) (Fa-hsiang(b), Vij~naptimaatrataa) school of Hsuuantsang(c), for reviving the notion that the icchantika is agotra, devoid of this seed of enlightenment, had been summarily dismissed as "Hiinayaanist" for that reason. The idea of "the enlightenability of the icchantika" is associated with the laternamed "Nirvaa.na School," a group of scholars in the Southern Dynasties (420-589) that chose to specialize on the Nirvaa.na Suutra, the Mahaayaana scripture narrating the last day and teaching of `Saakyamuni on earth. The person credited with discovering this doctrine, before even the full suutra was available to vindicate his stand, is Chu Tao-sheng(d) (375?-434), perhaps better known for his stand on "sudden enlightenment." The school as such flourished best in the Liang dynasty (502-557); but because it was then aligned with scholarship focusing on the Ch'eng-shih-lun(e) (Satyasiddhi? ) by Harivarman, it came under criticism when the latter was denounced as Hiinayaanist in the Sui dynasty. It is usually said that the T`ien-t'ai(f) school, based on the Lotus Suutra, superseded the Nirvaa.na school by incorporating many of its ideas, while the Ch'eng-shih school suffered irredeemably under the attack of Chi-tsang(g) of the San-lun(h) (Three Treatise or Maadhyamika) school at the same time. Henceforth, the Nirvaa.na school faded away while its old association with the Ch'eng-shih tradition was judged an unnecessary mistake.(1) This article will introduce three moments from the history of this Nirvaa.na school, showing the main trends of development and, somewhat contrary to traditional opinion, justifying the necessity for the detour into Harivarman's scholarship. Emphasis will also be put on the interaction between Buddhist reflections and the native traditions.



The Nirvaa.na Suutra, from which the school drew its inspiration, was first translated by Fa-hsien(j), the pilgrim who brought it back from India, and Buddhabhadra in 416. This shorter and earlier recension already introduced the idea of "universal Buddha-nature", but as surely it also stated that the icchantika was destitute of this seed of enlightenment. A later an longer version readmitting the icchantika into the lot of the enlightenable was rendered, in Liang-chou(k), by Dharmak.sema with the help of Tao-lang(1) in 421, but unfortunately this full text would not arrive at the southern capital until a decade later, in 430. With only the Fa-hsien version at hand, it was only natural that the southerners regarded the exclusion of the icchantika to be the canonical position. For someone to openly go against the words of the Buddha should, indeed in that context, be punishable, according to the preceptual code, by banishment from the community(2). That was the fate at first for Tao-sheng who somehow intuited that one day even the icchantika should be de jure (that is, tang-lai(m): in the (… missing) Whalen Lai is an Associate Professor at the University of California, Davis. natural course of time) given this seed of enlightenment(3). Hui-kuan(n) petitioned the king for Tao-sheng's removal in 428-429, and Tao-sheng left the capital for Lu-shan(o), only to be vindicated the next year when the full text arrived from the north.

It is not clear when Tao-sheng first intuited this "enlightenability of the icchantika," but Hui-kuan's reaction was both sharp and apparently quick, such that it is advisable to date it close to 428 itself. This is supported by a letter written by Fan T'ai(p) to the pair, Hui-kuan and Tao-sheng, circa 426-428, at which time the two were on speaking terms though already divided over gradual versus sudden enlightenment(4) . (This other controversy warranted no expulsion of a heretic, because thescriptures themselves show no decisive stand, unlike the explicit exclusion of the icchantika in the then-available Nirvaa.na Suutra.) Because later in Ch'an (Zen(q)), the doctrine of sudden enlightenment was predicated upon the idea of an innate Buddha-nature, it has been assumed that Tao-sheng also arrived at the subitist position by way of the universality of Buddha-nature.(5) However, nowhere in Tao-sheng's surviving writings do we find the formula, chien-hsing ch'eng-fo(r), "upon seeing one's (Buddha) nature, be [suddenly] enlightened." That formula first appeared in Pao-liang(s) who is however judged a gradualist because of his Ch'eng-shih leanings (see infra). Thus "sudden enlightenment" and "universal Buddha-nature" were originally two separate issues, discovered by Tao-sheng independent of one another.

In a separate investigation,(6) I discovered that Tao-sheng proposed sudden enlightenment even before he knew of the Nirvaa.na Suutra. The idea came to him probably at Lu-shan in the last decade of the fourth century when he was apprenticed under the Sarvaastivaadin Sa^nghadeva and the famous hermit Huiyuan(t). Sa^nghadeva translated the Abhidharmahrdaya

in 391 and chapter five of this text specified that "the last act in training" the vujrasamaadhi (diamond trance) leading to enlightenment involves a one-step awakening, not any gradual progression.(7)

Hui-yuan himself took a cue from this, and in his essay San-pao-lun(u) (On Three Modes of Retribution) in 395 already so suggested a nonkarmic (that is, noncausative) enlightenment.(8) This then formed the basis for the twin theories of Tao-sheng which should be read together, namely, "The [nirvanic] Good admits no [karmic] retribution'' for indeed it is through "sudden enlightenment that one attains Buddhahood." It is only later that Tao-sheng further grafted this Hiinayaana-based argument for sudden enlightenment to items he learned in his next phase of scholarship under Kumaarajiiva: the Emptiness philosophy of Maadhyamika and the Ekayaana doctrine of the Lotus Suutra. He and Hui-kuan parted company then over suddenism and gradualism as related to these two

Mahaayaana doctrines.(9) The doctrine of Buddha-nature was known to both, but was not regarded as having any bearing, pro or con, on that controversy. The proof lies in Hsieh Ling-yun's defense of Tao-sheng in his Pien-tsung-lun(v) dated 423. Nowhere in this classic defense is Buddha-nature rallied to the side of suddenism. In fact, the only time it is mentioned was by an opponent in support of the gradualist's cause.(10)

These facts, however, can only be documented on a separate occasion.

Although sudden enlightenment was not derived originally from the universality of Buddha-nature, the two did come together eventually and do represent a key contribution in the founding days of the school. The argument for suddenism based on the innateness of Buddha-hood without as yet accepting the icchantika, the exception) was first presented, as far as surviving documents go, by Huijui (alias Seng-jui(w)) in his Yu-i-lun(x). This work is not dated but I prefer to put it after 423. Hui-jui notes: The (Nirvaa.na) suutra says, "Nirvaa.na is non-extinction; the Buddha does have a self. All sentient beings have Buddha-nature and will, upon completion of cultivation, become enlightened."... Nirvaa.na lasts forever because it corresponds to the mirroring (chao(y) ) element in men. The Great Transformation will not cease and so the true basis [Buddha-nature] has to be. Still there are those who doubt only the more, settling for gradual enlightenment and criticizing the true (suddenist) understanding.(11)

These stubborn ones were compared to the icchantikas.(12) Finally, Tao-sheng after his vindication and at the invitation of Hui-kuan to contribute a preface to the southerners-edited text, offered this succinct statement: The true principle is naturalness itself (chen-li tzu-jan(z)). Enlightenment is just being mysteriously in tune to it. What is true permits no variance, so howcan enlightenment permit any change? The unchanging essence is quiescent and forever mirroring (chao). If a person out of delusion goes counter to it, then enlightenment indeed appears to lie beyound. If he with effort seeks it out, he would reverse the delusion and return to the Ultimate.(13)

Although the word Buddha-nature is not mentioned (in this or any other prefaces)(14) and although sudden enlightenment is absent too, the implication is clear: the direct uncovering of this innate, natural, unchangeable, mirroring essence has to be sudden and total. For such cutting simplicity, Tao-sheng has been loved by many, past and present.

The charm of his thesis notwithstanding, it must be judged as reflecting a certain freedom, even license, in the founding days of the Nirvaa.na school. There is a certain Neo-Taoist innovation in his reading of the "real" intention of the text, a meaning he regarded as lying behind the tools (the "rabbit snare") of the language. Edward Conze well notes how the gradual versus sudden was never that divisive an issue in India: In fact, Indian Buddhist had made a distinction between "gradual" and "sudden" enlightenment, but had regarded the second as the final stage of the first and nobody had thought of taking sides for one or the other. Tao-sheng now argues that since the absolute emptiness of Nirvaa.na is absolutely and totally different from all conditioned things, the enlightenment which mirrors [chao] it must also be totally different from all mental stages which are directed at other things. In consequence,

enlightenment, if it is to be achieved at all, can be achieved only in its totality, and not in a gradual or piecemeal fashion.(15)

The logic might appear to be derived from Maadhyamika, but I am told both the Maadhyamika and the Tathaagatagarbha tradition in India were inclined toward what Tao-sheng would have considered as gradualism.(16) Moreover, if we stand back and look at the short quote from Tao-sheng given earlier, we would have to say that the psychology of this mirroring faculty, chao, like the metaphysics of the invariable, unceasing, one true principle, tells more of native Taoist psychology and ontology than things immediately Indian.(17) The very language used by Tao-sheng, such words as tzu-jan (nature, spontaneity, as-is-ness) and pu-i(aa) (the nonchanging), belies a monism that is less obvious than what is found in the Nirvaa.na Suutra.(18)

The native proclivity in Tao-sheng's thesis was actually acknowledged by Hsieh Ling-yun himself. Instead of seeing his Pien-tsung-lun as an interesting excursion into "comparative religion" in the fourth century, we should see it as an implicit concession on Hsieh's part that, after reviewing the on-going debate between the two camps, the suddenist cause was justifiable more by chinese proclivity than by Sanskrit scriptural authority. Hsieh's work is as much a hymn to the Chinese genius as it is a confession that Tao-sheng's position was ill-supported by the mainstream in Indian Buddhist reflections (including the authority of Kumaarajiiva and Seng-chao(ab) (19)). Hsieh writes:

In the discourses of `Saakyamuni, though the Way of the Sage is remote, by accumulated learning one may reach it; but only when the bonds are exhausted and illumination is born, will one gradually become enlightened.

In the discourses of Confucius, since the Way of the Sage is subtle, even Yen(ac) (Hui) only approximated it; but when one embodies Nonbeing and illumination is universal, then all principles revert to the One Ultimate.

Of late, a man of the Way [Tao-sheng] said, "The passive comprehension is fine and subtle and permits no gradition. Accumulated learnings have no end, how will that ever terminate itself?" Thus I will reject gradual enlightenment in `Saakyamuni's teaching but retain his accessibility. I will cast out the idea of approximation in the Confucian tradition and take in its One Ultimate.(20)

In other words, for Hsieh, India provided the gradualism of the effective means, while China the suddenism of the uncompromising end.

The Sinitic input cannot be denied; but the unique nature of the synthesis should not be overlooked either. Something unprecedented in both Indian Buddhist and Chinese native tradition was forged. Apropos the latter, it should be remembered that although Mencius said every man might become Yao or Shun(ad) (Sages) or that Hsun-tzu(ae) rooted Goodness in acquired learning itself, such rational humanism was eclipsed largely in the Han period. The conscensus was that Confucius was a Sage, but then Sages were rare beings indeed. His leading disciple was Yen Hui, called distinctly a hsien (virtuous one)(af). As hsien, Yen Hui at best approximated Sagehood; he could never and should never aspire to be a Sage. Yen Hui loved learning (ai-hsueh(ag)), but it is not until Sung that finally this learning could be called sheng-jen chih hsueh(ah), Sage Learning (meaning learning conducive to the creating of sagehood in oneself). For one thing, among the Neo-Taoists, it was agreed that the learning provided by the Classics was only the "trace" of Sagehood, not the "essence" which is forever ineffable and inimitable. The Neo-Taoists might speak of renouncing the trace and aspire directly for the essence, but they, too, stooped to the mystique that Sages were somehow simply "born" and not "achieved." (The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove are, strictly speaking, hsien and not sheng(ai) as the English might mislead one to believe.) In light of this, namely, the inaccessibility of Sagehood, so total and sudden as to exclude all known means, the incorporation of Buddhist learning as the gradual path to that end should be seen as a new and significant departure pointing ahead to the Sung Neo-Confucian educational revolution to come. As T'ang Yung-t'ung(aj) puts it, prior to Hsieh Ling-yun and Tao-sheng, the Sage (sheng-jen) is neither "learnable nor arrivable" (p'u-k'o-hsueh, p'u-k'o-chih'(ak)); with the pair, now it is learnable by Indian means but not arrivable gradually (k'o-hsueh, p'u-k'o-chih); after them, in Sung Neo-Confucianism, Sagehood is finally learnable and acquirable through learning itself (k'o-hsueh, k'o-chih(al)).(21)



Considering the radical nature of Tao-sheng's theses, many observers are disappointed with the eventual direction of the Nirvaa.na school. Why should its scholars align themselves with the Ch'eng-shih-lun, a text structured by the Hiinayaanist Four Noble Truths and wherein universal Buddhahood would have no place. It seems more logical and definitely more preferable to continue the line of thought initiated by Tao-sheng, a synthesis of the Nirvaa.na, the Lotus and the Praj~naapaaramitaa Sutva. That, however, was not to be. The next phase, the flowering of the Nirvaa.na school, went hand in hand with the flourishing of the Ch'eng-shih scholarship. Yet, in that historical context, there were reasons why this new alignment occurred the way it did: (i) there are indiciations that purist Maadhyamika defenders would not accept the Nirvaa.na Suutra, whereas (ii) the Ch'eng-shih-lun was perceived, rightly or wrongly, as endorsing a similar postive gospel compatible with the suutra's endorsement of a Buddha-self or essence. Apropos (i), there was at first a Seng-kao of the Chung-hsing(am) temple who "accepted the larger Praj~naapaaramitaa Suutra and rejected the Nirvaa.na Suutra, charging the latter with not being the words of the Buddha." So heated was the debate that Seng-jui would like to remember Seng-kao as one "growing more stubborn with age... finally dying with his (blasphemous) tongue showing first the signs of decomposition." The Wei-shu(an) remembered him differently. Seng-kao was known also as a renowned Abhidharmist who introduced no less than the Ch'eng-shih-lun to the North.(22)

Seng-kao's reservations about Buddha-nature are understandable. After all, the Buddha denied any idea of a substantial 'self' and Naagaarjuna had well exposed universal emptiness. In view of all that, to reintroduce this quasiaatman was judged by him to be untrue to the teachings. Seng-kao could not have been alone in this, because even in the San-lun tradition of She-shan(ao) (where Chi-tsang ultimately came from), there was recorded a refusal to digress into the then-popular Nirvaa.na Suutra. It was under the continual urgings of his students that Seng-ch'uan(ap) finally lectured on this suutra. His successor, Fa-lang(aq) , then tapped the a`suunyatathaagatagarbha (the not-empty embryonic buddha) ideology in the `Sriimaalaa Suutra to ease the `suunyavaada (emptiness) transition of She-shan into a rapprochement with the Nirvaa.na suutra.(23) Chi-tsang was Fa-lang's student who then championed this orthodox linkage against the misguided one he saw in the Nirvaa.na/Ch'eng-shih school. In short, it took some time for purist or critical Maadhyamika followers in the Southern dynasties to come to terms, successfully, with the renewed aatmavaada trend found in the Nirvaa.na suutra. In contrast to this and apropos the second reason (ii), the Ch'eng-shih group somehow was more receptive to this Buddha-self concept. But why? Here we cannot look at what Harivarman actually said, because objectively speaking, his Ch'eng-shih-lun should not support the doctrine of universal Buddha-nature. We must look at what the Chinese perceived the work to be endorsing.

Firstly, there was emerging a concensus about the teleology of the Buddha's teachings, how it began with the AAgamas and ended in the Nirvaa.na suutra. This scheme was codified as Hui-kuan's p'an-chiao(ar) system (tenet classification of suutras). The logic is already implied in Tao-sheng's theory of the Four Dharma-Wheels found in his Commentary on the Lotus Suutra. Even though the format given below in a p'an-chiao fashion--is not intended by Tao-sheng,(24) it may nonetheless serve to illustrate the teleology: The Four Dharma-Wheels are (1) the Pure Teachings in Hinayana for transcending samsaara; (2) the Praj~naa teachings exposing all as empty; (3) the Lotus teaching establishing the one real truth of Ekayaana; and (4) the Nirvaa.na teaching of the permanently abiding (Buddha-nature)(25).

In this sequence, Hiinayaana is usually accredited with seeing the sa.msaaric particulars; the Praj~naapaaramitaa corpus with emptying them; the Ekayaana with positing one Ultimate; and the Nirvaa.na suutra with a positive doctrine of permanence a permanent Nirvaa.na and an abiding essence in men. Since positivism in (4) reverses the judgments in (2), the disjuncture could not be easily smoothed over. In fact, the disciples of Kumaarajiiva were a little embarrassed that their master who taught them Emptiness did not foresee that reversal to come. To find a continuity, Seng-jui would say that the Lotus Suutra's concept of the Buddha's omniscence anticipated the Nirvaa.na suutra's idea of universal Buddhanature.(26) He probably made up a legend involving Hui-yiian's foresight and Kumaarajiiva's prophesy of the coming of the Nirvaa.na suutra.(27) The point for us here is that neither Seng-jui nor others could see the link between `suunyataa (emptiness) and this new mahaatman (great self). On the surface, they seemed indeed opposite to one another.

Just as many turned to the Lotus Suutra for a justifiable continuity, many turned to Harivarman's Ch'eng-shih-lun for a `saastric defense of this Buddha-self. The Lotus Suutra established one true reality (ch'eng i chen-shih(as); see earlier) meaning Ekayaana, the real goal behind the expedient Triyaanas. Can it be just a coincidence that Harivarman's treatise is titled, in Chinese, as Ch'eng-shih-lun, the Treatise to Establish the Real? Considering the fact that the opening gaathaa (verse) in this work refers to itself as the Cheng-chih-lun(at), the Treatise of the Noble Wisdom, I am led to think that the current title "To Establish the Real" was imposed upon it either by Kumaarajiiva or his followers to underline, for some reasons, the `positivist' tone allegedly found in this text. That the text was perceived as espousing more than Hiinayaanist particularism as well as more than Praj~naapaaramitaa's obsession with negation is proven by this preface written in Liang.

Harivarman... noticing how the misguided debate of his time... authored this work. Ch'eng means that it is grounded upon wen(au) (the scriptures). Shih means that it will illuminate the Principle. One uses Ch'eng to oppose the practice of huai(av) (mere negation). One sides with shih to oppose the hsu(aw) (mere vacuity, emptiness).(28)

The treatise completes (ch'eng) the meaning of the suutras, as the opening gaathaa so claims.(29) However, the Chinese further saw it as endorsing a real Principle (shihli(ax)) that is clearly beyond mere destructive (huai) dialectics, assuredly reversing the Emptiness philosophy of hsu. Now, "right or wrong" is a separate issue; the scholars then saw it that way.

What is this "real Principle" that cannot be denied or destroyed? In the Satyasiddhi, this is associated with the third of the Four Noble Truths, nirodha. Unlike the other three, namely, the truths of suffering, its cause, and the way out, which pertains not illogically to the samsaric state (even the path, maarga, leads from sa.msaara), the truth of nirodha (cessation, nirvaa.na) is opposed to this illusion of a world. For that, Harivarman called it the real truth, even the One Truth and the paramaarthasatya. This highest truth is set against the other three as mundane truths.(30) Likewise, we find, in the Chinese translation of this text, the adjective shih (the real, the concrete) as being applied to the item that secures one's attainment of this transmundane reality. What is real (shih) while all else is illusory is wisdom, praj~naa. Thus by a coincidence however improper this might be by later standards and modern philological ones it was thought that Harivarman also endorsed a "permanent Nirvaa.na" and a "substantive Praj~naanature." The Ch'eng-shih-lun was taken at the time as therefore going beyond Emptiness, beyond the Praj~naapaaramitaa Suutra and Maadhyamika, to underscoring a higher reality (ch'eng-shih). This I believe is the reason this text was heavily relied on by members of the Nirvaa.na school, especially in its heydays in the Liang dynasty.(31)

Having explained the reason for this "detour" into Harivarman, let us examine how Harivarman helped the Sinitic speculations on the nature of this Buddha-essence. For that, we have selected Pao-liang, the first to successfully wed the two systems. A grand master, protege of the Liang Emperor Wu(ay), he influenced the thinkings of this era.

Pao-liang (d. 509) on the Middle Path Buddha-nature. There are many problems confronting a theoretician of Buddha-nature, and Pao-liang had tackled these in his exegesis of the suutra. However, one basic issue is (a) where to locate this Buddha-essence, and (b) how to reconcile this 'self' with the earlier doctrine of ‘no-self’ or anaatman. The suutra has variously defined the Buddha-nature as seed of, or cause of, enlightenment; as Buddhaseed (gotra), Buddha-womb (garbha) ; as wisdom (praj~naa) , buddha-realm (dhaatu), Dharmakaaya; as synonymous with anaatman, aatman, mahaatman, and dialectically as neither aatman nor anaatman; as empty, not-empty, likewise dialectically as neither empty nor not-empty; as paramaartha (the highest truth), paramaartha-`suunyataa (Emptiness of the highest truth); as the Middle Path and so on. Pao-liang's position on Buddha-nature, in response to the preceding, has located the Buddha-nature in the mind, the innately pure mind, the embyronic buddha (tathaagatagarbha: womb of the Tathaagata) which he called the shen-ming miao-ti(az), the mysterious essence of divine illumination. He also associated it with suchness (tathataa), paramaartha,(32) the middle path and, perhaps most intricately, with a union of the Two Truths. Essentially, Pao-liang located Buddha-nature, said to be possessed by all sentient beings, in the core of sentiency, the mind, seeing in this "mysterious essence" the function or ability to bring about liberation, a liberation rooted in the attainment of suchness and the appreciation of the symmetry of sa.msaara and nirvaa.na.

We can see Pao-liang's basic argument in the following: There are four kinds of Buddha-nature, that is, the basic-cause, the conditionedcause, the result and the result-of-result Buddha-nature. These four aspects subsume the whole (process of enlightenment) and leave nothing out. The basic and the conditioned-cause Buddha-natures pertain to the way of the divine aspiration (in the mind). This is because (in terms of the aspiration) to avoid pain and to seek after peace, the fool and the wise man are alike. However in accordance with the "essential" and its functioning, we distinguish the two aspects (of the basic and the conditioned cause). We take as the basic cause that aspect that has, from beginning to end, been always enlightened and never suffers increase nor decrease (in its substance). There is not one split second in which this liberating essence is not functioning (to deliver the person from ignorance); it is only that it would cease being active upon attaining Buddhahood. Thus we know that the (natural) tendency (in men) to avoid pain and seek bliss is this liberating function and that this would be active (in the fool as in the wise man) irrespective of the karmic good or evil that might or might not stimulate it. This is what the `Sriimaala Suutra designates as "the innately pure mind" or what the Lion's Roar chapter (in the Nirvaa.na suutra) calls "the one Middle Path." Because this functioning (aspiration) is not contrary to the great Principle, therefore how can it not be the basic-cause (Buddha-nature)? As to the conditioned cause, it has as its substance the myriad good (contributing to its fruition). Anything above a thought to do good would contribute to that excellent fruit. As it is aroused pending such conditions, it is called the conditioned-cause (Buddha-nature). As this liberating aspect dwells in the aspiring mind yet never eternally, something that rises at one point and (as a contributing good) never since ceases to be, it is different from the (changeless) basic cause. However, if there is not the aid offered by these conditions, then the person would abide with (his present) nature, never changing his way (for the Good). For that reason, these two causes must go hand in hand. Now if the function of the conditioned cause is fulfilled and the meaning of the basic cause is replete, then the two activities would be perfected and life and death (sa.msaara) would end. Omniscence is what is attained after the vajrasamaadhi (Diamond trance) stage. It transforms the cause into the result; this is known as the result Buddhanature. As to the result-of-result (Buddha-nature), this is set up against life and death. To give it a comprehensive name above the myriad good, we call it the mahaanirvaa.na (great nirvaa.na). Because it is put as a result above the result, it is called result-of-result (Buddha-nature). It is not that the two (results) involve any time gap; the distinction is logical (not chronological).(33)

Buddha-nature is here dynamically conceived under (i) a changeless, enlightened basic core, (ii) a tireless aspiration accumulating merits, (iii) a final liberation and wisdom, and (iv) for emphasis and distinction, the grand nirvanic state at the end of the pilgrimage. Such detailed causative analysis of the four Buddha-natures, absent as far as we know from Tao-sheng and other early thinkers, is characteristic of this peak period.(34)

Although metaphorically Pao-liang would locate the Buddha-nature in the mind (heart), this is not the mind faculty in man. He avoided that ontic fallacy by qualifying it as lying outside the standard elements: Although Buddha-nature is within the skandhas, the dhaatus and the aayatanas, it is not subsumed under them. The reality of divine illumination is the unity of the Two Truths of the mundane and the highest truth. It is only the mundane side that is always within the skandhas etc.; the transmundane side is forever nirvanic (wu-wei(ba)). Because the latter is so, therefore the Buddha-nature may, while being within the skandhas, lie outside it. The essence is unchanging and the function never diminishes. Because its function never diminishes, therefore it is called the basic cause (Buddha-nature). If there is not this mysterious essence acting as the basis for the spirited functions, then it would not be said that Buddha-nature is within and yet not subsumed under the skandhas etc. thus we know this has to be true.(35)

Buddha-nature encompasses both the samsaric skandhas and the nirvanic enlightenment; it is in but not of this world. Pao-liang could point to the authority of the `Sriimaalaa Suutra, wherein it is said that "all sentient beings are dependent on the tathaagatagarbha"-never the other way around.(36)

Pao-liang followed the Nirvaa.na suutra in ruling out Buddha-nature for nonsentient objects. Things are part of suchness (tathataa) too, but lacking mind and consciousness, their life (sheng(bb), sentiency) has been terminated. Things without life are without nature (hsing(bc)).(37)

The unity of the Two Truths which constitutes Buddha-nature is realized by the person upon his liberation.

The essence of the basic cause is the principle of suchness' nature residing in sentient life for the establishing of both the highest and the mundane truth. Why? Because unless there is no mind (hsin), there must be suchness. Upon its nature (hsing), there is life.

It should be noted that in Chinese, hsing is written as life (sheng, sentiency) with a mind (hsin(bd)) radical.

The essence acts as the basic cause to suchness attaining an equilibrium. The mundane truth is suffering and impermanence; the highest truth is identity with emptiness. Finding the mean between the two is the function of this suchness nature even as suchness transcends the two.(38)

The unity of the Two Truths is explained as a necessary coincidence. In the early teachings, there was the one-sided obsession with sa.msaara and with the self as real. Now this suutra reveals the mysterious essence of

divine illumination (shen-ming miao-t'i) and sees suchness as real (shih). Upon passing beyond the vajrasamaadhi, one indeed realizes that all is suffering, empty and impermanent The resultant Buddhahood is always permanent, blissful, with self, and pure. If one can understand it this way, then one would realize the real meaning on both sides and walk the middle path. The reason for this is that life and death (sa.msaara) is essentially empty. From the very beginning, (the sa.msaaric reality and the essential emptiness) are not two and never different. Likewise, Nirvaa.na is essentially suchness; it too has no form. This is the experiental way to understanding the real form of the various realities; what the middle path sees is this one Way.(39) The unity of the Two Truths is taken to be the middle path, the one Way, the coincidence of sa.msaara and nirvaa.na. Sa.msaara is "empty reality"; nirvaa.na is "Real Emptiness." By this semantic juxaposition, the two coincided in a "positive mean." This is a typical manuever of the Ch'eng-shih masters in their understanding of the Two Truths. It will be flawed later by Chi-tsang, for mistaking the pair to pertain to reality (yueh-li(be)). The idea of a "positive mean" is in part indebted to a native understanding of life (sheng), mind (hsin) and nature (hsing) as rendered in the Doctrine of the Mean. There, nature is larger than life and rooted in the mind just as Pao-liang would say Buddha-nature is larger than sentiency and functions through the mind. There the middle path is a mean derived from equilibrium and harmony:

Before the feelings of pleasure, anger, sorrow and joy are aroused, it is called equilibrium. When the feelings are aroused and each and all attain due measure and degree, it is called harmony.... When equilibrium and harmony are realized to the highest degree, heaven and earth will attain their proper order and all things will flourish.(40)

Perhaps we can see shades of this in Pao-liang: the Buddha-nature is the prearoused hsing, functioning to achieve the harmony of opposites in a middle path that is a positive Confucian mean.



The synthesis of the Nirvaa.na and the Ch'eng-shih scholarship in the Liang dynasty soon came under attack in the Sui era. From a more purist Maadhyamika perspective, Pao-liang's explanation of Buddha-nature would be judged as too positive and too realistic, thereby missing the negative dialectics, the emptiness at heart of wisdom that is the Buddha-nature.

Pao-liang's use of causality has failed to question the rationale of cause and effect itself. Pao-liang's explanation of Buddha-nature as "in but not of the skandhas" is more a case of rationalizing Both/And, instead of a critical Neither/Nor. Pao-liang's understanding of the Two Truths is dangerously ontological, aligning the pair so easily with sa.msaara and nirvaa.na as if we are dealing with two realities instead of two ways of knowledge. In the end, Buddha-nature is something inconceivable (acintya) and beyond predication (avikalpya) and the art of talking about it is not so much explaining what it is as what it is not. It is not through reason but rather the dismantling of it that we may be psychologically freed to catch a glimpse of it. This in short is what Chi-tsang would do to the system built up by the Nirvaa.na school.

Chi-tsang technique of praasa~ngika, destructive dialectics, through which the true might be pointed at, is best demonstrated in the following persistent antithetical stand to any definition of Buddha-nature: Always it is necessary to oppose any definition of Buddha-nature. If someone says there it is, say there it is not. If sentient beings are said to be the basic cause, say nonsentient beings are instead. If he says the six elements are the basic cause, say the non-six elements are instead. If he says the highest truth is the basic cause, say the non-highest truth is instead. If he says the mundane truth is the basic cause, say the non-mundane truth is instead. [Whatever is said, negate accordingly.] Therefore it is said that the Middle Path where there is neither even the highest nor the mundane truth is the basic cause. As one applies the cure according to the ills perceived, so the negations are employed.

The medicine is to cure, but if the person is to be liberated, he must also be made to see beyond the upaaya (expediency) in that antidote. Only so may he be pointed toward the truth. Thus Chi-tsang went on to say: It is not that "non-sent beings" etc. are the basic cause either. If what-is-so is shown to be not-so, then why talk of sentiency as opposed to no sentiency? We speak of the sentient vs. the nonsentient (as a language convention), but can the sentient be said to be real? Unreal? Both real and unreal? Neither real nor unreal? If you can understand [the antinomies involved in] sentiency, what further reason is there to wonder if ‘it’ is the basic cause or not? The same applies to (the other items above). Understanding this (dialectics), you have replete in you that basic cause Buddha-nature.(41)

Buddha-nature is ultimately not 'something' you know. It is rather the knowledge penetrating the emptiness pertaining to any and all ‘thing'.

In that spirit, Chi-tsang dismantled the Nirvaa.na school's various stands one by one in the section on Buddha-nature in his Ta-ch'eng hsuan-lun(bf). An abridged translation is offered below without comments because more important than any annotations and corrections at the moment is the train of logic employed in this intentionally destructive enterprise.

Traditionally... there are eleven schools of opinions on Buddha-nature.... The first regards sentient beings to be the basic cause Buddha-nature for the suutra has said, "The basic cause is sentient being; the conditioned cause are the six paaramitaas."... The second school regards the six elements to be the basic cause for the saatra says, "Buddha-nature is neither same as nor different from the six elements."

... The third school takes the mind as the basic cause Buddha-nature for the suutra says, "Those with mind will inevitably attain the highest wisdom. Beings with mind and consciousness are different from insentient things such as wood or stone. By cultivation, they can attain Buddha-hood."... The fourth school regards the incorruptible element within rebirth to be the basic cause Buddha-nature. This is different from the one above. Why? Because this understands the mind as having an incorruptible element and takes this function to be the basic cause. The fifth school regards the impulse to avoid pain and preference for bliss to be the basic cause. The (`Sriimaalaa) suutra says, "Were there not the tathaagatagarbha, there would not be the desire for Nirvaa.na and the abhorence of pain and pleasure."... The sixth school regards the true spirit to be the basic. cause Buddha-nature. If there is not the true spirit, how can there be true enlightenment?... The seventh school regards the aalayavij~naana and the

innately pure mind to be the basic cause Buddha-nature.... The eighth school regards the future result (in enlightenment) to be the basic cause Buddha-nature.... The ninth school regards the principle by which one gains enlightenment to be the basic cause Buddha-nature.... The tenth school regards paramaartha as the basic cause Buddha-nature....The eleventh school regards paramaartha`suunyataa to be the basic cause Buddha-nature.... It is necessary to negate these, one by one....The suutra says, "If the bodhisattva still harbours the idea of a self... he is not a bodhisattva," and "when the Buddha discourses on sentient beings, he is not discoursing on sentient beings."... It may be said that sentient beings possess Buddha-nature but never that sentient beings are Buddha-nature.... The suutra clearly says that Buddha-nature is neither same nor different from the six elements." (So why say it is same as the six?) As to the next five schools, the first three regard the mind as the basic cause Buddha-nature. But the suutra only says, "Beings with mind will be enlightened."...Where does it say that mind itself is Buddha-nature? To guard itself from misunderstanding, it clearly says "the mind is impermanent; Buddha-nature is permanent." So the mind cannot be Buddhanature... The next two schools come under the same critique... And where does the suutra speak of an incorruptible element?... When the `Sriimaalaa suutra speaks of "desiring nirvaa.na etc." It is talking about the attribute of the tathaagatagarbha...; where does it ever designate that impulse... as the basic cause Buddha-nature?... The tathaagatagarbha is already a priori buddhahood, so why (would the sixth school) regard future enlightenability as the tathaagatagarbha? ...The aalayavij~naana cannot be the Buddha-nature because the Mahaayaana Sa.mgraha says it is the mother of ignorance and root of sa.msaara.... Apropos the eighth and ninth schools' theses on the principle of future enlightenment, this principle pertains only to the mundane truth (which cannot be Buddha-nature). Apropos the tenth and eleventh on paramaartha and paramaartha`suunyataa, the principle here pertains to the highest truth.

However, the suutra, immediately after identifying Buddha-nature with the paramaartha`suunyataa, goes on to say that it is the perception of both the empty and the not-empty (alone) is Buddha-nature. The Middle Path and not Emptiness itself is Buddha-nature. As to paramaartha..., what scripture and authority so call it Buddha-nature?... The theory of future enlightenability... implies incipiency...and karmic action; these, being impermanent, cannot be regarded as Buddha-nature.... The thesis that the principle by which one becomes enlightened is the Buddha-nature... is the best... but on what scripture and by what authority is this taught?(42)

In this way, Chi-tsang demolished the achievements of the Nirvaa.na school, offering his own much more critical and alert reading for Buddha-nature instead. The onticization of Buddha-nature was avoided. That point is well taken by subsequent theorists, but since Chi-tsang's rather stringent dialectics did not sit well with the Chinese, the mode of thinking found in the Nirvaa.na school actually survived him. Even as the school and its suutra were superseded by other movements and other works, the legacy of its ideals lived on. The universality of Buddha-nature, the heart of the school's message, became indeed credal for Sinitic Mahaayaana ever since.


(1) The most detailed work on this school is Fuse Kogaku, Nehanshuu kenkyuu in two volumes (Tokyo:Sobun, 1942).

(2) Materials on Tao-sheng's life based largely on T'ang Yung-t'ung, Han-Wei liang-Chin Nan-pei-ch'ao Fo-chiao-shih (Peking reissue: Chung-hua, 1955) ch. 16, pp. 601-676. I will only note any disagreements I might have.

(3) See ibid., pp. 637-638; there is some confusion about whether Tao-sheng did not argue for pen-yu(bg) (a priori possession of Buddha-nature) instead of tang-yu (future possession) as he was later charged. T'ang defends the former, but it is conceivable that Tao-sheng at one time proposed the latter in a lost treatise known as Fo-hsing tang-yu lun(bh) . At any rate, the sharp distinction between pen-wu and shih-yu(bi) (incipient possession) is a Sui dynasty creation; all members of the Nirvaa.na school subscribed to pen-yu (a basic category in their exegesis) even as they accepted the gradual, incipient maturing of this seed of enlightenment (buddhagotra).

(4) T. (Taisho Daizokyo) 52, p. 78bc.

(5) T'ang, p. 658 so assumed; Edward Conze's short review (see 15) did not.

(6) "The Early Theory of Sudden Enlightenment of Tao-sheng: Before Involving Buddha-Nature" (manuscript, 1981).

(7) In English see Charles Willeman trans. The Essence of Metaphysics: Abhidharmahrdaya (Brussels: 1975), p. 82.

(8) T. 52, p. 34b.

(9) After Kumaarajiiva's death (if dated in 409; Kumaarajiiva was never consulted on this issue as he was on others) but before Seng-chao's Nirvaa.na is Nameless (now authenticated, dated 413; he reported on both positions).

(10)Hui-lin recalled Confucius' ideal of "changing hsing" (T.52, p. 226bc) and Hsieh then noted the Buddhist parallel in Buddha-nature (p. 227a).

(11) T. 55, p. 41c.

(12) One reason for putting this work before 428.

(13) T. 37, p. 377b. Full translation in my "The Mahaaparinirvaa.na suutra and Its Earliest Interpreters in China" forthcoming in Journal of

the American Oriental Society.

(14) Ibid. Only Pao-liang hinted at it.

(15)Edward Conze, A Short History of Buddhism (London: Sense Alien & Unwin Ltd., 1980), p. 70

(16) By Prof. Luis Gomez (Michigan University, Ann Arbor) during a conference on sudden and gradual enlightenment at the Institute of Transcultural Studies, Los Angeles, sponsored by the ACLS, 1981.

(17) Not that similar metaphors are absent in India, but the matrix is different.

(18) Tzu-jan had been used to translate tathataa; the invariable is implied.

(19) Both, in their exegesis of the ten bhuumis, accepted progress after intitial enlightenment.

(20) T. 52, pp. 224c-225a. Translation indebted to Prof. Richard Mather, who has a full translation of this text in manuscript form.

(21) This, I believe, is from his Wei-Chin hsuan-hsueh lun-kao (not available to me at the moment), with slight changes, ex. sudden enlightenment is characterized by T'ang as pu-hsueh erh-chih(bj) instead.

(22) T'ang, Fo-chiao-shih, pp. 617-18.

(23) See Hirai Shun'ei, Chuugoku hanya shisoshi kenkyuu (Tokyo: Shunjuu, 1976), pp. 309-322.

(24) Originally intended for internal analysis of the Lotus Suutra.

(25) Compare Seng-jui's Yu-i-lun: "The Tripi.taka drives off hindrances; the Praj~naa texts eliminate vacuous illusions; the Lotus reveals the one Ultimate; and the Nirvaa.na shows the real transformations" (T. 55, p. 41bc).

(26) Still accepted by Theodore de Bary ed. The Buddhist Tradition (New York: Vintage, 1972), see note to pp. 158-160 translation.

(27) Yu-i-lun: Hui-yuan supposedly wrote a Fa-hsing-lun(bk) saying "What attains the Ultimate has as its nature the unchanging/what possesses nature has as its principle the embodiment of the Ultimate"; and Kumaarajiiva sighed at this intuition of the (permanent) principle prior to the (Nirvaa.na) suutra's arrival. T'ang accepted this as true (p. 632).

(28) T. 52, p. 244b. The last line reads "... to praise shih and oppose hsu" after emending hsing (form) to hsing(bl) (punish).

(29) This is accepted by Chi-tsang and is one reason why Harivarman has been classified at times as Sautranika.

(30) C. D. C. Priestley has dealt with this "seeing the One Truth" in "Emptiness in the Satyasiddhi," Journal of lndian Philosophy 1 (1970): 30-39.

(31) The traditional reason given for the Chinese interest in this text is that they knew no better or Harivarman did criticize the Abhidharmists. I do not think that can explain the alignment of the two schools here. Compare Tao-lang, the aide to Dharmak.sema and an authority accepted by Chi-tsang, was insistent on not emptying praj~naa itself when he said "The myriad dharmas are empty but the essence of wisdom is not empty" (T. 38, p. 142b). The Satyasiddhi as the Cheng-chih-lun was indeed regarded in the South as the companion piece to Naagaarjuna's Maadhyamikakaarikaa, then also known as the Cheng-fa-lun(bm). The former affirms the reality of wisdom (chih) as the latter empties the illusion of dharmas (fa) . Even Seng-chao agrees with Yao Hsing that there must be a Sage to understand Emptiness, an essence somewhere within man. The Southerners needed a positive `saatra.

(32) T'ang, p. 693, wonders if Chi-tsang in attributing paramaartha Buddha-nature to Pao-liang had not mistaken chen-ju(bn) (tathataa, suchness Buddha-nature) as chen-ti(bo) (paramaartha). But T'ang's own citation on p. 695 of Pao-liang can easily be taken to support a paramartha Buddha-nature: "The mundane truth involves multiples and to the perverted, it is there always. However, to the delusionfree, it is empty and has never been. From the Buddha's perspective, there is only one truth, known only to the enlightened. What to sentient beings is a (real) dream is to the Buddha something that never was. There, being and nonbeing do not apply; only peace and formlessness. Thus as far as the Buddha is concerned, there is only paramaartha." 33. T. 37, p. 447c, cited by Fuse, op. cit., II, p. 343.

(34) See Hirai. op. cit., pp. 623-624. Both Chi-tsang and Hui-yuan revolted against the causative scheme by creating a new category called "neither cause nor effect Buddha-nature," However, that category was actually recognized by Liang Emperor Wu in his preface (T. 52, p. 242c).

(35) Cited by Fuse, p. 353.

(36) T'ang, p. 698.

(37) T'ang, p. 694.

(38) T'ang, citing from Chun-cheng's(bp) Ssu-lun hsuan-i(bq) as attributed to Pao-liang, pp. 693-694.

(39) T. 37, p. 460c, noted by T'ang, p. 694 and Fuse, p. 348.

(40) Wing-tsit Chan ed. A Source Book in Chinese Philosophy (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1963), p. 98.

(41) T. 45, p. 37a.

(42) Full translation available also in Aaron Koseki, "Chi-tsang's Ta-ch'eng hsuan-lun: The Two Truths and Buddha-Nature" (Madison, Wisconsin: University of Wisconsin, 1977). Selection here from T. 45, pp. 35c-36c.

Transcribed for Buddhism Today by Thich Nu Lien Hoa


Updated: 1-2-2001

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