My mind is reeling. I offered to do a workshop. The offer was granted. They gave me the topic of “Buddha Nature.” The material on Buddha Nature is seemingly immense. It is also conflicting because there is no one definition agreed upon by all parties attesting to its existence. This brings into doubt its very reality.
The tathāgatagarbha doctrine is reputedly one of the most significant Buddhist doctrines to have come under the scrutiny of scholars in recent times. According to scholars, Theravada has no the category of the “Buddha’s Nature”, all true Mahayanists insists that all the sentient beings possess the Buddha-nature it is Tathāgatagarbha, the Embryo of the Buddhahood in all beings.
According to Shunko Katsumata, although the term “ tathāgatagarbha” first appeared in the Mahāyāna texts composed in India between approximately 200 and 350 CE and its basic idea can be found in the expressions of the early Pali suttas such as “Mind is pure” (pabhassaram cittam).
What does this sutta actually say?
“Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements.”
“Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is freed from incoming defilements.”
“Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is defiled by incoming defilements. The uninstructed run-of-the-mill person doesn’t discern that as it actually is present, which is why I tell you that — for the uninstructed run-of-the-mill person — there is no development of the mind.”
“Luminous, monks, is the mind. And it is freed from incoming defilements. The well-instructed disciple of the noble ones discerns that as it actually is present, which is why I tell you that — for the well-instructed disciple of the noble ones — there is development of the mind.”
This statement has engendered a great deal of controversy for generations. It comes from the Anguttara Nikaya 1.49-52. From these four short verses comes the justification of the Buddha Nature, aka Tathagatagarbha, thesis in Mahayana Buddhism. Because these verses come from the Pali Canon, it is maintained that the Buddha must have endorsed the concept. That endorsement seems to have arisen about 700 – 800 years after his death. Unfortunately, the proponents of Buddha Nature avoid reading the entire section, or worse, ignore the entire section, to make their case.
Taking the entire section into account. The Theravadin commentaries were not so careless but the question arises, did they read too much into it? “Mind” say the commentaries, refers to bhavangacitta. Bhavangacitta is the momentary state between thoughts so highly prized in classical Chinese Chan. Sometimes it is described as the stopping of the perception of objects and the emergence of the stream of consciousness.
Unfortunately there is no reference to bhavangacitta that can equate it with Buddha Nature to be found in the suttas. It appears in the Abhidhamma book, the Patthana. The other problem that comes up is that bhangacitta is described as being like a deep sleep. If this is true then how can it also be described as luminous? What does it mean to develop bhavangacitta if that is what mind means in this case? The Buddha never explains why luminosity is a condition for enlightenment.
In the Digha Nikaya 11, the Kevatta Sutta, and the Majjhima Nikaya 49 the Buddha links luminosity with “consciousness without feature”. In the Majjhima Nikaya 49 he goes on the say that consciousness does not participate in things of the describable world – not even the “All-ness of All,” which is defined in the Sabba Sutta, Samyutta Nikaya 35.23.
The Blessed One said, “What is the All? Simply the eye & forms, ear & sounds, nose & aromas, tongue & flavors, body & tactile sensations, intellect & ideas. This, monks, is called the All. Anyone who would say, ‘Repudiating this All, I will describe another,’ if questioned on what exactly might be the grounds for his statement, would be unable to explain, and furthermore, would be put to grief. Why? Because it lies beyond range.”
If this is what the “luminous mind” does not participate in then how could the luminous mind even be defiled? Further, this luminosity cannot be realized until the goal of the practice is reached, so how, then, can it be a prerequisite to the practice of developing the mind?
Consciousness without feature, without end, luminous all around: Here water, earth, fire, & wind have no footing. Here long & short coarse & fine fair & foul name & form are all brought to an end. With the cessation of [the activity of] consciousness each is here brought to an end.
From the Kevetta Sutta
In this context it seems that what the Buddha means is this: the luminous mind is not the mind the meditator has but is the mind the meditator is practicing so it may be developed. This is much different than the Buddha Nature that is equated with the luminous mind. It comes after accomplishment of the practice not a prerequisite for practice. Discernment of luminous mind means that there is an understanding delusion, aversion and greed are not natural to the “luminous mind” but this knowledge is not at all essential to awareness. It is not the knowledge but the process itself that takes on significance.In the Majjhima Nikaya 24 Sariputra explains,
. . . purity in terms of virtue is simply for the sake of purity in terms of mind. Purity in terms of mind is simply for the sake of purity in terms of view. Purity in terms of view is simply for the sake of purity in terms of the overcoming of perplexity. Purity in terms of the overcoming of perplexity is simply for the sake of purity in terms of knowledge & vision of what is & is not the path. Purity in terms of knowledge & vision of what is & is not the path is simply for the sake of purity in terms of knowledge & vision of the way. Purity in terms of knowledge & vision of the way is simply for the sake of purity in terms of knowledge & vision. Purity in terms of knowledge & vision is simply for the sake of total Unbinding through lack of clinging. And it’s for the sake of total Unbinding through lack of clinging that the holy life is lived under the Blessed One.“
Purity in terms of the mind” seems to correspond to the luminous level of the fourth jhana. “And furthermore, with the abandoning of pleasure & pain — as with the earlier disappearance of elation & distress — he enters & remains in the fourth jhana: purity of equanimity & mindfulness, neither-pleasure-nor-pain. He sits, permeating the body with a pure, bright awareness. Just as if a man were sitting covered from head to foot with a white cloth so that there would be no part of his body to which the white cloth did not extend; even so, the monk sits, permeating the body with a pure, bright awareness. There is nothing of his entire body un-pervaded by pure, bright awareness.” It is only in this condition is there discernment that hacks away at the defilements that are already present and cuts away at the potential that allows them to rise again. It is only through the steps leading to awakening that these acts of discernment could a “consciousness without feature” come to fulfillment.