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In Mahayana, Buddha-nature is the Universe Itself

One can easily fall into a sectarian trap which looks at the different terminology used in Mahayana Buddhism as a reason to believe that it’s entirely divorced from the Buddha’s original teachings.

The interconnectedness of all being, for example, is just another way of describing the Buddha’s doctrine of dependent origination, that everything is dependent on everything else. To realize Buddha-nature, according to Dogen, is simply to realize the truth of non-self and dependent origination.

I am not here to validate anyone’s sectarian blinders, whether of the Mahayana or Theravada variety. Buddhism is Buddhism, and Mahayana Buddhism happens to be, for whatever reason, the most widely practiced form of Buddhism in the world today.

What is most important here is weather Mahayana ideas can stand up to scrutiny. If they can’t, it’s not my fault. I’m not the one who created Mahayana.

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It’s just different ways of describing the same Buddhist truths in different historical-cultural contexts:

The Basic Points Unifying the Theravāda and the Mahāyāna is an important Buddhist ecumenical statement created in 1967 during the First Congress of the World Buddhist Sangha Council (WBSC), where its founder Secretary-General, the late Venerable Pandita Pimbure Sorata Thera, requested the Ven. Walpola Rahula to present a concise formula for the unification of all the different Buddhist traditions. This text was then unanimously approved by the Council…

We admit that in different countries there are differences with regard to the ways of life of Buddhist monks, popular Buddhist beliefs and practices, rites and rituals, ceremonies, customs and habits. These external forms and expressions should not be confused with the essential teachings of the Buddha.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_points_unifying_Theravāda_and_Mahāyāna#Expansion_of_the_formula

One can easily fall into a sectarian trap which looks at the different terminology used in Mahayana Buddhism as a reason to believe that it’s entirely divorced from the Buddha’s original teachings.

No one here believes that, we know the Mahayana has a basis in the EBTs. It’s just that it developed all sorts of later teachings which were seen as going beyond them. That’s the very rhetoric used by Mahayana, that the Mahayana teachings are superior and the highest teachings, many Mahayana sutras love to talk about they are the highest and best sutra, etc and how the ‘hinayanists’ won’t accept them because of their inferior knowledge, etc.

I personally don’t care if Mahayanists want to believe in these doctrines and I understand that they are complex ideas and that in many instances they may be doctrinally compatible with the EBTs. But at the end of the day, I don’t buy into all of them myself, just like I don’t buy into every single Abhidharma theory, and I prefer the Dhamma as expounded by the earliest reciters in the EBTs. It’s nothing against Mahayana, I disagree with Theravada Abhidhamma theories too which do not agree with the EBTs.

Why don’t I bother with these theories? Because they just don’t seem as helpful. I’ve read the tathagathagarbha sutras, and I find nothing in these sutras that is helpful to my understanding of the Dhamma or that adds any great insight into the Dhamma. So I just don’t buy the rhetoric that these teachings are super advanced and awesome and all that stuff. Likewise, I don’t believe that if I copy the Lotus sutra and recite it thousands of times that it’s going to do anything for me.

So I guess I’m wondering, why do you feel the need to come to a forum that’s mainly focused on the EBTs to chat and debate about Mahayana doctrines which are clearly not contained in those texts? What do you feel you’re going to gain from it?

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All that really matters about the views of Dogen and Nagarjuna is whether they are true or false, not whether or not they can be found in the early Pali texts.

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Actually, more than that, what matters is if they are useful for ending suffering.

I don’t know about Nagarjuna, I guess if you have strong leanings towards vaisesika and vaibhasika like essentialism then he is helpful.

But I don’t see how Buddha nature ideas are helpful, at least not for me anyways, I’ve never found it a view that has helped me in any way whatsoever.

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This is not according to the Buddha’s teaching of dependent origination. Rather it’s according to how dependent origination came to be construed by one particular Mahayana school, the Huayan. Thanks to Thich Nhat Hanh’s populist version of it, the Huayan philosophy has become rather influential in some Western Buddhist quarters, notably among engaged Buddhists. And in the USA, thanks to the melting pot effect, Huayan has even had some influence among non-Mahayana Buddhists who ought to know better, e.g., the more thoughtlessly eclectic lay vipassanā teachers. Nevertheless, paṭiccasamuppāda in the Suttas has zilch to do with any supposed interconnectedness between all things or between all beings.

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Rather than “Buddha-nature is the world” consider “the world of the Buddha did not change when he was enlightened”. That is to say, there was no transformation of skhandhas, sense gates, or sense realms, to employ the earlier presented Tiantai phrasing. In short, “this” is nirvāṇa in the sense that it is neither some"thing" or some"where" else. According to the Mahāyāna, at least. The sense objects encountered in the mind of the Buddha are no different from the sense objects encountered by the worldling. That is how I at least understand some of the subject points brought up in the OP.

Regarding the “airy fairy” nature of Buddha-nature doctrines: it may seem airy-fairy, but it is one of the things that actually grounds Mahāyāna Buddhism as that it doesn’t become something airy-fairy about a floating world-soul.

The Buddha told the parable of the blind men and the elephant, and any Buddhist who is also a blind sectarian probably didn’t learn anything from it:

The Buddha ends the story by comparing the blind men to preachers and scholars who are blind and ignorant and hold to their own views: “Just so are these preachers and scholars holding various views blind and unseeing… In their ignorance they are by nature quarrelsome, wrangling, and disputatious, each maintaining reality is thus and thus.” The Buddha then speaks the following verse:
O how they cling and wrangle, some who claim
For preacher and monk the honored name!
For, quarreling, each to his view they cling.
Such folk see only one side of a thing.[14]
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blind_men_and_an_elephant#Buddhism

The fact that different cultures and historical contexts would express the same religion in different ways shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.

The Basic Points Unifying the Theravāda and the Mahāyāna is an important Buddhist ecumenical statement created in 1967 during the First Congress of the World Buddhist Sangha Council (WBSC), where its founder Secretary-General, the late Venerable Pandita Pimbure Sorata Thera, requested the Ven. Walpola Rahula to present a concise formula for the unification of all the different Buddhist traditions. This text was then unanimously approved by the Council…

We admit that in different countries there are differences regarding Buddhist beliefs and practices. These external forms and expressions should not be confused with the essential teachings of the Buddha.
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Basic_points_unifying_Theravāda_and_Mahāyāna

Actually I just looked through the Śrīmālādevī Siṃhanāda Sūtra once again and there is nothing here about Buddha nature being the world, in fact, this is refuted by the following:

"Lord, the Tathagatagarbha is void of all the defilement-stores, which are discrete and knowing as not liberated. "Lord, the Tathagatagarbha is not void of the Buddha dharmas which are nondiscrete, inconceivable, more numerous than the sands of the Ganges, and knowing as liberated.

But, Lord, the Tathagatagarbha is not born, does not die, does not pass away to become reborn. The Tathagatagarbha excludes the realm with the characteristic of the constructed. The Tathagatagarbha is permanent, steadfast, eternal. Therefore the Tathagatagarbha is the support, the holder, the base of constructed [Buddha natures] that are nondiscrete, not dissociated, and knowing as liberated from the stores [of defilement]; and furthermore is the support, the holder, the base of external constructed natures that are discrete, dissociated, and knowing as not liberated.

http://huntingtonarchive.org/resources/downloads/sutras/08technicalMayayana/Lions%20Roar%20fo%20SriVimala.doc.pdf

So in the Indian Mahayana, the Buddha nature is actually not the world, it is something which is inside of all beings and includes all “Buddha dharmas”, that is, all the dharmas which make up a Buddhas continuum, but is void of all defilements and compounded things. So Buddha nature cannot be the whole universe according to this view - it actually excludes most of the universe!!!

Looks like the Chinese and Japanese had to do a lot of interpreting to change this doctrine to “Buddha nature is the universe”. :rofl:

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There is no single Indian Mahayana, no? Serbs of many different philosophies can be found in those texts.

[Edited for negative tone]

Buddha-nature is thoroughly unremarkable, unspecial, and unnoticeable, because Buddha-nature is simply awareness and sentiece. When this sentience is pristine and emptied, it witnesses dharmadhātu, and is then able to, in turn, recognize itself as dharmakāya. This is equally true of Indian and Chinese Mahayana. Buddha-nature “is” Ven Nāgārjuna’s Analysis of Nirvana.

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I’m not an expert on Mahayana and I don’t care to be so I’ll leave this discussion here.

However, the quotes that I presented from the Srimaladevi make me think that tathagathagarbha is much more multivalent term and idea than you present it. At least in this particular text, it is pretty clear that thathagathagarbha is already empty of compounded things and thus cannot be “the Universe Itself” because the whole universe includes the compounded and the uncompounded. Likewise the tathagathagarbha sutra says:

“inside a casting mold there is perfectly formed Buddha; the ignorant see the filth of the mold but the wise know that the Buddha is within.”

It uses various metaphors but the main idea is that there is a thing which is pure that is covered over and surrounded by the impure.

Of course, I know that your view leans more towards the Tiantai interpenetration view which is probably sourced in different texts as well (Lotus and Avatamsaka etc), and it presents a different idea of Buddha nature.

This just shows that “Buddha nature” means and has meant many different things throughout history to different Buddhists and has been interpreted different. But your Tiantai influenced view is not the only view and I was just using the Indic sutras above to point out how they are incompatible with the “Buddha nature is the Universe Itself” idea.

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Regarding the Chinoiserie or Tiāntāi specificity of what I said: I have it on good faith that you will have a very hard time finding a Tibetan who will reject the above when contextualized.

There is no such thing as pure and impure. There is no difference between samsara and nirvana. There is no difference between the awareness of a Buddha and an ordinary being. All of these things are argued by the Mahāyāna.

Regarding the “universe” being Buddha-nature: I think of the Sabbasutta. The universe is illuminated by your mind. The universe is in your mind. That is what, IMO, the teachers alluded to in the OP mean. It is similar to the famous phrase from Zen: there is no Buddha apart from the mind.

I think you’re over simplifying it. For example in TB Buddha nature is either “other empty” or “self empty”. Other empty means that it is empty of all things that are not Nirvana. The idea of interconnectedness does not arise in TB.

With regards to the universe thing, sure if you interpret it in a phenomenological sense you could say that, but I am not sure that phenomenological explanation is de rigeour in all of Mahayana. Many, for example cittamatra, mean it quite literally as idealism.

Either way, you can see how this can easily devolve into philosophical squabbling which does nothing to help one on the Path.

If I may disagree, my apologies, from my perspective, I’m not getting phenomenological only. From the beginning, I said, skandhas, sense gates, and sense realms. All three of them, not only two.

Another common misconception of Mahayana doctrine is in regard to the eternality of the Buddha, which does not refer to Shakyamuni Buddha as a historical person. Nagarjuna and others made clear that the Buddha, in entering final Nirvana, is beyond existence and non-existence, just as the Buddha described in the Pali scriptures:
https://dhammawiki.com/index.php?title=Nibbana#Nagarjuna

What is eternal is the Dharma-body of the Buddha, which is the one and the same Dharma-body in all buddhas, that all buddhas share:

Enough, Vakkali! What is there to see in this vile body? He who sees Dhamma, Vakkali, sees me; he who sees me sees Dhamma. Truly seeing Dhamma, one sees me; seeing me one sees Dhamma.
https://www.accesstoinsight.org/tipitaka/sn/sn22/sn22.087x.wlsh.html

The Dharma-body is also referred to as the Buddha-nature in all beings, our innate potential for enlightenment. In the Lotus Sutra, for example, the Buddha says that all other buddhas are a manifestation of himself. This is in reference to the Dharma-body of the Buddha, rather than Shakyamuni as a particular historical person.

A common phrase in Mahayana Buddhism is that there is no Buddha outside the mind. This means that if you are looking for the Buddha, as in the historical Buddha who passed away into Nirvana 2,500 years ago, you will not find him. The living Buddha is the Buddha within your own body and mind, waiting to be awakened as your own Buddha-nature.

The celestial buddhas and bodhisattvas, such as Amitabha and Avalokitesvara, are symbolic of our own Buddha-nature and the Dharma-body in all things, rather than literal historical persons like Shakyamuni Buddha.

The Eternal Buddha, the Dharma-body, is an eternal principle rather than a personal being.

Yes. Absolutely. The key to Buddha’s teaching is that it points to a certain type of practice. Traversing the path is what does the job. Any teaching that puts one on the proper path is a functional equivalent. Obviously Mahayana is textually different. But to assume they are not effectively the same from a path and fruition perspective solely based on textual differences is like saying two fingers are not pointing in the same direction because the fingerprints don’t match.

Yes, they are both like a finger pointing at the moon.

To be fair, though, the eternity of the dharmakāya is like my grandfather’s ax, rather than “properly eternal”.

To illustrate:

This is my grandfather’s axe, I tell you, handed down to me through my father’s line. I got this axe when my father died when I was 21. I used it all my life to make a living. Over time, the head had to be replaced, of course. And at one point, the handle got a chip in it, and that had to get replaced to, but this is my grandfather’s axe, I tell you.