07 November 2008


image: Project Gutenberg:
Elements of Structural and Systematic Botany
In discussions on the place of the Tathāgatagarbha Doctrine in Buddhism there is often considerable division. Some scholars defend it as a central Buddhist idea, while others deny that it is Buddhist at all. In the Western Buddhist Order there has been, despite frank and outspoken scepticism from Sangharakshita, a growing interest in Tathāgatagarbha amongst serious meditators, and especially so amongst people who favour formless meditation practices. (see eg Kamalasila below). I sometimes like to tease them about Tathāgatagarbha not being Buddhist and this has lead to some interesting discussions. Recently on a WBO forum I suggested that Tathāgatagarbha was "crypto-Vedantic eternalism" and the response I got was a quote from the Aṅguttara Nikāya (AN), supposedly showing that the idea pre-existed in the Pāli Canon. Leaving aside issues of the authority of texts (see The Cult of the Book and Western Ideas of Canonicity) I decided it might be interesting to look at what it actually says, and at the context of it, to see if it supported the contention.

The passage as quoted to me goes:
This mind [citta], monks, is luminous [pabhassara], but is defiled by taints that come from without.’ (Pabhassara Sutta AN 1.49-52 Translated by Bhikkhu Nanananda). A ‘worldling’ is one who doesn’t see this, an ‘Ariyan disciple’ is one who does.
This "luminous mind" is said by proponents of this theory to represent the idea of Tathāgatagarbha in nascent form. As my interlocutor said: "this is not in any way different from what Dzogchen and Mahamudra are getting at, often using exactly the same term."

The citation is to a group of four verses that span two sections of the first chapter of the AN. I decided to do my own translation of 1.51-2 to see what I could make of them. The Pāli goes:

51. ‘‘Pabhassaramidaṃ , bhikkhave, cittaṃ. Tañca kho āgantukehi upakkilesehi upakkiliṭṭhaṃ. Taṃ assutavā puthujjano yathābhūtaṃ nappajānāti. Tasmā ‘assutavato puthujjanassa cittabhāvanā natthī’ti vadāmī’’ti. Paṭhamaṃ.

52. ‘‘Pabhassaramidaṃ , bhikkhave, cittaṃ. Tañca kho āgantukehi upakkilesehi vippamuttaṃ. Taṃ sutavā ariyasāvako yathābhūtaṃ pajānāti. Tasmā ‘sutavato ariyasāvakassa cittabhāvanā atthī’ti vadāmī’’ti. Dutiyaṃ.
(Pāli text from the www.tipitaka.org)
The grammar here is not too tricky and the vocab is also straightforward. My admittedly rough translation goes:
This mind is bright, O bhikkhus. And it indeed is soiled by incidental defilements. That one who has not heard, the worldling, does not know it as become. Thus I say “for the one who has not heard, the worldling, there is no production of this mind”.

This mind is bright, O bhikkhus. And it indeed is released from incidental defilements. That one who has heard, the hearer of the noble ones, he knows it as become. Thus I say “for the one who has heard, the hearer of the noble ones, there is production of this mind”.

[On the translation of yathābhūta please see Knowledge and Vision, 3 Oct 2008]
Verses 1.49 and 50 leave off the second part beginning with "That one who has heard..." So taken as stand-alone verses one can see that something like the intrinsicly pure mind associated with Tathāgatagarbha might be implied here.

My first observation is that the verses are referring to "this mind" - idaṃ cittaṃ - and that since the 30 or so preceding verses have for some time been referring to citta we can take this as a continuation of that discussion. And what do these preceding verses have to say about this mind? They say that the effect of citta depends on what we do with it. For instance untamed (adanta) it leads to great loss. In fact the Buddha says that no other thing, untamed, unguarded (agutta), unprotected (arakkhita), unrestrained (asaṃvuta) brings so much disadvantage (anattho)! So this mind seems not to be something intrinsically pure, as we would expect of an equivalent of the Tathāgatagarbha. The context reveals that this mind is potentially disastrous if not properly disciplined.

My second observation is that this mind is to be produced or developed or cultivated, i.e. bhāvanā - derived from the verbal root bhū meaning "to become", or "to be". Now in WBO circles a bhāvanā approach to meditation where one pursues concentration (e.g. The mindfulness of breathing) is frequently contrasted with the Tathāgatagarbha based approach in which one simply sits and allows the mind to reveal itself (or something like that). So it is important here that the citta in question is combined in a tappurisa compound with bhāvanā - "the production of mind", or as the context makes clear "the development of this mind". I'm assuming that the citta being spoken of here is the same as in the first sentence - i.e. still this mind. Clearly the Pāli text has something different in mind to the contemporary WBO exegetes of Tathāgatagarbha. This mind is something we must develop or produce or cultivate, which does not suggests something intrinsic but extrinsic.

I will mention in passing that both Bhikkhu Bodhi and Bhikkhu Thanissaro note that the commentary to this passage take citta to mean bhavaṅga-citta or the kind of consciousness that links one life to the next. Clearly this would be very difficult to reconcile with the text and seems very unlikely indeed - Thanissaro concurs. Indeed Thanissaro suggests that a more reasonable interpretation would be that "the luminous mind is the mind that the meditator is trying to develop", (AN 1.49, note 1, emphasis added) and draws parallels with descriptions of the fourth jhana.

So if the link here is not as clear as all that, then why is it quoted? I'm in no position to comment on the usage of such terms in Dzogchen and Mahamudra, but I think there may be a link through the idiosyncratic but highly influential LaṅkāvatāraSūtra. In this text the Tathāgatagarbha is equated with the alaya-vijñāna from the Yogacāra model of the human psyche. This Tathāgatagarbha is described by the text as prakṛti-prabhāsvara-viṣuddha [Suzuki p.77] which we can translate as "original, clear, and pure" (taking this to be a dvanda compound - i.e. a list linked by "and"). Prabhāsvara is a similar word to the Pāli pabhassara, but seems not to be the exact counterpart - the underlying metaphor in the former is of a sound (svara) or voice which is clear, while the latter is using a light metaphor. Still there is a possible link here with later ideas of the Tathāgatagarbha as a pure and luminous mind. It is interesting to note that the Laṅkā itself is aware of how much like an ātmavāda (or theory of immanent godhood) this sounds, and is quick to defend itself.

The Laṅkā claims that the Tathāgatagarbha doctrine is taught in order to "eliminate anxiety on the part of the ignorant toward a theory of non-substantiality (nairātmya)" [Suzuki p. 78] - more precisely a theory of "non-immanent godhood". In fact the idea of the Tathāgatagarbha seems to me to be a way of addressing a vital question which we might phrase - "how do we unredeemed sinners get enlightened?" By the time the Tathāgatagarbha theory was invented the idea that one got enlightened on the basis of dependent arising seems to have been lost along with many other early Buddhist ideas. This left the Mahāyāna Buddhists with a very distinct problem and one of the ways they solved it was by adapting the ātman theory of the Vedanta - one can be enlightened because one already has a seed of the Buddha inside one (as it were), or, to put it another way, one is already enlightened but obscured by defilements. This sounds so similar to the Pāli verse above that you can see why the wrong correlation was made. In effect as in the Upaniṣads: you are that - tat tvam asi - except that "that" is not God or Brahman, but a Tathāgata - "one [already] in that state".

So what have we learned? Firstly we must be cautious of translated sentences taken out of context. Secondly there may not be a link between early Buddhist doctrine and later doctrines even when they use similar wording. Thirdly that the Mahāyāna threw the baby out with the bath water as far as early Buddhist doctrines are concerned, and left itself in a philosophical tangle - advocating what amounts to an ātmavāda, and finding itself immediately on the back foot defending the obvious flaws in such an approach. Fourthly and perhaps most importantly we have learned that despite the fact that the Tathāgatagarbha doctrine is flawed, it was and is enormously popular and influential, and the people who advocate are in many ways admirable people some of whom deeply embody the values of Buddhism despite being doctrinally challenged - which is to say that practice and realisation is far more important than winning arguments and saying the right thing in Buddhism! 


  • Access to Insight:AN 1.31-40; 1.45-46; 1.47; 1.48; 1.49-52.
  • Kamalasila Tathatā & Garbha : Wesak Talk UK National Order Weekend and West London Buddhist Centre, May 2004. (I think Kamalasila errs in this talk when he suggests that the Pāli canon usage of the word suñña equates to anything like the Mahāyāna usage of śūnya)
  • Suzuki, D.T. (trans) 1966. The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra. London : Routledge.

See Also

In Action and Intention III (2011) I noticed something else about this passage:
Pāli citta is further confused with Sanskrit citra 'to shine'. So when the Buddha says Pabhassaramidaṃ, bhikkhave, cittaṃ (AN 1.51) what most people miss is the pun. Citta means both 'thought' and 'shine' and the phrase could equally be read - 'this thought is radiant', or 'this shiny-thing is radiant'. The context does incline towards reading 'mind', but the ambiguity and pun are obvious to a Pāli speaker.

29 Oct 2014
Sujato has done a much better job of essaying this passage on his blog: On the radiant mind.
"[The mind] is not that it is “naturally” radiant or defiled: it is naturally conditioned. When the conditions for darkness are there, it is dark, when the conditions for light are there, it is light. 
"This is one of the most common tendencies we find in Buddhist history: that well-known, frequently repeated passages with clear meaning are ignored, while obscure, marginal passages, probably suffering severe editorial loss, are taken up precisely because their obscurity allows one to read anything into them." 

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