Buddha-nature (as Depicted in the Lankavatara-sutra)

by Nguyen Dac Sy | 2012 | 70,344 words

This page relates ‘Introduction to the Lankavatara-sutra’ of the study on (the thought of) Buddha-nature as it is presented in the Lankavatara-sutra (in English). The text represents an ancient Mahayana teaching from the 3rd century CE in the form of a dialogue between the Buddha and Bodhisattva Mahamati, while discussing topics such as Yogacara, Buddha-nature, Alayavijnana (the primacy of consciousness) and the Atman (Self).

Introduction to the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra

The Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra (The Sūtra on Entering the Lanka), or full title Saddharmalaṅkāvatāro nāma mahāyānasūtraṃ (A Mahāyāna Sūtra Called Laṅkāvatāra Containing the Noble Orthodox Teaching of Buddhism).[1] The title obviously implies an emphasis on the Mahāyāna Buddhist orthodoxy of the sūtra. The sūtra discusses a number of important Mahāyāna doctrines, including the non-difference of identity between saṃsāra (rebirth) and nirvāṇa, and includes an entire chapter devoted to a condemnation of meat-eating. Its organization and presentation are disorganized, which has led a number of scholars to conclude that it is a compendium of heterogeneous materials that saw significant later interpolation.[2] The Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra is often associated with the Indian Yogācāra tradition because it discusses a number of basic doctrines associated with it, such as the Store-consciousness Ālayavijñāna, the womb of the Tathāgata (Tathāgatagarbha), and Mindonly (cittamātra). However, the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra is not mentioned in the works of Yogācāra “founders” Asaṅga (ca.320 -ca.390 CE) or Vasubandhu (the fourth century CE). It was far more influential in East Asia, and it played a prominent role in the development of the Chan tradition. Its importance in East Asia is attested by the fact that there are fifteen Chinese commentaries on it, the most important of which is by Facang.[3] The most important doctrine issuing from the Laṅkāvatārasūtra is that the identification of the Buddha-nature (in the state of Tathāgatagarbha) with Ālayavijñāna and the teaching of consciousness is the only reality. The sūtra asserts that all the objects of the world, and the names and forms of experience, are merely manifestations of the mind; so it is called Mind-only, the absolute nature of the Ālayavijñāna or Tathāgatagarbha.[4]

The Buddhist authenticity of the sūtra will be elucidated through the study of the date, the versions and the commentaries on it. As in the title of the sūtra, the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra was preached by the Buddha when he entered the Castle of Laṅkā which is situated on the peak of Mount Malaya on the great ocean.[5] Laṅkā may be now specified to Sri Lanka (Ceylon), an island nation located off the southern coast of the Indian subcontinent. The date of the sūtra is varied by scholars. Although most of the scholars consider the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra was probably first composed about 400 CE,[6] recently studies elucidate the earliest version of the sūtra was written in about 250 CE due to the existence of the commentaries on the sūtra by Āryadeva who lived in the third century CE. Study of date and version of the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra is useful in identifying the authenticity of the Sūtra within the context of Buddhism and its philosophical position to other non-Buddhist systems.

Like other Mahāyāna texts, the accurate date of the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra is still controversial. D.T. Suzuki, a famous expert in study of the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra, also could not give the exact date of the sūtra. He only considered that the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra was certainly compiled before 443 CE when the second Chinese translation was done.[7] In his study, he gave a long period between about 420 and 704 CE that the total four Chinese translations of the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra were made. The first translation, in four fasciculi, was translated by Dharmaraksha, who came to China in 412 CE and was killed in 433 CE when he was 49 years old. This translation unfortunately had been lost as early as 700 CE before the fourth translation was issued.[8] Dharmaraksha spent eight years in translating the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, i.e. from 412 up to 420 CE. It is not exactly known when he translated the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra, but it is probable that the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra had begun to be translated after the translation of the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, i.e. after 420 CE.[9] However, because the Dharmaraksa translation is lost, this first translation cannot be used to certify the date of the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra.

So, according to Suzuki, the only one thing is that the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra was certainly compiled before 443 CE when the second Chinese translation was done by Guṇabhadra, who had come to China in 435 CE. The Guṇabhadra’s version is titled The Laṅkāvatāra Treatsue Sūtra (楞伽阿跋多羅寶經;Lengqieabaduoluobaojing)[10] . This version in four fasciculi is also called the Liu-song version because it was translated in the Liusong dynasty (420 -479 CE) and its title is the same as that of Dharmaraksha version. This Guṇabhadra translation has been handed down from the founder of Chinese Chan Bodhidharma just before he went back India, to the Second Patriarch Huike, with the following careful recommendations:

卷,亦用付汝. 即是如來心地要門,令諸眾生開示悟入. 」[11]

“I have here the Laṅkāvatāra in four fascicles which I now pass to you. It contains the essential teaching concerning the mind-ground of the Tathāgata, by means of which you lead all sentient beings to the truth of Buddhism.”[12]

Thus, the Guṇabhadra translation of the Laṅkāvatārasūtra is very important in Chan Buddhism because it is used by Chan masters as a representative of “the seal of enlightened mind” (xinyin) to accredit to their disciples, as the above Chan legend. This Guṇabhadra version was also chosen to translate from Chinese into Tibetan in the ninth century CE.

The third Chinese translation of the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra was made by Bodhiruci in ten fasciculi in 513 CE in the Northern Wei dynasty (386-534), so it is also called the Wei version and has a simple title The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra (入楞伽經 rulengqiejing)[13] .

The fourth Chinese translation entitled The Mahāyāna Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra (大乘入楞伽經 dashengrulengqiejing)[14] was made by Śikshānanda as the chief translator in 700 -704 CE in the Tang dynasty (618-907 CE), so this translation is also called the Tang version. This final Chinese translation in seven fasciculi of the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra was made at the order of the regnant Empress Wu (624-705 CE) after Śikṣānanda had translated the Avataṃsakasūtra in 80 fasciculi into Chinese. This translation is said to have made from five separate Sanskrit editions for accuracy and the translator Śikṣānanda had returned back India before the final edits to this version were made, so other monks such as Fuli and Facang continued to revise the translation made by Śikṣānanda.[15]

Other scholars also agree that the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra was composed after the time of Vasubandhu due to the fact that the sūtra contains the unique doctrine of Ālayavijñāna-Tathāgatagarbha which was not found in works of Asaṅga and Vasubandhu, founders of the Yogācāra school. Hajime Nakamura said that the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra was compiled about 400 CE and also was impossible before the time of Vasubandhu.[16]

Jikido Takasaki wrote the following worth commentary:

The Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra belongs to the group of Mahāyāna sūtras in the third period, the period after Asaṅga and Vasubandhu, and since it already existed at the end of the fourth century CE, the date of Vasubandhu, to whom it was unknown, should be sometime in the fourth century, and assumes that the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra is also one of the later compositions, since it expresses concurrently the vijñaptimātra theory and Tathāgatagarbha theory, two theories unknown to Nāgārjuna. Furthermore, because of its unique doctrine of the identification of Ālayavijñāna with Tathāgatagarbha, a doctrine that is not found even in the works of Asaṅga and Vasubandhu, the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra is sometimes regarded as of a date later than Vasubandhu.[17]

However, some scholars disagree with this view and attempt to prove that the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra was composed earlier than Vasubandhu. A representative of this view is Suah Kim, a Korean Buddhist researcher, who based on the existence of two commentaries on the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra of Āryadeva to affirm the date of the sūtra in about 250 CE. Kim writes that:

I have shown that the early or original form of the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra, the four-volume version, was known to Āryadeva. However, the other two versions of the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra, the ten-volume and the seven-volume versions, appeared after Āryadeva’s time. Therefore, I conclude that Vasubandhu must have utilized the latter two versions of the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra. Furthermore, Āryadeva and Vasubandhu examined the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra with quite different approaches. Āryadeva studied the four-volume version of the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra to present the doctrines of Mahāyāna Buddhism from an ontological approach. His examination of the four-volume version of the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra is significant because this version of the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra contains the original teachings on the cittamātra. Vasubandhu, on the other hand, explored and interpreted the two latter versions of the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra that contain the theory of mind-only (vijñaptimātra) from an epistemological approach.[18]

Suah Kim also criticizes the Takasaki’s opinion that while Takasaki accepts that Āryadeva was the real author of two śāstras referring to the heretics mentioned in the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra in 4 fasciculi version, he argues that the sūtra was composed later than Vasubandhu. Suat Kim also gives the date of the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra is about 225-250 CE.[19] In other words, the earliest Sanskrit of the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra, which had already been known to Āryadeva, was composed in about 250 CE. This was the time of Āryadeva’s literary activity before the Vasubandhu’s time.

There are two Tibetan translations of the Laṅkāvatārasūtra: the first (now in the Tibetan Tripiṭaka Peking edition, vol. 29, no. 775) consists of nine volumes, but it is impossible to ascertain the translator, date and original Sanskrit (or Chinese) of this translation. The second Tibetan translation (now in the Tibetan Tripiṭaka Peking edition, vol. 29, no. 776) was made by a Tibetan monk named Chos-grub from the Guṇabhadra’s Chinese version in the ninth century CE under the order of the king of Tibet at that time.[20]

About the original Sanskrit of the sūtra, Suzuki has showed that the Chinese version of the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra in seven fasciculi translated in the Tang dynasty by Śikshānanda in 700-704 CE was made by comparing in detail five Sanskrit copies, and after examining the two previous Chinese translations.[21] So there were many Sanskrit versions of the sūtra. Recently, the Sanskrit manuscripts of the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra belonging to the socalled “nine Mahāyāna sūtras” were discovered in 1824 CE by a British diplomat Brian Hodgson in Nepal.[22] The first modern Sanskrit printing version of the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra, which was published by Bunyiu Nanjio entitled The Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra in 1923 in Japan, was also basically based on the manuscripts brought from Nepal. Nanjio wrote: “I was thus enabled to make a complete copy of the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra after the manuscript brought from Nepal, which forms the basis of the present edition of the text.”[23] The Sanskrit Nanjio’s Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra was translated into English for the first time by D.T. Suzuki entitled The Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra: A Mahāyāna Text in 1932.

In 1963, based on this Nanjio’s edition, P.L. Vaidya re-edited and published another Sanskrit version of the Laṅkāvatārasūtra entitled Saddharmalaṅkāvatāra-sūtram[24] in a series of Buddhist Sanskrit texts published in India. The Vaidya’s Saddharmalaṅkāvatāra-sūtram has transcribed from Devanāgarī into Romanic, digitalized and uploaded in the website of the University of the West, California, for free download.

Briefly, the earliest Sanskrit scripture of the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra was probably composed in about 250 CE. This version was translated into Chinese by Śikṣānanda (which was lost) and by Guṇabhadra in 4 fasciculi in 443 CE. Based on this scripture, Āryadeva wrote two śāstras to criticize the heretical views mentioned in the sūtra.

Footnotes and references:


Dīghanikāya.Taisho Tripiṭaka (CBETA 2011). Suzuki, Studies in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, (hereafter abbreviated to Studies in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra), p. 3.


Robert E. Buswell (ed.), Encyclopedia of Buddhism, Vol. I, p. 456.




Studies in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, p. 179.


Laṅkāvatāra-Sūtra, p. 3.


Hajime Nakamura, Indian Buddhism: Aṅguttaranikāya Survey with Bibliographical Notes, p. 231.


Studies in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, p.4.


Ibid., p. 5.


Ibid. , p. 4.


Taisho Tripiṭaka (CBETA 2011).16n670, pp. 479 -514.


Ibid., p. 479 b.


Studies in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, p. 59.


Taisho Tripiṭaka (CBETA 2011) [T16n671], pp. 514-586.


Taisho Tripiṭaka (CBETA 2011) [T16n672], pp. 587-640.


Studies in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, p. 9.


Hajime Nakamura, Indian Buddhism: Aṅguttaranikāya Survey with Bibliographical Notes, p. 231.


Jikido Takasaki, “Sources of the Laṅkāvatāra and Its Position in Mahāyāna Buddhism,” in ed. L. Aṅguttaranikāya. Hercus, Indological and Buddhist Studies in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra: Volume in Honour of Professor J. W. de Jong on His Sixtieth Birthday, Canberra: Faculty of Asian Studies in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, 1982, p. 546.


Suah Kim, “Aṅguttaranikāya Problem of the Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra,” in International Journal of Buddhist Thought & Culture, February 2003, Vol. 2, p. 364.


Ibid., p. 361.


Studies in the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, p. 13.


Ibid., p. 9.


Rājendralāla Mitra, The Sanskrit Buddhist Literature of Nepal, p. xxxv.


The Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra, ed. Bunyiu Nanjio, Kyoto: Otani University Press, 1923, p. vi.


Saddharmalaṅkāvatārasūtram [Saddharma-laṅkāvatāra-sūtra] (Buddhist Sanskrit Texts No. 3), ed. P.L. Vaidya, (Darbhanga: The Mithila Institute, 1963).

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