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

by Nguyen Dac Sy | 2012 | 70,344 words

This page relates ‘Hindu Philosophical Systems (f) Vedanta’ 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).

2. Hindu Philosophical Systems (f) Vedānta

1. Vedānta philosophers

Vedānta (feitanduo), literally “the end of Vedas”, is the end part of the Veda texts, also known as the Upaniṣads. The word Vedānta also was used in the 8th century CE, to describe a group of philosophical traditions concerned with the self-realization by which one understands Brahman or the ultimate reality. The foremost representative of this group is Śaṅkara who lived in the first half of the 8th century CE and was the author of the work Brahmasūtrabhāsya.[1] As mentioned above, Vedānta is also called Uttarā Mīmāṃsā which explicates the esoteric teachings of the Upaniṣads. The views of the Upaniṣads also constitute the final aim of the Vedas or the essence of the Vedas. Thus, in early period, the word Vedānta simply referred to the Upaniṣads. However, in the later period of Hinduism, the word Vedānta indicated the school of philosophy that interpreted the Upaniṣads.

There are three major canonical texts which is called prasthānatrayī, literally “three starting points”, also known as ―triple foundation‖ of Vedānta, upon which their thought was based:[2]

-The Upaniṣads: known as Upadeśa-prasthāna (injunctive texts) or Śruti-prasthāna (the starting point of revelation)

-Bhagavad-Gītā: known as Smṛti-prasthāna (the starting point of remembered tradition)

-Brahmasūtra: known as Nyāya-prasthāna (Logic-based starting point).

The Vedāntasūtra is also known by other names such as Vedānta Sūtras, Śārīrakasūtra, Vyāsasūtra, Bādarāyaṇasūtra, Uttara-mīmāṃsā and Vedānta-darśana. It is called Brahmasūtra because it exposes the doctrine of Brahman; called Vedānta Sūtras because it treats of the Vedānta philosophy;called Bādarāyaṇasūtra because it was composed by Bādarāyaṇa; and also Śārīrakasūtra (śārīra: body) because it deals with the embodiment of the unconditioned self, etc.

Structurally, the Brahmasūtra has four chapters (adhyāya). Each chapter has four sections (pādā), and each section divides into certain groups called topics (adhikaraṇas).

The main doctrine of Vedānta school is the universal principle called Brahman. However, the Vedānta school is divided into many subschools according to the different views about Brahman by chief religious teachers called ācāryas (asheli).

According to Sri Swami Vireswarananda, there are five great ācāryas of Vedānta school:[3]

-Ādi Śaṅkara (Shangjieluo, 788-820 CE)[4] : the philosopher and proponent of Advaita (Non-dualism) Vedānta, and one of the most influential thinkers in the entire history of Hinduism, advocates that Brahman produces the world without undergoing any substantial change. His teachings are based on the unity of the ātman and non-dual Brahman.

-Rāmānuja (1027-? CE): the exponent of Viśiṣṭādvaita or qualified non-dualism believes that the world is the actual product of Brahman, i.e. Brahman is really transformed into the world. Brahman as qualified by the sentient and insentient modes (aspects or attributes) is the only reality.[5]

-Nimbārka (circa 11th century CE) the founder of Dvaitādvaita (Dualistic non-dualism) which was based upon an earlier school called Bhedābheda taught by Bhāskara. According to this school, the jīvātman is at once not only the same as but also different from Brahman. The jīva relation may be regarded as dvaita from one point of view and advaita from another. In this school, God is visualized as kṛṣṇa.[6]

-Madhva is the exponent of strict Dvaita (Dualism). The birthday of Madhva is not free from doubt and controversy, but the District Manual of South Canara fixes 1199 CE as the correct date.[7] He lived seventy-nine years and some months,[8] so the day of his death was 1278 CE. Madhva believes the distinction between Brahman and jīva as real. The Brahman is all-pervading but the jīva is distinct from Brahman. Although the jīva limited in atomic size, it pervades the body because of its quality of intelligence.[9]

-Vallabha (1401 CE) the founder of Śuddhādvaita (pure nondualism) agrees that Brahman is the cause of this world and that knowledge of Brahman leads to mokṣa or the final emancipation, which is the goal of life. While Śaṅkara traces the world to Brahman through the force of māyā (illusion), Vallabha holds that Brahman can create the world without such māyā principle.[10]

Thus, Vedānta school really developed only after the time the Brahmasūtra; stricly speaking that after the appearance of the above Vedānta ācāryas who wrote the important commentaries on the Brahmasūtra.

2. Date of the Vedānta

Most of scholars have usually followed the general idea of Indian scholars that the Vedāntasūtra or Brahmasūtra was composed around 500-200 BCE by Bādarāyaṇa, who systematized the Vedāntic ideas into one coherent treatise.[11]

However, Hajime Nakamura proved that the Brahmasūtra came into existence later than the time of both Mādhyamika and Yogācāra school of Buddhism, i.e. about the 5th century CE. He wrote:

We see in the arguments of the Brahmasūtra that the reductio ad absurdum (prasaṅga) of the Mādhyamika school is frequently used. Since this may be the influence of the Buddhist Mādhyamika Moreover, since the theories of the Vijñānavāda are attacked in II.2.28-32 of the Sūtra, it is a certain fact that its compilation in its present form was completed after the rise of the Vijñānavāda. The Vijñānavāda (Yogācāra School), the basis of which was established by Maitreyanātha and Asaṅga, was spread throughout India in general by the activities of Vasubandhu, so that by the time it came to be attacked by other schools, it should be regarded as later than Vasubandhu. Since Vasubandhu lived c. 320-400, we could look upon the year 400 as the earliest date of the compilation of the extant Brahmasūtra.

Next is the problem of determining the limit of the date. As has already been remarked, inasmuch as the Brahmasūtra has not been quoted in other works of a comparatively ancient period, it is impossible to determine its date by means of quoted passages. But the names of many thinkers who wrote commentaries on the Brahmasūtra are known, and from a consideration of their dates, we find that it is difficult to extend the dates of the Brahmasūtra to a much later century. Accordingly, we can take it that 400-450 is the period during which the Brahmasūtra was compiled in its extant form.[12]

Thus, it is possible to agree that the Brahmasūtra, one of the “three starting points” (prasthānatrayī) of Vedānta, came into existence in between 400-450 CE. This date has a great significiance in affirming that the Buddha-nature doctrine is prior to the Brahman theory. The date 400-450 CE of the Brahmasūtra is also suitable with the fact that the terms “ Vedānta”, “ Upaniṣads”, “ Brahman” were not available in the Tathāgatagarbha literature, and also had not been known by some famous Buddhist philosophers such as Nāgārjuna, Āryadeva, Asaṅga and Vasubandhu, who lived between the 3rd and 5th century CE, the same time as the Tathāgatagarbha literature.

Indeed, among hundred fascicles comprising the gigantic work Yogācārabhūmiśāstra, ascribed to Maitreya-nātha (c. 270-350 CE), there is no any mention of the Vedānta school, although in fascicles 6 and 7, the Śāstra presents in details and extremely criticizes the sixteen types of heretical doctrine which were prevalent in India up to that time.

Scholars have already pointed out that a quite distinct philosophy of the Vedānta and the term “Vedāntavādins” were mentioned for the first in the sixth century CE by Bhavya (qingbian, 490-c.570 CE), founder of the Svātantrika sub-school of the Mādhyamaka.[13] But the doctrine of the Vedāntavādins as reported in the Bhavya‘s works was only the legend of creating world in which the world had been created from puruṣa or ātman, there was no doctrine of Brahman or non-duality.

Bhavya wrote an independent work on the Mādhyamaka entitled the Madhyamakahṛdayakārikā upon which Bhavya in turn wrote a commentary entitled the Tarkajvala (Blaze of Reasoning). He is also the author of two other works: the Madhyamakārthasaṃgraha (only exists in Tibetan) and the Prajñāpradīpa (banruodenglun), a commentary to Nāgārjuna‘s Mūlamadhyamakakārikā, only available in Tibetan and Chinese.

The Bhavya‘s writing about the Vedānta appeared in chapter VIII of the Mādhyamakahṛdaya and was summarized by Christian Lindtner in the introduction of his translation of the text as follows:

Chapter VIII: About Vedānta. The same permanent, universal and creative soul is found everywhere in all individuals, it is claimed in the scriptures of Vedānta (many of which are quoted in the Tarkajvala). By means of yoga (dhyāna) and cognition each individual must wake up in order to participate in the immortality of the soul. It is because one is normally under the sway of karma (and rebirth) that one fails to recognize the identity of the individual soul with the universal soul (verses 1-17).

“Bhavya‘s reply (verses 18-104): The notion about the existence of a soul is dangerous, and in various ways contradictory and irrational. One cannot possibly attain release from ignorance by ‘seeing the soul’(19-24). The soul cannot create anything (25-35). It cannot be bound and it cannot be set free (36-9), nor can it consist of cognition (40-9). The individual soul cannot rest in the universal soul (50-3), and if it is assumed to be numerically one, then it cannot possibly possess a manifold nature (54-8). Nor can it be conceived as a substance or as something that supports (59-64), just as the unity of all souls cannot be conceived analogically with the identity of space in many individual jars (65-70). The soul cannot be involved in the process of karma (71-2), and it cannot be one, universal, indescribable and inconceivable (73-7). The soul cannot be known as something unborn (78-83). It is true that the absolute in Vedānta occasionally is understood in almost the same way as in Mādhyamaka, but the reason for this must be that Vedānta has ‘borrowed’, i.e. stolen, from Buddhism. There are, in fact, many things in Vedānta where the former is not consistent with the latter. The internal contradictions show the lack of originality in Vedānta (84-8). The adherents of Vedānta are, thus, most welcome to convert to Madhyamaka! Bhavya concludes by restating his own persuasions about the absolute, lack of origination, emptiness, etc. (89-104).”[14]

The Absolute Reality in the Vedānta is described by Bhavya with the terms Brahman as being unique, omnipresent, eternal, and the dwelling place of immortality (verse 16):

ekaṃ sarvagataṃ nityaṃ paraṃ brahmācyutaṃ padam |
yogī yuñjan yadā vetti na tadaiti punarbhavam |
| 16||[15]

The concept of ātman in Vedānta school described by Bhavya implies two kinds:

-The individual self (jīva): the ātman bound by the body, that is, the ātman appearing within the body. All the gods are understood to be individual selves (verse13):

ghaṭākāśe yathaikasmin rajodhūmādibhirvṛte |
tadvattā na hi sarveṣāṃ sukhāderna tadātmanaḥ

-The supreme self (equal to puruṣa and paramātman): the highest, liberated ātman (verse 23, Sanskrit text is lacking, Tibetan is extant).

rig byed smra bas bdag de ni |
rnam pa gnis su 'dod byed de
lus shes byes ba bcins bdag dan |
mchog na gnas pa grol pa'i bdag

Such the Vedānta‘s concept of Brahman and Ātman have remarkable resemblance to the concept of the Buddha-nature and Tathāgatagarbha as presented above in the Tathāgatagarbha literature. For this resemblance, later Buddhists asserted that the Vedānta Brahmins had stolen the Buddhist doctrine of the Buddha-nature or Tathāgatagarbha to build their doctrine of Brahman and Ātman.

Hajime Nakamura refers to the following writings of Yensho Kanakura about this idea: “There are some teachings of the Buddha which still remain now. Brahmins have stolen them, and inserted them in various passages of the scriptures of their own.”[18]

The story that the Brahmins merged the Buddhist Sūtra into their canon was also narrated in the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, as follows: 當于爾時閻浮提內無一比丘為我弟子.爾時波旬悉以大火焚燒一切所有經典.其中或有遺餘在者.諸婆羅門即共偷取.處處採拾安置己典.以是義故.諸小菩薩佛未出時.率共信受婆羅門語.諸婆羅門雖作是說我有齋戒而諸外道真實無也.諸外道等雖復說言有我樂淨.而實不解我樂淨義.直以佛法一字二字一句二句.說言 我典有如是義.[19]

“In the contemporary era, no Bhiksu in the earth is my (Buddha‘s) disciple. At that time, Māra uses big fire to burn all existent Buddhist sūtras on the earth. Among those Buddhist sūtras, if left everywhere, the Brahmins immediately stole, pick up and merge them into their own canon. For that reason, when the future Buddha will have not come into existence yet, the minor Bodhisattvas all believe and accept the Brahmin‘s speeches. Although Brahmin gurus say “we have pure disciplines”, pagans are really not so. The pagans though repeat the words of Self, Happiness and Pureness, they really cannot explain the meanings of Self, Happiness and Pureness. They directly use one word, two words, one sentence, two sentences of Buddhism to assume falsely that “our own canon has the meanings like that”.[20]

This paragraph may be the Buddha‘s prophecy about the destiny of Buddhism; but it is also probably a narration by the contemporary author who wrote the sūtra at the time of the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra between 200 and 400 CE. At that time, the Vedāntins probably borrowed, imitated or secretly copied the Buddhist doctrine of the Buddha-nature as depicted in the Laṅkāvatārasūtra and other Tathāgatagarbha texts, and then provided it a new name Brahman as if it were their own doctrine.

It is also necessary to add that theories of a Vedānta under the name “Upaniṣad school” appeared for the first time in the 8th century CE in the works of Śāntarakṣita (Jihu; 725–788 CE) and his disciple Kamalaśīla (Lianhuajie; c. 700-750 CE).[21] They were the eminent Mādhyamaka-Yogācāra‘s representatives who presented and refuted the Vedānta and Upaniṣadic thought. The theories of this Vedānta school are called “Advāita” but they are not identical with those of Śaṅkara. Later on, Vedānta theories which presented the Advaita doctrine of the Śaṅkara line continued to be mentioned in Buddhist works. So, the Advāita philosophy of the Śaṅkara developed in India after the period of Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla, i.e. the 8th century CE.

Briefly, the fact that the Vedānta language and doctrine of Brahman was not available in the Tathāgatagarbha literature and was not known by the Buddhist teachers up to the fifth century CE approves on the chronological aspect that the Buddhist doctrine of the Buddha-nature is prior to the Upaniṣadic doctrine of Brahman.

In the next, the writer attempts to bring into an ideological comparison the thought of the Buddha-nature and Brahman based on the Laṅkāvatārasūtra. The differences and similarities of the two will demonstrate the idea that the Vedānta school had been influenced by the Buddhist ideas.

Footnotes and references:


Hajime Nakamura, Aṅguttaranikāya History of Early Vedānta Philosophy, Vol. I, p. 4.


Robert N. Minor, Radhakrishnan: Aṅguttaranikāya Religious Biography, p. 96.


Swami Vireswarananda (tr.), Brahma-Sutras, p. xii.


Chandradhar Sharma, “Chronological Summary of History of Indian Philosophy,” Indian Philosophy: Aṅguttaranikāya Critical Survey, p. vi.


Saṃyuttanikāya. Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy, Vol. II, p. 674.


Saṃyuttanikāya. Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy, Vol. II, pp. 751-56.


C. Majjhimanikāya. Padmanabha Char, The Life and Teachings of Sri Madhvacharya, p. 25.


Ibid., p. 213.


Saṃyuttanikāya. Radhakrishnan, op. cit., pp. 751-565 Ibid., 756.


Ibid., 756.


Saṃyuttanikāya. Radhakrishnan, Indian Philosophy, Vol. II, p. 430.


Hajime Nakamura, Aṅguttaranikāya History of Early Vedānta Philosophy, Vol. I, pp. 435-36.


Ibid., p. 183.


Christian Lindtner (ed.), Madhyamakahṛdaya of Bhavya, pp. xxxviii-ix


Ibid., p. 81.


Ibid., p. 80.


Christian Lindtner (ed.), Madhyamakahṛdaya of Bhavya, pp. 81-82.


Hajime Nakamura, Aṅguttaranikāya History of Early Vedānta Philosophy, Vol. II, p. 713.


Taisho Tripiṭaka (CBETA 2011) [T12n375], pp. 716c23 -717a02.


The paragraph is translated by the writer. No complete English translation of the text is available.


Hajime Nakamura, Aṅguttaranikāya History of Early Vedānta Philosophy, Vol. I, p. 265.

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