A Teaching on Vasubandhu’s The Thirty Verses: Day 9
6 February 2022
Karmapa began by reviewing the point he had made in the previous day’s teaching – that no independent Mind Only school ever developed in Tibet and that it was held in low esteem.
In Candrakirti’s root text and commentary on Entering the Middle Way, which spread in Tibet, Mind Only was the main opponent. In addition, proponents of the Shentong view appropriated all the Mind Only texts as their own, thus lowering the reputation of the Mind Only view in Tibet. Defending the Mind Only view, Jetsun Rendawa wrote in his Dialogs with Loppon Chögyal:
If Asanga, Vasubandhu, and their followers are not Mind Only, then who is? If I say that, what is there to say? Nothing makes them worse because of being Mind Only. Do you assert that you know the Mind Only school? I do not see anyone in Tibet who comprehends the Mind Only fully.
And Taklung Lotsawa said in his texts on the All-Knowing philosophical schools:
In Tibet, some say that the Mind Only positions have been refuted by glorious Candrakirti and that they are Buddhist extremists, so saying that is really terrible is like saying it is not good.
“It seems it was necessary to say this,” commented Karmapa.
Since the Kagyu assert that appearances are mind, some Sakya and Gelukpa scholars have argued that Kagyu are Mind Only. Many Kagyu scholars say that appearance and mind are the same in substance, making them seem closer to the True Image than the False Image school. In Tibet, many say that those who hold the Mind Only view can achieve the level of forbearance on the path of joining’s four phases (warmth, the peak, forbearance and supreme dharma), but they cannot achieve the path of seeing.
However, Drikung Jikten Sumgön says in his Single Intent of True Dharma:
The clear realisation of Mind Only is also present on the seventh level, Far Progressed.
There are different interpretations of what this means, but some commentators say it means that the view elicited by the Mind Only school is present in the meditative wisdom of the seventh level.
In terms of the view, the Mind Only was not considered as important as the Middle Way, but in terms of conduct and practice, the Mind Only became very significant. As the Karmapa had pointed out previously, from its beginnings, the Yogacara Mind Only school was a school of practitioners. Hence, the conduct of the six transcendences and the meditations of samadhi, shamatha and insight were explained at length in the “Dharmas of Maitreya”, the Yogacara Levels, the works of Asanga and Vasubandhu, and the Stages of the Paths and Levels of the Mahayana, but they are not taught in Middle Way texts. Therefore, those who wish to practice Mahayana have little choice but to study Mind Only texts.
Mind Only and the Mind-Training tradition
Among all the noted Indian scholars who traveled to Tibet, the one with the most activity was Atisha. His greatest impact was in the teaching of the Mahayana practice, including the gradual path of the three types of individuals; the pith instructions on mind-training; and practical advice on how to practice Mahayana dharma.
In his auto-commentary on the Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, Atisha writes that the source for the presentation of the three types of individuals is the Autocommentary on the Treasury of Abhidharma. The three types of individuals are mentioned frequently in the Yogacara Levels. There are also related passages in the sutras and treatises of the Mind Only, such as Asanga’s commentary on the Sublime Continuum and the Sutra of Mahaparinirvana. It seems that the teaching of the ‘three types of individuals’ was an oral tradition preserved in the Mind Only school’s lineage of vast conduct.
Likewise, the pith instructions on mind training were mainly transmitted from Lord Serlingpa, who was known to be from the Mind Only school. Similarly, the Kadampa asserted three lineages: the lineage of profound view, the lineage of vast conduct, and the lineage of the blessings of practice. The lineage of vast conduct can be traced back to Asanga and Vasubandhu.
Mind Only and the Bodhisattva Vow
There are two transmission lineages of the bodhisattva vow, one from the lineage of vast conduct and one from the lineage of profound view. The former is called the Mind Only bodhisattva vow because it goes back to Asanga and Vasubandhu’s lineage of vast conduct. The latter is called the Middle Way bodhisattva vow because it goes back to the lineage of profound view. In his Lamp for the Path to Enlightenment, Jowo Atisha describes the vows using those terms. So, when giving the bodhisattva vows of the lineage of vast conduct, it is done according to Maitreya’s Bodhisattva Levels, and the Middle Way tradition is done according to Shantideva’s Way of the Bodhisattva.
When discussing the bodhisattva vows, the Sakya Pandita maintained that the Mind Only view is lower. Hence, its rituals and conduct are more restrictive, whereas the Middle Way view is higher, so the rituals and conduct are more relaxed. He gave many reasons why the Middle Way tradition is better. But there are many objections to the Sakya Pandita’s positions in Khedrup Je’s Three Vows and Pawo Tsuglak Trengwa’s commentary on the Way of the Bodhisattva. In any case, the Sakya, Geluk, Kagyu, and Nyingma all have a tradition of taking the vows from the Mind Only and the Middle Way traditions.
Mind Only and the Kadampa tradition
Even though the Mind Only school did not spread in Tibet, their conduct and teaching did. For example, one of the three Kadampa forefathers, Geshe Potowa Rinchen Sal, initiated the study of what became the six Kadampa texts. These included two very important Mind Only texts —the Bodhisattva Levels and the Ornament of the Sutras. The Bodhisattva Levels is the most crucial text for the study of the bodhisattva vow, and there have been many Tibetans who wrote commentaries about it, including Je Tsongkhapa in the Great Path to Enlightenment(བྱང་ཆུབ་གཞུང་ལམ་). In his Great Treatise on the Stages of the Path to Enlightenment and other works, he quotes heavily from the Shravaka Levels.
“These texts such as the Bodhisattva Levels became well-known and are generally accepted to be Mind Only texts, but there was a great tradition of studying and teaching them in Tibet. The main reason is not because of their philosophical outlook but primarily in terms of practice and meditation,” the Karmapa commented.
Mind Only and Validity
The achievements of the Great Ngok Lotsawa Loden Sherab
One specific type of literature in the Mind Only corpus are the texts on Validity. Prior to the great Ngok Lotsawa Loden Sherab (1059–1109 CE), only a few texts on validity had been translated into Tibetan. There were no explanations of the texts other than general ones. Considering them important, he went to study these texts with the Kashmiri panditas Parahitabhadra (Tib.Shenpen Sangpo)] and Bhavyaraja (Tib.Kalden Gyalpo) though there is some debate whether the latter was a Buddhist or a Hindu. [At that time in Kashmir, there was an intermingling of Hindu with Buddhist panditas.]
Furthermore, because the Prajnaparamita sutras were complex and profound, the earlier translations into Tibetan had many faults and had not been translated accurately. Ngok Lotsawa realised how in order to study them, it was essential to receive instructions from the lineage. To this end, he underwent many hardships and travelled to central India, where he studied the texts on Prajnaparamita with the most well-known Indian scholars of that time, Pal Gomi Chime and the Mahapandita Bumtrak Nyipa [Tibetan translation of their names].
Having studied these texts on validity and Prajnaparamita, Ngok Lotsawa made new translations and overhauled and corrected the old ones. Among his translations from Sanskrit into Tibet are many texts on validity, including the Commentary on Validity, Ascertainment of Validity, Drop of Reasoning, and commentaries by Master Dharmottara. He also translated many texts on prajnaparamita, including most of the 25,000 Verse Prajnaparamita, the Ornament of Clear Realisation with Asanga’s commentary, the 8000 Verse Prajnaparamita with Haribhadra’s commentary, and many other texts on Prajnaparamita. He also translated the Sublime Continuum, the Compendium of Sutras, the Compendium of Trainings, the Way of the Bodhisattva, and the commentary on the problematic points of the wisdom (prajna) chapter in the Way of the Bodhisattva. In total, it is said that he did new translations or revised translations of over 8400 sutra texts and translated several thousand tantra texts.
One of his main aims for going to India was to study the literature on validity, as is explained in the biography by his disciple Drolungpa. When he returned to Tibet, he mainly taught texts such as the Ornament of the Sutras, Differentiating the Middle from the Extremes, Root Verses of the Middle Way and texts on the Middle Way by Śāntarakṣita and Kamalaśīla. “As the Tibetan saying goes, ‘In the centre between the roaring lions of Middle Way and Validity’—there developed a manner of study that unites the view of Middle Way with the logic of validity. And this can be traced back to Loden Sherab,” the Karmapa explained.
However, Candrakīrti’s works had not yet spread widely. Studies focused on the Ornament of the Middle Way, the Two Truths of the Middle Way, and the Light of the Middle Way, which were primarily Autonomist Middle Way [Svātantrika Madhyamaka] texts.
Later, after Sakya Pandita (1182 –1251 CE), Dharmakīrti’s Commentary on Validity became more widespread, but prior to that, they primarily studied Dharmakīrti’s Ascertainment of Validity. Basically, the Ascertainment is a more straightforward text to study because there is an auto-commentary making the meaning more understandable, the words are unambiguous, and it is easy to memorise. Many passages written in verse in the Commentary on Validity were written in prose in the Ascertainment. The long commentary on the Ascertainment which Ngok Loden Sherab wrote is one of the earliest commentaries on validity in Tibetan.
Ngok Lotsawa’s Legacy
Ngok Lotsawa had four main students: the upholder of his body, the monastery, Shangtse Pongwa Chökyi Lama; the holder of his teachings Drolungpa Lodrö Jungne; the holder of his teachings on prajnaparamita Drechenpo Sherap Bar; and the holder of his teachings on Middle Way and validity, Khyung Rinchen Drak.
Shangtse Pongwa became the abbot of Sangpu. Drolungpa, the most renowned of the four, composed many texts, especially the Great Stages of the Teachings. Je Tsongkhapa considered this text extremely important, and it is said that it was the principal basis for his Great Stages of the Path to Enlightenment. Drechenpo established the prajnaparamita tradition, which descends from Loden Sherab. The Karmapa joked that ‘dre’ doesn’t mean ghost! He explained that it’s a clan name from the Kham region of Tibet, so this is a Khampa prajnaparamita tradition.
The main student of both Drolungpa and Khyung was Chapa Chökyi Senge. He wrote commentaries on some forty different texts. He was especially learned in validity and wrote commentaries on both the Commentary of Validity and Ascertainment of Validity. He wrote three collections on Validity and logic—short, medium and long—the “collected topics” du-dra [བསྡུས་གྲྭ] as they are called in Tibetan. Similarly, it is said that it was he who instituted the tradition of the presenter standing, stamping their foot, and clapping their hands when making points in debate. He was not Mind Only; he was a Svatantrika (Autonomist Middle Way). He refuted the Prasangika tradition (Consequentialist Middle Way) of Candrakīrti, saying it had eight great faults. He famously debated with and defeated the Indian pandita Jayananda, a Prasangika. Gyalwang Karmapa commented that he had read some of Chapa Chökyi Senge’s works on the Middle Way, and he had used very complex and precise logic in his refutation of the Prasangika view.
He had eight main disciples, including two of the “Three Men from Kham”, the three principle disciples of Lord Gampopa. Pakmodrupa Dorje Gyaltsen, who founded the Phagdru Kagyu, studied the Middle Way and Validity with him. As did Lord Dusum Khyenpa, founder of the Karma Kagyu.
The founders of the tradition of Validity were Dignāga and his student Dharmakīrti. Both are generally accepted to be Mind Only masters. In Tibet, the literature on validity was very influential. There were even people who studied only the collected topics of logic and then they would go on debate tours of the great monastic colleges. These days the collected topics are considered to be basic texts in shedra study but, in fact, they contain some very complex points and people would spend many years studying them.
Returning to Drechenpo Sherap Bar, the Karmapa spoke of his continuing influence. One of his students was Ar Jangchup Yeshe Jung who wrote commentaries on the long, medium, and short prajnaparamita sutras, the Light of the 25,000, and the 8000 Verses. In Tibet the saying goes “Prajnaparamita comes down to Ar.” So, in Tibet, most of the Prajnaparamita traditions can be traced back through Ar Jangchup to Drechenpo. Another of Drechenpo’s students was Ja Dulwa Dzinpa Tsöndru Bar. He was very learned in the Vinaya and renowned for studying and teaching it, so another saying goes, “Vinaya comes down to Ja.” Hence, the study and practice tradition of Vinaya in Tibet can be traced back to Dzinpa Tsöndru Bar.
Thus, during the later transmission of the teachings in Tibet, all of the teaching lineages on the “Five Dharmas of Maitreya”, the three great works of the Autonomist masters, and the Ascertainment of Validity can be traced back to Ngok Lotsawa Loden Sherab. Before him, there had been a fair amount of teaching and study on Vinaya and Abhidharma, but there had not been any presentations of proof and refutations based on logical methods according to the works of Dharmakīrti. The tradition of using validity to examine and analyse the texts had not developed in Tibet prior to that.
The study of the “Five Dharmas of Maitreya” spread widely in all four major lineages of Tibet— Sakya, Geluk, Kagyu, and Nyingma. For example, the great Sakya scholar Rongtön Sheja Kunrik (1367-1449 CE) wrote commentaries on all five of them, and countless other authors wrote commentaries on particular ones. The greatest number of commentaries is on the Ornament of Clear Realization, then the Sublime Continuum, and after that, the Ornament of the Sutras. The fewest commentaries are on Differentiating the Middle from Extremes and Differentiating Phenomena and Dharmata. Although the “Five Dharmas of Maitreya” and the twenty dharmas related to Maitreya spread widely in Tibet, there is no evidence that Tibetan scholars developed any great interest in the Mind Only view, the Karmapa commented. Shakya Chokden took an interest in Mind Only philosophy, but his explanations of them were different.
Rendawa Zhonnu Lodro and Je Tsongkhapa
The Karmapa suggested that the one who took the keenest interest in Mind Only philosophy was Je Tsongkhapa. The evidence for this is in the root text and commentary he wrote on Difficult Points of the Mind and the All-Ground.
When you examine the root text, you can see the similarity to Vasubandhu’s Twenty Verses and Thirty Verses. Some of the lines are very close. Je Tsongkhapa primarily speaks about the eight consciousnesses in detail. Later he wrote the well-known Essence of True Eloquence: Distinguishing the Definitive and Expedient. While he was writing this, he compared the texts of the Sutra Unraveling the Essence, the commentary on it attributed to Asanga, the Bodhisattva Levels, the Compendium of Ascertainments, Differentiating the Middle from the Extremes and the Ornament of the Sutras along with their commentaries, the Compendium of the Mahayana, the Compendium of Abhidharma, Dignāga’s Examination of Objects, Dharmakīrti’s Commentary on Validity, Dignāga’s summary of the 8000 Verse Prajnaparamita, Śāntipa’s Pith Instructions of Prajnaparamita and Destruction of Harm, as well as others. He used all these texts to examine the difficult points of the Mind Only and concluded that in order to differentiate the definitive and expedient in the Mahayana scriptures, both Nagarjuna and Asanga are important. This is not only in terms of the sutras but also in terms of the Vajrayana. The tantric mahasiddhas also were similar to either Asanga or Nagarjuna, so there is no other path to realising suchness than these two.
One reason why Tsongkhapa took such interest in the Mind Only was probably the influence of his teacher, Rendawa Zhonnu Lodrö, who taught him philosophy. He was a Prasangika and was very influential in spreading the Consequentialist view. Previously, most Tibetans followed the Autonomist view.
Karma Könshon wrote, “These days in the Snow Land, the fact that the wise and foolish all say they speak Middle Way and breathe Middle Way is Rendawa’s kindness. Before him, the Middle Way was a corpse in Tangsak.”
As a Consequentialist, Rendawa held the rangtong view. However, at that time the Jonang shentong view was spreading widely, and they were in conflict with those who upheld the rangtong view. Further, the Jonangpas claimed that the Mind Only texts were shentong. Rendawa strongly opposed both the Jonangpas and the shentong view and particularly disliked how they had appropriated the Mind Only texts. He also expressed doubts about the main Jonang practice of the Six Yogas, which is basically the practice of the Kalachakra tantra, and questioned whether the Jonang Kalachakra practice was pure or not. The situation was further complicated because his criticism of the Jonangpa led to a break with one of his own teachers, Nyawon Kunga Pelwa [who, having been miraculously healed by Dolpopa, had great faith in him and later became the abbot of Jonang monastery].
Rendawa was concerned for the integrity of the Mind Only texts and considered it crucial to know the pure Mind Only tradition. He even wrote a commentary on Śāntipa’s Ornament of Mind Only. Je Tsongkhapa, at the end of his commentary on the ground consciousness, pays tribute to the role Rendawa played in awakening his mind to the scriptures. They did disagree, however, on the nature of the “Dharmas of Maitreya”. Rendawa maintained that all five were Mind Only whereas Tsongkhapa said that some were Mind Only and some were Middle Way.
Though some Tibetan scholars such as Tsongkhapa did what they could to clarify Mind Only philosophy and to present it in its purest form, the biggest difficulty in Tibet was lack of texts. Many of the clearest Mind Only texts written by scholars after Vasubandhu have not been translated into Tibetan. For this reason, the Karmapa said, it was important to translate the Mind Only treatises which exist in Chinese into Tibetan, such as the commentaries by Dharmapāla and so forth on Proof of Awareness Only and their commentaries.
“If we can translate them into Tibetan, since we have a strong tradition of studying the great texts, and in particular since we have very strong studies in validity and logic…we had so few Mind Only texts…if we could have clear and complete expositions of the Mind Only view, I think that without a doubt we could develop a superior study and superior teaching of the philosophy,” the Karmapa observed.
A Summary of Mind Only and Middle Way Traditions
The Karmapa began by explaining to the shedra students and their teachers that he would be examining this topic from the perspective of modern research rather than the traditional way of treating Buddhist texts.
Simply put, the Mind Only asserts that mind truly exists, and the Middle Way asserts that all phenomena do not truly exist. They do share some common ground. However, there have also been endless disputes between them, and from this perspective, it seems that they are antagonists.
An example of this is the debate over emptiness and existence between Dharmapāla and Bhavaviveka, which is described in Huizhao’s Lamp of the Definitive Meaning Proving Awareness Only. Dharmapāla asserted that the dependent nature (གཞན་དབང་) arising from the interdependence of causes and conditions exists while Bhavaviveka asserted it does not exist. It is difficult to say whether this debate actually happened or not. The account probably originates in the oral tradition from Xuanzang. However, it does suggest that conflict between the two schools could not be avoided. According to Yijing’s accounts of his travels to India in the late seventh century, at that time it was already commonly accepted that there were two Mahayana schools, the Middle Way and the Mind Only. It seems that the Middle Way spread first, and then the Mind Only grew until they were equally influential. But, from the beginning, the two schools came into conflict. When Xuanzang and Yijing were at Nalanda in the seventh century, students studied the Mind Only, Middle Way, and Foundation vehicle texts. Not only did they study the different philosophical texts, but they also engaged in spirited debates, holding their own school’s position. There was even a tradition of taking another school’s position and incorporating it into your own. The Mind Only, for example, very skillfully adopted the detailed presentation of the Sutra school Abhidharma. They also incorporated some of the Middle Way views to establish their own positions. This became harmful to the Middle Way because it created too great a similarity between the schools. At the same time, some in the Middle Way school incorporated Mind Only positions into their philosophy, and they became known as the Yogacara Middle Way.
The mixing of different positions led to a variety of schools. The Karmapa used a diagram to illustrate the various combinations of the views of the Mind Only, Middle Way and Sutra schools.
After Nagarjuna had passed away, the Middle Way divided into two schools called the Consequentialist (Prasaṇgika) and the Autonomist (Svatantrika). Some scholars maintain that these are Tibetan terms and were not used in India, but the Karmapa questioned this. He asserted that there are mentions of these schools in Indian texts and gave several examples, including Śāntarakṣita, who mentions the debate between Prasangika and Svatantrika. Buddhapālita is recognised as the founder of the Prasangika. They used the presentation of negations [ Skt prasaṅga, which means “logic consequence”; hence, they were known as Prasangika /Consequentialists]. The Autonomists recognised Bhāvaviveka as their founder. They used the logics of validity—autonomous syllogistic reasoning (Skt svātantra) — both when presenting their own positions and also when refuting others’ positions. Hence, they were called Svatantrika /Autonomists.
If they held the Foundation Vehicle Sutra school position [the Sautrantika school] within the Middle Way school, they were called the Sautrāntika Madhyamika. This term included Bhāviveka and Jnanaprabha.
At the time of Śāntarakṣita and Kamalasila, there were those who held the Mind Only view mixed with Madhyamika and they were called the Yogacāra Madhyamika.
Also, within the Mind Only tradition, Dignāga founded the True Image school, but he also accepted many propositions of the Sutra school. Dharmakīrti, following in Dignāga’s footsteps, added even more Sutra school positions, so after that people who held that particular view were called the Sautrantika Yogacāra. Jñāna Śrī Mitra and Ratnakīrti upheld this tradition.
The Buddha Nature School and Mind Only
The Buddha Nature school holds that, although all sentient beings have the obscurations caused by the stains of the afflictions, they have within their continuums the tathāgatagarbha meaning the essence (garbha) of the Tagathata, one who has just gone, i.e. the essence of a buddha or buddha nature.
To explain it from one perspective, this means that any sentient being, no matter who they are, has the opportunity to achieve buddhahood. The seeds of this philosophy have been present from the time of original Buddhism, before the development of the eighteen schools. In Pali texts, there is the term “luminous mind” or pabhassara citta. It is also present in Sanskrit as prabhāsvara-citta.
The earliest usage of the term tathāgatagarbha or “buddha nature” occurs in the Sutra of the Essence of the Tathagatas. (Tathāgatagarbha-sūtra). How was this established? The Karmapa explained that modern research tries to distinguish which sutras were earlier and which were later by the date when they were first translated into another language. Since the Chinese canon was translated from an early time, they often look at the earliest translation of a sutra into Chinese. Or they search for an even earlier translation into another language. Alternatively, if a Sanskrit manuscript exists, the type of script indicates which century it was written.
The term is also found in the Sutra of No Increase and No Decrease and in the Sutra of the Glorious Lion’s Roar. The Karmapa commented that there were some quotations from the former in some Tibetan texts. The latter had not been translated, but as it was a short sutra, he thought it might be good to translate it into Tibetan if he had the time, continued to uphold this view. In the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, buddha nature is taught to be the same in essence as the dharma expanse (dharmadhātu), and the sutra says that all sentient beings are said to be permeated by the dharma expanse. The text that gives the complete framework of the Buddha Nature philosophy is Distinguishing the Family of the Jewels, known as The Sublime Continuum (the gyu-lama) in the Tibetan canon.
Most scholars maintain that the Buddha Nature school was established earlier than the Mind Only school. By the time the Mind Only school developed, the Buddha Nature school had spread, and it is indisputable that it exerted influence on the Mind Only from its beginnings. The evidence is found in Mind Only texts that clearly state the Buddha Nature view. For example, one can immediately see in Maitreya’s Differentiating the Middle From Extremes, Ornament of the Sutras, and so forth, a discussion of the “stainless nature” and the “naturally luminous mind”, terms which reflect the view of the Buddha Nature school. Later, the influence of the Buddha Nature school on Mind Only becomes even more apparent in the texts of Vasubandhu. Of equal importance to The Sublime Continuum is the Treatise on Buddha Nature attributed to Vasubandhu, though some modern scholars question his authorship because it contains some refutations of the Mind Only. This text is not in the Tibetan canon, only in Chinese.
As the interconnection between the Mind Only and Buddha Nature schools developed, some began to identify the all-ground consciousness of the Mind Only with the tathāgatagarbha of the Buddha Nature. The seeds of this view can be seen in the Ornament of the Sutras, Commentary on the Ten Levels, Differentiating the Family of the Jewels, and other treatises. By the time of the Travels to Lanka Sutra, it is stated that the ground consciousness and buddha nature are one. Then, by the time the treatise Awakening of Mahāyāna Faith was written, which was translated into Chinese by Yìjìng, the tradition of the Buddha Nature school had become very organised and had a robust framework. The main point to note is that of the three most important treatises of the Buddha Nature school, only one—the Sublime Continuum— is available in Tibetan. The other two are the treatise on The Family of the Buddha, attributed to Vasubandhu, and Awakening the Mahāyāna Faith, attributed to Asvabhāva, an Indian pandita who travelled to China. This text is considered extremely important in the Chinese Buddhist tradition.
The Third Mahayana Tradition: Distinctions within Chinese Buddhism between Mind Only, Middle Way and Buddha Nature
The Gyalwang Karmapa began by pointing out that most contemporary researchers now maintain there were three distinct schools within Mahayana Buddhism: Middle Way, Mind Only and Buddha Nature. Though this may seem a new idea, this distinction is, in fact, an ancient tradition found primarily in the Chinese Avatamsaka tradition.
The third patriarch of the Avatamsaka tradition was the master Xiánshǒu Fǎcáng (643–712 CE), who lived during the Chinese Tang Dynasty. He wrote a commentary on Sthiramati’s Treatise on the Indivisible Dharma Expanse. In it, he notes that Aśvaghoṣa and Sthiramati had founded a new Mahayana school, the Buddha Nature school, that was different from either the Mind Only or Middle Way. This is the earliest written reference to an actual independent Buddha Nature school.
The fifth patriarch of the Avatamsaka school, the Chinese master Guīfēng Zōngmì (780–841 CE), also distinguished three Mahayana schools. He spoke about three schools—the School of Phenomena [Mind Only], the School Negating Phenomena [Middle Way], and the School of the Nature of Phenomena [Buddha Nature]. He compared the School of Phenomena [Mind Only] with the School of the Nature of Phenomena [Buddha Nature] and made ten distinctions between them.
- Asserting that ultimately there are three vehicles (ཐེག་པ) versus one. The Mind Only said that there were three enlightenments and three vehicles, whereas Buddha Nature said that ultimately there was only one.
- Asserting that there are five families (རིགས་ལྔར་) versus one family. The Mind Only asserted five families of beings with five different potentials, including one family that can never achieve Buddhahood. Buddha Nature maintained that ultimately there is only one family, that of the Buddha. All sentient beings will attain buddhahood because the buddha nature permeates them.
- Asserting that the nature of mind is confused versus asserting it is not. Primarily, the Mind Only holds that all phenomena arise from the expanse of the ground consciousness. It is the nature of the ground consciousness to be confused. The Buddha Nature school teaches that the nature of the mind is suchness which is unconfused.
- Asserting suchness is not consequent to causes and conditions versus asserting it is consequent. Mind Only identify suchness as an unchanging nature of selflessness, a no negation. Buddha Nature explained suchness as the unchanging nature of the dharma expanse. But within the dharma expanse various appearances such as virtue and misdeeds can appear; there are actors, actions and results.
- Among the three characteristics, asserting that the dependent is ultimately established versus asserting it is not.
- Asserting that there is increase and decrease among sentient beings and buddhas [the Mind Only position] versus asserting there is none [the Buddha Nature view].
- Asserting that the two truths are different in essence versus the same in essence. Mind Only says that the relative is confused, but the ultimate is not, so they are different in essence. Buddha Nature says that within suchness they are not separate in essence.
- Asserting that arising, remaining, changing, and perishing occur at different times versus at the same time. The Mind Only posits different phases, whereas Buddha Nature says that they exist simultaneously.
- Asserting that the obscurations to be discarded and antidotes are separate in nature versus the same in nature. The Buddha Nature school says that the obscurations to be discarded are confusion, whereas the antidotes are wisdom. Within the obscurations there is also the nature of wisdom so even the nature of that confusion is wisdom.
- Asserting that a buddha’s body is conditioned versus asserting it is unconditioned. This concerns whether both the form body and the dharmakaya of a buddha are conditioned or not.
In conclusion, the Karmapa spoke about contemporary research into the history of the Mahayana schools.
In ancient times, the existence of a separate Buddha Nature school was acknowledged by the Avatamsaka school in China but the view was not held generally. In modern times, Japanese scholars have led the way, and their research has also influenced Chinese Buddhists.
Traditionally, Western academics recognised only two Mahayana schools, the Mind Only and the Middle Way. Then, in 1931, the Russian scholar E. Obermiller translated the Tibetan version of the Sublime Continuum into English. In 1935, the British Orientalists E.H. Johnston and H.W. Bailey published fragments of the Sanskrit text of the Treatise Differentiating the Family of the Jewels (i.e. the Sublime Continuum). Then, in 1950, Johnston published a complete Sanskrit edition of the text. Because of these three manuscripts, interest among Western academics increased significantly, and they began to write articles about tathāgatagarbha, the buddha nature. In 1956, the Austrian Erich Frauwallner presented the reasons why there must have been a separate Mahayana Buddha Nature school, distinct from the Mind Only and Middle Way. His explanation accorded with the explanations of Japanese scholars. Basically, most contemporary scholars of Buddhism accept that the Buddha Nature school was a third major Mahayana school.
The Karmapa explained that this raised some issues for Tibetans. Within the Tibetan tradition, discussion of the buddha nature is based on the Sublime Continuum. If Tibetans were to maintain the division into only four philosophical schools, the teachings on buddha nature would have to be categorised as Mind Only. But placing Buddha Nature school’s philosophy into the Mind Only framework restricted the breadth of its philosophy, all its power and capacity. “Like a bird that can’t spread its wings and fly,” he commented. “We need to open the cage and let it out, and let it fly with its own wings.” As the Middle Way is based on the teachings of Nagarjuna as recorded in the Root Verses of the Middle Way, if a philosophy doesn’t fit with these teachings, it’s difficult to label it Middle Way, he argued and suggested that, in his opinion, the Buddha Nature school deserved to be recognised as an independent tradition.