Buddhist philosophy, Chinese

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-G002-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved March 26, 2019, from

14. Sinicizing Buddhist concepts: is Buddha-nature good or evil?

The pre-Han debate about whether human nature is good, evil or neutral was echoed in debates between Chinese Buddhists about Buddha-nature. Huayan contended that Buddha-nature and tathāgatagarbha were pristinely pure and good, filled with infinite good merits and qualities. In the fully realized perfection of Buddha-nature all evil, impurities and delusions have been eradicated.

This position was opposed by Tiantai, which argued that some evil (that is, some ignorance) remains in Buddha-nature. Following the Daoist sense of nonduality, in which good and evil or pure and impure are complimentary opposites as impossible to separate from each other as East from West, Tiantai accused Huayan of dualistic extremism. From the Tiantai perspective, Huayan’s ‘obsession’ with purity and goodness was one-sided and dualistic. Moreover, Tiantai insisted that it is necessary for Buddha-nature to retain some traces of evil and delusion in order to understand and empathize with the plight of ordinary sentient beings. If one becomes too rarefied, too transcendent, one loses touch with the everyday reality in which people wander deludedly, and thus one becomes incapable of effectively saving such people. Buddhahood, for Tiantai, was not simply a matter of correctly seeing or understanding in a ‘pure’ way, but was at its core salvific; Buddhahood is the active liberation of sentient beings from ignorance.

The debate on Buddha-nature heated up during the Song Dynasty. Heterodox forms of Tiantai tinged with Huayan’s ‘purity obsession’ appeared, and these were challenged sharply by the orthodox Tiantai thinkers from their headquarters on Tiantai mountain (from which the school took its name). The heterodox schools were labeled the Off-Mountain groups, while the orthodoxy styled itself the On-Mountain group. Zhili (959–1028), one of the On-Mountain leaders, had a keen intellect alert to the subtlest hints of Huayan-like thinking lurking in the rhetoric of Off-Mountain thinkers; his writings systematically ferret out and refute those implications with a logical sophistication rarely equalled amongst Chinese Buddhist philosophers.

These debates gain additional importance when viewed in the larger context of Chinese intellectual history. In the pre-Han period, Mencius’ contention that human nature is originally good did not prove persuasive. Others argued that human nature was essentially neutral and subject to the influence of external conditions. Another early Confucian, Xunzi, had argued that human nature was basically selfish and greedy, which is why human society needs sages such as Confucius to guide them beyond the baseness of their own nature (see Xing). Han Confucians sided with Xunzi rather Mencius. The Tiantai position, by insisting that some evil and ignorance exists even in Buddha-nature, was close to some readings of Xunzi’s position, while the idealistic optimism of the Huayan view clearly showed parallels with Mencius. Between the Han and Song Dynasties (third through tenth centuries), Confucianism was by and large intellectually stagnant. It found new vitality in the Song in part by reabsorbing back into itself the elements it had ‘lent’ to the Buddhists (and to some extent Daoists as well). The elements they took back had been modified and expanded by the Buddhists, and given metaphysical foundations that the neo-Confucians retained and continued to rework. Neo-Confucian thinkers, especially after Zhu Xi (1130–1200), rediscovered Mencius and unanimously embraced his view of the original goodness of human nature. Looked at another way, neo-Confucianism adopted Huayan’s metaphysics of nature. Zhu Xi’s famous dialectic of principle (li) and ‘material-energy’ (qi) owed more than a little to Huayan’s li and shi metaphysics (see Li; Qi).

Citing this article:
Lusthaus, Dan. Sinicizing Buddhist concepts: is Buddha-nature good or evil?. Buddhist philosophy, Chinese, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-G002-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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