Buddhist philosophy, Indian

DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-F001-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved November 15, 2019, from

3. Buddha-nature

Even in the earliest strata of Buddhist literature that has survived to the present, the Buddha is portrayed in a variety of ways. Some passages depict him as a man who skilfully answers questions that have been put to him, either by answering the questions or by showing why the question as asked cannot be answered. The passages were clearly designed to portray the Buddha as a paragon of wisdom, whose careful and analytic thinking could be used as a model for those seeking to arrive at correct understanding. The Buddha is also portrayed as a model of virtue, a man who has mastered the art of living in the world without bringing harm to other living beings and whose concern for the welfare of all living things around him is unsurpassed. Interspersed with these passages that focus on the Buddha as a remarkable man, there are other passages that portray the Buddha as a superhuman miracle worker whose mastery of yogic technique has given him the power to travel hundreds of kilometres in the blink of an eye, transport himself and his followers through the air, know the precise thoughts of other people, see into the past and future, heal serious wounds merely by looking at them, and soothe wild and dangerous animals by merely speaking gently to them. Some texts show him inviting his followers to question everything he says and to accept nothing on his authority; in other passages, he is portrayed as a man to whom even the wisest and most knowledgeable gods come so that the profound mysteries of the universe can be explained to them in clear words. Given the diversity of things said about the Buddha in the texts that Buddhists regarded as authoritative, it is no wonder that among the points about which there was considerable controversy was the nature of the Buddha himself. Discussions about the nature of the Buddha were as important to some Buddhist philosophers as discussions about the nature of God were to the theologians of theistic traditions (see Buddha).

The earliest extant record of controversies concerning the nature of the Buddha is a work known as Kathāvatthu (Points of Controversy), supposed to have been written around 246 bc by an elder monk known as Tissa Moggalīputta. This treatise mentions over two hundred topics over which there was controversy among Buddhists, of which several pertain to the nature of the Buddha. According to this text, some Buddhists held to the view that the Buddha pervades all regions of space at all times and has the power to suspend all the laws of nature at will; others argued that the Buddha exists only where his human body is located and that he is bound by all the natural laws by which other living beings are bound. Those who accepted the Buddha as a ubiquitous and eternal entity tended to claim that the human Buddha was merely a manifestation in human form that appeared for the sake of guiding human beings. This apparition, they claimed, had no real need for food and shelter or other material requirements of life, but it accepted such gifts from devotees so that they might learn the benefits of generosity. Moreover, this apparition was said to be wholly lacking any of the unpleasant physical or mental traits of a human being and never had any thoughts that were not directed at teaching people how to cultivate virtue and attain nirvāṇa. Other Buddhists rejected this view of the Buddha altogether and argued that he was a mortal just like all other mortals, except that among the limited range of topics about which he had knowledge was the important matter of how to achieve lasting peace and happiness. This issue was controverted for over a millennium in India, with Dharmakīrti and some of his followers taking up the view of the Buddha as an ordinary mortal, while some members of the Yogācāra movement took up the position that the Buddha was more of a cosmic principle; the eleventh-century Buddhist Ratnakīrti eventually argued that all particular acts of individual awareness are merely parts of a single, universal consciousness, which he identified as the mind of the Buddha (see Buddhism, Yogācāra school of).

The position taken by Ratnakīrti may be the logical conclusion of an idea first mentioned in the Kathāvatthu, namely, that one becomes an Awakened One (buddha) by acquiring a quality known as awakening (bodhi). Tissa Moggalīputta himself rejected this idea, arguing that if awakening were something that one could attain, it would also be something that one could lose, in which case a buddha could cease to be a buddha; his view, therefore, was that awakening is not a positive trait but merely the absence of delusions. Dissenting from this view, other Buddhists (and especially members of the Yogācāra school) argued that buddhas become buddhas as a result of realizing an innate potential to become awakened. This innate potential, called the embryo of the knower of truth (tathāgata-garbha), was said by some to exist in all living beings, thereby making all living beings buddhas, or at least buddhas in the making. From this view that every sentient being has the essential quality of a buddha, even if this essence is somehow obscured from view by others, it was a short step to the view that all sentient beings are identical in their essence and therefore not really different from one another. Closely related to this controversy over the nature of the Buddha’s essence was the issue of whether there are degrees of buddhahood or different ranks of buddhas. Tissa Moggalīputta had argued that being a buddha is a matter of being free of delusion, and either one is free or one is not; there can be no degrees of freedom. Other thinkers took the view that although all beings are essentially buddhas in their nature, they manifest their essences to a different extent, and therefore one may speak of degrees of buddhahood.

Citing this article:
Hayes, Richard P.. Buddha-nature. Buddhist philosophy, Indian, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-F001-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2019 Routledge.

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