Buddhist Orthodoxy and its Dread of the Soul
By Dr. Tony Page (May 2009)
For more than 25 years I have been researching and attempting to make available to other Buddhists the authentic Mahayana doctrines on the eternal Buddha-Soul (atman) or deathless Awakened Essence (svabhava) within all beings. I have been shocked and dismayed by the reactions of the vast majority of so-called Buddhists to these ideas.
First of all, and for many years, mainstream or ‘Establishment’ Buddhists attempted to deny that the Mahayana even contained such teachings as those of the Nirvana Sutra on the indwelling, eternal Self. I vividly remember my Buddhist mentor, Maurice Walshe, insisting to me some 30 years ago that the Mahayana went even further than Theravada in its denial of the Self and admitted of absolutely no essence of any kind within persons or things. ‘Emptiness’ was the sole and only watchword of the Mahayana, he implicitly told me – and there was nothing more to be said beyond that. It was quite evident to me that Maurice Walshe, benevolent and sincere though he was, had never actually heard of – still less read – the tathagatagarbha sutras which proclaim the reality of the Self or eternal, immanent Buddha Nature. Maurice cannot be blamed for his ignorance, as such scriptures had been systematically and maliciously withheld from the public for literally hundreds of years by a controlling Buddhist orthodoxy which did not want the Buddhist community to know that there are other visions and understandings of Buddhism – just as valid, and even more ancient than their own – which did not subscribe to the empty and soulless Prasangika-Madhymaka type of anti-spiritual world view which these ‘Buddhists’ proclaim at every opportunity as the ‘highest’ understanding of Buddhism . The Gelukpas in Tibet had contributed their share to this shameful act of sequestration of True Dharma by locking away the books of great mystics such as Dolpopa and Taranatha from the eyes of faithful and questing Buddhists and even (it is said) burning down monasteries which promulgated such teachings (on the Buddha-Self). One can only wonder at the pitiful and frightened clinging to dogma which such people sadly evinced. These laughably-labeled ‘detached’ Buddhists were evidently in the grip of a neurotic dread of a Truth which their dry-as-dust, reductionist, anti-mystical and myopic approach to Dharma would never allow them to intuit or brook others to know for themselves. Truth had at all costs to be hidden and denied. That situation continued for many long decades.
Gradually, however, in the final portion of the 20th century, a handful of people (including myself) began to make these teachings more widely known in the West, and the Mahayana Buddhist orthodoxy (fanatically fixated on, and inseverably wedded to, one and only one interpretation of the Dharma – that known as Madhyamaka, based on a particular understanding of Nagarjuna) was forced to face up to the fact that there really were scriptures which taught such (to them) heretical doctrines as the True Self. How were they to deal with this? What they first chose to do is an object lesson in psychological denial. They essentially said: ‘OK, yes – there are these texts – but they are lower-level teachings, which need to be interpreted; they cannot be taken literally. When these sutras say that there is an eternal Self, what they really mean (as we know, as we have the correct interpretation – never mind what the Buddha says to the contrary) is that there is no Self at all. These scriptures only say that there is a Self for the sake of Brahmanists, spiritual sophomores or pusillanimous plodders who are frightened of the solely genuine Buddhist teachings of non-Self and Emptiness.’
When it was pointed out to them that actually the key tathagatagarbha sutras are not addressed to Brahmanists but high-ranking Bodhisattvas and that these scriptures state that the ideas of immanent awakened essence or Self / Buddha Nature are definitive revelations by the Buddha of Dharma (not provisional or concessionary), the atma-phobes (as they might fittingly be termed) then had to shift their ground once more and come up with some new excuse for downgrading or defusing these doctrines: ‘Oh yes,’ they said, ‘these teachings do claim to be final and definitive, but Self in these scriptures actually means either Emptiness, complete lack of independent essence (expressed in a more positive manner) or else is simply a way of speaking about the potential for Awakening that is in people, if only they will practise as real Buddhists ought – meditating solely on non-Self and Emptiness. These tathagatagarbha sutras do not at all mean to say that there is some kind of spiritual essence inside beings which is already Buddhic and Awakened. All beings can potentially become enlightened in the future, but do not have any Awakened core in them now’
This is the atma-phobes’ latest and current sophistical argument – and this despite the clear and repeated assertions by both the tathagatagarbha sutras and various tantras (notably the All-Creating King tantra) that the essence of all Reality is always and already present and perfect, that the Buddha Nature is timeless (not governed by past, present and future) and indeed that the Self or Essence is independent, causeless and sovereign (aisvarya). It is a thought-transcending That-ness (tathata) or quintessential nature (dharmata) which is already complete and perfect within the pure depths of each being’s innermost mind. Indeed, this Buddha Essence pervades all phenomena without exception.
In my view, it will take several more decades before the full and undistorted Truth about the Buddha Nature is grudgingly accepted by the conditioned and frightened Mahayana Buddhist orthodoxy, and this will come about by the irresistible force of publications from more scholars of texts and explications which make it clear beyond reasonable doubt that – horror of horrors! – there really is a class of Buddhist scriptures which mean what they say and teach the existence of an indwelling and immortal Self or essence (that of the Buddha) within all beings. The Mahayana Establishment might even one day finally grasp that two kinds of self are spoken of in the tathagatagarbha sutras: the fictional, small skandhaic self, and the Great Self of Buddha. And that Self which is also non-self (non-conditioned, non-ephemeral, non-contaminated, non-miserable and non-physical) is a radiant, pure, blissful, transcendent and everlasting Knower – yes a person who knows – Buddh –a. That, after all, is what ‘Buddha’ means –‘The One Who Knows’! That supernal and transcendent personhood of the Buddha is called by the Nirvana Sutra (my edition, Vol. 10, p. 11) ‘the One Alone, with no equal.’
What do we learn from this foray into relatively recent Buddhist socio-religious history? We see that even people who claim that there is no ultimate and immutable Truth and label themselves Buddhists are – perversely and ironically – not immune from the forces of clinging and conditioning, of fear and fixation upon dogma which they denounce in others (‘we have the view of no view’ – oh really?? Please don’t make us laugh!) and would rather blindly follow what they have been told by oh-so-many commentators, traditions, and commentators commenting upon commentators – rather than look openly and honestly with heart and with soul at what the Buddha says in sutra after sutra about the fictionality of the non-Self and the Reality of dharmata or the Self-that-is-the-Buddha.
Let us hope that those who try to force every other Buddhist onto their procrustean bed of Nagarjunian and Madhyamikan orthodoxy will sooner rather than later have the good grace and sense to recognise that there are 64,000 gateways into genuine Dharma (Truth) and that the Buddha-Self is one of those entirely valid and authentic ways of access into the stronghold of Truth, to which the Nagarjunians and Gelukpas do not hold the sole and only key.
© Dr Tony Page 2004