Yogācāra Treatises and Buddha Nature

Buddhist Philosophy | Tibetan MastersKhenpo Shenga

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Khenpo Shenga


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On the Yogācāra Treatises and Buddha Nature[1]

by Khenpo Shenpen Nangwa

The regent and great lord of the tenth bhūmi considered Jambudvīpa’s followers of the great vehicle as a whole and imparted the so-called Five Treatises of Maitreya to Ārya Asaṅga:

  • The Ornament of Sūtras (Sūtrālaṃkāra) and the two Distinguishing (Vibhāga)[2] texts were taught to guide the great vehicle’s adherents of Mind Only in accordance with the explanations of the master and second buddha Vasubandhu.

  • The Ornament of Realization (Abhisamayālaṃkāra) of the Perfection of Wisdom (prajñāpāramitā) was taught to guide the great vehicle’s adherents of Svātantrika. Thus, the commentaries of Ārya Vimuktisena and Haribhadra which explain it according to the Mādhyamika Svātantrika are to the point.

  • The Sublime Continuum (Uttaratantra) was taught to guide the great vehicle’s adherents of Prāsaṅgika, in accordance with Ārya Asaṅga’s own commentary, and is to be taken literally.

Ārya Asaṅga explained the meaning of the Mahāyāna sūtras in vast detail, on the basis of the five treatises [of Maitreya], in the five sections on the levels (bhūmi):

  • he categorised and explained all the Mahāyāna sūtras according to the three precious collections (piṭaka) in the Compendium of Topics (Vastusaṃgraha);

  • he presented the modes of explaining the words and meaning of the sūtras in the Compendium of Interpretation (Vyākhyānasaṃgrahaṇī);

  • he presented in elaborate detail how individuals accomplish all the stages of the path in the Compendium of the Main Treatise on the Stages (Bahubhūmika/Bhūmivastu); and

  • he further resolved these in detail in the Compendium of Resolving (Viniścayasaṃgrahaṇī).[3]

In addition, he summarised all these points in two further compendia: the Compendium of Abhidharma (Abhidharmasamuccaya), which is a summary of the common vehicles, and the Compendium of the Great Vehicle (Mahāyānasaṁgraha), which is a summary of the uncommon Mahāyāna.

The followers of the Great Vehicle’s Mind Only School assert that the principal message of the sūtras and great treatises, the dependent all-ground consciousness (ālayavijñāna), is empty of self-nature in every respect. Texts such as the Sūtra of the Dense Array (Ghanavyūhasūtra) say that “The universal ground of the various levels…etc.,”[4] and thus make the point that the all-ground is the buddha nature (sugatagarbha). The Sublime Continuum also says:

The disposition is empty of the adventitious stains,
Which are characterised by their total separateness.
But it is not empty of the unsurpassed qualities,
Which have the character of total inseparability.[5]

And the Praise of Dharmadhātu [by Nāgārjuna] puts it like this:

The sūtras that reveal emptiness,
However many the Victorious One taught,
All counter the mental afflictions;
They do not diminish the disposition.[6]

Thus, the point that the buddha nature is not empty of its immaculate qualities, which are as numerous as the sands of the River Ganges, derives from the sūtras, the writings of Ārya Asaṅga, and the eloquent explanations of the protector Nāgārjuna. This means that although all phenomena included within the categories of the aggregates, elements and sense sources are determined to be empty by their very nature, as taught in the Middle Way, the immaculate dharmas are unconditioned qualities, and to label such merely not non-nonexistent phenomena as ‘not empty’ accords with the intent of the two great wayfinders.[7]

There is no limit to the particular assertions of others on this subject, so I shall not seek to prove or refute them here.

These are the words of Shenpen.

| Translated by Adam Pearcey, 2020.



gzhan phan chos kyi snang ba. Zhal gdams ’bel gtam gyi skor. Rewalsar, Distt. Mandi, H.P., India: Zigar Drukpa Kargyud Institute, 1985, pp. 40–42 (20b–21b)

Secondary Sources

Bayer, Achim. The Life and Works of mKhan-po gZhan-dga' (1871–1927): rDzogs-chen Master and Educational Reformer of Eastern Tibet. (Hamburg Buddhist Studies 11) Freiburg: Projekt Verlag. 2019.

  1. The source text is untitled; this title has been added by the translator. Bayer (2019: 272) refers to the text as 'Treatise on the Yogācāra School'.  ↩

  2. i.e., Distinguishing the Middle from Extremes (Madhyāntavibhāga) and Distinguishing Phenomena and Dharmatā (Dharmadharmatāvibhāga)  ↩

  3. Khenpo Shenpen Nangwa only mentions four of the five sections of the Yogācārabhūmiśāstra; he omits the Compendium of Enumerations/Synonyms/Terms (Paryāyasaṁgraha).  ↩

  4. In full: "The universal ground of the various levels is also the virtue that is buddha nature." (sa rnams sna tshogs kun gzhi ste// bde gshegs snying po dge ba'ang de//)  ↩

  5. Uttaratantra: I, 155  ↩

  6. Dharmadhātustava 22  ↩

  7. i.e., Asaṅga and Nāgārjuna  ↩