[Blog] “All Living Beings Have Buddha-Nature”—the Genesis of the Concept of Universal Buddhahood: Report on Lecture by Dr. Michael Zimmermann at UBC

By Sarah Fink

Photo courtesy of Carol Lee (UBC FROGBEAR)

On October 7, 2019, Dr. Michael Zimmermann delivered a lecture at the University of British Columbia titled, “All Living Beings Have Buddha-Nature”—the Genesis of the Concept of Universal Buddhahood. Dr. Zimmermann is a Professor of Indian Buddhism at the Asien-Afrika-Institut of Hamburg University. He also worked on a Manuscript Project of the German Research Foundation at universities in Kyoto and Tokyo for several years and is co-director of the Numata Center for Buddhist Studies at Hamburg University. The Numata Center has published numerous papers on various aspects of research in Buddhist Studies, which are available for free as PDFs on their website (www.buddhismuskunde.uni-hamburg.de).

Dr. Zimmermann’s lecture demonstrated an introductory level discussion on the concept of Buddha-nature, its prehistory, and the possibility of this as an old Indian idea. His discussion included texts in translation, which provide a first-hand impression of how the concept first manifested, with special attention to the Tathagatagarbha-sutra in particular.

Zimmermann pointed out that, despite the lack of Indian language sources, it is very possible that Buddha-nature originated in India. Two Sanskrit terms that appear in early Buddhist literature closely parallel the idea of buddha-nature: tathagatagarbha and buddha-dhatu. There are various interpretations of the term tathagatagarbha. It can be interpreted as a buddha embryo, which suggests the need to continue growing; as a Buddha womb, which suggests a place to breed a buddha; or as a fully fleshed Buddha that is hosted inside all sentient beings and does not require further growth. On the other hand, buddha-dhatu can be interpreted either as an element of buddha; the buddha mind or a mind of buddha qualities; or as a relic of the Buddha.

Based on the use of these terms, the early evidences of “buddha-nature” conception have three main characteristics: 1) All sentient beings have some sort of precious element within them, 2) yet they do not know about it and, 3) you need someone to point it out for you and then you can start working on it. Zimmermann explained that this line of thought has two important dimensions: quality and quantity. Quality meaning that you either already are a buddha or have the ability to become a buddha, and quantity meaning that this concept is universal, and all sentient beings are included.

The Buddha did not teach this from the beginning, as evidenced by the absence of these terms in the Pali canon, rather, these ideas came from the development of Mahayana Buddhism. Zimmermann interjected that religion itself is never static and must adapt to the needs of the times to succeed. Furthermore, new progress in Buddhist studies found evidence of buddha-nature philosophy in Theravada Buddhism.  Zimmermann cited a number of recent and upcoming publications on this topic, including Michael Radich’s The Mahaparinirvana-mahasutra and the Emergence of Tathagatagarbha (2015) and Christopher Jones’ “The Buddhist Self: On Tathagatagarbha and Ātman” (2019/2020).

Most religions attempt to address the question of how beings connect to the broader scope of nature and the universe. The 1990s saw a critical movement towards buddha-nature thought. Scholars claimed this was originally a Hindu concept that “crept into” Buddhism. Although “critical Buddhists” is no longer an active movement, this caused other scholars to consider the origins of Buddha-nature thought more in-depth. Zimmermann identified a number of sources from the Pali canon, the only Buddhist canon preserved almost completely, that may be evidence of early thought that was later interpreted as Buddha-nature by Mahayana Buddhists.

The Lotus Sutra is emphasized as a predecessor of buddha-nature thought. It maintains a paternalistic stance of the Buddha as a father, a care taker of all beings, and as someone who never truly dies despite the physical death of his body. Mahayana Buddhists explained this as upaya, skillful means. The Buddha could not tell beings the full truth at the beginning because it would be too shocking for them to grasp. Rather, he introduced various concepts that would later point them to the One Vehicle, that sentient beings can only become buddhas and that arhatship is an illusion, a step on the road to true enlightenment. The idea of buddha-nature was later used as an explanation for how all beings could become buddhas, as the Lotus Sutra suggests.

Zimmermann focused specifically on chapter 8 of the Lotus Sutra and the metaphor of the hidden gem to further clarify this argument. He briefly discussed the story of the poor man who had a priceless gem hidden inside the stitching of his clothing. This metaphor highlights that the buddha put in us the wish to be awakened, we are just unaware of its possibility. Although there is no explicit mention of buddha-nature, it is evident that this stream of thinking was present. Why would a Buddhist stop at arhat when there is more they could achieve?

Zimmermann then moved on from the pre-history of buddha-nature to discuss it more explicitly in its iterations in the Tathagatagarbha-sutra. This sutra is thought to represent the earliest exposition of buddha-nature thought. There are nine similes in this text that explain to the practitioner how we are all like a buddha, we are just covered by defilements and do not understand the true nature within us. For example, there is the simile of the “disgusting lotus” whose petals have not opened, but it requires a person with special vision to see past this ugliness on the outside and realize the beauty and potential hidden within the petals. Each simile emphasizes a different aspect of the tathagatagarbha. Over the years, these ideas were developed into a more sophisticated philosophical outlook that we see today. Zimmermann also discussed a number of other similes proposed in the Tathagatagarbha-sutra to further explicate the intersections between this sutra and earlier sutras in the Pali canon.

After explicating these points, Zimmermann finished his lecture by highlighting new efforts by scholars demonstrating that the Tathagatagarbha-sutra may not be the oldest text that explicitly proposes these ideas, as most scholars had accepted. Radich argues the Mahaparinirvana-mahasutra most likely came before the Tathagatagarbha-sutra in his 2015 publication. In this book, Radich writes that buddha-nature was “elaborated as a type of soteriologically-oriented, positive substitute for the idea that Buddhas could have their genesis in an ordinary, fleshly human womb…” (pp. 13). As further advances are made on this topic, it is exciting to consider where this research may go in the future.

Zimmermann’s lecture was followed by a lively discussion with the audience who asked questions concerning the use of the Tathagatagarbha-sutra in Mahayana studies, instantaneous versus gradual enlightenment as applicable to buddha-nature thought, the reception of buddha-nature in Tibetan philosophy, the ambiguous aspects of buddha-nature, variations of the lotus sutra in translation, and the lack of homogeny among the Mahayana strand of Buddhism.

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