A Docetic Assessment


Firstly, it needs to be stated that what we have is a true scholarly mansion in the contemporary efforts of the Hamburg Buddhist Studies in once again bringing to the fore the vast significance of the tathāgatagarbha doctrine. Our last series highlighted one such scholar, Jonathan A. Silk, and his analysis of the Anūnatvāpūrṇatvanirdeśaparivarta. In this series we will be engaged with Michael Radich and his examination of the docetic factor in light of the Mahāparinirvāṇa-mahāsūtra. Radich believes that this sutra is the earliest in the Mahayana in emphasizing the origin of tathāgatagarbha doctrine; yet it needs to be added that the first appearance of the “term” tathāgatagarbha can be “traced back to the Mahāsaṃghika Ekottarikāgama (the Chinese recension of the Aṅguttara Nikāya):

If someone devotes himself to the Ekottarikāgama***,
Then he has the tathāgatagarbha.
Even if his body cannot exhaust defilements in this life,
In his next life he will attain supreme wisdom.”

(Karl Brunnhölzl, When the Clouds Part: The Uttaratantra and Its Meditative Tradition as a Bridge between Sūtra and Tantra, pg. 3 . Brunnhölzl adds, “ Note however that parts of the Ekottarikāgama contain mahayana elements and thus seem to have been added later. Modern scholars have suggested that the mahayana evolved from within the Mahasamghika School and that even tathagatagarbha sutras such as the Srhnaladevisutra are mahayana outgrowths of the later Mahasamghika tradition.)

***Example from Ekottarikāgama 19.4

Not Frightened

Thus have I heard. At one time the Buddha was staying in Śrāvastī, at Jetṛ’s Grove. Then the Exalted One said to the monks:

“In the world there are these two living beings who are not frightened when becoming aware of lightning and thunder. Which are the two? These two living beings, O monks, who are found in the world and who do not experience fright on becoming aware of lightning and thunder are the lion, king of the beasts and also the arhat for whom malign influences have come to an end.

“Therefore, O monks, one should train to become an arhat in whom malign influences have come to an end. Thus O monks, one should actually train.”

After listening to the Buddha’s words, the monks were pleased and respectfully applied themselves to practice.***

Docetism itself (for our purposes) can be defined as follows:

The Mahāyāna, broadly speaking, taught what might almost be described as a docetic Buddhology. Docetism was the belief, which arose in early Christianity, that the body of Jesus was only apparent (from the Greek dokeo, ‘appear, seem’), not real. This doctrine, which was especially prevalent among second-century Gnostics, stressed the divinity of Christ and denied any physical suffering on his part.

The Mahāyāna version of this arose from its teaching that the Bodhisattva career extended over three asamkhyeyas of kalpas. According to tradition, the Buddha-to-be spent the life before the one in which he gained Enlightenment in a god realm called the Tuṣita devaloka. We can imagine that after all those lifetimes of spiritual practice, by the time the Bodhisattva arrives in the Tuşita devaloka and is waiting there to be reborn as the son of Suddhodana and Māyādevī, he is a very advanced being indeed. From our point of view he is probably indistinguishable from a Buddha. And he is not at that time under the power of karma. So – this is where the ‘docetism’ comes in – it is almost as though he emanates from himself a ray that descends into the womb of Māyādevī and is eventually, to all appearances, reborn. He does not lose his virtually Enlightened consciousness in the process. It requires just a few virtually effortless steps for him to attain supreme, perfect Enlightenment. Looking at it in this way, all the events of the Buddha’s life could be said to happen not in reality, but as a sort of play. He doesn’t need to learn anything; he just plays at learning.

(Sangharakshita, The Bodhisattva Ideal: Wisdom and Compassion in Buddhism, pg.93)

As we know from studying these blog posts here within Unborn Mind Zen, the true embodiment of the Buddha is the Dharmakāya, which is the Dharma-body of ALL Buddhas in that they do not differ from one another. Our series fine-tunes the assertion by describing this body as Vajra-like in scope. Radich pinpoints within the Mahāparinirvāṇa-mahāsūtra that the Tathāgata’s true body is the dharmakāya-cum-vajrakāya. He also wrote a paper entitled, Immortal Buddhas and their indestructible embodiments: The advent of the concept of vajrakāya, which we will also be utilizing in this series.

Before proceeding further we need to conclude this introductory blog by including some direct antecedent positions that factor into this whole transcendent-embodiment enterprise—and that concerns the Primordial Spiritual Principle, the Self, which is enveloped within this subtle body. This centers on Old Buddhism and Brahmanic ideations:

There is the truly living principle (jīva) that constitutes the true self of Man. This principle, which is really a ‘noumenon,’ is called either purusa, ‘spirit,’ or ātman etymologically ‘breath’, literally Self…

The atman is eternal. It has inhabited various bodies and is destined to inhabit new ones; but its natural aim is to reach an eternal, changeless abode; free from any created or generated body, it will live by itself, either conscious or unconscious, either formless or wrapped in a [transcendent] form of its own…

When desire ceases, the mortal becomes immortal; he attains Brahman on earth. He who is without desire, who is free from desire, who desires only his own Self which is identical with the universal Self, he obtains the accomplish-ment of his desire in the possession of his Self. He is the universal Self and goes into the universal Self.” (From L. De La Vallee Poussin, The Way to Nirvāṇa, 1917, pp. 26, 140)

This was Śākyamuni’s main thrust, Nirvāṇa as the summum bonum:

Let us consider the death of an ordinary man and the death of a Saint (arhat). Men who at death are endowed with desire and who have not destroyed their ancient Karman, have to be reborn according to their merit and demerit. They continue transmigrating. A Saint (arhat) has not to be reborn; he has passed beyond birth, old age and death; in the technical phrase: “He has destroyed rebirth; he has led the religious life; he has done what he had to do; he has nothing more to do with life here.” (ibid, pp 114-115)

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