The Ratnagotravibhāgaśāstra

The Ratnagotravibhāgaśāstra (Uttaratantra) is the premier śāstra, combined with its [embedded] commentary (the vyākhyā), dealing with the Tathāgatagarbha. It is the earliest systematic portrayal of the Doctrine composed circa the end of the 5th century, and it draws upon a variety of sources. According to the Chinese tradition it is attributed to Sāramati:

As will be made clear afterwards, the Ratna takes the theory of the tathāgatagarbha as its basic standpoint and is highly estimated by Fa-tsang the 3rd Patriarch of the Hua-yen school. He said in his commentary on the Mahāyānadharmadhātvaviśesa śāstra that Bodhisattva Kien-huei , Sāramati, born in Central India 7 centuries after the Buddha’s Mahāparinirvāna as a member of a Ksatriya clan who after learning Buddhism, wrote the Ratnagotravibhāga uttaratantraśāstra…(Jikido Takasaki, A Study on the Ratnagotravibhaga: (Uttaratantra): Being a Treatise on the Tathagatagarbha Theory of Mahayana Buddhism, 1966)

The Tibetan Tradition asserts that it was composed by the Bodhisattva Maitreya––the future Buddha residing in the Tuṣita heaven––and the commentary as ascribed to his disciple Asaṅga (4th century). Takasaki’s translation is the only English one of the complete work, including the commentary. E. Obermiller (1931) first pioneered the research into the text through his translation of the Tibetan version of the commentary, RgVV, under the name of the Uttara-tantra-shastra, describing it as an example of monism. Takasaki also makes mention of this monistic assertion at the beginning of his study of the text.

Mahāyāna Buddhism, in its philosophical approach, may generally be characterized as Monism (or Absolutism) which admits the unique Absolute or Ultimate Entity, proved through the essential identification [advayatā) of various phenomena. And each phenomenon, just because of its being merely an aspect (or face, feature, or form) of the Absolute, cannot be the Entity different from other phenomena, and itself has no reality. But, through its being ‘identical’ with the Absolute, every phenomenon has the characteristics of being ‘real’ and is ‘identical’ with each other as they stand for the Absolute in one of its various ‘aspects’ .This work, being a treatise on Mahāyāna Buddhism, is to be characterized as monistic in its philosophical approach. (ibid, pg. 29)

The working title for the Ratna, Uttara-tantra-shastra (The Ultimate Doctrine), indicates that the Tathagata-garbha corpus represents the final and definitive teachings of the Tathagata, over and above teachings on intrinsic emptiness of the prajñā-pāramitā literature and other former Mahāyana scriptures. Professor C.D. Sebastian in his Metaphysics and Mysticism in Mahayana Buddhism: An Analytical Study of the Ratnagotravibhagomahayanottaratantra-sastram adds, however, that it really compliments rather than replaces the sūnyata texts:

The Uttaratantra is a Mahayana text with emphasis on Buddhist metaphysics and mysticism.’ And: ‘Tathagata-garbha thought is complementary to sunyata thought of the Madhyamika and the Yogacara, as it is seen in the Uttaratantra. The Uttaratantra first quotes the Srimala-devisutra to the effect that tathagata-garbha is not accessible to those outside of sunya realization and then proceeds to claim that sunyata realization is a necessary precondition to the realization of tathagata-garbha. There is something positive to be realized when one’s vision has been cleared by sunyata. The sunyata teachings of the prajna-paramita are true but incomplete. They require further elucidation, which is found in the Uttaratantra.

I purchased Professor Sebastian’s work when it was first published in 2005; it is an invaluable text in the study of the Ratna. The Ratnagotravibhāga essentially covers seven vajrapadas (adamantine topics); they are so-named due to their unfathomable nature. The seven are: the Three Jewels (Buddha, Dharma, and Saṃgha), the element (dhātu, which is equivalent to tathāgatagarbha), awakening (bodhi), the Buddha qualities (guṇa), and activity (kriyā–karma). Professor Sebastian adds that the following is the most prominent factor in the text:

The principal subject matter of this treatise is the special theory of Dhatu (fundamental element) of the Absolute (Tathagata-garbha = essence of Buddha)… It is an exposition of the theory of the Essence of Buddhahood (tathagata-garbha), the fundamental element (dhatu) of the Absolute, as existing in all sentient beings. This element which had been regarded as an active force (bija) before, is regarded, in this text, as eternal, quiescent and unalterable, as the true essence of every living being and source of all virtuous qualities.

The next blog in this series will highlight these elemental factors before covering the text itself. We will be utilizing both the Takasaki and Obermiller versions of the Ratna. From time to time we will also add selections from the Tibetan version, in particular how it highlights the Luminosity of Mind serving as a basis for the self-actualization of the Tathagatas. In Light of the Unborn, the Ratna is an indispensable text that highlights all the salient principles that are found in the Tathagatagarbha Zen Doctrine.

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