|Image courtesy of bayasaa.|
I'm sure I'm not the first one to ask this, and I won't be the last.
The way that traditional Asian Buddhists deal with the Tathagatagarbha teachings, which by the way are central to Zen, is in two ways. 1.) To dismiss them as spurious, later developments not in accord with the Buddha's original teachings of no-self. This is the typical Theravadin approach. 2.) To explain the Tathagatagarbha as the Buddha's highest teachings, and because people were not ready to accept these advanced teachings, he doled them out in portions to be disseminated at a later point. (Which is a little strange if we consider how much they resemble the Upanishadic Atman teachings prevalent during the Buddha's lifetime, which the Buddha criticized. Hmmm...) Some say that the Prajnaparamita sutras were hidden away in a secret serpent realm and that bodhisattvas recited some of the Tathagatagarbha teachings from the Tuhita heaven.
A third runner up would be to interpret the Tathagatagarbha as empty, lacking substance. In other words, the Absolute/Tathagatagarbha/Dharmakaya/Dharmadhatu is not an entity, but the true empty nature of Mind. And a fourth runner up, would be to say that the Tathagatagarbha sutras are simply soteriological devices designed to encouraged people on the Buddhist path. A kind of illusory spiritual carrot. But I digress.
None of these explanations satisfy me. Like most Mahayana sutras, I do not think that the historical Buddha ever uttered the Tathagatagarbha sutras. To my mind, they represent later doctrinal developments. As a rational, science-minded American, I don't believe in hidden realms or transcendental bodhisattvas.
Without going on too far of a tangent, let's return to our original question: Is this Buddhist? Are these Tathagatagarbha teachings authentic Buddhadharma? Asking these questions is like a cat chasing its tail.
For as the case with many unanswerable dilemmas we're often asking the wrong questions. Instead of asking, Is this Buddhist? we should be asking, Are these teachings helpful, and true?
Buddhism is interested in the truth, regardless of its source. The Dalai Lama is famously quoted as saying that if science disproved Buddhist teachings, then we would have to revise Buddhism. I agree. We shouldn't cling to any perspective, idea, or teaching.
Zen Master Seung Sahn said that he didn't teach Zen or Buddhism; he taught Don't Know. Like Nagarjuna's sunyata, Don't Know is the relinquishing of our attachment to fixed views. This is Bodhidharma's "Don't Know" that he gave to Emperor Wu when asked, "Who are you?"
Is there a self?
Is there a Self/soul?
What is the Absolute?
Does God exist?
Don't know is our Buddha nature; it's the original state of our minds--clear, radiant, vast, and free.
At the risk of sounding trite, the truth escapes words. I don't think that self, Self, or even no-self can capture the ineffable mystery of existence. My suspicion is that the Buddha taught no-self, not as an ontological truth, but as a prescriptive strategy to break people's attachments. Because attachments cause suffering.
I honestly don't think that the Buddha was in the metaphysics business, not only because words fail to capture the Truth, but because he studied the prevailing spiritual paths of his day, and their attendant philosophies, and found that they didn't relieve suffering. They didn't work.
Does it work? Is it true? At this point in my life, these are the guiding questions behind both my practice and Buddhist study.
We can literally debate doctrine and philosophy forever. That may be a fun distraction, but I don't think it helps us on the spiritual path much. In fact, I deeply suspect that it causes more suffering than it alleviates.
I do, however, feel that Don't know is true to the Buddha's teaching, and all spiritual teachings for that matter.
So on the brink of 2013, I wish you all a happy, safe, and healthy New Year. May you Don't Know all the year long!