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Two Talks on Immanence

by Tejananda

Two Talks on Immanence – Tejananda

Given on the Men’s National Order weekend at Padmaloka, 1 May 2004

Related audio available at: http://www.freebuddhistaudio.com/meditation/talks

Two talks for the price of one! Talk one on immanence:


Well, that's both a joke and not a joke. If you didn’t get it (either way), here's Talk Two.
Talk two is a commentary on talk One.

What I'm going to do is talk a bit about what might be understood by ‘immanence’ in the
Buddhist context, then, after a bit of historical speculation, I’ll finish with something
about the ‘practice’ (or non-practice) of immanence, mainly in terms of pure awareness,
and with some reference to Dzogchen, Zen, and maybe a dash of (neo-) Advaita for

I was also going to say something about how we might regard or approach and teach
immanence as practice within the F/WBO, but it would have made the talk too long. (It’s
included below as an appendix).

1. ‘Rectification of terms’

It’s a well-established tradition in the F/WBO to start with a dictionary definition. So
who am I to change anything? Here’s what the cictionary says about immanence:

Indwelling, inherent (in); (of God) permanently pervading and sustaining the
universe. (S.O.E.D.)

So obviously, from this, immanence is a Western concept and it doesn’t directly relate to
any particularly Buddhist concepts. Buddhists of whatever ilk, as far as I’m aware, don’t
believe that God permanently pervades and sustains the universe. We don’t believe in
God, we don’t believe that there is anything permanent and we certainly don’t believe
that this non-existent God sustains the universe!

Of course, what we generally mean when we use the term ‘immanence’ in the Buddhist
context is the Tathagatagarbha teaching of the Mahayana, as well as everything that later
emerged from or relates to that teaching.

Tathagatagarbha is rather in the air at the moment. I know that Subhuti and Dhammarati
gave talks on tathagatagarbha-related topics during last year. Subhuti came up with a
useful threefold model for approaches to awakening within Buddhism generally – as I
remember, these were ‘self-development’ (= bhavana or developmental models), ‘self-
transcendence’ (= Buddha-land / ‘faith’ type models) and ‘self-discovery’ (= immanence’
models). I think that he made the point that most schools of Buddhism contain all three to
varying degrees, but tend to give prominence to one in particular. This is arguable, in
detail, but I think that as an overview it’s quite helpful, even if I’m not too sure about the
terminology for the three types.

I’ve also heard Subhuti say a number of times that he thought that tathagatagarbha is
‘philosophically’ problematic & that the relatively early mahayana writings on
tathagatagarbha are incredibly convoluted and difficult. So far, I have to admit, I’ve
mainly just taken his word for it!

So what is tathagatagarbha? As you will almost certainly know, it’s literally translated as
‘womb’ or ‘embryo’ of the Buddha (Tathagata) or sometimes as the ‘Buddha seed’ – but
it’s most often rendered into English simply as ‘Buddha nature’.

The basic notion of tathagatagarbha is set out in a mahayana sutra called, appropriately
enough, the Tathagatagarbha Sutra, which describes itself as a ‘Maha-vaipulya sutra’
which means something like ‘great-extended sutra.’ This great-extended sutra runs to 12
whole pages in the version that I’ve got – so I can only imagine that ‘great-extended’
refers to the tremendous significance of the contents of the sutra – at least as far as the
author(s) were concerned – rather than to its actual length!

The central teaching of the sutra, in conceptual terms, is this:

Good sons, all beings, though they find themselves with all sorts of klesas, have a
tathagatagarbha that is eternally unsullied, and that is replete with virtues no different
from my own. ... Whether or not Buddhas appear in the world, the Tathagatagarbhas of
all living begins are eternal and unchanging. It is just that they are covered by sentient
beings’ klesas. 1

And the rest of the sutra is mainly a range of similes or images for the teaching just given
in conceptual form.

So this is the Buddhist take on immanence (or rather, immanence is the western/
Christian take on tathagatagarbha!) Even if you haven’t read the Tathagatagarbha Sutra
before, I expect it’s very likely to have had some resonances for most of us. For a start, it
isn’t only in the mahayana that this sort of teaching is found. It’s found in later
developments, naturally enough (and we’ll come on to those shortly) but – an important
point – it’s found in the Pali Canon too.

For example, in words that are almost the same as the ones we just heard from the
Tathagatagarbha Sutra: ‘It is just that they are covered by sentient beings’ klesas’, we’ve
got this well-known statement in the Anguttara Nikaya:

This mind, monks, is luminous, but is defiled with taints that come from without.

In fact, luminosity or clarity is a quality which is often related to the tathagatagarbha. So
we have this and a few other sayings in the Pali canon which suggest that the notion that
ultimately became known as ‘tathagatagarbha’ was not unknown in early Buddhism or
indeed to the Buddha himself.

I’m not going to go into this aspect of things in detail, it’s quite possible to follow up if
you want. 2 What might need doing, is a bit of ‘filling out’ regarding the basic statement
from the Tathagatagarbha Sutra that I just read out. Obviously it could be read or
understood in various ways. One way in which it has been understood – and this becomes
explicit in some mahayana sutras such as the Mahaparinirvana Sutra – is that the teaching
of anatman/anatta is being abrogated. The Mahaparinirvana Sutra states unequivocally
that there is an atman!

This sort of thing is probably the basis for (some people) asserting that tathagatagarbha is
simply not Buddhist – it’s gone beyond the pale, it’s crypto-Hinduism or, if possible,
something even ‘worse’ than that! I don’t see it that way. On the other hand, I’ve
wondered in the past, and I still do wonder, whether there aren’t actually two (or more)
‘Buddhisms’ advocating two or more different kinds of awakening. Of course this is
highly disputable!

But there do seem to be at least two quite different conceptions of awakening, which in
my mind at least don’t fit quite perfectly together.

Firstly, there is the awakening centrally represented by the Buddha in the Pali canon (and
later sources, especially many mahayana sutras) in which awakening is insight into
conditioned arising and involves the complete absence of craving, aversion and delusion
and the overcoming of all klesas whatever. In this ‘version’ of awakening, the Buddha-
mind never ever again has so much as hint of an echo of a shadow of a klesa arising in it.

The body, speech and mind of such a one would always be ‘perfectly skilful’. I’ll refer to
this as the ‘standard’ model.

Then there are tathagatagarbha-based models, as exemplified, for example, by the
Mahamudra and people like Milarepa. When I first came across Milarepa, I was already
aware of the ‘standard’ model of awakening that I’ve just mentioned, and I was quite
perplexed with some of his statements (representing what we might call the ‘developed
tathagatagarbha’ view of awakening) as he said (or sung) things which seemed to
contradict the understanding the nature of awakening that I’ve just mentioned. e.g. in ‘A
Song of a Yogi’s Joy’, Milarepa sings 3:

Oh happy are the myriad manifestations!
The more ups-and-downs, the more joy I feel!
Happy is the body with no sinful karma,
Happy indeed are the countless confusions!
The greater the fear, the greater the happiness I feel. ...
Oh happy is the death of sensations and passions!
The greater the distress and passions,
the more one can be blithe and gay! ...

Well I certainly found it inspiring, but I could say that ‘countless confusions’ (or at least
some) also arose for me around this kind of statement, for quite a long time. Of course, it
could easily be ‘explained’ away by suggesting that maybe Milarepa was not yet fully
awakened at this point – but I don’t actually think that is the case, and anyway it doesn’t
address the many other similar references that you’ll find in tantric sources, and in Ch’an
& Zen as well. This would appear to be an awakening in which klesas can still arise. And
this approach to awakening seems to be associated with the traditions which are
influenced by or derived from ...

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