This two-volume publication offers a detailed overview of the interpretation of buddha nature advanced by the Eighth Karma pa Mi bskyod rdo rje (1507–1554). The first volume undertakes a philosophical analysis of Mi bskyod rdo rje’s central claims regarding buddha nature after first outlining the major Indian and Tibetan Buddhist views prevalent in his time. The second volume comprises an annotated anthology of English translations of his most important writings on buddha nature accompanied by critical editions and introductions. In our analysis, special attention is devoted to the Karma pa’s persistent concern to reconcile two divergent lines of interpretation of buddha nature that had long divided Buddhist thinkers in India and Tibet. One view, presented in the earliest extant tathāgatagarbha texts, takes buddha nature to be an innate unchanging constituent of a human being (at times construed as a “true self”) that exists throughout the flux of sentient existence and persists after death. The Karma pa frequently criticizes a variant of this view promulgated in Tibet by the Jo nang founder Dol po pa Shes rab rgyal mtshan (1243–1313) and his successors, who stressed the permanent and transcendent status of buddha nature and ultimate reality.
The other line of interpretation, advanced by several prominent Indian Madhyamaka thinkers, takes buddha nature to be nothing but emptiness in the sense of a nonaffirming negation (prasajyapratiṣedha: med par dgag pa). This view was adopted in Tibet by Rngog Blo ldan shes rab (1059–1109) and strongly influenced the buddha nature views of a number of later Tibetan scholars including the fourteenth century Dge lugs pa master Tsong kha pa Blo bzang grags pa (1357–1419) and his disciples. Mi bskyod rdo rje contends that metaphysically austere conceptions of buddha nature that reduce it to a nonaffirming emptiness are wont to disregard precisely those criteria of buddha nature such as the dawning of wisdom and other buddha-qualities that make buddhahood itself a viable and worthwhile soteriological aim. In Tibet, these affirming and negating strains of buddha nature interpretation sharply divided scholars of the so-called Emptiness of Other (gzhan stong) and Emptiness of Own[-being] (rang stong) traditions. In this publication, we argue that the Karma pa’s own approach may be best regarded as a middle way between these polarized positions, one that sought to combine the virtues of each while avoiding the vices of taking either as an end in itself.
These two volumes are the result of research that was generously funded by the Austrian Science Fund (FWF) from 2015 to 2018 under the supervision of Prof. Klaus-Dieter Mathes. The project was entitled “Buddha nature Reconsidered: Mi bskyod rdo rje and the Post-classical Tibetan Tathāgatagarbha Debates” (FWF-Projekt P28003-G24).