Ratnagotravibhāga (T. dkon mchog gi rigs rnam par dbye ba; C. Jiujing yisheng baoxing lun 究竟一乘寶性論), a.k.a. Uttaratantraśāstra, is an influential treatise on the Sanskrit Mahayana doctrine of tathāgatagarbha (a.k.a buddha-nature). Composed in India between the third and fifth centuries, the Ratnagotravibhāga systematizes the buddha-nature teachings that were circulating in multiple sūtras at this time, such as the Tathāgatagarbhasūtra, the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, and the Śrīmālādevīsūtra.
Alex Gardner states:
- While the tathāgatagarbha sūtras were being translated and circulated in China, someone in India—we do not know who—composed a treatise that systematized the doctrine for the first time. This is the Ratnagotravibhāga Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra... In root and explanatory verses, with a prose (auto)commentary, the treatise provides a philosophical basis for supporting buddha-nature theory, quoting extensively from most of the aforementioned sūtras.
- The date of the Ratnagotravibhāga is not known; some scholars have speculated that it can be dated to as early as the mid-third century, but it was most likely composed in the mid to late fifth century. We know that the Ratnagotravibhāga existed in India by at least the year 498, the earliest date that Chinese records give for the arrival in China of its translator, Ratnamati. Although it appears to have been largely forgotten in India between the sixth and the tenth centuries, it was revived there in the eleventh century and promulgated in Central Asia, moving from there into Tibet in the early eleventh century.
The Ratnagotravibhāga is highly influential within Tibetan Buddhism, where it is counted as one of the Five Treatises of Maitreya. The text is also important for the Huayan school of East Asian Buddhism.
This treatise is known by the following names:
- Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra (commonly abbreviated as Uttaratantraśāstra)
- Ratnagotravibhāga Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra
Ratnagotravibhāga is translated as "Analysis of the Jeweled Lineage," etc.
- ratna means jewel or precious stone.
- gotra can mean "family," "lineage," "disposition," etc. The term is often used figuratively, to describe many different types of "families," or "groups" that are in some way related or connected.
- vibhāga means "analysis," etc.
Thus, the title Ratnagotravibhāga focuses on the inner disposition (gotra) which allows all beings to become Buddhas, and thus is compared to a precious jewel (ratna). This is the unchanging buddha-nature that is present in all beings.
Modern scholars abbreviate the name Ratnagotravibhāga as RGV. When scholars distinguish between the root verse and commentary, the commentary is referred to as the Ratnagotravibhāga-vyākhyā, which is abbreviated as RGVV .
In the Tibetan tradition, this text is more commonly referred to as Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra (T. theg pa chen po rgyud bla ma'i bstan bcos), or more simply as Uttaratantraśāstra or Uttaratantra (T. rgyud bla ma).
- Mahāyāno (T. theg pa chen po) refers the "Great Vehicle" (Mahayana)
- uttara (T. bla ma), in this context, means Highest; Superior; Supreme; Unsurpassed; etc.
- tantra (T. rgyud) can mean either "doctrine/teaching" or "continuum"
- śāstra (T. bstan bcos) is a treatise or commentary
The meaning of this form of the title has two different explanations. One explanation takes the term tantra to mean "teaching." Thus, according to this explanation, Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra means "Treatise on the Supreme Teaching of the Mahāyāna." This meaning indicates that this text is considered as the supreme teaching of the Mahayana ("Great Vehicle").
An alternate explanation of the title takes the term tantra as meaning "continuum." In this explanation, Uttaratantraśāstra means "Treatise on the Supreme Continuum." This explanation of the title refers to the fact that buddha-nature is an "everlasting continuum of the mind" (as noted by The 14th Dalai Lama). This pure continuum may be covered over by fleeting stains, but nevertheless remains as a continuity through many lives and into Buddhahood.
The actual author of the Ratnagotravibhāga is not clear. The Chinese tradition attributes the text to an Indian named Sāramati, "but the translation itself does not include the name of the author, and the matter remains unsettled."
According to the Tibetan tradition, the root verses of the text were taught by Maitreya to Asaṅga, and Asaṅga composed the prose commentary by himself. However, this division of the text into verses and commentary is not attested to in surviving Indian versions.
According to Alex Gardner, the Central Asian manuscripts ascribe the text to Maitreya.
Text and translations
The Ratnagotravibhāga was originally composed in Sanskrit, likely between the middle of the third century and no later than 433 CE. Though Sanskrit versions of the Ratnagotravibhāga are extant, according to Takasaki (1966), these versions are of later recensions and not truly representative of the original.
According to Takasaki (1966: p. 7), the Chinese Canon retains one translation of the RGVV, which is titled Jiūjìng yìchéng bǎoxìng lùn (究竟一乘寶性論, which can be back-translated into Sanskrit as: Uttara-ekayāna-ratnagotra-śāstra). Its Taisho Daizokyo location is No. 1611, Vol.31.
This text was first translated into Tibetan by Atiśa; however, this this version is no longer extant.
The following English translations are available:
- When the Clouds Part—The Uttaratantra and Its Meditative Tradition as a Bridge between Sutra and Tantra, translated by Karl Brunnhölzl (Snow Lion, 2015)
- Buddha-Nature, Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra by Arya Maitreya with commentary by Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse Rinpoche, edited by Alex Trisoglio, Khyentse Foundation, 2007. A free copy can be requested online at siddharthasintent.org.
- Buddha Nature (with Jamgön Kongtrul's commentary) translated by Rosemarie Fuchs, Snow Lion, New York 2000, ISBN 978-1559391283
- The Changeless Nature, translated by Ken and Katia Holmes, Karma Kagyu Trust, Newcastle 1985, ISBN 978-0906181058
- Takasaki, Jikido, A Study on the Ratnagotravibhāga – Being a Treatise on the Tathāgatagarbha Theory of Mahāyāna Buddhism, Serie Orientale Roma XXXIII ISMEO 1966
- Uttaratantra-shastra (rgyud bla ma), Maitreya – Asanga with commentary by Jamgön Mipham, Padmakara translation group, forthcoming
The seven vajra points
- dhātu (element; this refers to the tathāgatagarbha, or buddha nature, inherent in all beings)
- bodhi (enlightenment)
- guṇa (enlightened qualities)
- karma (enlightened activities)
The Ratnagotravibhāga states:
Buddha, dharma, assembly, basic element,
Awakening, qualities, and finally buddha activity–
The body of the entire treatise
Is summarized in these seven vajra points. (I.1)
In accordance with their specific characteristics
And in due order, the [first] three points of these [seven]
Should be understood from the introduction in the Dhāraṇirājasūtra
And the [latter] four from the distinction of the attributes of the intelligent and the victors. (I.2)
From the Buddha [comes] the dharma and from the dharma, the noble saṃgha.
Within the saṃgha, the tathāgatagarbha (buddha-nature) leads to the attainment of wisdom.
The attainment of that wisdom is the supreme awakening that is endowed with
The attributes such as the powers that promote the welfare of all sentient beings. (I.3)
In his commentary on the Ratnagotravibhāga, Jamgön Kongtrul states:
In a condensed way, the entire content or body of the commentary to be explained is taught in terms of seven vajra points. The term "vajra" is used since a precious vajra is composed of indestructible material, and the subject to be expressed is difficult to penetrate by means of the discriminative wisdoms resulting from study and reflection.
The first [vajra] point contains the explanation of perfect buddhahood, which constitutes what is to be attained—this being the ultimate level of the two benefits, which are benefit for oneself and benefit for others.
The second point explains the sacred Dharma as having the characteristics of the two truths, which are free from attachment.
The third point is the Sangha of the noble ones, the assembly of those who do not fall back since they possess the two types of primordial wisdom (Skt. jñāna, Tib. ye shes).
The fourth point explains the expanse (Tib. dbyings) or the element of beings that is by nature completely pure. This is what needs to be truly realized, its realization constituting the way in which Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are attained.
The fifth point is unsurpassable enlightenment, the essence of realization, the state in which this element is purified from all defilements without the slightest remainder.
The sixth point describes the qualities accompanying great enlightenment. They are the attributes of realization and consist of [two] fruits: those of freedom and complete maturation.
Finally, the seventh point explains buddha activity, which is spontaneous and uninterrupted. This is the power or ability of the qualities, the means causing others to gain realization.
The first vajra point is buddha. The qualities of a buddha are immeasurable, but according to the treatise, these qualities can be categorized as:
- the qualities that benefit onself (the buddha) and
- the qualities that benefit others (sentient beings).
The three qualities of a buddha that benefit the self (the buddha) are:
- uncreated (asaṃskṛta) - buddhahood is not created through causes and conditions; hence it not subject to arising, dwelling and ceasing.
- spontaneously present (anābhoga/nirābhoga; T. lhun grub) - "spontaneous" is described as being "non-conceptual" (literally prapanca and vikalpa have ceased)
- self aware (pratyātma-vedya; T. so so rang rig) - that which is realized through self-arisen wisdom (jñāna), which is "not awakened by a condition other than itself" (aparapratyayabhisambodhi)
The three qualities of a buddha that benefit others (sentient beings) are:
The qualities of a buddha are also described as "eight qualities of a buddha."
The second vajra point is the Dharma, which is described in terms of:
- the truth/reality of cessation, and
- the truth/reality of the path.
The truth/reality of cessation has three aspects. It is:
- inconceivable (T. bsam du med pa); it cannot be perceived by conceptual mind, but it can be perceived by the self-luminous non-conceptual mind
- "without the two" (T. gnyis med) - it is free from afflictive emotions (kleshas) and their karmic seeds. (These are two aspects of emotional obscurations (kleśā-varaṇa); hence it is free from emotional obscurations.)
- non-conceptual/without conceptual thought (T. rtog med) - it is free from all improper conceptual activity. Hence it is free from cognitive obscurations (jñeyā-varaṇa). Hence, it is true peace.
The truth/reality of the path has three aspects. It is:
- on the side of being an opponent (i.e. a remedy or antidote)
In regards to the aspects of the path, StudyBuddhism states:
- These three qualities ... are that they are pure, clarifying, and on the side of being an opponent – an opponent to disharmonious factors. These points are illustrated by reference to the sun.
- The sun is pure in the sense that smoke or clouds do not obscure it. Likewise, fleeting stains do not obscure the true pathway mind. The sun is clarifying; it makes all forms and visible objects clear and dispels darkness. The true pathway minds have different levels, but each level is free of an increasingly greater degree of obscuration. Since they are an antidote for the various obscurations, true pathway minds act as a basis for making their objects clear. This allows for a non-conceptual, straightforward cognition of voidness (emptiness).
The aspects or qualities of the Dharma are also described as "eight qualities of the Dharma."
The third vajra point is the Sangha, which is described in terms of the qualities of realization and liberation.
The three qualities of realization are:
- seeing how thing exist
- seeing the the extent of what exists (yavad bhavikataya)
- it is inner (self-aware)
The three qualities of liberation are:
- partings from the obscurations that are attachments (indicated by the words, there is no attachment)
- partings from the obscurations that impede (indicated by the words, no impediment)
- partings from obscurations of inferior motives (indicated by the words, it is pure)
These qualities are also described as "eight qualities of the Sangha."
Jamgön Kongtrul states:
- The fourth point explains the expanse (Tib. dbyings) or the element of beings that is by nature completely pure. This is what needs to be truly realized, its realization constituting the way in which Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha are attained.
This buddha-nature is the basic nature of the buddhas, which is the same as the basic nature of all sentient beings (sattva). Because of this buddha-nature, all beings have the potential to attain buddhahood. However, most sentient beings do not recognize their buddha-nature because it is obscured by adventitious stains (i.e. āvaraṇa). In order for buddha-nature to be realized, these stains must be removed.
This vajra point is the key factor in terms of the path. It emphasizes that the buddha-nature is naturally present, and describes methods to purify the obscurations.
The following two verses on the "element" (buddha-nature) are found in both in the Ratnagotravibhāga and the Abhisamayālaṃkāra, and are quoted often in the Tibetan tradition:
Nothing whatsoever is to be removed.
Not the slightest thing is to be added.
Truly looking at truth, truth is seen.
When seen, this is complete liberation.
The element is empty of the adventitious [stains],
which are featured by their total separateness.
But it is not empty of the matchless properties,
which are featured by their total inseparability.
The fifth vajra point is bodhi or enlightenment.
Jamgön Kongtrul states:
- The fifth point is unsurpassable enlightenment, the essence of realization, the state in which this element is purified from all defilements without the slightest remainder.
When all of the obscurations have been purified, one attains enlightenment (bodhi).
The sixth vajra point is guṇa or "enlightened qualities."
Jamgön Kongtrul states:
- The sixth point describes the qualities accompanying great enlightenment. They are the attributes of realization and consist of [two] fruits: those of freedom and complete maturation.
The text describes these qualities in terms of:
- thirty-two qualities of freedom
- thirty-two qualities of maturation
Marpa Dopa Chökyi Wangchuk states:
- [As for] the essence of the qualities. The qualities based on the dharmakāya are the thirty-two qualities of freedom, and the qualities based on the rūpakāya are the thirty-two qualities of maturation.
The seventh vajra point is karma or "enlightened activity," a.k.a. "buddha activity."
Jamgön Kongtrul states:
- Finally, the seventh point explains buddha activity, which is spontaneous and uninterrupted. This is the power or ability of the qualities, the means causing others to gain realization.
Marpa Dopa Chökyi Wangchuk states:
- [As for] the essence of enlightened activity it is twofold: effortless enlightened activity and uninterrupted enlightened activity. In [the Uttaratantra’s] presentation in five aspects, the first one [is said to] operate in a nonconceptual manner...The second one is the uninterrupted promotion of the welfare of sentient beings through making them understand the six fields of knowledge.
Exegesis and influence
- Mahāyānottaratantraśāstropadeśa (Pith Instructions on Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra, Tibetan: theg pa chen po'i bstan bcos rgyud bla ma'i man ngag), a synopsis of the RGVV by Sajjana which "outline a contemplative system based on the seven vajra points."
- Mahāyānottaratantraśāstraṭippanī, a short commentary by Vairocanarakṣita which provides some glosses on RGVV terms
- A full commentary by Ratnavajra
Late Indian Buddhist scholars like Jñānaśrīmitra (fl. 975-1025 C.E.), Ratnākaraśānti (c. 10th-century CE) and Jayānanda (late 11th – early 12th century) also cited and commented on passages of the RGV.
An early Tibetan commentary is A Commentary on the Meaning of the Words of the “Uttaratantra”. This text claims to preserve the teachings of Marpa Lotsawa on the RGV and may have been compiled by a student of Marpa Dopa Chökyi Wangchuk (1042 - 1136, a student of Marpa Lotsawa and Rongzom). The text contains Mahamudra like meditation instructions as well as more scholarly material that draws on Yogacara thought. It also often makes use of Dzogchen terminology like kadag (original purity) and rigpa.
Another important commentary is Dashi Oser's (15th-16th century) Heart of the luminous sun, which is based on the Third Karmapa's (1284–1339) topical outline of the RGV. Other notable Tibetan exegetes of the Ratnagotravibhāga have been Ngok Loden Sherab, Dolpopa Sherab Gyaltsen, Gö Lotsawa Zhönnu-pel, Gyaltsab Je, Mikyö Dorje (8th Karmapa), Jamgon Kongtrul and Jamgon Ju Mipham Gyatso.
Various interpretations and understandings of the RGVV have developed in Tibetan Buddhism, such as the view that buddha-nature is a non-implicative negation (influenced by Madhyamaka), the Shentong (empty of other) view and the Dzogchen view.
Buddha nature as a nonimplicative negation
Various Tibetan Buddhist scholars (especially those of the Gelug and Sakya schools) follow the RGVV tradition of Ngok Loden Sherab which "identifies the tathagatagarba as the factor of the natural purity of all phenomena, which pervades all knowable objects and is a space-like nonimplicative negation." This interpretation generally understands buddha-nature to be just a term for emptiness as it is explained in the Madhyamaka treatises of Nagarjuna and Candrakirti. These authors see emptiness and buddha nature as the lack of an independent nature in all phenomena.
According to the Shentong view, buddha nature refers to "the naturally pure wisdom, luminous by nature, that pervades [everyone] from buddhas to sentient beings." This non-dual Buddha wisdom is empty of defilements and samsara (what is other than wisdom), but it is not empty of its own nature. As such, it is an "implicative negation", that is, a negation which implies that there is something (that is, wisdom) that remains after analyzing what buddha nature is not. Shentong is associated with figures like Dolpopa, Mikyo Dorje, 8th Karmapa and Jamgon Kongtrul.
The Chinese RGVV remains lesser known in East Asian Buddhism. No commentaries on it were written in Chinese and thus scholars have assumed it was less influential than other Buddha nature works. However, the RGVV was an important work for the southern Di lun school of Ratnamati and was also highly esteemed by Fazang (法藏 643-712), a key patriarch of the Huayan school. According to Zijie Li, Fazang's theories of zhenru 真如 (Skt. tathatā), Huayan xingqi (華嚴 性起, "Arising of nature on Huayan") and zhongxing 種姓 (Skt. gotra) thoroughly relies on the RGVV.
The RGVV also impacted other East Asian scholars, traditions and texts, including Paramārtha 真諦 (499-569), the Mahayana Awakening of Faith (Dasheng qixin lun 大乘起信論), the Sanjie school (三階教), Wonhyo 元曉 (617-686) and the Japanese authors Juryō (寿霊) and Chikei (智憬) of Nara Japan (710-784).
- Tsadra editors, Ratnagotravibhāga Mahāyānottaratantraśāstra, Buddha Nature: A Tsadra Foundation Initiative
- Gardner, Alex (2018), On the Ratnagotravibhāga, Buddha Nature: A Tsadra Foundation Initiative
- Gardner [fn. 88]: "The Chinese tradition credits a man named *Sāramati. The Central Asian manuscripts ascribe the text to Maitreya, while the Tibetan tradition divides the verse and prose sections, with the verses being taught by Maitreya to Asaṅga, who composed the prose."
- Gardner [fn. 90]: "As well as from many other sūtras; Karl Brunnhölzl counts eighteen sūtras quoted in the Ratnagotravibhāga. Remarkably, the treatise does not quote the Aṅgulimālīyasūtra, the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra, or the Mahābherīsūtra (When the Clouds Part, 287)."
- Gardner [fn. 90]: "Kano, Buddha-Nature and Emptiness, 20. Ratnamati's name was transliterated as Le na mo ti 勒那摩提."
- Gardner, Alex (2019), "The Ratnagotravibhāga and the Later Spread of Buddha-Nature Theory in India" in A History of Buddha-Nature Theory: The Literature and Traditions, Tsadra Foundation
- Takasaki (1966), pp. 8-9.
- Brunnhölzl (2015), p. 96.
- Brunnhölzl (2015), p. 96.
- Ruegg, D. Seyfort (1976). 'The Meanings of the Term "Gotra" and the Textual History of the "Ratnagotravibhāga".' Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 39, No. 2, pp.341-363.
- Buswell & Lopez 2014, s.v. Ratnagotravibhāga.
- bla ma, Christian-Steinert Dictionary
- Brunnhölzl (2015), p. 97.
- Brunnhölzl (2015), p. 98.
- "The Explanation of The Treatise on the Ultimate Continuum of the Mahāyāna | 84000 Reading Room". 84000 Translating The Words of The Budda. Retrieved 2022-12-07.
- Tenzin Gyatso 1982 in his teaching on the Uttaratantra
- Takasaki (1966),
- Obermiller, Eugène (1931). 'The Sublime Science of the Great Vehicle to Salvation Being a Manual of Buddhist Monism.' Acta Orientalia 9, 81-306.
- Brunnhölzl (2015), pp. 125, 283.
- rgyud_bla_ma'i_brjod_bya_rdo_rje'i_gnas_bdun, Rangjung Yeshe Wiki
- རྡོ་རྗེའི་གནས་བདུན་, Christian-Steinert Dictionary
- Also translated as "seven adamantine topics," etc.
- Brunnhölzl (2015), p. 125
- Hookham (1991), pp. 183-185.
- "The Seven Vajra Topics - Buddha-Nature". buddhanature.tsadra.org. Retrieved 2022-12-07.
- Hookham (1991), p. 186.
- lhun grub, Christian-Steinert Dictionary
- so so rang rig, Christian-Steinert Dictionary
- Uttaratantra: The Dharma Gem and Sangha Gem, StudyBuddhism
- Hookham (1991), p. 188.
- Hookham (1991), p. 189.
- Fuchs (2000), pp. 174-175.
- Brunnhölzl (2015), pp. 288-289.
- Kazuo Kano. Exegesis of the Ratnagotravibhāga in Kashmir. Kōyasandaigaku daigakuin kiyō 15, 2016. pp. 1–23
- Brunnhölzl (2015), pp. 291.
- Kano, Kazuo. "Jñānaśrīmitra on the Ratnagotravibhāga." In "Relationship between Tantric and Non-Tantric Doctrines in Late Indian Buddhism," edited by Norihisa Baba. Special issue, Oriental Culture 96 (2016): 7–48.
- Kano, Kazuo. "Ratnākaraśānti’s Understanding of Buddha-Nature." China Tibetology 25, no. 2 (2015): 52–77.
- Kazuo Kano, Exegesis of the Ratnagotravibhāga in Kashmir. Kōyasandaigaku daigakuin kiyō 15、2016. pp. 1–23.
- Brunnhölzl (2015), p. 177.
- Brunnhölzl (2015), p. 301
- "Mar pa do pa chos kyi dbang phyug - Buddha-Nature". buddhanature.tsadra.org. Retrieved 2022-12-07.
- Brunnhölzl (2015), p. 303
- Brunnhölzl (2015), p. 306.
- Brunnhölzl (2015), p. 123.
- Brunnhölzl (2015), p. 130.
- Mathes (2008), p. x.
- Brunnhölzl (2015), p. 124.
- Brunnhölzl (2015), p. 129.
- Li, Zijie. "Kukyō ichijō hōshōron to higashiajia bukkyō (The Ratnagotravibhāga and East Asian Buddhism) - Buddha-Nature". buddhanature.tsadra.org. Retrieved 2022-12-09.
- Zijie Li (2020): Fazang’s theory of zhenru真如 (Skt. tathatā) and zhongxing 種姓 (Skt. gotra): with a focus on the influence of the Ratnagotravibhāga, Studies in Chinese Religions, DOI: 10.1080/23729988.2020.1763676
- Brunnhölzl, Karl (2015). When the Clouds Part: The Uttaratantra and Its Meditative Tradition as a Bridge between Sutra and Tantra. Shambhala Publications. ISBN 978-0-8348-3010-3.
- Buswell, Robert E.; Lopez, Donald S. (2014), The Princeton Dictionary of Buddhism, Princeton University
- Fuchs, Rosemarie (2000) (trans.), Buddha-Nature, The Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra, Snow Lion, New York
- Hookham, S.K. (1991). The Buddha within : Tathagatagarbha doctrine according to the Shentong interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhaga. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press. ISBN 978-0791403587.
- Jones, C.V. (2020). The Buddhist Self: On Tathāgatagarbha and Ātman. University of Hawaii Press.
- Mathes, Klaus-Dieter (2008). A Direct Path to the Buddha Within: Gö Lotsāwa's Mahāmudra Interpretation of the Ratnagotravibhāga. Wisdom Publications.
- Ruegg, D. Seyfort (2009). "The Meanings of the Term Gotra and the Textual History of the Ratnagotravibhāga". Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies. 39 (2): 341–363. doi:10.1017/S0041977X00050047.
- Takasaki, Jikido (1966). A Study of the Ratnagotravibhāga (Uttaratantra): Being a Treatise on the Tathāgatagarbha Theory of Mahāyāna Buddhism. Instituto italiano per il medio ed estremo oriente.
- Multilingual edition of the Ratnagotravibhāga, Sanskrit (Johnston), Chinese: T 1611, Tibetan: Tg phi, English (Takasaki); University of Oslo
- Takasaki (1966), A Study of Ratnagotravibhaga
- "Buddha Nature. The Mahayana Uttaratantra Shastra" with commentary by Jamgön Kongtrül Lodrö Thayé and explanations by Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso Rinpoche
- "Uttara tantra Shastra" with commentary by 13th Zasep Tulku Rinpoche
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