Rajiv Malhotra rajiv.malhotra at WORLDNET.ATT.NET
Wed May 17 19:38:38 CDT 2000

The author has been an official representative of the Dalai Lama, and is a
practitioner of Indo-Tibetan Madhyamika Buddhism for 25 years. This should
be considered an authentic voice of that tradition's views in modern times.

 Is Buddhism  Really Nontheistic?
B. Alan Wallace, University of California, Santa Barbara

        Buddhism is commonly distinguished on doctrinal grounds from monotheistic
and polytheistic religions by the fact that it refutes the existence of a
divine Creator, and indeed there is ample textual evidence in early
Buddhist, Mah›y›na, and Vajray›na treatises to support this claim.i
However, a careful analysis of Vajray›na Buddhist cosmogony, specifically as
presented in the Atiyoga tradition of Indo-Tibetan Buddhism, which presents
itself as the culmination of all Buddhist teachings, reveals a theory of a
transcendent ground of being and a process of creation that bear remarkable
similarities with views presented in Ved›nta and Neoplatonic Western
Christian theories of creation.  In the following paper I shall present this
Vajray›na Buddhist theory in terms of its images of space and light in the
creation of the universe, and I shall conclude with a reappraisal of the
non-theistic status of Buddhism as a whole.

SÒtray›na Buddhist Antecedents
        In the early Buddhist suttas, the P›li term commonly translated as "world"
(loka) refers not to some purely objective universe that exists
independently of experience, but to the world experienced by sentient
beings.  The world that we as human beings experience, however, is not the
only world, for there are other worlds in addition to our ownii; but all
worlds are said to be "unreal" and insubstantial like a bubble and a
mirage.iii  As for the origination of the six modes of consciousness by
which human beings experience our world, the Buddha likened such origination
to the production of fire by rubbing a fire-stick.  As Peter Harvey points
out, this Buddhist theory, like that of the Upani?ads, takes for granted the
existence of a latent fire element that is present in fuel, which becomes
manifest when the fuel is set aflame.iv This would imply that specific forms
of consciousness likewise emerge from a latent mode of consciousness when
the appropriate conditions are met, and that underlying consciousness is
denoted in P›li with the term bhavaºga, which can be translated as "the
ground of becoming."v
        In early Buddhist literature this ground-state of consciousness is said to
be primordially pure and radiant, regardless of whether it is obscured by
adventitious defilements,vi and it is from this state that all active mental
processes (javana), arise, including volition and, therefore, karma.  Thus,
since the manifold worlds experienced by sentient beings are asserted in
Buddhism to be produced by the karma of sentient beings, it follows that the
bhavaºga must be the ground from which arise all karma, all the worlds
formed by karma, and all states of consciousness by which these worlds are
known.  Moreover, the nature of this ground of becoming is said to be loving
kindness, and it is the source of sentient beings' incentive to meditatively
develop their minds in the pursuit of nirv›°a.vii  When final liberation is
achieved, one comes to experientially realize the nature of the bhavaºga,
which then retains its integrity and is no longer prone to obscuration by
        While the Therav›da tradition largely marginalized the bhavaºga in both
theory and in practice, Mah›y›na Buddhism attributed central importance to
the tath›gatagarbha, which bears a close resemblance to the bhavaºga.  The
Laºk›vat›ra SÒtra (p. 77) says of the tath›gatagarbha that it is the
naturally radiant and primordially pure awareness within each sentient
being, which is obscured by such adventitious defilements as attachment,
aggression, delusion, and compulsive ideation.  It adds that this radiant
awareness is the ground from which both good and evil arise, and it produces
all forms of existence, like an actor taking on a variety of appearances (p.
220).  The /rim›la-devi Si?han›da SÒtra asserts that it is that which
inspires sentient beings to seek nirv›°a,ix and the Ratnagotra-vibh›ga (vv.
51, 84) makes the further claim that this awareness, which is naturally
present since beginningless time, is implicitly replete with all the
qualities of Buddhahood.  But in order for those innate qualities to become
manifest, the tath›gatagarbha, or buddha-nature, must be separated from
defilements, much as gold ore must be refined to reveal its intrinsic
purity.  Thus, even in these pre-Vajray›na writings, there were clear and
elaborated theories concerning a beginningless ground-state of awareness,
which was the source of all other states of consciousness, the phenomenal
world, and all sentient beings within it.

Vajray›na Cosmogony
        As the early Buddhist theory of the bhavaºga was developed into the
Mah›y›na theory of the tath›gatagarbha, the realization of which now took on
paramount importance in meditative practice, the precise manner in which the
buddha-nature gives rise to the phenomena world was further developed in the
Vajray›na tradition.  My primary source for the following account of
Vajray›na cosmogony is The Vajra Heart Tantra,x a "mind-treasure" (dgongs
gter) of Düdjom Lingpa (1835-1904), a nineteenth-century Atiyoga master of
the Nyingma order of Tibetan Buddhism.  Although this treatise is of quite
recent origin, its well developed theory of cosmogony is an accurate
representation of the general Atiyoga view, which is largely compatible with
Vajray›na theory as a whole. According to Düdjom Lingpa, the source of the
teachings in The Vajra Heart Tantra is the primordial Buddha Samantabhadra,
who, like the tath›gatagarbha, is of the nature of beginningless, naturally
pure, radiant awareness, replete with all the qualities of Buddhahood.
        While the most common metaphor for the bhavaºga and the tath›gatagarbha is
that of radiant light, The Vajra Heart Tantra adds to this the central
metaphor of space. According to this cosmogony, the essential nature of the
whole of sa?s›ra and nirv›°a is the absolute space  (dh›tu) of the
tath›gatagarbha, but this space is not to be confused with a mere absence of
matter.  Rather, this absolute space is imbued with all the infinite
knowledge, compassion, power, and enlightened activities of the Buddha.
Moreover, this luminous space is that which causes the phenomenal world to
appear, and it is none other than the nature of one's own mind, which by
nature is clear light (p. 133).  Samantabhadra distinguishes five types of
primordial wisdom implicit within the natural buddha of awareness (p. 120):

"Its essential nature is primordial, great emptiness, the absolute space of
the whole of sa?s›ra and nirv›°a, the primordial wisdom of the absolute
space of reality (dharmadh›tu). Mirror-like primordial wisdom is of a
limpid, clear nature free of contamination, which allows for the unceasing
appearances of all manner of objects.  The primordial wisdom of equality is
so called, for it equally pervades the nonobjective emptiness of the whole
of sa?s›ra and nirv›°a.  The primordial wisdom of discernment is so called,
for it is an unceasing avenue of illumination of the qualities of primordial
wisdom.  The primordial wisdom of accomplishment is so called, for all pure,
free, simultaneously perfected deeds and activities are accomplished
naturally, of their own accord.  When the natural glow of awareness that is
present as the ground-the dharmak›ya in which the five primordial wisdoms
are simultaneously perfected-dissolves into its inner luminosity, it is
classified as unobscured primordial wisdom."xi

        If the essential nature of each sentient being and the universe as a whole
is that of infinite, luminous space, endowed with all the qualities of
perfect enlightenment, why is this not realized?  Samantabhadra explains
that the reality of all phenomena arising as displays of the all-pervasive,
ground-awareness is obscured by ignorance.  Consequently, the
tath›gatagarbha, which utterly transcends all words and concepts-including
the very notions of existence and nonexistence, one and many, and subject
and object-appears to be a blank, unthinking void, which is known as the
universal ground (›laya) (p. 120).  The experience of this void is
comparable to becoming comatose or falling into contentless, dreamless
sleep.  From that state arises limpid, clear consciousness as the basis from
which all phenomena appear; and that is the universal ground consciousness
(›layavijñ›na).  No objects are established apart from its own luminosity,
and while it produces all types of appearances, it does not enter into any
object.  Just as reflections of the planets and stars appear in limpid,
clear water, and the entire animate and inanimate world appears in limpid,
clear space, so do all appearances emerge in the empty, clear, universal
ground consciousness.
        From that state arises the consciousness of the mere appearance of the
self.  The self, or I, is apprehended as being over here, so the objective
world appears to be over there, thus establishing the appearance of
immaterial space.  To relate this evolution of the universe to the
obscuration of the previously mentioned five types of primordial wisdom, it
is said that ignorance initially obscures the inner glow of one's innate,
primordial wisdom of the absolute space of reality (p. 122), which causes an
external transference of its radiance.  As this evolutionary process
continues, those five types of primordial wisdom transform into the five
great elements (viz., the five primary colors) and the five derivative
elements in the following way:
        1.      In the all-pervasive space of the dharmak›ya, or buddha-mind, the inner
glow of the primordial wisdom of accomplishment is obscured, and due to the
activation of karmic energies, the quintessence of the air element arises
internally and transforms into radiant green light.  Due to the power of
delusion, this green light is reified and consequently arises externally as
the derivative, or residual, air element.
        2.      With the obscuration by ignorance of the primordial wisdom of the
absolute space of reality, its radiance appears as the great element of deep
blue light.  As a consequence of reifying this blue light, the derivative
element of space appears.
        3.      With the obscuration of mirror-like primordial wisdom, its radiance
appears as the great element of white light, which, when reified, appears as
the derivative element of water.
        4.      With the obscuration of the primordial wisdom of equality, its radiance
appears as the great element of yellow light, which, when reified, appears
as the derivative element of earth.
        5.      Finally, with the obscuration of the primordial wisdom of discernment,
its radiance appears as the great element of red light, which, when reified,
appears as the derivative element of fire.  In this way, all the elements of
the physical world are regarded as symbolic expressions of the
tath›gatgarbha, and all the five elements are said to be present in each
one, just as all the five primordial wisdoms are present in each one.
        The five types of primordial wisdom manifest not only as the five elements
that make up the objective universe, but their essential natures also
manifest as the five psycho-physical aggregates that constitute a human
being in sa?s›ra.  Specifically, once the appearance of duality arises
within the domain of the primordial wisdom of the absolute space of reality,
that wisdom appears as the aggregate of form; when such dualistic
appearances and reification occur in the domain of mirror-like primordial
wisdom, it manifests as the aggregate of consciousness; when the primordial
wisdom of equality is so obscured, it manifests as the aggregate of feeling;
when the primordial wisdom of discernment is veiled by reification, it
appears as the aggregate of recognition; and when the primordial wisdom of
accomplishment is so obscured, it arises as the aggregate of compositional
        As a development of the thesis stated in the Laºk›vat›ra SÒtra that the
tath›gatagarbha is the source of both good and evil, The Vajra Heart Tantra
asserts that it is the ground not only of all the qualities of
enlightenment, but of the primary mental afflictions of delusion, hatred,
pride, attachment, and jealousy.  Specifically, thoughts of delusion arise
due to the obscuration of the primordial wisdom of the absolute nature of
reality; thoughts of hatred arise from the obscuration of mirror-like
primordial wisdom; thoughts of pride emerge from the obscuration of the
primordial wisdom of equality; thoughts of attachment emerge from the
obscuration of the primordial wisdom of discernment; and thoughts of
jealousy arise from the obscuration of the primordial wisdom of
accomplishment.  An assertion that is crucial to the theory and practice of
Vajray›na as a whole is that all mental afflictions are in reality of the
very same nature as the kinds of primordial wisdom from which they arise (p.
        In summary, the five primary colors, the five derivative elements, the five
aggregates, and the five mental afflictions all originate from the
obscuration of the five primordial wisdoms.  In terms of the general
Buddhist theory of the three realms of existence-the sensory realm, the form
realm, and the formless realm-it is said that birth in the formless realm is
due to reifying the universal ground; birth in the form realm is due to
reifying the universal ground consciousness; and birth as a god of the
desire realm is due to achieving attentional stability in the realm of the
dualistic mind (citta).  In this way, Samantabhadra, the primordial Buddha
whose nature is identical with the tath›gatagarbha within each sentient
being, is the ultimate ground of sa?s›ra and nirv›°a; and the entire
universe consists of nothing other than displays of this infinite, radiant,
empty awareness.  Thus, in light of the theoretical progression from the
bhavaºga to the tath›gatagarbha to the primordial wisdom of the absolute
space of reality, Buddhism is not so simply non-theistic as it may appear at
first glance.

Parallels with Polytheistic and Monotheistic Cosmogonies
        While the nontheism of Buddhism is often set in stark contrast to the
polytheism of the Vedas, the tradition of Ved›nta, meaning the "culmination
of the Vedas," presents a cosmogony strikingly similar to the preceding
Atiyoga account.  According to Ved›nta theory, the universe is created
through a series of illusory manifestations of Brahman, who alone is
ultimately real and is identical with the real identity (›tman) of every
sentient being.xii  The nature of Brahman is pure consciousness, beyond all
conceptual distinctions such as subject and object, and its differentiation
into individual animate and inanimate beings is only by way of appearances.
Drawing on an analogy that is shared with the Atiyoga tradition illustrating
the relation between the dharmak›ya and the minds of individual sentient
beings, the Ved›ntin philosopher /aºkara likens Brahman to space, which is
single and continuous, while each individual (jiva) is likened to the space
confined inside a pot.  In this metaphor, the "space" of Brahman can be
apparently enclosed within the "pot" of each individual without affecting
the transcendent unity of Brahman.  But such differentiation, he adds, is
merely the result of our failure to discriminate the ›tman from its adjuncts
such as the body, senses, and so on.  Each individual is a mere appearance
or reflection of the transcendent Self, or ›tman, like the reflection of the
sun in rippling water.  Although the unity of Brahman and the ›tman has
never been different from the universe, defects are perceived in the
phenomenal world due to defilements in the minds of individuals.  Thus, in
order to see reality as it is, the mind, with all its afflictions,
conceptual constructs, and tendencies of reification, must be transcended.
        Despite the many significant differences between Buddhist and Christian
doctrines, medieval Christianity was profoundly influenced by Neoplatonic
ideas concerning creation, which are also profoundly similar to those of
Vajray›na Buddhism and Ved›nta.  According to the ninth-century Christian
philosopher John Scotus Eriugena (815?-877?), prior to God's creative
self-disclosure in the generation of the natural world,  He subsisted as a
primordial unity and fullness which, from the limited perspective of created
intellects and language, can best be described as nihil, or nothingness.xiii
John characterizes this nothingness, not as an absence, but as a
transcendent reality beyond negation and affirmation.  It is, he writes:

"the ineffable, incomprehensible, and inaccessible brilliance of the divine
goodness, which is unknown to all intellects, whether human or angelic,
because it is superessential and supernatural.  I should think that this
designation [nihil] is applied because, when it is thought through itself,
it neither is nor was nor will be.  For in no existing thing is it
understood, since it is beyond all things...When it is understood as
incomprehensible on account of its excellence, it is not improperly called

        As the divine nothingness, which is ontologically prior to the very
categories of existence and nonexistence, manifests in the phenomenal world,
God comes to recognize himself as the essence of all things.  In this way,
the whole of creation can be called a theophany, or divine appearance, and
nothing could exist apart from that divine nature, for it is the essence of
all that is.  Following the Biblical assertion that man is created in the
image of God, John declares that the mind of man, like the divine nature,
retains its simple unity, as something that cannot be known objectively, in
relation to its manifold expressions.xv  Just as God comes to know Himself
fully only through His self-expression as the phenomenal world, the human
mind is fully comprehended only through its outward manifestations, even
though it always remains invisible inwardly.  In that way, each human
recapitulates within himself the entire dialectic of nothingness and
self-creation.  Hence John argues that man's inability to objectively know
the nature of his own mind marks him as being an image of God, for just as
the mind of God does not objectively see itself, so is human consciousness
never perceived as an object of the intellect.xvi

        While Buddhism is deemed nontheistic, the Vedas are regarded as
polytheistic, and the Bible is monotheistic, we have seen that the
cosmogonies of Vajray›na Buddhism, Ved›nta, and Neoplatonic Christianity
have so much in common that they could almost be regarded as varying
interpretations of a single theory.  Moreover, the commonality does not end
there, for in the Near East, the writings of Plotinus (205-270) also
influenced Islamic and Jewish theories of creation.  This apparent unity
could be attributed to mere coincidence, or to the historical propagation of
a single, speculative, metaphysical theory throughout south Asia and the
Near East.  For example, the Upani?ads may well have influenced the writings
of early Mah›y›na thinkers in India, and they could also have made their way
to the Near East, where they might have inspired the writings of Plotinus.
On the other hand, Plotinus declared that his theories were based on his own
experiential insights, and similar claims have been made by many Buddhist
and Ved›ntin contemplatives.  If these cosmogonies are indeed based upon
valid introspective knowledge, then there may some plausibility to the
claims of many contemplatives throughout the world that introspective
inquiry can lead to knowledge, not only of the ultimate ground of being, but
of the fundamental laws of nature as well.xvii

bhava shankara deshikame sharaNam

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