Buddha-Nature and a Dialectic of Presence and Absence in the Works of Mi-pham

Duckworth, Douglas Samuel, Department of religious Studies, University of Virginia
Hopkins, Jeffrey, Department of religious Studies, University of Virginia
Germano, David, Department of religious Studies, University of Virginia
Lang, Karen, Department of religious Studies, University of Virginia
Hueckstedt, Robert, Department of Asian and Middle Eastern Languages and Cultures, University of Virginia

This dissertation addresses the relationship between metaphysical
presence and absence (emptiness) in Buddhism through a focus on the
Nying-ma tradition as articulated in the works of Mi-pham (’ju mi pham
rgya mtsho, 1846-1912), a great synthesizer of Buddhist doctrine and
Nying-ma philosophy. I draw widely from his writings on Yogācāra,
Madhyamaka, and tantra to discuss the significance of an ontological
“ground” (gzhi), or Buddha-nature, as the central theme in his overall
interpretative scheme. Mi-pham was a prolific writer on a variety of topics,
and had a remarkable ability to synthesize diverse strands of thought.
The tradition of the Nying-ma is a complex one, and there are many
divergent and competing voices that lay claim to the tradition. I will try to
present important facets of this central theme in Mi-pham’s philosophy of
Nying-ma, and show how he uses a dialectic of presence and absence
around which he discusses a unified ground.

Mi-pham was a prominent figure in the Tibetan non-sectarian (ris
med) movement in the late nineteenth and early twentiethcenturies. He
most notably brought esoteric Nying-ma doctrines into conversation with
the exoteric scholastic discourses of his day. Mi-pham formulates the
Nying-ma tradition of his predecessors Long-chen-pa (klong chen rab
’byam, 1308-1364) and Rong-zom (rong zom chos kyi bzang po, ca.11th c.) in response to traditions of “other-emptiness,” through which he
distinguishes his Nying-ma tradition.

Buddha-nature is a theme in Mi-pham’s work that has a strong
association with tantra in the Nying-ma tradition. His affirmation of the
presence of Buddha-nature as intrinsic within the ground of existence
shares predominant characteristics of the discourses of tantra in the
Nying-ma tradition and, in particular, the Great Perfection (rdzogs chen).
The Great Perfection is an antischolastic textual and meditative tradition
that consistently evades systematic analysis, and in a fundamental way is
antithetical to abstract conceptual determination. Mi-pham creatively
formulates the esoteric discourses that have defined the Nying-ma
tradition—the Great Perfection and the tantric tradition of the
Guhyagarbha—in terms of central exoteric discourses of Buddhism:
Buddha-nature, the Middle Way, and Buddhist epistemological systems.
This dissertation explores a range of topics within Mi-pham’s thought to
underscore Buddha-nature and a dialectic of presence and absence as a
central thread that runs through his interpretativesystem.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
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