Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Buddha Within

After reading Sallie B. King's Buddha Nature (see previous post), I decided to continue reading about Tathagatagarbha literature and commentary. I just completed reading S.K. Hookham's The Buddha Within, and my head is still spinning. I should have remembered (from reading King's book) that Tathagatagarbha is some heavy material; it's far from the straightforward, simple approach to Buddha nature employed in Zen. It's about as complicated as Buddhism gets. Especially this text, since it is, after all, written from a Vajrayana point of view, which is famous for being scholarly, academic, and highly analytical. 

In The Buddha Within, Hookham, herself a Kagyu lama and scholar, presents the Shentong view on Tathagatagarbha doctrine, as found in the Ratnagotravibhaga Shastra. And as far as I can tell, the Shentong interpretation is exactly the same as Hua-yen and Zen--namely that the Absolute is no other than nondual Mind, empty of all conceptual qualities. In that respect, Hookham caught and maintained my interest because much of the Shentong material sounded familiar to Zen.

A bit of sectarian criticism of Rangtong and the Gelugpa school (of which the Dalai Lama is a member) manages to creep inside the The Buddha Within, for comparative purposes; but as is the custom with Tibetan literature, Hookham tends to rank stages of Buddhism with...you guessed it, Shentong transcending Rangtong. This is more of a stylistic or cultural convention, but one that always bristles my hackles when I read Tibetan material. 

That quibble aside, Hookham does a very thorough job of explaining this complex subject, even going so far as to discuss Hua-yen, one of my favorite Buddhist topics. The Buddha Within sheds important light on the fact that Tibetan Buddhism is far from homogeneous, that its traditions are as bright and diverse as their mandalas are colorful. To paraphrase Hookham, there is more to Vajrayana than the just the Gelupga school. And The Buddha Within does a highly commendable job of representing the rich Shentong perspective.

The Buddha Within serves as a nice change of pace from all of the Zen literature I have been reading, and would definitely interest anyone who has a penchant for Tibetan Buddhism, especially Prasangika Madhyamaka. I think it's important to study different schools of Buddhist thought, and for someone like me, with very littler experience reading Tibetan Buddhism, The Buddha Within is a great place to start. 

As always, thanks to Suny Press for sending me a copy of this book to review.  

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