Blavatsky’s ‘Swabhavat’ and The Doctrine of ‘Nature Origination’
in the Korean Ch’an Buddhism of Chinul and Li T’ung Hsuan’s ‘Hua-yen’
One of the most important and challenging concepts in Blavatsky’s ‘Secret Doctrine’ is the doctrine of ‘svabhava’ or ‘svabhavat’.
David Reigle in his opening to his chapter on ‘The Doctrine of Svabhava’ makes reference to works “… found in the Bodhisattva-bhumi, attributed to Asanga … or to Maitreya… . This text in its tattvartha or “reality” chapter speaks of the inexpressible svabhavata (nature or essence) of all the elements of existence … . Being beyond the range of speech, this absolute (paramarthika) svabhava of all dharmas is accessible only to non-conceptual wisdom (nirvikalpa-jnana)…” (BSB, p.106 – Reigle)
Reigle continues in this chapter of his book (Blavatsky’s Secret Books p.106) linking this svabhava doctrine to the tathagata-garbha doctrine found in Maitreya’s Ratna-gotra-vibhaga, and questions on svabhava, anatman and sunyata are delved into and a process of clarifying their relation to Blavatsky’s. A question that frequently arises is how these ideas, so harmonious with the Theosophical view, continue in living traditions today?
The Korean Ch’an (kor. Son) schools descending from the 12th century founding teacher Chinul remain currently active and in practice. Many scholars and practicioners today consider him the founder of the unified Son (Ch’an) / Kyo (doctrinal Buddhism) Korean Buddhism of today. Chinul was a unique figure that merged together both Ch’an and Hua-yen view into one school of thought and practice. While this is a large subject to cover that would require a book length text, a few points are here quoted that appear to relate closely to subjects in Blavatsky’s perennial Theosophy.
So, as I was recently studying the schools and writings that are sourced in the Avatamsaka sutra (see Cleary’s translation of the Avatamsaka Sutra and his introductory notes), I came across this Korean (Chinul) branch that appears to follow this unique approach to ‘nature’ or ‘svabhava’. It is from the Hua yen tradition through a famous layman, named Li T’ung-hsuan (635 CE – 730). His ideas of ‘nature origination’ find currency again in the Korean Ch’an/Hua yen teacher Chinul* (1158-1210). Here appears an approach to svabhava that appears similar to Blavatsky’s and is rare in Buddhism. I have noted here a few other points of potential confluence between Hua-yen and Blavatsky, including within Hua-yen the following: on the subject of universality and particularity, the one and the many, the nature of time, the identity of mutual interpenetration and identity, the One Mind, microcosm and macrocosm, equivalence of Buddha nature and emptiness, etc. All this is open for new understandings and exploration. It is of interest to also note that within Hua-yen is a unified view of sunyata and the tathagatagarbha doctrines. In what follows I will give some brief quotes from translated sources and scholarly commentary about this aspect of Hua-yen tradition. This is no attempt at even an overview of a very vast and complex subject within Hua-yen, but only to give some very introductory ideas and points of reference of areas for its further study with Blavatsky’s Theosophic perennialism.
Also, always the cautionary note, that it is often rather challenging to get the source terms correctly aligned, when going from Sanskrit, Chinese, Tibetan, Japanese, Korean and then to the often barely adequate English, where one word may be used for very different ideas, or several words interchangeably for the same Buddhist term. So what follows is very preliminary.
The Korean ‘song’ or ‘songgi’ or Chinese ‘hsing-chi’ for the Sanskrit svabhava (see Odin p. 63) is translated into English as ‘nature’. (I have added some areas in bold for emphasis)
Buswell gives the source for ‘nature’ as:
“prakriti, svabhava: The unchanging, absolute nature of all dharmas; contrasted with characteristics.” (CWC – Buswell p.400)
Regarding ‘nature origination’:
Chinul discovered the philosophical basis for such correlated doctrines as the primacy of faith, the primordial identification of sentient beings with Buddha, and sudden awakening, in Li T’ung-hsuan’s radical and unorthodox doctrine of nature origination. (Chi. Hsing-chi; Kor. Yuan-chi) (PMHYB p. 63 Odin)
Chinul emphasizes that whereas conditioned origination articulates reality from the perspective of multiple phenomena (shih) or dynamic function (yung), nature origination articulates reality from the perspective of principle (li) or universal essence (t’i). Where as conditioned origination requires an intermediary intellectual framework of interpenetration and mutual fusion to identify principle (li) with phenomena (shih), the more radical doctrine of nature-origination, instead emphasizes the non-production or non-origination of phenomena and requires no intermediary conceptual apparatus. (PMHYB p. 64 Odin)
The usual interpretation of faith as a belief in the possibility of becoming a Buddha through the step by step procedure of faith, understanding, practice and authentication was changed into the new idea that faith is the resolute conviction that one is already identified with Buddhahood. (PMHYB p. 61 Odin quoting Shim)
Regarding the ethic of Hua-yen, Cleary comments:
The Hua-yen doctrine shows the entire cosmos as one single nexus of conditions in which everything simultaneously depends on, and is depended on by, everything else. Seen in this light, then, everything affects and is affected by, more or less immediately or remotely, everything else; just as this is true of every system of relationships, so is it true of the totality of existence.… The accord of this view with the experience of modern science is obvious, and it seems to be an appropriate basis upon which the question of the relation of science and bioethics – an issue of contemporary concern – may be resolved. … The ethic of the Hua-yen teaching is based on this fundamental theme of universal interdependenc.
(EITI p. 3 Cleary)
Francis Cook states:
Hua-yen is certainly a type of pan-Buddhism. (HYB p.92, Cook)
We might, as a matter of fact, characterize Hua-yen as a species of tathagatagarbha thought which is in turn based on the doctrine of emptiness. Even this is not the whole truth, for it tends to distort the relationship between the two doctrines. Ultimately, sunyata and tathagatagarbha are alternate expressions for the same reality.
(HYB, p.36 Cook)
All men possess a point of numinous brightness which is still like space and pervades every region. When contrasted with mundane affairs, it is expediently called the noumenal nature. When contrasted with formations and consciousness, it is provisionally called the true mind. (CWC p. 181 Buswell quoting Chinul)
Odin comments on unity and multiplicity in Hua-yen:
The dialectical interpenetration of unity and multiplicity or subjectivity and objectivety in Hua-yen Buddhism essentially represents a microcosmic-macrocosmic model of reality wherein each dharma or event becomes a living mirror of the totality, reflecting all other dharmas—past, present, and future alike—from its own standpoint in nature … not unlike Leibniz’s theory of “monads” or perspectival mirrors in the West. (PMHYB p. 16 Odin)
Keel quoting Tsung-mi:
The original Essence of True Mind has two kinds of function: One is the original function of Self Nature, and the other is the function according to external conditions. If we compare them to copper, the quality of copper is its Essence of
Self-Nature, its brightness the function of Self-Nature, and the reflections appearing on it the Functions according to conditions … Analogously, the constant quiescence of Mind is the Essence of Self-Nature, the constant knowing of Mind the function of Self-Nature, and to talk, to speak, and to distinguish are the Functions according to conditions. (TFKST p.87 Keel)
Nature giving rise to Characteristics (Phenomena, Functions) is called in Hua-yen doctrine Origination-by-Nature (songgi) as distinguished from Origination-by-condition (yongi). To see a phenomena from the vantage point of Origination-by-Nature means to understand it in its phenomenality, in its conditioned nature, and thus in its Emptiness. So long as a thing is seen in its Nature of Origination-by-Condition, it is Origination-by-nature at the same time. Further, so long as one sees a phenomena in this way, it is seen as a Function of the Essence of True Mind. Thus, for Chinul, the logic of Origination-by-Nature underlies the truth of the mysterious Function of True Mind. Every phenomena, seen in this way, no longer becomes an obstruction to our spiritual freedom but is affirmed plainly as it is. (TFKST p.84-85 Keel)
Buswell clarifying some implications of ‘nature origination’:
Chinul’s acceptance of the doctrine of nature origination (songgi) rather than the conditioned origination of the dharmadhatu stems from the formers superiority in the development of practice. While conditioned origination might be theoretically valid, its efficacy from a pragmatic standpoint is limited. The emphasis on nature origination had important implications for Chinul’s synthesis of the theoretical views of the Hwaom [Hua-yen] and Son [Ch’an] schools …
(CWC pp. 232-233 Buswell)
This is only a brief taste of a few key points in the ideas of Chinul and Li T’ung Hsuan. It is to be hoped that gradually as more of the writings of the Hua-yen and Korean Son (Ch’an) teachers become translated, more light on these ideas will be possible. Certainly, it can be said, that the harmonious confluences between Hua-yen and Blavatsky’s Theosophic perennialism point to a significant and dynamic confluence of views useful to deepening our study and practice in both arenas.
*The Avatamsaka’s influence continued through out the later course of Ch’an history, and is especially noticeable in the thought of Chinul (1158-1210), who during the Koryo Dynasty (937-1392) revivied the declining fortunes of the Ch’an school in Korea. Chinul was profoundly influenced by Tsung-mi … Another important influence on chnul was that of Li T’ung-hsuan (635-730), also an important Hua-yen figure. The Avatamsaka’s influence on Ch’an has been such that it has even been suggested that Ch’an is the practical expression of the profound and comprehensive teaching of the Avatamsaka.
(MTBAAS p.20 Cheng Chien Bhikshu)
References referred to and recommended for further study:
Buswell, Robert E. – The Collected Works of Chinul
Cheng Chien Bhikshu – Manifestation of the Tathagata: Buddhahood According to the Avatamsaka Sutra
Cleary, Thomas – Entry into the Inconceivable: An Introduction to Hua-yen Buddhism
Cleary, Thomas – The Avatamsaka Sutra
Cook, Francis H. – Hua-yen Buddhism: The Jewel Net of Indra
Keel, Hee-Sung – Chinul:The Founder of the Korean Son [Ch’an] Tradition
Odin, Steve – Process Metaphysics and Hua-yen Buddhism
Reigle, David and Nancy – Blavatsky’s Secret Books
“To comprehend my answers you will have first of all to view the
eternal Essence, the Swabhavat not as a compound element you call
spirit-matter, but as the one element for which the English has no
name. It is both passive and active, pure Spirit Essence in its
absoluteness and repose, pure matter in its finite and conditioned
state.. ” ML letter no. 65 (11) received June 30, 1882 (this may be the first use of the term ‘swabhavat’ in Blavatsky corpus from KH to A.O. Hume, “The Mahatma Letters to A.P. Sinnett” p. 165 chronological edition.