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

Duckworth, Douglas Samuel
Thesis/Dissertation; Online
Duckworth, Douglas Samuel
Germano, David
Lang, Karen
Hueckstedt, Robert
Hopkins, Jeffrey
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 ii 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.
University of Virginia, Department of religious Studies, PHD, 2005
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