Tao-Sheng (ca. 360-434)
and the Doctrine of the Buddha Nature

In 405 or 406, after staying at Lu-shan for about seven years, Tai-sheng made a long-cherished and easerly awaited move to Ch'ang-an to study with Kumarajiva, who had been there since 401, attracting about 3000 aspiring pupils to Mahayana doctrines. However, Tao-sheng's sojourn in Ch'ang-an was relatively brief, only about two years.... This brief period, however, was sufficient to demonstrate Tao-sheng's ability and warrent him a position in contempory "honours lists," ranging from one of the four "(great) philosophers" to one of the fifteen great disciples, moe often than not being listed first.

Despite his fame, the specific role Tao-sheng played and how much he contributed, particularly in Kumarajiva's major task, translation, are not certain. Although Tao-sheng is reported by Seng-chao to have been on hand when Kumarajiva translated the Lotus, Tao-sheng does not figure prominently in any record as a close assistant to Kumarajiva. When Tao-sheng arrived in Ch'ang-an, the capital of the Eastern Chin (317-420), the massive 100-volume work of the Great Wisdom Treastise (Mahaprajnaparamita-sastra, Ta Chih-tu lun) was almost (or just) completed. In the course of the brief period between 405 and 408, however, an assortment of important texts was translated. These included the Vimalakirti-nirdesa, Lotus, and Astasahasrika-prajnaparamita (Hsiao-p'in) Sutras It may not be coincidental that in the ensuing years, Tao-sheng wrote commentaries on these three, the last of which is not extant today in any form. In 408 Tao-sheng returned to Lu-shan for some unidentified reason.

Soon afterwards, in 409, Tao-sheng moved to Chien-k'ang for the second time. He remained in the area more than twenty years, taking up residence in a monastery called Ch'ing-yuan ssu (later Lung-kuang ssu) from 419 on. This period also marks his maturity as a thinker, was his most productive in terms of writings, most of which are presumed to have been drafted during this period. A contraversial theory Tao-sheng advocated at this time concerned the question of whether the icchantikas, regarded traditionally as outcasts from the path of enlightenment, were also Buddha-natured. Tao-sheng decided they were while reading an incomplete version of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, a complete version of which was still to come. The absolute universality of the Buddha-nature was the logical conclusion he reached by inference from the first part of the sutra, even though it contained an explicit statement excepting the icchantikas. This bold new interpretation, amounting to a challenge of an accepted channel of the Buddha's doctrines, brought about his expulsion from the Buddhist community sometime between 428 and 429.

Lamenting that people had not been able to transcend the symbols of the translated sutras to grasp the true meaning behind the words and predicitng that he would be proven right and eventually exonerated, Tao-sheng retreated to Lu-shan in 430, via Hu-ch'iu-shan in 429. It was not long, after the complete text of the Nirvana Sutra, translated by Dharmakshema, had made its way there, that Tao-sheng turned out to be correct. He was vindicated and praised for his penetrating insight. Instead of returning to Chien-k'ang, however, he remained at Lu-shan until his death in 434. In 432, Tao-sheng composed a commentary on the Lotus Sutra on the basis of information and lecture notes he had collected throughout his years.

The study and exegesis of the Nirvana Sutra continued during the fourth century and into the beginning of the fifth, largely due to Tao-sheng's study of the text and the contraversy over the related theory of Buddha-nature he initiated. This textual study did not evolve into a full-fledged system or "school" in the full sense of the term, and it was to be overshadowed by the development of other schools in the sixth century. Yet, such continued interest in a specific text and its doctrine, without any missionary or Indian founder involved in the lineage, was almost unprecedented in China. In this respect, Tao-sheng stood very much in the forefront of the formation of the schools that would emerge in the centuries to come.

Tao-sheng was placed at the top of the list of exegetes of the Nirvana Sutra and expounders of the theory of the Buddha-nature; he was first not just chronologically but also as the initiator of the tradition. In 509, upon the order of the Emporer Wu (reigner 502-550) of the Liang dynasty (502-557), Pao-liang (444-509) or Seng-liang or both collected various commentaries on the sutra and compiled ten works, ranging from Tao-sheng's commentary to Pao-liang's own commentary, into an anthology of seventy-one volumes. This line of study in the South waned afterwards, giving way to and being absorbed into other sectarian movements. Yet the tradition continued in the North from the sixth century to the seventh, enlisting many eminent monks ranging from T'an-yen (516-588) to Fa-ch'ang (567-645).

Tao-sheng's theory of Buddha-nature also gave rise to diverse interpretations; at first three "houses," later to be further divided into ten or eleven interpretations. Tao-sheng's position constitutes the first listed in both classifications. The scriptural source given is the Nirvana Sutra (chapter 12): "'Self' means none other than Tathagata-garbha (Womb of the Thus Come One). All sentient beings possess Buddha-nature and that is what 'Self' precisely means."

The basic issue for the three "houses" was whether sentient beings possess the Buddha-nature originally, at present, or in the future. The essence or substance (t'i) of Buddha-nature in other practical terms was also discussed. Tao-sheng defined it as "what sentient beings are going to have (or realize as the fruit of cultivation and enlightenment.)" Dharmakshema, master of the second "house" or interpretation and translator of the large version of the Nirvana Sutra (in forty rolls, T.12, near 374) identifies the substance of Buddha-nature with what beings originally have, the Middle Path (Madhyama-pratipad) and Suchness (Bhutatathata). The third view, held by Ta-yao (ca. 400-475), is a middle position between the two. Buddha-nature as the "right cause" cheng-yin) consists of the li for attaining Buddhahood already in a being's possession. In the case of the ten viewpoints, the descriptive terms identified with Buddha-nature include the li of the Buddha, true spirit, pleasure principle, sentient beings, storehouse (alaya consciousness, or pure consciousness (amala-vijnana). The last two were associated with the masters of the Ti-lun (Dashabhumi) School (6th century); the predecessor of the Hua-yen (Avatamsaka) School (7th century); and She-lun (Mahayana-samparigraha) (6th century), the predecessor of the Fa-hsiang (Vijnaptimatrata) School (7th century). All these facts indicate that Tao-sheng's shadow extended beyond both his own century and the Nirvana School. As a matter of fact, the Nirvana School is considered a forerunner of the T'ien-t'ai School, as it became absorbed into the latter. Likewise, the universality of the Buddha-nature came to be absorbed into Hua-yen Buddhism and also permeated the Ch'an literature; the concept is central to the Platform Sutra.
Tao-Sheng's Commentary on the Lotus Sutra: A Study and Translation by Young-Ho Kim. State University of NY Press: Albany, NY. 1990. pp. 16-18, 65-66.