THE HERMENEUTICAL FEATURES AND FUNCTIONS OF THE SAṂDHINIRMOCANA SŪTRA
In the study of the humanities, the role of hermeneutic is a crucial one. This is especially so in the Buddhist Studies, where textual exegesis plays an important part in the effective understanding of doctrines, and resolution of doctrinal tension or contradiction. The current study examines and demonstrates how Buddhist hermeneutics function in the case of the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra. As a seminal Yogācāra text, the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra not only contains doctrines central to this tradition, but also lays out its mode of interpretation with various hermeneutical features and functions. This includes the very title of the text, and the section on the “Three Turning of the Dharma Wheel” found in the Chapter of “Absence of Own Nature” (niḥsvabhāvatā / asvabhāvatā). These make up the main focus of this paper.
After a close examination of the historical development of the text, various versions of its title present key pointers to the text’s hermeneutical functions. While ancient Chinese and Tibetan translators as well as modern scholars may vary in their versions of the title, common to all is the hidden or esoteric (saṃdhi°) meaning that the title of the Sūtra itself draw out and unfold (°nirmocana). This plays on an implicit level of the text stating its own purpose and importance. The implicit meaning of the title is further demonstrated and elaborated when the Sūtra categorizes itself as the only explicit (nitārtha) teaching, while the earlier doctrines of the Abhidharma and the Prajñāpāramitā systems are said to be implicit (neyārtha) teachings. The Sūtra establishes itself as a source of authority by proclaiming itself as the Third Turning of the Dharma Wheel. It attempts to reinterpret the proclaimed doctrine from an earlier Second Turning of the Dharma Wheel that “all dharmas are without own nature” as possessing implicit meaning which requires interpretation.
Fundamental to the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra’s hermeneutical features is its function of overcoming contradictions or tensions presented by previously established doctrines, a common role of religious hermeneutics everywhere. As seen in the “Three Turnings of the Dharma Wheel”, the First and Second Turnings are recognized by modern researchers as doctrines of “existence” (astitva) and “emptiness” (śūnyatā). These two seemingly antithetical positions are overcome by the re-explication of the teachings of “all dharmas are without own nature” from the Second Turning, which is said to be a reinterpretation of the Prajñāpāramitā. Together with the hermeneutical features that function explicitly and implicitly within the text, the scripture is able to position itself as the foremost authoritative Yogācāra text that became a part of the newly developed mainstream of this Mahāyāna tradition.
The discipline of hermeneutics originates from ancient Greek Philosophy. Its systems of theory in understanding and interpretation of linguistic and non-linguistic expression emergences in the Biblical Studies and later on in the study of other ancient and classic cultures.1 The role of hermeneutics in Buddhist Studies is an important one. With a vast canonical literature and posthumous composition of scriptures attributing to the Buddha continued for over a millennium after his parinirvāṇa,2 there hence arouse the need for systems of exegesis in order to make sense out of the complexity found in Buddhist texts. In fact, such systems of understanding and interpretation have long existed within the Buddhist traditions, with new texts claiming the authority of the words of the Buddha in order to validate certain doctrinal positions or to provide new systems to resolve problems and crisis faced at a particular time.3
One such example demonstrating Buddhist hermeneutics can be seen in the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra. As a seminal scripture of the Yogācāra tradition, the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra not only contains many Buddhist hermeneutical features but also functions on a whole as a hermeneutical tool for interpreting previously established doctrines. The present paper aims to discuss some of these Buddhist hermeneutical features and functions found within the text and their significance in establishing doctrinal position for the Yogācāra tradition. The first part will consist of a brief historical overview of the text, followed by the main study of hermeneutic features and functions of the text.
The Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra is an early Yogācāra text of great importance in the historical development of the tradition. It contains the first traces of Yogācāra ideas and its chapter four and eight contain a ‘crystallization’ of a particular early phase in the development of the Yogācāra.4 The Chinese tradition often regards this scripture to be one of the major ‘Six Sūtras’ that the Consciousness Only School bases on. It too,
1 Ramberg, Bjørn and Gjesdal, Kristin, “Hermeneutics”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Summer 2013 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.). 2 Donald S. Lopez, Jr. Buddhist Hermeneutics, p. 2. 3 In Chappell’s “Hermeneutical Phases in Chinese Buddhism”, Buddhist Hermeneutics, p175. He employs the ‘three phases of millenarian religions’ by Kenelm Buridge as a hermeneutical device to analysis aspects of Chinese Buddhism: canonical Buddhism, Pureland and Ch’an traditions. The first stage in the rising of a new religion or new system involves a new interpretation and practice to resolve crisis faced at the time. 4 Richard King, “Early Yogācāra and its relationship with the Madhyamaka School.” Pp.
has an important status in Tibetan Buddhism, with many important works written base on the doctrine found in the text. Like many Mahāyāna scriptures, the authorship and the exact date of composition are unknown. It is thought that the Sūtra was written between the first and third century C.E. since it was quoted in the works of Asaṅga and Vasubandhu. Also, it must have existed in much of its present form prior to Asaṅga, since he quoted most of the Sūtra in the Viniścaya-saṃgrahaṇī of the Yogācārabhūmi. Some of these scriptures that have either cited or quoted the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra include: Mahāyāna-saṃgraha, Abhidharma-samuccaya and Madhyanta-vibhaga. 5 Besides its influences in the early development of these Yogācāra texts, the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra was also translated into Chinese and Tibetan. As there is no Sanskrit version of the text extant today, the Chinese and Tibetan translations become the only sources for studying of the text.
At present, we know of certain in total, there are four Chinese versions, translated between 445 and 647 A.D. Two of these are full translations in relation to the versions we see today. It is worth noting that according to Lamotte, the text existent today is not a unitary work, but a compilation of fragments with different origins across time.6 Whether or not the other two versions were partially translated or the translators simply had smaller texts to begin with is not known. However, scholars such as Lin and Powers both view Lamotte’s proposition as a plausible hypothesis that requires further supporting evidences.7 For the Tibetan translations, which were translated nearly four centuries after the Chinese ones, there is one version available excluding the fragments of the Dunhuang manuscript.
The influential status of the text can be seen from the composition of four commentaries and other related works in the Tibetan tradition. For the Chinese commentaries, there is only one extant, with the other five commentaries lost. The extant Chinese commentary is composed by Wonch’uk, which is also translated into Tibetan. The Tibetan has a translation of Asaṅga’s commentary on the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra (Ārya-Saṃdhinirmocana-bhāṣya). Tsong Khapa argues that this text is incorrectly attributed to Asaṅga, since the majority of the text has already been quoted in Viniścayasaṃgrahaṇ, hence it seems unnecessary to compose another commentary. Though in Powers’ study, he concludes that there is no strong evidence to support Tsong Khapa’s argument. 8 However, Tsong Khapa’s argument seems plausible since there is no mention of this important commentary attributing to Asaṅga in Chinese. Figure 1 below presents a clear overview detailing the textual sources of Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra, with their historical developments and relationship among one another.9 5 John Powers, “The concept of the ultimate in the Saṃdhinirmocāṇa Sūtra.” Pp. 14. 6 Lamotte, Saṃdhinirmocāṇa Sūtra cited in John Powers, “The concept of the ultimate in the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra.” Pp. 17. 7 Lin, Chen-Kuo. “The Saṃdhinirmocāṇa Sūtra: A liberation hermeneutic.” 8 John Powers, “The concept of the ultimate in the Saṃdhinirmocāṇa Sūtra. pp. 66. 9 All the information is compiled from Lin, Chen-Kuo. “The Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra: A liberation hermeneutic.” & John Powers, “The concept of the ultimate in the Saṃdhinirmocama Sūtra.
9. Jie Shen Mi Jing Shu i. <Xuan Fan>(10 fasc.) ii. Wonch’uk (10 fasc.) iii. <Ling-Yin> ( ) iv. <Jing Xing> (? fasc.) v. <Yuan Xiao> ( ) 1. Ur- Sūtra 4. Guṇabhadra xiang Xu Jie Tuo Jing ~445 A.D. [Last Two Ch.] <Di Yi Yi Wu Xiang Lue> [First Four Chp.] 5. Bodhiruci Shen Mi Jie Tuo Jing 514 A.D. [10 Chp. + Prologue] 3. Larger Sūtra 18 Ch. 6b. Paramārtha Fo Xing Lun Xian Shi Lun 12. ‘Phags pa dgongs pa nges pa’grel pa mdo 814 A.D. 8. Asaṅga Xuan Zang 648 A.D. Viniścayasaṃgrahaṇī Yogācārabhūmi 11. Tun-Huang manuscripts >814A.D. 13. Jñānagarbha ‘Phags pa dgongs pa nges par ‘grel pa’i mdolas ‘phags pa byams pa’I le’u nyi tshe’i bshad pa 18. Byan-Chub rdzu ‘phrul ‘Phags pa dgongs pa nges par’grel pa’imdo’i mom par bshad pz 6. Paramārtha 557-559 Fo Shuo Jie Jie Jing [First Four Chp.]6a. Paramārtha <Jie Jie Jing Shu> [4 fasc.] 7. Xuan Zang 647 A.D. Jie Shen Mi Jing ( .) 8. Asaṅga Viniścayasaṃgrahaṇī Yogācārabhūmi 10. Dao Lun Yu Qie Shi Di Lun Ji 705 A.D. 14. Wouch’uk Chö-drup 842-846 A.D. ‘Phags pa dgongs pa zab mo nges par’grel pa’i mdo’i rgta cher ‘grelpa 17. Asaṅga, Jinamitra, Śilendrabodhi & Ye shes sde ~800 A.D. ‘Phags pa dgongs pa nges par’gel pa’i rnam par bshad pa Asaṅga ĀryaSaṃdhinirmocāṇabhāṣya 15. Khri Srong lde brisam Bka’ yang dag pa’I tshad ma las mdo’I btus pa 2. Smaller Sūtra
Key Notes Sanskrit texts Chinese texts Tibetan texts Partially translated text Quoted, cited, discussed the text Hypothetical transmission Direct Translation or commentary Quoted in Names Author (underlined) Names Translator < > Text no longer extant ~ Approximate date 1. The hypothetical theory of the existence of an Ur-Sutra that developed over time. As currently there is no extant Sanskrit version available, all of the Sanskrit texts in the blue boxes are drawn hypothetically to show historical development and transmissions in each traditions. 2. The hypothesis of the existence of a smaller Sanskrit original text that Bodhiruci and Xuan Zang translated from. Wonch’uk stated in his commentary: This scripture as one set is of two versions. One is the larger This scripture as one set is of two versions. One is the larger version, which contains one hundred thousand verses, the other one is the smaller version which contains one thousand and five hundred verses. Nevertheless, there was only one Sanskrit original for the brief version, which was translated into four Chinese texts by different translators.10
See also 6 & 6b below 3. The larger text Paramārtha translated from. See 6 & 6b below. 4. Translated at Dong An Monastery in Ruen Zhou Jiang Ning (present day Zhen Jiang), Xiang Xu Jie Tuo Jing 《相續解脫經》 is the oldest Chinese translation available, edited as two separate sūtras in Taishō: Xiang Xu Jie Tuo Di Bo Luo Mi Liao Yi Jing 《相繼地波羅 密了義經》 and Xiang Xu Jie Tuo Ru Lai Suo Zuo Sui Shun Chu Liao Yi Jing 《相續解脫如來所作隨順處了義經》. The lost Di Yi Yi Wu Xiang Lue 《第一義無相略》 was preserved in Ji Zang’s Fa Hua Xuan Lun 《法華玄論》. 5. Shen Mi Jie Tuo Jing 《深密 解脫經》, translated at Shaolin Monastery in Song Shan. Its chapter division is the same as in the Tibetan version. 6. Fo Shuo Jie Jie Jing 《佛說解節經》, recorded in Wonch’uk’s commentary, the other possible date of translation is 561 A.D. The content of this text indicates that the original text might be different from the one used by other translators. Firstly, the prologue is totally different to Bodhiruci’s and Xuan zang’s version. Secondly, there is a quote from Li Dai San Bao Ji indicating the existence of a
10 Jie Shen Mi Jing Shu 《解深密經疏》, 2.1.a. sutra, “Originally, the scripture had eighteen chapters … Paramārtha selected it (the first four chapters) as the scriptural support”. 6a. Jie Jie Jing Shi 《解節經疏》, listed in Li Dai San Bao Ji. 《歷代法寶記》. Only fragments are preserved in Wonch’uk commentary. 6b. Verses of the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra quoted in Fo Xing Lun 《佛性論》 and Xian Shi Lun 《顯識論》 are not found in the other extant versions. It indicates a separate original text to the one used by Bodhiruci and Xuan Zang. 7. Jie Shen Mi Jing 《解深密經》, translated in Xi jing Hong Fu Monastery, the whole of the text, except the prologue is found in in the Viniścaya–saṃgrahaṇī of Yogācārabhūmi 《瑜伽師地論卷第七十六攝決擇分》. 7a. She Da Cheng Lun Shi 《攝大乘論釋》 Mahāyāna-saṃgraha-bhāṣya. Chapter three of the Saṃdhinirmocana, Xin Yi Shi Xiang Pin (心意識相品) is quoted in chapter 1.1 Suo Zhi Yi Fen (所知依分) of this text.
8. She Jie Ze Fen of Yu Qie Shi Di Lun 《瑜伽師地論卷第七十六攝決擇分》, extant in both Chinese and Tibetan translation. The entire Chinese Saṃdhi– nirmocana Sutra except the prologue is quoted here. The Tibetan version is also quoted entirely except for the introduction and conclusion. It contains brief commentaries before each chapter. 9. Of these five commentaries recorded in the Dong Yu Chuan Deng Mu Lu 《東域 傳燈目錄》, only Wonch’uk’s commentary is extant presently. Although the its chapter ten is missing, it is later translated into Chinese from the Tibetan version by Shōju Inaba in 1949. 10. This work by the Korean monk, Dao Lun, of the lineage of Kui Ji, also contains the entire Saṃdhinirmocana Sutra. 11. Records from Dunhuang manuscript containing fragments of the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra indicating that it was already translated into Tibetan before 814
A.D. 12. The translator of the extant Tibetan Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra is not recorded. 13. “Commentary on Chapter of the Superior Maitreya from the Superior Sutra Explaining the Thought” (Ārya-Saṃdhinirmocana-ārya-Maitreya-kevalaparivarta-bhāṣya). Along with Candrakīrti, Jñānagarbha is classed as Svātantrika-Mādhyanika. 14. Ārya-gambhīra-Saṃdhinirmocaṇa-sūtra-ṭīkā. Referred frequently by Tsong Khapa. 15. “Summary of the Sūtra [Explaining the Thought] by Way of Valid Cognition of Correct Words”, a treatise that discusses the reasoning processes outlined in the tenth chapter of the sūtra. 16. “The Essence of the Good Explanations” is a treatise on Buddhist hermeneutics, using the Saṃdhinirmocana sūtra as the main bases. Other sub-commentaries from Dge lugs pa school. 17. “The Explanation of the Superior Sutra Explaining the Thought “Ārya-Saṃdhinirmocana-bhāṣya. It consists of 200 verses according to the Lban dkar catalogue. 18. “Explanation of the Superior Sutra Explicating the Thought” Ārya-Saṃdhi– nirmocana-sūtrasya-vyākhyāna. This is the second largest Tibetan commentary that explains the entire sutra with particular focus on the tenth chapter.
aving established the position of Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra in the framework of its historical development, one could see its influence and relationships with other Yogācāra scriptures. Modern scholars such as Lamotte consider the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra as a representative of an important stage in the development of Mahāyāna doctrines. It serves as a transition between the Perfection of Wisdom Sutras and the Yogācāra school of Asaṅga and Vasubandhu.11 Conze classifies the seventh stage in the development of the Prajñāpāramitā literature to be marked by the Yogācāra production of systemizing commentaries. 12 The Yogācāra text accomplished the above-mentioned task by implementing hermeneutical features and functions in the text. The following section will discuss some of these features and functions.
The Title Of The Sūtra
Even though there is no extant Sanskrit version, the Sanskrit title, Saṃdhi–nirmocana is the accepted one and is widely used today. The title of the text serves as an important hermeneutical elements of the text. The term ‘saṃdhi’ means, “containing a conjunction, transition form one to another, junction, connection, union with, a joint”. The term ‘nirmocana’ is made up of the prefix ‘nir’, “-out”, followed by ‘mocana’ from the verbal root √muc, meaning, “to loosen, free from, liberate”.13 In the Buddhist context, the meaning of Saṃdhinirmocana is defined as, “Setting forth, unfolding of real truth, fundamental explanation”. The Tibetan translation includes ‘dgoṅs pa’ “esoteric meaning” and ‘ṅes par ḥgrel pa’ “real explanation”.14 In the Chinese versions, the various translations include, “Connection continuity and liberation (Xiang Xu Jie Tuo)”, “Untying of the knot (Jie Jie)”, “The deep mystery releasing (Shen Mi Jie Tuo)” and “Releasing the deep mystery (Jie Shen Mi)”.
Modern Western interpretations of the title includes: “Explaining the thought” by John Powers, “Explication of underlying meaning” by John Keenan and Cleary’s “Unlocking the Mysteries”.15 All of the above versions of the title suggest the Sūtra is attempting to unfold some deep, underlying, profound teachings. Lin argues that the title suggests more than its hermeneutical function of disclosing the profound meaning, but also serves to liberate sentient being from the knot-like complexity of saṃsāra.16 For Takasaki, the function of the title for the Sūtra is summarized as the following formula: “X as the esoteric meaning possess the connotation of A1, A2, A3… (samdhāya) which is expressed as B”. The Saṃdhi X is seen during the explication of
11 Lamotte cited in John Powers, “The concept of the ultimate in the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra”. pp. 14. 12 Edward Conze. Thirty years of Buddhist studies. pp. 144. Even though the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra is not a commentary, it is often describe as written in a systematic commentarial style. Conze saw the Yogācāra’s interpretation on Prajñāpāramitā as ‘violent to the existing text’ i.e. Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra, and ‘superimpose some scheme alien to it’. 13 Monier-Williams, A Sanskrit English Dictionary. pp. 556. 14 Franklin Edgerton, Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit Dictionary. pp. 558. 15 See bibliography. 16 Lin, Chen-Kuo. “The Saṃdhinirmocāṇa Sūtra: A liberation hermeneutic.” pp. 99.
B, which contains the underlying meaning of A1, A2 and A3 Therefore, X is esoteric, which is abhiprāya.17 The formula can be exemplified in Chapter five “Absence of Own Nature” (Xuan Zang’s version) as follows:
‘World-honored One. With what esoteric meaning when you say: “all dharmas are without own nature, without arising, without ceasing, originally quiescent, (their) own nature is nirvāṇa?’ I now ask the Tathāgata the meaning of this, may the Tathāgata kindly explain all the esoteric meaning when speaking of ‘All dharmas are without own nature, without arising, without ceasing, originally quiescent, (their) own nature is nirvāṇa…’
‘Paramārthasamudgata, you should understand that, based on the three kinds of “Absence of own nature” I speak of the esoteric meaning of all dharmas are without own nature, that is called ‘Absence of own nature of form, absence of own nature of arising, absence of own nature of the Ultimate.” 18
According to Takasaki, in this passage, ‘B’ is the statement taught by the Tathāgata that “all dharmas are without own nature”, however this statement possesses the esoteric meaning of X, which is revealed in the “absence of own nature of form, airing and Ultimate” (A1, A2, A3), which is the “absence of three own natures”. X is expressed in B, B has the saṃdhi of A1, A2, A3, which are the explanations of X. The hermeneutical strategy of interpreting B with A1, A2, and A3 in order to reveal the esoteric meaning X is the main theme of the text. The title suggests the need to draw out the esoteric meaning of “all dharmas are without own nature”. It also presents the connotation that the doctrine of “all dharmas are without own nature (B)” cannot be understood and interpreted as it is; the real meaning is actually X which can only be explained with A1, A2, A3. The Three Turnings of the Dharma Wheel
One of the most crucial passages steering the hermeneutical function of the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra is the “Three Turnings of the Dharma Wheel”. This section is found in Chapter Five of Xuan Zang’s version, Chapter Eight of Bodhiruci’s and the Tibetan versions. The concise passage contains a number of hermeneutical elements, including: Three turnings of the Dharma Wheel, proclaimed doctrines, Vehicles and implicit (neyārtha) versus explicit (nītārtha) teachings. Figure 2 shows the various elements from the passage of the Three Turnings of the Dharma Wheel.
17 Takasaki, Jikido, & others. Wei Shi Si Xiang “唯識思想.” Pp. 21. 18 “世尊，依何密意，作如是說。一切諸法皆無自性，無生，無滅，本來寂靜，自性涅槃。我今 請問如來斯義，惟願如來哀愍解釋，說一切法皆無自性，無生，無滅，本來寂靜，自性涅槃， 所有密意。…. 勝義生! 當知，我依三種無自性性,密意說言，一切諸法皆無自性，所謂相無 自性性，生無自性性，勝義無自性性。” CBETA, T16, no. 0676, p.0693c29.
Figure 2 Content of the Three Turning of the Dharma Wheel19
Turning of the Dharma Wheel
First Second Third
Type of Turning
Implicit vs. Explicit
Implicit Implicit Explicit
Descriptions of teachings
Even more marvelous and wonderful
The fact that it was Bodhisattva Paramārthasamudgata, whose very name means “Attained the Ultimate Meaning”, who narrates this passage of the Three Turnings of the Dharma Wheel implies that text’s implicit indication of preaching the Ultimate teaching. It is worth noting that the content of the proclaimed doctrine for both the second and third turnings are identical, which is the ‘B’ as seen earlier. The Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra as the Third Turning is the explicit teaching. It is not ‘B’ namely “all dharmas are without own nature, without arising, without ceasing,
19 “爾時勝義生菩薩復白佛言。世尊。初於一時在婆羅痆斯仙人墮處施鹿林中。惟為發趣聲聞乘 者。以四諦相轉正法輪。雖是甚奇甚為希有。一切世間諸天人等先無有能如法轉者。而於彼時 所轉法輪。有上有容是未了義。是諸諍論安足處所。世尊。在昔第二時中惟為發趣修大乘者。 依一切法皆無自性無生無滅。本來寂靜自性涅槃。以隱密相轉正法輪。雖更甚奇甚為希有。而 於彼時所轉法輪。亦是有上有所容受。猶未了義。是諸諍論安足處所。世尊。於今第三時中普 為發趣一切乘者。依一切法皆無自性無生無滅。本來寂靜自性涅槃無自性性。以顯了相轉正法 輪。第一甚奇最為希有。于今世尊所轉法輪。無上無容是真了義。非諸諍論安足處所。世尊。 若善男子或善女人於此如來依一切法皆無自性無生無滅。本來寂靜自性涅槃。所說甚深了義言 教。聞已信解書寫護持供養流布受誦修習如理思惟。以其修相發起加行生幾所福。說是語已。” CBETA, T16, no. 0676, p.0697a23.
originally quiescent, (their) own nature is nirvāṇa” as the explicit teaching, but rather ‘X’ as the esoteric meaning is the explicit teaching, that can only be explained by the Three Absences of Own Nature (A1, A2, A3) as established earlier in the chapter. Therefore, even though this passage did not explicitly state the actual doctrine propagated by the Sūtra, it functions as an important hermeneutical feature in establishing the authoritative position of the text.
Implicit Meaning vs. Explicit Meaning
The feature of implicit and explicit meaning as schema of textual exegeses derives early in the Buddhist tradition. They are part of the four sets of hermeneutics that the early Buddhists define and formulate in the “Sūtra of the Four Refuges or Four Reliances” (Catur-pratisārana sūtra).20 These sets of Buddhist hermeneutics serve as guidelines for interpreting texts and teachings. It states the reliance on the Dharma, meaning, wisdom and explicit meaning over the reliance on teacher, letters, consciousness and implicit meaning respectively.21 They appear in a number of texts such as the Abhidharmakośa , the Mādhyamika sūtras and śāstras as well as Yogācāra texts.22 The Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra employs one of the “Four Reliances”, stating that the teachings of the Buddha from the first two Turnings of the Dharma Wheels as implicit teachings, therefore these teachings cannot be taken as they are and require further explanations. Only the teachings from the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra can be taken explicitly as they are, without further explanation. While the teachings of the first two Turnings are said to be “surpassable”, of “interpretable meaning” and “subject to criticism”, the teaching of the Third Turning is considered to be “unsurpassable”, of “definitive meaning” and “not subject to criticism”. It implies that the interpreter should find the Third Turning of the Dharma Wheel more compelling and convincing than the other two Turnings of the Dharma Wheel.23
The proclaimed doctrines from the First, Second and Third Turnings are commonly accepted to be: Abhidharma, Prajñāpāramitā and Yogācāra tradition respectively. Lamotte summarizes these as the following:
The hermeneutical function of the Saṃdhinirmocana takes on doctrine from the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra and śūnyata of Mahāyāna thought established by Nāgārjuna, and reinterprets them to establish Yogācāra position in the Mahāyāna. As seen in Madhyanta-vibhaga, the Yogācāra’s establishment of the middle way bases on astivada and śūnyavāda.24
It is said that the early Yogācāra was confronted with what seems to be a doctrinal contradiction of the First and Second Turnings. In the First Turning of the Dharma Wheel, the Abhidharma texts bases itself on analyzing the own nature of all dharmas and to meditate on how these dharmas arise and cease. In contrast, the Second Turning
20 Lamotte, E. “The Assessment of Textual Interpretation in Buddhism” pp. 12. 21 “四依止：依法不依人，依義不依語，依智不依識，依了義不依不了義。” 22 Lamotte, E. “The Assessment of Textual Interpretation in Buddhism” pp. 12 23 John Powers, Hermeneutics and Tradition in the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra. pp. 108. 24 Takasaki, Jikido, & others. “唯識思想.” pp. 26
of the Dharma Wheel, the Prajñāpāramitā literature declares that all dharmas are without own nature, neither arise nor cease. Since both the Abhidharma and the Prajñāpāramitā are attributed to the Buddha, their successor, Yogācāra tradition saw the need to develop a new Buddhist discourse that too attributed to the Buddha through hermeneutical features such as those found here.25
The Third Turning of the Dharma Wheel stands on the notion that its doctrine is for people of all Vehicles. For some, the Prajñāpāramitā system and the system established by Nāgārjuna have been too hasty in preaching the Mahāyāna doctrine, therefore negating and excluding the Śrāvaka Vehicle. The Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra claims to include the Śrāvaka Vehicle by stating that its proclaimed teachings are for all Vehicles or anyone who is in accordance with the explicit doctrine.26
The hermeneutical features of the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra function as a source of authority for the text. Throughout the scripture, there are a number of places that contain both implicit and explicit claims about its definitiveness. In the introduction chapter, it presents itself as a text for advanced practitioners, and the place where the Sūtra was taught is described as being a vast celestial palace that reflects the supreme state of realization of the Buddha. The interlocutors (except for Subhūti) are all Bodhisattvas who have attained high level of understanding.27 Besides Bodhisattva Paramārthasamudgata, other interlocutors include: Bodhisattva Gambhīrārthasaṃdhinirmocana, Bodhisattva Vidhivatparipṛcchaka, Bodhisattva Dharmodgata, Bodhisattva Suviśuddhamati, Bodhisattva Viśālamati and so on. There may be hermeneutical significance with the names of these Bodhisattvas and their roles within the text that worth further studies.
The authority of the Buddha and his teaching abilities are also important elements of the Sūtra’s implicit arguments for its authority. When the first two Turnings of the Dharma Wheel are described, the audiences were told that these teachings were taught for particular congregations, and behind this statement is the Mahāyāna Buddhist doctrine of “skillful means” which bases on the notion that the Buddha teaches each individual or group what will be most beneficial. In addition, the Mahāyāna tradition in general views the Buddha as omniscient and so he is able to know precisely the nature of the predispositions of each individual and group and adapt his teachings accordingly.
The implicit claims of the Sūtra’s multifaceted arguments for its own definitiveness, which is based on the personal authority of the Buddha, the persuasiveness of its analogies, as well as the scripture’s own claims of definitiveness requires the assumptions that this is a teaching given by the supreme authority for Buddhists and that these teachings can effectively reconcile the conceptual difficulties that arose from his earlier teachings and will advance the spiritual progress of those who embrace the
25 Lin, Chen-Kuo. “The Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra: A liberation hermeneutic.” Pp.72. 26 Takasaki, Jikido, & others. Wei Shi Si Xiang “唯識思想.” pp. 26. 27 “Subhūti is presumably a member of this august assembly because of being recognized in Pali literature as the most advanced of Buddha’s Hearer disciples in understanding of emptiness.” John Powers, Hermeneutics and Tradition in the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra. pp. 108. world view outlined in the sutra.28
In conclusion, the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra established its authority for reinterpreting the earlier doctrines with hermeneutical features such as its title, the Three Turning of the Dharma Wheel, dictograph the previously established doctrine to be implicit and itself as the definitive one. Together with the hermeneutical features that function explicitly and implicitly within the text, the scripture is able to position itself as a Yogācāra text that became a part of the newly developed mainstream. As the title suggests, the text implies the need to draw out the implicit meaning of previously established teachings, namely the “the absence of three natures”. While the explicit teaching of the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra, should be interpreted as it is. Even though the Sūtra categorized itself as explicit, its proclaimed doctrine is built on an implicit fashion, the need to draw out the esoteric meaning.
While modern scholars seem to be in agreement that the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra as the Third Turning of the Dharma Wheel is reinterpreting the Second Turning, the Prajñāpāramitā, which builds on the assumption that the doctrine of “all dharmas are without own nature” equates to the doctrine of the Prajñāpāramitā. No doubt, this is what the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra was reinterpreting and the Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra regards itself as the Second Turning of the Dharma Wheel, it does not justify the argument of the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra is
reinterpreting the whole of the Prajñā– pāramitā literature. If the vast textual sources from the Prajñāpāramitā literature develop through centuries and its doctrines and thoughts progress across time, to claim that its doctrine as one single teaching of “all dharmas are without own nature” seems to be simplifying the complex matters involved. Nevertheless, the function of the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra within the Yogācāra context in reinterpreting some aspect of the Prajñāpāramitā system is obvious. Another area worth exploring is to determine what “X” is. Perhaps it is the “Ultimate” that all Buddhist systems attempt to define. Together with other hermeneutical features and functions form the Saṃdhinirmocana Sūtra such as the name of various Bodhisattvas, the hermeneutical features and functions within the broader Yogācāra tradition for example, the Maitreya as the founder in the East Asian tradition, are all potential topics worth further studies.
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