Book Launch: Revisiting Buddha-nature in India and China

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5:00 pm to 7:00 pm
Virtual Event

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Dr Christopher Jones, Dr Li Zijie
The Buddhist Self: On Tathāgatagarbha and Ātman


The focus of my recent monograph is an exploration and reassessment of the early life of teaching about tathāgatagarbha, or otherwise notions of ‘Buddha-nature’, in India in the early centuries of the Common Era. My approach has been to consider our primary sources for this tradition – mostly Indian sūtra materials that survive in Sanskrit, Chinese and/or Tibetan literature – and their treatment of a particularly contentious issue that runs through this tradition: to what extent that which is taught by the expression tathāgatagarbha constitutes a Buddhist account of the self (ātman). It is well-known that while some texts of this tradition simply deny that tathāgatagarbha is best conceptualized in these terms (for example the ‘Śrīmālā-sūtra’ and Laṅkāvatāra-sūtra), others report the Buddha teaching that to see or comprehend tathāgatagarbha is to know nothing other than that which deserves to be called the self (most famously in the ‘Nirvāṇa-sūtra’), in apparent contradiction to wider and earlier Buddhist teaching that dismisses Indian discourse about an enduring self, its qualities, and the merits of finding it. With reference to other recent work on Buddha-nature literature, I argue that while a great deal of important scholarship has unpacked the doctrinal content of the Ratnagotravibhāga, the great commentarial work in Indian Buddha-nature thinking, the early life of this tradition may not be best represented by the systematic and selective picture of these teachings that we encounter in its lines. I find that a persuasive narrative about the trajectory of teaching about tathāgatagarbha in Indian only ends with the sophisticated metaphysics of that text, via a reassessment of tathāgatagarbha away from what it was in our earliest literature concerned with it: nothing less than a Buddhist revelation of something enduringly precious in the constitution of all sentient beings, or otherwise something that some Buddhist authors boldly opted to call ‘the self.’

Author Biography

Chris V. Jones is Research Associate and Affiliated Lecturer at the Divinity Faculty of the University of Cambridge, and a Bye-Fellow of Selwyn College. His doctoral research, on tathāgatagarbha literature, was completed at the University of Oxford in 2015, and was subsequently awarded the Khyentse Foundation Award for a Dissertation in Buddhist Studies. His research focuses on aspects of primarily Mahāyāna Buddhist literature across Sanskrit, Chinese and Tibetan sources, and his first monograph, The Buddhist Self: On Tathāgatagarbha and Ātman, was published at the end of 2020.

The Ratnagotravibhāga and East Asian Buddhism: A Study on the Tathāgatagarbha, Tathatā and Gotra between the 5th and 7th Centuries


My monograph explores theories on tathāgatagarbha, tathatā and gotra in East Asian Buddhism between the 5th and the 7th centuries, with a focus on the interpretation and influence of the Ratnagotravibhāga (Ch. Jiujing yisheng baoxing lun究竟一乘寶性論). I review and reconsider tathāgatagarbha and consciousness-only theories in the context of East Asian Buddhism, especially before the return of Xuanzang玄奘 (602-664) to China. There are major differences between our Sanskrit text of the Ratnagotravibhāga and its classical Chinese translation, which had an immeasurable influence on East Asian Buddhist thought and has yet to be fully explored. No commentary on the Ratnagotravibhāga in Chinese Buddhism has survived, so scholars have maintained the opinion that it was not regarded too much in Chinese and East Asian Buddhism. However, the findings of my research show that the Chinese translation of the Ratnagotravibhāga had more influence than previously imagined in East Asian Buddhist intellectual history.
I explore the ideological background of the classical Chinese translation of the Ratnagotravibhāga, with reference to the Pusa dichi jing菩薩地持經, several commentaries on the Śrīmālā-sūtra, the Da boniepan jing大般涅槃經 and the Rulengqie jing入楞伽經. In comparison to the surviving Sanskrit text, the Chinese version of the Ratnagotravibhāga downplays the significance of the expression gotra and instead reflects a strong interest in zhenru真如 (Skt. tathatā) and foxing佛性 (Buddha-nature) –for instance, ‘zhenru foxing’ becomes the foundation or reason for transmigration in the world. In this context, reality (Skt. tathatā) acts like a conditioned dharma, an idea that deeply influenced later understanding of Buddha-nature in East Asian Buddhism. I furthermore discuss the relationship between the Ratnagotravibhāga and other significant East Asian authors and teachings, such as Paramārtha真諦 (499-569), the Dasheng qixin lun大乘起信論, Fazang法藏 (643-712), the Sanjie school 三階教, and trace the influence of the Ratnagotravibhāga beyond China into the writings of Wonhyo元曉 (617-686) in Korea and the Japanese authors Juryō寿霊 and Chikei智憬 in Nara era (710-784).

Author Biography

Li Zijie 李 子捷 achieved a Ph.D. degree in East Asian Buddhism from Komazawa University in Tokyo under the guidance of Ishii Kōsei and Matsumoto Shirō. He was subsequently elected as a JSPS Postdoctoral Fellow at the Institute of Humanities of Kyoto University, under the guidance of Funayama Tōru. He is now a Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at SOAS University of London (Centre of Buddhist Studies), hosted by Lucia Dolce. His main research area is the history of East Asian Buddhist Thought between the 5th and 7th centuries. He is the author of Kukyō ichijō hōshōron to higashiajia bukkyō: Go—nana seiki no nyoraizō, shinnyo, shushō no kenkyū『究竟一乗宝性論』と東アジア仏教 ── 五—七世紀の如来蔵・真如・種姓説の研究 [The Ratnagotravibhāga and East Asian Buddhism: A Study on the Tathāgatagarbha, Tathatā and Gotra between the 5th and 7th Centuries] (Tokyo: Kokusho kankōkai, 2020).

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Organiser: SOAS Centre of Buddhist Studies

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