Hosso Yogacara Buddhism and the Five Natures Doctrine

Throughout the history of the Hossō Buddhist sect in Japan, descended from the Yogacara school of thought from India, no one doctrine has caused more controversy or sparked debate with other schools than the Five-Natures Doctrine, or goshō kakubetsu (五姓各別). I don’t necessarily endorse nor criticize this doctrine myself, but I am a big believer that a little healthy competition is good for everyone, and the Japanese Buddhist discourse in the West is dominated by sects descended from Tendai Buddhism in particular (Zen, Pure Land, Nichiren), which tends to make things lop-sided. And so I think it’s good to provide alternate views to get people thinking. This post is one such effort. 🙂

This teaching, unique to Yogacara Buddhism and its offshoots only, states that there are in fact three “vehicles” of Buddhism (三乗, sanjō), not one as contended by the Lotus Sutra:

  1. The Bodhisattva vehicle
  2. The Pratyeka or “private Buddha” vehicle
  3. The Śrāvaka or “voice hearer/disciple” vehicle.

All three of these “vehicles” are defined in the earliest sutra scriptures, but not necessarily in a straightforward, textbook fashion. This page by Buddhanet provides an excellent summary if you’re not already familiar with the concept.

Now the Five Natures Doctrine in Hossō / Yogacara Buddhism states that due to innate natures of beings (lit. innate seeds), people will ultimately follow only one of these nature to fruition, or none at all. One does not feed into the other, so to speak. The Five Natures are:

  1. Beings with a predisposition toward the Bodhisattva Path
  2. Beings with a predisposition toward the Private Buddha Path
  3. Beings with a predisposition toward the Voice Hearer Path
  4. Beings with an indeterminate predisposition (they could go a few different ways)
  5. Beings lacking the predisposition at all for reaching Enlightenment (e.g. icchantikas)

The last class of beings is the one that draws the most fire. The notion of Icchantikas or beings who can never attain Enlightenment has some precedence in the Buddhist teachings, where it’s mentioned in the Mahayana Nirvana Sutra, and also mentioned at length in the Lankavatara Sutra. The Lankavatara also happens to be one of the two central texts in Hossō Buddhism.1 Anyway, the Sutra defines the Icchantikas as follows (explanations added by D.T. Suzuki):

Again, Mahamati, how is it that the Icchantika never awaken the desire for emancipation? Because they have abandoned all the stock of merit, and because they cherish certain vows for all beings since beginningless time. What is meant by abandoning all the stock of merit? It refers to [those Buddhists] who have abandoned the Bodhisattva collection [of the canonical texts], making the false accusation that they are not in conformity with the sutras, the codes of morality, and the emancipation. By this they have forsaken all the stock of merit and will not enter into Nirvana. Secondly again, Mahamati, there are Bodhisattva-Mahasattvas who, on account of their original vows made for all beings, saying, “So long as they do not attain Nirvana, I will not attain it myself,” keep themselves away from Nirvana. This, Mahamati, is the reason of their not entering into Nirvana, and because of this they go on the way of the Icchantika. (Section XXII)

So there are actually two types of icchantikas, or those who will never attain Enlightenment: those who have utterly abandoned merit and good works, and those Bodhisattvas who voluntarily stay and liberate all beings, rather than reach Enlightenment. But even in the case of those who have abandoned merit, the Buddha then states in the Sutra:

Those Icchantikas, Mahamati, who have forsaken all the stock of merit might some day be influenced by the power of the Tathagatas and be induced at any moment to foster the stock of merit. Why? Because, Mahamati, no beings are left aside by the Tathagatas. For this reason, Mahamati, it is [only] the Bodhisattva-Icchantika who never enters into Nirvana.

As Rev. Tagawa in his book, Living Yogacara, explains the doctrine like so:

When we consider the broad range of sentient beings, even without their variations in external form and appearance, we must acknowledge that they internally contain a wide variety of differences in terms of ability of character. In roughly defining a Buddhist lifestyle, I would like to think of it as the lifestyle of consistent application toward the elimination of of evil and cultivation of good, which the ultimate aim of liberating our mind, while simultaneous caring for others. But we certainly cannot say that all sentient beings are endowed with the same capacity for the elimination of evil and cultivation of good. Beyond these very general differences, the Yogācāras understood that all living beings do not uniformly become buddhas in the same way, and furthermore, that the state that they attain differs according to their predilection. (pg. 104)

This teaching drew intense criticism from the Tendai school of Buddhism in particular, which held the Lotus Sutra and its One Vehicle teaching as the ultimate. Indeed, Saichō, the founder of Tendai, traded harsh words with Tokuitsu, the leading Hossō scholar of his time. Later, debates such as the Ōwa Debate in 963, pitted both sides against each other with inconclusive results, followed by more and more debates until the time of Jōkei in the 13th century, who according to James L. Ford’s book, Jōkei and Buddhist Devotion in Early Medieval Japan, attempted to reconcile the differences with a “middle way” approach: reiterating the Lankavatara Sutra’s point that even Icchantikas will be saved by Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, rather than their own effort (or lack thereof). At the same time, he uses the Lotus Sutra, namely chapter five, and the parable of medicinal herbs, to assert the view that there are indeed different natures ultimately for all beings.

Rev. Tagawa writes regarding the whole debate and controversy:

This disparity in view between all sentient beings becoming Buddha and distinction in five natures is grounded in the differences between an idealistic point of view [the Tendai One Vehicle doctrine] and a realistic point of view [the Hossō Five-Natures doctrine]. To the extent that members of each side attach their own positions, they will accomplish nothing more than continuing to traverse along parallel lines, and we can never expect any satisfactory resolution of the controversy. However, those of us who are trying to follow the Buddhist path should, regardless of the standpoint, be willing to give serious consideration to the perspectives of the others. (pg. 108)

And lastly Rev. Tagawa provides one last warning with regard to the Five-Natures Doctrine:

…we should remember to never take the division into five-natures as either a standard by which others are measured in the Buddha-path, or as a teaching that coldly divides practitioners into classes. The theory of the distinction if five natures is something that should be taken up only in the context of one’s own self-examination regarding one’s own qualities. (pg. 109)

Rev. Tagawa’s point about realism vs. idealism is something for Buddhists to bear in mind, as Buddhism has an abundance of very poetic and beautiful imagery and concepts, but sometimes it’s important to take stock of what we have, compare it to reality, and try to understand where they agree and disagree. I do find myself sympathetic to the Five Natures Doctrine, but also willing to consider the Lotus Sutra view of universal Buddhahood if indeed it’s possible.

Definitely open to hear other thoughts, if you have them. 🙂

Namu Amida Butsu

P.S. this is a re-post from the old blog. It’s handy information to have on the Web. 😎

1 The other is the Samdhinirmocana Sutra, which I can’t find a copy of online anymore. 😦 A third critical text, at least for East Asian Yogacara/Hossō Buddhism is the Jō yuishiki ron, better known as the Chéng wéishì lùn (成唯識論) by Xuanzang.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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