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The rich and interconnected universe of Śākya Mchog Ldan’s views, including those on the buddha-essence, cannot be limited to or summarized in a few neat categories. Nevertheless, the following two interrelated ideas are crucial for understanding Śākya Mchog Ldan’s interpretation of the buddha-essence: 1) only Mahāyāna āryas (’phags pa) have the buddha-essence characterized by the purity from adventitious stains (glo bur rnam dag); 2) the buddha-essence is inseparable from the positive qualities (yon tan, guṇa) of a buddha; In his writings, Śākya Mchog Ldan argues against identifying the buddha- essence as a mere natural purity (rang bzhin rnam dag), i.e., the state of natural freedom from obscurations as it is taught in the Middle or Second Wheel of Doctrine (chos ’khor, dharmacakra) and its commentaries. The buddha-essence has to be posited as inseparability from positive qualities of a buddha.
Śākya Mchog Ldan approaches the buddha-essence inseparable from positive qualities of a buddha in two ways. In some texts, such as the Essence of Sūtras and Tantras, he argues that it has to be identified only as purity from adventitious stains, i.e., the removal of all or some negative qualities that prevent one from directly seeing the buddha-essence. In other texts, such as The Sun Unseen Before, he interprets it as the purity from adventitious stains and the natural purity as it is taught in some sūtras of the Third Wheel of Doctrine and their commentaries. That type of natural purity is understood as the state of natural freedom from all obscurations inseparable from positive qualities of a buddha. Thereby, in this second type of texts, Śākya Mchog Ldan arrives at positing two types of the buddha-essence: relative (kun rdzob, saṃvṛti) and ultimate (don dam, paramārtha). Despite different interpretations of the natural purity, the identification of the buddha-essence as the purity from adventitious stains is present in both.
In his interpretation of the buddha-essence, Śākya Mchog Ldan utilizes the categories of the three levels found in the Sublime Continuum: the impure (ma dag, aśuddha), impure-pure (ma dag dag pa, aśuddhaśuddha, i.e. partially pure) and very pure (shin tu rnam dag, suviśuddha) levels that correspond respectively to the categories of sentient beings, bodhisattvas (understood as ārya bodhisattvas in this context), and tathāgatas.
Śākya Mchog Ldan argues that one becomes a possessor of the buddha-essence free from adventitious stains only on the impure-pure level. In other words, when bodhisattvas enter the Mahāyāna Path of Seeing (mthong lam, darśanamārga) simultaneously with the attainment of the first boddhisattva ground (byang chub sems pa’i sa, bodhisattavabhūmi) of Utmost Joy (rab tu dga’ ba, pramuditā), they become āryas, i.e. “exalted” or “superior,” bodhisattvas, directly realize the ultimate truth (don dam bden pa, paramārthasatya), and thereby for the first time generate an antidote to obscurations of knowables (shes bya’i sgrib pa, jñeyāvaraṇa). They start gradually removing them, and thereby actually see at least a partial purification of stains “covering” the buddha-essence, and its inseparability from at least some positive qualities. Such is not possible for anyone below that level, even for the non-Mahāyāna arhats (i.e., śrāvakas and pratyekabuddhas). Thus, only Mahāyāna āryas have the buddha-essence characterized by the purity from adventitious stains; āryabodhisattvas have only a part of it, while buddhas have it completely.
This article contains the complete text (in English translation) of The Essence of Sūtras and Tantras: Explanation of the Buddha-essence and The Sun Unseen Before: Definitive Meaning of the “Sublime Continuum” Treatise.