Quote from Dan Lusthaus: Buddhist Phenomenology, (p. 256-257; 263-264):
We are now ready to return to the question: Should prajnä-paramita be understood as connoting an essentialistic understanding of tathatä or should it be understood as connoting an epistemic process? Both positions have had their adherents within the Buddhist tradition. Since this controversy stands at the heart of the East Asian appropriation of Buddhist thought, and has determined many important parameters for doctrinal developments in China, Korea and Japan, closer examination of its features is in order. Yogacära, in particular as disseminated in China, polarized around this opposition, and in part Hsüantsang's project can be seen as a systematic refutation of the essentialist position as advocated by Paramärtha and others.
If Awakening, at least provisionally, is considered to be a goal, and sheer knowing is that goal's necessary (and perhaps sufficient) condition, the question arises: Is the goal something essentially existent, such that the epistemic method (jnäna- märga) uncovers it; or, does the method subsume the goal, such that the goal's provisionality is exposed, revealing not an essential truth, but rather an insight into the epistemic process itself? In the first case, knowledge (jnäna) will be considered the means or agent for attaining some -thing which in itself is impervious to or indifferent to the vicissitudes of epistemological approaches, though made accessible through such approaches. In the second case, nothing relevant exists outside or apart from the dynamic, progressive sphere of knowledge; Awakening here would mean that knowing (prajnä, jnana) becomes transparent to itself. Again, the former implies an absolute, objective Truth, while the latter implies a progressional unfolding that never posits anything apart from the process itself.
In Buddhist terminology, the former (the Essentialist) posits Buddhahood as a distinct realm, distinct precisely because it is accessible only to Buddhas, and hence somehow essentially other than the realms accessible to the remainder of sentient beings. At best, non - Buddhas might contain a germ or seed (tathägatagarbha) that offers the potential of entry into the distinct Buddha - realm, but they are considered non- Buddhas precisely because they have not yet actualized this potential. Here, as in other philosophical contexts, essentialism inscribes itself through the discourse of 'potential /actual.' Buddhahood and its corollariestathata, sambodhi, etc. would signify an ultimate, transcendental Reality.
The latter (the Progressionalist) would argue that the process of Awakening can never be separable from the Bodhisattva path ", and that (i) the pre - Awakening striving, (ii) the Awakening realization and (iii) the post - Awakening aid offered to other sentient beings can never be seen apart from the samsäric process in which that path occurs; moreover, samsära is able to proceed only in virtue of its emptiness (iünyata).26 The full career of the Bodhisattva is nothing other than this process. During (i), the Bodhisattva's progress is largely determined by samsäric and samskaric conditions, though efforts are made to overcome these determinants through theory and practice. During (ii), theory and practice converge, such that the inseparability of samsära and nirvana, or process (pratitya- samutpäda) and emptiness, infuse the whole of the Bodhisattva's life -world. The remedied process continues and disseminates in (iii).
Practical considerations also arise from this problem. If Awakening unfolds through a process, then to some extent this unfolding is temporal. These temporal aspects necessitate that practice towards Awakening be gradual. If, on the other hand, a ready -made transcendental realm already exists, then what is essential about Awakening remains entirely separate from temporal considerations, and entry into it may be 'sudden,' i.e., nondependent on any temporal considerations.
As Mahayana Buddhism developed, the essentialist vs. progressionalist controversy peaked. One text which preserves the tensions is the Lotus Sutra. The first half deals with upaya, the provisional, deceptive character of Buddhist doctrine and practice. The 'truths' of Buddhism are mere provisional ploys designed to bring one to a place where ploys are no longer necessary nor possible. The second half presents the 'True Buddha,' an ahistorical, unborn, undying, mythologically omniscient and omnipresent Power or Being. Centuries later East Asian schools, such as Tendai and Nichiren, rightly asked and debated which of these two visions of Buddhism contextualized which? If the first half gives the `truth,' then the second half should be seen as an elaborate upayic ploy. If the second half gives the 'truth,' then the ploys of the first half are merely indirect, pedagogical instruments for reaching this truth, for reaching this ontological realization.
Beyond the Lotus Sutra the essentialist vs. progressionalist opposition is found shaping Buddhist methodology, which is to say, the marga, the Path. Those taking Buddhism to hold an ontological nature as its essence, who conceive of Buddhism as grounded in Being, develop their essentialism by understanding prajna- paramita as `perfect -ion,' and posit that perfection as an ontologically primal and definitive 'tathata'; i.e., a things. Suchness `suchness' which is the universal, sacred, perfected nature of all becomes a cosmic essence, the primal, originary scene. Buddha is no longer a teacher who perfected himself, but the universal essence of all things, the potential perfection ontologically concealed behind a veil of transmigratory appearance. And yet, the veil and what it veils are united in essence. It is this interpretationwhich reads Nagarjuna's statement that not an iota of distinction can be drawn between samsara and nirvana (an epistemic observation) as if it were an ontological claim, a statement of essentialistic identity: sarpsdra is nirvana."
On the other hand, those who take the progressionalist stance displace the notions of nature and essence with a theory of perdurance, of continuity which, precisely because it is grounded in neither identity nor difference, can engender progress and betterment (or worsening). Prajnä- paramita here means 'perfecting,' as that which perdures becomes that which it is not, without ever being totally other than itself. The path is tread, and as with Heraclitus' river, the foot never truly stands on the same ground twice. The doctrines of the four gatins (stream-enterer, once returner, etc.), the bodhisattva career of ten or eighteen or fifty -two stages (bhüm,), etc., all exemplify the progressionalist attitude.
But like the Lotus Sütra, one way of dissipating the tension is to accept and attempt to harmonize both extremes. Thus hybrids arose: progressive essentialists claimed that one progresses toward the essence, and that the progress itself was grounded in the essence (tathägatagarbha); essentialistic progressives mounted elaborate schema in which one ultimately progressed beyond essentialisms by working through them (tattva, vastu, bhüta, dharma svalaksana, svarüpa, svabhäva, etc.). Yogäcära was a case of this last type of hybrid.
Finally, is tathatä, 'indexicality,' indicative of liberating universals, or repetitive, reiterative particulars? Given the incompatibility of essentialist universals and sünyatä, tathatä must remain ontologically open. It is entirely without conceptual (kalpita, vikalpa, kalpanä, etc.) ontological commitments. For the Ch'eng wei-shih lun, tathatä is a mere prajnapti.
"If the Buddha-Nature is seen, there will be no seeing of a nature in any thing."
(Nirvana Sutra, T12n374p521b3; tr. Yamamoto)
"Neither cultivation nor seated meditation — this is the pure Chan of Tathagata."
(Mazu Daoyi, X1321p3b23; tr. Jinhua Jia)
"With sudden enlightenment to Tathagata Chan,
The six paramitas and myriad means are complete within that essence."
(Yongjia Xuanjue, T2014p395c14; tr. from "The Sword of Wisdom")