Mahayana Buddhism is not merely a set of intellectual beliefs. There is an important role, too, for faith, reverence and meditation. In the Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha stresses that faith, trust in his teachings, is the root of all positive inner development. The Buddha and his Mahaparinirvana Sutra should also be venerated and made offerings to (provided, of course, that this issues from a sincere, reverential heart). The following are some suggestions on the nature of the confident trust in the Buddha which one needs to cultivate and several devotional and meditational practices which the student of the Nirvana Sutra can usefully engage in to strengthen his or her interior link to the realm of Nirvana.
1. What is faith as taught by the Mahaparinirvana Sutra?
In the Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha ascribes a foundational position to faith. He states: "we say that unsurpassed Awakening has faith as its cause. The causes of Awakening are innumerable, but if stated as faith, this covers everything."
Faith as understood within the Great Nirvana Sutra is belief - confident trust - in the teachings of the Buddha. More specifically, it is belief in such doctrines as the law of Karma, in the reality and eternity of the Three Jewels (i.e. the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha), as well as in the efficacy of the Buddhic Way. The Buddha comments thus:
"All that is said in these [Mahayana] sutras is the truths of the Way ... As I have already stated, if one believes in the Way, such a Way of faith is the root of faith.This assists the Way of Awakening ... It [i.e. the Way] begins with the root of faith and goes up to the Noble Eightfold Path" (Yamamoto/Page, Chapter 20, "On Holy Actions").
He further states that the person of faith is superior to him without such faith:
"There are two kinds of men: one who has faith, and the other who has not. O Bodhisattva! Know that he with faith is one who is good, and that he who has no faith is one who is not good." (Yamamoto/Page, Vol. 5, Chapter 21, "On Pure Actions" (a), p. 3).
Having faith in the Buddha and his teachings thus generates goodness. It is faith in the Buddha which first makes one listen to his doctrines, and those doctrines strengthen one's faith as one hears them. The Buddha comments:
"Faith arises out of listening to Dharma, and this listening is [itself] grounded in faith." (Yamamoto/Page, Vol. 8, Ch. 34 "On Bodhisattva Lion's Roar" (b), p. 44).
Through such faith, along with other spiritual practices, one can arrive at Nirvana, the Buddha says. Faith is the first step for the Bodhisattva who wishes to realise this Nirvana. It is a basic requirement, and it entails the understanding that the "real" Buddha is not a being of flesh and blood who can bleed and who dies, and whose Truth (Dharma) dies out with him. The true Buddha and his Dharma are utterly Eternal. This the Bodhisattva needs to believe:
"First, he [ i.e. the Bodhisattva] is [ = must be] perfect in faith. How is faith perfect? This is believing deeply that the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha are Eternal, that all Buddhas of the ten directions [ = everywhere] make use of expedients [effectively to convey Dharma to the different types of beings], and that beings and 'icchantikas' [ = most spiritually base persons] all possess the Buddha-dhatu. It is not believing that the Tathagata is subject to birth, old age, illness, and death, that he has undergone austerities, and that Devadatta [ = Buddha's cousin] really caused blood to flow from the Buddha's body, that the Tathagata ultimately enters Nirvana [ = finally dies], and that authentic Dharma dies out. This is where we speak of the Bodhisattva's being perfect in faith." (Yamamoto/Page, Vol. 9, Chapter 38, "On Bodhisattva Lion's Roar" (f), p. 33).
Yet faith in the Buddha should not be blind. It should be allied with insight (prajna) - spiritual penetration. The following words of the Buddha's indicate the need for a balance:
"If a person does not possess faith and insight, such a person increases his ignorance. If a person possesses insight, but not faith, such a person increases distorted views. ... A person who has no faith will say, out of an angry mind: 'There cannot be any Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha!" (Yamamoto/Page, Vol. 10, Chapter 42, "On Bodhisattva Kasyapa" (c), p. 65).
The Nirvana Sutra is not alone in giving a foundational position to faith. The "Tathagatagarbha" sutra entitled, Anunatva-Apurnatva-Nirdesa ("Instruction on Non-Decrease, Non-Increase") tells of how the realm of Ultimate Truth, the "Tathagatagarbha", can be perceived by means of faith. This is a matter that is beyond the reach of the foolish, unless they possess faith, which gives them entry:
"No Sravakas [ = elementary students of the Buddha's] or Pratyekabuddhas [ = "private" Buddhas, who usually sequester themselves away from people and do not teach] are able to know, see or investigate this matter with their insight. How much less able to do so are foolish ordinary people, except when they directly realise it by faith!"
Faith can thus be a powerful means of penetrating through to, and realising for oneself, profound spiritual truths.
2. Making offerings to the Nirvana Sutra.
In common with the famous Lotus Sutra, the Mahaparinirvana Sutra encourages its adherents to make offerings of incense and music to both the sutra itself and to those who expound it.
A good idea is to place some lighted incense (at a safe distance) before a copy of the sutra (or even in front of a single page or passage of it which appeals to you - for example from the "Complete Text" or "Selected Extracts" sections of our website). Then, donate this incense with the following heartfelt thought: "I offer up this incense to Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, and to the noble Mahaparinirvana Sutra. May any punya (merit) from this act be dedicated to the Liberation of all beings." It is useful to say this three times, as this strengthens the power of the prayer.
(A word of warning regarding the incense, though: it could be injurious to your physical health to burn too much incense in an enclosed space - so perhaps just one stick will suffice, or three if you make sure that a nearby window is open! I personally find that the "reduced-smoke" variety of Japanese incense is the most suitable, especially "Hinoki", "Aloeswood" and "Sansuikoh" - but of course this depends on your own taste and preference).
Furthermore, you may wish to play some suitably calming or uplifting music and also offer it up to the Buddha, Dharma, Sangha, and the noble Mahaparinirvana Sutra. As before, any punya (blessings,merit) which may issue from this act should be transferred to the Liberation of all beings from suffering. While you are listening to the music (with meditative concentration), envisage the beautiful sound being donated to the Buddha and his great Nirvana Sutra, in gratitude. I personally find the CD, "Sweet Melody of Joyful Aspiration: H.H. the 17th Gyalwang Karmapa", ideal for offering up to the Buddha. This CD contains very soothing music and some chanting by the young 17th Karmapa (head of the Tibetan Karma-Kagyu sect). You can obtain this CD from "Wisdom Books" at: www.wisdom-books.com . (I should add at this point that I have no vested financial interest whatsoever in promoting this CD - I just think the music is very fitting for a sound-offering to the Three Jewels of Buddha, Dharma and Sangha and the Nirvana Sutra). When you have finished, say three times: "May all beings be happy and filled with peace; may happiness fill their hearts."
I am by no means an expert on meditation, so what is offered here is intended as a suggested introduction to the practice in line with the basic principles of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra. Any serious practice needs to be supplemented by personal instruction and guidance from a Buddhist meditation master.
The Mahaparinirvana Sutra does not give a huge amount of direct instruction in meditation, but it does contain some definite indications of topics suitable for contemplation and "meditative cultivation" (bhavana). The following represents my interpretation of some of the meditative practices which are encouraged by the sutra, or which are compatible with its teachings. The principal objectives are to extricate oneself from attachment to the mundane body and mind, to immerse oneself in positive and benevolent states of mind (the follower of "Nirvana Sutra Buddhism" vitally needs to cultivate omni-radiant benevolent friendliness - maitri - towards all beings, in all his or her daily-life situations - this is a root practice which cannot be emphasised enough), to concentrate and still the mind, liberating it from fixation on scriptural words and letters after their Dharmic meaning has been pondered and absorbed, to bring about a cessation of worldly thinking and gross sensory experience, to detach oneself from mundane desires and kleshas, to experience a sense of release from the oppression of the ego, and directly to experience a "flavour" of the Buddha-dhatu within oneself - the Great Peace which is the Great Happiness of Great Nirvana.
a) Firstly, it is helpful (although not required by this sutra) to sit cross-legged (ideally in the Lotus or Half-Lotus Posture, provided that this does not cause the slightest strain or difficulty). The full Lotus Posture is the cross-legged position seen in the majority of Buddha statues, in which the feet are drawn in and placed upon the opposite thighs and the hands are resting in the lap, with the fingers intermeshed and the tips of the thumbs touching to form a circle. This little hand "mudra" (symbol or sign) forming a kind of circle indicates, in Nirvana Sutra Buddhism, that the Buddha-dhatu (Buddha Principle) within you is eternal - without beginning and without end. The Half-Lotus Posture is that cross-legged position in which only one of the feet is made to rest on the opposite thigh. When trying for either of these two Lotus Postures, never, ever, strain or hurt yourself in the attempt. The full Lotus Posture takes many months or even years to accomplish for most adults who are not used to it, and practice of it needs to be done very, very slowly, cautiously and carefully. Gradualness is vital here. You can move towards achieving the Lotus Posture by sitting with one foot resting on the opposite thigh, and with your wrist resting on the raised knee. Gradually, over time, that knee and leg may lower towards the floor and allow you to perform the Half Lotus. In time, the full Lotus may possibly be attained. But you must be extremely careful not to sprain your limbs or strain yourself. The instant you feel any discomfort, and certainly pain, you must stop immediately. If the Lotus or Half-Lotus Posture is too demanding for you (as, not surprisingly, either of them will be for most people), you can just as well sit in the simple cross-legged posture, familiar to us from our school days. Sit comfortably and relaxedly, but keep your spine erect - yet not tense, stiff or rigid. The main thing is to be as comfortable and as relaxed as possible, without slumping forward. Again, intermesh your fingers and have the two thumbs touching as the hands rest in your lap, symbolising through this circle the eternity of your true nature - the Buddha-Self within you. If sitting cross-legged is uncomfortable for you (as it will be for many people), you can sit on a straight-backed chair - or even lie on your back on the floor. The most important factor in Nirvana Sutra meditation is what goes on in your mind, rather than what you do with your body. You should aim eventually to "forget" the body and dwell solely in the "deep realm" of a still, thought-free Awareness (jnana) that approaches Awakening and Nirvana.
To begin the actual meditation practice, you need consciously to relax all your body, face, jaw, head, hands, limbs and muscles as much as you can. Become as limp as is possible in the seated cross-legged position without slumping over (or if you are lying on your back, just "give in" to the floor in deep relaxation). Now mentally say to yourself (and really MEAN it, FEEL it and ENVISAGE it):
"To Buddha I go for Refuge; to Buddha I go for Refuge; to Buddha I go for Refuge.
"To Dharma I go for Refuge; to Dharma I go for Refuge; to Dharma I go for Refuge.
"To Sangha I go for Refuge; to Sangha I go for Refuge; to Sangha I go for Refuge.
"All beings are my only child. All beings are my only child. All beings are my only child.
"May all beings be happy and filled with peace - may happiness fill their hearts; may all beings be happy and filled with peace - may happiness fill their hearts; may all beings be happy and filled with peace - may happiness fill their hearts.
"May all beings attain Bodhi [Awakening] and Nirvana; may all beings attain Bodhi and Nirvana; may all beings attain Bodhi and Nirvana.
"May I attain Bodhi and Nirvana - for the sake of all beings - to liberate all beings from samsara; may I attain Bodhi and Nirvana - for the sake of all beings - to liberate all beings from samsara; may I attain Bodhi and Nirvana - for the sake of all beings - to liberate all beings from samsara."
b) Mantra recitation
There are several mantras (incantations, chants) derived from the Mahaparinirvana Sutra which are useful for focussing and stilling the mind. When uttering these mantras, you should place the whole of your concentration upon them, so that all other thoughts are excluded and you are aware solely of SOUND. Become one with that sound. If you wish, you can utter these mantras internally (that is, you can say them in your head, not out loud). However you perform them, you do need to concentrate on the sound of them to the exclusion of all else. With those mantras that actually have a meaning, try to EXPERIENCE the meaning directly within yourself. So, if you are intoning the mantra of "sunyata" (emptiness), imagine the beautiful freedom and open spaciousness of a cloudless, limitless sky. Experience that as your own reality - with no "ego" getting in the way. In fact, one of the prime purposes of Nirvana Sutra meditation is to detach yourself from the illusory ego and enter into the boundless and peaceful realm of the Buddha-dhatu.
1) The first mantra is a very special one and is given very early on in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra. Indeed, it is one of only two genuine mantras that I am aware of in the entire sutra (although, as well as being designated as a "mantra", it is also termed in the scripture a "dharani", which is basically a long mantra). It was offered up to the Buddha (and accepted by him, in the Faxian and Tibetan versions of the sutra, as a Dharma-gift and recognised as of benefit to Buddhist followers in the Dharmakshema text) on the very eve of his passing into Parinirvana. Its purpose is to act as a protective charm - a dispeller of fear and misfortune - for all beings who are practising the Dharma. It was brought forth by (of all people!) Mara, the Tempter figure of Buddhist lore, while under the spiritual influence and supporting power (adhisthana) of the Buddha. Some people may understandably feel uneasy about uttering a mantra stemming from Mara, and in that case it is perfectly acceptable not to practise it. However, this mantra is specifically recommended as a protective power for those who teach the Dharma and the Buddha himself endorses it, saying it is a Dharma-gift for the benefit of beings. I myself intone it frequently (e.g. silently, to myself, when walking along the street) and find it very reassuring and confidence-building in its effect. I find it inspiring that this mantra is a direct link to the Buddha, to that final day of his upon our earth, when he delivered his ultimate Mahayana teachings after being offered this mantra and accepting it. By chanting this mantra, it seems to me that we are transporting ourselves back in time into the presence of the Buddha on that memorable day. For Buddhas, of course, time is an illusion in any case and all can be seen by them to happen in one instant (past, present and future) - according to the Avatamsaka Sutra. So this mantra takes us back to the Buddha's Mahaparinirvana but also into a timeless realm of the Buddha's perpetual presence. If you wish to chant this mantra (in whatever way suits you best), try to learn it by heart and chant it inwardly or out loud (if you are alone) at any time you feel like doing so. Here is the mantra:
Tarki tattara tarki lohare maha-lohare ara cara tara svaha
Note that "ara" is pronounced with a long "a" at the beginning, as is "svaha". "Cara" and "tara" both have short "a" sounds. The last "a" of "maha" is long. Apart from the word, "maha" (which means "great"), the meaning of this mantra, if indeed it has one (most mantras do not), is unknown. It is the SOUND of it which is the key thing.
It is a good idea to intone this mantra at least three times and to feel complete freedom from fear and anxiety while you are doing so: the mantra is in fact designed to dispel all fear and harm. It can be used as one of the first mantras in your meditation practice, and throughout the day at any time that you feel inclined to intone it. You may find that it gives you a feeling of self-mastery and confidence. In a sense, this mantra represents our "riding" the Mara of our mind (as the Buddha in the Nirvana Sutra says that followers of the Mahayana can do). It is very powerful.
If you would like to read the actual dialogue in which Mara offers this mantra to the Buddha, here it is (from the Tibetan version):
"I entreat the Bhagavat [i.e. the Blessed One, the Buddha], together with the Sangha of monks and the congregation here, to accept the food-offerings which we offer! Bhagavat, let us make firm vows regarding the Mahayana from this day onwards. Should any son or daughter of good family recount the Mahayana out of fear, out of a desire for profit, because they hope to hear it, because they are coerced by others, or in order to protect the minds of others, allow us to expound a mantra for their sakes which will clear away all fear and misfortune. That is: tarki tattara tarki lohare maha-lohare ara cara tara svaha.
"This secret mantra which I have spoken [I] personally guarantee, so that Dharma preachers who are afflicted by confusion and fear may become confidently eloquent regarding the methods of teaching the Dharma, cause heterodox followers to become intoxicated, protect the authentic Dharma and protect themselves and others, should it be recited as a dharani which eliminates the fear of elephants, the fear of dense forests, the fear of rivers, the fear of fire, then, without any subterfuge or deceit, I shall safeguard those who merely recite it - from all their fears, just as a turtle is protected by his own body, and [I shall] also endow them with strength. So I entreat the Bhagavat to accept now these food-offerings."
Then the Bhagavat said to Mara-Papiyan, "Mara, do not ask me to accept your food offerings! But I shall accept this mantra, because its words are a Dharma-gift for the benefit of all beings ...".
2). The second mantra which we shall utilise from the Mahaparinirvana Sutra is actually a much longer one and is technically called a dharani (usually longer than a mantra). This dharani appears in the very final pages of the sutra and is given by the Buddha to Manjushri, who is then instructed to go to Ananda and intone it. By its power the Buddha's devoted cousin, Ananda, will be rescued from the many billions of Maras (devils) who are at that moment encircling him. This dharani is, moreover, said to be "great" and to be propounded by all Buddhas. When allied to a lifestyle in which no meat and alcohol are consumed, and in which pure action is practised and one abides happily in mental quietude, then belief in this dharani, along with the reciting and writing of it, can protect one from future reincarnation in inauspicious forms (e.g. those of the dwellers in hell, or in the ghostly realms). On hearing this dharani, King Mara released Ananda from the latter's devilish entrapment and further resolved to attain Bodhi (Awakening). The dharani is thus indicated to be a powerful dispeller of all negativity and a promotor of Good. I suggest that one read this dharani aloud at least three times, while focussing the mind totally upon its sound and its positive, cleansing power. One can also, of course, read it silently to oneself, and write it out too. Such actions are given a distinctive Mahayana "flavour" if one carries them out with the wish: "May all beings be happy and filled with peace; may happiness fill their hearts. May I attain Awakening and help all beings to Nirvana". Here is the dharani:
Amarei bimarei nemarei bakyarei
shabatashadanni baramatashadanni manashi asettai
hiragi anraraitei baranmi baranmasharei
3). The third mantra which is practised in Nirvana Sutra Buddhism is that of "MAHAPARINIRVANA" itself. I personally find this to be the most effective of the three mantras for instilling a sense of calm, wellbeing and tranquillity. The spoken or inwardly intoned repetition of the title of this great sutra - "MAHAPARINIRVANA" - can produce a very soothing effect upon the mind and emotions. It is stated by the Buddha that even the hearing of this name will bring happiness and benefit to all beings. Hearing the name, MAHAPARINIRVANA, will also protect one from falling after death into the suffering-afflicted realms of hell, hungry ghosts, animals, and aggressors (the asuras). The Buddha says: "If they hear the name of this sūtra, there will be no chance that people will end up in any of the four [miserable] states of existence." As long as one has faith in the Buddha and in the power of this sutra, then just hearing the name of this sutra will bestow happiness upon one, as the Buddha specifically states:
"... the name of this Mahaparinirvana has the virtues of antidotal medicine, because it makes all beings happy."
In chanting the name, Mahaparinirvana, it is helpful to extend the length of the second syllable - the "a" of "Maha", which means "great" - for six or seven seconds and then slowly and gently, almost caressingly, intone "Parinirvana" for three or four seconds.This can be done several times. Each time one must focus one's entire consciousness upon this word - not allowing one's attention to waver. Relax fully and intone, either aloud or silently within yourself, "Mahaparinirvana", and try to experience the sense of peace, wellbeing and protection which you may feel. You can repeat this mantra as many times as you wish, provided that you give it your full attention and loving devotion. Even if you do not feel any special response to the mantra, just the faithful pronunciation of it (inwardly or outwardly) is, I believe, auspicious. The key point is to focus your attention fully upon the sound and to feel a sense of the loveliness of the word and what it stands for: eternal happiness and peace. "MAHAPARINIRVANA" encapsulates the essence of the entire Mahaparinirvana Sutra.
(To Be Continued ...)