Nirvana Sutra

Appreciation of the "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra"

We continue with extracts from the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, translated by Stephen Hodge. Again, the reader must note that the lack of diacritics is due to my own lack of such a program on this computer (diacritics are correctly given in Stephen Hodge's originals), and that I capitalise words such as 'Self', 'Real Truth', and 'One', where Stephen does not. Comments in square brackets are from myself (Dr. Tony Page).

1) On the nature of the Buddha-dhatu [Buddha Essence, Buddha Principle, Buddha Nature]:

'How is it material? Because of the vajra-like body [i.e. its body is like diamond or adamantine - the hardest substance known to man]. How is it not material? Because of the eighteen uncommon qualities which are not material. How is it neither material nor not material? Because it is devoid of fixed attributes [lakshana] of being material and not material. How does it have attributes? Because of the thirty-two attributes [of the Buddha]. How does it not have attributes? Because its attributes are not directly apparent in all beings [i.e. the Buddha Principle is buried so deeply within most beings, that its qualities are not readily manifest or apparent]. How does it neither have attributes nor not have attributes? Because its attributes and absence of attributes is not fixed [i.e. the Buddha-dhatu is not imprisoned within,  or confined to, one sole modality or fixed form]. How is it One? Because it is the single Way [yana] of all beings. How is it not One? Because it explicates the three Ways [i.e. the Ways of the sravaka, the pratyekabuddha, and the fully Awakened Buddha]. How is it neither One nor not One? Because its qualities are uncountable [or: because its teachings - dharmas - are uncountable]. How is it subject to change [anitya - i.e. seemingly impermanent]? Because it is seen through conditions [i.e. the sentient being, growing purer in his vision and thus 'changing', eventually comes to see the Buddha-dhatu, although it itself is unchanging in an ultimate sense]. How is it not annihilation? Because it is divorced from false views of annihilation. How is it neither changing nor annihilation? Because it lacks the boundaries of a beginning and an end [i.e. it is infinite in time and space and beyond - without any limits to it]. How is it existent? Because of the existence of all beings [note: the reality of beings is not denied but affirmed here: beings are bearers of the Buddha Principle and thus extremely sacred; in one of the Pali suttas, too, the Buddha says that he 'does not teach the destruction of the existing being' - the sato sattassa]. How is it [i.e. the Buddha-dhatu] non-existent? Because it is seen through skilful means [i.e. it does not seem to exist to us, does not appear to us, until we apply the right means to see it]. How is it neither existent nor non-existent? Because it has the attributes of space. How is it eradication? Because of the acquisition of the strength of the surangama samadhi [i.e. the highest mode of meditation]. How is it not eradication? Because it is unchanging [anitya - eternal]. How is it neither eradication nor not eradication? Because it is divorced from the attributes of eradication of all things. How is it a cause [hetu]? Because of the understanding of causes. How is it a result [phala]? Because of the infallibility of results. How is it neither a cause nor a result? Because it is unchanging [nitya - i.e. eternal]. How does it have meaning [artha]? Because it comprises all meaning without obstruction. How does it not have meaning? Because it cannot be explained [note: ultimately, the Buddha-dhatu is beyond the reach and range of our worldly minds]. How does it neither have meaning nor not have meaning? Because it is ultimately empty [atyanta-sunya - i.e. infinitely spacious, not fixed or tied to any one form, body or mode - it is open and free]. How does it have words? Because names can be applied to it? How does it not have words? Because names cannot be applied to it [i.e. it is beyond all labels and names - it cannot be captured or fully expressed by them]. How does it neither have words nor not have words? Because it is divorced from all words. How is it neither suffering nor happiness? Because it is separated from all sensations [vedana - the feelings pertaining to the physical, samsaric body]. Why is it not-Self? Because it is not endowed with the eight masteries. How is it not not-Self? Because it is unchanging [nitya - eternal]. How is it neither Self nor not not-Self? Because it is neither created nor appropriated. How is it empty? Because it is ultimate emptiness [paramartha-sunyata - which is elsewhere in the Sutra explained to be the jnana - Awareness - of a Buddha]. How is it not empty? Because it is unchanging [nitya - eternal; the reader should not that the epithet which occurs most frequently in this passage on the nature of the Buddha-dhatu is its eternality - i.e. it is not entrapped within the cycles of causes and conditions which engender constant samsaric change]. How is it neither empty nor not empty? Because it functions as the seed of wholesome qualities [kusala-dharma; the Tibetan version here has: 'because it results in wholesome qualities' - i.e. it stimulates or arouses positive qualities within sentient beings]. Noble son, you should know that if anybody thinks upon and understands these topics of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra, they will perceive the Buddha-dhatu. Because the Buddha-dhatu is inconceivable, it appertains to the sphere [visaya] of the blessed Buddhas, but it is not to be known by sravakas and pratyekabuddhas.'

 

2) The Bodhisattva-mahasattva Manjusri said to the Buddha, 'What is the meaning of this "Real Truth" that you have mentioned?' [Note: even the Bodhisattva of supreme dharmic Insight, Manjushri, is in this sutra being tutored by the Buddha - for the benefit of all beings; this indicates that this sutra is of the very highest level of dharmic transmission - not a 'provisional' teaching, as the Gelukpas of Tibet like to pretend!].

The Buddha replied: 'Noble son, the Real Truth is the True Dharma. Noble son, if the Dharma is not true, then it cannot be called "the Real Truth". Noble son, the Real Truth is devoid of cognitive distortions [such as seeing the non-Self as the Self and the Self as non-Self]. That which is devoid of cognitive distortions is called the "Real Truth". Noble son, the Real Truth is free from falsity. If it were not free from falsity, it would not be called the "Real Truth". Noble son, the Real Truth is called Mahayana. That which is not Mahayana is not called the "Real Truth". Noble son, the Real Truth is what is spoken by the Buddha and not what is spoken by Mara. If it were spoken by Mara and not the Buddha, it would not be called the "Real Truth". Noble son, the Real Truth is the sole path of purity - there is no second one. Noble son, that which is endowed with Permanence, Bliss, the Self and Purity is said to be [i.e. is stated by the Buddha to be] the meaning of the "Real Truth".

The Bodhisattva-mahasattva Manjusri said to the Buddha, 'Bhagavat [Lord - a term in India traditionally applied to the Divine], if what is true is deemed to be the Real Truth, then the True Dharma is the Tathagata, space and the Buddha-dhatu. In that case, there is no difference between the Tathagata, space and the Buddha-dhatu.'

The Buddha said to Manjusri: 'If there is suffering, then there is the truth and there is the real, if there is the origination of suffering, then there is the truth and there is the real, if there is its cessation, then there is the truth and there is the real, and if there is the Path, then there is the truth and there is the real. Noble son, the Tathagata is not suffering, not a truth [i.e. not a dictum or statement of truth - not a verbal formulation of truth], but is the Real. Space is not suffering, not a truth, but is real [for samsaric beings]. Buddha-dhatu is not suffering, not a truth, but is Real.

'Manjusri, "suffering" is characterised by impermanence and it can be eliminated by its nature, hence it is not a Real Truth. The intrinsic nature of the Tathagata is not suffering, not impermanence and cannot be eliminated, hence it is Real. Space and the Buddha-dhatu are similar to this.

'Moreover, Noble son, the origination of suffering is called "suffering", "impermanence" and can be eliminated because it brings about the conjoining and arising of the five skandhas, hence it is not a real truth. Noble son, the Tathagata is not origination [of suffering] in nature, not a cause of the skandhas and cannot be eliminated, hence he is Real. Space and the Buddha-dhatu are similar to this.

'Noble son, "cessation" is called the cessaton of the afflictions [kleshas], and is both permanent and impermanent. That which is attained through the two lower Ways is said to be impermanent, while that which is attained by the Buddhas is said to be permanent and it is also said to be the directly realised Dharma [adhigama-dharma], hence it is a Real Truth. Noble son, the intrinsic nature of the Tathagata is not said to be cessation nor the cessation of the afflictions, it is neither permanent nor impermanent [in certain senses], it is not direct realisation, but it abides permanently and immutably, hence it is said to be Real. Space and the Buddha-dhatu are similar to this.

'The Path eliminates the afflictions, and is both permanent and impermanent. It is a phenomenon which can be cultivated, hence it is not a real truth. The Tathagata does not constitute a path through which the afflictions can be eliminated, he is neither permanent nor impermanent [because he can appear as an impermanent body upon this earth, and yet is the eternal Dharmakaya], he is not a phenomenon which can be cultivated [i.e. he is not something growing and developing, but is already 'there' and perfect], but abides permanently and immutably, hence is said to be Real. Space and the Buddha-dhatu are similar to this.

'Moreover, noble son, the Real is the Tathagata, the Tathagata is the Real [note that ultimate Reality is a person - the Buddha- although a person beyond all our conception]; the Real is space, space is the Real; and the Real is the Buddha-dhatu, the Buddha-dhatu is the Real. Manjusri, where there is suffering, there is a cause of suffering, a cessation of suffering and an antidote to suffering. The Tathagata is not suffering and so forth down to an antidote to suffering, hence he is Real but not a "truth". Space and the Buddha-dhatu are similar to this. Suffering is conditioned, tainted and devoid of bliss. The Tathagata is not conditioned and not tainted, but utterly blissful: this is the Real and not a truth.' [Yamamoto/Page edition: Vol. 4, pp. 47 - 49].

 

3) The Bhagavat replied, 'The eight great rivers and the various streams of Jambudvipa [i.e. the realm where humans live on this earth] all return to / converge on [note from Stephen Hodge: the Chinese also has a sense of 'return home / return to an original abode'] the ocean without any diminution - you should know that the ocean is the receptacle of the streams. The Tathagata is also likewise. All the lives of gods and humans, they all return to / converge on the Tathagata's great ocean of life [as in 'long lifespan / great duration of life' - not 'Life' as a vital principle]. For that reason, you should know that this life of the Tathagata is immeasurable.

'Moreover, Kashyapa, just as, for example, space ever abides, without change, the Tathagata also ever abides like that. Again, just as the cooling / soothing medicine of ghee can remove fevers, the Tathagata-Arhat-Samyak-Sambuddha [i.e. utterly Awakened Buddha] always assuages the afflictions of sentient beings in general with the cooling ghee-Dharma medicine. Hence, the Tathagata ever abides, cool without any afflictions.' [Faxian version].

The Bhagavat replied, 'Just as the eight great rivers - the Ganges, the Yamuna, Sarayu, Aciravati, Mahi, Sindhu, Bohjya and Sida - these eight great rivers and the various lesser rivers all enter into the ocean, Kashyapa, similarly the great river of life [as in 'lives' - 'lifespans' - not jiva, the principle of Life] of all humans and gods on the earth, in the sky above and in space [ = the 3 realms] all enter the Tathagata's ocean of life [ayuh = lifespan, long life]. Hence, the life of the Tathagata is immeasurable.

'Moreover, Kashyapa, for example, just as Lake Anavatapta puts forth the four great rivers, so also does the Tathagata put forth all lives [note from Stephen Hodge: Chinese 'chu' = put forth, produce, beget, cause to appear / manifest] [Note from Dr. Tony Page: there is a striking implication here that the Buddha is the propagator or emanator of beings - a view later made explicit in tantras such as the All-Creating King Tantra].

'Kashyapa, just as, for example, space is foremost amongst everything that is ever present, the Tathagata is also thus, he is the most foremost amongst permanent things.

'Kashyapa, just as, for example, ghee is the foremost of medicines, the Tathagata is also likewise: his life is the foremost amongst sentient beings.' [Dharmakshema version].

 

4) 'I say that whatever is endowed with carelessness [lacking in diligence - not being attentively aware] is a conditioned / compounded thing and is most unpleasant [characterised by duhkha]. Nirvana is devoid of death [i.e. is immortality]. Those who are endowed with carelessness are conditioned and they will suffer very greatly. Those who have nirvana-ed are deathless. I say that anybody who is endowed with carefulness / diligence is not conditioned and, even though they engage in conditioned things, they do not age, they do not die, they do not perish [Note from Dr. Tony Page: much of the brunt of the Dharma is in fact about showing mortal beings the Way to acquire immortality - a body-and-mind unassailable by death and misery].

'Now, who are those endowed with carelessness and who are those endowed with carefulness? Mundane beings are endowed with carelessness, for it is like death. Supramundane beings do not age and do not die. Those who are endowed with carefulness will attain the most excellent bliss that is Nirvana. Therefore I have taught that some phenomena [dharmas] are suffering and some phenomena [dharmas] are bliss.

'For that reason, as it is said:

"A wise person on the summit of a mountain

"can see the foolish people on the ground below:

One who dwells on top of the Palace of Insight [prajna]

can see the misery of beings, though he is devoid of misery."

'In that way, a wise person who dwells on a mountain peak, having eradicated afflictions, gazes upon foolish people who are associated with afflictions.'

[The Bodhisattva Kashyapa] asked, 'Who are those who are on top of the Palace of Insight? Are they unhappy? How can they dwell on top of the Palace of Insight? It is possible for a man [to be] on the summit of a mountain and it is possible for him to see [the beings below], yet how does one who has totally nirvana-ed see [beings]?'

[The Tathagata] replied, ' "The Palace of Insight" is Nirvana. The one who "is devoid of misery" is the Tathagata, while those who have a lot of misery are [ordinary] creatures, for the Tathagata is devoid of misery, while they have misery. The "mountain" is Liberation, because it is firm / stable [dhruva - unshakeable] like [Mount] Sumeru. The "ground" is conditioned things, and all foolish people are those arrayed upon the ground. The "wise person" signifies the perfect Buddha, because the Tathagata is devoid of misery and is firm / stable [unshakeable]. Though the Buddha dwells in the midst of misery, he is devoid of misery and he draws out the thorn of misery from beings.'

'If the Tathagata has transcended misery, why does he now nirvana? Why is he called a perfect Buddha?'

'There is a reason: wherever there are beings who need to be trained, then the perfect Buddha appears there and reveals himself as though one born [although in fact he is unbegotten]. Therefore, the Tathagata is unchanging and enlightened ...' [Tibetan version; Yamamoto/Page edition, Vol. 3, p. 26].

 

5) 'The Buddha-nature [Tathagata-garbha] of the Tathagata has two aspects: one is presence [i.e. existence] and the second absence [i.e. non-existence]. [As regards] presence, that is the thirty-two signs of a superman, the ten powers, the four fearlessnesses, the three bases of recollection, great compassion and loving-kindness, countless samadhis [meditative absorptions]  such as the Shurangama, countless samadhis such as the Vajra-like [i.e. diamond-like] samadhi. As for absence [non-existence], that is the causal and resultant aspects of the Tathagata’s past wholesome, unwholesome and neutral karma, the kleshas [i.e. negative moral  and mental traits], the five skandhas, and twelvefold interdependent arising.’

[Note from Dr. Tony Page: two vital things emerge from the above statement by the Buddha: 1) the Buddha himself possesses the Tathagata-garbha; therefore, it cannot possibly be – as some commentators wrongly claim – merely a ‘potential’ for Awakening, for becoming a Buddha. What sense would it make to say that the Buddha has the ‘potential’ to become a Buddha? He already is one! Rather, the Tathagata-garbha is the very Buddhic core or essence of our being, which remains present when all the transitory elements of samsara have been transcended;  2) contrary to the wrong-headed views of certain commentators, the Tathagata-garbha is not twelvefold interdependent arising / origination. The Buddha clearly states that such is absent (non-existent) in this Tathagata-garbha. The chief reason some Buddhists commit this serious blunder of misinterpretation is that that they misconstrue the image of the Tathagata-garbha as a growing, evolving foetus, whereas the prevailing image throughout the Tathagata-garbha sutras is rather that of something priceless and precious hidden deep within a  person, located beyond human sight – just as a baby is hidden deep in the centre of a pregnant woman's womb. It is there, but concealed from view by the ‘flesh’ – the enveloping forms and forces of samsara. That is the real meaning of the Tathagata-garbha – not the idea of some expanding foetus].

 

6) ‘I speak of change / impermanence when the mass of sufferings [of beings] is eliminated and of unchanging / permanence when bliss is experienced. Therefore I say that the totality of beings are enveloped by kleshas [negative traits of mind and behaviour] and do not perceive the Buddha-nature [Buddha-dhatu]. Because they do not see the Buddha-nature, they do not attain Nirvana.’

[Note from Dr. Tony Page: it is important to register the frequent salvific thrust found in the Mahaparinirvana Sutra and other Tathagata-garbha sutras of seeing the Buddha Nature (Buddha-dhatu). It is not that the Buddha-dhatu / Tathagata-garbha grows, matures and develops within us, but that we have to purify our vision in order to be able to see it. Once our vision is thus purified and we perceive what has always secretly lain deep within us, we are enabled to enter into the deathless bliss of Nirvana].

 

7) In the following excerpts from a lengthy passage, the Buddha explains how, in different regards and under different aspects, he both is and is not a certain thing:

‘... the Tathagata is not a god [deva – a kind of heavenly being or angel, still caught up in the reincarnational round of samsara]. Nevertheless, beings call the Buddha the god amongst the gods /  supreme god [atideva]; hence the Tathagata is not a god nor is he not a god; he is not human nor not human ...

‘The Tathagta is not human [note from Dr. Tony Page: this accords with the Pali Dona Sutta, where the Buddha also says that he is not human, but a Buddha – a much higher category of being]: because the Tathagata has abandoned human existence for a long time over countless kalpas [aeons], he is not human. He is not not human: because he was born [as Prince Siddhartha] in the city of Kapilavastu, he is not not human...

‘He is also not a sentient being: because he has abandoned the nature of a sentient being for a long time, the Tathagata is not a sentient being. He is also not not a sentient being: because he has spoken of/ with the attributes of sentient beings on some occasions, the Tathagata is not not a sentient being.

‘The Tathagata is not a phenomenon [dharma – thing]: because the various phenomena each have distinct and different attributes, while the Tathagata is not thus but has only one attribute. He is not not a phenomenon: because the Tathagata is the continuum of phenomena [dharmadhatu – the totality of all that exists, both seen and unseen], he is not not a phenomenon ...

‘The Tathagata is not a mind: because he is / has the attribute of space, he is not a mind. He is not not a mind: because he is endowed with the mental qualities of the ten strengths and the knowledge of the minds of other beings, he is not not a mind.

‘The Tathagata is not compounded [as the Dharmakaya]: because he is permanent, Self, blissful and utterly pure, he is not compounded. He is not not compounded [as a physical human being]: because he comes, goes, sits and lies down and also displays [the process of attaining] Nirvana, he is not not compounded ...

‘The Tathagata [as a human being] is not permanent: because his body has limbs / parts, he is not permanent ...

‘Yet he is also not not permanent. Why? Because he has severed birth / arising forever. Phenomena endowed with birth / arising are not permanent, whereas phenomena devoid of birth / arising are permanent. The Tathagata is devoid of birth / arising, so he is permanent ... The Tathagata is devoid of birth / arising and lineage [note: the Chinese says ‘intrinsic nature’, but that Chinese character also closely resembles one for ‘lineage’; the Tibetan text does in fact have ‘lineage’]. Because he is devoid of birth / arising and lineage, he is permanent [i.e. he is not begotten by father or previous ancestors – he is not a generated being, but one eternally existent and present].

‘Phenomena associated with permanence pervade all places, just as there is no place where there is no space. The Tathagta also is thus and pervades all places, therefore he is permanent.

‘Phenomena which are not permanent are said to exist here and not exist there, but the Tathagata is not like that for it is not possible to say that he either exists [ = is present] in one place and does not exist [ = is not present] in another. Therefore he is permanent.

‘Phenomena which are associated with impermanence exist on some occasions and do not exist on other occasions, but the Tathagata is not thus, existing sometimes and not existing at other times, hence he is permanent ...

‘Phenomena which permanently abide are disassociated from the three times [i.e. past, present and future]. The Tathagata is also thus, disassociated from the three times, and thus is permanent [i.e. he is eternal, beyond the constrictions of temporality].

‘The Tathagata is not a magical display [maya – a magical conjuration]. Why? Because he has severed all thoughts of deception for all time, and thus he is not a magical display [a conjured-up illusion]. He is also not not a magical display? Why? Because he sometimes divides this single body into countless bodies and at other times makes countless bodies into one single body. He is able to pass directly through cliffs without any impediment, he can traverse water as though it were land, he can enter the ground as though it were space, he can move in space as though it were the ground, he can emit flames from his body as though it were a great conflagration; he can make the clouds and thunder rumble with a fearful sound, he can produce towns, villages, houses, mountains, rivers and trees, or else he can make his body large or small, he can take on the body of a male, female, boy or girl. Therefore, the Tathagata is not not a magical display.

‘The Tathagata is not fixed. Why? Because the Tathagata manifests himself entering into Parinirvana [total Nirvana] between two sala trees here at Kushinagara. Therefore he is not fixed. Again, he is not not fixed. Why? Because he is permanent, blissful, the Self, and utterly pure.’