Nirvana Sutra

Appreciation of the "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra"

The Self ("Atman")

 

 

“The True Self” as Revealed by the Buddha in the Mahaparinirvana Sūtra"

 

Lecture (SOAS, University of London, 2006) delivered by Dr. Tony Page 

 

The celebrated Beethoven interpreter and avant-garde composer, Artur Schnabel (1882-1951), once famously quipped: “Tradition too often means a collection of bad habits.” (“My Life and Music”, Artur Schnabel). This applies not only to traditions of music-making, but equally, I would contend, sometimes to traditions of scholarship.

 

If one were to ask most students and scholars of Buddhism what the Buddha’s teachings on the Self or Soul were, I think it likely that one would almost certainly receive back the stock, unqualified reply: “The Buddha denied the Self or Soul (the ātman) and any kind of enduring essence (svabhāva). He utterly rejected and refuted all notions of a permanent Self or Soul, both in the Pāli suttas and in the Mahāyāna scriptures.”

 

This stance towards the Self in the Buddha’s doctrines is now effectively the “received wisdom” amongst the bulk of Buddhist scholars and Buddhist practitioners – it has become the habit of Tradition and is rarely questioned. But is it – to quote Schnabel – a “bad habit”? Is the absolutist and almost autonomic cry of “no Self, no Self” in fact uttered as enthusiastically, unconditionally and universally by the purported Mahāyāna Buddha as by large numbers of his followers?

 

I suggest that it is not. And to examine how we can perhaps break our possible bad habit of an all-but blanket denial of affirmative teachings by the Buddha on the reality of an eternal Self, we might profitably give our attention to the famed – yet in the West surprisingly little studied – Mahāyāna Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra.

 

As you will know, this sūtra presents itself as the final Mahāyāna teachings of the Buddha, delivered on the last day and night of his physical life upon earth.

 

The sūtra survives in its Sanskrit form only in some ten fragmentary pages. Fortunately for us, the sūtra was translated into Tibetan and Chinese. The world’s leading authority on the evolution of this text in its early and middle-period forms is without doubt Professor Masahiro Shimoda, who is, as you know, giving a series of lectures and seminars on the growth of the text and related matters this term, so I shall not say anything on that area of study here today, except to mention the main translations of the text which have come down to us. The shortest and earliest extant translated version is the translation into Chinese by Faxian and Buddhabhadra in six juan (418CE); the next in terms of scriptural development is the Tibetan version (c790CE) by Jinamitra, Jñānagarbha and Devacandra; and the lengthiest version of all is what is known as the “Northern version” in 40 juan carried out by Dharmakṣema (422CE). I shall quote from all three versions in this lecture, using English translations by my friend and colleague, Stephen Hodge, as well as Stephen’s proposed original Sanskrit terms for certain key phrases. Needless to say, I am indebted to Stephen for his invaluable work.

 

Early in the sūtra (Tibetan version), in a section which Professor Shimoda has identified as belonging to an early stratum of the sūtra’s genesis, the Buddha is confronted by a number of zealous Buddhist monks who are keen practitioners of what we might term “absolutist non-Self Buddhism” -  namely, the frequent meditative cultivation of the notion that absolutely everything is impermanent, marked by suffering, and is not-Self (anātman). To our surprise, the Buddha does not praise his enthusiastic monastic followers for their unremitting dedication to the non-Self doctrine and its meditative cultivation, but actually castigates them for having fallen into “extremes”. He even dismisses as “mistaken and worthless” the rather proud mode of non-Self meditation which those monks practise and chides them for not understanding that his teaching of the meditation upon impermanence, suffering and non-Self is highly contingent and needs to be safeguarded from one-sided distortion and misinterpretation.

 

According to the Buddha, the monks have grasped merely the outer letters of his doctrine, but not its essential meaning. They have fallen victim to an extreme and inverted form of meditative practice in which they view that which is truly Eternal as something impermanent, that which is truly the Self as what is non-Self, that which is truly Blissful as suffering, and that which is truly Pure  as something impure. They have failed to distinguish between what is of Samsara and what is of Great Nirvāṇa (mahā-nirvāṇa or mahā-parinirvāṇa). Saṃsāra is non-Self – thus far the monks are correct. But they have committed a serious metaphysical miscalculation – the Buddha indicates - by ascribing samsaric qualities and characteristics to the non-samsaric, to Nirvana, indeed to the Buddha himself. For while everything that is samsaric is rightly labelled as non-Self, the Buddha reveals in the course of the sūtra that he, as the Dharmakāya, is nothing less than the eternal Self (atman) itself.

 

In a striking reversal of the usual Buddhist dictum that “all dharmas – phenomena – are non-Self”, the Buddha declares that it is in fact untrue to say that absolutely all dharmas are non-Self, and, in the Dharmakṣema translation, he goes so far as to declare  that “in truth there is the Self [ātman] in all dharmas [phenomena]”. Offering a rare (and seldom quoted) characterisation of what in fact this Self is, the Buddha asserts (in the Tibetan version):

 

The Self (ātman) is reality (tattva), the Self is permanent (nitya), the Self is virtue (guṇa), the Self is eternal (śāśvatā), the Self is stable (dhruva), the Self is peace (siva).” (Chapter Four, “Grief”).

 

In the Faxian and Dharmakṣema versions, another quality is found listed here: that the Self is “sovereign”, “self-governing” or “autonomous” (aiśvarya). Furthermore, Faxian includes the adjective “unchanging”, “untransforming” (avipariṇāma), while Dharmakṣema also adds that the Self is “true” (satya).

 

It is sometimes claimed by scholars who comment on the doctrine of the Self in the Nirvāṇa Sūtra that when the Buddha speaks of the ātman, he is only doing so in a concessionary manner, in a provisional, tactical manoeuvre for those of his students who are not yet ready to face up to the frightening enormity of the non-Self and Emptiness doctrines, and that what he really wishes to say is that there actually exists no Self at all. We shall come back to the question of whether this text views itself as provisional or ultimate in its doctrines a little later, but for now, it needs to be emphasised that for the Buddha to assert something to be satya and tattva (both adjectives appear alongside one another in the Dharmakṣema text) is tantamount to his insisting that it truly is Real -  not just seemingly real or deceptively authentic. The term, tattva, embedded in such a metaphysical verbal environment as the present context -  where rectification of a misapprehended non-Self doctrine is centre-stage of discussion - really does betoken ultimate Reality itself, rather than some provisional, metaphorical notion or accommodating make-shift simile of Truth. When the Buddha in the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra states that the Self is real and true – he means what he says (shocking as this might seem!).

 

Let us consider a number of the other epithets applied to the True Self in the passage just quoted. Firstly and perhaps most importantly - for this is arguably the core concern and dominant assertion of the entire Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra in its earliest extant manifestation – is the notion of the “eternity” or “permanence” of the Buddha (who is, we must remember, the True Self, according to this scripture). The Sanskrit term, nitya, is usually translated by Buddhist scholars as “permanent”, but I feel that this fails to do justice to the sense of never-endingness or ever-enduringness that the word connotes in the Nirvāṇa Sūtra. The English adjective “permanent” is usually applied to something that lasts indefinitely, yes -  but not forever. For example, a person may be given a “permanent post” in the company for which he or she works. But that particular situation will of course only last for as long as the company survives. No one expects that the company will last forever. And nor will it: being part of Saṃsāra, it will eventually decline, collapse and die – as will that employee him or herself. But when the Buddha applies the epithet, nitya, to himself or Nirvāṇa, he wishes to express very forcefully the idea of eternal continuance and perpetual persistence throughout all time and beyond. The Self that is nitya is not just real for a million years or even a million kalpas (aeons). It is real and lasting forever.

 

So central is this concept of the nityatā or eternal continuance of the Buddha in the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra that the Buddha at one point refers to this scripture as “the great sūtra of the Buddha’s eternity” (nityatā). Perpetual Buddhic Reality would seem to lie at the heart of the message which this sūtra seeks to communicate, as an antidote to the prevalent Buddhist notion of universal change, decay, flux and death. The Buddha actually says so in terms. The Buddha’s physical form will die, that is true; but that nirmāṇa body (physically manifested body) is in any case deceptive and impermanent, the Buddha insists. He himself, in contrast,  as the True Self will not reach any end or cessation.

 

Closely linked to the concept of nityata are the ideas of immovable, unshakeable fixedness or firmness (dhruva) and “unchangingness” (avipariṇāma). The notion of avipariṇāma  is found in both Faxian and Dharmakṣema in the passage that we are considering. Whereas Faxian uses it in its naked and unmodified form, however, the Dharmakṣema text combines it with the term, āśraya (“basis” “ground”, “body” or “foundation”), to create the compound, āśraya-avipariṇāma. Thus the “foundational body” which is the Self is here asserted to be changeless – in other words, the opposite of virtually every other thing known to humankind, which is subject to modification and mutation. The atman never transforms. It is present within all dharmas (so Dharmakṣema) - a base which never transmutes into something else. Self is -  we might say – always and unchangingly itself. It is the irreducible, untransforming foundation or essence of Reality.

 

If the Self never mutates or transforms, then it is impossible for it to be killed, since it cannot undergo the transformation inevitably wrought by death. Accordingly, in the Faxian version of the sūtra, we find the expressive epithet “un-rubbed-out” used of the ātman. The likely Sanskrit term underlying this is aparimardana, which means “not rubbed out”, not obliterated, not broken up or destroyed. We are perhaps reminded here of the colloquial English expression of “wiping someone out” or “rubbing someone out” to convey the idea of killing them. But unlike what the Buddha calls the “lie” of the worldly ego, made up of its five transforming and transient skandhas, all doomed to death, the true ātman can never be “rubbed out” or erased. It endures, unperishing, forever.   

 

Finally in this section, let us consider an adjective found both in Faxian and Dharmakṣema to characterise the Self: “sovereign” or “autonomous” (aiśvarya in Sanskrit). Not only do we encounter the term in the present passage, but also scattered across the Dharmakṣema text as a whole. For example, we read that  “… on the morning of Buddhahood, he [the Bodhisattva] obtains the sovereign Self” (chapter entitled “On Pure Actions”), and on the all-pervasive presence of the Buddha, who cannot truly be seen and yet can cause all to see him, the Buddha comments that  “Such sovereignty is termed ‘the Great Self’ (mahātman)” (chapter entitled “Bodhisattva Highly Virtuous King”). This word, aiśvarya, is important for three reasons: first, it attests the complete self-mastery, independence and freedom of the Self -  it is not subject to the tyranny of unwanted internal or external forces (unlike the mundane ego comprised of the unstable, conditioned and labile skandhas); second, it hints at a controlling, regulating intelligence: a knowing and utterly free mind (the “transcendental knowing” -  lokkottara-jñāna – which the Buddha elsewhere in the sūtra links to the Self); and thirdly, it is of course linguistically related to the Sanskrit noun, Isvara, which in the Brahmanical environment in which Buddhism had its roots denoted God (more particularly the god, Shiva). This attendant sense of the divine and the numinous would not, I am sure, have been lost on the transmitters and auditors of the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra. 

 

So the True Self is revealed by the Buddha in this important excursus on genuine Selfhood to be that totally self-governing, sovereign foundation or ground of Reality which is untrammelled by change and unmarked by mutation and which endures eternally, utterly unassailable by death. The sūtra also (in its somewhat later chapters) intimately links this Buddhic Reality to the Tathāgata-dhātu, Buddha-dhātu, or Tathāgata-garbha, as it is variously named. And to this we now turn.

 

In the chapter entitled, “The Tathāgata-garbha”, the Buddha declares to Bodhisattva-Mahāsattva Kāśyapa (I quote from Faxian):

 

“The True Self is the Tathāgata-dhātu [Buddha-Principle, Buddha Element, Buddha-Factor]. You should know that all beings do have it, but it is not apparent, since those beings are enveloped by immeasurable kleśas [mental and moral afflictions) ….”

 

The keen young Bodhisattva will have none of this, however, and mounts a vehement, verbal assault on the Buddha in an attempt to shore up the validity of the general non-Self doctrine, attempting to argue for the total illogicality and impossibility of a real Self.

 

Does the Buddha at this point then modify, relativise or even withdraw his revelation that the True Self is the indwelling Buddha-Principle within all beings? Not a bit of it. He strengthens it by telling the tale of a rather witless wrestler who mistakenly believes he has lost a precious jewel, which he always wears fastened to his forehead, when in fact it has merely been driven under his flesh by the force of his engagement in a bout with his wrestling rival. The Buddha then states (I quote at length here from Faxian):

 

“All beings are also like this. Each one of them has the Tathāgata-dhātu, but, through having recourse to evil acquaintances, they give rise to attachment, hatred and stupidity and fall into the three miserable states … , adopting various kinds of bodies throughout the twenty-five modes of existence. The precious jewel that is the Tathagata-dhātu is buried within the wound of the kleśas of attachment, hatred and stupidity, so that they are unaware of its presence there. Engaging in the notion that there is no Self with regard to the mundane self, they do not understand the skilful words of implicit intent of the Tathāgata … They have the notion that there is no Self and are unable to know the True Self. Regarding this, the Tathāgata … utilises skilful means: he causes them to extinguish the raging fires of countless kleśas, revealing and elucidating the Tathāgata-dhātu to them …

 

[The Tibetan version states in this vicinity: “The Tathagata-dhātu is the intrinsic nature [svabhāva/ prakṛti] of beings.”]

 

 

“The Tathāgata-dhātu cannot be killed. Those who die are said to be short-lived, while the Tathāgata-dhātu is said to be true life. It cannot be severed or destroyed right up to the attainment of Buddhahood. The Tathāgata-dhātu can neither be harmed nor killed, but only nurtures the person …

 

“Furthermore, noble son, it is like a person who digs the earth searching for diamonds. Holding a sharp pickaxe in his hands, he digs into the ground and rocks, able to pulverise them all. Diamonds alone he cannot shatter. The Tathāgata-garbha is like this, for it cannot be harmed by the sharp weapons of the devas and maras (gods and devils). It only nurtures the person, and anything that can be harmed or damaged is not the Tathāgata-dhātu. Hence, you should know that the Tathāgata-dhātu cannot be harmed or killed.” 

 

Moreover, the application of the notion of non-Self and a dogged application of the idea of Emptiness to the Tathāgata-garbha is firmly counselled against by the Buddha earlier in the sūtra, where he declares in very striking terms (I quote from the Tibetan text, from the chapter, “The Four Truths”):

 

“By having cultivated non-Self with regard to the Tathāgata-garbha and having continually cultivated Emptiness, suffering will not be eradicated, but one will become like a moth in the flame of a lamp.”

 

We need to extract a number of key points from all of this:

 

1)                       As with the earlier situation, in which the Buddha had been challenged by a group of his enthusiastically absolutist non-Self monastics, he is here being sceptically probed by a great Bodhisattva on the validity of the Self notion. But the Buddha stands firm.

2)                       There is not a shred of evidence in these key encounters -  nor indeed in the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra as a whole – that the Buddha only spoke of a True Self in order to win over those who dearly and desperately wanted to believe in an everlasting ātman – as is claimed by some commentators on this sūtra. Quite the reverse is the case.

3)                       It is shown as a deficiency in comprehension on the part of the Buddha’s would-be followers when they take his non-Self teachings as all-inclusive in their sphere of reference; instead, such persons should understand that the non-Self doctrine has certain limits and an implicit counter-pole to it which the Buddha affirms -  namely, that of the True Self.

4)                       This revelation of the Buddha’s on the reality of a True Self is not presented by reasoned debate, syllogism, step-by-step analysis, or minute, hair-splitting argumentation; rather, it is presented precisely as revelation from the Buddha himself. It is given as unvarnished, unadulterated fact -  a fact which all beings (so we later learn in the sūtra) can only fully discern when they are themselves Buddhas.

5)                       The Tathāgata-dhātu is utterly invulnerable to all assault and harm, and cannot be made to expire. Indeed, it is the veritable immanent life-principle (the jiva) itself.

6)                       It is inappropriate to meditate upon the immanent Tathagata-garbha as though it were non-Self, just as it is equally inappropriate repeatedly to meditate upon it as though it were Emptiness - as though it were a vacuous nothingness and did not inherently exist. To regard the Garbha in that fashion would be tantamount to committing agonising spiritual suicide.       

7)                       Whether the being is “attacked” by rebirth as a god or a devil, the indwelling Tathāgata-dhātu itself remains unassailed, inviolate and deathless. It is utterly immortal – just as the Buddha himself, the Dhātu made manifest, is never actually shown to die in any of the three major versions of the Nirvāṇa Sūtra.  Outer narrative movement thus reflects and enacts inner metaphysical meaning.

8) The Tathāgata-dhātu is not a destructive phenomenon. Rather, it functions as a nurturing, a sustaining force within each and every single sentient being and accompanies him or her upto and into Buddhahood itself.

 

But is all this to be understood as an ultimate teaching? Is all such talk of an eternal, immanent yet transcendent Self or Tathāgata-garbha not just a ruse or skilful tactic to attract people who might otherwise be put off by the Buddha’s general teachings on non-Self?

 

We have noted that this certainly does not apply to the major examples at which we have looked, but we need to consider what the status of this sūtra is in its own eyes. How does it see itself and how does it want its auditors and readers to see it? Is it provisional in its doctrines (as the Gelukpas, for example, would claim), or is it to be viewed as an ultimate metaphysical revelation of an eternal Truth?

 

On the specific question of the supramundane or nirvanic Self, it is clear beyond reasonable doubt, I think, that the sūtra does posit such an eternally abiding entity or dharma – what we might call the “Buddha-Self” - as a reality of the highest kind. That Buddha-Self is one with the very “stuff” of Nirvāṇa. In the Dharmakṣema text, the Buddha is asked by Mañjuśrī, “What is the meaning of this ‘real truth’ that you have mentioned?” The Buddha’s reply is instructive and unequivocal:

 

“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 distortions …the real truth is free from falsity. If it were not free from falsity, it would not be called the ‘real truth’… Noble son, that which is endowed with the Eternal, Bliss, the Self and Purity is stated to be the meaning of the ‘real truth’.” (Dharmakṣema, Chapter entitled, “On Holy Actions”).

 

This definition of what constitutes authentic Truth for the Buddha in this sūtra is not only intrinsically eloquent and powerful, but is accorded added weight by the fact that the answer is addressed to a question asked by none other than Mañjuśrī, the Bodhisattva of supreme Buddhic insight and wisdom. In this connection, we might also interestingly note that the teachings of this entire sūtra (in its Tibetan form) are significantly entrusted precisely to Manjuśrī at the very end of the scripture – a clear symbolic act denoting their ultimate importance.

 

On the broader question of whether the sūtra as a whole wishes to be seen as high-level teaching or as a concessionary adaptation of Dharma for those of more rudimentary spiritual grasp, we should note the fact that the opening of the Tibetan version tells of how the Buddha will herein give the “final explanation” of his Dharma, and will do so in “… words which expressed his meaning with exhaustive thoroughness.” The Buddha himself later tells a female follower of how on the day of his Parinirvāṇa, he will give the essential meaning of all his secret Dharma. He says:

 

“… when I am making preparations to pass into Parinirvāṇa, I shall then speak of the Tathāgata’s various secret words of implicational meaning in their entirety to the śrāvakas [disciples]. On that day, I shall impart the intended gist to my sons.” [Tibetan version, chapter entitled, “The Four Methods of Teaching”].

 

That day has, of course, now come.

 

The colophon of the Tibetan text also declares that this sūtra constitutes “… the essence of all scriptures of the authentic Dharma” and moreover is equal to an uttara-tantra -  that is to say, to the ultimate, empowering instructions given at the very end of a medical treatise, so that the doctor will be fully equipped with the requisite vital knowledge and actuating power to make his mantras and remedies truly efficacious.

 

The reference to an uttara-tantra is not confined to the colophon. The Buddha himself has recourse to this image on several occasions, not least in intensified form when telling of the supremacy of this sūtra’s teachings. In the chapter entitled, “The Letters”, he affirms:

 

“… the very ultimate (uttarottara) of the meaning of all sūtras is taught by this sūtra. Not one single syllable or tittle has been taught [herein] that has previously been heard by any śrāvaka and pratyekabuddha. This sūtra is supremely excellent [varottama]. For example, just as the people of Uttarakuru in the north are virtuous, likewise those who have listened to this great sūtra have become supramundane -  you should know that they are Bodhisattva-mahāsattvas. Therefore, this signifies that [this sūtra] is a great uttara-tantra.”

 

Finally, we might usefully look at what the chapter designated “The Name and Virtues of the Sūtra” says on the relative merit of this scripture when measured against all other enunciations of Dharma and the meditations with which they are linked. The Buddha states:

 

“ … for example, the various sciences such as medicine and the three sciences are gathered up in their respective uttara-tantras; similarly, all the various secret Dharma-gates, the words of implicit intention [sandhā-vacana] uttered by the Tathagatas are gathered up in this Mahāparinirvāṇa[-Sūtra]. … This Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra is stated to be the best, the most excellent, the foremost of all … samādhis in those sūtras … the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra is stated to be the best, the most excellent, the foremost of all sūtras.” 

 

So, after this little exploration of a key teaching of the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra, I hope that we shall be less liable to fall into the Schnabelian “bad habit” of knee-jerk “no-Selfism” which has sadly become the traditional hallmark of much modern Buddhist commentary. At least one major Mahāyāna sūtra -  and of course it is mirrored by others of the Tathāgata-garbha class of sūtras, such as the Śrīmālādevisiṃhanāda Sūtra and the Anūnatva-Apūrṇatva-Nirdeśa – offers us the chance of a fresh perspective on Buddhism. And while this talk is certainly far from being such, the Mahāparinirvāṇa Sūtra itself promises its votaries that it truly does represent “the all-fulfilling conclusion” to the Buddha’s Mahāyāna Dharma.

 

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(For a fascinating study of the Pudgalavada teachings within Buddhism -  which display some marked similarities with the doctrine of the Tathagatagarbha - please go to Professor Leonard Priestley's excellent article at: http://www.iep.utm.edu/p/pudgalav.htm).