Nirvana Sutra

Appreciation of the "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra"

"Buddha and God" (5)

                                 Chapter Seven

     Buddha as Universal Source

     One of the most important aspects of God is that he is the source, the well-spring, the sustainer of all that exists. Does this quality of divine progenitorship apply to Buddha?

     Here we encounter some difficulties. The Buddhist sutras are generally quite reluctant to present Buddha or Dharma as the creative fount of all phenomena. Yet there are definite hints - and more than that - indicating that ultimately all things do indeed owe their continued existence and sustenance to Dharma or Buddha. In actual fact, the word, "Dharma", essentially means that which "upholds" or "supports". One Buddhist dictionary gives as the literal meaning of "Dharma": "carrying", "holding" (The Shambhala Dictionary of Buddhism and Zen by Ingrid Fischer-Schreiber, Franz-Karl Ehrhard and Michael S. Diener, Shambhala, Boston 19911, entry on "Dharma", pl 54). Dharma is thus the supporting ground that upholds all that exists.

     But before we come to this in more detail, let us consider an area where the Mahayana sutras definitely present Buddha as a world-creating being: this is in connection with the "Buddha worlds" (also called "Buddha paradises", "Buddha fields" or "Buddha lands").  

     Every Buddha projects from his mind a vast world in which he becomes active as a redemptive teacher and guide to the beings born therein. These "Buddha lands" (each of which can comprise a billion worlds) are home to highly spiritual or religious persons who have faith in the Buddha and who are just one step distant from Nirvana.

     To indicate that the Buddhas do indeed make these Buddha-worlds, we shall quote briefly from The Lotus Sutra. Here we hear Shakyamuni Buddha speak of a Buddha yet to come, called "Radiance of Dharma Buddha". Of that Buddha we learn:

     "That buddha will make [his] buddha-land of a three-thousand-great-thousandfold universe [of worlds as many] as the sands of the Ganges ..." (emphasis added; The Threefold Lotus Sutra, tr. by Bunno Kato, Yoshiro Tura and Kojiro Miyasaka, Kosei Publishing, Tokyo 1975, p. 172).

     Interestingly, our own universe - called the "saha world" ("world of endurance"!) - is said in The Lotus Sutra to be the property and domain of Shakyamuni Buddha (the historical Buddha of India). We read:

     " ... in my saha-world there are in fact bodhisattva-mahasattvas [numerous] as the sands of sixty thousand Ganges ...(emphasis added;  ibid, p. 237).

One can therefore presume that this universe, like the other Buddha-worlds, was actually created or projected by the Buddha. Although our world may not seem exactly paradisiacal, we must remember that all its beings enshrine the "Buddha-Principle" (the Buddha-dhatu - the inner potency for attaining Nirvanic Eternity, Bliss, True Selfhood and Purity) within themselves, so that they are assured of one day reaching Nirvana, from which perspective everything becomes essentially BUDDHA. Perhaps it is in this sense that our universe too can be viewed as a Buddha-land. And perhaps that is why The Lotus Sutra contains the specific admonition (from a Buddha called "King Wisdom of the Pure Flower Constellation") that one should not look down disparagingly upon this world:

     "Do not look lightly on that domain or conceive a low opinion of it",

that Buddha says of our world (ibid., p. 313).

     But there are stronger indications within the sutras that the entire cosmos - all things phenomenal and noumenal - are grounded in the underlying and uncreated Buddha-Essence (sometimes called in Sanskrit Tathagata-garbha - the Womb of Buddha - which term indirectly and interestingly portrays Buddha as a birth-giving Mother). In the Shrimaladevi Sutra, we hear of how this Tathagatagarbha sustains both "samsara" (the cycles of birth, death and rebirth - our phenomenal universe) and the realm of the Buddhas. The scripture states:

     " ... there is only one support ... and this is supreme over all supports and is supramundane. It is the true support and Refuge.

   ... the Tathagatagarbha is the support of samsara. It is with reference to the Tathagatagarbha that the Lord teaches that there is no beginning ... it is because the Tathagatagarbha exists that there is such a thing as that which is called samsara. What is called 'samsara' is the cycle of grasping at [new] faculties of those who seize [are reborn] as soon as they have passed away [lit. transferred] ... 'Death' and 'birth' are worldly conventions. Death is the faculties ceasing, and birth is the faculties arising anew. The Tathagatagarbha however is not born, does not die, does not transfer, does not arise. It is beyond the sphere of the characteristics of the compounded; it is permanent, stable and changeless.

     It is therefore the ground, support and dwelling place of those who have the knowledge of liberation from the sheaths [of spiritual ignorance], who are connected and not separate from it. In this way, the Tathagatagarbha [also] is the ground, support and dwelling place of all outer compounded dharmas [phenomena] that do not have the knowledge of liberation and which are not connected and are separate from it ... The Lord is the master, the Lord is the support." (The Shrimaladevi Sutra, op. cit., pp. 40-42).

This comlicated passage crucially communicates that the Essence of Buddha - the Buddha-Matrix or Tathagata-garbha - is upholding all things and persons, both those who are "Awakened" and those who are not. And that source, that root and sustainer of everything - is Lord Buddha.

         [To Be Continued ...]