Nirvana Sutra

Appreciation of the "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra"

Selected passages from the "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra"


The great value of this "Selected Extracts" section is that it offers brand-new and reliable translations of important passages of the Mahaparinirvana Sutra (from its three main versions) by Buddhist scholar and translator, Stephen Hodge. Please note, however, that I have taken the liberty of changing Stephen's "permanent" (Sanskrit, nitya) to "eternal" (in the sense of enduring through all time and beyond), as I believe this better fits the supra-mundane meaning of the text at the relevant points.

1) On the definitive nature of the teachings of the Nirvana Sutra.

The narrator of the sutra opens the text with the following words:

     Thus have I heard. At one time, the Blessed One was staying in the forest of the twin sal trees located in the territory of the Mallas on the banks of the Hiranyavati River in Kusinagara ...

     When it was dawn on the day of the full moon in the month of Vaisakha, the time for passing into Parinirvana [ultimate Nirvana at the time of death] approaching, the Blessed One communicated to all beings, from the pinnacle of existence (bhavagra) downwards, in the languages of each of those regions, with words which expressed his meaning with exhaustive thoroughness ... He also spoke in that manner regarding the final explanation he would give to the questions of all beings. (Tibetan version).

We have to note here that the Buddha is giving, in this Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra, the final, definitive presentation of his Doctrine (Dharma). This sutra effectively constitutes the Buddha's "last will and testament" regarding how he wants his Dharma to be understood. This is not a provisional or superficial formulation of his teachings, but the ultimate statement of the intended meanings (sandha-vacana) of Buddha-Dharma in the most thoroughgoing manner possible.

     In fact, the Nirvana Sutra is stated by the Buddha to be the unique culmination of all his teachings. He tells his follower, Mahakasyapa, of its greatness thus:

     "This sutra is called the Mahaparinirvana. It is auspicious in the beginning, auspicious in the middle, and auspicious in the end; it is meaningful, skilfully phrased, unique, perfect, pure, a holy way of living (brahma-carya), great, a diamond-like treasury, and highly renowned.

     "For example, noble son: just as the eight great rivers - the Ganges, the Yamuna, and so on - flow into the great ocean, in the same way, those who are victorious over all the Maras [demons] ... abandon their body at death and merge [anugacchanti] into this same Mahaparinirvana [Great Complete Nirvana]. Therefore it is called Mahaparinirvana.

     "Again, for example, the various sciences, such as medicine and the three sciences, are gathered up (samavasaranam gacchanti) in their respective higher teachings (uttara-tantra); similarly, all the various secret [guhya] Dharma gates, the intended meaning of the words [sandha-vacana] uttered by the Tathagatas, are gathered up in this Mahaparinirvana [Sutra]. Therefore, it is called the Mahaparinirvana [Sutra].

     "For example, a farmer tends his fields with a great plough and plants seeds during the summer, hoping that they will ripen. When they do ripen, then there is a successful conclusion to everything and his hopes are fulfilled. Similarly, even though they have cultivated every samadhi [deep meditation] in the sutras, people still want the quintessence [rasa] of those other sutras; but the quintessence of this sutra is the all-fulfilling conclusion [sarva-nispatti-nistha]. All beings will cross beyond all modes of [worldly, samsaric] existence by means of it.

     "Again, noble son: for example, all footprints of no matter what creature are encompassed by an elephant's footprint. The elephant's footprint is said to be the best of all those, the most excellent, the foremost. Similarly, noble son, no matter which of those samadhis [meditative absorptions] in those sutras -  they are all encompassed by this Mahaparinirvana [Sutra]. This Mahaparinirvana Sutra is said to be the best, the most excellent, the foremost of all those samadhis in those sutras." (Tibetan version, Chapter Seven: "The Name and Virtues of the Sutra").

     In Chapter Fourteen of the Tibetan Nirvana Sutra - entitled "The Letters" - the Buddha indicates how this sutra is of the most eminent value, containing the highest level of teachings, which can transform the follower into a great Bodhisattva. The sutra is nothing less than the summation and culmination of the entire Dharma. The Buddha says:

     "... the very ultimate (uttarottara) of the meaning of all sutras is taught by this sutra. Not one single syllable or tittle has been taught that has previously been heard by any sravaka [follower of the Buddha] or pratyekabuddha [solitary, self-taught Buddha]. This sutra 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 sutra have become supramundane; you should know that they are Bodhisattva-mahasattvas [great Bodhisattvas]. Therefore, this signifies that [this sutra] is a great uttara-tantra [culminational teaching] ... [this sutra is] the uttarottara [absolutely supreme] of all Mahayana discourses ..."

Thus, the student of Buddhism should be wary of the claim (made by some) that this sutra contains merely provisional, rather than ultimate, teachings. Such a claim finds no support in the sutra itself;  indeed, it is directly and repeatedly contradicted and denied by the ultimate authority within the whole of Buddhism - the Buddha himself. Nor do any other sutras teach that the Nirvana Sutra constitutes a lesser level of doctrine. Such a view would seem, therefore, to be based on ignorance of the text (a very widespread phenomenon!) and on a probable misplaced uneasiness over the Nirvana Sutra's affirmative teachings on the reality of the supramundane Self.

     The Mahaparinirvana Sutra is actually a great bestower of kindness and happiness upon all those who engage with it. The Buddha says:

     "Five things are attained in reliance upon this Mahaparinirvana Sutra: firm-stability [dhruva], eternity [nitya], purity [parivishuddhi], superiority / excellence [parama], and distinction / otherness / not like others [anyatha] and the absence of taints [anasrava], for it brings about benefit, happiness and kindness [anukampa] for all beings." (Dharmakshema).