Nirvana Sutra

Appreciation of the "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra"

Selected Extracts 1b


2. The Teaching on the Self

     In the Nirvana Sutra, the Buddha upholds his earlier teaching that what the ordinary person regards as his or her "self" is in fact "not the Self" (anatman). That is to say, the five skandhas (constituent elements) which make up our "mundane ego" are not the essence of what we are. What are these skandhas? They are: 1) form/ matter;  2) feeling;  3) ideation/perception;  4) intention-related impulses;  5) consciousness. None of these, whether taken singly or together, constitutes our Self (atman).

     However, according to the Buddha's final Mahayana teachings, as embodied in this Mahaparinirvana Sutra, there does exist a "true Self". This is equated with the Buddhic Element (Buddha-dhatu) which resides deep within all beings, beneath the coverings of negative states of mind and character which have, since beginningless time, concealed this Supramundane essence from view.

     Here follows a discussion from Chapter Four of our sutra (Tibetan version) between the Buddha's monks, who have long been meditating on ("cultivating") the notion of impermanence, suffering, and non-Self, and the Buddha, who now teaches them to balance their practice with the recognition that there is a Self, and that it is eternal and unchanging:


     ... when those monks heard that the Tathagata [Buddha] was going to pass into Parinirvana [Complete Nirvana, at death] , they became downhearted. Murmuring "How terrible!", their eyes brimming with tears, they bowed their heads at the Tathagata's feet and circumambulated him many times. Then they said this to the Blessed One [Bhagavat]: "Blessed One, you have related to us your teaching that suffering, impermanence, and non-Self is most excellent [just as] the footprint of an elephant is the greatest of all footprints. Thus, we shall eradicate our attachment to [the Realm of ] Desire, eradicate our attachment to [the Realm of ] Form, eradicate our attachment to the Formless [Realm],  if we repeatedly cleave to, and cultivate, the idea of impermanence; all ignorance will be eradicated; all arrogance will be totally eliminated. 

     “… Blessed One, for example, a person might drink wine and become intoxicated, not even knowing who he is himself, unable to distinguish right and wrong, unable to recognise his mother, his sisters or his daughters; he falls head over heels and soils his whole body with urine and excrement; later he becomes sober and learns for some reason what befell him and reflects how useless alcohol is and decides to rid himself of all his sins. Then he thoroughly trains himself to regard the drinking of alcohol as utterly useless, and gives it up. Likewise, Blessed One, this world of living beings has spun around from time without beginning like a dancer. Whirling around, completely confused, they are unable to recognise their mothers, sisters or daughters, and so get lustful thoughts towards their mothers, sisters or daughters, and like those inebriated by alcohol, they experience suffering. Then those people who have a sense of shame, just like a drunk becoming sober, train themselves thoroughly to regard the world as useless and then totally leave behind its miseries.


     “Moreover, just as a castor-oil shrub (eranda) does not have a core, likewise this body does not have a self (atman), a being (sattva), a life-essence (jiva), an individual (pudgala), manava, nara or an acting agent (kartr). In that way, we repeatedly cultivate the idea that a self does not exist. For example, just as it is pointless to plant even ten million (koti) dry husks, likewise is this body, which is devoid of a Self. For example, just as the flowers of wheat (valla-puspa) have no fragrance, likewise this body is devoid of a Self. In that manner do we cultivate repeatedly the idea that this body is devoid of a Self.


     “The Blessed One has instructed us [in this way]: ‘Monks, all phenomena [dharma] are devoid of a Self. Practise thus! Those who practise thus will eliminate clinging to self (atma-graha). When clinging to self has been utterly eliminated, Nirvana will be attained.’ Blessed One, since all phenomena are thus devoid of a Self, we repeatedly cultivate the idea that a Self does not exist. Moreover, just as a bird leaves no tracks in the sky, so we shall detach ourselves from all types of [false] views when we have cultivated the idea that there is no Self.”


     The Blessed One asked, “Do you know how to cultivate that kind of meditation?”


     The monks replied, “Blessed One, if we were to cultivate anything contrary to the idea of suffering, impermanence and non-Self, we would be like a staggering drunk who sees the heavens, mountain peaks, the ground, the sun, the moon, trees and hills whirling around, though they are not moving; for those worldly beings who do not cultivate the idea of suffering, impermanence, and non-Self are just like drunks. [For this reason], Blessed One, we have cultivated it properly.”