Nirvana Sutra

Appreciation of the "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra"

Selected Extracts 1c


(Continued from the "Self" discussion of Selected Extracts 1b)


The Blessed One said, “Monks, I shall explain the meaning of this example. With regard to the meaning of this verse, you do not clearly understand, ‘this is the meaning, this is the letter’. Just as a staggering drunk sees the heavens, mountain peaks, the ground, the sun, the moon, trees and hills whirling around, though they are not moving, in the same way do those who are utterly confused, ensnared by numerous kinds of distorted notions, adopt the idea that they are a Self, eternal, happy and pure.


     “Herein, ‘Self’ signifies the Buddha; ‘eternal’ signifies the Dharma-kaya [Body of Truth; quintessential being]; ‘happiness’ signifies Nirvana, and ‘pure’ is a synonym for the Dharma. Monks, you should not pride yourselves, arrogantly and haughtily saying, ‘We have cultivated the idea of suffering, impermanence, and non-Self’. When you engage thus in those three kinds of meditative cultivation, then for you to have cultivated that threefold meditative cultivation in the context of my Dharma is a worthless cultivation. These three types of meditative cultivation of suffering and so forth are contingent, most contingent [visista].


     “To think of suffering as happiness is perverse, to think of happiness as suffering is perverse; to think of the impermanent as eternal [nitya] is perverse, to think of the eternal as impermanent is perverse; to think of the non-Self as the Self is perverse, to think of the Self as non-Self is perverse; to think of the impure as pure is perverse, to think of the pure as impure is perverse.


     “You repeatedly cultivate these objects of cultivation without properly knowing these four perversities. You engage in meditative cultivation [treating] the eternal as though it were impermanent, that which has Self as though it lacked Self, and the pure as though it were impure. [Pronouncements regarding] happiness, the Self, eternity, and purity are found both amongst mundane people and amongst supramundane people, but these are each different. The letters [ = words] are mundane designations, while the meaning is supramundane Knowing [lokottara-jnana]."


     Then the monks said this to the Blessed One, "Blessed One, since we have for a very long time repeatedly seen and repeatedly cultivated various cognitive distortions, such as these four ideas which the Tathagata has established in the correct manner, we now entreat you to tell us how we are to proceed ..."


     "Monks, you ask me how you are to cultivate the ideas of suffering, impermanence, non-Self, and impurity? Monks, as an example: at the height of summer, some people dam a stream in the woods and, each bringing their bathing things, play in the water. One of them puts a genuine beryl gem [into the water] and then, because they all want to have that beryl, everybody puts aside their bathing things and climbs into the water. Thinking that a pebble or a piece of gravel is the gem, they grab it and cry out, 'I've got the gem! I've got the gem!', each holding it aloft. But when they get to the banks of the pool, they realise that it is not the gem after all. Then the very water of that pool gleams beautifully, as though with moonlight, by the glinting light of that gem. Seeing that beautiful gleaming, they say, 'Ah! There's the real gem!', and realise how magnificent it is. Then, somebody in their midst who is skilled in means and intelligent is actually able to get that gem. In the same way, monks, you have latched onto such extremes as 'everything is suffering', 'everything is without a Self', 'everything is impermanent', everything is impure' and repeatedly cultivate that. All of that is mistaken and worthless -  just like the pebbles and gravel in the pond. Be like the person who is skilled in means! I declare that there is happiness, the Self, eternity, and purity in whatever you meditatively cultivate of all those extremes which you have latched onto; those four [extreme views] are perverse! Therefore, cultivate the idea that the reality [tattva] of the Dharma is eternal, like that gem. ...the Tathagata-Arhat-Samyaksambuddha [utter and total Buddha] ... the Supreme, the Teacher of Gods and Men, the Blessed Buddha appears in the world ... and then takes himself to all the heterodox teachers [tirthika] ... He utterly quells them all, utterly destroys them, and delights many kings. In order to curb [nigraha] the heterodox teachers, he says that there is no Self, no sattva [being], no jiva [life-essence], and no pudgala [individual]. The teachings about the Self by the heterodox teachers are like the letters bored [by chance, without understanding] by worms, and therefore I made known the teachings that all beings are devoid of a Self. Having proclaimed that the absence of Self is the word of the Buddha ... I also teach that there is a Self, after I have taught that all dharmas [phenomena] are devoid of Self, taking the occasion into consideration with regard to those who need to be trained and in order to benefit beings.


     "The Self of the worldly, which they say is the size of a thumb or a mustard seed, is not like that. The concept of the Self of the worldly is also not like that. In this instance, it is said that all dharmas [things, phenomena] are devoid of Self. [But actually] it is not true to say that all dharmas are devoid of the Self. The Self is Reality [tattva], the Self is unchanging [nitya], the Self is virtue [guna], the Self is eternal [sasvata], the Self is unshakeable/ firm [dhruva], the Self is peace [siva];  ... the Tathagata teaches what is true. Let the four divisions of the assembly strive meditatively to cultivate this." (Tibetan version)