Nirvana Sutra

Appreciation of the "Mahayana Mahaparinirvana Sutra"

Selected Extracts 1g


Continued from Selected Extracts 1f


Firstly, we need to understand what is meant by the Buddha's saying that his long, profound sutras (the vaipulya sutras) are both an elixir and a poison: such sutras as the "prajnaparamita" sutras, which emphasise Emptiness (shunyata -  or open spaciousness) and the lack of a particularised inherent nature in every phenomenon, can easily be misunderstood as proclaiming a form of nihilism and thus can have a depressing, poisonous effect upon the listener, if the true meaning (that of limitless freedom and innermost stillness and tranquility within each phenomenon) is not grasped. Equally, if sutras such as the Mahaparinirvana Sutra are taken as preaching the existence of a giant, worldly form of Ego, then that too is a poison to one's spirit, leading one to become even more attached to one's personal "self", with all its limitations, sufferings and selfishness: the correct understanding, in contrast, is that the Buddha-dhatu or Tathagata-garbha is the immortal essence of the ego-free Buddha within each being -  there is no craving, grasping or clinging with this Buddha-dhatu. There is only utmost purity, eternity and happiness. That ever-enduring, ego-less, omniscient Awareness or Knowingness is the True Self.


     But we are jumping ahead of ourselves. Let us return to the extracts from the sutra given above. We shall start with the Tibetan version of the parable of the concealed elixir-producing tree.


     The first thing which we need to note regarding the “elixir-producing tree” is that its home is in the Himalayas: this symbolises the fact that the Buddha-dhatu is exalted and difficult of access. Yet it is not completely impossible to attain -  not like the summit of some Everestian peak seemingly beyond human reach (Mount Everest had not been climbed at the time of the Buddha -  as far as one knows!): the elixir tree is native to the forest areas of the mountains (i.e. not at their summit), so it can be reached, albeit with difficulty. Crucially, the tree itself produces a special elixir known as “bees’ nectar”. Nectar is, of course, the sweet fluid from which bees make honey – their sustaining food. Likewise, the Buddha-dhatu is the sweet, sustaining nutriment of all beings’ Awakening (bodhi), that which gives true life to all beings. And like nectar, it has an attractive fragrance which draws beings to it -  even though it finds itself concealed within masses of entangled foliage. These tangled thickets represent the negative mental states or kleshas (e.g. greed, hatred, delusion, arrogance, stinginess, scepticism about Dharma, lack of conscience, indolence  …) which block the Buddha-dhatu from view. Yet it is there all the while. And its inner presence calls us through the sweet scent of its promise.


     The parable makes clear that it is only a person of immense virtue -  a veritable emperor of righteousness (a chakravartin) – who is enabled to attain the apian nectar of the Buddha-dhatu. All other types of person -  even though they climb up into the mountain forests in quest of that spiritual elixir, digging here and there to get it  – do not possess the power to secure it. They are “sterile in virtue” (as the Dharmakshema version of our text has it). This is important for the practitioner to realise: simply practising meditation, watching the mind, even working hard at such practices is not sufficient to disclose the Buddha-dhatu. It requires the cultivation of virtue if we are to succeed. What virtue? Compassion, lack of selfishness, and elimination of ego-centred desire. Above all, kindliness and friendliness ( “maitri”, which is uniquely presented by the Nirvana Sutra as the supreme Buddhist virtue) are indispensable prerequisites. It also requires abstention from the harming (“ahimsa”) of any creature (including deliberately harming ants and insects). Equally, it demands non-attachment to “me and mine” -  to the ego, the false self, and its manifold cravings. Paradoxically, it is seeing what is “not the Self” (anatman) which constitutes one of the gateways to Self (atman). All of these virtues spring from the cutting away of the entangling kleshas in the forest of our mind.


     But there is further important metaphysical matter in this parable, too. We learn that as long as the elixir remains in its home, the tree, it has solely one flavour to it. It is only when it is coaxed out of its resting-place and channelled down differently positioned tubes that it appears to take on a variety of flavours. This represents the straying of beings from their inherent pristine constitution -  the quiescent Buddha-dhatu -  and the tarnishing of their inner “flavour” through karmically unwholesome actions. This causes them to reincarnate as males, females, hermaphrodites, birds, animals, etc., and to appear as separate individuals who each “taste” differently. Their bodily forms are indeed like the different “tastes” of the elixir, having been influenced by the diverse channels of karmic action down which they have flowed from one life to the next. Yet in essence, these beings possess the same core taste, which is the tathagatagarbha, the inner transformative potency of Buddhahood. Their essence (svabhava / prakrti) is universally ONE.


     This Buddha-potency of the tathagatagarbha is, we learn, present everywhere, yet hidden by negative mental proclivities, and is the life-force which animates each being. One can kill the “outer” being -  the assemblage of skandhas – but one cannot annihilate or kill the indwelling, animating and (we learn from Fa-xian) nurturing Buddha-dhatu. That is indestructible. So we see that in these ultimate teachings, the Buddha reveals that the being is not just the five elements of the ordinary body and mind (the five skandhas) – indeed, that these things are epiphenomena, not the core reality -  but that what the being truly is at heart is the Buddha-power of the tathagatagarbha. As the Buddha says in the Dharmakshema version of the Nirvana Sutra, “the being is the Buddha-dhatu and the Buddha-dhatu is the being”.


     It is important to remember this in the face of the claims made by some Buddhists that all there is to the being is the five skandhas and nothing else beyond that. The Buddha indicates otherwise. True, the essential Self of each being -  the tathagatagarbha or Buddha-dhatu, with its shared savour of Buddha-potency -  is not like some tangible, measurable little man sitting within the being, the size of a grain of rice or of one’s thumb (as taught in the Katha Upanishad: "A person the size of the thumb in the Atman always resides within the hearts of men.”). But that is not to say that there is no immortal core whatsoever to the being. There is such an irreducible and indestructible core, and it is the omnipresent Buddha-dhatu.